By Christine Westwood

“Short films are often very entertaining, and very funny,” says Nashen Moodley. “It can be really exciting to see a complex story unfold and conclude in a limited time.”

Moodley should know, he has been Director of the Sydney Film Festival for six years and regularly attends film festivals all over the world in his search for films.

“Short films are vital to developing the skills of filmmakers, and an important way in which to gain experience and establish a style,” he adds.

Affordability, flexibility, accessibility – these are the main reasons that filmmakers work in the short film genre. For dedicated directors, shorts are the perfect training ground to hone skills (especially succinct story telling), develop techniques and experiment with genre and ideas, all without the massive investment of time and resources that a feature film entails.

Amelia and the Angel - Ken Russell, 1957
Amelia and the Angel – Ken Russell, 1957

Many major directors launched their careers with short films: Ridley Scott with Boy and Bicycle (1965), Ken Russell with Amelia and the Angel (1958). Steven Spielberg made Amblin’ (1968) when he was an unpaid intern at Universal Studios. The short was spotted by a studio executive, Spielberg was given a seven-year contract to work for the studio and the rest is history.

David Lynch’s first student film was a plotless four minute short called Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1967) that he is quoted as saying cost $200 to make.

Six Men Getting Sick - David Lynch, 1967
Six Men Getting Sick – David Lynch, 1967

Walt Disney spent $4,986 to create his first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928) to test out sound synchronisation ahead of the movie sound phenomenon. The film was 7 minutes long and featured a prototype Mickey Mouse.

More recently, two notable Sundance Film Festival winners began as shorts. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) had its origins in Glory at Sea (2008), a 25 minute tale about a feisty young heroine in post-hurricane New Orleans, and in 2013 Damien Chazelle (La La Land) created an 18 minute precursor to Whiplash (2014) that gained him backing to make the full length feature.

Glory at Sea – Benh Zeitlin, 2008

In a 2013 survey, film writer Stephen Fellows estimated there are approximately 3000 film festivals around the world, 70% of which include a shorts programme. Recent averages for Sundance entries in the shorts category are around 12,000 each year while Cannes has so many entries that they run a side event called ‘Cannes Short Film Corner’ to showcase a wider range than the 10 or so shorts accepted into main competition.

Once upon a time, in an era when recording and editing technology made movies possible but not at feature length, there were only short films. Historic notables were Georges Méliès’s 16 minutes A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Edwin S. Porter’s 12 minute The Great Train Robbery (1903).

As feature films dominated, shorts fell further out of the commercial market until they had virtually disappeared by the end of the 1960s, apart from short cartoons screened with children’s features. The form was used in art films, notably by Surrealists like Maya Deren, Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali in the 1930s, and is widespread with video artists in contemporary modern art.

On August 1, 1981 MTV played its first music video, appropriately, Video Killed the Radio Star; by The Buggles, and a new style of short filmmaking was launched to the public at large. Although music video is not strictly narrative short film, its aesthetic has influenced the look and the language of filmmaking in general, not least in pace and high impact editing.

Video Killed the Radio Star - The Buggles, 1981
Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles, 1981

Access to digital technology in the 1990s led to a massive increase of independent film production and short films in particular. The ability to make and screen films easily and cheaply has spawned hundreds of dedicated short film festivals around the world. More recently, the internet has opened up even more demand for the short film form, with YouTube being by far the most popular platform.

With such a vast production of short film, how do we ensure the development of quality as well as quantity? Festivals are a great venue for assessment and keeping the bar high and within festivals are particular Fellowship programs. Sydney Film Festival, poised to launch its 64th film festival in June this year, showcases the oldest and most prestigious short film competition in Australia with the Short Film Awards, sponsored by Dendy Cinemas for over 25 years.

The competition, which began in 1970, has launched the careers of many Australian talents, such as Chris Noonan, Don McAlpine, George Miller and Phil Noyce.

2017 is the third occasion when Sydney Film Festival will host Lexus Australia offering a fellowship to four winners selected from 20 finalists to make their short films, with four winners announced closer to the festival. The gains are significant. Each winner is awarded $50,000 and a guaranteed spot in the 2018 short film category at the Festival.

“I’m very much a film fan,” says Vin Naidoo, head of sales at Lexus. “There is the creativity and expression in film that appeals to me but on a more basic level I love that feeling of escapism watching a film in a cinema, well away from life’s distractions!”

When asked why Lexus is keen to back short film in these awards, Naidoo adds, “A significant motivation for us is supporting and promoting next generation talent, which is very much in step with the more youthful approach we are taking with our business. There are also very meaningful synergies with the objective of the program and that of the Lexus brand – to innovate, develop bold new ideas and to challenge and disrupt.”

Naidoo joins Moodley, film producers Kath Shelper and Sandra Levy and actor David Wenham in selecting the four winners, results to be announced at the festival.

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