The short film format is an elusive one – when one thinks one has caught and understood it, it has already evaporated. From time to time, short films turn up on the internet, sometimes on the big screen before feature films, or on television – or even curated in blocks at film festivals. Shorts sometimes have the intention of conveying a message, other times they advertise a product, but often their purpose is solely to entertain. But where does a filmmaker begin? What must he consider when he is commissioned to create a commercial, or a public service advertisement? What obstacles will he face? And finally: what is more important: creative freedom, or gaining professional experience? Filmmaker Márton Szirmai and his partner in art (and life) Judit Anna Molnár explore the format and its genres from the point of view of the creator.
text by Márton Szirmai & Judit Anna Molnár
If film means condensation, then a commercial means condensation multiplied. It is a common misconception that making a feature film is the most complex challenge for a director when to put a clear message in 90 seconds to a great effect is just as, if not more, difficult. There is no time to stop and look in an advertisement: the effect one has to create must happen in seconds. This way, conceiving form and content is more direct and more didactic: we cannot let the viewers stray away, we cannot let them explore a hundred different narratives because our commissioner does not pay us to do that. Why do filmmakers enjoy experimenting with this strict genre then? Many directors of feature films have gained a great amount of experience with commercials: besides learning a lot about condensation, montage, editing and how to guide actors, they can gain technical knowledge that inspires them and makes them more confident in their career, to the delight of their audience – and this means that although commercials might often be controversial from a social point of view, their contribution to the film industry is priceless.
Public service advertisement
Many directors are thrilled when they are asked to convey an important social message through the art of motion picture. When directing a public service advertisement, the filmmaker’s artistic freedom is greater because the commissioner draws up less limitations. It is also a wonderful field for experimenting, and offers great satisfaction to work in the service of a good cause. These works are then shared and viewed by a great number of people on the internet. All in all, the public service advertisement is always a grateful subject and even directors who could never be persuaded to shoot a commercial would never say no to directing one.
Short television documentary
The obstacles – and helping hands – filmmakers encounter when directing a TV series vary country by country. In many territories, commissioning editors are there for directors: they hold their hands along the way and offer them help during shooting and post-production – naturally, keeping the priorities of their TV channel in mind. In other countries, directors get a free hand with their TV project: the financing party, or the TV channel doesn’t supervise the creative process. The same model sometimes works for the televison channel’s own programmes, too, not only for the external projects. But what is better for a director? Creative freedom is a wonderful thing, however, an extra pair of expert eyes can offer a huge amount of added value. It can inspire and motivate, change one’s attitude, and show a way out when the creator is temporarily stuck. Just as much as deadlines can be truly inspiring, restrictions can often become the cradle of great solutions.
Live actions shorts
Considering distribution, short films are the most difficult segments of the film industry. This affects the directors, too. But on the plus side: the stakes are not as high as in the case of features – neither financially, nor from a professional point of view. Short film is a great field for experimenting: not only to find one’s way in the labyrinth of genres, but also to perfect one’s directing skills. How could one learn how to guide actors better than through directing short films? Actors are keen to say yes to shorts, because the shooting takes only a few days. Short film teaches us to express ourselves better – we can find out that almost everything can be told within a shorter amount of time that we had thought – or, on the contrary, we can learn that our idea requires a full feature film. The risk of failure is smaller, because the audience can forgive – and forget – a boring film easier if it is short. Why are most short film makers from young generations? Is it a cultural phenomenon? Or is the format less alluring to directors as they get older? There are many possible answers, but the truth is probably the least romantic answer: when one gets older and has his own family, it is no longer possible to dedicate all one’s time to selfless pro bono work, and has to look for other options with a better market value: after all, the creative process of a short film requires almost the same amount of immersion from the director’s side as a full-length feature – only the stakes are lower.
One doesn’t often encounter short musicals. They can be a slippery slope for the director: there are not many examples and inspirations for them, and it is very easy to go wrong. And yet, there are a few experiments – and if the experiments happen to be successful, a positive reception can make up for one’s troubles. It is also a huge challenge for the composer when the main part is played by music. It also means that the actors have to show a new and very different face. The director, however has to be even more prepared than everyone else. Naturally, it is important to choose actors with a good singing voice. If one makes a casting mistake, it can put a great strain on the audio post-production department, while deciding for a voice change can cause a lot of upset. A good sense of rhythm is a must, too, because the real singing is usually recorded at an earlier stage, and during shooting, the actors usually mouth their part. Even if there are no technical problems, dramaturgical challenges can still cause a few sleepless nights. For younger generations, even a musical from the 1960s can come across as funny. If one considers musical as the genre of the extremes, and doesn’t shy away from becoming childish or slightly infantile, it is worth experimenting with it: at the end of the day, whatever happens, one will have learnt something new.
Every director should make at least one animation. The specific creative process of this genre offers a power to learn, improve and plan only comparable to that of the old times, when films were still shot on celluloid. In this genre, everything has to be perfectly conceived and planned before shooting. The director has to have every single image in mind in advance – there is no “we have five cameras, and we will edit everything in the studio” option. The images are made for the voice recorded beforehand – the freedom that “we will polish the text during the shoot” does not exist. One has to know the exact length of every take – “we will cut it somewhere” is not a possibility.
When making an animation, there are hardly any leftovers compared to a live action shooting. It needs precise planning, concentration, and a much greater amount of preparation than any other genre. We could almost say that it is shooting and post-production in one. So, why is it worth the effort? A director can never be as free as with an animation. One can show everything, really, everything. The producer won’t tell you that the budget doesn’t stretch to a crane, your DOP won’t say that there is no time for building a tracking shot, the actor won’t complain of a headache, and the weather will be as good or as bad as you choose. One the other hand, this is the genre where the director won’t be able to blame anyone for a mistake.
Each personality is comfortable with different genres. Some feel at home in the solitude of their studio. Others love conveying their message short, and there are those for whom series are an ideal way of expressing themselves. Some are inspired by complete artistic freedom, and others need Trier’s Five Obstructions.
Read the complete World of Young Cinema – the Cannes 2016 edition here: