In the late 19th century, early movie audiences watched short films while hunched over machines called Kinetoscopes. More than a century later, people still view short films in much the same way, just hunched over their computer screens instead. Apart from the technological improvements, the main difference seems to be one of novelty, from seeing a tiny image of a woman dance or a man sneeze, compared to today's sight of a cat flushing a toilet to a musical accompaniment.
Between the rise of public film exhibition and the dawn of the Internet, short films developed creative traditions nearly as robust as their full-length counterparts. Shorts still have a lingering reputation as an obscure, nichey kind of movie, but new programs at the High Museum, the Plaza Theatre, and Landmark Midtown Art Cinema celebrate the past and present of short films while offering a possibility for their future.
The touring program A MoMA Treasury of Short Films, playing at the High Museum on Sat., Feb. 4, recaps the evolution of moviemaking in the first half of the 20th century. It begins with one of the first and most famous silent films, 1903's "The Great Train Robbery," with its then-innovative action scenes, special effects, and iconic final close-up of a desperado firing a gun at the audience. It's like a primitive template for hundreds of Westerns and heist films to come.
"Newman's Laugh-O-Grams" from 1921 offers an early example of a young Walt Disney sketching simple animated gags for Kansas City movie audiences. Fifteen years later, Max Fleischer's two-reel "Popeye vs. Sindbad the Sailor" reveals a master of sound and color, with playful songs and surreal images comparable to the exuberance and fluidity of the era's jazz music.
Features became the most popular cinematic form, but shorts stuck around for decades in theaters, like the equivalent of a DVD's bonus features. A night at the movies included not only cartoons and newsreels, but also live-action shorts such as Robert Benchley's Oscar-winning humor pieces. The rise of television provided new venues for news and cartoons, while Hollywood put a greater emphasis on big-screen spectacle.
Shorts tend to be labors of love and opportunities for newcomers to demonstrate their filmmaking skills. "Short films are passion projects. It's very rare that they make any money," says Eric Haviv of Atlanta's FUGO Studios. Haviv directed two shorts, "Pray" and "The Phantom Draw," which played at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and became his calling cards. "They're the first on my website, the first thing I show clients. I like to bring the art I put into the shorts into my other work, corporate videos, training videos, wedding videos," he says.
On Thurs., Feb. 2, WonderRoot's Generally Local, Mostly Independent Film Series at the Plaza Theatre demonstrates the scruffy diversity of shorts on the grassroots level. The program ranges from cheap, goofy larks such as Jamie Olmstead's sketch-sized "Face Blindness" to avant-garde works like the abstract animation of Anna Spence's "Memory Lapse." Kristin Wright's "Superhero" tells the pleasantly quirky tale of a cape-wearing young woman (Alison Hastings) obsessed with costumed crusaders, and demonstrates that even a low-budget short on the fringes can explore a compelling character.
The WonderRoot program includes the stop-motion animation short "Frowning," a dark, droll account of a surly clown roaming around Atlanta. The work also happens to be the winner of Creative Loafing's inaugural 2011 ATL Short Cuts Film Festival.
For decades, shorts were consigned to academic archives and rare art-house anthology shows. The possibilities of online viewing has created vast means for audiences to view short films, but whether they can find a serious short amid the multitude of "Sh*t people say" clips and lip-syncing gimmicks is another matter. "I think the big audience for short film is other filmmakers. People appreciate them, but it's a limited audience," says Haviv. "The Internet has a potential for millions of viewers. We've had a film at Cannes, but it doesn't have that many [online] views."
For some filmmakers, a short simply provides a stepping stone to a feature film. Neill Blomkamp's 2005 short "Alive in Joburg" plays less like a stand-alone work than a proof-of-concept to secure his ability to make his sci-fi action allegory District 9. In general, few if any shorts can earn money.
Last week the Academy announced its annual nominees for the best pictures of the year, and one of the animated shorts offers a new paradigm. "The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore," co-directed by Brandon Oldenburg and beloved children's book author William Joyce, presents 14 minutes of pure bliss as an homage to reading and the slapstick of Buster Keaton. The mild-mannered title character finds himself transported to a land where books have childlike personalities.
Until the Feb. 26 Oscar ceremony, "Morris Lessmore" is available for free on iTunes, and also offers a $4.99 iTunes app that functions as a beautifully animated, interactive book experience. Most short films don't lend themselves to that kind of cross-promotion, of course, but the cleverest filmmakers will come up with new ways to monetize short films. After all, 19th-century moviegoers would pay to see a guy sneeze in a Kinetoscope.
The second annual ATL Short Cuts Film Contest is open for submissions through Feb. 17. Winning entries will be screened at the 2012 Atlanta Film Festival.