Are we in the middle of a short‑film revolution? Not long ago, if you wanted to catch short work by exciting new film-makers, you had to travel to a festival, hunt down a compilation on DVD, catch a charitable showing on TV or, if you were uncommonly lucky, before the main feature at the cinema. Now all you have to do, assuming you have internet access and a passing familiarity with video-hosting websites, is switch on your computer.
The curious thing about short films is that, regardless of audience and financial incentive, people have continued to make them with great enthusiasm. This is in part because the short has come to be viewed as a practice space for student film-makers or a calling card to show that those involved are fit to make a "proper" film, ie a feature. But shorts can be much more than exercises or glorified showreels; innovative, daring, thought-provoking things can be done in two minutes – or 12 or 22 – that simply wouldn't work at feature length.
The past decade has seen an explosion of video online. The rise of YouTube and more high-brow sharing sites such as Vimeo means that, now, the humble short has a mainstream, global audience. A film that strikes a chord can be watched by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, who will offer feedback and support and perhpas recommend it to their friends.
Many film-makers still balk at the idea of putting their work on the internet, but the advantages are hard to ignore, even if it means forfeiting revenue to gain publicity. This is excellent news for audiences. The sheer volume of short films that can be watched for free online will make your head spin. Inevitably, a lot of it ranges from the bad to the ugly, but there is more than enough good out there to make the search worthwhile.
This selection, compiled over months of viewing, aims to represent not just the quality of what's on offer from a new generation of web-savvy film-makers, but also the variety. As traditional shorts mingle with other types of video online, it's becoming more difficult to define what constitutes a short film. Music videos are adopting increasingly complex themes and sophisticated narratives. Commercials play like miniature movies, with branding banished to the margins. Spike Jonze's latest short, I'm Here, is an affecting 30-minute piece about robot love and sacrifice in LA that happens to be funded by a vodka company.
"When you get sent something or discover something on the internet, you don't necessarily go, 'Oh look, that's a short film,'" says Fabien Riggall, founder of the global short-film network Future Shorts. "My feeling that short film is music video, documentary, viral, animation, branded content..."
The internet isn't just expanding our notion of what short films are, it's also influencing how many film-makers work. This can be seen as a profoundly exciting development, but it also gives rise to cynicism. Recent studies have shown that the average viewer spends less than one minute per clip on YouTube. So how do films compete in this clamorous environment? Typically, by grabbing the viewer's attention within the first 30 seconds and not letting go. Sex helps, as do gimmicks and the willingness to shock. Does this mean it's a survival of the loudest and most outrageous?
Not necessarily. Some film-makers have very cannily embraced the fickleness of online culture, turning the manipulation of short attention spans into art. Spike Jonze, who started off making music videos for similarly fickle MTV audiences in the 90s, is a prime example. Others include Keith Schofield, whose work can be brazenly cynical yet still feels distinctive, new and exciting.
Another response is to make films that are ultra-short but so packed with detail that they demand to be watched over and over. Work by directors such as PES seems tailormade for the computer screen, where you can take a closer look, and pause, and replay, until all the details have been satisfactorily unpacked.
You don't always have to raise your voice, or flash some skin, or cut yourself short, to create a buzz online. Peter and Ben is a contemplative, slow-moving and charming mini-documentary about a man and a sheep and has been watched more than 300,000 times on YouTube. "How many festivals would you have to show at to get that many viewers?" wonders its director, Pinny Grylls.
Peter and Ben
Director: Pinny Grylls, UK, 2007
When a video becomes an online hit, racking up views in the hundreds of thousands, it usually ticks a number of boxes – short, snappy, attention-grabbing. If it contains comedy, sex or violence, that's a bonus. What you don't expect an online hit to involve is a reclusive, grey-bearded man in the Welsh mountains and his friendship with a nonconformist sheep. "It's a gentle, lyrical film," says Pinny Grylls, the director of Peter and Ben, which has attracted more than 300,000 views since it was uploaded two years ago. "I don't know who these viewers are."
Grylls, 32, cut her teeth making short documentaries for the Arts Council's Creative Partnerships programme. Peter and Ben was a project she nurtured over several years and completed with funding from the UK Film Council. "Peter is an old friend of the family who became a recluse 30 years ago," says Grylls. "I've always thought he was extraordinary." Out of all the footage she shot of Peter, Grylls picked out the story of his relationship with Ben. "This sheep is more like his friend than a pet. The story is really simple, but universal in a quirky way: the son not wanting to join the flock, but eventually joining and the father not wanting him to."
The film has won prizes and numerous accolades, not least from German director Werner Herzog, who awarded it first prize in a competition run by British film community Shooting People, remarking: "The soul of the sheep is inside the man and soul of the man is inside the sheep." That, says Grylls, a huge Herzog fan, "was the greatest day of my life".
She has mixed feelings, however, about the current state of short films. "There has been a lot of excitement about them recently, and it's certainly growing, but short films haven't become mainstream yet." It all comes down to economics, she suggests. "You can't really make a living out of them. It took an awful lot of effort to make Peter and Ben, but what money it made went straight back to the UK Film Council."
Grylls now works primarily in television, although she sees the value of the internet as a platform. "You have a direct interface with your audience. They leave comments, which is amazing for a film-maker. I've had people email me from Korea, Afghanistan, saying how much they were touched by this film. You really get things back from people if you put work online."
Grylls recommends The Apology Line by James Lees
THE SILENT SHORT
The Black Hole
Dir. Phil and Olly, UK, 2008
When your debut short film clocks up more than 8,000,000 views on YouTube, you're bound to get some interesting feedback from the world. After London-based directing duo Phil Sansom and Olly Williams made The Black Hole, winner of the Virgin media shorts competition in 2008, emails were arriving from "pastors in Oklahoma wanting to show it as part of their sermon preaching about greed". Kanye West gave it a shout-out, and a student doing work experience with them exclaimed: "You guys made that? They teach it at my film school as a perfect short film."
Not bad for a wordless, one-man short that was shot in less than a day on borrowed equipment. "We lucked out with Napoleon Ryan," says Sansom, referring to the actor playing the film's sunken-eyed drone who, at the office photocopier one evening, makes a potentially lucrative discovery. "His facial expressions hold it all together." Ryan is great to watch, certainly, but the ingeniously simple concept deserves credit too. Next up for Phil and Olly, who make ads and music promos for a living, is a 15-minute short called Archaeology, a grisly thriller about an archaeologist who digs up a live human being.
Phil and Olly recommend Lucky by Nash Edgerton and Two Cars, One Night by Taika Waititi
THE ANIMATED SHORT
Dir. Lucas Martell, US, 2008
Pigeon: Impossible began life as a sketch about a man struggling with a box – a simple exercise to teach Lucas Martell, a 23-year-old aspiring director from Illinois, how to animate in 3D. The exercise achieved its aim and then some, expanding into a five-year enterprise. On its completion, it was still essentially about a man and a box, only now the man is a Washington spy, the box is his highly armed military briefcase and between them stands a troublesome pigeon.
What's extraordinary about Pigeon: Impossible is that it's a studio-quality short – you almost expect to see the Pixar logo on it – that was made with $10,000 and a lot of goodwill from an intern at a small animation company in Washington. Most of the budget was spent on the orchestral score. Martell estimates that if the six-minute film had been made professionally, with animators working at studio rates, it would have cost as much as $1.3m.
"Most of the success of the film was due to the podcast," says Martell, referring to a series of regular video posts on a dedicated website that he used to document the highs and lows of the process as the film was being made. "It helped build up a core base, so that once the film came out online, people who had been engaging with it watched it and told their friends."
He decided to stream the film for free after a six-month festival run. "The main thing was to get as many people to see it as possible and hope that it would pay off in another project. The more people that see it, the more that is likely to happen." The gamble looks like it's paying off. Nearly 6 million people have seen the film online and Martell, now 29, has just been snapped up by the UK animation studio Partizan Lab.
Martell recommends Sebastian's Voodoo by Joaquin Baldwin
THE VIRAL PROMO
Dir. Adam Berg, Sweden, 2009
Two thoughts occur while watching Carousel, the award-winning short by Swedish promo director Adam Berg. The first tells you: this has got to be an ad. With its high production values, expensive effects and glossy finish, it belongs in a different tax bracket to other short films you see online. The second says: but this can't be an ad. It has guns, explosions, killer clowns and dead cops.
Both thoughts are correct – kind of. Carousel is an example of a growing trend in film-making: the branded short film. High-profile directors such as David Lynch and Martin Scorsese have dabbled with the concept, usually at the behest of fashion houses. The results are often compromised by the brand association, or just not very good, but Berg's film stands up – and you could watch it without knowing that it was commissioned by Philips to flog a line of widescreen TVs.
The premise – a frozen moment in the aftermath of a bank heist gone wrong, with a camera looping through the freeze-framed carnage – suggests it was fiendishly complex to make, but Berg executed it in a pleasingly analogue way. "People are standing still," he laughs. "There was a bit of computer animation involved, but mostly it's people hanging on wires."
The film was shot in a single weekend in a gymnasium in Prague. Since it was a relatively small project, bound for the internet, Berg says he was given "a huge amount of freedom. You don't have to follow broadcasting laws, so we could show guns and scary images". Projects like this are still uncommon, but Berg hopes the trend will pick up. "I think this is the best way to work. You get funding as well as freedom to develop your own ideas. It's great advertising, too. That's the beauty of the internet. You really have to make something good to get people's attention. You can't just buy their time. You need to make them interested."
Berg recommends Rupert Sanders's spot for Halo ODST
THE MUSIC VIDEO
Heaven Can Wait, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Dir. Keith Schofield, US, 2009
When aspiring film-makers seek advice from Keith Schofield, viral mastermind and the brains behind this superlative Charlotte Gainsbourg promo, he gives them a very clear set of guidelines. "Find an upbeat band who want to do a music video and do it on spec. Do something fun, funny, provocative or R-rated. Ask yourself: what would make anyone want to email this clip to a friend? Take advantage of the fact that this won't be playing on MTV – have stuff like nudity, violence, trademarked brands, etc..."
In other words, do what Schofield did at the start of his career with a little-known band called Wintergreen. On the back of 1 million views online in the days before YouTube, he landed his first commercial and went on to direct cool, clever promos for Supergrass and Fatboy Slim. He became (in)famous for his work on Diesel's SFW campaign, one of the biggest-ever pieces of viral advertising, thanks to its enterprising marriage of pornography and MS Paint.
Schofield epitomises a new generation of digital-age film-makers, versed in pop culture, clued-up on advertising techniques, and not afraid to deploy gimmicks in order to make themselves heard over the internet babble. But his video for "Heaven Can Wait" is anything but gimmicky and it proves you also need film‑making talent if you want to stand out.
"The basic concept was to recreate 50 photos that I found online and cut between them every few seconds. I was really shocked when they went for it. My videos can usually be summed up pretty well on paper, like, 'Here's the gimmick.' But something like this, where you ask the artist to trust the director that it's going to be awesome – it took a real leap. I always thought it would be the greatest video I'd never get to make."
Schofield recommends The work of Cyriak
THE CAMPAIGN FILM
Dir. Ramin Bahrani, US, 2009
"It seems like more people have seen this short film than any of my features," laughs Ramin Bahrani, the young Iranian-American director of Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo whom US critic Roger Ebert named "director of the decade" last year. He's talking about Plastic Bag, his strange and wonderful 18-minute film that follows the journey of a salmon-pink shopping bag from supermarket checkout to its final resting place in the Pacific trash vortex, via the home of its beloved "maker". It was commissioned by Futurestates, a series of digital shorts promoting environmental awareness, but Bahrani wanted to make more than an agenda film. The result is unexpectedly poignant, and funny too, thanks in no small part to Werner Herzog, who gives the bag a human voice. What begins as a story about a talking piece of plastic ends up a deeply felt meditation on existence and one's purpose in life.
If you liked this... Check out The Majestic Plastic Bag, an eerily similar film voiced by Jeremy Irons, which cropped up online last month. Coincidence?
THE ACTION SHORT
Dir. Patrick Jean, France, 2010
Short films made primarily for online consumption often share particular areas of fascination. One is video games: nostalgic nods to early classics crop up again and again. Another, in the wake of Neill Blomkamp's District 9 (and the short film it was based on, Alive in Joburg, is invasion by alien forces. Parisian director Patrick Jean combines the two preoccupations to dazzling and hilarious effect in Pixels, his first proper short film. Here, the alien invaders are old video-game characters who explode out of a discarded monitor in a cloud of multicoloured pixels and proceed to terrorise New York. Space Invaders baddies zap yellow cabs, reducing them to blocks of graphics. Pac-Man chomps up dots on the subway map, causing stations to dematerialise. Colossal Tetris blocks wreak havoc on the Empire State Building. Before long, the whole world is one giant pixel block. Jean uploaded the film in April. Since then, the 32-year-old has been in conversation with the likes of Dreamworks and Sony Animation.
If you liked this... Watch giant robots invade Montevideo in Panic Attack! by Fede Alvarez
THE STOP-MOTION ANIMATION
Dir. PES, US, 2008
"The internet is an intimate venue," says Adam Pesapane, a 36-year-old New Jersey film-maker who makes short, smart, stop-motion animations under the name PES. "When I started putting work online, all films were 320 x 240 resolution and you had to really lean in to see them properly." If you view Western Spaghetti from a distance, you might mistake it for a cookery video on how to make pasta with tomato sauce. Lean in a little closer and you'll realise that nothing in PES's world is quite as it seems.
The origin of Western Spaghetti was, according to Pesapane, "the idea of using Post-it notes for butter. I had used food as substitutes for other objects before, but I'd never made a film where other objects are substituted for food. Then I had another idea. My mother used to say good pasta should be firm and never rubbery. This is interesting because rubber bands look exactly like cooked spaghetti. And if that's spaghetti, what's uncooked spaghetti? So I began to play this game with myself."
The game plays out across the whole recipe. The connections aren't always obvious but they make peculiar sense in the film, even if you don't get wise to PES's arcane visual and verbal puns. "Garlic is played by Rubik's Cube. Sea salt is played by googly eyes. Tin foil is used as oil..."
Most PES films are less than one minute long, but you could watch Western Spaghetti 20 times and still not absorb every detail. "I wanted to make films that were rewatchable. In many ways, they are designed for a space that is clickable, where you can stop and take a closer look."
When Pesapane made his first animation, Roof Sex, in 2001, he emailed it to 50 friends. "Two weeks later, I heard people talking about it in a bar. That was the point I realised the real power of the internet." Thanks to his background in New York advertising, he has been able to exploit the viral video phenomenon online and turn his surrealistic hobby into a money-making operation (based on YouTube advertising revenue). But that's not to say his films are insubstantial. Western Spaghetti was made over two painstaking months. "I work really hard for simplicity. I really treat this as an art. The internet is a democratic theatre and I have a notion that these films can exist online for centuries."
PES recommends This "learn English" commercial that went viral back in the late 1990s [contains strong language]