Free Film School #60: Salute Your Shorts

Professor Witney Seibold reveals the history of short films, presents some of the best ever made and challenges you to make your own.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold


To date, in the Free Film School here on CraveOnline (a school which is 27 times better than USC, according to the Bureau of Totally Believable Statistics), we have been discussing film theory, the technicals of film, the aesthetics of film, several subgenres of film, and several important filmmakers. But each of these has, in a very general way, dealt with only feature-length motion pictures, and the makers of films that are anywhere from 65 to 200 minutes in length. There is a kind of general understanding of what I mean by “feature length,” and what a “feature film” is. Indeed, when people refer to “film,” they generally mean “feature film.”

Why use the word “feature” at all? Well, it’s to differentiate them from a huge and vast world of movies that we haven’t yet talked about in the Free Film School, and, oddly, rarely get a theatrical release. These films have two categories at the Academy Awards, and the Oscar-nominated films have been released in theaters following the nominations over the course of the last six years or so. I’m referring, of course, to the vast world of Short Films.

Short films, according to the rules of the Academy Award nominating committee, are, and I quote: “An original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits. This excludes from consideration such works as:1. Previews and advertising films, 2. Sequences from feature-length films such as credit sequences, 3. Unaired episodes of established TV series, 4. Unsold TV series pilots.”

That’s it. Less than 40 minutes. Most feature films in the modern era run about 100 minutes average, although back in the 1930s, average film runtimes were closer to 70.

Our modern understanding of most movies has us automatically accepting a certain kind of pacing. We expect a three-act structure, we expect certain dramatic beats. Indeed, many screenwriting textbooks will instruct – nay, demand – that certain plot points occur on very specific pages of your screenplay. And while there are near-infinite stories that can be told within this kind of feature structure (a structure which will eventually be covered in a Free Film School lecture on screenwriting), it can feel awfully limiting at times. How many times can you see a stricken protagonist at their lowest point right at the end of Act II just to have a triumphant comeback in Act III? If you’re savvy enough to the structure of a typical feature, the film becomes a mere structural exercise.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to look at the structure of a short film, and discuss the aesthetics and the function of a film that runs less than 40 minutes. I feel a bit churlish bring up this topic, as I’m sure many of you have short films already available for viewing on YouTube. Indeed, thanks to the new ubiquity of easy-to-use editing technology, the production of short films has increased to a level previously unseen in the history of cinema. Short films are constantly fighting to make their way into theaters, but in terms of pure content, short films are now the dominant form of the age.

Indeed, I’m surprised big studios haven’t embraced the form more readily. How exciting, for example, to have a short film, made by a notable filmmaker, preceding your favorite blockbuster. On The B-Movies Podcast, and in B-Movies Extended, both William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I have openly advocated the return of short serials to precede movies. Consider the superhero subgenre. A studio may be willing to dump hundreds of millions of dollars into a surefire blockbuster like The Avengers, but may not be willing to give so much money to a lesser-known hero like, say, Iron Fist. Why not, then, make five short films to feature the character, each ending in a classical cliffhanger, to precede the next spate of superhero movies?

What do I mean by “classical cliffhanger?” Well, let me explain how moviegoing used to work. Decades ago, movie theaters would open their doors in the morning, run movies all day without a break, and then only shut down their projectors when they closed at night. Showtimes would not be advertised in papers, and you would enter and leave whenever you liked. Typically, the theater would show a main feature film, called the “A” feature, and then numerous previews for coming attractions that would trail it (hence the nickname “trailers”). There would be a news reel (this was in the days before television, so people would only get news from papers and from cinematic news reels), and then a serialized short. Then there would be a low-budget genre film later on, the “B” feature. That’s where we get the term “B-Movies” from.  The serialized short film would often be about 10 minutes long, and would often be a soap opera or an adventure story that progressed a larger plot, but would invariably end with the heroes in some sort of immediate peril. I don’t know what specific film the term “cliffhanger” originally was attached to, but I imagine there was a film wherein our hero was left hanging off the edge of a cliff, only to be rescued in the following chapter. Cliffhanger. Still used today.

Indeed, back in the 1930s and ‘40s, these serials were as ubiquitous as feature films. However, since they were often produced on the cheap, and didn’t necessarily have studio backing (a lot of low-budget films and shorts in the day were shopped directly to the theater managers), many of them are lost today. You can still find many silent comedy shorts or adventure serials, but they’re either made by notable filmmakers (Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd come to mind in this regard), or have some sort of current cultural cache (Captain America serials are available, as are the slapstick shorts of the Keystone cops, made by Keystone Studios). It’s also a sad fact that these serialized cheapies are, very generally speaking, not very good. There is a now-infamous adventure serial in the world called Radar Men from the Moon, which my generation only knows because of their presence on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (a program that openly mocked bad movies, for you three not in the loop).

The old programs from the ‘30s and ‘40s also gave rise to the animated short. Animation was, and is, a very painstaking process, and it can take years to complete a single animated feature film. The short form, however, allowed for short songs, short stories, or mere gag reels to be produced quickly by newly-formed animation studios. It was during this period that the Warner Bros. animation studio came into being, and some of the best animated films ever made were produced. I would go into more detail about the Warner Bros. canon, but there’s not enough space here. I assure you, a future Free Film School will discuss Bugs Bunny, Bob Clampett, Mel Blanc, Chuck Jones, Carl Stalling, and all the other brilliant luminaries who made those animated films. I’ll say this for now: Watch Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck. You’ll laugh your face off.

This is also the time when Walt Disney began cutting his teeth, and the bulk of the Disney output for decades was short films to feature their now iconic Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck characters. Disney was responsible for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, often considered the first American animated feature film, but, when it came to shorts, they were just a big studio swimming in the same waters with other luminaries like Windsor McCay and Ub Iwerks.

The advantage of making a short animated film over a feature one was, clearly, a matter of budget first. It was easier to churn out a series of single seven-minute-long short films than it was a whole feature. The studio could release them quickly and frequently, and they maintained a voice in the marketplace.

But, and perhaps more importantly, the short film form gave filmmakers much more leeway for experimentation. If they didn’t need to fulfill a 90-minute requirement, and the budget was much lower because of the short running time, fewer resources were needed, and there was going to be less scrutiny. Indeed, making a short film was cheap enough that just about anyone could buy a camera and a reel of film stock and have a go. This made for much more creative freedom for the filmmaker. They didn’t have to make bland romantic comedy features that they could sell. They could make what they wanted first, and worry about finding an audience second. The animated films, then, featured new characters that might or might not have caught on (look to Oswald the Rabbit sometime), and could produce any number of totally bizarre short films.

If you are an aspiring animator, you probably know about Spike & Mike, a pair of animation producers who gleefully sought oddball new cartoons for years. Buy one of their DVDs sometime, and roll around in the disgust.

Live-action filmmakers could, as well, conduct all manner of bizarre aesthetic experiments with their films. One of the most famous of all short films was, essentially, an experimental film with no real narrative, no characters, and only a string on bizarre visuals that are still striking and shocking today. 1929 saw the release of Un Chien Andalou, directed by filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and famed surrealist Salvador Dalí. To describe the film would be only to give a litany of events that occur in it. I have a theory that the film is about sexual hysteria, but really it could be about anything. Un Chien Andalou (literally: An Andalusian Dog) caused a scandal when it was released, and there is a famous story about how the filmmakers went to the premiere with stones in their pockets in the fear (hope?) that audiences would riot.

Indeed, the short film was the best venue to explore dream-like vistas, and tinker with the film form. It was the best place to be surreal. Over the years, many famous filmmakers cut their teeth, or flexed their aesthetic muscles, with surrealist short films. Briefly, here are some names to know:

Maya Deren famously took the camera to new aesthetic places, shoving movies into the same realm as other arts, making sure that something unique could be made with motion picture cameras. She operated in the 1940s, when Bohemian art scenes were still in vogue. Watch her film At Land.

Kenneth Anger famously promoted the queer viewpoint during a time when the queer viewpoint was not typically represented in mainstream films, and many people cite him as having invented the music video. If you can find a video of his film Scorpio Rising, watch that. His 1947 film Fireworks is available online. 

The master behind the great film Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, is known for a 30-minute film called Night & Fog which was released by The Criterion Collection, and you can watch right now.

If there had been no George and Mike Kuchar, there would have been no John Waters. The Kuchars took the short film form and exploded it into colorful campy orgies of weirdness that all fans of cinema should see. I recommend Hold Me While I’m Naked.

One of the more famous short films, often mentioned in film school lectures, is La Jetée, a 1963 film made by the recently passed Chris Marker. La Jetée is notable as it featured only one moving image, and managed to tell a story with only stills and a narration. The story is about a time traveler who must travel to the past to stop a plague from destroying the world. It’s powerful stuff. The film inspired a 1996 feature film called 12 Monkeys.

Each of these filmmakers deserves a lecture unto themselves, of course, so consider this an introduction to each.

In the early days of cinema, shorts were pretty much all that were produced, and experimentations were necessary, as there was no standard yet. Look over my lecture on Georges Méliès, and you’ll see that he was a maker of short films as well. Perhaps the granddaddy of the all. Have you watched A Trip to the Moon  yet? And why not? Yes, in this case, I’m shaming you a bit. I apologize.

Most great filmmakers, at least those of the Film School Generation (that is, the first generation to go to film school in the 1960s) began their careers making short films at school. Many notable names have been behind some of their own oddball experiments. Every Star Wars fan, for instance, has likely heard of a short film called THX-1138, which George Lucas made in school, and eventually expanded into a feature film. David Lynch would start his career at art school, making filmic experiments. His short film The Grandmother  is a great little nightmarish curio that presaged Eraserhead by a several years. Look back over the careers of any filmmaker born in the 1940s and 1950s, and they will likely have a short film or two lurking in their past.

Short films offer vital aesthetic and technical practice for any filmmaker. If you have ambitions for filmmaking, don’t jump straight into features. Make a few shorts first. Get a feel for how a camera works, of how directing works, of how pacing works. A film can, it turns out, be a mere scene. You don’t have to bound out of the gate with Citizen Kane; there was only one Orson Welles. Don’t be the next Orson Welles. Don’t be the next anybody. Be the first you. Don’t make a movie that looks like someone else’s movie. Make the movie that you would want to see.

There has been some controversy on how to make a short film in recent years. There has been a rise of documentary shorts, and those, like documentary features, can be about anything. But narrative shorts have, as I have heard some of my filmmaking peers, entered into a sticky place. The Academy Award-nominated short films are being released in theaters, and you may notice a pattern: Most shorts, say the complainers, play like spoken jokes. There’s a setup, an inquiry, and a punchline. And while a little joke can make a fine short film, many young filmmakers feel hamstrung, once again, by the strictures of structure. There’s no way, I have heard it said, to tell a story in seven minutes anymore. Not an original way, anyway. I would say there are plenty of great short films yet to be made. My advice is simply to make them.

And that’s where the glory of short films really lies: You can indeed simply make them. Their length, it turns out, is a virtue unto itself. You need no big budgets or studio clout to make a short film. Make one. Put it on YouTube. Heck, that’s where all the links in this lecture lead. Go for it. Try stuff out. Experiment. Find a voice. You don’t need to make long, ponderous stories that look like other movies. You can make whatever you like, and, given you have only seven minutes, it’s easy. Heck, even I made a short film in college. No, you can’t see it. But once you’ve made your film and found your voice, maybe then you can move to features. Maybe not. But you’ll have a creative output. You could be the next George Kuchar.

To go out, let me point you to one of the cheapest animated films in history, Marv Newland’s 1969 epic Bambi Meets Godzilla. The film is 9 seconds long. It looks like it was completed over two or three lazy Sundays. And yet, it is one of the funniest and most notorious animated shorts of all. 


Homework for the Week:

Watch all the shorts linked to in this lecture. Well, as many as you can, anyway.  How does the short form hold an advantage over the long form? What does the length say about a film? What can you do with short films that you can’t do with long-form films? How about vice versa? Have you ever made a short film? If it’s online, share it below. I’d love to see it. Do you think short films should be brought back to cinemas? Why or why not? How do serials work? Is it a good way to tell a story? And, just for fun, what’s your favorite Warner Bros. cartoon short? I like Drip-Along Daffy.