Technology and versatility contribute to big booms in short filmmaking


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By Kris Kerzman, The Arts Partnership

(Blogpost originally appeared in ARTSpulse)

A couple weeks ago, in the lead-up to the Academy Awards, NPR’s Neda Ulaby had this story about the rising popularity of short films and their increased visibility due to distribution channels like iTunes and Amazon. Further, big-time creators like Disney are using short films to explore (and promote) their fictional universes/franchises.

The rise in short film can easily be seen on a smaller scale and closer to home, too, where video platforms like YouTube and Vimeo make creating and sharing short film easy and inexpensive. Recently, the Fargo Film Festival held another highly popular two-minute movie contest, and Plains Art Museum is hosting an exhibition of the One-Minute Film Festival, a popular event that eventually made the leap to the MassMoCA in Boston. In addition, the museum is hosting its own one-minute film contest, “Fargo in 60 Seconds.” Short film, it would appear, is having a moment.

To get some reaction to this growth of short film, we looked to two participants in the “Fargo in 60 Seconds” contest: Fergus Falls-based filmmaker and artist Deb Wallwork and Los Angeles-based filmmaker Rita Baghdadi.

What do you find appealing about the short film format?

Wallwork: Short films are fun. You can convey a lot of information in bite-sized portions. If a picture is worth 1000 words, a short film must be worth 10,000 words. The best short films are like poems, they use metaphor and more impressionistic sketches to operate on several levels. A short film keeps you on your toes because you’ve got to convey a lot in a small space. I’m best known for hour-long programs, and once when I was recommended for an assignment, the argument was made that I didn’t have the right instincts. In fact, if you can know how to make a good longer film, you can figure out how to fit it into whatever time box you have to work with. And the converse is also true. Starting out making a short film will give you a lot of the tools to work in a longer format.

Baghdadi: What I like about the short format is that it doesn’t leave room for unnecessary details. You have to get right to the point. As a storyteller, this is an appealing challenge. Shorts are also a great way to explore an idea or character before committing to an expensive feature. It’s not as daunting to embark on a short project. I make documentaries and it often takes years to finish one feature whereas I’ve shot short docs in just five days. Of course it depends on the subject, but short films can be just as effective as features.

What advantages do online platforms (like YouTube and Vimeo) give you as a short filmmaker?

Baghdadi: Views and likes are currency these days. Online platforms like YouTube and Vimeo level the playing field by giving short filmmakers a chance to get eyeballs on their project. It’s also a great way to make a name for yourself if you’re just starting out.

Wallwork: New media are wonderful for reaching the circles of people that are your friends or the friends of your friends, and sometimes beyond. Not everyone can make a screening, and the online venues bring the screenings to you. On the other hand, it’s like a thrift shop. You’ve really got to hunt to find the gems.

As an audience member, what do you like about short films?

Baghdadi: I like watching short films for the same reason I like making them. If done well, they’re succinct and compelling in the most necessary of ways. It’s amazing how three minutes can feel too long for one story while 45 minutes just isn’t enough for another. I like the uniqueness of each short. They might not follow a three-act structure like a lot of features do so the outcome is often unexpected.

Wallwork: Short films satisfy our modern short attention spans. It’s like the weather here on the Plains, if you don’t like it, just wait ten minutes and it’ll be different. With all the new platforms, phones, computers, social media, short films are hot, because they fit the gaps in our day, the coffee breaks, waiting for a bus, all the in-between moments.

What advice would you give someone who is intrigued with making short films?

Wallwork: I would say to an aspiring filmmaker that it’s best to get your elevator speech in your head, know what your core story is before you shoot. Otherwise you end up wading through tons of footage and hard decisions that don’t contribute to the process. If the subject is really broad, take one angle and explore that. A short film takes almost as much material as a longer film, you just have fiercer about how you cut it. In “Waterlilies,” I wanted to make a film that captured the joy and freedom of swimming in a body of water that is wild, that is real. Unlike a longer film, I didn’t try to explicate what had actually motivated me to make the film, the fact that I see fewer and fewer people going into the water; that we put screens and motorized vehicles and the fear of being exposed in a bathing suit between us and what is a such a tremendous source of wonder and pleasure. The short film doesn’t need to say all that, it just gives you the experience, and lets that speak.

Baghdadi: My advice is to get your hands dirty! Go out and make something. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. In fact, I encourage you to break all the rules! To quote Salvador Dali, “have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”

Image: a screen grab from “Waterlilies,” a short film by Deb Wallwork; click the link to view.

Video embed: Endless Eye | Documentary Reel 2013 from Rita Baghdadi on Vimeo.

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