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SHORTS COLUMN | A Photo a Day and Then Some: An Appreciation of the Self-Portrait Short

SHORTS COLUMN | A Photo a Day and Then Some: An Appreciation of the Self-Portrait Short

Who would have thought an experimental short film could have a fan base of 5,926,124 and counting? Nearly six million clicks have propelled Noah Kalina‘s “Everyday” a.k.a. “Noah Takes a Photo of Himself Every Day for 6 Years” to become a genuine YouTube phenomenon. Countless self-obsessed photographers and irreverent parodists have surfaced in the wake of Kalina’s six-minute short and Ahree Lee‘s equally well-known “Me,” which consists of three years of self-snaps flying by in less than three minutes. But with film festival favorites such as David Birdsell‘s “Hairlady” pushing the envelope of what a self-portrait short can achieve, the question remains whether the format is merely a time-lapse novelty or a genre with unlimited artistic potential.

A photographer by trade, Noah Kalina started taking photos of himself every day beginning on January 11, 2000, just because he thought it was a good idea. Seeing Ahree Lee’s short “Me” convinced Kalina that his photo project could also become a film. Debuting on YouTube on August 27, 2006, Kalina’s film has consequently been exhibited in museums and has garnered splashy profiles in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

A professional graphic designer, Ahree Lee started taking photos of herself in November 2001, holding the flip-screen digital camera at arm’s length. Having assembled photo-centric film projects in graduate school, she decided to make a self-portrait short, using Photoshop to position each image, then animating with After Effects. Although Lee’s film played the festival circuit, it found its audience on the web. Available on since August 8, 2006, “Me” has racked up over half a million hits on Atom while an excerpt posted on YouTube has captured 3.5 million eyeballs. “Me” was also recently nominated in the experimental category for online film and video at the 11th Annual Webby Awards.

While time-lapse photography has long been a staple of experimental filmmaking, photo-a-day has become increasingly easy to achieve thanks to the proliferation of digital cameras and desktop editing systems. Like 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” which inspired innumerable short parodies, Kalina’s high-profile film has become an irresistible jumping off point for both fans and haters eager to generate their own variations on the theme. YouTube is splattered with take-offs: “Mike Takes a Photo of Himself Every Second for 28 Seconds,” “Scott Takes Picture of Himself Once a Day for Two Days,” and “Dog Takes a Photo of Himself Everyday for 1.8 Dog Years.”

One of the more interesting parodies is “Lee Takes a Photo of Himself Every Day for Three Years,” in which the subject’s face becomes abruptly disfigured at the film’s end, revealing the minute-long piece to be a message about the importance of wearing seatbelts. “Lee” heralds a significant development in the self-portrait genre: the infusion of narrative storyline. Neither “Everyday” nor “Me” was posted on the Internet when filmmaker David Birdsell began work on his photo-a-day project, “Hairlady.” Having previously made narrative live action shorts shot on 35 MM (“Blue City” and “Phil Touches Flo“) and mini-DV (“Bad Animals“), Birdsell wasn’t consciously thinking of making another short film when he started experimenting with his new digital camera. But coincidentally he was growing a beard at the time and realized watching facial hair grow might make a good time-lapse photography piece.

Unlike Kalina or Lee, for whom photographing themselves remains an ongoing project and whose current films are self-described works-in-progress, Birdsell set out to make a film, shot professionally and for a limited time. The filmmaker shaved on Day One (7/11/05) and photographed his hair growth against a precisely lit backdrop twice a day for 129 days, then edited his montage via Final Cut Pro. When strung together at 30 frames per second, the four months of hair growth takes about eight-and-a-half seconds to go from clean shaven to full hairiness.

Where the hirsute photo-a-day experiment takes a leap to the next level is when Birdsell shuffles the timeline so that his hair expands and contracts at various speeds to match the accompanying score. Then the self-portrait comes to life as the filmmaker steps out of the still photograph and participates in a time-warping live action sequence that answers the question “why are we watching someone’s hair grow?” Not to give away the plot, but there’s a reason that the eight-minute film is called “Hairlady.”

Although not yet available online, “Hairlady” is currently playing the festival circuit and can be seen at the upcoming LA Film Fest this June.

What does the future hold for the “photo-a-day” short film movement? Certainly more parodies will surface, as well as sincere “Everyday” knock-offs. But only innovation in filmmaking and storytelling techniques will make the genre grow.

Kim Adelman is the author of “The Ultimate Filmmaker’s Guide to Short Films”

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