Once upon a time, short films actually played in cinemas, as an opening act for the feature presentation. But as feature films got longer and cinemas tried to squeeze in ever more screenings, the shorts eventually fell by the wayside. As a result they lost their position as the traditional calling card for anyone trying to break into the movie biz, as more and more directors chose to start in commercials or music videos and cross over from there.
The digital revolution has changed all that: Thanks to the spread of cheap filmmaking tools that removed the expense of shooting and printing on film, as well as the vast increase in outlets for release on the Internet, shorts are being made and released at a mind-boggling pace. Just like with music, however, quantity is the enemy of quality, and the need for informed curators who can separate the wheat from the chaff is greater than ever.
Enter Tokyo’s Short Shorts Film Festival, now in its 14th year and based in Harajuku’s Laforet Museum, with additional screenings at Space O in Omotesando Hills, and an all-night-selection at Roppongi Hills’ Toho Cinema. (Yokohama’s Brillia Short Shorts Theater will also be showing most films.) Festival director Seigo Tono has personally viewed somewhere between 400 and 500 films, out of something like 4,400 submitted. (His programmers take care of the rest.)
That’s a lot of submissions, and while the Short Shorts Festival has certainly promoted itself actively, Tono sees a clear reason for the flood: “In 2004, we became an Academy Awards-accredited film festival, so we can recommend our winners to the Academy for consideration. Our festival’s name is listed on the Academy’s website, so a lot of filmmakers check the qualifying festivals and submit to us. So we’ve definitely seen submissions going up overall, but over the past three years, it’s really taken off.”
The festival offers a plethora of categories for submission, with the workhorses being their International Competition, which will feature 46 films from 18 countries, and also an Asia International and Japan Competition, which will dole out ¥5 million in prize money between them — no small amount when you’re a struggling young filmmaker. Other categories worth noting include the Academy Program, which features this years’ Oscar-nominated shorts and offers the most consistent quality; Focus On The Arab World, which has a selection from Qatar’s Doha Film Institute; the Stop! Global Warming Competition, a Ministry of Environment-sponsored section that speaks for itself; and a CG competition focusing on fantasy and animation.
There are about a dozen other programs on offer as well, ranging from the gimmicky “5 Second Films” to a selection sponsored by Canon (featuring Hiroshi Shinagawa’s “Guinea Pig”), whose lightweight EOS series cameras, originally intended for still photography, have caught on with filmmakers using its HD video mode. (“Act of Valor,” reviewed on today’s Re: Film page, was shot with EOS cameras, as was cult director Monte Hellman’s “Road To Nowhere.”)
Of course, given the technical ease with which anyone can make a short these days, there’s a risk that the overall quality of submissions could be affected. “Obviously we see more people shooting on still video cameras and using cheap editing technology,” says Tono. “They are actually very lucky, compared to when I was a student making short films the hard way, cutting and splicing film, and negotiating the price of film cans.
“Back around 2000 or so, we used to have more films that looked like they were shot on film, even if they were submitted digitally. But nowadays we receive more films that are crisp and sharp, and although it’s very cinematic, it’s lacking the texture, the nostalgic element of film. So the technology has improved, but it doesn’t mean that short films have necessarily become better.”
The changes in production have also led to changes in how filmmakers approach making their films. Tono notes how the high cost of shooting on film in the past forced young directors to focus more on tightening up their projects prior to shooting. With the shift to digital, however, “Now you can be the director and your cameraman too, and your girlfriend can be the actress, and if one take doesn’t work, it’s so easy to try another. It’s freer than before, but probably the basic planning and consideration is less.” On the upside, it’s also much easier now to manipulate a film digitally in postproduction, which perhaps evens things out in the end.
Shorts used to be the realm primarily of more experimental filmmakers, people like Stan Brackage or Derek Jarman, but the Short Shorts Festival is clearly planted more in the narrative realm, with Sean Kruck’s diarylike “Summer Break” (starring Mia Wasikowska) or the bickering old couple of Jordanian film “Bahiya & Mahmoud” being typical. There is room however, for the incomprehensible animated short “The Great Rabbit,” which won director Atsushi Wada a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, or the crowd-funded “Blind,” which imagines a post-meltdown Tokyo. Whichever type you prefer, the attraction of shorts is clear enough. As Tono puts it, “Things are quite condensed, and the filmmaker’s message is quite clear. I think, in general filmmakers who make short films now don’t care about the market as much; it’s more of a platform where they can be free. They’re not constrained by producers or distributors, and the results are often more exciting.”
The Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia 2012 runs June 15-24. For information on times and prices, visit www.shortshorts.org. Note that nearly all films have both English and Japanese subtitles, except for a couple in the Neo-Japan section.