Sit in a cinema for three hours watching the latest Hollywood film and you’ll find it hard to believe when movie industry kicked off all films were short. Everything from newsreels and comedies to serialised dramas and adventure stories. In the USA, superstars like Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy rocked the one- and two-reel film world with flicks like Chaplin’s Mabel’s Strange Predicament.
As the movie industry expanded, though, and talkies and colour films hit the big-screen, so-called feature-length film became the main event and short films were relegated to the opening act. In Britain, these tended to be educational flicks, like the Green Cross Code campaign—informative, but hardly fun. By the 1980s, the film industry was driven by blockbuster movies and profit margins, and, commercially speaking, short films weren’t anyone’s priority.
Sound bleak? Not really. With the commercial imperative removed, short films quickly became incubators for film-making talent. Lower costs and shorter schedules meant that directors and producers could use the short format to experiment in ways that the cautious studio bosses discouraged in feature films. And because shorts tend to be shown at film festivals where the audiences are actively seeking out innovation, where better for a film-maker to road-test their skills?
Small films. Big prizes
Some kick-ass short films that have wowed the festival circuit include Peter Capaldi’s Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1994), starring Richard E. Grant, Bobby Peers’ Sniffer (2006), which picked up the Palme D’Or for short films at Cannes, and João Salaviza’s Rafa (2012), winner of the Golden Bear (short film) at the Berlin International Film Festival. Niche festivals like the London Short Film Festival, Tropfest, and the long-running International Short Film Festival in Clermont-Ferrand, France cater exclusively for shorts, and companies like Future Shorts work with film-makers to distribute short on- and off-line. Future Shorts also run a pop-up festival to develop a global screening network for short films.
The smart option
And there’s more: huge shifts in film distribution options have changed how we make and think about short films. We’re talking about the internet, of course: not only can any budding Spielberg or Kurosawa shoot movies on full-spec HD smartphone video cameras but they can upload them to services like Vimeo and YouTube and use the power of social media to reel in an audience bigger than they’d get at any film festival.
Bite sized art
Social media and mobile viewing are also making short format films and programmes increasingly popular, especially in Japan, where dramas and soaps are serialised in bite-sized chunks designed to be watching on the go, on mobile phones and tablets. All of which means that short films, far from being a dying art, are still the place where film adventure begins.