In an era when TikTok, YouTube, and other shrunken videos are compulsively watched by millions of people, you’d think short films might get a little more attention. The academy gives awards to short films in no less than three categories, but they’re sometimes treated as an afterthought, or even a place to streamline a long ceremony. Yet the short film remains a valuable art form, with hundreds produced each year.
And among the attention-grabbing features, the shorts contestants are like a world within a world, a refuge for what sometimes looks like classic relics. While the nominees don’t always reflect the full range of form, they are the final step on a colorful path that began in Hollywood’s Golden Age as part of the main draw. The following is a brief history of the academy short (with an emphasis on live shorts for brevity).
The 1930s and 1940s: classics for the general public
Shorts were a bigger part of theatrical cinema when they were still shown alongside feature films, and major Hollywood studios were producing them in both live action and animation. The Oscar categories for “best short subject”, which were added in 1932, were first separated into comedy and novelty, then into one reel and two reels, reflecting their length.
Short film pioneers Hal Roach and Mack Sennett were the appropriate first recipients of these awards, and Roach’s “The Music Box” remains a rock-cold classic, featuring Laurel and Hardy, a piano, and way too many steps. . Sennett is best known for happily wreaking havoc on the Keystone Studios screen.
In the years that followed, the Three Stooges, funny comedian Robert Benchley and the Little Rascals were generally nominated, as was an eye-catching handbag of nature travel stories and explanatory knick-knacks. Two mainstays who deserve to be recognized are MGM’s Pete Smith and Warner Bros. Gordon Hollingshead, who have won over 15 nominations each.
The demands of WWII led to propaganda nominees like “Main Street on the March !,” “London Can Take It!” and “Women at War”. Once the war was over, a special prize was awarded to the short film ‘The House I Live In’, a plea for tolerance that also condemns anti-Semitism, starring Frank Sinatra and directed by Hollywood figures soon to be on the show. the blacklist.
The 1950s: Shows and experiences
As the studios’ old short film departments were closed and television loomed, the big screen shows proved to be attractive nominees, as well as orchestral recordings of classic standards. Disney has won awards with its “True-Life Adventure” (“Bear Country”) nature trips, tours around the world (from Samoa to Switzerland) and the “Ben and Me” animation, which boldly called for : What if Benjamin Franklin had a talking mouse for a friend?
Short film nominations from this era could also harbor some curious experiences. Norman McLaren, an innovator with the prolific National Film Board of Canada, pushed sound and image into trippy realms with the stop-motion of “A Chairy Tale”. The City of Gold prospecting story anticipated the “Ken Burns effect” by depicting old photos on the screen. And “The Face of Lincoln” won a victory by showing a sculptor modeling the face of the Great Emancipator while recounting his life.
The 60s: the adventure
A kinetic and pop spirit surfaced in this decade’s selections, perhaps first signaled by the mischievous 1959 short “The Running, Jumping and Standing-Still Film” by Richard Lester (“A Hard Day’s Night” ) and Peter Sellers. A young Jim Henson directed the catchy live-action “Time Piece” (1965), which was nominated the same year as the first suburban children’s skateboarding film “Skaterdater”. Arthur Lipsett’s “Very Nice, Very Nice”, a cut-out montage of city scenes and found sounds, was another adventurous creation from the National Film Board of Canada, while “A Place to Stand,” an anthem visual for Expo 67 in Montreal, innovated with a dazzling mosaic technique a bit like several shared screens.
Another growing trend was the arrival of non-Hollywood directors as the art house’s golden age reached its peak. Writer Ambrose Bierce’s flashback puzzle “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was adapted by French director Robert Enrico (and later shown as an episode of “Twilight Zone”). His comic compatriot Pierre Étaix won a prize for “Happy Birthday” with Jean-Claude Carrière. Prestige producer Ismail Merchant had his first nomination with “The Creation of the Woman,” and balancing the ambitions of the decade was Ingmar Bergman’s parody of “The Dove,” starring Madeline Kahn and some Swedish ersatz.
The 1970s: noble impulses
In a decade when American cinema has exploded, hitting new classics like “The Godfather,” nominees for short films seemed to stay a little closer to the earth. A new sense of social responsibility has taken hold, whether in a series of films telling the stories of people with disabilities (two essential highlights: “A day in the life of Bonnie Consolo” and “I will find a way”) , or “Teenage Father” by Taylor Hackford (“Ray”) and a literal entry “Afterschool Special” in “Angel and Big Joe”. Robert Redford commissioned a short film on solar energy and the omnibus “Life Times Nine” compiled nine elementary school films “to promote people’s appreciation of being alive.”
But as always with shorts, the selections have remained eclectic. Comedic entries included “The Absent-Minded Waiter,” starring Steve Martin as a ridiculously bad waiter for Buck Henry and Teri Garr, and “Doubletalk,” a meeting with parents story in which the characters express their true thoughts in duel. overs. Literary adaptations also became fashionable, a trend that continued until the 1980s, with filmmakers finding a good fit for the short form in the works of Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, and Julio Cortázar.
The 80s and 90s: Author’s Visions
Just as a new generation of independent films erupted in the 1980s, the short film category seemed to be getting shot in the arms of young talent, including some graduates from film schools like the American Film Institute, and more. late in cheaper digital technologies. But there was also some sort of British invasion (and continued Canadian incursions), like “The Dollar Bottom,” depicting a student conspiracy against corporal punishment at a British school, and later the fantasy comedy “It’s a wonderful life of Franz Kafka ”with Richard E. Grant. That said, the best-known short film of the 1980s is probably still “Precious Images,” a shimmering tour of Hollywood history by Chuck Workman (who would become the benchmark editor of the Oscars).
At the same time, some famous actors have looked into short films. Kenneth Branagh, Griffin Dunne, Jeff Goldblum, Christine Lahti, Peter Weller and JoBeth Williams all won nominations for their short films around this time; Dunne’s “Duke of Groove” played Tobey Maguire in what looked like a warm-up for “The Ice Storm”.
As with the rest of the Oscars, representation has long been lacking. Regarding the topic, there were entries like the remarkable folk collection in “Gullah Tales” and the coming-of-age gay story “Trevor”. But behind the camera, the first live short film produced by a black filmmaker was David M. Massey’s “Last Breeze of Summer” in 1991. Four years later, Dianne Huston (“Tuesday Morning Ride”) was the first Afro director. -American whose film was nominated in the category.
From the 2000s to the present day: visions of the world
Next stop for shorts? The world. Since the end of the 1990s, the category has definitely internationalized, just as the global market has become essential for Hollywood. It’s not uncommon for the list of live-action scenes to lack a single American movie, making it a de facto additional international category. Highlights included “Wasp” by Andrea Arnold, “Six Shooter” by Martin McDonagh and “Two Cars, One Night” by Taika Waititi and Ainsley Gardiner. The current list of live shorts suggests a renewed commitment to topical relevance. (Note: The New York Times Op-Doc “A Concerto is a Conversation” is among the nominees for the short documentary this year.)
Life after shorts
If one thing stands out in the history of live-action shorts, it’s that they cannot be categorized as “calling card” efforts. Filmmakers like McDonagh and Waititi don’t come every year, and a short film nomination doesn’t always lead to directorial work, at least in directing. TV shows, commercials, or some other short film are much more likely to be the next act for these nominees than a studio contract. Which only confirms the category as an attractive out-of-the-box underdog to cheer on amid Hollywood bluster – and underscores the distinctive identity of these small worlds made for the big screen.