‘S’ is for… Shorts

OTB’s Rob Pearson celebrates the beauty of the short film…

Picture the scene: it’s a rainy Sunday evening in Covent Garden. You’ve walked down the red carpet, gazed at Gemma Arterton a bit, hobnobbed with the brightest and best of the film industry… and Sharon Stone… and you settle yourself down into a comfy velvet seat at the Royal Opera House. You skipped lunch, of course – that tingle of anticipation in your stomach was too much to bear.

The nominations are announced, and now it all hits you like a freight train – the nerves, the fear, the excitement, and above all, the hunger to win one of those beautiful trophies. Time stops as the envelope is peeled open. “Come on, come on! Open it! Hurry up! Is it me?!”

It’s you. Dumbfounded, you stumble out of your seat, make your way down the aisle and accept the BAFTA for… Best Short Film.

This year’s winner was September, directed by Esther Campbell. I’d like to congratulate her on her wonderful film, but there’s one small problem: I’ve not seen it. I probably never will see it. As of right now, the film has accumulated a mighty 15 votes on imdb. Putting it into perspective, the Godfather has 340,000 votes. Hell, even 1920s German expressionist films can get 20,000 votes. Perhaps now that the BAFTA is in the bag, September can be propelled to the heady heights of hitting the 20s, but a century of votes seems a long way off.

The short, you see, is drastically under-represented. “Short films have got their own poetry which is very separate from feature filmmaking,” quoth Campbell, and, of course, she’s bang on the money. But despite being honoured – in animated and live action form – by every academy and every festival panel from here to Timbuktu, shorts rarely ever find a decent audience. It’s taken as read that directors graduate from shorts on to features – here’s a couple of formative efforts by some big names:

Vincent, Tim Burton

How They Get There, Spike Jonze

Hell, in Britain, the film council graciously help fund short films every year, hoping to encourage and nurture the best of British talent. Some of these shorts are, evidently, good – it was heartening to see that, this week, the BBC had hosted one of our current Oscar contenders on its film network: http://www.bbc.co.uk/filmnetwork/

But you have to ask, can’t the BBC find a gap in its TV schedule for a delightful little film like that? It’s only 10 minutes long, and with 4 channels, 3 interactive ‘red button’ channels, so surely there’s space in the ‘busy schedule’ that includes made-for-the-chopping-board programmes such as Celebrity Cash In The Attic and Traffic Cops. TV offers great exposure for shorts. To go back to imdb, their top short film section has just three films with over 10,000 votes. Two are Wallace and Gromit, one is a US holiday special of The Grinch. All three of them were originally broadcast on TV. At very least, there are 10 films a year worthy of being listed for Oscars. Oscars. Why not showcase them, give them the audience that they deserve?

We’re a far cry from the old days, when shorts (usually animated) came inextricably attached to their larger counterparts. This is how Mickey Mouse got his big break, and so animation companies tend to have a greater love for the short form. All-round good guys Pixar famously continue the short tradition. Presto, their latest in a long line of Oscar-nominated shorts, came bundled with WALL-E. It loosens everyone up, gets the audience in the mood – you’re already won over before the main event has even started.

Future Shorts, a worldwide distribution label helps to expose some of these little marvels to the world at large, and with festivals, monthly showcases, club nights and the power of the internet, they probably do more than anyone to get shorts seen. Cinema16, a UK label, also distributes a few DVD showreels of shorts from famed directors, and one is Amazon’s most successful short film compilation… albeit ranked a lowly 6,776th in DVD sales.

And that’s the point: the traditional avenues of distribution aren’t quite good enough any more. Why not release on iTunes? How about ad-supported web streaming? It would be lovely to see a return to the traditional cinema release, but we’re living in the future now. Sort of. Youtube has redefined so much about the way that we watch films, and has had a wonderfully positive impact on short films. It fits the short form like a glove. Now, you can make your own little flick and put it up on the site. Great. 90% of it is rubbish, sure, but once something catches on, then it snowballs in a big way. Kiwi! is one of Youtube’s greatest success stories: it’s clocked in over 20 million views. This was a student’s major project, not a major studio animation. With the power of exposure and word of mouth, shorts can flourish. If only they were given the chance!

Link dump:

Only three of this year’s 10 Oscar nominees have made it to Youtube, here are the other two:

Lavatory Lovestory (from Russia)
Oktapodi (from France)

And a couple of youtube classics:

Rejected (Oscar nominated)

Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse’s star is born.

Future Shorts

Rob Pearson