To the casual observer, conventional wisdom dictates that short films must be easier to write, produce and create than feature films; shorter running time means less money required, less time, and most importantly, less ideas that need to be generated. In short (pun intended), less effort required, right?
Well, no, not really. Though short films can be an effective introduction, or gateway art form for a director who eventually wishes to make the jump to features (check out our David Cronenberg retrospective for proof), it would be a hasty generalization to suggest that the former are easier to make well – in fact, it just may be the opposite.
The problem lies in the timeframe. In feature filmmaking, time is a luxury afforded to the filmmaker; with two-plus hours ahead of them, a director can take his/her time developing mood and character, and creating an atmosphere of anticipation that builds slowly until it climaxes with a thrillingly satisfying finale. In short film, time is at a premium. Audiences enter a short film with different expectations than they would with a feature, and with a lot less patience. The longer a short film goes on, the more it risks losing its edge (and its audience’s interest) if it cannot consistently up the stakes and tension. Every second in a short film costs twice as much as the one that preceded it, so filmmakers need to be extra vigilant in making sure that every image and action captured onscreen is vital to the story. The law of diminishing returns is especially noticeable in comedy, where many sketches (like this one) become less and less funny the longer they go on due to overreliance on one essential joke, and the story flatlines.
That being said, the short film’s biggest challenge also contains the potential for its biggest achievement. The best of such films take an audience on a roller-coaster ride equal to that of a feature film, in one tenth of the time. Proof positive of this fact are the short films that have been deemed the best of the year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They’ll have you on the edge of your seat in seconds flat. (All titles are linked to the actual film, so check ‘em out!)
At about 3 minutes and 30 seconds in length, it is hard to believe that Philippe Orreindy‘s little vignette could take his viewer anywhere beyond the subway stops that comprise the film’s setting. And yet, by the time it’s over, J’attendrai will have squeezed its audience like a lemon for every bit of empathy they have within them. Indeed, audiences may walk away from this film with radically altered perceptions of the strangers we come across in our day-t0-day lives, for better or for worse.
Without giving away too much, the film tells the story of a middle-aged, lovelorn woman, who is desperate to find companionship in the form of a man who is just like her. One day she boards a train to find the answer to her prayers. If that sounds like a lot of story for 3:30, it is a testament to the film’s quality – and Orreindy’s handling of exposition – that it keeps you from realizing just how much information you’re being given about these characters, without any time wasted at all. The aforementioned woman (played by Sophie Forte) does a tremendous job of acting with her eyes, giving the audience a crystal clear window into her inner life that makes the film’s ending so powerfully moving. If you didn’t think it was possible to romanticize the ‘crazy subway orators’ that you hope to never see on your train, then you you have to watch this.
This Danish film won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 1998; a piece that boldly tackled the hot-button issue of oppressive racism in contemporary society, disguising its rather bleak view of the world under the cover of an offbeat comedy. When a man realizes he has less than twenty minutes to vote in the current election, he races through town in an effort to reach the polling station, hindered by the virulent racism of the taxi drivers who seek to get him there. Racial stereotypes and lewd jokes ensue, tumbling over one another with an almost absurd frequency, eliciting laughter both genuine and uncomfortable.
Much of the film’s tension springs from the audience’s moral proximity to the main character, who initially comes across as a well-meaning idealist. He seeks to correct the misunderstandings of his friends’ insensitive banter, much as we would, if we were in a similar situation. And yet, the man’s unwillingness to associate with these individuals, his sense of superiority over such behaviour, combined with his unwavering belief in democracy, lead us to perceive him (as director Anders Thomas Jansen does) as unbearably naive. It is therefore unclear whether the film is merely casting a light on this particular man, or whether Jansen is critiquing his audience.
Very few films are as effective at pulling you close to a character’s situation as Wasp, Andrea Arnold’s directorial debut. It tells the tale of a single mother of four who tries to keep her children out of the way as she tries to rekindle a relationship with an old flame. Unless you knew beforehand, you would never guess that Arnold is a filmmaking rookie; her tremendous directorial instincts manifest themselves onscreen through the well-composed shots, as well as the structure of the story itself, which unfolds with a striking organic clarity.
It is the film’s sense of place and atmosphere that drive the film from the start. The family’s destitution, their raw, unrefined behaviour, and their thick, North London accents contribute to the sense of desperation and hopelessness that quietly suffuse every moment of Wasp’s 26 minutes, and that really succeeds in pulling the audience into the shoes of this hard-luck family. Even more beautiful about this story, however, are the ways in which Arnold tenderly peels back the seemingly unrefined layers of their behaviour to reveal how much the family supports and loves one another, leading to a wholly satisfying conclusion that is at times heartwarming, terrifying, and cringe-inducing.
Check out these acclaimed Oscar Shorts if you haven’t already. If your appetite for the short film is not yet satiated, you can find short film collections online to purchase and build a collection, such as those offered by Cinema16.
Stay tuned for TFS’ featured topic this month. We’ll be exploring short films of all genres and time periods, celebrating the upcoming Worldwide Short Film Festival and introducing you to some of the people who make it their business to give short films their due accolades.
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