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Short Films

The feature's older but less celebrated brother

Main image of Short Films

Short films have been central to some of the most celebrated moments of British cinema history - from the 1930s documentary movement through Free Cinema to 1970s experimental film. Many of our major directors have launched their careers with short films: Ridley Scott with Boy and Bicycle (1965), Ken Russell with Amelia and the Angel (1958), Lynne Ramsey with Gasman (1997) and Shane Meadows with Where's the Money Ronnie! (1995). Shorts predate feature length production by over a decade, and they have been the form of choice for films as diverse as newsreels, cartoons, advertising, technical films, music promos, corporate video, cine-magazines, sponsored filmmaking, student films, gallery installations and amateur cinematography.

Attempting to summarise such diversity is almost impossible - even the length of a short film varies widely; some films last 15 seconds, others 45 minutes. However, there are a number of inherent traits that all short films share - the drive to be succinct, the opportunity for technical and formal innovation and the potential to influence and revitalise the mainstream industry. Often these traits have resulted in new kinds of filmmaking, simultaneously mounting a challenge to established film practice in the UK.

In the early years of film production, all films were short. Feature length production developed as the cinema industry became established, with purpose built venues and complete film programmes. Emerging from the music hall tradition, the pre-1920s silent era programme was full of short items, from newsreels to adventure serials, comedy to natural history, cine-magazines to dramas. But as the silent era progressed, feature production was increasingly favoured by the major studios. The cinema programme changed accordingly, relegating shorter films to the status of supporting items in the programme. In Britain these shorts enjoyed a long life, through sponsored filmmaking (such as Mining Review, 1947-83) information films (such as COI's Green Cross Code campaign, 1971-83) and cine-magazines (such as Look at Life, 1959-68). But during the 1970s, the arrival of the blockbuster movie killed the mixed programme. With the exception of some children's movies, few cinemas now show anything by way of supporting items beyond a few adverts and trailers.

Instead, short films have migrated to other media - chiefly television and the internet - but with mixed results. In the UK, television has been absolutely central to the success of short films like the Wallace and Gromit series (1989-95), which reached a kind of popularity usually associated with features. But this is unique; TV still schedules most of its short films at off-peak times. On the internet, short films enjoy huge popularity but must work hard to be seen as more than disposable distractions; the unlimited access that the web provides rarely replaces the kudos of a theatrical screening or television broadcast. In the UK, generally, short film is ubiquitous. It thrives in popular culture through advertising, pop videos and electronic media, but all of them are often dismissed as ephemeral.

This cultural indifference towards the short form is, however, misleading. Although marginal when compared to the economic and social reach of television and feature production, short films are at the heart of the UK moving image industry. For many years they have provided a regular training ground for newcomers to the industry. Advertising and music video, in particular, are a continued source of employment for industry professionals and these highly budgeted areas are often credited with fostering technical and formal innovation. Indeed, British short films have often been the site of technical innovation, from early sound-on-film systems such as De Forest Phonofilm's Billy Merson Sings 'Desdemona' (1927), through obscure cinematographic experiments like The Door in the Wall (Glenn H. Alvey Jr, 1956) to the use of 'bullet-time' in Björk's Army of Me video (Michel Gondry, 1995). In their drive for clarity and brevity, short films also cultivate a much admired structural dexterity. One of our greatest film practitioners, Humphrey Jennings, worked largely in short film; his poetic approach both nurtured and suited the form's demand for succinctness.

In general, the production context for short films - less pressured than features, with fewer financial or career consequences at stake - allows filmmakers a greater freedom of expression as they develop their craft. Shorts are often seen as a more democratic form of filmmaking and the UK has a strong tradition of fostering the talent of new filmmakers. From the BFI Experimental Film Fund and the UK Film Council's digital shorts initiative to the setting up of the London Film School and National Film and Television School, new filmmakers have been in constant training for many years and shorts are the films that usually emerge. Elsewhere, previously under-represented groups - from amateur filmmakers (for example, the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers), to film collectives (such as Amber, Sankofa or Black Audio Film Collective) and children (via the lottery funded digital initiative, First Light Movies) - have had the opportunity to experiment with form and develop an alternative voice through short film.

But despite their potential for innovation and oppositional rhetoric, many short films can be conservative and repetitive. The routine form of production and quick turnaround, along with the convenience of filmic cliché and the desire to maximise audiences, means that many short films are compromised. Today, funding bodies tend to encourage standardisation through strict production criteria that can homogenise productions. Financers, film schools and production companies are often interested in developing the filmmaking talent as much as the individual films, with the effect that many shorts are criticised as 'calling cards' - vehicles for filmmakers to tout their skills - rather than accomplished works in their own right. Others criticise the increased democratisation of digital technology and the sloppy filmmaking it encourages, concluding that more films mean lower standards. But both objections are too general to bite. A more plausible criticism is that many of today's short films have lost either their ability or their ambition to challenge the existing industry and their audiences.

Nevertheless, the short form is essential to the debate around contemporary filmmaking. The diversity of short film production means that the films resist generalisation, but are also contradictory. Despite offering a constant potential for innovation - especially with the advent of digital technology - shorts are often constrained by the sponsors, funding and commissioning bodies upon which they depend. At once innovative and conservative, democratic and elitist, central to UK production yet marginal in distribution, shorts filmmaking can be read as an index of British film culture.

Dylan Cave

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Amelia and the Angel (1958)Amelia and the Angel (1958)

Early amateur short by Ken Russell that kick-started his career

Thumbnail image of Ashes (2005)Ashes (2005)

A trip to Liverpool becomes a journey of discovery for a boy and his father

Thumbnail image of Billy Merson singing 'Desdemona' (1927)Billy Merson singing 'Desdemona' (1927)

Early sound film: an entertaining comic song

Thumbnail image of Boy and Bicycle (1965)Boy and Bicycle (1965)

Ridley Scott's first film as director: a day in the life of a schoolboy truant

Thumbnail image of Cicerones, The (2002)Cicerones, The (2002)

Ghostly short from The League of Gentlemen's Jeremy Dyson

Thumbnail image of Coughs and Sneezes (1945)Coughs and Sneezes (1945)

Comic health propaganda film on the dangers of spreading germs

Thumbnail image of Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924)Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924)

Hilarious, surreal, spoof travelogue - humour decades ahead of its time

Thumbnail image of Diamond, The (1938)Diamond, The (1938)

A father gets involved in diamond smuggling

Thumbnail image of Dog Years (2004)Dog Years (2004)

Poignant, very low-budget short with a distinctive take on man's best friend

Thumbnail image of Hell Unltd (1936)Hell Unltd (1936)

An animated protest against the arms race, co-directed by Norman McLaren

Thumbnail image of Jemima + Johnny (1966)Jemima + Johnny (1966)

Touching short about the friendship between a white boy and black girl

Thumbnail image of Launch (1974)Launch (1974)

Impressionistic doc following the launch of a new ship at Wallsend.

Thumbnail image of Leila (2002)Leila (2002)

Short about a 10-year-old Iranian refugee girl newly arrived in Scotland

Thumbnail image of Shellarama (1965)Shellarama (1965)

Visually stunning promotional film for Shell petrol

Thumbnail image of Sidney's Chair (1995)Sidney's Chair (1995)

Short: a visiting film star helps a young black boy learn about his identity

Thumbnail image of Snow (1963)Snow (1963)

Stunningly shot and edited meditation on trains in winter

Thumbnail image of Snowman, The (1982)Snowman, The (1982)

Perennial Christmas classic, based on the book by Raymond Briggs

Thumbnail image of Spare Time (1939)Spare Time (1939)

Early Humphrey Jennings documentary about British workers and their leisure

Thumbnail image of Together (1956)Together (1956)

Moving film following two deaf mutes through London's East End

Thumbnail image of Where's the Money Ronnie! (1996)Where's the Money Ronnie! (1996)

Shane Meadows short offering four different views of a robbery

Thumbnail image of Yellow (1996)Yellow (1996)

Short psychological drama set in a dazzling yellow field

Thumbnail image of Bideshi (1994)Bideshi (1994)

Short film about a dying Bengali man's prophetic vision

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of First LightFirst Light

Short films made by young people aged 5-19

Thumbnail image of Free CinemaFree Cinema

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Thumbnail image of They Started HereThey Started Here

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Thumbnail image of Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)

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Thumbnail image of Massingham, Richard (1898-1953)Massingham, Richard (1898-1953)

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