Who would have thought that Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, who began their careers as student filmmakers, would return to the short film mid-career? BMW hired each filmmaker to make a short film about his car that would be shown on its website. The films have been so successful that at least one has been released in select cinemas and the series is available for purchase on DVD. Scorsese had returned earlier to the short form to make the Michael Jackson music video "Bad" for the album 'Thriller. Spike Lee, on an ongoing basis, makes commercials. Thus, short films continue to be an important ongoing element of the creative careers of both Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.
They are not alone in this movement between the feature film and the short film. A significant change has been brought about by advertisers, whether for products such as cars or music. They have redefined and broadened the kind of work they sponsor under the umbrella of advertising. In the same way, the nonlinear film in its forms and its approach to character and structure has stretched what is considered the entertainment or commercial feature film. In short, change is occurring in every form, from the commercial to the feature film. If we add the technological shift from film to digital video, we add yet another layer of change.
The question that all this raises for us is this: What changes are viable for the short film, a form that, to date, has been most closely aligned with the short story and the poem?
For the most part, filmmakers, like most people, resist change. Traditional genres and approaches to character, structure, and voice affirm the order of things, i.e., tradition. This is how one imagines choices in a stable, traditional world. But what is one to make of a rapidly changing world, where the growth industry is the change agent—that category of consultant whose main purpose is to help the rest of us manage change? This is the state of things today. Change is everywhere—in globalization and its corollary, interdependence; in the economy; and in personal psychology. The gatekeepers of society, the religious establishment and the political establishment, have rarely faced greater challenges. And the media and the purveyors of goods within the media—the journalists, the videographers, and the filmmakers, are dizzy with the opportunities changes afford them.
In filmmaking particularly, the outcome has been a pronounced search for novelty. In fact, I don't think it's an overstatement to characterize that search as a mania for novelty. To connect with the audience, filmmakers seek out a new slant on an old story, an unusual form, or an exaggerated voice in the telling of the tale. Whatever the strategy, novelty is the goal. Without the surprise novelty promises, the fear is that the audience will drift away. Today, feature filmmakers and short filmmakers share a fixation on novelty to engage and sustain their relationship with the audience. This search for novelty affirms the pressure of ongoing changes within our society.
In keeping with a time of change, filmmakers feel they need to reinvent themselves. Turning to the filmmakers I mentioned earlier, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, each has established a creative portfolio, principally of feature films. In addition, each has made commercials and MTV videos. But the principle of reinvention has gone even further. Martin Scorcese has reinvented himself as a filmmaker/scholar. He has created four 8-hour documentaries devoted first to American film and more recently to Italian cinema. Spike Lee, on the other hand, has looked to the documentary film to reinvent and reinvigorate himself. First with his documentary, Four Little Girls, and more recently with Get on the Bus, Spike Lee has turned to critical moments in African-American history to expand upon his creative mandate—to be as much an educator as an entertainer in his films.
Other filmmakers shift genres for renewal, still others shift roles—to that of producer, in the case of Jonathan Demme—all in pursuit of the notion of reinvention. No group has sought reinvention more vigorously than actors, a number of whom have successfully turned to directing.
At the same time as filmmakers seek out novelty and reinvent themselves, the lines of separation between different media, as well as different forms— advertising and the feature film, for example—are blurring. At the industrial organization level, film studios are owned by a holding company that embraces television station ownership, publishing, music recording and in one case, electronics; in another, satellite cable stations; and in another, water utilities. This no doubt will shift over time, but in principle, it means that film production, television production, theater production, music production, and book production are in numerous cases owned by the same corporate structure. One can imagine the synergistic as well as monopolistic possibilities.
On another level, however, the changes are more subtle, more migratory, and more interactive. Stage productions have long been influenced by film productions, but today it is not uncommon to see highly theatrical films as often as highly filmic theatrical productions. In television, the hour-long series has often been presented as an unresolved story—in short, a serial. From Dallas to ER to West Wing, the macro-storyline—as well as the story of the week, the micro-story—has altered the look and story shape of the hour-long TV film. More recently, the 30-and 60-second commercial have begun to take on the shape of the serial or ongoing story. Consequently, more character and an incomplete dramatic arc are increasingly forming the shape of the commercial. How many feature films have you seen that look increasingly like an episode (Spiderman, The Mummy)? What we are suggesting is that the shape of the B-movie serial has drifted into television, the commercial, and the feature film.
Following this principle, the music video has influenced commercials and the feature film. The commercial has influenced the action-adventure film, and the TV situation comedy has become a standard in the feature film, both in the action-adventure genre and in the romantic comedy feature film. Even the police story has dipped into the TV sitcom genre. My point here is to note the transmigration of form across genres, across distribution systems. Media presentations have morphed and blurred the lines between media presentation and distribution systems. A lot has changed. This has enormous implications for the short film.
Today, digital video, digital sound, the computer, and the availability of high-level delivery systems have democratized the means of production— the camera, the microphone, the editing system (a computer)—'it's all digital information. And it 'doesn't require high-level skills or knowledge to operate. The implications of this situation for the short film are simply staggering. Anything is possible. You have only to do it.
Of course, this situation has implications for education, or to put it another way, the knowledge industry. The acquisition of knowledge should be and can be shorter in the time it takes and less expensive in cost. This book is part of that knowledge industry, as are the classes the writers of this book teach.
So the technology has changed, the industry structure has changed, reinvention is in the air, and novelty may be our goal. All of the above invites— no, demands—that the maker of short films embraces change and explores the forms that will make his or her short film new and novel to the rest of us.
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