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by Casey Cipriani
April 2, 2014 11:40 AM
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Why Make Shorts?: Filmmakers and Jurors Address the Purpose of Short Filmmaking at the Bermuda International Film Festival


Bermuda shorts aren't just brightly colored bottoms that one wears with matching knee socks. At the Bermuda International Film Festival, shorts are the highlight, and for good reason.

The winner of BIFF's short film competition is then eligible to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. In BIFF's seventeen years, two of their winners have gone on to take home Oscar: "Wasp" in 2005 and "Toyland" in 2009. Lookout for a potential 2015 Oscar nomination for this year's BIFF winner: Iraq's "Baghdad Messi."

Yet, outside of film festivals and awards season voting, short films are rarely seen by the general public here in America. Many cinephiles may nostalgically recall a time when a short film was shown prior to a feature, but those days are long gone, replaced by ever lengthening trailers that might as well be considered short films themselves. Perhaps this is because there's not much consensus on the purpose of the short film format, even among filmmakers, festival programmers or students. Some view them as merely a warm up, while others would rather they be supported for their own artistic achievements. Though infrequently seen, that doesn't diminish their ability to tell a great story, or have a big impact.

READ MORE: Stanley Kubrick's Longtime Producer Trashes 'Room 237' and Lists 'Eyes Wide Shut' As His Favorite Kubrick Film

Head juror Jan Harlan, producer of many of Stanley Kubrick's films, believes short films are still important even in today's era of modern filmmaking. He teaches a seminar on short films as a calling card. "I'm very interested in short films," said Harlan. "Most of them are pretty boring, but some you can really see there's new talent. That is most satisfying." He encourages students to use their short filmmaking opportunities to put their stamp on something in hopes of making an impression. Making a short he says, "Is a must and they know it. They know it and they're struggling. What you have to do is complete your toolbox, and there are many things that you have to totally brutally realize." Harlan, who is originally from Germany and now lives in England, has no doubt been more exposed to a culture of short films already ingrained into society.

Juror Lauren Wissot, a journalist for Filmmaker Magazine who has also programmed film festivals, pointed out that America doesn't have the same built in appreciation for short films that Europe has. She would rather that short filmmakers here embrace the medium in its own right. "I have a hard time with these calling card films here in the States designed solely to tout the director or raise money for a longer film," she said. "Too often I feel like I’m sitting through vanity projects where I’m being pitched. I like to see work that fits the format; a director telling his or her story within a certain amount of time because that’s exactly the running time needed to make a complete film."

Yulin Liu receiving her Special Jury Prize from Jan Harlan Casey Cipriani

Fellow juror film critic Peter Rainer also isn't crazy about the idea of short films essentially as a warm up to a feature. "A lot of film schools tend to promote films as resumes for studio work so then the students don't take enough chances often times," Rainer said. "If you don't take chances making your student film, when are you going to take a chance?"

Some filmmakers, whose shorts were screened at BIFF, tried to do exactly that. Michael Lukk Litwak's short film "The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger" has been described as "Blue Valentine" meets "Jurassic Park" and featured dinosaurs, submarines and space ships all on a limited budget. Though he's taking chances with content and effects, Litwak doesn't necessarily consider his film an audition piece for a feature, but rather a way to explore the kind of feature he'd ultimately want to make.

"Shorts give you a lot of time to find your voice as a filmmaker," Litwak said. "There's a lot of pressure. If you make a ten million dollar film and you mess it up, no one's ever going to give you ten million dollars ever again. Whereas if you make a short for a thousand dollars and it's a bust then it's the only thing you've lost is maybe five or ten days of time and $1,000." Rather than thinking, "This film will get me the funds to make my feature," many students would rather take their time on their shorts and sharpen their skills.

Yulin Liu, who took home a Special Jury Prize for her short "Door God," likes the idea of exploring filmmaking techniques before she has to decide on what style to ultimately use when she moves on to feature filmmaking. "You can explore yourself," she said." From making short films you can also find your own way for the future, say this is my way to tell the story."

Indeed, even veteran filmmakers see the benefit of using shorter format pieces to tighten their skills and perfect their craft. Rainer pointed out that feature film directors like Ridley Scott, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze and David Lynch have all turned to making television commercials; an unexpectedly demanding task given that one has to tell a story and make it interesting in a very short amount of time. "Many of them will tell you that this is how they hone their storytelling skills, by learning how to make every moment count," Rainer said.

Susana Casares was also awarded a Special Jury Prize for her short film "Tryouts," which won a special College Television Emmy Award in 2013. The film focuses on a Muslim teenager who wants to join her high school's cheerleading squad and depicts a moving clash of adolescent desires and religious traditions in only 14 minutes. "I think the mistake is to try and make feature films into short films instead of embracing the form of itself," Casares said. "The short format allows you to explore tone and rhythm and character and also to explore moments."

Susana Casares giving a Q&A after "Tryouts" Casey Cipriani

Casares, who hails from Spain but now lives in Los Angeles, also hopes for the opportunity for shorts to one day have their own place in American cinema, be it through web-series, short content documentaries or even putting things up on Vimeo and YouTube.  With television getting better in quality every year, and companies perpetually trying to figure out a way to monetize the web, perhaps those who excel in short filmmaking will rise in their careers without even stepping foot into feature territory.

"I think short format used to be seen as, 'What do you want to do before a feature?'" Casares said. "Now I think filmmakers, producers and distributors are embracing it as a different animal that needs its own space."


  • Catherine Stewart | April 3, 2014 4:28 PMReply

    Short films definitely have legs of their own. We run Portsmouth Short Film Night, a quarterly event where filmmakers from all over the world can submit their short films and get them seen by a live audience. It's been hugely successful - and audiences want to see shorts! But I also think they can go before features - it's not diminishing, it's just an opportunity to showcase your work, no matter what level you are at.

    Good stories come in all lengths, and I agree with others here who say that if your story is 10 minutes, tell it in 10 minutes, or 3 minutes or 9 seconds as we played at one PSFN. Let's just keep making great films, and finding places to showcase them no matter what length they are.

    More details about how to submit for free and the event itself find Portsmouth Short Film Night on Facebook and the web!

  • Bernd P | April 3, 2014 5:29 AMReply

    I agree with Jon that shorts and features are two different beasts and yes. If you have have a story for 10mins then tell it in 10mins and if you have one for 90mins then tell it in 90 mins. I've never seen my shorts as "calling cards" but rather as stories I wanted to tell. As mentioned in the main article to use shorts to show off, to copy styles or being self-indulgent is the worst thing you can do. Filmmaking should be about the story and nothing than the story - no matter how long it is. If at the end 300 people at film festival watch it. Great. If at the end millions watch it even better.

  • Jon | April 2, 2014 6:49 PMReply

    I've heard advice to the contrary from known directors, such as, "never make a film as a calling card". I think directors would know more about this than producers, regardless of what famous films they produced. Sure you can use shorts to gain experience and try out ides for yourself. Maybe they can float, maybe not.

    The reason to make a short film is to cover a subject not worthy of a feature, or to narrow down the material you have into a palatable format. Let's say you shoot a feature. There's a 99% chance that it is boring because it does not warrant the length of time you require people to sit through it. Cut it down to a short and focus on the good stuff. If the short is compelling enough and leaves you wanting more, it may make a case for a feature version. So it may be a calling card for an un-yet produced feature version, but not necessarily for the filmmaker unless it for that specific feature.

    If you make a great short and it even wills an Oscar, all that does it make you known as a great short filmmaker. It does not say you can make a great feature. But it does say you have experience.

    The value of a feature is in it's ability to take you into another world. By spending time there you become part of that world and it becomes real to you. That cannot happen in a short. These are two completely different experiences, mediums, and formats. One is not a smaller version of the other. You can spend time in a feature film where nothing much happens. But just being there sets you up for an experience that only a feature length can give you.

  • SPFXDude | April 2, 2014 2:16 PMReply

    Ok, so this is totally part of the problem. The idea of screwing up a 10 million dollar feature does not translate to a 1000 dollar short. The math is totally wrong. A properly done short will still translate into the range of 100 thousand to 200 thousand. If you are doing shorts for 1k, then you are either a student or have no idea about the business of where the threshold is.

    The reason of why the industry is struggling is just exactly because no one funds art, everyone can be a film maker without paying their dues, and every one thinks their big hit will be a huge financial success. Lets work a little bit harder and get the stardust out of the motion picture industry.

  • Jon | April 2, 2014 6:33 PM

    I don't think so. If you spend that much on a short, you must have that much to lose. Will a great short launch a career? I doubt it. When has that happened, and how rare is it? It's just as rare to make a feature for $50K and see it gross $100M plus (which has happened). In either case making a short or feature, regardless of budget, you are gambling your resources. The least you can expect is an education in filmmaking. The most you can expect is to launch a career or see profits.

  • Dudewheresmyart | April 2, 2014 4:32 PM

    SPFXDUDE : I agree. Lets get this revoloution started by you funding my art!