Short Films

Spotlight on Shorts: Alma

Christmas time is only a day away and to close out my month of holiday themed short films I’ve decided to save the best for last. So far we’ve seen a holiday themed zombie apocalypse, killer Christmas trees and a plot to kill Santa Claus, but “Alma”, a 2009 Best Animation winner at the LA Shorts Fest, is probably the darkest of them all. The best way I can describe the film is it’s the result of what happens when you combine the feel of Toy Story with the plot of Child’s Play.

If you noticed that “Alma” looks and feels a lot like a Pixar film, you’re not mistaken. The director Rodrigo Blaas was an animator for the Oscar winning powerhouse and worked on such films as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and WallŸ⋅E.

Much like the opening scene in Up, “Alma” contains no dialogue. The entire story is told visually. You might also notice that the score of the film is reminiscent of many Pixar films such as Ratatouille, but unlike that film the music belies the dark nature of the film.

In it a little girl by the name of Alma is happily skipping through the snow when she comes upon a doll the bears a striking similarity to her. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the toyshop to investigate.

Unlike “Treevenge” or “Preferably Blue“, “Alma” doesn’t rely on gore or adult subject matter to garner its Dark Fantasy label. In fact, “Alma” is relatively kid friendly; it’s simply the implications of what the film ultimately portrays that will probably scare the piss out of your children. It’s like the Joe Camel of holiday shorts; visually appealing to kids but harboring a dark, dark secret.

Filmmakers might be able to take a page out of “Alma” in terms of how dark subject matter can be presented in many different ways. The film proves that unlike films such as A Nightmare Before Christmas, dark fantasy doesn’t always have to rely on death or the macabre to get the message through. Instead, “Alma” uses plot devices more akin to an episode of The Twilight Zone than a Tim Burton film.

I hope you all have enjoyed this my picks this year for holiday themed shorts. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find a slew of others to share with you next year. I’ll be taking a little break for the holidays, but stop by next week where I plan to pick my five favorite indie films of the year. Also, plan on seeing another Focus on Filmmakers early in January where I’ll be interviewing another local talent. Happy Holidays everyone!

Indie Intros: James Cameron’s Xenogenesis

“Xenogenesis” is the first film directed by James Cameron back in 1978. It’s showcases an impressive amount of special effects, something Cameron would be known for throughout his career. It’s also chock full of themes and scenarios that fans of Cameron will immediately recognize. The plot involves a team of two that go to explore an abandoned ship. They come across a robot that is still operational and as “Xenogenesis’s” Wiki page describes, “Combat Ensues.”

“Xenogenesis” really is an interesting watch for anyone who is familiar with James Cameron’s films. Many of the central themes and plots in his later works are addressed in “Xenogenisis”. The initial setup for “Xenogenesis” is very similar to films like The Abyss, Aliens and Prometheus; a team of specialists set out to investigate an alien local and then inevitably encounter danger. To add to the Cameron lore, the central theme of Man vs. Machine that he explores in films like The Terminator is also a big part of this short as the two main characters must fight off a giant machine that doesn’t take kindly to intruders.

Aside from plot and theme similarities, “Xenogenesis” also foreshadows other characters, scenes and techniques that Cameron would later expand upon in his later films. The character of Laurie is not unlike Ripley from Aliens or Sarah Conner from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a woman who can take care of herself and doesn’t fall into the old damsel in distress trope. On top of that, Laurie’s battle with the giant robot is almost identical to Ripley’s battle with the Xenomorph Queen in Aliens.

Cameron’s use of stop motion animation from movies like The Terminator is also on full display here. It’s clear that both robots use stop motion to come to life, much like when the T-800 walks out of the fire in the original Terminator. Also Cameron throws in a little hidden homage to stop motion. The score to “Xenogenesis” is taken from the films Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island both directed by Ray Harryhausen, one of the biggest pioneers in stop motion movie making.

James Cameron has always been one of those directors that come to film with a very clear “vision”. His work with special effects has come to define his career and it’s interesting to see where the roots of a film like Avatar came from. Also, like many great directors, Cameron revisits certain themes throughout his catalogue. “Xenogenesis” shows that much of what we would come to see in films like The Terminator and Alien franchises were a result of his ponderings during his early filmmaking years.

Spotlight on Shorts: Preferably Blue

“Preferably Blue” is a nice little animated short out of New Zealand and is directed by Alan Dickson. It’s a dark comedy that is told in the same vein as “Twas a Night Before Christmas”. In it the Easter Bunny has hit rock bottom. Things are so bad that he’s taken to drinking and is dependent on anti-depressants. He comes to the realization that the cause of his depression is stems from children’s love of Christmas over Easter. This turns the bunny into a Scrooge of sorts and he devises a plot to kill Santa Clause and take his magical sack. What results is an adult version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

“Preferably Blue” manages to just toe the line between adult humor and children’s fairy tale just enough to keep both intact without corrupting the other. I’m not saying that you should gather the kids around the computer screen and roast chestnuts to it, but those of you that grew up with the old Rankin/Bass TV specials. Although it’s CG animated, you will immediately see where “Preferably Blue’s” inspirations come from. “Preferably Blue” manages to keep of some of the innocence intact by delivering a lot of its humor through double entendre. After a while of viewing the film, you can’t help but begin to laugh at lines like “Santa’s sack”. Sure, you may think the humor is somewhat sophomoric, but get too clever and you begin to lose the childish magic commonly associated with Christmas tales. Also, by keeping it light-hearted, it allows the audience member not to take darker themes like murder and loss too seriously.

Much like The Grinch, “Preferably Blue” stays true to the message of so many Christmas tales, that the holidays are a time for sharing, forgiveness and helping one’s neighbor. It is a set of beliefs so common, especially in Western Culture, it’s impossible to imagine a holiday story that doesn’t end by celebrating these festive principles. Even films like Bad Santa end with the anti-hero ultimately surrendering to lure of the Christmas Spirit. This seems to be the one unifying trait that separates holiday movies from all the rest. Although predictable, it’s become a standard, like weddings at the end of a Shakespearean comedy. This is not a criticism of holiday movies by any means. Holiday movies distinguish themselves from other cinematic fare in another important way; they’re rarely viewed outside of the holidays. With that in mind, Christmas and other holiday movies seem to play a very important role in moviegoers lives, to get them to share in the Holiday spirit.

Indie Intros: Robert Rodriguez’s Bedhead

Love him or hate him, Robert Rodriguez is on of the biggest names associated with guerilla filmmaking, a form of independent filmmaking that uses low budgets, small crews and stolen locations to get the best out of production value while still keeping cost extremely low. His book Rebel Without a Crew is an interesting read for any indie filmmaker. It recounts the making of his ultra-low budget feature El Mariachi, where Rodriguez goes as far as to sell his body to science to finance the film. From the mid nineties to early 2000’s, there was a surge of guerilla filmmakers like Rodriguez. Kevin Smith, John Linklater and Quentin Tarantino not only were getting features made for thousands of dollars, but also found the films getting picked up by major studios and winning big at film festivals.

Rodriguez’s short film “Bedhead” was made in 1990 and if you watch closely you will see common themes that he would come to revisit in later films. It tells the tale of a girl who gets in a fight with her older brother and as a result gains super powers due to a small case of head trauma.

From the opening credits, we begin to see some trademarks that would define Rodriguez’s career. I’ve already discussed Rodriguez’s love for comics before and we see that reflected in the film’s introduction.

Although Rodriguez is probably best know for films like Sin City, Machete and From Dusk Till Dawn, he is also the guy responsible for the popular Spy Kids franchise. In fact, despite his penchant for directing highly stylized, violent action movies, his highest grossing films come from his work with children. “Bedhead” foreshadows Rodriguez’s penchant for making children’s films like Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl as well as the many familial themes those films explore.

Another common characteristic of Robert Rodriguez films is his exploration of Mexican and Mexican-American cultural themes. Films like Machete and Once Upon a Time in Mexico borrow heavily from classic Mexploitation films, where films like Spy Kids portray the life a common Latin-American family with extraordinary abilities. “Bedhead” has shades of the latter, depicting a sibling rivalry within a Latin-American family unit.

Finally, there are a few homages to other filmmakers that can be found in “Bedhead”. It’s pretty clear that Rodriguez borrowed heavily from Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead films. The famous high-speed POV tracking shot from The Evil Dead can be seen in “Bedhead” along with Lock and Load montages popular in many of Raimi’s films as well as the Rambo franchise.

“Bedhead” is the type of short I like to see from famous visionary directors like Rodriguez. The type that someone can watch and immediately recognize common themes that will come to define a director’s more iconic films. Shorts like these show how an amateur director can start with an idea and then expand upon it later in life.

Spotlight on Shorts: Treevenge

One sad Christmas memory I recall was the annual disposing of the tree. My parents would drive out to the designated dumping grounds and throw the wilting symbol of Christmas spirit back to nature from whence it came. I can still envision the hundreds of dead trees piled upon one another waiting to become mulch or maybe those paper containers Chinese food comes in. To this day I still consider this often overlooked holiday moment to be cruel, despite the fact that I still have no problem eating the hell out of a bacon wrapped filet of beef.

If you’ve ever wanted to see humans finally receiving some comeuppance for their crimes against nature, I present to you “Treevenge” a film by Jason Eisener. Any of you who are familiar with Eisener’s other major work, Hobo With A Shotgun, shouldn’t be too shocked at what they see in “Treevenge”. Much like Hobo With a Shotgun, “Treevenge” takes much from gore-heavy exploitation films (Translation: This video is NSFW). Virtually everyone in this film is subject to a violent death, and I mean everyone. “Treevenge” is not a film that follows any conventional movie “rules”; in fact, it seems more likely that Eisener is consciously trying to break them.

Normally, I’m not a fan of unnecessary sex or violence in movies. Not to say that I’m against sex and violence in and of themselves, but I prefer that there be some justification for their existence in film and not just filmed to increase ticket sales. I make an exception when I come across the type of over-the-top exploitation found in a film like “Treevenge”. This type of exploitation can be found in a lot of Sam Raimi’s work as well as most of Troma’s film catalogue. In films like these you’re almost certain to find insane levels of violence, sexism and objectification, but it comes at you in such absurdly large doses it can’t possibly be taken seriously.

“Treevenge” does some very interesting things with point of view. We actually witness the film from the trees’ perspective. The humans in the film are such overblown caricatures personifying violence and evil, it’s hard to really feel any remorse for them when the bloodshed begins. Furthermore, every death, no matter how taboo or repulsive, is done with a sort of “wink, wink” to the audience. Each death comes complete with some kind of gimmick to make it even more unbelievable. As a result the audiences’ compassion is on the side of these murdering trees who dole out violence in such tongue and cheek way it comes off as entertainment.

Whether you’re a fan of over-the-top exploitation films or not, “Treevenge” still manages to serve as a lesson of how point of view can be used to instill compassion in a protagonist. Even when the protagonists act in ways that are clearly immoral, compassion can still be established by seeing the story through their eyes. And yes, I’m aware trees don’t have eyes.

Indie Intros: Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’

So I’ve decided to add a segment to the blog, one that will hopefully show that every filmmaker, even the great ones, started out somewhere. Indie Intros will look at early short films from famous directors made well before they were ever household names. The goal will be to pick up on early influences, analyze growth or simply sit back and enjoy the early works of filmmaking’s finest. To kick it off, I’ve decided to start with arguably the most famous name in film, Steven Spielberg.

“Amblin'” is one of Spielberg’s very first short films. It was directed in 1968 and shot on good old 35mm. The name “Amblin” would later become synonymous with some of Spielberg’s best work. In 1981 Amblin Entertainment was founded with Spielberg’s partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall and would go on to produce some of the most memorable films from directors such as Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood, Richard Donner, Martin Scorsese and The Coen Brothers.

“Amblin'” as a film, probably doesn’t hold up very well by today’s standards. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just very late 60’s. For instance, the tag line for the film is, “He and she were thumb-trippin’. They had the makin’s… and the tail-end of summer.” I have absolutely no idea what that’s supposed to mean. On top of that, virtually every stereotype we’ve come to know about the hippy generation is in this film. Folk music? Check. Psychedelic double exposures? All day. Drug use? Of course. Free love? Why not? Volkswagen Type 2’s? How else would you get around? There’s even a shot of sunflowers blowing in the wind for good measure. To sum the plot, it’s really just two unnamed kids walking through desert landscapes for 25 minutes on their way to Mordor or someplace.

“Amblin'” has no dialogue to speak of. As a film study, it’s interesting, because what plot points we get must be told through the actions of the characters. We know that the two are hitchhiking, that’s clear by the setting. There’s a sort of hesitance with the boy, as he holds on tight to his guitar case, not letting anyone touch it. What could he be hiding? The girl, on the other hand, is clearly the “free spirit” of the two. She hands the boy his first joint, invites him into her sleeping bag and generally frees his mind. She’s basically the late 60’s version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s almost as if Spielberg is channeling the silent film directors of old and giving them a swinging sixties makeover.

What may come surprising to many filmmakers used to digital movie making, is that “Amblin'” cost around $15,000 to make. The type of production value you can get with $15,000 on modern equipment might have you scoffing at “Amblin'”, but instead, take this as a history lesson as to how expensive it used to be to shoot on film.

Ultimately, “Amblin'” would go on to win festival awards at the Atlanta Film Festival and Worldfest Houston. It eventually found it’s way to Universal, where they offered Spielberg a seven-year contract.

Spotlight On Shorts: Tanghi Argentini

We’re continuing our Spotlight of holiday themed shorts with a short film from Belgium, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2008. “Tanghi Argentini” or “Argentine Tango” is a film directed by Guy Thys and written by Geert Verbanck, that tells the story of André, a middle aged office worker, who makes the age old mistake of lying on an online dating site to impress a girl. When André strikes a date with a Tango aficionado, he must convince Franz, a co-worker who’s the cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and Yul Brenner, to school him in the art of dance.

The first thing you might notice about the film is the muted color palette. Blacks, greys, and whites dominate most of the scenery. Very rarely do we get a green from a Christmas tree in the background or yellow from the sun shining through a distant window. This seems to highlight the drab and boring existence that is André’s life. Even Franz, who is supposed to be sparking the passion in him, is dressed like he’s going to a funeral most of the film. The first time we really ever see a noticeable change is when André shows up to his date wearing a red rose in his lapel.

This is all very deliberate, as we are finally introduced to André’s date, Suzanne, in a striking red dress and sultry lipstick. This sudden injection is a great example of how color can be used as a kind of subtext in film. In this case, red can be representing André’s passion, as it has finally begun to flourish with his learning the Tango. Suzanne, on the other hand, is practically brimming with it, as she represents André’s escape from his colorless life.

Something else to note is the lighting. “Tanghi Argentini” is lit very similar to a film noir, with dim lights casting hard shadows. This gives an air of mystery to the film, possibly suggesting that not everything is as it seems.

Like many good shorts, “Tanghi Argentini” does take an unexpected twist, the kind that will have you going back to the beginning asking, “How did I miss that?” As good as the story is, I think the best thing to take away from the film is how Thys uses lighting and color to visually guide us through the story. This has been used to much effect in films such as Shindler’s List and The Sixth Sense. Filmmakers should take note on how “Tanghi Argentini” again proves how good cinematography can be used to tell a story just as dialogue can.

Spotlight On Shorts: Dark Times

Whether you love them or hate them, one thing’s for sure, holidays are right around the corner and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. For the next month leading up to Christmas I’ll be spotlighting select holiday themed shorts for your viewing pleasure. For our first freakishly festive film I give you “Dark Times”, directed by Peter Horn and Jared Marshall, a tight five-minute short shot completely in the first person.

The directors’ choice to shoot POV gives this film a feel like being on a Disneyland ride. Try to imagine Star Tours set in a zombie apocalypse during Christmas time and you’ll get a good idea of what I’m talking about. The tight running time combined with the shaky cam really amp up the pace of this film.

Another interesting aspect of the film is how quickly we’re thrust into the action. There is no introduction of characters. The film simply doesn’t have time for it. We follow a man, we can only assume is a friend of ours, through a dark forest evading the undead and the like. As we continue through the mayhem that ensues, we are introduced to other zombie apocalypse tropes we have come to expect from the genre. The filmmakers even spare us the end credits as if to protect us from anything that might bog down the fast pace of the film.

An interesting thing happens about halfway through the film that changes the mood and pacing. I won’t give it away, but watch how Horn and Marshall play with our perspective by use of color and camera movement. Those familiar to first person gaming will recognize some of the tricks the directors use, which lead me to believe that Horn and Marshall have probably played their fair share of Call of Duty. Really, this could make a pretty good video game trailer.

Those of you looking to pick up some tips on pacing should give this one a view. “Dark Times” relies on zombie fandom and knowledge of the genre to tell most of the story for us. What’s left is an interesting study on the many ways POV can be used in film.

Spotlight on Shorts: Self Esteem: Jenny Slate

In 2009 Jenny Slate was fired from Saturday Night Live for a slip of the tongue. Despite SNL producing a number of controversial skits, there are some words you simply can’t say on network TV at 11:30 at night. This one happened to start with “F” end with “G” and rhymes with “sucking” which SNL can be from time to time.

Since then Slate has been seen in just about everything from Parks and Recreation, House of Lies, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the recently amazing Obvious Child. Apart from her success in TV and Film, Slate and her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, have made a number of short films together including the popular and heart melting “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.  “Self Esteem: Jenny Slate” is another one of their many short film contributions directed by Fleischer and starring Slate. It’s a film that shows the dichotomy between expectation and reality as a group of mysterious onlookers watch and comment on Jenny Slate’s life. Like “Marcel The Shell”, “Self Esteem” manages to be humorous and heart breaking at the same time.

What particularly struck me about “Self Esteem” is the usage of conflicting visual and audio elements. In it, we never see the onlookers who are clearly enamored with Slate and spend the whole film speculating on how amazing it must be to be her. In contrast, we have Jenny Slate, who says virtually nothing. Through subtle looks and actions Slate shows the audience the reality of her life, which is often in direct conflict with her onlookers observations. Through voiceover “Self Esteem” creates an unreliable narrator in the onlookers while Slate’s actions convey her true story to the audience, presumably unbeknownst to her.  What results is a film that manages to address how the expectations put on us can belie the realities we face everyday while also managing to comment on the dangers of putting people of fame on a pedestal.

This mixture of contrasting audio and video has been used to varying degrees in film.   David Lynch relied on it heavily to jar the audience in his film Eraserhead. In other films, music can been chosen to conflict with the feelings audiences commonly experience when viewing scenes of extreme violence like in Reservoir Dogs.

Audio doesn’t always have to complement a film. Sometimes by deliberately choosing what we hear to conflict with the mood of what we see, a filmmaker can explore complicated scenarios without any one character actually addressing it. What results is a film that interacts with the viewer, relying on their senses to connect with the underlying message rather than telling it outright. As an experiment, try watching “Self Esteem” on mute. Note how the message of the film is lost without the onlooker’s constant narration. By doing this you may get a better understanding of how audio and video can work together to tell a story.

Spotlight on Shorts: Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan

Filmmakers make shorts for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s to showcase their abilities on a small budget or win festival awards in a shorts category. It may even be because they have a compelling story, but it simply can’t be stretched out to 120-minutes. Still, some filmmakers use shorts as a way to pitch a potential feature-length film to audiences and investors by presenting it to them as a short for a fraction of the price. This can prove to be quite effective in that it allows viewers a chance to get a better feel for the full film by presenting it in the medium it’s intended for. Films like Saw have used this method of pitching to much success as their original short film has spawned an entire franchise.

One of my favorite horror movies of the last year was Oculus, directed by Mike Flanagan. The film particularly struck a chord with me because it relied heavily on psychological fear and suspense, a la The Shining, rather than the blitzkrieg of gore and jump-out-of-your-seat moments common with horror films nowadays. Even more impressive is that it’s a wonderfully shot film made for the low, low price of $5,000,000.

Much like Saw, Oculus started out as a 30-minute short entitled “Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan” (and yes, I did search for chapters 1 and 2 to no avail. They don’t appear to exist). Although it was never Flanagan’s original intention to pitch a feature film, the short managed to create enough buzz to attract studios interested in turning it into a full-length film.

The film is simple enough, using a simple white room as its only location and really only starring one actor (if you don’t count the pair of delivery guys who are on-screen for 30-seconds). Much like the feature, “Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan” relies on psychological fear and clever usage of audio to create tension. The rest of the film is purely expositional as the main character, Tim, tells us the history behind the mysterious Lasser Glass as well as his history with it. By keeping things simple, Flanagan managed to keep the budget of “Oculus Chapter 3” to around $1,500.

Those familiar with Oculus the feature will see similarities in plot in “Oculus Chapter 3”. What’s interesting to note is what was changed in its transition from short to feature. Originally, studios wanted Oculus to be a “found footage” film not unlike The Blair Witch Project or VHS, but Flanagan felt that route would destroy the concept of the film.

He had this to say:

“And kind of immediately, as it got out into the festival circuit, people were enjoying it and there was interest in expanding it into a feature — but everybody wanted to do the found footage thing because there was cameras in the room. And I didn’t think that worked for this story because the only thing that really is going to make it work is if we can say that what you’re seeing on the screen isn’t objective. Found footage has to be objective. You have to believe the frame.”

I couldn’t agree more with this. One of the most original things about this film is the ability to create fear around, what essentially is, an inanimate object that you can coincidently buy for $409.90 here if you want to scare the piss out of your visiting guests.

As the short film shows, by incorporating a sense of distortion by the use of editing and sound, the fear in “Oculus Chapter 3” comes from the journey the audience has with the protagonist as our senses are tested and we begin to lose faith in the objective. The fear of “found footage” films is quite the opposite. We trust modern-day audio and video equipment to show us the objective truth that can sometimes be clouded be the limitations of our own senses. “Found Footage” films count on this reality to reveal to us “reliable evidence” to give us physical proof to something that was previously considered metaphysical.

What may be of most use to filmmakers looking to use shorts to pitch a bigger features is how Flanagan manages to expand on “Oculus Chapter 3” in an interesting way without making things seem repetitive. Although films like Cast Away and Buried managed to build a feature around one character and one location, it would’ve been very hard to keep a horror film like Oculus interesting under he same conditions. I mean, mirrors are only so scary to a point.

Flanagan had this to say about the transition:

“The idea was always that we could take these two stories, braid them in a way that the transitions are getting tighter and tighter and tighter and we’re bouncing back more and more frequently, hopefully to the point that the two stories bleed together into a way that we can’t tell the difference any longer and the characters can’t tell the difference any longer. Especially dealing with a monster that’s an inanimate object, it’s the only way you can sustain tension over a long period of time, which was a big concern coming off the short.”

Shorts clearly can be made for a variety of reasons. Although most filmmakers don’t get into the shorts for their money-making potential, that doesn’t mean they can’t lead to bigger projects.  Keep that in mind when writing your next short. Perhaps the life of your short can extend beyond the 120-minute mark and on to the box office.