For a long time short films played before features in the cinema, and they were often career stepping stones for new filmmakers. But as the cinemas became more and more concerned with finance, and fitting in as many showings of the latest blockbuster as possible, shorts were squeezed out and became seen mainly on the film festival circuit and rare late night TV screenings.
However the internet has become a new breeding ground for short films and allowed filmmakers from many different backgrounds to tell their stories and show their talent.
While many expect a feature film to follow a format of three-act narrative fiction, short films are free of all restraints and can take as many forms as they have creators.
This is not necessarily a ‘best of’ list, but more an attempt to show part of that range that short films can take, to fire imagination and hope to inspire you to try your hand at this too-long neglected art form.
In compiling this list I have avoided the early days of filmmaking (when almost everything was a short), documentaries, animation and anything over 30 minutes. I’ll come back to all those another time!
1. How They Get There (Spike Jonze, 1997)
Ideas for a short film can come from anywhere, even noticing a discarded piece of clothing at the side of the street, and because there is no need to fill 90 minutes you can focus on that single item and tell its story as simply as you like… whilst still surprising your audience. How They Get There is a very simple concept from Spike Jonze, director of ‘Being John Malkovich‘ and ‘Her‘. Watch it here.
2. El Secdleto De La Tlompeta (Javier Fesser, 1996)
On the other hand, short films can be as complex as the filmmaker wishes. In El Secdleto De La Tlompeta, a series of surreal and seemingly unconnected events are masterfully brought together in farcical form by Spanish director Javier Fesser (and, yes, that’s how the title is spelt). Watch it here.
3. Goodbye Mr Snuggles (Jonathan Hopkins, 2006)
Of course there is no strict requirement for a short film to tell the whole story. Perhaps you want to just show a window into a world and leave the audience with more questions than answers. Helped by some great actors Jonathan Hopkins leaves you as perplexed as Robert Hardy’s character in Goodbye Mr Snuggles, which you can see here.
4. La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)
More than anything, short film allows you to play with a format which may not be sustainable for an audience in a feature length film. Chris Marker’s classic La Jetée was developed decades later into Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), but its ability to hold its audience with a series of black and white photographs is a unique achievement. Available for your viewing pleasure here.
5. The Facts In The Case Of Mister Hollow (Rodrigo Gudrino & Vincent Marcone, 2008)
Or how about a single photograph? One that eerily changes as you watch. Gudino and Marcone’s developing horror film is a visual treat that forces you to try and fathom its secrets. Watch it here.
6. Forklift Driver Klaus (Stefan Prehn and Jörg Wagner, 2000)
Comedy has always been suitable for the short format, with all the early classics of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and many lesser know talents being stalwarts of early cinema. What simpler source of comedy than a health and safety film – and proving that those early pioneers were right that the pain of others is a fertile source of comedy. Watch it here.
7. Sign Language (Oscar Sharp, 2010)
To continue with comedy and simplicity, here is a film that shows you don’t need a fortune of money and resources to make a multi-award winning short: just a tight script and winning performances. Watch it here.
8. Moore Street Masala (David O’Sullivan, 2009) and The Man in 301 (David Froyne, 2008)
The music video has become widely-viewed as a form of short film in its own right, but what about the full-blown musical, with stories, characters, and multiple songs? I couldn’t chose between these two from Ireland, one light and uplifting, the other as dark as dark can be. So enjoy both at number 8: Moore Street Masala and The Man in 301.
9. Meshes in the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)
The experimental film has always made full use of the short format. The remarkable filmmaker Maya Deren made ‘Meshes In The Afternoon’ in 1943 and I still find it one of the most beautiful, mesmerising pieces of celluloid out there. Watch it here.
10. Girl Chewing Gum (John Smith, 1976)
I’ll finish this list of ten with a film that deconstructs the whole concept of what a film is, leading the viewer to ask, what is reality and truth, what is a director’s job, what, in fact, the hell is going on? The line between documentary and fiction blur in John Smith’s ‘Girl Chewing Gum’. Watch it here.
So much has been left off this list, and I hope to be able to bring further shorts to your eyes in articles on famous directors’ first shorts, award winners, Japanese shorts and the days of early cinema. But I’ll finish on one more film, my own film ‘Hourglass’. One room, two actors, a day and a half of filming. I hope, along with all the rest here, it will inspire your own efforts: Hourglass (Rory O’Donnell, 2008).