A common complaint regarding Hollywood films is predictability. A mix of art and commerce, movies tend to stick to the same basic organization of plot points in fear of scaring off profit. The norms that developed over 100 plus years of motion picture history more often meet audience expectations than surpass them. Mainstream film structure is often pedestrian, one action pulling into the predictable next.
Short films, in contrast, usually offer something completely different. Once the calling card for young filmmakers, short films offer a chance for filmmakers to explore concepts of form and structure that Hollywood would not touch—at least not until it proves profitable.
Classical, lyrical, circular, interweaving—all forms of structure, no matter the name, are based on change. Change occurs in plot, character, the audience’s POV. It drives the linear train that is film to its time stamped end.
What matters is how this story is told. What rhythms are used to pace out the information? What pulls the audience along? What foreshadows expectations of the inevitable? How does the manner in which information is related affect our view of the story? Going way back to Aristotle: “The story… should portray one experience and the whole of it, the components parts thereof being so arranged that the displacement or removal of any should shatter and disconcert the whole.” The components of film support each other to create a unified, emotional impact.
To understand this, it’s necessary to understand the norms. Film theorist David Bordwell (in any of his numerous books and articles) notes that norms are the reason we understand films. For example, most Hollywood films follow a basic structure. They are driven by goals; are separated into three or four acts whereby the goals change or are reinforced; have at least one defined subplot, oftentimes romantic, and intertwined with the main character’s goals; use foreshadowing and dangling clauses to pull the storyline forward; and implement a deadline that coincides with the fixed timeline of the film itself.
Story goals are satisfied by action, which often is used to further the plot. Actions redefine goals and characters. There is a constant change that pulls us along for the duration. As we are taken along for the ride, the story and characters invest us emotionally into the action on screen.
While most artists and directors would prefer to avoid clichés, knowledge of filmmaking norms makes one more aware of their alternatives. Norms are merely a set of options, an assembly of preferred alternatives within a tradition. And in fact, each tradition has its own selection of norms. In his article “Anatomy of the Action Picture”, Bordwell cites the example of the unified, story-centric, goal-oriented Hollywood blockbuster against the loosely-plotted, action-driven Hong Kong feature and more existential, open-ended European pieces. Our experience with certain norms makes us more receptive to one type of filmmaking over another.
Short films essentially do the same thing. However, here it becomes almost essential to play with structural form and style. Shorts have to offer something novel to effectively communicate a theme and maintain audience attention—especially online, where the next form of entertainment is a click away.
Sure, many of these films, no matter how bizarre, still follow a three or four act structure, but the pull between those acts is less predictable. Often, the pull is not only inherent to the story but also the structure. There is less time to build into these characters, to become emotionally invested, so it becomes necessary to use tricks and play with linearity to deliver a climactic punch. In short films, change happens quicker—sometimes between sequential shots. Each little piece of dialogue or action is placed for maximum impact along the timeline.
Spike Jonze’s How They Get There is a straightforward narrative, told in linear fashion that is also stylistically circular. The story is simple: a car strikes a man and his shoe flies off, adding to the collection at the side of the road. The short both begins and ends with a shot of a shoe on the side of the road. What happens to the shoe and the owner is the major concern. However, as the film pulls us along with different styles, delving from romantic comedy to big-budget car crash, we forget that initial image—until it shows up at the end.
The viewer receives the set up with the title: a shoe lying next to the curb. We are pulled away by the protagonist and his disgusting habits: throwing litter on the ground, slurping milk, making eyes at women and leaning against someone else’s car. Wide-angle close-ups put us at odds with him. Then, just as quickly, we are tossed into a comic, almost romantic connection as the man and a woman engage in a bout of copycat. The music shifts from a simple bass and drums to a more whimsical tune. And then: danger.
The car approaches. We realize the girl is no longer playing the game but trying to warn him. And then: a crash fit for Hollywood movie. Only at the end of this climactic moment are we reminded of our objective.The shoe flies in the air, landing in the street gutter, a few paces from an older shoe. The events occur with an A to B to C linearity, but the mechanics of getting there nearly approach a Rube Goldberg setup.
Dier Birkup’s Gridlock plays with linearity in a different fashion. The events, through the eyes of the protagonist, are related to us with a linear regularity. But they don’t occur in that order. We get the act one setup of a man stuck in rush hour traffic. He’s probably a bit angrier than he should be. He tries to pass time with a call home. Here he speaks to his daughter and finds out that his wife is with “Uncle Wim”.
The driver decides to plot his revenge through trickery, which he has the little girl carry out. The events go down, to catastrophic effect, and only at their conclusion does the protagonist realize his mistake.
The audience is pulled along through the intrigue of how will this individual react. The notion that he dialed the wrong number is not realized until the end, because it has not been the focus of the story. However, it has been set up. When it’s revealed at the end of the parallel narrative, it has maximum impact.
The set up details the protagonist taking the new phone out of the box—the first time he’s used it. He makes the call, talks to little girl, and she carries out her task off screen. Structurally, we see the events being recalled by the little girl as she is telling the protagonist. As he hears it, he pictures it, he reacts to it, and the viewer sees it. The majority of the timeline is linear, but it’s this small section of parallel narrative that provides the maximum impact. We hear and see the protagonist’s reactions as these events are both unfolding and retold. After the viewer has seen and heard about the carnage, the revelation that he dialed the wrong number has all the more influence.
The Oscar nominated The Door uses a flashback structure that circles around onto itself before continuing forward. It starts at a point of interest to lead us in, moves to the past, up to the lead in point, and then beyond. The benefit of this structure, besides hooking the viewer in from the get-go, allows the viewer to reevaluate the opening events.
In The Door, the protagonist is initially seen entering an empty town to retrieve the front door from an apartment. In the flashback portion, the second act, it’s revealed that the apartment was his, that his family was forced to flee, and that his daughter is terminally ill. This catches us up with the present. At this point, his journey for the door is not even mentioned. The revelation of the door is revealed as simply a continuation of the flashback. The story does not stop to consider the journey for the door, it has now focused on the little girl’s situation.
The final shot is framed in a wide shot similar to the opening shot. The mystery of those opening shots has been replaced by solemnity, and the necessity of him undergoing the task has gained a new poignancy.
Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug explores the director’s preoccupations with time, perception and layers of reality on an increasingly smaller scale. A simple premise reveals the cosmic, Kafkaesque effects of an action. The protagonist chases a bug, eliminating all other distractions so that he can obsess over finding his prey. His prey is soon revealed to be a tinier version of himself. Intriguing, but he still must destroy this nuisance.
And then the miniature smashes his shoe on the floor, right before the character himself smashes his own shoe on the miniature. The realization of what will happen next hits the audience before the protagonist can realize his mistake.
The film pulls us along by focusing on an obsession and making us question is to a degree that we come to question the larger world around us. Structurally, are we moving through a linear time space that just fits into a series of layered loops? Think of the possible infinitude of protagonists killing themselves. The surreal distortion of events, the realization of impending danger questions the organization of the story without actually playing with the linearity of events.
Repetition is the key to this structure. A series of still shots of objects are interrupted by the protagonist’s awkward movements; linked together they create an ill-tempered rhythm. Time is in restraint, but the realm of worlds seems limitless.
In this way, Nolan suggests that film offers an ever-elusive freedom. If we lack the ability to see beyond the immediacy of events, if we are unable to grasp an understanding of the interlocking mechanics of structure, then we, the protagonists, the directors, the audience, are inevitably trapped.