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I would like to take this opportunity, if I may (‘you may’) to indulge in a little self-promotion by discussing short films.
      Self-promotion because my own humble debut effort has recently seen the light of projector bulb at its cast and crew screening and will shortly be heading out into the big wide world where it will hopefully be seen by people who don’t actually know anyone who worked on it. I’m not a director (too much like hard work) or a producer (ditto) but I can claim screenplay credit for the 18-minute-long monster comedy Waiting for Gorgo. It’s an hommage to the classic 1960s British Godzilla knock-off and at the same time a satire on the Civil Service. A talented young man named Benjamin Craig shot it at Elstree Studios in the summer of 2008 and, after two years in post-production, it has emerged looking fabulous. If you want to see it, details of screenings (when confirmed) will be on my own site. And that’s all the self-promotion I’ll do (thank you for your indulgence) because it’s the whole concept of short films which I want to explore this month.
     
      Throughout cinema history (or at least, since people realised that the optimum running time for a film is about 85-92 minutes), short films have been the unloved stepchild of the medium. In the days of ‘full supporting programmes’, they helped to bulk out the evening’s entertainment. But then so did newsreels and ladies who stood at the front of the cinema with a tray of choc ices. Nobody watched the things, nobody paid them any heed, and somewhere in the early 1980s the practice of supporting shorts died out, unmourned because everyone assumed it was already dead. Since then, only animation has kept the practice alive. I vividly recall the joy of settling into my cinema seat to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas and discovering that I was being invited to first sit through the fabled Tim Burton short Vincent, narrated by Mr Price of that ilk, a film that I never expected to see.
     
      We still expect a Pixar short before a Pixar feature - and another one on the DVD that is actually related in some way to the main film. Sometimes we get unexpected surprises still. I took young TF Simpson recently to see Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, a sequel that absolutely no-one was waiting for and whose principal audience isn’t even old enough to have seen the first one. (Actually Cats and Dogs 2 isn’t half bad; it has a much sharper script than the first one and a real sense of its own silliness plus, just when you thought the world didn’t need another Silence of the Lambs spoof, along comes a genuinely funny one made even more amusing by being an essential plot point in a film aimed at seven-year-olds. Where was I..?) Ah yes. My point is that, if you catch Cats and Dogs 2 in the cinema, you are first treated to Coyote Falls, the first new Roadrunner and Coyote short since 2003 and the first computer-animated Looney Tunes film. It’s worth the price of admission alone.

      But cartoons and kidflicks aside, whither short films? Some of them used to turn up late night on TV, usually ones that had been produced as part of some funding scheme from Channel 4 or BBC Scotland or whatever. One of my favourites of these is David Cairns’ superbly judged 2001 comedy Cry for Bobo, about a world where clowns have been subjugated as an underclass. (I still consider the brief glimpse of a homeless clown selling copies of a magazine called The Big Shoe to be one of the greatest sight-gags in all of British cinema.)
      And then there’s film festivals. Those annual shindigs that never seem to happen in your home town where films - big, small, homegrown, foreign but mostly just obscure - get shown to paying audiences before disappearing forever. Filmographic research would invariablyturn up these little gems that some people would claim to have actually seen at a festival; like Terry Gilliam’s early work The Miracle of Flight, which tantalised the director’s fans even after it was discovered to be simply a theatrical release of a TV animation done for The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine. Film festivals are all well and good and represent valuable exposure for the makers of short films, but it still means that more people hear about a film than actually get to see it.
      Then along came the web. And YouTube. And everything changed.
     
      Actually, take a step back. It wasn’t just the web, it was massive advances in usability - and reductions in cost - of film-making equipment. There was a time when shorts were shot on 8mm or 16mm film. Real celluloid with little holes along each side, just like proper, grown-up movies. Then along came video tape - but it rapidly became apparent that, while VHS was great for recording a family holiday or your sister’s wedding, as an actual film-making tool it left a lot to be desired. Betacam, the professional version of Betamax (which was technically superior to VHS anyway) was the pro’s choice but the cameras were heavy and expensive, the tapes bulky and you still needed a thing the size of a tank to do even the most basic edit.
      The introduction of digital camcorders and the speed with which they became available to all, made film-making accessible to anyone who wanted to do it. It seemed like every week, the cost of a decent kit came down (or the quality of the kit you could buy increased, depending on how you looked at it). Pretty soon, you could shoot a movie on a camera that you could pick up for next to nothing on the high street and edit its footage on your desktop PC (or Mac). It was a bit like punk, except that instead of kids picking up guitars, they were picking up cameras. And just like punk, an enormous amount of dross was produced as a result but a few genuine talents got a break that they might not otherwise have had.
      But we’re talking about short films here. And the analogy still works because while most punk bands didn’t have it in them to make an album, they could bang out three minutes of noise on their own indie-label seven-inch single. Similarly, most aspiring film-makers, while not necessarily able, willing or desirous of making a feature, can bang out five to ten minutes. And five-to-ten-minute-long things is exactly what YouTube was invented for. Suddenly, there was a way to make short films widely available; there was a way for curious film-fans to watch shorts wherever they might be. For free.. Granted, it wasn’t on the big screen, but this sudden flowering of distribution, following on from the widespread availability of technology to make these things (not to mention the boom in media-production training which naturally followed) changed the short film from an unloved stepchild to a surprise princess who shall go to the ball.
      
      Now, there are all sorts of short films out there but the horror genre commands a disproportionate percentage of the field. And the reasons are not hard to see. Horror appeals strongly to the somewhat geeky section of society that wants to make its own films. More importantly, horror lends itself to a short narrative. Many of the great horror writers of the past (and indeed, the present) have specialised in short tales: Poe, Lovecraft, MR James et al. This fertile ground was thoroughly explored by the glorious old Pan Books of Horror and has been continued by anthologies and small press zines ever since. As on paper, so on film (well, video; well, DVD; well, you get the picture). Short films rarely have the running time (or the budget) to do justice to other genres. But with horror, you can scare (or gross out) someone in a short space of time and they won’t feel short-changed if the narrative wraps up swiftly without too much exploration or explanation.
       And so, if you will permit me, I would like to draw your attention to a handful of rather fine short films which have come my way in recent years. Not all of these are necessarily available on YouTube; despite its apparent ubiquity, it has the disadvantage that it removes films from eligibility for most film festivals so those seeking the prestige of a big-screen outing remain wary of putting their work on the web, at least until it has run its natural course around the fest circuit.

      Anyway (in alphabetical order):

      Eddie Loves You
      An hilarious, yet curiously frightening, tale of a man (played by director Karl Holt) who tries to throw away an old cuddly toy but finds that it doesn’t want to be tossed out. It only wants a cuddle, and it's prepared to do anything to achieve that end. Eddie features some spot-on spoofery of horror classics including Halloween, The Fog and The Exorcist. (One of only two known films which include footage of me in the trailer!)

                                                                                                             
                                                                                                              I Love You

      Top industry effects bloke Tristan Versluis’s micro-short presents a very different sort of love to that of Eddie the cuddly toy. Leslie Simpson from Dog Soldiers is the man, Axelle Carolyn (Mrs Neil Marshall) is the woman. There are precisely seven words of dialogue and it’s really a single idea, not a narrative film. But it’s gut-wrenchingly horrific and a perfect example of how the genre can work at a length that would defeat many other types of film.

     


      Ironwerkz

      Mike Kehoe’s amazing dark, industrial fantasy goes beyond steampunk into the ‘New Weird’ subgenre typified by writers such as Steve Cockayne and China Mieville. Three generations of men live and work on an island of scrap metal and post-industrial junk. But when the youngest man creates for himself a companion, his father and grandfather find their way of life threatened. Told without dialogue, Ironwerkz benefits from some of the most amazing production design you’re likely to see anywhere.


     
      Langliena

      Off to Italy now for a disarmingly simple and straightforward six-minute tale from Emiliano Ranzani. I don’t want to give too much away: at this length, plot-spoilers can easily encompass the whole film. But there’s a particularly good monster in this one and monsters - by virtue of their cost, I suppose - don’t feature too much in short films. Unless you count zombies, which are nice and cheap to do. Marvellous cinematography complements this frightening tale of discovering a bit too much..

      Now You See Me, Now You Don’t
      Continuing our European roundup, this one’s from Hungary and slots neatly into a well-known but underused subgenre: invisibility. Attila Szasz’s astounding film about an invisible boy starts out as a fantasy but gradually explains its intricacies to the audience until we realise that what we’re watching is a heart-rending drama about tragedy, family and blindness to reality.

      Vespers
      And so back to the UK for a fine offering from the Nottingham-based team of Stephen Gray and David Lilley (aka Loonatik and Drinks). Vespers is a Wellsian post-apocalyptic tale set in Bristol in 1880, a perfect example of how a short film can document the microcosm and thereby briefly illuminate a much bigger picture just out of reach. Top-notch digital effects give us a half-built Clifton Suspension Bridge (not entirely historically accurate, but who cares?), and excellent monochrome cinematography effectively conveys the loneliness of a plague aftermath.

      All six of these shorts have won awards and received critical acclaim but the field is so overcrowded that no-one can see, or even expect to have heard of, everything. Seek them out if you can, or at least make a note of the directors’ names.
      And watch out for Waiting for Gorgo - coming soon.






MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.