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Uni Shorts 2012: from shorts to features

The festival started with a minor but to me an astounding occurrence: the first session actually started five minutes before the scheduled time. This was an event so unpredictable that it required a temporary substitution of panelist for the first few minutes until the third scheduled panel member arrived (bang on time).

It seemed a little strange to start a two-day festival focused on shorts with a session devoted to getting out of shorts and into features. But so it was, and the guest panellists naturally responded with plenty to offer on projects of various durations.

There’s a continuing debate about whether short films are (or should be) primarily a medium for practice towards the craft of feature film-making or a unique art form of their own devoted to the kinds of experimentation and innovation not viable in long-form film-making. New Zealand’s funding bodies, and the industry generally, have had an ebb-and-flow approach to this debate – for quite a while shorts were where one trialled one’s skills, and if good enough, then got the opportunity to make a feature. But after some hugely successful, international award-winning short film makers here and overseas flopped with their features, it became apparent that being a successful short film-maker does not automatically lead to feature genius – and the use of shorts as a testing ground seem to fall well out of favour. But all tides go out then come in again, and so it was with shorts. Some time passed, and then all of a sudden shorts were again the favoured path to features. This seemed to occur about the same time that word got around that Steven Spielberg watched a lot of shorts as part of his search for new feature talent to support – a coincidence surely. Not that anyone seemed to talk much about what kind of shorts Spielberg watched, or what he looked for in the ones he did see…

Today’s NZ Film Commission is extremely clear that their short film funding schemes are specifically designed towards developing careers, and to lead to long-form film-making. It was a good move on the festival organisers’ part to get the Film Commission involved, and to show a programme of NZFC-funded shorts including ones made by these panellists.

With the demise of the Screen Innovation Production Fund, run initially by Creative NZ and then jointly with the NZFC, where all this leaves the experimental short art form is: nowhere, as far as our government funders go, it would appear. This might lead a cynic to suggest that our present government’s attitude to funding is no longer about the opportunity for artistic exploration or contribution towards our cultural growth and the development of our sense of identity as Kiwis, but simply reward for commercial success. But this of course would be in tune with this government’s focus on, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, knowing the cost of everything while understanding the value of nothing.

Can one make a feature without having made a short (or three, or six) first? Marcon suggested that while there might be the occasional genius who can, “for me, it’s impossible.” In one’s twenties, at least, one generally does not have the emotional maturity to sustain the making of a feature film.

For Marcon, shorts were always a means towards getting to make a feature; but for Sarkies, the notion of shorts as a training ground does have limitations – shorts and features are related, but are definitely different media.

We may not know precisely what Spielberg looks for in his short-film-watching, but our panellists were quite clear, and in agreement, about constitutes the list of essential elements to make a great short. Their first three suggestions provide a useful summary:

  • the originality and distinctiveness of the basic idea or concept for the film (Sarkies)
  • the story (that there be one) and the quality of its telling (Liang)
  • the filmmaker’s unique voice (Marcon).

Sarkies commented that, while the story is important, it’s a mistake to try to squeeze a feature structure into a short film. After all, he said, that’s what he’s always done with his shorts! For the others, the sudden magnitude of the task of a feature was more than a little daunting; but for Sarkies the difficulty of trimming, squeezing and honing a typical three-act story down to a satisfactory length for a short film made the move into features seem liberating – he finally had room to allow the story and the characters to breathe and grow. “My brain’s not suited to shorts!” he claimed at one point.

Speaking of the original voice, Sarkies again preached what he claimed he never practised. Instead of trying to find out what was unique about his experience of life and his perception of the world and its people, he escaped into fantasy – a necessity given the boring nature of life in Dunedin, he suggested. He pointed out that you cannot know what your own voice until you actually speak (and that’s why your first 10 films are crap, he explained), and so there is the need to mine your own self. For Liang this soul-searching was not easy – in both her autobiographical doco Banana in a Nutshell and for the fictional feature extrapolated from that story, My Wedding and Other Secrets, she had to admit that her main character was a selfish girl who manipulated people around her to get what she wanted – and then put that on screen. Sarkies proffered that this was a description of any director, actually… while Liang went on to admit “I remember wanting to make films with guns.”

The great advantage in starting one’s career with shorts is that they can be achieved relatively quickly – a short can be conceived in two minutes, and made in not much more time – in 48 hours, for example. But a feature will take years to develop – 4, 5 and 7 in the cases of our panellists. Learning from one’s mistakes happens quickly with shorts, and relatively painlessly, given that very few people actually see them – unless of course one’s short is funded, in which case everyone sees it, and one’s mistakes are really exposed. Marcon: “You’re making your crap films in public!”

New and more accessible technology is making the learning process cheaper too – though, as Sarkies commented (and he’s not the first), it’s not making student films overall any better.

The discussion moved into the practicalities of making films, particularly from the viewpoint of a director. The group was unanimous that “passion” (that perhaps overworked term) for the project was critical, as was the tenacity to see it through. Liang mentioned the need for humility on the part of the director; and this linked with the idea expressed by all the speakers that the co-operative nature of the enterprise, along with the organic nature of the process, must be embraced. Liang went on to say that one doesn’t need to be an asshole to get what you want on set; Sarkies added that, in fact, such behaviour works against you.

When directing, knowing the world of your story inside out is critical. Being on set means being confronted with a zillion questions from crew and cast – with literally only a second or two to answer each one. Always remember that your source material is your guiding light; the real voice of the film is always in the original script or other source material. Go back to that when you get lost – which you most certainly will at some stage! Ask yourself what is was that inspired you originally… The more you know your (story) world, the more truthful your world will be on screen.

In writing a film, passion was again regarded as essential to enable one to stay the course. Marcon: “If you’re going to make a horror just because they’re successful and popular, then you should be doing something else.”

Sarkies referred to his time as a reader for the Film Commission. “We could always tell when someone was trying to please the funders. We didn’t want that – we wanted something that made us think, Yes, I want to see that on the big screen.” Similarly, he advised, don’t try to look ‘professional’ by writing in crane shots and suchlike – it just makes you look ‘try-hard’.

At this point, Caroline Grose opened the discussion to questions from the floor – the first of which asked for more on how to find one’s own voice.

Sarkies thinks he still hasn’t found his yet – besides, it changes over time. He suspects that as one gets older, one’s voice probably becomes more generic…

Going back to the approach to directing, another question from the floor asked how one finds the balance between collaboration with one’s colleagues and being a control freak in order to get what one wants.

Sarkies observed that crew and cast want to know that they’re working with someone who does know what they’re after – when the truth is that most often they don’t! But what you do want, he said, is that your film has a voice – and not necessarily yours only. You need to be open to suggestion – what you want is not just what you want, but also what your colleagues can add to that. And they can: “Once you have inspired them with your passion, they will come back to you with 300% of choices, options and creativity.” Marcon: “If you inspire people, and you trust them, your film gets better.”

This flows into post, particularly in regard to the relationship between director and editor – the editor really is “the other director”, said Sarkies. Every film would be different if edited by a different person, so: “Let go your ego!”

Marcon added more to the notion of “letting go”; she suggested that one needs some weeks between finishing shooting and starting the edit to let go of all that happened on set. One needs that break so that one can be more open-minded during the editing process. She also emphasised the need for trust between director and editor. Again, the idea of collaboration as an essential ingredient in the process. Sarkies: “In the end, everyone thinks that one person’s made a film – but that’s bullshit. Hundreds of people have made it.”

The final question related to the filmmaker’s audience.
Liang: “Yes, there’s all this pressure from outside – audience, audience, audience!”
Sarkies: “Pretend that you know your audience; but trust your own sensibilities.”
Marcon: “With a feature, you have to consider the audience carefully. But with a short, don’t worry about it! Just make the film as truthful as possible.”
Sarkies: “A short? Make it for yourself. The audience is the producer’s job!”

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