Thinking seriously about short films

“For me there’s no greater art form than the short film.”

Peter Mullan is a prolific Scottish actor and director whose short film Fridge (1996) was considered a masterpiece in the form. The above quote is from Mullan and leads me into an enquiry exploring the artistic nature of the short film and its many advantages and disadvantages over the longer form we all know so well – the feature film.

There is no greater art form than film itself. Film captures all the arts under one lens: the light and colour of the brush, the composition of the photographer, the performance of an actor, the design of an architect, and the music of a great composer. There is a simple answer for this, film’s principle triumph is in being able to reproduce something close to reality, and thereby capturing the essence of what all art seeks to model: an experience reborn. James Ryan seizes the importance of film when he says, “I believe people come to the movies for the same reason they read a novel or attend a play, to have their emotions aroused, mind engaged, and spirit exalted” (2000: 4).

The short film is a condensed structure of the industry standard “commercial” feature film, typically running from a few minutes to half an hour in length. The short film is therefore distinctly different in narrative scope to the feature film, even if it does come under the same artistry of the audio-visual medium. Let’s explore those differences. A short film is still a film by form; “the two forms rely on visual action for exposition and characterization, as well as on the visual medium” (Cooper, Dancygen, 2012: 10).

Short films are often used to capture a more pressing and unique artistic expression. For example, Roman Polanski’s film Two Men and a Wardrobe is a remarkably absurd fable that captures the essence of innocence and growth. We witness two men coming out from the sea bearing a huge wardrobe and beginning a series of surrealist encounters with the local community. The idea of experimenting like this with the short film was no new feature of the art form. For example, Un Chien Andalou, a film created by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali in 1929, paints a unique and disturbing portrait that stubbornly refuses to hold a definite meaning. While the film isn’t easy going, it certainly “cemented a relationship between film and the visual arts and ideas closely tied to art” (2012: 64), such as surrealism and cubism. From 1929 the short film most definitely became an expressive art form.

A very accurate fact is that short films cost less money to make. This can allow the director to have more creative freedom, which can allow for more courageous motifs and autership over the medium. For example, the film Beast, by Danish writer, Lars Pederson, is a hard-hitting depiction of domestic abuse that tackles the nature of violence. It is a very simple storyline – the mother and daughter escape the abusive father – but significant attention to detail, character and props, drive this scenario to tipping point, a point of explosion. This would not be sustainable in feature form, as there would need to be three acts, yet this simple tale has most impact when told in one act. Short films are often a one-act structure, much like a one-act play, a short story, a poem or even a photograph; all these art forms can be incorporated into the short film, which can make for a very rich audience experience.

The audience has a very different experience watching a short film. They don’t expect to wait hours for a climax; they expect a new experience, something that is immediately shocking, funny or eye opening. Sean Penn comments “we have become a cinema of impression rather than a cinema of expression” (cited in Ryan, 2000: 7). No such remark retains of the short film, which always seeks new expressions. The audience release any preconceptions about genre and method and allow their minds to focus on something that is different, and the filmmaker realises this, which gives them the comfort to explore uncharted waters. There is no reason for the audience to hold expectations when they are only giving ten minutes of their time and most likely not paying for it, as they would be for the feature film experience.

Often audiences do not want feature films to be different; they want a code, a genre and a method of storytelling that engages with the status quo because they know that this method will entertain them; it has been adopted in storytelling for 100’s of years. As Christopher Vogler claims of the ‘Hero’s Journey’: “all stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies” (2007: xxvii). However, short films can get away with avoiding a ‘universal structure’, audiences are happy for something different, another reason for this might simply be because there is less time for an audience to become passive in ten minutes. This point largely applies only to the Hollywood audience, but unfortunately this is very clearly the majority of moviegoers.

Doodlebug and The Big Shave, both short films by now world famous directors Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese, are experimental, perhaps even prosaic ideas, but executed with technical diligence and cinematic virtuoso all in the space of five minutes. If these films ran any longer they could quite easily lose their steam. Nolan and Scorsese now make films running nearly three hours long: Casino (178 minutes), The Wolf of Wall Street (180 minutes), The Dark Knight Rises (165 minutes), Interstellar (169 minutes). One reason they are able to tackle these grand narratives is because they have matured as filmmakers from the short film. This is another advantage, it is a place in which filmmakers can practice and hone their craft to seek a voice true to themselves as individuals before running up the feature bill. You might wonder what Doodlebug has anything to do with the themes in Nolan’s films, when in fact all his recurrent ideas of a psychological nature – seen from Memento to Inception (dreams, visions, magic, new-life, power, the art of possibility etc.) – rest under the surface of this three-minute short film.

The short film is a small canvas for filmmakers to practice their craft. This is not just unique to film as an art form: writer’s write short stories, painter’s sketch, performers do one-act, and so on; one always has to start small and grow. However, as Peter Mullan makes clear, the short film is not just a building block or a step in one’s career, it can in fact be the highlight, or the greatest art form to explore one’s needs as a storyteller. In today’s cinematic landscape, the short form is used more and more by experienced filmmakers to tell new stories that otherwise wouldn’t be commissioned or even suit the longer form.

When Mullan directed Fridge, he made a very conscious choice of using the short film with formidable effects. The film shows the harsh landscape of a poor Glaswegian neighbourhood and the consequences of such conditions for a local boy who becomes a victim of aggression. It has a clear message and, in a short space of time, it shows the audience the effects of urban hostility. It’s also worth noting that short films don’t have censorship restrictions, so filmmakers are further encouraged not to shy away from courageous material. Soft, a similar film in substance by Simon Ellis, captures the aggression of youths in suburban London. These films might not have the same impact if they were longer because the short form allows them to run directly on point and raise the appropriate awareness. Fish Tank is a memorable feature film dealing with similar subject matter, however it is not as easy to reprocess in our minds as Soft because the latter has a more distinct and specific target, it has to because it only runs 15 minutes. It is not so easy to forget a single act.

Despite these great virtues of the short film, there are significant limitations, as there tends to be with anything classed as ‘short’. It is evident that the short film is not a commercially viable product in relation to the feature, but, more importantly for the artist, it can limit narrative developments and, therefore, a certain depth. A television series may run for five seasons, which is likely to be over fifty hours of character development, sub-plot, and other narrative techniques. The audience will become very well shaped with the story and probably feel like the character’s are their friends. Narrow this down to an hour and a half and it takes a great amount of effort to build the same structure and intimacy.

Narrative constraints are likely to be an excuse as to why many short films drop the storytelling conventions and reach for something more experimental, a fixed moment in time perhaps (i.e. a single scene), or an extended-montage sequence. Likeness and Quicksand are two examples of this. In Likeness we see a girl with an eating disorder navigate the landscape of a party, the film is shot through her eyes and becomes a very unique experience. Quicksand is a collection of memories from a man diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and features scattered imagery that would not be possible in a feature, again using the short film as a unique form. In both of these cases, the short form is the message (the “medium is the message”, as Marshall McLuhan would say), the medium allows the content to exist in the way that it does, and does so successfully.

The old lesson from Strasser rings true: “producing shorts teaches one to eliminate non-essentials, and to condense one’s story into the smallest possible space” (1990: 7). Often in a longer script, one can introduce ‘foil characters’, another character that can create a sub-plot for the protagonist and often aid them in their journey. There is not the time or space to develop these sub-plots in a short film, a reason why short films often focus on a singular theme. Personally, I find this is the most challenging task in storytelling, to focus on a defined theme that can resonate with the audience. However, writing a short film is a great way to develop this skill; it will take you deeper than you ever could have expected.

The process of writing a short script spurs a desire to expand on your character’s lives, to make them live and breathe for another sixty pages and see where life takes them. But, in essence, this is what makes the short form so exciting; you take a snippet from a life and extract meaning from it. You are confined to this space. The disadvantages of the short film – principally limited time and space – become the advantages; they also help to define its specific character. In fact, it is often the limitations of the filmmaking process that create unexpected and innovative results. The limits of our world are the boundaries of another i.e. they can be broken by thinking beyond borders.

Creating a sense of urgency in what you are writing will find its way into your characters, which, in turn, will help bring them to life. A short film creates this sense of urgency. Thinking about short films, it is not only the exhibition of the form that is exciting – the audience experiences a courageous tale in a short space of time – but also the process of creating a short film that creates more fresh ways of seeing than first meets the eye.

 

References

Cooper, Patricia. Dancyger, Ken (2012). Writing The Short Film. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Gates, Tudor (2002). Scenario: The Craft of Screenwriting. London: Wallflower Press.

Ryan, James (2000). Screenwriting From The Heart: Character-Driven Screenplay. London: Billboard Books.

Vogler, Christopher (2007). The Writer’s Journey. 3rd ed. New York: Michael Weise Productions.

Films Cited

Beast (2012). Super8 Production, Belgium.

The Big Shave (1967). Tisch School of the Arts, US.

Un Chien Andalou (1929). Les Grands Films Classiques, French.

Doodlebug (1997). Cinema16: European Short Films, UK.

Fish Tank (2009). BBC Films, UK.

Fridge (1995). Cinema16: European Short Films, UK.

Likeness (2013). Candescent Films, US.

Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). Polish Film Academy, Poland.

Quicksand (2012). Lance Oppenheim, US.

Soft (2007). Perfume Films, UK.

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DAVID FINCHER IS A PERVERT

Before you get your fists caught up, David Fincher is first and foremost a great filmmaker. Okay, now we are on the same page, I want to essentially deconstruct Fincher’s comment that “people are perverts”, which equally means that the spectator is a pervert when they engage with cinema. And the reason for Fincher being a pervert himself is because to direct the audience, the filmmaker must act as spectator, deciding exactly how perverted they want the audience’s experience to be, and therefore manipulating them. In other words, you can’t lure the pervert (the audience) without understanding how to seduce them (the film).

But what does Fincher really mean? I don’t believe it is a throwaway comment, he claims to have based his entire career on this notion of the pervert. A filmmaker has to have the conviction that an audience will want to sit through what they create, as a writer for his reader, and a painter for the onlooker, and so on. Why would an audience wish to sit in a dark room and have the floodgates opened into another psyche if they weren’t fascinated or even a slight bit curious by other people? We go to experience the upheaval, to be entertained by the pain of somebody else, and in doing so, project and release many of our own problems into this fantasy space. It may even leave us feeling cleansed, but only for so long. A pervert seeks this pleasure in which they will not become the obstacle, and not have to face the consequences for their actions, thus leaving their conscience unmarked. A pervert wants this, to go lengths at revealing the disturbing elements of nature’s truth, turning life upside-down without paying for the ramifications. Fincher’s cinema does a great deal in favour of stretching this viewpoint – Seven and Fight Club implode the pervert’s fantasy; truth is a very dark subject matter.

A pervert is not only a Peeping Tom, but somebody who wishes deeply to satisfy their own desires. We all carry this element of ego, but the cinema exploits it in an almost dangerous fashion. It is a pure ego formulation, our ego drive is solely at work when we view a film, there is no concern of the Id or Superego (no need for survival or ethitcal/moral regulations – when using the Freudian conception of the terms). So when Fincher stated that “people are perverts” – he means that, quite literally, as the very reason why people go to the cinema and enjoy watching his films – he know very well that you’re a pervert for liking it!

David Fincher himself must be a voyeur par excellence!

To learn more about cinema spectatorship and Lacanian theory on the gaze, the voyeur, and so on, I recommend the following text by Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze. It is delicious.

In good spirits, here is an illuminating video essay on Fincher’s works:

 

A Discussion of Film Technique

Sergei-Eisenstein

The early filmmakers and film theorists (many of whom were both) discovered the fundamental techniques of film and hence called for the appreciation of the medium as an art form. Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin discovered the turbulent effects of montage, commonly referred to today as simply the process of editing: the stitching together of a series of shots to form a linear (or non-linear) narrative. [i] With montage, the filmmaker is able to transcend the space and time of a narrative; something that had never been done before cinema and that is taken for granted today. However, montage means far more than merely putting the constructs of a film together and as the masters of cinema have discovered, it is fundamental to their unique expression and intrinsic to ensuing direct control over audience reactions and behaviours.[ii]

The filmmakers in Hollywood began utilising tools of the camera and montage to a classical effect (angles, movements, continuity editing etc.) that reached pitch perfect by the 1940s (or more specifically, 1939, the year commonly referred to as the golden year for film). They used several camera angles to create compositions of varying meaning and perception that allowed greater control over the process and the editor to become the key manipulator of the unfolding story. For example, an editor chooses the exact frame on which to cut the characters action with a reaction (the cause-effect approach); whether dialogue or an action sequence. This formula of Hollywood film technique was flawless; it is the framework for approaching a classical narrative and classical cinema would know no different.

Citizen-Kane-Secrets

However, a couple of years later emerged further pioneering filmmakers introducing techniques to Hollywood that laid bare the current rhythmic montage and presented alternate methods. For example, the deep focus shots of panoramic views that allowed for far more effective shot sequences, like introducing a close-up parallel to a master-shot. Orson Welles and William Wyler are forerunners of such movements and throughout the 1940s and 1950s the auteur in film developed as the director implemented a greater and more vigorous understanding and control of their style. For example, in Citizen Kane, Welles uses single shots with a deep focus to cover entire scenes and, thus, carefully lets the audience pick out specific points of detail. Welles had full control to use a close-up or alternating shot to devastating effect simply because he savoured such tools at his disposal (of course, before sound, long takes were common, but scenes remained primitive and classical technique was only in its prospective development).

From the 1960s, film technique (or rather exploration of) explodes and is sewn together by innovative filmmakers from across the globe with an eye to pitch their new wave of style.[iii] It is clear, however, that the foundations of film technique and even experimental forms, were all manifest and in practice from the classical era of filmmaking. Exploitation films and progressive/subversive genres simply got buried beneath the mount of classical cinema until the disintegration of the studio system in 1948 (Paramount Case[iv]). B-movies started getting more attention and filmmakers plunged into the deep waters of making films on shoestring-budgets. However, really one needn’t look no further at the vast world of cinema, which today rehashes and replicates all that has come before (albeit with particular visions), than the pioneers and masters of early and classical cinema, if one wishes to gain a fully comprehensive understanding of film and technique.

Alfred-Hitchcock

I want to briefly discuss the film technique of Alfred Hitchcock (he is always a good place to start), a filmmaker who utilised just about every technique the cinema has to offer within his tales of deceit and murder. From revealing pans in trembling close-ups to harsh low-angles of towering objects and from suspenseful montage (and direction) to layers of allegoric meaning, he has carved a succinct and colossal discourse of film techniques.[v]

How is suspense created? We have all heard of Hitchcock’s label “The Master of Suspense” and whilst he did continually make thrillers, they didn’t necessarily have to have the same degree of suspense – this is the touch of Hitchcock, if you like. The basic indicator of suspense is revealing the horror before the subject (or in terms of dramatic construction – dramatic irony). For example, in Psycho the audience sees the shadow of the killer as he raises the knife behind the shower curtain before our heroine, who witnesses the latters brutal attack. Yet, Hitchcock has a certain aura (or added layer) of creating such suspense and this is accomplished by his specific use of film technique. Suspense is a narrative technique, like mystery (the reversal of suspense) or surprise (the coinciding revealing of an event), and whilst narrative technique and film technique are inextricable (one can’t exist without the other; just as to film something you have to apply a film technique – the cameras viewpoint), Hitchcock enriches, upholds and resolves the former technique with the latter.

shower-head-Psycho

The camera lingers in the shower with our heroine, immediately shadowing the heroine’s narrow field of vision. Amidst this field, Hitchcock moves his camera above the subject (she is nothing but an ant about to be stamped on) and across the axis (the 180 line: a relatively strict rule cinematographers abide by in order to keep the audience in line) to reveal all sides of our victim; she is weak and so are we. Hitchcock has offset the audience by his sequence and it is then that the killer is revealed in the shadows. Hitchcock has built up the suspense, in effect, before he has applied it. Whilst, you could rightly label narrative techniques under the heading of film techniques, in my analysis I am aiming to refer specifically to technical devices; the camera and the editing; the two vital and expedient processes of cinema.

Film technique is arguably more powerful than any story and plot structure, as it gives you infinite control over what the audience sees and how and when they see it. You cannot scatter a narrative and execute it to the same effect (Tarantino explores with the limitations of this effect notably in Pulp Fiction); scenes must retain a reasonably substantial order; each must punch into the next. However, a choice of film technique is immeasurable and impossible to avoid; it is what nurtures a filmmaker’s vision. The filmmaker can represent the subject however they please within the wondrous three-dimensional space that is offered to them. Beginning a scene in a close-up or a wide shot is the filmmakers choice, the narrative, or rather the plot, remains fundamentally the same, but the filmmaker can alter the audience’s reception to the narrative with film technique. Such is the power and the language of the cinema. It is not just shot composition, but the sequence of editing the shot compositions together that the filmmaker should adore. A close-up may be repeated, or only used for one second instead of four, as intended; all processes change the expression of the filmmaker and his judgement of the narrative. Indeed, a daunting process for the filmmaker is working out how to cover a scene, by cover I mean what shots they will use, and how they will stage and block the scene. Of course, there is nothing more exciting than this exposition, it is discovering the inner fibres of your film and it is also discovering the fibres of yourself, the filmmaker.

You will hear, “script is king”. Well, the filmmaker (film director) is “king” and queen. He is the sense and sensibility of the script and the pioneer of its land. Of course, you must have a great script, and a great filmmaker can make a great script great, but a great script on the shelf is not a great film, it is nobody. A great filmmaker would be silly to direct a script that wasn’t great (or at least that he/she thought wasn’t great) and therefore this discussion of script (or screenwriting) is vain to an analysis of film technique; we can assume the material that a filmmaker has chosen to work with is good.

wesmrfox2

I don’t wish to dismiss contemporary pioneers of film technique. Wes Anderson is a prime suspect of innovation and flair in filmmaking. Metaphorically, he creates a symmetrical box in which to frame his action that can move up, down, left, right, or in and out. Occasionally, the camera jumps to the far side of the box or sits on the roof, but it never breaks this manner of primitive and proportioned framing. Whist this is innovative, it is no more than a fresh refurbishment of film techniques; the director has utilised the techniques of the camera and staging to create his own style within his canvas, as should any great film director (or artist, in relation to their canvas). I will further define how I am using the term film technique (it often gets used as common excuse for anything film production), the technique is the central grouping of film compositions (shots), montage (edits) and sequences (scenes); techniques that have phenomenal undergrowth of exploration and which belong exclusively to the cinema.

These cannot be changed, the close-up shot will always be the close-up shot, but it is how the filmmaker uses it that I am concerned with. This draws on a fundamental principle of the cinematic language, it shows and then it tells; and film directors have often stressed the importance on how you show it that matters (this is characteristic to the subsequent telling). No contemporary filmmaker is able to pioneer, for example, the close-up shot (I believe first used by Georges Melies of the moon in Le Voyage dans la lune (1902)), but they can structure it effectively within a sequence that makes it innovative and appear utterly fresh and convincing, but it will be innovative only to that filmmaker’s style. In other words, technique, at its innermost core, is never new, but if it is utilised by a master, it can appear as such.

A reductive approach could argue that all film technique is drawn from the other arts, at the core of its invention, the seventh art is photographic, steals a generous palette from painting and it pinches the actor from the theatre. Of course, this can be ridiculed by modernistic approaches to film; the illusion of the moving image itself as a new phenomenon provides generous possibilities for techniques to evolve. The surrealists had an art form that is able to uncannily blend fantastical elements with the real; painting could never achieve the same impact. The close-up first appeared in painting, but the close-up in film will have an entirely different effect. Distinguishable meanings and implications are, of course, the beauty of each individual art form; and meaning in the cinema continues to blossom at the cutting-edge.

manhattan-shot

Lets not forget that film has been praised and simultaneously impugned for its tendency to merge multiple arts under one umbrella, but this is why the medium is home to some of the greatest artistic geniuses. Why did Woody Allen start making films? He could express his artistic values: his favourite music (Jazz), comedy (his own stand up and Mel Brooks), art, sculpture, photography (The Museum of Modern Art) literature (The Catcher in The Rye), theatre (Broadway), architecture (New York) and films (from Bergman to Bunuel) under one canvas. Indeed, as a true auteur of his craft, it also allowed him to express layers of meaning from his own life and concurrent philosophical insights – death, religion, moral relativity etc. – and appropriately (and with great talent) digest those interests via the language and technique of film.

I want to end this discussion by saying that if film technique is used correctly, if it connects with the concurrent meaning and implication of the subject, then it will create good and stimulating cinema. If it is masterfully constructed, if it connects with every sequence, act, and the entire story while adding an ambiguous but concise layer of allegory, then it almost becomes magic and is certainly categorised as great cinema. If you witness a masterpiece, it is because the magic of the film technique (there are other factors of course, you need a great story, but as mentioned earlier, a bad film director – a filmmaker who hasn’t mastered the language and his technique – won’t make a good film) used by the filmmaker seamlessly catches your tongue and sews you to the story, layer by layer, so you can only succumb to praise of what is an impeccable execution of the form. A separate discussion is raised, an audience’s varying interpretation of film technique (though this should be at the unconscious level – a filmmakers technique should pass the spectators eye integrally, or, in fact, unnoticed – at least this is the case for typical audiences). Let’s conclude that if the filmmaker has executed his technique how he wished (and he is closest to the material) then it will be so purely inscribed that even if you (as a viewer) don’t connect with the filmmakers intentions it will otherwise have an equivalent effect (possibly at the unconscious level) in an equal and opposite direction.

 

To be continued…

 

Notes:

[i]For a discussion on the three pioneering techniques of Soviet montage and related topics see Eisenstein Film Form and/or The Film Sense.

[ii]For a great book on film editing, see Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing.

[iii]See Peter Cowie Revolution!: Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties for an insightful introduction to world cinema and disparate styles of filmmaking.

[iv]For a discussion surrounding the studio systems collapse and the battle between the competing world industries (specifically Europe and America) see David Puttnam’s The Undeclared War: Struggle for Control of the World’s Film Industry.

[v] If you are interested in Hitchcock then there are plenty of great books to discover more about his technique and style. Here are a couple of my favourites: Hitchcock: Centenary Essays edited by Richard Allen S. Ishii Gonzales and Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut.