Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Short, the Feature, and the Bias

“Regrettably the short film subject is often considered beneath the director with serious intentions.” – Michael Rabiger, Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics.

For those of us working in the filmmaking and media world, it should come as no surprise when I state that there seems to be a sort of bias towards feature films in America. Short films are the things of student filmmakers exercises and film festival aficionados. But for the serious filmgoers, it would seem, feature films are where it is at.

This is not the case, however, in other countries. The fact that one of my short films has played on a Canadian cable station dedicated to showing short films is just one example. Much of the sales representation that film enjoys is focused on Canada and Europe. But for some reason, it is pretty hard to shake the off the bias against short films in America. I recall sitting down to show one of my earlier (and crappier) short films to my in-laws (at the time, my soon to be in-laws--how they still loved me and allowed me to their beautiful daughter is a wonder to me). In excited anticipation of seeing the film, my soon to be little bother-in-law asked me how long the film was. “Thirty-seven minutes,” I answered.

“That’s it?” was his disappointed response. And 37 minutes is as long a short film as I’ve dared to make to date. In fact, the more I’ve learned about filmmaker, the shorter films I’ve been making. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe I just love to disappoint all the people hoping I’ll make something longer, though I really doubt that’s the case. After 37 minutes of the short film I showed them, I’m sure everyone wished I made shorter films. Hell, eventually I wished I had made a shorter film.

But I don’t blame my brother-in-law for his reaction. He’s being brought up in a world of feature films. In a world of epics like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, with its even longer extended editions on DVD. Despite this being the YouTube age, the feature film is still the crowning achievement of the filmmaker in America.

Now, I should point out that I love feature films. Absolutely love them! Hope to get to make my own at some point (got feature scripts just waiting—hint, hint to all potential investors out there). But I want to take a moment to examine the value of short films, and point out that the 90 to 120 minute feature film is not the only venue for expression available to the American filmmaker today.

First of all, I want to consider the above quote. I took it from a book I’m currently reading. In it, the author, Mr. Rabiger, takes some time to explore the value of short films. The entire paragraph that that above quote comes from reads as follows:

Regrettably the short film subject is often considered beneath the director with serious intentions. This is like would-be novelists rejecting poetry and the short story as unworthy mediums. The short film is actually closest to the poetic form, for it requires deft characterization, a compressed narrative style, and something to say that is focused and fresh in voice. A good five- to ten-minute film is actually more demanding to make than a passable thirty minute one. (pg 211)

Whoa, wait, what? It’s harder to make a really short film? No wonder I was making “short” films with running times above the 30-minute mark. Maybe I just lacked brevity. After making enough people sit through those relatively long (even longer feeling) early efforts, I sure think I lacked brevity. Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow aspiring filmmaker, and he admitted he had a hard time coming up with a great concept that would work as a short film. This was why so far he hadn’t made a short of his own. I can totally relate. Workable concepts for short films are really quite difficult. But we’ll get to that. For now, just keep the above quote in mind. We’re going to come back to it.

Feature Film Fixation

So, why are we so fixated on feature films? It could be that in a culture enamored more with the glitzy escapism of big budget films, we find ourselves drawn to the feature film more often. This would make sense in that feature films have a better potential for financial return on investment. So, the most polished, professional films (as in the ones that cost the most to make), tend to be the Hollywood feature films playing at your local multiplex.

But does this fully account for our love for the feature film? No. I seriously doubt that. As a filmmaker who has already written several feature length screenplays, worked on the crew for feature films, and is the avid viewer of feature films, I will also point out that the feature film provides an experience that is unique to it’s scope and running time. Like the novel, the feature does allow us more time and space in which to get to know characters, experience events, and travel through the story. So, in all fairness, the feature film is indeed a magnificent medium. In fact, philosopher Colin McGinn draws a comparison to the dreaming state of mind and the experience of viewing a film. He goes so far as to note the length of most feature films parallels roughly the amount of time the human mind spends in the dream state during the sleep cycle. So maybe we’re sort of hard-wired for the feature film. (see The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, by McGinn)

The Short End of Things

So now that we’ve validated why we have a feature film fixation . . . what about short films? I thought that in the age of viral videos we were supposed to be getting more and more acclimated to shorter content. Well, we are. And we aren’t. Short content for a funny video you e-mail to all your friends, that’s pure gold. Like the one where the kid’s running around the basketball court and the basketball player throws the ball . . . anyway.

A short film that explores the broken lives of characters, or contains a narrative structure more akin to the feature film, only in a shorter package . . . well, we’re not all going hog wild over those are we? How many of the short films nominated for Oscars this year did you see? Most of the general public probably has no idea that iTunes actually carries most of those short films. You can buy them all for less than what you’d spend on a DVD box set of the latest season of you favorite TV show.

Or for that matter, have you seen “Validation?” This might be the best short film I’ve ever seen! I’d seen it at Heartland Film Festival a while back where it made quite an impression on me. I was excited to see it again in February at the Dam Short Film Festival, where it was screened with three other films all made by Kurt Kuenne that mesh into an amazing collection that tell a broader story. It was an honor to realize one of my short films had made it into a festival where “Validation” had won best comedy the previous year. Let’s take a moment right now to pause and simply observe a great short film in action!

What do you think?

Now back to the discussion at hand. Think of the above quote by Michael Rabiger. Maybe the issue is that like short stories and poetry, short films just can’t seem to find quite as broad of an audience. Maybe short films are viewed as only relevant to students and academics (film intellectuals, if you will). Just like poetry and short stories find more validation in the college literature class, so maybe short films are seen as something relegated to such realms.

Unfortunately, that’s not why most filmmakers make short films. The fact that there are whole film festivals and distribution avenues dedicated exclusively to short films demonstrates that there is more to the appreciation of the short film medium than some obscure class in your college catalogue. The challenge is in coming to understand the medium. Only with understanding can we begin to appreciate. One cannot expect to have the same exact experience with a short film as one might with a feature film. There is an inherent difference in how information can be presented in a short film, and how much time one can be spent presenting that information. Beyond that, most short films are not made with big budgets. Thus, the limitations the filmmakers face are very different from those of the studio feature films we may have grown accustomed to. Ironically, these limitations can lend themselves to a level of brevity and wit that is sadly quite rare in Hollywood feature films.

So a different set of expectations applies, it seems to me. If we become accustomed to these expectations, we are better equipped to appreciate short films, and even loose ourselves in the experience they offer. The best way seems to be regular exposure to the medium (so now you see what I took the time to share a short film I love with you).

Why So Short?

So why make short films? I’ve addressed the question on this blog before. But I feel it deserves more attentions still. In his book, Michael Rabiger suggest that, “For beginners it is essential to work in short form because it is inexpensive and places high demand on control of craft and storytelling essentials (pg 211).” I’ll just point out how interesting it is that he uses the word “essential” and move on.

In the quote I used earlier from Rabiger, he likened short films to short stories and poetry. The very brevity of the short film, as in those shorter literary mediums, means one has to grasp storytelling and characterizing quite well to effectively tell a story in a brief span of time. This is a profoundly important exercise for the creative muscles of the storyteller. Honestly, if you think about it, feature films are still quite limited in the amount of information they are able to present when compared to a novel. It seems that the ability to quickly convey information in key to the filmmaker working with any length of project.

In fact, if Rabiger is right, and the short film is closer in nature to poetry, than the feature film is close in nature to the short story. Think about it. What was the last novel you saw transformed into a feature film? I you were a fan of the book, I’m sure you can list off the characters that were cut from the story, the scenes left out, whole chunks of back story compressed to quick dialogue exchanged between characters . . . whole ideas that never made it into the film. Why is that? Well, the simple fact of the matter is that if you take any regular novel and try to simply film it from the page . . . you won’t be making a feature film . . . you’ll be making something more along the lines of a TV series. Something that will have a total running time of 20 to 100 hours depending on the length of the novel.

And that’s not even taking into account the differences in the mediums. What might be a good read as a novel might be a terrible watch as a film. A movie is first and foremost an experience. If a novel is purely cognitive in nature—maybe it is comprised mostly of thoughtful introspection by an interesting character—there’s little chance it will make a very good film. We call the medium motion picture for a reason.

Thus, with all of this in mind, I’ve come to the conclusion that a great feature film has much more in common with the short story than the novel. Great short stories are focused and precise in delivery. In the same way, a great feature film packs in quite a bit of story in two hours by being focused and precise in how it presents information.

And this precision is why I feel grasping the importance of brevity in the short film is so beneficial to the eventual feature film director. If you can tell a focused and powerful story in ten or twenty minutes, think of what you can do with two whole hours. You won’t be wasting your audience’s time. You’ll be really giving them an experience worth their hard earned money and their dwindling free time.

I also believe Rabiger makes another great suggestion that new filmmakers should follow. He encourages them to get busy making short films. Here’s why:

Think of it this way: you can make five eight-minute films for the price of one sixty-minute film. After this you will handle a long film five times as well because you have tackled five sets of demanding conceptual problems such as characterization, blocking, dramatic shape and flow, and editing. You will also have directed a host of actors and given life to a gallery of characters. (pg 211)

So while it can be exciting to think about embarking on that feature film that’s been cooking in your mind for some time now, think of what you can gain by working on some short films first. Trust me, when you do get to make that feature, it will be that much better. It really will. I’m speaking from experience here, having tried to help someone make a first feature. Sadly, this someone really should have gained much more experience first on short films before taking on a feature. A massive undertaking involving dozens of people, a good amount of money, and months of time away from other paid work doesn’t seem like the ideal time and place to try learning the fundamentals of filmmaking. So please, keep that in mind!

Most of us don’t have huge amounts of money lying around to fund a feature film project anyway. So keep in mind too that it is incredibly beneficial to create some sort of calling card, something to catch the eyes of those who can help you make a feature film, and make it the right way. But to catch their eyes, you need to show you have the chops. Rabiger puts it this way, “A superb short film is the ultimate advertisement for what you could do with a bigger canvas (pg 212).”

I think he’s got a great point here. But I want to add something to this point. Many of the short films I’ve made are stories I feel are best told as short films. I’m not so sure they’d expand into feature films quite so well. There’s something to be said about telling a concise story, and telling it well. There’s something satisfying about it. So yes, I do make short films because I hope to use that as “the ultimate advertisement” for what I hope to do with feature films. But at the same time, I don’t make just any short film. I have to first be moved and compelled by the idea for the film, the story itself. No matter how you dice it, a short film is still a hell of a lot of work. So, it better be worth it! You’d better be feeling this thing under your skin, ready to burst out. It should hopefully feel like a story you need to express somehow, so you might as well give it a means to be told, and told well.

In other words, like much in life, there are multiple levels of motivation here. But the moral of the story is: short films are a rightful medium of their own. Learning to respect and love them will open up a whole new realm of the motion picture experience. I think it is incredibly valuable to appreciate what short films have to offer that one cannot find in a feature film, both from the perspective of filmmaking and film viewing.


Eric Bumpus said...

There once was a man from L-A,
who's words brought many dismay,
"Short films suck,
you great big schmuck!
Now go make a feature today!"

And now, this man goes backstage,
as words from another assuage.
"Aren't sitcoms short,
you big, fat dolt!
Now go make your minimum wage."

The crowd cheered at the first man's whiff,
as they named this new guy, "Biff,
the Feature Film Slay-"
Er- I mean "Shea,
the Short Film's LeBoeuf"

Eric Bumpus said...
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