Rocks In My Pockets

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Does Size Matter? A Conversation with Three Filmmakers

Lately I’ve been thinking about the size of art—specifically short forms across the genres. In literature, compression and brevity—aesthetic experiences as “bursts” of meaning, capsules of experience—have always excited me: The writers I most admire all work masterfully in the short form. Every word, every phrase, every image counts; every moment does “triple duty” in working to resonate layers of meaning.

As writers, we are always immersing ourselves in other art forms for nourishment. For me, film in particular has been a mainstay. As both viewer and fellow storyteller, I learn enormously from films—about narrative structure, emotional texture, visual and aural detail, dialogue, characterization, et alia. Here at The Millions, you’ll be hearing more from me about film and TV, starting with this conversation with three accomplished filmmakers—a documentarian, an animator, and a fictionist—about the short form.

The Millions: As both makers and viewers of short films, what do you think the short form can do better/more compellingly than (or perhaps just differently from) the long form?

Cecilia Aldarondo: Great shorts are these little gems that can sometimes make their mark on us precisely because of their concision. As maker and viewer, I am attracted to shorts because they enable us to dip our toes into an idea without having the burden of too much elaboration. As a filmmaker, I can treat a short like a game. There’s a low-stakes lightness to the process. With a feature, the pressures of fundraising and distribution can really tax the creative process. With a short, I don’t even have to worry if anyone sees it. I feel the luxury of experimentation. I also like to treat shorts as opportunities for collaboration—I can say to a busy friend, hey, let’s make this thing over a weekend or a week or whatever, and this low-pressure situation enables me to remember that art-making is supposed to involve play, failure, and elasticity, and how rewarding it can be to be new at something.

Sometimes, though, I do find the short form too slight, or too simple, for me to really tackle something. One of the current documentaries I’m making—a feature exploring the aftermath of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico—began as a short film. Very quickly I realized that I couldn’t do justice to the seismic nature of this disaster in a short form. It just didn’t work; the short was cacophonous and didn’t hang together. I also think sometimes filmmakers are more susceptible to triteness in a short; I feel like I’ve seen a lot of shorts fall back on cheap tropes that reinforce unhealthy stereotypes. I actually think it can be harder to be original in a short.

George Griffin: “Does Size Matter?” What is it, this short form, besides length?

My position is temperamental: I worship the letter, analogous to the drawing, the frame, the most elemental piece of motion picture film. Look at the letter G. It contains hints of an unjoined circle, itself hinged by a straight line. It exists alone, on a plinth, glanced at or holding my focus while I wander around it, close up or from across the room. Maybe it’s a clean Swiss font, or there are scratchy marks, drop shadows, curlicues. I draw it a certain way, maybe after numerous stylistic revisions, erasures, alternating colors.

Letters build words, which could arrange themselves into sentences, often leading to paragraphs clumped atop each other into stories. And that’s it. I can’t see anything longer through the fog: too far away. Well, not quite. Just as a longer form can contain more than one story, there can be a dialectic of story and counter-story. I have made both cartoons and what I’ve called “anti-cartoons,” and on two occasions have combined them into a single, somewhat longer film.

Just as early cartoons often arose from comic strips, perhaps the size/length issue will continue to be affected by the graphic novel. And maybe the cliché “poetic,” so often used to describe short film, can evolve into a real dialogue.

TM: George, how then do you think about “story?”  There is certainly a sense of narrative in your more recent films “You’re Outta Here” and “It Pains Me to Say This.” Do you tend to begin with characters and narrative, or does image or shape or color come first?  Is it different with each film?

GG: Since the ’80s, when I lost interest in “self-referential” art, I’ve returned to cartoons (even abstractions) which are drenched in narrative or at least memoirish detritus. “Outta Here” was a commissioned film/music video, for the singer/lyricist Lorraine Feather. I think it came out of her confusion/anger over a break-up. Maybe relief too. So, maybe a story can grow out of deep feelings; nothing new there, nor is humorizing the pain.

Another recent film, “Coal Creek,” has two stories loosely woven together. One is a fanciful documentary about John Kasper, a follower of Ezra Pound who left his bookshop in the West Village to fight against school integration in the ’50s. The other is a memoir of my liberal teenage years growing up near the specific school that Kasper targeted in Tennessee. The only on-camera narrator is the school’s janitor who had bravely walked to the all-white school as a kid. He says, “I saw Kasper. Oh, he looked a little like you!” My research also led to Kasper’s black girlfriend whom he had left behind 60 years before (she didn’t want to be part of the film). Imagine, “Coal Creek” could have been a mixed-form, anti-doc feature, not a 10-minute short.

Julian Kim: Where feature-length films invite people to a world, I think short films invite people to an idea. A short film is like a parable. It packages a simple message that is intended to inspire, provoke, reproach, and move those who watch it. But also, it gives room for the viewers to create their own narrative. Much of what is unspoken—backstory, setting, relationships, motivation—is completely up to the viewer to create. My favorite type of short films are the ones where the story lives on even after the credits roll. When the images flash before you as you lay yourself to sleep, you try to digest what you have watched. There’s an appeal in telling a story with a blank canvas for each viewer to contribute to and finish on their own.

TM:  Julian, who are some of your short-film filmmaking inspirations?

JK: I really enjoyed Martin Rosete’s “Voice Over.” Even though it has been about 5 years since I first saw it, the visuals and concept still resonate. Rosete did an amazing job utilizing one small incident and creatively expanding it into something so large and engaging.

I also found Andrew Ahn’s “Dol” inspiring. I love how he captures Korean-American culture without explicitly spelling it out. He subtly presents us the pain and internal conflicts experienced by the character. The story lingered with me for quite some time.

TM: As filmmakers, you all have a distinct set of economic/pragmatic factors to consider: One needs significantly—often prohibitively—more resources to make a feature-length film. That said, if resources were not a consideration, would you still make short films? Why/why not?

CA: Yes, I think so. The constraints on filmmaking aren’t always monetary—sometimes our biggest hurdles are creative. The stakes are higher with a feature not just because of the money involved, or the stakeholders we might have to answer to, but because of the time, energy, and risk we’ve expended to make it. Features take years, shorts can be made in days. Of course, some shorts require painstaking effort; brevity isn’t always the best measure of the risk, commitment, or suffering a project may ask of us. But in general, I feel that I will likely turn to shorts whenever I want to play or learn something new.

One catch that nobody tells you: It takes just as much work—sometimes more—to distribute a short. The festival applications are the same, the deliverables are the same. It can be a huge amount of work to get a short seen.

GG: I am not forced to make short animated films because of external pressures like economics. It isn’t a pragmatic choice. Again, it’s temperament, perhaps inherent, held aloft by reactions (both negative and positive) from other people. I can’t resist mocking the “why” question by answering, “why not?”

JK: My motivation as a filmmaker is to tell stories that can uplift our community and society. I am first and foremost a storyteller. Short films or feature-length films are just various sizes of a blank canvas.  I believe certain art pieces call for a bigger canvas to be on full display; confident, loud, and tall. On the other hand, certain pieces call for a more-humble canvas—intimate and personal.

It’s hard to pick either/or.  But if budget was not an issue, I’d definitely be motivated to make more short films, because it challenges me as a creative person to constantly think of a new world, a new narrative, and a new message. Short films push me to be more fluid as a storyteller.

TM: Julian, tell us a little about your Flushing Web Series and your recent short film  “Call Taxi”— both your artistic vision, and how you approached distribution/audience building.

JK: My collaborator Peter S. Lee and I started the Flushing Web Series because we wanted to highlight stories that were hidden in our community. While Flushing, Queens, has gained a reputation for diverse food offerings, it was still under-appreciated and overlooked as a major producer of culture and art. Our mission was to tell authentic and relatable stories. Through sharing with the public what growing up in Flushing was like, we were able to define our own identities both as Asian-Americans and as filmmakers.

“Call Taxi” was birthed after a tearful heart-to-heart conversation I had with Peter. I had shared with him my struggles as a son of immigrant parents who were growing old and physically weak. At the end of their “career” of dry cleaning, they had no real retirement plan. Their real retirement plan was to lean on me and I would have to dutifully take on that burden. I felt it unfair, but knowing my parents would not take a cent from me, I was simultaneously met with so much regret.

We posted our series on YouTube because of the breadth and reach of the YouTube community. It was the best way to get viewers. The response was overwhelming, and the community “liked” it and shared it. I remember even the older generations sending links to our film via text to other family members overseas. We were both thrilled and humbled that people were able to connect with the film, and that it stirred up conversations about their respective experiences upon watching it.

TM:  The Millions is a literary site, so here’s a genre-comparison question for you all: The short story is sometimes considered the highest form, associated with perfection of craft; other times it’s treated as the industry stepchild. Is there a similar ambivalence for the short film in your genre? Do you think this has changed/is changing?

Also, true or false: You can buy short story collections and read short stories in magazines; you can download singles from iTunes; you can enjoy/purchase small paintings. It seems harder to find/enjoy a short film as a consumable unit of art in its own right. If you agree, why do you think this is?

CA: I don’t think I can answer this question about a film’s aesthetic value without reminding myself that no matter how radical or formally bold they profess to be, at the end of the day films (like all culture) are commodities, subject to the vagaries of capitalism. Right now the internet is dramatically changing the landscape for shorts and often privileging shorter runtimes over longer ones. The voracious screen culture we live in—and the rapidly shrinking attention spans that come with it—prizes brevity. Traditional media outlets such as The New York Times, the Guardian, The New Yorker, and Condé Nast have all radically expanded the number of short documentaries they produce and acquire. Some documentarians I know welcome this shift and have found themselves making more shorts than before because of it.

But this explosion of content has come with no regulation or standards. Filmmakers are regularly being asked to hand over their films for next to nothing—or nothing at all in exchange for “a wide audience.” There’s no transparency about what filmmakers are actually being paid, and this shift is further contributing to already rampant freelancer precarity. On top of this, media outlets frequently expect filmmakers to surrender creative control, and I feel that I’m constantly resisting the transformation of documentary into mere “content.” These changes have steadily diminished the question of craft, to the point that it seems scarily at risk of extinction.  (One major exception to these trends is Field of Vision and Firelight Media’s  “Our 100 Days” series, which commissioned a documentary I directed last year called “Picket Line.” FoV funds shorts with real budgets, and ensures directors have final cut of their films.)

TM: In the literary world too these days we often say it’s easier to get published, but harder to get paid. Is there any chance this is a positive change, or maybe zero sum—if artists are no longer linking creation with paycheck? We lose time (as we earn money otherwise), and cultural respect (people stop expecting to pay for art); but the capitalist commodification is problematic too, isn’t it?

CA: The union organizer in me is having a moment right now. I’m definitely not saying we should always be monetizing our work (that’s the other dark side to this era, in which we are all becoming brands). I’ve had some incredibly frustrating run-ins with mercenary artists who turn everything into a financial transaction. It’s awful. I’m constantly trying to circumvent the economics, in fact. I love nothing more than to barter favors with friends I like to work with—you scratch my artist’s back, I scratch yours. But the reality is that most creative people lack the ability to make art for its own sake. This is especially true for working-class filmmakers, and filmmakers of color. It’s an incredible privilege to make work without thinking about one’s bills. Part of what I’ve observed is that many organizations will use this “art for art’s sake” rhetoric to justify asking financially vulnerable artists to make work, give time, teach, mentor, all for free. We’re experiencing an unprecedented casualization of creative labor, and that makes me want to hold the line on making sure people who need to get paid get paid.

GG: It’s much harder to find individual or even collections of short films. Maybe we aren’t aware of the many genres of short forms produced by “content providers” that tumble chaotically, incessantly, out of our devices: movie trailers, music videos, advertising and public service spots, pleas for political support, YouTube videos of funny pets. Yes, most viewers see the short film as a stepping stone to feature films, a kind of proving ground, grudgingly honored at the star-studded Oscar awards ceremony. (There is a perennial rumor that the category will be exiled to the technical awards dinner.)

Compared to other short forms, including painting and sculpture, which can be read/viewed/reviewed at one’s own speed, continuously or episodically, all films, short and long, must be viewed exactly as projected on a bright screen in a darkened room. These involuntary, pre-determined conditions are both a strength (exciting tempo, spectacle, illusion, propaganda) and a weakness (boredom), abetted by the sonic envelope of music, lyrics, dialogue, or silence.

Compared to mass entertainment (including gaming), short films live in a cultural niche found in international festivals specializing in documentary, animation, identity affirmation, narrative, even preceding feature films at the local art cinema. Also check out retail sites, museum programs, and public library media sections.

TM: Literary writers too often express that reading literature has become a rarified, niche activity, and serial television is where would-be readers now immerse themselves in complex story and character. George, do you think there is an analogy for short films? You mention gaming: Is this a place where creative talent is finding its audience and industry? Are there other short-film filmmakers you admire who are finding their way into more mainstream outlets?

GG: The world of gaming, television, and serial streaming entertainment is too far off my map to be of much help to this discussion. I do like the dialogue and art direction of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” yet could never see the characters as really animated; they are already cartoons. Certain animators have moved from shorts to features through the conventional route: directing, animation supervising, designing, storyboarding, all as part of a studio team financed within a mass-market context. The other “road not (often) taken” involves a narrower, more personal, formally experimental journey. The most successful example is Bill Plympton, whose main strength is roughly penciled grotesquerie, wildly irreverent humor, often delivered in short doses. Nina Paley’s mastery of line and character in motion was bound together with the music of Annette Hanshaw in “Sita Sings the Blues.” And Signe Baumann’s “Rocks in My Pockets” described her, and her family’s, history of depression, rendered in a dead-pan pictorial design and monotonous, uninflected narration, all quite informative and mordantly hilarious. All three artists have funded their projects through crowd-sourcing, and as they don’t have (to my knowledge) major distribution, the audience is unfortunately limited to festivals and perhaps specialized tours and cinemas. Baumann’s subject enabled her to find audiences among therapeutic networks: patients, academics, and practitioners. Her current feature project is focused on marriage.

Finding a cinematic analogy to the novel is less likely among animators than live-action/narrative filmmakers. But when we throw in mixtures including documentary, widely-used (and misused) techniques like rotoscoping, glued together with compositing, then one never knows…There are surely many more animators who have brought their features to the festival circuit and moved to wider audiences. Critics like Amid Amidi and historian-artists like John Canemaker would have a deeper, more up-to-date view.

JK: Short films were always considered unprofitable because distribution for them was hard…until the Internet happened! The way we view “films” is changing. We are now in a world where 15-second vertical stories are the way we consume storytelling. I feel like the people of the new generation are on YouTube more than they are in theaters. They watch gamers stream, rather than watch a sketch comedy show. For a traditionalist like myself, I find it unfortunate that an increase in viewership is directly related to a mere strong thumbnail and a compelling first six seconds. It ruins the artistic merit of filmmaking, where pacing is so important. However, I’m sure there is a different side to that, especially to those who embrace this new wave. I think there is a demand for short films in this current market, but I personally do not see most content as the highest form of filmmaking.

I believe great short films as a consumable unit of art exist out there, but I agree that it is harder to find them. I do think content on the web is created specifically to capture the ephemeral attention of the audience so it’s hard to find a calming or powerful short film beyond all the noise of makeup tutorials, vine compilations, and music covers.

TM: Julian, tell us about a great short film you’ve been inspired by, and also how you discovered and encountered it.

JK: Some years ago, I fell upon “Kung Fury” and “POWER/RANGERS” on YouTube and was amazed by the sheer production scale. I also enjoy light-hearted and easily consumable content produced by Wong Fu Productions and Jubilee Projects. Much like how you can find a great novel or good read by spending significant time in a library, taking the time to browse YouTube increases the probability of encountering good video content.

TM: I’ll end with a question—for Cecilia—about a “happy medium” form. Tell us about your documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart”—about your uncle, a gay man who died of AIDS amidst the disapproval and denials of your Catholic Puerto Rican family—which played on PBS’s POV. What is the nature of this middle length—analogous to the novella, perhaps?

CA:  “Memories”’s theatrical length was 72 minutes long—already lean for a documentary feature. For the TV broadcast, POV asked us to cut the film down to exactly 53 minutes, or what’s known as a broadcast hour. This is another instance of industry forces rubbing up against creative impulse. I had zero desire to cut the film down, but since it was my one shot at a TV broadcast, I basically closed my eyes, handed the film to my editor, and said, “Do your worst.” She’s such a damn good editor that the broadcast hour worked—but in my opinion, we sacrificed breathing room and lyricism. For a film about loss and memory, this is really significant. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it when they otherwise wouldn’t have, and that’s the Faustian bargain a lot of filmmakers make, but my film is a lean and lyrical 72 minutes—and it’s on iTunes!

Image Credit: Unsplash/John Moeses Bauan.

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