Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), an innovative 12 minute Western shot in New Jersey, changed the face of cinema. Recognized for it’s cross cut editing, tracking shots, on location filming, and dramatic use of a close-up, it shattered the mold of early filmmaking. Through its use of a strong narrative to relay not just recorded motion, nature scenes, or simple gags, it told an actual story. Shooting 14 scenes, Edwin S. Porter ended his film with the close-up of a bandit shooting his pistol at the camera lens. Imagine that 30 feet high. It caused a sensation. In short, it was a blockbuster on the exhibition circuit. No longer were audiences dazzled by static footage of waterfalls and oceans. They wanted stories in those cranked nickelodeons. They wanted characters. They wanted the movie experience.
Not bad for a 12 minute short.
Owen and Luke Wilson in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket.
Okay, but what’s the point of making a short in a feature based industry? That might have been a valid question prior to digital streaming but not anymore. There’s an audience eager to consume short films and distribution nets all too happy to feed them. But really, what’s the point? If you want to be viewed as a “real” filmmaker, don’t you have to shoot a feature? Let’s remember that Hollywood was built on shorts not features. One and two reelers featuring stories, gags, and a bevy of talented artists created a cultural dynamo. Creatively there’s a benefit to making shorts, a freedom that features rarely exhibit. Shorts might employ a narrative three act structure or they might be something else, a concept piece, a tone poem, a character study that floats through the mind like a dream. Shorts allow filmmakers a chance to explore the cinematic language.
Peluca by Jared Hess.
Forget the idea of shooting a mini-feature in five minutes. It’s not going to happen but smaller budgets can be a godsend. They inspire innovation and imagination. They force you to create on the fly. Nearly every noted director, actor, writer, and producer has had a hand in making shorts. Flexing their creative muscles, they produced touching, unforgettable characters. They emotionally engaged the audience while discovering their own cinematic vision. Don’t get me wrong, not every short is a gem. And just like features, there’s a tsunami of clunkers out there, amateur bombs, one note gags, and technical blunders. However the short form itself remains vital. In the hands of a passionate artist, the short form is a profound and compelling canvas. There’s a reason Oscars are awarded for both narrative and documentary shorts. There’s a reason film festivals around the world exhibit and honor the form. What’s a smart phone if not a digital nickelodeon in your pocket? What’s Youtube and Vimeo if not a drive-in?