Filmmaking is full of traditions. These traditions are the "way things are done," they are what is "expected," they are "industry standard," they are "default" and "accepted." This is all fine and dandy until we recognise the innate implication of such Traditions is to imply Right and Wrong - that there is a correct way to do things and deviations are "incorrect," not "acceptable" or, worse still, not "professional."
These traditions manifest themselves in all manner of guises - creative, technical, business, logistic. I have written previously about how the tools of filmmaking (particularly software) possess internal philosophies that enforce traditions - traditions which may or may not be a good fit for your own creative processes. In a similar light, there occurs to me to be another long-standing and entrenched tradition (one that may not be serving emerging and indie filmmakers as it should) that needs to be questioned. That is the significance of the Short Film.
There are two ways of looking at how a Short Film serves the emerging and aspiring filmmaker. The first is as a Learning Exercise, the second is as a Calling Card. The short film seeks to be a learning experience by providing a paradigm for engagement in film production within viable financial and resource constrains. Simply put, the short film allows you to gain experience without the overhead. Similarly, as a calling card the short film aims to serve as a demonstration of the filmmaker's abilities. It has the express purpose of convincing financiers and funding bodies of the filmmaker’s worthiness of trust to make a longer project. The theory is that a good short film is a large flag to wave in the air saying “this is what I can do in 10 minutes of screen time and no money, just imagine what I could do with 100 minutes and a ton of cash!”
Learning Experience and Calling Card. This is what short films are for.... and at the start of the second decade of the 21st century, the short film fails pretty dismally at both.
The short film fails as a Learning Exercise because making a short film only really teaches you about making short films. The relevance of short film structures, patterns and conventions to feature and long-form drama are tenuous at best. A perusal of the award winning shorts from major festivals around the world in any given recent year will prove this point. Interesting, poetic, introspective, technically accomplished they may all be, but their connection aesthetically or narratively to longer forms is decidedly absent. And this is only right and proper. A good short Should Not be simply a feature film shoved into a small space. That's a recipe for disaster. Slice-of-life, the punch-line joke and the microcosm observation are perfectly fitting structures for short films but they almost never work viably outside of the short-film format.
Whilst you personally may gain experience working with a crew, cast and technology, you wont be exercising, testing or tangibly expanding your understanding of those elements of story, character, theme, myth and metaphor that the short film - simply by its duration - does not wholly embody. Moreover, since there is no effective business model for short films - no audience and no market outside of self-indulgent short-film festivals populated almost entirely of other aspiring filmmakers - making a short film crucially doesn't teach you about Audiences. Your short won't prompt you to ask who your audience is, what they expect, what they want, how they engage, what excites and challenges them, how they will respond, what feeling-states they are seeking?
The deeper irony is that film schools the world over make short films as the fundamental learning experience and yet spend near 100% of their class time discussing and analysing Feature films. This approach seems to me much like going to culinary school, studying week after week how to make 3-course fine dining and then having to make a sandwich as a final project. A great sandwich is no doubt a work of art but it really proves nothing about competence in 3-course gastronomy.
I should point out here, for the record, that a large part of my own career is based in film schools and universities. I am, above all else, a teacher and I believe passionately in what Film School offers. If I want to build bridges I have to study bridge building. If I want to build films I have study cinema. Film School is a powerful means to do that.
BUT.... And there are two Big BUTS.... First, not all film schools are "good" and second is that to become "good" film schools need to be consistently and persistently challenged to evolve and adapt and live up to noble intention. So here I challenge the short film paradigm film school is predicated upon as a learning experience. ((If you want to read more on my thoughts on film school you may want to check out some of the articles I have written on this topic: Leading or Following - Reconsidering Film School, Holistic Thinking - Integrated Making: a manifesto, Filmschool Technology, and Film education and the culture of editors.))
There is an assumption I'm making with this argument against the viability and usefulness of the short film as a learning tool that should be pointed out. The assumption is that the intention of a short is to learn about, and prove competence in, making other longer forms of cinema (TV drama and features). It’s possible this isn't the case for everyone. There may be limited opportunity for a financial career in it but you may be very happy making short films as a primary mode of artistic expression. Or else we may look to advertising which certainly thrives on short-form narrative. But if you dared to show your 10 minute dramatic short to an advertising company they’d laugh you out of the room - tell your story in 26 seconds or forget about it, mate! So here again, even in the microcosm of advertising, making short narrative films really doesn't help you learn what you need to know.
This brings us to the other side of the coin; the short film as career Calling Card.
No matter how cool your short film is, it will largely fail to serve you if your intention is to make bigger, longer dramatic works. Short films fail because they do not demonstrate the crucial things that fill financiers with confidence. A short film, regardless of how "good" it is, can’t effectively demonstrate you can sustain character arcs and it doesn't show you understand narrative structure. A short film doesn't prove you know how to develop story over time or construct consistent dramatic tension and release. A short film doesn’t demonstrate you understand audiences and genre and know how to attract an audience. Without these things there is no real evidence you could effectively make an viable feature or long-form drama.
Since the birth of modern film-schools (and the self-taught DIY culture of indie filmmakers that grew up very much in parallel to them) the traditional established, accepted and entrenched process for emerging filmmakers was to make a Short as a calling card to validate your abilities to make a Feature or TV drama. It worked. For many years it worked. But its viability is wearing off. In 2010 the viable currency of the short film is dying. Either as Learning Experience or Calling Card the Short Film fails to satisfy.
Of course, this begs the question... Is there something better?
What’s an indie filmmaker to do? Lacking, as they do, time and resources to make a feature or a TV pilot? The answer is, and should be, staring us all in the face - the Web series.
I would contest that the emerging filmmaker learning experience and calling card of the future (if not the now) is the Webisodic Drama. Where producers, financiers, funding bodies may currently ask to see your short and what festivals it’s been in, they will soon (and already are) asking “Where’s your webseries site and how much traffic do you get?”
The advantages of the web series as both Learning Tool and Calling Card for emerging filmmakers are myriad and obvious.
- The web series is resource-viable. It arguably takes no more money, technology or logistics to make an episodic online series than it does to make a short film.
- The web series can freely and easilly find a far larger international audience than a short film on the festival circuit ever could. In doing so the web series both teaches and proves audience engagement and the ability of the filmmaker to create for, gather, keep and motivate viewers.
- The web series can viably demonstrate the filmmmaker understands Character Arc and Story Structure. Whilst webisodes are generally short, the nature of their construct, spacing and structure connects very well to both feature film narrative turning points and long-form drama act-breaks, episodes and seasons. The web series may be small scale but the core structure is tangibly applicable and demonstrable, unlike most short films which (like a sandwich to a 3 course dinner) offer little direct overlap.
- The web series is innately a 360 approach where social-media and online ecologies are part and parcel of what a web series is. Where short and feature film projects the world over are being asked to add-on 360 elements (websites, trailers, games etc), the web series is integrated tightly to this model from the get-go.
Whether you are a film school student trying to work out what to make as a major project or a DIY indie looking for a project to launch yourself, the objectives are the same - to learn by experience and to build for yourself a kind of cinematic Proof of Age Card. It’s here that I feel eternally frustrated seeing talented aspiring filmmakers pouring huge amounts of effort and resources into glossy, story-less, low-stakes, short films with theatrical prints for self-indulgent film festivals that nobody watches. As with many long-entrenched elements of filmmaking, the tradition of the short film needs to be let go of and seen as the antiquated anomaly it is; a tool of a bygone era. A good short film can be great work of art but emerging and aspiring filmmakers need much more than a short work of art to build a career. The short-format, online, episodic webseries is the most dynamic, audience-driven, self-publicising, learning vehicle indie filmmakers (in film school or not) have ever had access to.
I suspect I'm preaching to the converted in this forum, or perhaps helping push forward those who were sitting the fence with niggling doubts, but my bigger objective is to change the culture of film schools. I look forward to the day when at the end of a semester major film schools across the world are pushing the go-live button on dynamic, dramatic, narrative structured, engaging, audience driven, genre inspired, socially networked, episodic cliff-hanging drama series... Rather than sending a collection of tapes and film-reels off in the mail to festivals no one will see or care about.
Time to forge a new tradition and file the old short-film one in the attic.
Mike Jones (@mikejonesnet) has diverse backgrounds in screen production, post-production and writing. Along with serving as script editor and screenwriter he has penned more than 200 essays, articles, and reviews on the screen-media industries along with three books for students of screen media. When he’s not teaching or writing about cinema he is playing computer games and is Lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School.