Short films have come a long way in Aspen over the past 20 years.
When local nonprofit Aspen Film first started hosting Shortsfest two decades ago, it was a minor offshoot of the organization’s sole event, Aspen Filmfest. Two-dozen films were divided into three separate programs, whittled down from fewer than 300 submissions. Fast-forward to the 2012 event: 3,300 short films were submitted for consideration, and the 79 finalists, divided into 11 90-minute programs, represent filmmakers from 30 countries from around the globe.
Much of that growth can be attributed to increased accessibility, and affordability, of filming technology, as well as Aspen’s Film’s outreach to film schools and film commissions. And the fact that Aspen Shortsfest is an Oscar-qualifying competition for live action and animated shorts also helps. But short film’s status as an engaging, and often experimental, cinematic medium in an era of 140-character Tweets — with films ranging in length from 40 minutes to 45 seconds — just might be the largest contributing factor to the resurgence.
“We really think Shortsfest is ideal for a young, hip demographic,” says Aspen Film Artistic Director Laura Thielen. “Because, for the most part, they are films by their peers. And while there certainly is classic filmmaking in shorts, in general the subject matter and the language is more adventurous, and the films are more experimental in terms of how the stories are structured and how the characters are crafted.”
The subject matter of the short movies is as diverse as the filmmakers who created them. Aspen filmmaker Weston Boyles traveled to Chile for his film “Los Escualos: Young Chilean Kayakers of Patagonia” where the proposed construction of two mega-dams threatens not only the local way of life, but the first generation of young kayakers’ access to the Baker River, with its majestic views and equally magnificent Class V rapids. Or “Vulture Culture” where hipsters, radicals, and everyone in between turn to dumpster diving for food and even opened a free store in Brooklyn, N.Y., in what they deem a response to the increased consumerism of our society.
Others, like the quirky, three-minute “To R.P. Salazar, With Love,” showcase the serendipitous encounters that can occur while dating in our technological age. The animated short utilizes recorded stories from the StoryCorps oral history project, which chronicles interesting tales from people all across the U.S. and broadcasts them as clips on National Public Radio. And for the Rauch brothers, whose animation studio created the film, the short format was ideal for the type of work they do.
“We’re a small, independent animation studio with just four our five people,” Mike Rauch says. “And it takes eight or so weeks with five people working on it just to complete a four-minute film. Also, shorts have their biggest lives online, and I can’t even imagine myself sitting down for much longer to watch one.”
And even for the 2012 Oscar winner for best documentary short “Saving Face” by Daniel Junge, who has also made feature-length films, the short film format is something he sees staying in his repertoire. The film chronicles the phenomenon of acid attacks in Pakistan — mainly against women and typically by their husbands — and one doctor’s quest to give them their faces, and their lives, back.
“There’s only so much an audience can take with a subject like this,” Junge says. “If it’s too long, they’ll just be repulsed or switch it off. I really though that the short format was just the right length.”
And because of their length, shorts can vary in subject matter perhaps even more than their feature-length counterparts.
“The things about shorts is that you get this huge mosaic of human nature and experience,” says Aspen Film Programs Director George Eldred. “And that’s because there’s a much smaller barrier to entry into the shorts world, so you get unique stories from every corner of the globe.”
New this year to Shortsfest, on Saturday, April 14, Aspen Film will host a discussion with a talented group of comedy writers, whose collective experiences cover writing and directing for film, TV, and theater. Entitled “The Sometimes Hilarious Pain of Writing Funny,” the 90-minute session will be moderated by award-winning comedy writer Elias Davis, who worked on “MASH,” “Growing Pains,” “Full House,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” and others.
Hell be joined onstage by Shauna Cross, writer of the film “Whip It” starring Drew Barrymore; Alexander Payne, screenwriter of “The Descendants” and “Sideways”; Mike Reiss, writer and producer for “The Simpsons”; and Robert Weide, best known for his work on the Emmy Award-winning show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
The group will also serve as the international competition jury for Aspen Shortsfest. They will grant a number of awards recognizing creative excellence, honoring the finalists they consider the most accomplished in their storytelling and distinctive in their cinematic voice. The awards, which include a cash honorarium, include best animation, best comedy, best documentary, best drama, best student film, and best short short, as well as special jury recognition awards.
“I’m always impressed by what we showcase at Shortsfest,” Thielen says. “Not a lot of these filmmakers are coming out of esteemed graduate film programs, and so these are people who are really forging their craft. The difference between these films and studio films are the difference between having a $65 million budget, and having a real passion for a project. Even still, some have high production value and some intentionally have a do-it-yourself look.”
And the beauty of a 90-minute short film program, unlike a feature-length film, is that if you don’t like the flick you’re currently watching, just wait a few minutes and it’ll change.