Eat My Shorts

Film still for Eat My Shorts

Short films were once the preserve of a privileged few. Then DV came and made us all into potential film-makers. James Bell looks at the consequences.

What are short films for? The way people in the UK answer that question tends to reveal a polarity of interests. On the one hand, there's a tradition of artistic film-makers who see the short as an artform in its own right - from Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway to Isaac Julien and Andrew Kötting. These practitioners are mostly from the avant-garde and belong to a history of experiment that had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s with the likes of Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol, became moribund in the 1990s, but is now revived in the art world. On the other hand, the film industry and the media see shorts mostly as personal ads for would-be feature film-makers, an information flow to watch warily in case a director of stand-out talent - a Lynne Ramsay or an Asif Kapadia - should show up.

For everyone else, short films have been classed as of little importance: they no longer have a regular slot in commercial cinemas, television broadcasters aren't interested in them except at 3am, and once you'd weeded out the film-makers' friends, relatives and colleagues from any screening audience there often wouldn't be enough people left to drain a teapot. None of the industry constituencies made much of an effort to find a home for a rag-bag of works of variable length and quality - and why should they? Their audiences were already lapping up a different sort of short film, issued under the despised labels of advertising or music promo.

Until the recent emergence of DV it was difficult for someone who'd never made a film to secure public funding. "The situation in the late 1990s was that there were limited opportunities for a small clique of people to get healthy funding for their shorts but there was very little investment in the discovery of new talent," says Caroline Cooper Charles, short-film consultant for the UK Film Council. Meanwhile, budgets for 35mm celluloid shorts had crept upwards: films made under FilmFour's Short & Curlies strand regularly cost between £60,000 and £90,000 and the £90,000 budget for Tinge Krishnan's BAFTA-winning Shadowscan (2001) was a peak for the bfi's New Directors scheme. These costs were difficult to justify for films seen by only a handful of people when a fraction of the investment could be funnelled into supporting many more emerging film-makers working with digital equipment.

Short bread

It was this belief that prompted the UK Film Council to launch a three-year scheme to support digital short films in August 2001, pledging £1.5 million to produce 100 films each year as part of its Digital Shorts initiative. Funds were to be matched by regional partners, each film was to be shot solely on digital for less than £10,000, and each film had to be less than ten minutes long. The scheme got a mixed response, to say the least: "We were angrily told that it was impossible to make a decent film for less than £10,000, and that forcing people to shoot on digital was too restrictive," says Cooper Charles.

And indeed the jury is still out on whether collecting lots of angles on scenes in a lightweight digital camera - as if it were a visual notebook - and then condensing them into a ten-minute film can be a serious bridge to full-size cinema. Asif Kapadia, who made a number of shorts including the acclaimed The Sheep Thief at the Royal College of Art before making his first feature The Warrior in 2001, warns against unequivocally welcoming digital's putative flexibility. "When you're a film student you're very aware of how much film costs, so you're not going to start shooting until you know exactly what you want. There's a danger with digital that you don't make any real decisions until you're on set, and then you assume any problems can be sorted in post-production."

But this freedom can also be liberating: "The most successful digital shorts are those that work with the format rather than pretending to be shooting 16mm on the cheap," says Soledad Gatti-Pascual of London-based production company The Bureau, which helps run the UKFC's Cinema Extreme scheme (the next tier up from Digital Shorts, making shorts of varying length with experienced directors). A good example of using the medium to advantage are the shorts of Nottingham-based director Simon Ellis, whose elliptical murder story What about the Bodies uses digital to evoke an appropriately hallucinatory atmosphere. "I've learned how to make DV look less like DV, but that doesn't mean emulating celluloid," says Ellis.

Whatever digital's detractors and supporters might argue, it is indisputable that the medium has allowed more shorts to be made. The availability of cheap equipment, from cameras to desktop editing suites, has democratised film-making so it's quite feasible to shoot a no-budget short with a basic DV camera, edit the film at home on a computer editing package and then present it to one of the short-film schemes as a calling-card to secure funding for a more ambitious work or to distribute it via the web. As for finding an audience, DVD and web-streaming have both emerged as important new vehicles for extending the lifespan of short films. And arguably standout webstream films such as Bruce Branit's 405, or the early promos of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, available on the Directors Label DVDs, are as much an indication of fledgling ability as the early shorts of David Lynch, Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski. What's new is that such films seem to be attracting a sizeable audience, as are events such as the Brief Encounters short-film festival in Bristol, attended by 5,000 people last year.

We like short shorts

Yet the biggest challenge is still to secure theatrical distribution. The most visible outlet for a short here is to have it programmed with a feature, but this remains a rare event. Getting a 16mm or 35mm print made from a digital master tape is often unrealistically expensive, costing around £3,000. Short Circuit Films, the UK-based organisation responsible for distributing the films made on the Digital Shorts scheme, has tried funding distributors to attach a short to a feature, though this only works if cinema managers are enthusiastic since the exhibition of the short is at their discretion. "We found it more effective to go to individual cinemas to persuade them to take shorts rather than attempting to do it at the point of distribution," says Short Circuit's Meabh O'Donovan.

And the shorter the short, the better its chances. "Desserts with Ewan McGregor was sold across Europe and Asia because it's a one-gag film that's under five minutes long," says O'Donovan. Her experience is confirmed by short-films co-ordinator Damian Spandley from City Screen: "With a 90-minute feature we wouldn't usually run anything longer than ten minutes, and we wouldn't programme anything with a two-hour film," he says.

Such restrictions aren't helpful to would-be feature film-makers. "The problem with most three-minute shorts is they're little more than a witty idea with a sting in its tail. Some short-film-makers aren't learning to develop characterisation, and so financiers aren't convinced they can make features," says Kapadia. "The British film industry should be doing more to help those who have made successful shorts but are struggling to make their first feature."

The steady introduction of digital projection equipment into UK cinemas (to be facilitated by the Film Council's Digital Network scheme) will save the cost of converting digital masters into film prints since masters will be downloaded directly to the cinemas' own servers. But this is still an emerging technology and it remains to be seen how quickly cinemas are prepared to update their equipment. Around ten cinemas across the UK have so far installed advanced digital-projection technology, and the UKFC plans to have 250 screens in 150 cinemas by summer 2005.

Yet several cinemas across the UK are managing to host monthly shorts events. The Cameo in Edinburgh runs The Blue Room in conjunction with Mediabase, a similar organisation to the now-defunct Filmmakers Co-operative which loans equipment to independent film-makers. Cinema Extreme regularly invites established directors to talk at screenings of their own early shorts at London's Curzon Soho. Underground events include Exploding Cinema's screenings of unfunded films in squats, church halls, disused factories and anywhere else it can find a venue.

Things are looking upload

Touring showcases and DVD compilations have also taken off. The UKFC's 'Big Stories/Small Flashes' took nine films made under the Digital Shorts scheme to 30 cinemas around the UK in 2003, including the BAFTA-nominated Bouncer by Michael Baig-Clifford, featuring Ray Winstone, and 5 Ways John Wayne Didn't Die by Martin Wallace, featuring Jarvis Cocker and Ricky Tomlinson. The compilation was also made available on DVD. Meanwhile Onedotzero, which promotes new computer-generated shorts and the use of new technology in film, takes its annual festival on tour and is about to distribute its third DVD of shorts. London-based short-film producer Luke Morris last year put together a collection called Cinema 16 that included the 21-year-old Ridley Scott's Boy and Bicycle, Christopher Nolan's Doodlebug, Lynne Ramsay's Gasman, Asif Kapadia's The Sheep Thief and Morris' own nouvelle vague parody Je t'aime John Wayne. The DVD has sold more than 5,000 copies in the UK in less than 12 months, which is more than a typical foreign-language feature would be expected to sell over the same period. "When you think of the number of young short-film-makers working today, there's a captive audience who want to analyse these films," says Morris.

Regarded as the future for shorts in the late-1990s boom years, web-streaming is still developing, but where there were once countless sites, there has been consolidation. Most sites weren't making enough money and several good ones have disappeared, including Hypnotic, Always Independent and The Bit Screen. Others, like Ifilm, have begun offering film-makers the option of paying to upload their films for a three- or six-month period if their short isn't selected for free exhibition.

Web-streaming gives film-makers the potential to reach a far larger global audience over an extended lifespan, and technical advances are making poor image quality less of a concern. Atom Films currently offers a Hi-Def programme where broadband users can download free Maven software that allows films to be viewed full screen, at what Atom claims to be near-DVD quality.

Developing the revolution

The most successful web-stream films, of course, are made with the format in mind. American film-maker Evan Mather's work, such as Icarus of Pittsburgh (2002), is a good example: densely packed with visual and aural information, his films seem made to be watched intently, in isolation and cocooned by headphones. Only a lucky few film-makers secure studio or agenting deals from web exposure, but they do get direct and generally honest feedback from their audience.

There's no question, then, that this is a bonanza time for short films, and there's a sense that the fug of a whinging culture has been blown away by the stark fact that there are now virtually no obstacles to making your first moving-image work. That the UKFC has been sharp enough to use the cheapness of DV to help empower hundreds of would-be film-makers can only be a good thing, though it does have its drawbacks. Caroline Cooper Charles admits to having to read around 1,000 scripts a year for the various regional and national elements of the Digital Shorts scheme, the average quality of which cannot be high.

The UKFC carries through government policy to empower Britain's regions and nations, which means the responsibility for nurturing talent and experiment lies with film commissioners on arts boards across the country - a welcome resistance to a London-centric industry. Each region has its own way of developing its strengths and it is to be hoped that evidence of real talent meets with proper championing to move people on to the next stage. It has to be said, though, that the UK has found it hard to discover great auteurs in recent years. But then, maybe that's not the job of government agencies. Talent will out is the theory, and hundreds of films the practice.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012