My initial thesis was going to be something like, “Short film used to be intended for mass consumption, but over time it became the domain of film school students and the avant garde; a place to prove oneself as a filmmaker.” After doing some research and sampling short films from the past century, however, I realized that my assumption – that earlier short film was not experimental or in any way pushing boundaries as it does today – was totally wrong. Short film as a vehicle for innovation hasn’t changed. What has changed, however, is the audience, and more generally how we consume short film. This shift from short films shown in theaters cross-country to short films posted to web sites or showing exclusively up in short film festivals (in super hip cities where the 8 percent of us that are super hip go to see them) led to my assumption that short film today is edgier than it was ninety years ago – simply because I wrongly assumed that wide viewership and edginess are mutually exclusive.
Short film has always been edgy, pushing the boundaries of technology and storytelling, but today we don’t see these shorts before our feature film at the theater; we must seek them out through festivals or sites like Vimeo. That changes their cultural impact in a fundamental way.
Let me show you how with a trip through time!
You know Steamboat Willie. Even if you don’t know you know Steamboat Willie, you know it. This is the film wherein Mickey Mouse (sort of) made his debut, and where sound and animation were coupled for the first time. This short has won awards and been archived for its cultural significance, and that’s why we know it. It is culturally significant; that is enough.
However, viewing this film for the first time with the thought “this is culturally significant” in my head, led to some fairly serious cognitive dissonance. First scene, Mickey is whistling and steering his steamboat. Fine. Mickey has an altercation with a cat. Fine. Mickey stops to pick up a cow, for some reason, and then for some other reason he leaves his girlfriend Minnie behind. It’s okay, though, because a hook from the boat grabs her up by her panties (after delicately lifting her skirt) and drops her on deck (delicately lowering her skirt for her afterward). Mickey then proceeds to play “Turkey in the Straw” using various animals as instruments. He pulls the tails of suckling piglets. He twists the tail of the unfortunate cow. He lifts a sow up and plays her as an accordion, fingering her teats (the accordion keys). As I said… cognitive dissonance. This is culturally significant. A masterpiece. Yet it’s so…crass. It did push the envelope when it came to technology, and for that we must remember it. But let’s move on.
You probably know this one, too, even if you haven’t seen the cartoon itself. This is a Tex Avery creation, part of Merrie Melodies (which, if you’re like me, you remember from your childhood spent watching Looney Tunes). I Like To Singa tells the story of a young owlet who likes to sing Jazz, but whose father disapproves of anything but classical music. Our young owlet is thrown out of the house, sad for a moment, but then finds an amateur competition sponsored by the local radio station. Naturally, he enters. Meanwhile, his repentant father and mother weep over their lost son, and hope to find him. Then, they hear him singing, “I like to singa, of the moon-a and the June-a and the Spring-a, I like to singa, of a sky of blue and a tea for two…” on the radio, rush over to the station, and mom and dad and siblings join in singing Jazz with their little owlet. Happily ever after.
While this seems like a very simple little animation with a very basic story (but a real plot, thank goodness), at the time it was a masterpiece of animation and was released in theaters across the country. It was seven (ish) minutes long.
So now we have two examples of animated shorts intended for wide viewership that were also on the cutting edge of animated film technology. Let’s move on to our first film festival, and some more exclusive viewership (with a brief nod to all of the short propaganda films of the late 1930s and 1940s, which could be covered in an essay entirely their own, but which we are skipping on this journey).
This 34 minute film by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse features a little boy and a sentient red balloon (I think of the boy as “the balloon whisperer,” but you’re free to draw your own conclusions). It was released with a feature film (an increasingly less common practice), which ensured it would be seen by a large audience. This film, however, was also a Cannes Film Festival winner, and today seems to transcend previous popular short films in depth of content.
It’s important to note that the Cannes Film Festival did not exist until the mid-twentieth century, and before that moment film (a new technology) did not seem to have the artistic cachet that we credit it with now. In my trip through time, I mark the establishment of Cannes, and microcosmically this film in particular, as the moment film went from “cool new thing” to “serious artistic medium” in popular perception. It is also a time when the audience for short film—though still wide—began to shift from “general public” to “artistic elite,” and the appearance of shorts in theaters declined.
1924 – Entr’acte
Wait—did we just move back in time?
I included this film here to prove a point: that in the mid-20th century, short film in popular perception experienced a shift from “cool new thing” to “serious artistic medium,” despite the fact that serious artists were using it before that time. Entr’acte is a Dadaist film by Rene Clair, shown as the entr’acte for the ballet Relache in 1924. It achieved cultural prominence (relative to other Dadaist short films) when it was shown in the Cannes Film Festival in 1974 (which is probably how that oddball cultural theory professor of mine knew about it), reflecting both that aforementioned shift to short-film-as-art, as well as the shift from consumption by the general population to consumption by the artistic elite—the erudite. Why else bring it back in 1974 in a prestigious venue?
Of course, short film did not totally disappear from the local theater. Some studios continued to show shorts before their feature films, but, for the most part, shorts really were the domain of art students (*cough* David Lynch *cough*) and experimental filmmakers. Short films in this moment were difficult to find unless you happened to live in a city where a festival was held or you were part of that elite group I keep mentioning. This kind of exclusivity prevented shorts from becoming part of the cultural canon in the same way earlier theater-exhibited shorts had. They aren’t parodied, because most people wouldn’t get the reference, and they aren’t commonly referred to for their contributions to the genre.
I’ll use my own experience to illustrate my point. Up until the mid-2000s, my exposure to short film was limited to what I saw on television. Despite this, I was aware of the existence of Steamboat Willie (covered in high school curriculum), I Like to Singa (Thanks to South Park’s anal probe episode), and The Red Balloon (from commercials for the Criterion collection or possibly the Simpsons), although until writing this essay I had never seen any of them all the way through. As a high school senior, I had never heard of Entr’acte or David Lynch, and had not seen any short film nominated for an Academy Award.
But then I went to college.
At college, I became part of that erudite class, and thus learned of Entr’acte (via that oddball professor). I went to see the short films up for Academy Awards in 2008 at the little artsy theater only a college town would have. (The stand-out from that experience was Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, primarily because I listened to the album quite a lot when I was a child [see “erudite class” above]). Had I continued to ingest only what was available on TV and in the average theater, I would not have known of these films; they were not (and are not, I would argue), part of the canon.
Around the same time I went to college, another (almost equally) important change was taking place. Short film returned to the theaters, and, more significantly, technology advanced to the point where creating short films was cheap and sharing them was easy.
Pixar, you may recall, began pairing short films with their feature films around the year 2000, bringing back the old tradition and once again using the animated short to show to the general public what technology can do. Like animated shorts from the early 20th century, Pixar’s animated shorts were meant for and seen by many and utilized the latest in animation technology. In addition to this return of the animated short for mass consumption, however, was something entirely new that not only opened up short film viewership to those outside of the elite group of film-savvy hipsters, but opened up short film creation to anyone with a computer and a camera (or, nowadays, a smart phone).
I am, of course, referring to the internet. While the internet, of course, existed prior to the early 2000s, it took a couple decades for technology to reach the point where video sharing using the internet was easy and intuitive. By 2006, however, we had YouTube (which was a crude video sharing service in its early days, but important nonetheless), and now, short film is back in the hands of the masses. This time, though, the masses have more agency and more variety than they did when short film consumption was limited to the box office, and short film creation was limited to those devoted to filmmaking and art.
In addition to Oscar-winning shorts like Helicopter and Peter and the Wolf, we now have troves of excellent films, readily available for any who would view them. The following are just a few sites/services devoted to the promotion and sharing of short films:
- YouTube (short film channel)
- Global Short Film Network
Combine this wealth of variety with the ease of consumption through apps on phones, computers, gaming consoles, etc., and you have an explosion of short film that is at once more available to more people than it has ever been, and yet still not influential in the way it once was. I doubt that there will be another Steamboat Willie or The Red Balloon in terms of presence in the cultural subconscious, but unlike in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, this lack of presence is not due to limited exposure but to an abundance of variety and unequaled availability.
Today’s consumption through the internet and apps opens short film up to the general population again and takes it out of the realm of the erudite or intelligentsia, leading to more filmmakers, lots of experimentation, and plenty of variety. Few of these films (if any) will have the same place in cultural consciousness as Steamboat Willie, which was from a time when media consumption was limited and homogenous (in that most people saw the same movies and listened to the same music, in a way that is not true today), but unchanged is the fact that short film is absolutely a place for experimentation, advancement, and artists.