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What's so great about British shorts?

  • The Atom Station

Nick Jordan's 'The Atom Station', screening at Clermont-Ferrand 2016

In the first in a series of articles exploring the strengths of different kinds of filmmaking in the UK, BFI Archive Curator Dylan Cave looks at the UK's short filmmaking expertise, past and present.

Short films play a vital role in the UK. They transport audiences to new worlds, document alternative lives, challenge perceptions and broaden minds in a matter of minutes.

Shorts have developed new ways of seeing, changing and evolving film language with each new generation of storytellers. Many of the finest UK directors have launched their careers with innovative and breath-taking short films; think of Ken Russell and Amelia and the Angel (1958); Ridley & Tony Scott and Boy and Bicycle (1965); Andrea Arnold’s Wasp (2003); Steve McQueen’s installations, Jonathan Glazer's ads; or the early works of Andrew Kötting, Carol Morley and Shane Meadows.

The UK has a strong history of shorts filmmaking. Some of the most celebrated examples of British cinema history have been shorts, from 1930s documentary to Free Cinema. No British filmography would be complete without acknowledgement of Night Mail (Harry Watt, 1936), Len Lye's A Colour Box (1935), the work of Humphrey Jennings, Dianne Jackson’s animated classic The Snowman (1982) or the Wallace and Gromit series. Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, two of our most famous comedy exports, made dozens of short films that attract packed audiences to this day. These films represent British Cinema at its most poetic, entertaining and enthralling.

Of course, in the early years of cinema, all films were short. Feature-length films emerged in the 1910s and quickly gained popularity, pushing shorter works down the film programme as supports. Nevertheless, major British short film movements emerged in the years that followed.

During the war years, British cinemas played a diverse range of supporting shorts from newsreels, cartoons and advertising to sponsored filmmaking (for example, Mining Review, 1947-83) information films and cine-magazines.  In the mid-1970s, the concept of the blockbuster movie arrived and the mixed cinema programme disappeared, with supporting shorts reduced to a few adverts and trailers.

However, the downturn in commercial shorts programming coincided with a flowering of support from emerging film schools and arts organisations.  Filmmakers like Bill Douglas, John Smith, Sally Potter and Terence Davies cut their teeth with early works that told personal tales in fresh artistic styles.

The freedom to experiment, encouraged by the film schools and supported through schemes like the BFI Experimental Film Fund, led to enriched forms of storytelling. In the 1980s, with the advent of Channel Four, several television companies began to invest in short films and, elsewhere, major film festivals evolved to celebrate the short form.

In the mid-1990s, funds from the National Lottery were used to support emerging filmmakers and short films became a beneficiary. By the early 2000s, major funding initiatives built on the successful pathways already established by the film schools, TV and arts funders. The UK Film Council’s New Cinema Fund financed digital shorts from a network of regional screen agencies, creating a wealth of filmmaking talent and culture across the UK.

The legacy of these funding streams, film education and UK wide production remains, but it is enhanced by excellent support initiatives such as the BFI Net.Work, British Council’s Short Film Travel Grant Fund and healthy exhibition opportunities in the shape of Encounters Short Film and Animation Film Festival and the London Short Film Festival.

This network gives emerging filmmakers opportunity and support to develop their craft. There is an unfair criticism that short films can morph into little more than stepping stones or 'calling cards', mere vehicles for filmmakers to tout their skills. This couldn't be further from the truth. At their best, British shorts flaunt the talent of their producers and crew, and in breath-taking and engaging ways. Films like Jamie Stone’s sci-fi love story Orbit Ever After (2013) or Kibwe Tavares’ fantasy parable Jonah (2012) combine amazing effects with compelling storytelling. Original dramas like Oscar Sharp’s The Kárman Line (2014) and Bijan Sheiban’s Groove is in the Heart (2015) showcase the abilities of their directors and writers because their moving stories are told so powerfully.

Short films are often a barometer of cultural change, reflecting social shifts and establishing new narratives and alternative forms before feature films or theatre and TV. For example, a significant trait of UK short film is that it offers filmmakers from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to present new narratives about life in Britain. In the 1960s, Jamaican and African actors like Lloyd Reckord and Lionel Ngakane made insightful shorts like Ten Bob in Winter (1963) and Jemima and Johnny (1966) about life in the UK as experienced by the first wave of immigrants from the West Indies.

Gurinder Chadha gave voice to the second generation of South Asian Brits with her innovative short doc I'm British but... in 1988. Under-represented groups – from amateur filmmakers to film collectives such as Amber, Sankofa or Black Audio Film Collective – have developed an alternative voice through short film. Recently, funding and commissioning schemes from organisations like B3 Media, Dazed, Film London, BFI and UK Jewish Film have given us the BAFTA nominated films The Curse (Fyzal Boulifa, 2012), Three Brothers (Aleem Khan, 2014) and Samuel-613 (Billy Lumby, 2015).

This diversity means that short films resist generalisation, though thematic threads can be woven across decades and movements. The poetic realism of 1930s documentary movement morphs into the 16mm fluidity of Free Cinema. The personal cinema of 1970s short film auteurs like Douglas and Davies leads to the visually exquisite 1990s work from Lynne Ramsay and Clio Barnard. Major shorts filmmakers like Esther May Campbell, Duane Hopkins, Simon Ellis and Dan Mulloy have built on this further, combining dark tales of suppressed sexuality and warped suburban violence with kinetic visuals and acerbic comedy.

The short form is essential to contemporary filmmaking and in 2016 many of the best international shorts have examined the migration crisis in Europe, highlighting the dilemmas faced by those forced to move to foreign lands.   UK filmmakers have addressed similar themes, with Jörn Threlfall’s Over (2015), an elliptic yet insightful examination of migration and suburban Londoners, a hit across many festivals.

An exciting recent development in UK shorts is a renaissance in short documentary. Strengthened, in part, through initiatives such as Britdocs and the Scottish Documentary Institute, and showcased through a revitalised Sheffield Doc/Fest, UK short documentaries have found innovative ways to present rarely-told but compelling lives of the people and places of Great Britain.

There is also space for new forms with the work of Ben Rivers, Lucy Walker and Eva Weber mixing documentary with more experimental techniques.  Recent work such as The Atom Station (Nick Jordan, 2015) or Adeline for Leaves (Jessica Sarah Rinland, 2013) evoke the mystifying natural world and our inability to comprehend its intricacies. One can trace lineage back to British shorts innovators like Malcolm Le Grice, Percy Smith or Mary Field, yet their beautiful psycho-geographic works feel fresh, contemporary and vital.

Dylan Cave is a Fiction Curator at the BFI National Archive. He researches, develops and curates the archive’s fiction holdings and acquires the best recent British short films for preservation in the national collection. He occasionally blogs for Sight and Sound and the BFI Website and contributes to the BFI Player.

More about Clermont-Ferrand 2016

British Council manages the WE ARE UK FILM stand at the Clermont Ferrand short film market. For information about the short film landscape and the shorts screening in this year's festival visit We Are UK Film's shorts site.

Eight UK shorts are screening at Clermont-Ferrand 2016:
dir. Tom Marshall 
dir. Nina Gantz 
Fuel to Fire dir. Sam McMullen
Manoman dir. Simon Cartwright
The Atom Station dir. Nick Jordan 
H Positive dir. Glenn Paton 
Camrex dir. Mark Chapman 
Teeth dir. Tom Brown and Daniel Gray