Thursday, March 09, 2006


Starting Small

As the democratization of film continues to expand, so too will this trend: short films which become features. It was rather novel, in 1971, when Francis Ford Coppola, and his fledgling American Zoetrope studios, provided the funds to expand the acclaimed short film THX-1138 -- which was made as a student project, at USC, by Coppola's then unknown intern, George Lucas -- into a feature. This investment by Coppola validated a budding trend in filmmaking at the time: "the student filmmaker." This new phenomenon of "student filmmakers," at the time, produced a number of short films which received industry notice. Coppola's gamble on Lucas' film (which ultimately did not pay off, financially) did pave the way for this new crop of talent. Today, the lower cost of making a film has prompted scores of amateur directors to make their own shorts. Frequent "Movies on My Mind" commentator Jon Silberg recently noted that "films are the new scripts," and I agree. You don't walk into a studio today with a script, you walk in with your short film. A number of well known features started out as shorts. Screenwriter James Dearden based the Oscar nominated Fatal Attraction screenplay on a short film he wrote and directed for British TV entitled Diversion. Bottle Rocket, the film that first teamed director Wes Anderson with the Wilson brothers (Owen and Luke), was originally a 13-minute short. Likewise, the recent hits, Napoleon Dynamite and the horror film Saw, both started life as short films. Luckily, in the age of DVD (complete with a disc of behind-the-scene extras), we can see these shorts and compare them to their feature versions.

I can't see any of my shorts becoming features - they are so specifically designed to be just that: short.

If I wanted to make a feature but found I had to shoehorn it into a brief running time, I don't know how successful I could ever be.

The feature script I am working on could never be a short as a "dry run" either. It needs to be feature length.

The trick, as far as I can see, is to tell the story in the time that story needs, no more or no less.

But then again, a short is as good a source to be adapted as any novel, stage play, old film...
The sad part for those of us not in the movie industry is that we rarely are exposed to short films. I suppose with the internet comes more access however, short films are not prominently shown to the general public. There is probably a lot of really great material out there that will never be seen.
I didn't actually mean that people are making films instead of writing scripts. I meant that films are the new scripts in that there are literally thousands and thousands of little, no-budget films that are as destined as the unsolicited script to being piled up in development offices throughout the LA area and, at best summarized and forgotten about, or at worst relegated to the dumpster when there's no more room to stack them.
As I said before, I don't really see a 'democritization' of films just because people can put moving pictures on home video recorders. It just means you can make a movie these days and achieve the same level of complete anonymity as 99.99% of those who write screenplays and novels and send them into the void.
I would like to see a "Best of Short Films" dvd boxset out there every year. Maybe they are out there?
It sounds democratic to me - even if these films are getting poured intot he void.

I made a short recently that is VERY MUCH about this idea, about how the tech of filmmaking is cheap and easy enough now that the process is as democratic as, say, the printed word. That wasn't always the case.

God bless Mr. Caxton.
I suppose it is kind of like the way that digital photography has turned everyone into a "photographer." Once great lighting, close ups, and tightly framed shots were only available to professionals. Now anyone really can make great photographs. Does that mean that each one will hang in a museum? No, but does all art have to be viewed by hundreds or thousands of people to make it good art?

If it makes someone happy to take great pictures or make great short films on their own....more power to them.
Okay, I have to ask Ohio girl: How have digital cameras altered the availability of such things as great lighting, close-ups and tightly-framed shots?
Those things were never the exclusive domain of some elite class before digital cameras existed and, even today, there is no shortage of poorly-framed, poorly lit digital pictures in the world.
Oh, come on Silberg,certainly, you remember the little Kodak instamatics that you took to the beach as a kid. You take 24 pictures and hope for 8 or 10 decent shots.

With a digital camera you get instant display. You can tell what works and doesn't work. You can zoom in and blur the edges. Stop the exposure with the "sports" setting.

When you go to the kiosk at walgreens you can crop the picture. Get rid of a stray arm in the picture or center the shot. Gee, with today's technology you can even superimpose a shot of Santa next to the family Christmas tree.

There are still bad pictures...but there are a heck of a lot more good ones!
Apples and oranges.
The digital equivelant of a pocket Instamatic--a camera with a plastic lens of fixed focal legnth and aperture--would still give you crappy pictures. You could delete the worst of the batch instead of having to print them, and you can compensate for the grossest of errors--cut off heads, etc.--while you're shooting, but the limitations of the Instamatic design would still keep you from taking particularly interesting pictures.
Long before we were kids there were cameras from Nikon and Pentax and Leica, etc. that had better optics and could render better picture quality on 35mm film than any digital camera today selling for under $1000.
All those cameras had viewfinders so you could tell what works and what doesn't work (though it might take slightly more thought because you have to freeze the image in your mind, not on an LCD screen). But with a little practice, I think anybody who could tell what they were doing with a digital display, could also tell what they were doing through a beautiful ground glass viewfinder on any number of 35mm cameras that have been around since the 20s.
'Sports setting' you say? Well, that's marketing speak for fast shutter speed and cameras have had fast shutter speeds for many decades. There are cool pictures taken by pro photographers at pro sports games and by parents at little league games going way way back. The fast shutter speed is not a product of digital technology. In fact, many lower end digicams have an enormous delay between pushing the shutter release and actually releasing the shutter. Sports setting or no, that defeats the purpose of a fast shutter speed.
Zoom lenses came about in the 50s and anybody with one and a slow shutter speed can blur the edges.
Now, I'll agree that it's a whole lot easier to crop and superimpose images than ever before (though people always did it). I can rearrange any picture in any way I want in PhotoShop. And that type of manipulation of photographs is pretty revolutionary. But that's not photography, that's more like graphic arts.
It is my larger contention that anybody who can take a nice picture with a digital camera can also take a nice picture with a 1958 Nikon F.
They might need a few lessons in the basics of photography, but that's no more complicated than learning the arcane menue system on a digicam (hold button B while pressing and turning knurled knob Z).
And given those few lessons in basic photography, anybody who can't take a nice picture with a 1958 Nikon F can't take one with a digicam, even with the special 'apples in dappled sunlight' setting.
What happens in the post-photographic world of kiosks and PhotoShop is something else, though those methods of manipulation are also possible with scanned film images.
So to your larger point: yes, the bar has been raised on the quality of mediocre snap shots, but digital cameras have not made people better photographers. If they know what subject will make an interesting picture, have a feel for lighting and composition and can control focus through aperture and shutter speed (rather than factor-determined presets), they're going to be able to take better pictures than if they don't.
Sorry. I meant to say:
factory-determind, not factor-determind.
When one has a good argument...others make your case for you. Which is exactly what Silberg did for my argument.

Even though the equipment is around it is not accessible to the average person. The typical guy or gal is not going to spend $1000 on equipment plus hundreds of dollars on developing film when they are just playing around with photography.

Now give someone an inexpensive digital and they can play and erase, try new things, take 100 pictures and print one....for 18 cents. That means that the cost of learning got cheaper and therefore...people get better.
Of course. It's just like what happened when affordable pencils and pads of paper became available to all. It turned everybody into a "writer." In fact, once the paper/pencil revolution democratized writing we got to the point we're at today where "now really anyone can make great literature."
Paper is so much cheaper than papyrus so people can play and erase and try new things. And that's why anybody who puts words together these days is doing great work that would shame Shakespeare, Flaubert, Joyce or Nabokov.
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