From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
History of Film Making
The term came to be applied in North America in the 1910s, when the majority of feature films began to be made in much longer-running editions. A typical film program came to be expected to include a feature preceded by one or more short subjects. Short subjects could be live action or animated; comedy was particularly utilized as their style, and well-known comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and others are best known from short subject films.
Animated cartoons likewise came principally as short subjects, as did newsreels. Less frequently, short subjects might be in the form of travelogues, human interest films or concert films. The form was so popular that virtually all major film production companies had fully-staffed special units assigned to develop and produce them, and many companies, especially in the silent and very early sound era, produced short subjects exclusively (e.g. Keystone Studios, Atlas Educational Film Co., E. W. Hammons's Educational Pictures).
The rise of the double feature
The death of the two-reel short as a commercially successful product for independent studios put producers such as Mack Sennett out of business. Hal Roach moved Laurel and Hardy full-time into feature films after 1935, and halved his popular Our Gang films to one reel at the request of distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Roach, who could no longer afford to produce shorts after 1938, sold out to MGM at that time.
After the 1930s, fewer shorts were made for theatrical release, most of which were one reel long, like George O'Hanlon's Joe McDoakes shorts, and the animated shorts of studios like Leon Schlesinger Productions/Warner Bros. Cartoons, Walter Lantz, and Fleischer/Famous Studios. These shorts and others were produced in-house by, or financed by, motion picture companies that either owned their own theater chains (for example, Loews Theatres), or forced theaters to take their shorts by selling them in the same unalterable package as their big-name features. This practice, called block booking, was declared illegal by the US Supreme Court, who also forced the theater chains to sell off their movie studios. By 1955, thanks to double features, the ban on block booking, and the rise of television, the commercial live-action short was virtually dead, and the cartoon short was on its way to being dead. Since the 1960s, short films have been largely reserved for independent filmmakers and special major-studio projects.
The Three Stooges shorts were the only major series of two-reelers to survive the double-feature system, because they were issued by Columbia Pictures using block booking. They continued into the late-1950s, largely by reusing footage from previous series entries to reduce costs.
In the 1950s, television programming, including broadcast of older short subjects sold to television stations, eclipsed the value of all but cartoons featuring well-loved characters; but by the end of the 1960s, the cost of manufacturing these had come to outweigh the return, and short subjects effectively disappeared from the most wonderful time of the year.
Short subjects in the modern era
Since the 1980s, the term "short subject" has come to be used interchangeably with "short film", an international, academic term used to mean a contemporary non-commercial motion picture that is substantially shorter than the average commercial feature film. There is no clear definition of the maximum length of a short film, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences classify it as 40 minutes, while the Internet Movie Database refer to any film lasting less than 45 minutes as a short subject. The short-film form is to the full length film what the short story is to a full-fledged novel.
Short films often focus on difficult topics which longer, more commercial films usually avoid. Their filmmakers benefit from larger freedoms and can take higher risks with their films, but must rely on festival and art house exhibition to achieve public display. Most short films are better known outside the United States than within, due to less rigidity of audience expectation as to program content, arrangement, and length outside the U.S. However, film shorts are often a popular extra feature on a film's DVD. For instance, Pixar's DVD releases of its feature films typically includes not only a short that was distributed with the feature film in its initial theatrical release, but also an original creation featuring the characters from the feature itself. Likewise, Warner Brothers often includes selected animated shorts from its considerable archives on DVD releases of its family oriented films that have some relationship in theme.
Short films are often popular as first steps into the cinematic art among young filmmakers. This is because they are cheaper and easier to make, usually don't take very long to produce, and their brevity makes shorts more likely to be watched by financial backers and others who want some demonstration of a filmmaker's ability (or, conversely, the format allows for more experimentation since most of them are unlikely to be seen by a wide audience). There are however exceptions such as films like S. Luciani's Dolls, which show how professional/big-name actors and crews still choose to create short films as alternative form of expression.
Short film making is also growing in popularity among amateurs and enthusiasts, who are taking advantage of affordable equipment. "Prosumer" or semi-professional cameras now cost under USD$3,000, and free or low-cost software is widely available that is capable of video editing, post-production work, and DVD authoring. Such films can also be easily distributed via the Internet; Across the Hall, for example, was solely distributed on the Internet. Certain websites which encourage the submission of user-created short films, such as Youtube, BritFilms, and Newgrounds have attracted large communities of artists and viewers. A television station in Canada called BITE TV is trying to become the world's first user generated television station, trying to get viewers to send in their videos.
The form itself splits into several sub-categories, mainly:
- Live action short
- Animated short (hand-drawn or CGI)
- Documentary short subject
- Experimental or abstract short films