Generic Conventions of Short Films

2 February 2017

The history of cinema began with short films which were made before the appearance of feature films. Since then, short films experienced a difficult period surviving along with feature films until the mid 40s when double feature films became popular. In the 1950s short films had found a new place thanks to a rise of television. In the modern era, short films refer to “short subjects” and are made by independent film-makers with abundant themes. . “The furniture” is an Independent Lens Online Shorts Festival winner made by filmmaker Tyler Measom.

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The short is a “dark comedy” of “a disturbed man who confronts the demons of loneliness and the universal fear of … furniture”. “In the name of God” is made by Hamed Nobari was selected as one of the Depict! -“The UK’s most important short film festival”(The Guardian) 2008 winners. This short film is about a pupil’s belief in religion in the Middle East. “The Gravitation” is one of the Depict! 2009 winners made by Michael Lockshin which is about the problems of men in modern society. As well as “The Gravitation”, “The Sleepy Astronaut” is also one of the winners which was made by filmmaker William Westaway.

The short film tells a story of a careful and hark-working wife and her lazy husband. Short films can not be classified based on common elements such as iconography (recognisable common images or icons), style( camera angles and editing), setting (locations and time periods), mode of address and characters ( heroes and villains). The short film makers come from different places in the world therefore they have different cultural competencies. Short films are made by independent filmmakers and are low-budget so the production values will be different.

For example, low key lighting can be considered a common style but it is caused by the low-budgets, therefore style can not be applied. The significant locations and time periods can also not be found because of different cultural competencies. The filmmakers try to express different ideologies so the mode of address will be different. For example in “The Gravitation” the mode of address would be direct when the woman speaks to the audiences in the end while other shorts use indirect modes of address. The length of short films is too short so the character functions and their relationships can not be constructed.

Neither heroes nor villains can be found in “The furniture”, “The Gravitation” and “The sleepy astronaut”. However, modern short films use recognizable narrative structures to explore several subjects relevant to society. Short films raise a lot of enigmas. The enigmas in short film raise curiosity from the audiences, making them question the narrative so that they will focus on the main values and messages. In “The furniture”, the audiences would be curious about “what is the man scared of? ” or “how will they kill him? ”.

They know that the furniture can not kill the patient so they will focus on his state of mind hence his loneliness will be strengthened. In “In the name of god”, the enigma is raised:“what is inside the pupil’s hand? ”. The audiences then will focus on the pupil’s hand since they were curious. When it is revealed later, the audiences will be surprised by the phrase “In the name of God” because it is unusual, therefore the ideologies of believing in God is expressed more effectively. In “Gravitation”, the audiences would like to know “what will happen to the men? or “why are they being put next to each other? ”. The audiences can question and compare the men in the short so in the end, the consequences of using alcohol, drugs or sex will be represented. There are also enigmas in “The sleepy astronaut”: “who does the wife cook for? ”; “why does she have to be so careful? ”. Through narrative codes, the enigmas represent the personalities of the wife and the laziness of the husband. It can be seen that that enigmas play an important role in the narrative of these shorts, they “work together to suggest what seems to be the meaning”(Lesage, 1985).

Short films also create “binary oppositions” , which, according to Levi-Strauss, “formed the basis of humanity’s attempts to understand reality through the creation of myths”. The audiences “see and interpret everything” the characters do “in term of oppositions” “that give any action meaning”(Berger, 1997). For instance, in “The furniture” , the patient is shown talking constantly on the phone. He wants the doctor to come and help him because he is scared but he is told that nothing will happen.

The audiences can see differences between the patient and the doctor : the doctor is in control, the patient is passive; the patient is nervous, the doctor is calm. Neither the doctor nor his voice is shown to the audiences in the short but through opposition with the patient, who is constructed pathetically and pitifully, the doctor is constructed as ignorant and careless. By representing the patient, the short also represents the doctor and through that add weight to the ideologies of representing doctors negatively. In “In the name of God”, the two main character’s opposition is shown clearly.

The way the teacher walks and watches the class doing the test signifies that he is the classical type : powerful, and strict . The pupil’s facial expressions and body language represent that he is nervous, scared of the teacher and is struggling to do the test. The teacher suspects that the pupil is cheating and forces him to open his hand. The pupil opens and there is the phrase “In the name of God”. It can be seen that, in the end the pupil is the winner. The opposition in the beginning strengthens the power of belief in God, because the pupil is weak at first but still wins thanks to God.

Therefore the binary oppositions have represented the ideologies of belief in religion. “Sleepy astronaut” is similar to “The furniture” , the wife is represented by her actions , the husband only appears in some last seconds, he sits and does nothing. The binary opposition helps reinforce the laziness of the husband by contrasting with the good personality of the wife. The binary opposition in “Gravitation” also construct a negative attitude towards the men when comparing with when woman. These examples demonstrate how short films use “binary oppositions” to derive meaning “through a system of differences”(Thwaites,1994).

Short films also have differences to traditional structures. They usually have constant disruptions, no equilibriums or attempts to repair disruptions, which differ from Torodov’s model. In “The Furniture” , the patient’s dialogue creates a disruption right at the beginning , something is going to kill him, and shows that he has already recognised this. The disruptions continue to occur as the patient repeats that furniture did not want to kill him several times. The final disruption occurs when he ran out of the room and is ran over, therefore no attempts to repair the disruptions or reinstatement of the equilibrium were shown.

Because of the constant disruptions, the audiences would feel annoyed, hence they create angry attitudes against the doctor, helping the short film to express its messages. In “Gravitation”, the diegetic sound of crashing in the beginning, followed by the sound of a man screaming, and when the man on the roof falls down appear as the constant disruptions. No states of equilibrium or attempts to repair the disruptions have occurred. The audiences would feel negatively about men in the short thanks to the disruptions. Therefore, the purpose of putting constant disruptions is to strengthen the problems which the short films want to explore.

The narrative conventions of short films have been indicated. They help constructing ideologies which contain messages and values. The purpose of feature length films is mainly to entertain mainstream audiences and maximise profits. The purpose of short films is to “educate” target audiences through exploring contemporary problems in the society. In “The furniture”, the patient is represented as pitiful, pathetic, innocent, which challenges the traditional representation of men and refers to stereotypes of incapable men.

This is constructed by the camera angles: the camera tracks along the back of the chair and the patient is usually filmed which some objects in front of the camera, these create the feeling of being watched. The room seems bigger, raising the audiences’ awareness of danger, the high angle close-up shots of the man’s face and the medium close-up shot which show the patient’s facial expression and his body language, represent that he is nervous. The lighting and black and white effect create a cold, gloomy, scary atmosphere, the patient is always filmed in dark shadow, which signifies he is incapable.

On the other hand, the doctor is represented as careless, leading to the patient’s death indirectly by the fact the neither his appearance or his voice is shown on the short and he does not help the patient. The value of the short is to represent the whole society: nowadays doctors are less responsible to patients, patients are helpless. The bigger value is that people care less about each other. The messages work based on the audiences’ cultural experience of doctors and patients. In “In the name of God” the representations of teacher are classical, strict, scary and powerful.

These are signified by the low angle shot of the teacher’s feet. The representations of the pupil are powerless and incapable. These are represented by the high angle shot from the point of view of the teacher. Stereotypes are used to add weight to the value of the ideologies which would be God is powerful. The message is simply believe in religion. The ideologies work because we have religious beliefs as cultural competence. In “Gravitation” , men are stereotyped as they have sex, drink, smoke, they are fat and stupid. These are shown by the actions and the body language of the men in the short.

Women are represented as innocent and wise which is constructed by the low angle shot and the effect of bright lighting. The message is men should consider the way they live, which refers to problems in the society related to sex, alcohol, smoking,… In “Sleepy astronaut” , the wife is represented as busy and careful which is shown by the medium shots and the close up shots of her making the meal for the husband, while the husband is represented as lazy and dependent which is shown by the high angle medium long shot. They refer to traditional representations of sex.

The value is men think they do important tasks but they are just lazy, women are the ones who do significant work. The message is to reconsider sex equality. Even though they are only a few minutes long, short films have established their own genre through their narrative structures and the purpose to express ideologies and contemporary problems. The conventions are not classified because short films do not mainstream target audiences therefore the iconography is not necessarily similar to feature length films. This is because short filmmakers are independent, they do not have pressure to earn profit with their shorts.

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