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The Torch: In the crux: short films – what is the art in being short?

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A short film is an effort in concentration and hence, precision. Thus, above all else, it should be one thing: short. And with short I mean reduced to the utmost of clarity, a short film ought to be concise in its content, story or motif, as well as exercise a firm control over the artistic measures applied, and means of communicating visually.

thetorch2.jpgIt is a law of physical nature that with growing compression there comes an increase in density; and this should be equally so with filmmaking. To me, short films constitute not just a mere sub-genre of our movie industry, but an art form in their own right and need to be respected, honoured and understood to the fullest of their nature, in order for them to be conceived and executed with genuine mastery of skill by their makers

In a short film it is all about knowing how to be concise without simplifying a subject matter. There is neither the time nor a need for elaborate establishing shots in a short; on the other hand, it is equally crucial to avoid that perennial trap of shallow symbolism (and we have to think of this as being self-contradictory anyway) which, instead of doing the telling thing, amounts to nothing more profound than arranging icons and placing name tags. Such uninspired flatness is unpardonable, and so the task is one of preventing the opposite pitfalls of serving either too much or too little (but he who wants to prove me wrong on these counts is welcome to do so).

What, then, is the defining factor to help you come up with not just a clip but a real short film? Let’s be honest, it is of course the preferred and first stop for all film school students and first-timers of whatever age to try their hands and skills on short material, for obvious reasons. But if you are too young and inexperienced to tell great sweeping stories, this is hardly an excuse for being un-inventive. What you need to show in a mere five minutes or so is an ability to control the images you generate purposefully and with a clear goal behind them that you set yourself to achieve, and a sharply defined range of wider implications fanning out from that one nucleus you provide. Also, a sense of perspective, an awareness of your limitations, your own or those imposed on you by time or whatever outside constraints, should guide your filming. You have a frame to fill – do so from the inside and charged with the maximum strength you can muster: visually, intellectually, technically (and this is no random choice of order, please note).

Writing this I suddenly understand the following: that probably this is the beauty of making a short, that you are not restricted, free to do whatever you want without compromise or wrong demands. You have no limits other than the ones you self-impose – it is pure and therefore should be simple. These days as you find yourself no longer limited by the number of reels and film stock available, you should make it a point to voluntarily pledge yourself to the acuity of being smart – as a tribute and testimony to the art you want to become a professional of. But I digress…

Some people, when speaking to the issue of short film enthusiasm, might even go so far as to claim that one cannot call oneself a filmmaker in earnest unless having at least once tried one’s hands at making a feature, if only for the experience (or heck) of it. Well, there is a point actually, albeit one too radically put in my view. For all I know, making a film, and even more so, the making of a short film, should be an intellectual challenge to begin with – and not just an artistic endeavour, much less a mere exercise in practical training. Whether your thought process focuses on pre-production, working it out with the actors or on editing, doesn’t matter; there should be a bit of everything going into it, I assume. You are of course free to take many different approaches, obviously, and one just as viable as the other, no doubt about it; but this much is true: at whatever stage, think you must. If you’re not ready for that, then my advice would be to thoroughly reconsider your whole idea and notion about what it means to be a director in the first place before getting creatively involved in cinema or the movie industry at large.

At this point I really have to set the record straight: despite somebody’s occasional ranting or just my own reservations voiced in here at some earlier time, the montage memory piece consisting of assembled footage and a voice-over is still worth doing; but only if it is done with great care and candidness (with a vigor to match), if it is piercing and honest so that you can see the inner need behind it, then this well tested format even now holds the power to affect and will communicate an original, a daring truth to the viewer – however jaded with this kind of self-exploration and standard delivery they may have become over the years.

Back to basics: when I say a short film should be short to begin with, and stating this as a rule, the question inevitably arises as to how short is short exactly? To be specific, and to make this a qualified stipulation and not merely a random remark, let’s talk minutes here. Of course there is a whole spectrum opening up between extreme short, short short, short-ish and well-it-started-out-short pieces, and for obvious reasons I don’t want to bite into these pearls of wisdom one by one; but there needs to be a maximum, I think, an upper end to the scale. IMDb handsomely puts the mark at 45 minutes, thus classifying anything below that line as a short film by default and considering everything exceeding it as long-form or feature. Speaking from the point of view of a programmer as well as an average pleasure-seeking consumer, I definitely would have this bar lowered considerably, at least down to 30 minutes (maximum).

And even that may not be sufficient after all. There exists this kind of odd neither-nor time format of films that range from somewhere of around half an hour’s duration, up to 55 minutes, which it is quite difficult to handle. This goes for both sides, by the way, for those putting films on the screens as much as for those taking up their seats to just watch. Apart from television, this length is causing problems not only in terms of what attention span such films actually require, but also what level of concentration (for reviewing for instance) they need to be given, let alone deserve. And where putting together a programme is concerned, you will have a hard time including such pieces in your selection, if at the same time you are concerned with the rules of fairness or just keeping the balance right for your package.

If your short happens to be of medium length, you are bound to run into trouble as far as getting it screened is concerned, although there is a festival solely dedicated to showing such featurettes in Brive (France), for instance, and other opportunities elsewhere; it only affords you to make an extra effort – or shorter films!

Art is putting the formless into form, capturing the essential fullness of nature without narrowing it down, without betraying or impoverishing it in the process. And this is best achieved when going about the whole affair in the most economical manner, no frills. I am sorry to disappoint you in your insatiable hunger for revelations of the miraculous sort (if not outright sensational) but for now the epic short film must remain a chimera – and this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

But I’m digressing again – so I repeat: Shorts should be short, reduced to the max. The less filling there is in a short film, the better. The simple approach works best – a plain fact which fits many unrelated contexts as well and especially so with poetry, if I may add; in my mind at least, there is a natural connection between the two. And now I think this column really is getting too long.

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