Student Short Film Festivals: A Critical Analysis from Blockbuster Fanatic

Most people have been to a movie theater. Picture this: It is opening night of the new Star Wars movie. Tickets were prepurchased yet you find yourself waiting in a line. The people in front of you start raving to you about their own predictions and expectations about the film. You send your viewing companion to grab snacks, the staple Raisinets, a Coca-Cola, and a large popcorn, while you hold your spot in line. An attendant greets you and directs you to a theater, and you proceed to follow these directions. You find your seat among a packed theater of eager fans, and spend 2 hours immersed in a film in complete and total silence and darkness, giving nods of approval to the actors and filmmakers that they will only know of from your ticket purchase (and maybe a nasty blog post you will write later), not even taking a bathroom break.

Needless to say, there are unspoken rules of what NOT to do in a movie theater.

It seems almost in possible to explain to someone else how to see a movie. It is common sense for most Americans, as most of us saw our first feature film in theaters before we entered grade school. Though more of a peculiar and less common viewership, film festivals are have very similar expectations and procedures to going to see a movie in theaters on a smaller scale. For instance, at the student short film festival I attended this spring, instead of being of greeted by a paid movie theater attendant, several students greeted me with a program with brief descriptions and titles of the student films in the order they would be playing and showed me the table of free snacks (popcorn and soda but sadly, no Raisinets). I went into a well lit, half empty theater filled with my peers. The lights were turned off, and people were expected to be quiet throughout the film and to have silenced their phones, a common courtesy when viewing any film big or small. Instead of having the separation of not knowing any of the actors, filmmakers, animators or anyone associated with the film, I found myself sitting directly behind a student filmmaker who became incredibly bashful when his film played, hardly lifting his head to watch the reaction and laughing at himself. In between each short film, the makers would go on the stage and answer any questions the audience had about their projects. Rather than watching one feature length film, I watched a dozen short films ranging anywhere from 1–10 minutes. Nonetheless, going to a film festival or a movie premiere or seeing a movie in theaters (usually the first viewing of the medium) present the medium in the same way to be consumed: in silence, in an auditorium or theater, accompanied by friends and snacks, and in the dark.

The event pamphlet, a substitute for a personal favorite: movie trailers.
The auditorium where the student film festival took place.

At the student film festival, the entire staff was made up of students, professors and volunteers all affiliated with NC State in some aspect; I doubt anyone other than the teachers who assigned students the project to make a film got paid for the time spent to prepare a festival. Presenting the movies to an audience is a reward in itself for an outstanding job on the assignment, considering only handfuls from each course were selected. A librarian at Hunt Library hosted the event, reading out names of the students and titles of films, while other students in the class handed out programs and ushered students in. At large scale festivals, where there are dozens of employees handling scheduling, partnerships with small filmmakers, publicity and so many other elements of the festival, workers “enter a field devoid of specific or formalized training that demands huge personal commitment and year-long work, yet with very little financial reward compared to the film and television industries,” according to David Archibald and Mitchell Miller, co-authors of The Film Festivals Dossier. As with most artistic endeavors, success is always a gamble done out of love of the medium. Even with some of the people working just volunteering, you could see their handiwork throughout with how effortlessly the program went, the pamphlets that had been printed and how well set up and clean the space was for the festival. 
 Of course, this was not Sundance; my experience was a microscopic form of a much larger medium for sharing work. In The Film Festivals Dossier, they state that, “The category of ‘film festival’, perhaps unsurprisingly, defies a single definition, ranging as it does from the grassroots digital festivals created by small networks of independent and amateur filmmakers, or the willfully ramshackle Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams organized by Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton, to the vast institutional machinery of Sundance, or the critical mass of industry involvement found in Cannes.” Film has been evolving since its inception and as the medium. Whether these changes are scarcely visible or overwhelmingly obvious, digital technology is transforming how we look at movies and what movies look like, from modestly budgeted movies shot with digital still cameras to blockbusters laden with computer-generated imagery. Film festivals cultivate the diverse origins of film, whether it be analog, digital, or completely animated, as means of preservation and historic aesthetic. As students of film with a deep appreciation and understanding of these mediums, there is a connection between the medium and the message. As McLuhan says in his interview with Playboy, “The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb […] The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day.” Though various mediums were presented at the student film festival, each one told of different origin story of film. 
 At this particular student film festival, an animation class, a film class, and a digital film class presented short films. I noted that the film class used analog film rather than digital film, a somewhat dying cinematic format since the prevalence of high definition digital filmmaking. Many of the filmmakers expressed difficulties with using analog; there is more pressure on conserving footage because you cannot simply delete and start over so being thorough with one take was important and the time constraint because of how long analog film takes to develop forced them to plan ahead. One student mentioned how his two minute film took nearly 6 hours to film. Analog film stems from still photography which conceived the notion that putting sequential still frames together would create an illusion of movement (think about the modern day time lapse). People connect the technology to do so with the Lumiere brothers, who purchased an outdated patent for a cinematographé, which was a camera, film processor and projector all-in-one. They used the device to create a 47-second film that showed a very stripped footage (no sound and no complex shots) of workers leaving the Lumiere factory, very similar to the short one-minute-or-less analog films that were showcased at the festival (Broughall). Film historians have recently become uncertain about what to call their object of study, since digital film is an oxymoron of sorts. Dan Streible makes the argument that, “It is necessarily incorrect to refer to digital or electronic moving images as films. Rather, if we forget to specify what photochemical film was, we stand to lose important historical knowledge and awareness,” which I am sure Dr. Stein would agree with, thus further validating this assignment to strengthen young filmmakers’ historical awareness and appreciation of the medium both dated and modern. 
 Another film style examined at the showcase was called rotoscoping, which basically means you record someone completing an action and animate the action to get realistic motions, an often criticized format by quote-unquote real animators who see the medium as merely tracing frames without any artistic ability. Rotoscoping and any hand drawn animation for that matter, though now mostly done digitally nowadays, mimics the pre-film animation device called the Zoetrope. It was a glorified flip book that would produce the illusion of movement by displaying a sequence of drawings throughout a motion on a cylinder. It was produced in the 19th century, and was a precursor to all the building blocks that brought us from kinetoscope to the ability “to generate photorealistic scenes entirely in a computer using 3-D computer animation; to modify individual frames or whole scenes with the help a digital paint program; to cut, bend, stretch and stitch digitized film images into something which has perfect photographic credibility, although it was never actually filmed.” (Manovich) In Manovich’s article What is Digital Cinema?, Manovich argues now more than over more techniques (especially special effects) are going into the making of film, and for the first time Hollywood is seeing a sub-genre “The Making of..” that explains the creation of these effects. At a film festival, you often do not have to buy the DVD to get the special features where they tell you the exclusive behind-the-scenes; you have an interval in between short films where you can ask the maker in person and that often opens up further discussion. This more interactive process, though on a minor scale, is a representation of how film is moving towards a more interactive platform.

An example image of what you would see as a Rotoscope spins.

With filmmakers and inventors attempting to break down the third wall (such as the predicted-flop Hardcore Henry) and blur the line between film and reality, a mostly individualistic, all-encompassing approach to film watching, it is surprising that the movie-going experience is still prominent, despite the push to for it to phase out. Many theaters have shut down unable to afford the shift to digital, but as one closes, another opens. Just as people choose to go out to eat when they can just as easily prepare a meal at home for less, movie-going is more about the social experience, and the act of seeing a film with someone else enhances how it is percieved. Have you ever gone to see a movie with a friend and periodically peered over at them when you laughed to see if they found something funny as well? Well according to Suresh Ramanathan and Ann L. McGill of the University of Chicago, movie-watchers influence one another and gradually synchronize their emotional responses. This mutual mimicry also affects each participant’s evaluation of the overall experience — the more in sync we are with the people around us, the more we like the movie. The two researchers found that the shared viewing experience and emotions was not simply a leader-follower pattern; social cues given between obvious expressions and shared glances confirmed their reactions and caused them to continue with it into subsequent experience notations. If you stared over at your friend during a movie and they weren’t laughing like you were, would you subconsciously think not to laugh at the next part because maybe it actually was not that funny? I asked two of my friends to come along to this with me, innately knowing the company is part of the experience, and during one of the shorts, my friend let out a loud, boisterous laugh while the rest of the room remained silently at a joke that failed to land. Noticing that no one was laughing around her, her behavior altered and she was more muffled with her reactions. Individuals mimic the ambience of the crowd. If the room is moved to tears, so are you. If people are cackling and slapping their knees, so are you. If the audience is screaming and jumping, so are you. When your alone watching a film, your interaction is based on taste rather than the culturally and socially anticipated reaction which can determine whether you like a film or not. Not only do you react the same, but you have an interaction beforehand to hype up a film and an interaction afterwards to dissect it.
 Film festivals are a hyper-extensive version of the interaction as film festivals are meant to network a film, expose a film maker, prompt intellectual conversation and unite filmmakers. In an interview with cinema studies professor from the University of Toronto, Corinn Columpar, she talks about film festivals being a critical part of foreign films being distributed within that country. She said, talking about the Toronto International Film Festival, “The really disappointing thing is that I’ll see some amazing films at TIFF that never get released. You find out, for example, that an Australian film that got widely released in Australia maybe also hit a couple of festivals in the rest of the world, but that’s about it. These festivals operate separately from the rest of the marketplace to a certain extent.” She also acknowledges how some movies premiere at film festivals as an experimental audience before it is released in theaters, such as Easy A (which premiered at the TIFF). The student short film festival was a way for the students to showcase their work to peers, while networking with other filmmakers at our university. Without a film festival, the expanse of people who might have been exposed to their work would have been minimal. Though even exposure at a student film festival is underwhelming, there is more at stake for the artists than recognition. In Jenkins’ Searching for the Origami Unicorn, the author speaks about the purpose of transmedia storytellying, though I think what he suggests could also be true of these short films, The artwork will be what Lévy calls a ‘cultural attractor,’ drawing together and creating common ground between diverse communities; we might also describe it as a cultural activator, seeing into motion their decipherment, speculation and elaboration. The challenge, he says, is to create works with enough depth that they can justify large-scale efforts: ‘Our primary goal should be to prevent closure from occurring too quickly.” More often than not, the pieces exhibited at festivals have different aesthetics than large blockbuster films, ones that seek mass distribution and approval; these films are more cultured, abstract and often curious, causing the audience to walk away with different interpretations or wish to see it once more for clarification. There is something to be gained from both attending a short film festival and seeing big budget films in theater, though what you gain depends on how you interact with the medium (i.e. paying attention to the film rather than your phone) and how it interacts with you (i.e. feeling like, “Whoa, dude! What just happened?” as the movie completely blows your mind).

I know, I felt the same way after seeing Inception.

Here are the links to the images I used in this post:

And if you would like to do some further reading:

Archibald, David, and Mitchell Miller. “The Film Festivals Dossier.” Oxford Journals. Oxford Journals, 2011. Web.

Broughall, Nick. “A Brief History of Film.” TechRadar. N.p., 24 Aug. 2015. Web.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Chapter 3: Searching for the origami unicorn. Convergence Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 93–130.

Manovich, L. (1995). What is Digital Cinema?.

McLuhan, M. (1969). The Playboy Interview. Playboy Magazine.

Orgeron, Devin, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible. Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Ramanathan, Suresh, and Ann L. McGill. “Pass The Popcorn! Study Finds That Film Enjoyment Is Contagious.” University of Chicago Press Journals, 7 Dec. 2007. Web.

“Research and Innovation.” Research and Innovation What Is the Importance of Film Festivals Comments. University of Toronto, 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.

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