Aspen Film’s 27th annual Shortsfest starts Tuesday. There are 11 programs, each comprised of animated films, documentaries, comedies and dramas from all over the world. Each program was designed to challenge viewers by including films with a variety of lengths, styles, settings and themes. Audiences can see imagination and even some weirdness in these little films on the big screen.
Susan Wrubel, the executive director of Aspen Film, saw her first short film in college. “There was an eye being sliced with ants crawling out," she remembered. "I think everybody sees it when they do a cinema studies program.” Not all short films push the envelope quite that much. Shorts are constrained by time - they have to clock in at 40 minutes or under - so the filmmaker needs to make careful choices. Wrubel explained, "Even though everything in a feature-length film is done and specifically there for a reason, there are no shots that are accidental, there’s no sound that’s accidental; I think you have to do that even more so with a short film.” Their shorter running time demands creative storytelling, and often, shorts are fertile ground for experimentation. Landon Zakheim, the new director of programming for Aspen Shortsfest, said, “Oftentimes you’ll see some incredible work from a feature filmmaker who has either been frustrated by how slow the process is of getting their next film made, or haven’t been able to make what they want to make. They’ll take out that stifled creativity on a short.” Because short films require less money and time to make than feature-length films, there’s far less pressure and interference. And so filmmakers can take more risks. Zakheim and his team culled the 77 films that will be screened this week out of about 2,500 submissions. Matchmaking the films to create those programs is an art form itself. After deciding which films made the cut, Zakheim crafted the 11 individual programs. He admitted he didn’t want to allow audiences to get too comfortable in their plush velvet seats. “We like to think of it unofficially as something of a roller coaster method where if you’re going to one program, you should see a number of unique worlds and be introduced to a whole diverse range of things that can happen in shorts.” New technologies are helping that range grow. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on film school, an aspiring filmmaker can watch online tutorials. Zakheim noted that if you have a smartphone, you have nearly everything you need to shoot your own film. “You can replace a crane shot with a drone shot, there’s a lot of scope you can add and it’s easier than ever to make special effects.” There are also more options than ever before for distributing and viewing films. A filmmaker can post their film online. Some video-hosting sites even partner with studios on exclusive releases. People can watch award-winning shorts on subscription services, like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. This means that short films are getting more respect than they used to. Reinaldo Marcus Green is a juror at Shortsfest this year. He’s made both feature and short films. He's found that some short filmmakers are dipping their toes into genres and techniques that used to be exclusively feature-film territory. According to Green, “People are pushing the envelope as far as camera movement and camera work. As the cameras evolve, as the technology evolves, you’re seeing more films with a little more pizzazz.” Green’s short called "Stop" premiered at Sundance in 2015. The film took just two days to shoot, but took him six months to write the six-page script. Green said a film needs more than special effects. Good, old-fashioned storytelling is still the foundation, and Green acknowledged that writing is the hardest part of making shorts. “It’s because you have so little time to tell a story. So I think the real writers are the ones that will be...successful.” At Aspen Film, Susan Wrubel acknowledged this, as well. Even with all the innovation in the shorts world, she's primarily concerned with showcasing films that are just...good films. She wants festival-goers to appreciate the craft that goes into shorts, and learn something, too.