At this week’s screening we looked at nine very different short films. For anybody wishing to get a flavour of that session, here’s the full list of nine:
- Steamboat Willie (Disney, 1927)
- Frankenweenie (Buena Vista, 1984)
- Luxo Jr. (Pixar, 1986)
- The Hire: Ticker (BMW, 2002)
- Presto (Pixar, 2008)
- Room 8 (Imagination Series, 2013)
- The Blue Umbrella (Pixar, 2013)
- Marvel One Shot: Agent Carter (Marvel, 2013)
- Exit Log (Imagination Series, 2014)
Some of the short films do require Parental Guidance, which can be assisted by visiting the websites Common Sense Media and IMDB.
The short film has a long and varied history, with its importance and style changing with each new technical innovation. The rest of this post looks at how short films developed with the invention of cinema, cel animation, television, computer graphics and the internet. It also features links to around twenty short films we were unable to fit in during our screening.
Early Films: 1888 – 1960s (ish)
The Very First Films
The first film was a short film. As was the next one, and the several thousand that followed those. These films were very different from the dramatic story led films of our day. Often things were filmed for novelty value, to show off the new magical moving pictures. Of course, technological curiosities like this were toured around the continent to exhibitions, museums and circuses. It was easiest to transport these films if they were small enough to be carried in a single film can, and they could only store about 11 minutes worth of silent cinema. To see the sort of curiosity audiences would enjoy, take a look at a short work from legendary director Georges Melies.
The First Cinemas
The first cinemas, that is to say buildings created especially to show films, appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century. With film cans no longer needing to be quite so portable, it became easier to create a single movie which could be stored across multiple reels. Just as today, families could go into the cinema for a whole evening’s entertainment. Unlike today, however, the show would often consist of more than just one film. The grandest cinemas liked to compete with the grandest theatres, and so before the audience enjoyed a film they could have heard live singers, applauded live dancers and laughed at live comedians. A simpler cinema programme of the 1920s would include at least a newsreel and a short comedy film, followed by the longer main feature. The feature itself could therefore still run well under an hour in length.
Very long films had begun appearing in the English language as early as 1915, and eventually, made their mark. With the success of epic films such as ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘The Sheik’, short film stars realised they could make more of a profit if they moved into ‘features’. Even comedians took the risky move of choosing to make long films. Charlie Chaplin made his first long comedy in 1921. Over time he found the money he had access to when making the longer films allowed him to be much more ingenious, and experimental. Here’s a section from Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’, which could never have been achieved on a short film budget.
The First Sound Animations
With short film stars deserting the genre, the esteem of short films declined. However, short films were still broadly popular, and their posters still appeared outside the cinema, by owners hoping a great short film might bring an audience to a less attractive longer piece. One such example happened in 1928, when the silent film ‘Gang War’ was preceded by an animated film about a whistling mouse. ‘Steamboat Willie’ was the first cartoon released with sound, and made heroes out of its star Mickey Mouse, and its creators Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Their knack for technical innovation allowed them to wow audiences time and again, including with the first colour animated film ‘Flowers and Trees’, and their first hit mini-musical ‘The Three Little Pigs’. Eventually Mickey Mouse himself moved into colour, in the much celebrated short ‘The Band Concert’.
Along Comes Television
Live action short films were slowly killed off by the arrival, in America, of commercial television. Free to watch sitcoms meant that people were unlikely to go to the cinema to see similar comedians making similar jokes. At first cartoons were not so much affected by this. After all, they were tough to produce and very expensive, and it was unlikely television would ever create something so mesmerising! Major studios had their own animation departments producing their own short films to place ahead of their main releases. Paramount had Charles Fleischer’s cartoons. MGM produced the Droopy Dog and Tom and Jerry series. Most famously of all Warner Brothers hit gold with their various Looney Tunes characters. Originally spoofs of Disney’s Silly Symphonies the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes series would provide some of the finest moments in cartoon history, including ‘What’s Opera Doc?’, ‘Duck Amuck’ and ‘One Froggy Evening’. For the looniest of them all however, check out ‘Porky in Wackyland’ or its colour remake ‘Dough for the Do-Do’.
The painstaking work that went in to producing these curtain raisers was appreciated by the audiences, but not by the studio bosses who had to pay for them. At Warner Brothers, animators had long got used to stealing part of the budget and time allocated to one short film to give to a more interesting one. They knew if the studio money men found out, they would cut every film’s budget back to that required for those cheap cartoons. In the late 1950s Hanna-Barbera showed that cartoons did not need to be of a film quality to be successful. TV shows Huckleberry Hound and The Flintstones relied on sitcom style wordplay, rather than the beauty of the scenery, or the timing of the slapstick. Due to financial pressures Warner Brothers shut down their internal animation department in the early 1960s, ending the golden age of animation, and stopping the regular appearance of new cartoon shorts at the cinema.
Away from the Spotlight: 1960s – 1990s
So with no short silent dramas, no sitcom style comedies, and no dazzling cartoons to play before a feature, what was left for the short film?
Short films were, and still are, produced by students from film schools, as a way of practising their craft and showing what they could achieve. Film students who eventually turned away from short pieces to take up directing feature films include Steven Spielberg with ‘Amblin” (later the name of his film company), George Lucas with ‘THX-1138’ (later a full length film) and Tim Burton with ‘Frankenweenie’ (ditto).
Modern artists also continued to release shorts, pushing the boundaries of possibility, imagination, and as often as not, good taste. Modern Art galleries often have a section with screens showing short films. For a successful art film of the last five years, why not try out Terry Timely’s Synesthesia. An exercise in showing the effect of an interesting psychological condition, he later simply claimed it was just “an excuse to shoot fireworks indoors, have cats jump out of speakers, and explore an interest in Vietnamese retro-futurism”.
It wasn’t all rebellious students and high art, however. The style of the short film continued in mainstream culture in three distinct ways…
The Second Unit
In a film, a second unit is a team of film-makers who work separately from the main director. Often the main director will be shooting actors in a studio, whilst the second unit directs stunt doubles in action sequences. The second unit of the James Bond film series clearly got bored filming the in-between bits, and decided they wanted to make a whole different film. Just as early cinema trips would open with fun short films before the main feature, trips to see a Bond film would begin with a fun, action packed sequence featuring 007 on an assignment which has little or nothing to do with the remainder of the story. Some would make the argument that the Roger Moore films ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, ‘Moonraker’ and ‘Octopussy’ feature the most successful short films made in the seventies and eighties, each of them better than the film that it preceded. This style of light short story followed by main plot was emulated by a number of action films, including ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, the ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ series, and ‘True Lies’.
The Sound of Music
In 1959 Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers appeared in a short film, made in one day for a budget of £75, and largely improvised. Directed by Richard Lester, it was entitled simply ‘The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film’. The director’s work impressed The Beatles, who in 1963 invited Richard Lester to direct their film ‘A Hard Days Night’. The film features the first modern music video, with scenes intercut in time to the music, and whole sequences where music is played without an instrument or a singer in sight.
This was a ground-breaking moment for pop music, and led to further developments. Previously if artists wanted to promote their music on a television programme, they would have had to record a live performance specifically for that programme. This wasn’t too much of problem if your band was in London, and you were only invited on TV programmes made in London. However, The Beatles were international stars, and as such wanted regularly on both sides of the Atlantic. Rather than hopping on a plane every time they were wanted on an American show, they began sending promotional films. Soon every other band jumped on board. Groups such as Queen and The Who spent as much time planning their videos as their songs. By 1981 a whole channel, MTV, had been launched just to show music videos. Bands such as Adam and the Ants and Duran Duran were selling songs widely regarded as subpar simply on the strength of their videos. With a six minute prologue ‘Michael Jackson’s Thriller’ blurred the lines between film-making and music, and has on numerous occasions been voted the most influential music video of all time. To see why, you’ll have to visit another blog, as it’s rated 15 for its ‘horrifying’ images. So instead enjoy three very of-their-time videos; A-Ha’s Take On Me, Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, and whatever this is from Peter Gabriel. Far more horrifying, but BBFC approved.
Large corporations soon realised that if musicians could advertise themselves with great film direction, then so could they. In 1984, Apple produced a hugely expensive advert directed by famed sci-fi auteur Ridley Scott. It was shown only once, but still became the most famous advert of the 1980s. In Britain, one of the most successful advertising campaigns was that of Guinness, their most famous piece being ‘Surfer‘, directed by short film director Jonathan Glazer. Worldwide, Nike’s quadrennial football short films allow them to often outsell Adidas, even though Adidas is the actual sponsor of the World Cup. Here’s their epic from 2010.
New Technology: 1980s – Present
For a while that seemed to be short film’s final destiny; reduced to devices for selling Vanilla Ice LPs and alcopops. But there would be one bright shining light that would bring short films fully back to the public’s attention. That light’s name was Luxo Jr…
The New Animations
Short films have always been used to experiment with. Pixar was a computer graphics company born in 1979, designed to create digital effects for feature films. In 1986 they showed off what they could do by producing the first realistic CGI animation film; ‘Luxo Jr.’ The little desktop lamp and his ball would become icons of the company as it moved forwards. In less than a decade the graphics company had produced ‘Toy Story’, one of the highest grossing animated films of all time
Despite the success, Pixar did not turn their backs on short films. Their continual need to test new technology and new animators meant that they needed to keep making shorts. So for the first time since the 1960s, animated short films began appearing in the theatre, alongside each one of their movies. Pixar also saw a new market in home video. Many of their DVDs would include a brand new short, starring the characters of the full length movies. The short films were a great incentive to buy the movie you’d already seen in the cinema.
When Disney and Pixar merged, Disney Animation Studios began the same process of making short films to place before their features, and Blue Sky and Dreamworks also got in on the act. It wasn’t only the big studios, however; independent film makers also took advantage of the new technology. Whilst making an animation at home was almost impossible with expensive inks and acetate, hobbyists could create high quality animation sitting at their iMacs.
All this means that the modern CGI era boasts as high a rate of classic animated shorts as the days of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery; a hit rate including classics as diverse as ‘Lifted’, ‘Paperman’ and ‘Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty’:
As every home became connected to the internet, studios and independents saw new ways of releasing their products. With the development of Youtube and other video streaming services, short film makers could make sure their film was seen by anyone, anywhere. In 2009 the success of the Youtube released film ‘Ataque de Panico’ led to its director being contracted to direct the ‘Evil Dead’ film series. Suddenly film directors were liberated, able to share comedy and tragedy. Films of this era include the horribly tragic real life drama ‘Inseperable‘, the very scary Zombie film ‘Cargo‘ (Parental Guidance definitely recommended) and the vaguely silly ‘The Black Hole’:
Advertisers saw the potential, and rather than making advertisements that looked like films, began just making films. Rather than directly persuade people to buy the product, the point was to associate the brand with good quality. Brands like Bombay Sapphire placed their logos firmly up front- and producing the Bafta Winning short film of 2014 probably didn’t do their gin sales much harm. BMW, however, took a stealth marketing approach- placing their cars in a range of films starring Clive Owen as an unnamed driver, but not drawing attention to themselves in the credits. The Imagination Film Series and The Hire appear in the list at the top of this post.
Major Studios and the Internet
More well established film-makers also looked at the internet as a new way of distributing media. In a tradition led more by writers than the studios themselves, long running television series added greater depth to their universes by releasing ‘webcasts’ or ‘minisodes’. These also drew attention to the franchises as a whole, and worked as a more intelligent form of trailer.
Some were simply made for fun. Whilst all production of scripted American television had to be halted during the writer’s strike of 2008, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Avengers Assemble’ writer Joss Whedon created what he dubbed ‘a micro-budget production‘. Film crew and actors gave their time and brought equipment for no reward, and the film was released for free. Tony-award winning actor Neil Patrick Harris played Dr Horrible, in the 35 minute movie musical ‘Dr Horrible’s Singalong Blog’. Parental Guidance available here.
If anything, Britain’s public service broadcasters were ahead of the fashion. Wallace and Gromit began appearing in their ‘Cracking Contraptions’ long before broadband had reached most homes, which promoted their film, ‘The Curse of the Were Rabbit’. The BBC began broadcasting animated web episodes of Doctor Who in 2001, and in November 2013 to promote the 50th anniversary of the show they released ‘The Night of the Doctor’, a short film which saw the surprise regeneration of Paul McGann’s Doctor, 17 years after he’d last been seen on the show. Weeks later Steven Moffat followed this up with a mini Sherlock adventure, ‘Many Happy Returns’.
DVD and Home Media
It was DVD, not the internet which brought the ‘minisode’ concept to the live action cinematic world. Jerry Bruckheimer gave us a frankly awful Pirates of the Caribbean short which did not star Johnny Depp, and was made available only in an exclusive 15 disc edition of the franchise. In 2011 Marvel Film studios began producing short films which added to their theatrical productions’ universe, but were exclusive to the special editions of their DVDs. Without the perceived need to cater to different demographics at the box office, the short films could take the odd experiment, and the first five include their long-awaited first female led adventure; ‘Agent Carter’.
The short film has gone through many changes in its 125 years, from early greatness to disposability. But with more ways to make, share and watch short film than ever before, maybe the main feature is still about to begin…