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Sundance 2013: How They Did It — Shorts Directors on Landing Competition Slots

Sundance 2013: How They Did It -- Shorts Directors on Landing Competition Slots

The five dramatic shorts comprising “Shorts Program I” screened in Park City to a full house on opening night of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Thursday, Jan. 17. Indiewire came in from the cold to the Egyptian Theatre’s attic, which doubles as a green room, to hit up these filmmakers for their insights on how to land one of the festival’s coveted 65 slots (selected from 8,102 short-film submissions). Here are tips from them and other shorts filmmakers in this year’s program about financing a short, overcoming production obstacles and screening at festivals with an eye toward distribution and subsequent projects.

1. Raise Funding by Any Means Necessary

Michelle Morgan, a screenwriter making her directorial debut with “K.I.T.,” says she had expected to be able to produce her short for $500. The rude awakening of the actual price tag drove her and her producer Lauren Schnipper to crowd-funding platform Kickstarter with the goal of raising $5,000. For Kickstarter pitches, “a lot of people make videos, which confuses me, because they spend money [they don’t have] to make the video,” Morgan says. So instead, she threw together a shoebox diorama for her Kickstarter appeal.

“I felt incredibly awkward and tacky asking for money from people, so I just wanted to do it as quickly as possible and be done with it,” Morgan says. The pressure of knowing they would get none of the Kickstarter funds if they fell short instilled the director and her team with an effective desperation. They beat the goal — by $32 — using whatever tactics would get them there: Two-thirds of the funds came from Morgan’s network, but to get across the finish line, “We blackmailed some people,” Morgan admits.

2. Incorporate the Low Budget into the Aesthetic

Robert Machoian shot a series of 18 one-to-four-minute shorts on his iPhone, casting family and friends in the main roles. “Movies Made from Home #6” and “Movies Made from Home #15” are playing at this year’s festival. Like the rest of the series, they are an attemptto “break down the technological parts of the filmmaking process and focus a little bit more on the story elements,” Machoian says.

His minimalist aesthetic and low-resolution hand-held phone camera provide an opening for narrative subtitles to dominate the storytelling. “What if we use subtitles as actually a medium form rather than as a way of translating the dialogue to just me, the viewer?”the director says he wondered. For instance, “Movies Made from Home #6” is a single, four-minute shot from a stationary camera with minimal panning. We see and hear kids playing hide-and-go-seek in a field, but the subtitles subvert the playful tone with an ominous explanation for why one of them is impossible to find.

Machoian’s biggest technical challenge was increasing the resolution from 960 pixels to 2,000 pixels for screening at Sundance. His solution was to “up-res” in Final Cut. The result works on the big screen for four minutes at a time, but it’s hard to imagine sitting through an iPhone feature film.

Movies Made from Home #6” is among the 12 shorts that were posted at the beginning of the festival to Sundance’s Screening Room YouTube channel. By Saturday morning, it had 23,702 views. (The most-viewed film in the Screening Room, “Catnip: Egress to Oblivion,” skewers drug PSAs with its warning against catnip use by housecats; it had 54,098 views.) You can check out the one-minute “Movies Made from Home #5” on Vimeo.

3. Economize on Locations

Michelle Morgan’s “K.I.T.” stands for “Keep in touch.” The short is about Michelle, a yuppie who learns that the geeky clerk that has been checking her out of the grocery store cheerily for the last few years is quitting. To prove to herself that she is a good person, Michelle resolves — and promises — to keep in touch with the clerk. Morgan’s original vision for the 17-minute film was flush with locations. Keeping within budget meant cutting several from the script, at Schnipper’s prodding. “She brought me back down to reality,” Morgan said.

The director used her boyfriend’s home for residential interiors and its patio for a cafe exterior (“We planned it on a weekend when he was out of town,” Morgan says), and she switched from a “corporate” grocery store to “a weird hippie shop” that didn’t mind the camera and crew, Schnipper says. “We had to pay them a little bit, but not much,” she adds. The result was an economical three-and-a-half-day shoot and a short film that was not location-constrained.(“K.I.T.” also saved bucks on post-production by using a friend’s access to a studio stage for sound mixing. “We mixed on a giant Universal stage where they mix up action movies!” Schnipper recalls.)

Sophie Goyette took ambitious locations on a budget to another level altogether with “Le Future Proche” (“The Near Future”), an 18-minute narrative, self-financed on a budget of several thousand dollars, about a pilot who gets devastating news one morning but finds serenity in the sky for the rest of the day. Goyette — who suffers from a fear of heights — spent eight months in pre-production for a one-day shoot in Canada full of aerial shots from helicopters and planes.

Goyette used different cinematographers for the aerial and terrestrial shots and had only a week to coordinate between them. From 1000 to 2000 feet, Goyette found a beautiful scale to capture residential neighborhoods, a mine, even fireworks. The fireworks were “exactly the shot that I wanted, but I had to do circles for 20 minutes in an area that we weren’t really supposed to” be in, she recalls. But some production expenses you just can’t skimp on. “I wanted a real pilot because I wanted to go into the sky and not die,” she says.

4. Use a Short to Lure Cast to a Feature-Length Version

As it is for many filmmakers, Damien Chazelle’s short is a calling card aimed at attracting backing for a feature-length version of the story. Chazelle, who is making his first trip to Sundance with “Whiplash,” first wrote a feature-length script about an aspiring drummer looking to make it in the fiercely competitive world of elite jazz orchestras. He then adapted a portion of it into the 18-minute short screening here. “The idea for this was not just to pull a scene but to rejigger it a little bit so it would stand on its own,” Chazelle says. He signed on Jason Reitman as an executive producer and secured J.K. Simmons (“Up in the Air”) to play the ruthless bandleader. “I loved working with both of them,” Chazelle says of Simmons and co-star Johnny Simmons (no relation), so he hopes to enlist them for a feature-length version of “Whiplash.”

Sundance often invites shorts filmmakers to return to the festival with features, as it did with Dee Rees’ “Pariah” in 2011 and Calvin Lee Reeder’s “The Rambler” and John Krokidas’ “Kill Your Darlings” this year. In total, festival programmers each year put together an animation shorts showcase, two documentary shorts programs and five narrative shorts rosters.

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