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A short intro to shorts
Perspectives Canada and Wavelengths have assembled their short films series in themes, and two programmers offer some tips on how to get the most out of the short film experience

September 6, 2002

Almost every great filmmaker out there probably got his or her start in short films, or "shorts" as cinephiles say. But short films are a medium unto themselves -- they tell stories in a unique way.

There are 80 short films among the 335 films at the Toronto film festival, many of them within two programs: Perspective Canada, which highlights Canadian films, and Wavelengths, which showcases the best in experimental film.

Stacey Donen is a programmer who helped select the titles for Perspective Canada. He and his team watched about 450 films over 12 weeks, before settling on 29 films. Narrowing down the field was no easy task.

"We are looking for the gems, the films that have unique voices, and a good story," Donen said, adding that those films that defy convention often grab their attention as well.

The definition of a short film appears to be arbitrary, but they are generally under an hour in length. Donen recommends all film lovers go see at least a few of them, partly because they're often the best way to see the first movies of up-and-coming filmmakers.

Often, a talented recent film grad can't come up with the money to make a full feature, and will develop his or her craft by assembling a few shorts before breaking into features.

But Donen points out that many directors don't see shorts as just the precursors to features. Some experienced filmmakers will do only shorts, just as writers often specialize in short stories.

Short films are distinct in that they are almost always produced with modest budgets and a small crew. In fact, many have a crew of just one: the director who writes, films and edits the work single-handedly. But shorts directors also have the luxury of remaining completely focused on their story or their artistry and less on movie market forces.

Susan Oxtoby, who helped select the 23 short films for the Wavelengths program, says for that reason, a lot of directors see shorts as opportunities for experimenting since the films are more concerned with artistry than with entertainment.

"They're interested in exploring aspects of the medium itself, of looking at visual rhythms and developing their own style," she says.

Animated films are often shorts by default, because of the amount of time and labour required to assemble a feature length animated film. Others are blends of animation and film or experiment with formats using digital video and traditional 35 mm and optical printers to create photograms.

"With a lot of filmmakers now working with digital Betamax video cameras, more films are being made by people who wouldn't have otherwise been able to do so," Donen notes.

That's resulted in a steady rise in the number of entries being submitted to the festival panel. Donen says there's probably about a five per cent increase every year.

"And that's great. That's what we want to see: More filmmakers getting exposure."

So how short is short? Well the shortest film in the festival is in the Wavelengths program called Going Back Home: it's just one minute long.

"It's actually even shorter than that, because it's about 22 seconds of film played twice," Oxtoby says. "It looks at the brevity of life so its length is sort of self-reflexive. It's a very beautiful film, very haunting."

For those who want to see a few shorts, both Perspectives Canada and Wavelengths have assembled the pieces in themes. They run back-to-back, so that in 90 minutes, filmgoers will have a chance to see four or five shorts.

"I definitely recommend festival goers come to see shorts," says Donen. "They can very rewarding and offer a look into new talent and new ideas."

Donen really likes the film La Derniere Voix, a film by directors Julien Fonfrede and Karim Hussain, about the last person who is still able to speak in a world that is on the brink of extinction. He also recommends the story of a distraught singer in Blue Skies. It's by director Ann Marie Fleming who has had many of her shorts selected for the film festival in recent years.

Another unique film Donen recommends is the animated short Flux, by director Chris Hinton, which traces a little girl growing up into an adult, all in eight minutes.

Oxtoby finds it hard to narrow her choices down, though she's taken with the experimentation in Gossamer Conglomerate by American director Courtney Hoskins, and to Casey Koehler's Bautismo.

"I definitely recommend festival-goers sample a few shorts," Oxtoby says. "Be open to seeing what you haven't seen before and trying something new. And then just sit back and enjoy them."

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