Prelude to Summer Shorts 2010

13-May-10 12:04 PM by
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The recent release of Iron Man 2 heralds the beginning of the summer blockbuster season. With the likes of Robin Hood, Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3, and Predators still to come, it will prove to be an expensive season for the avid moviegoer.

Last summer, I offered an alternative: Summer Shorts, a series of free, independent films. Every day for a week, Showbits presented a different video you could watch at home right here on this blog. Although lacking the budget and length of major film productions, these shorts offer a refreshing creativity that is seldom found in sequel-ridden Hollywood.

This summer, Showbits will again present Summer Shorts, but in a new format. Instead of one post every day for a week, we'll offer one film every Friday for the entire summer. If the blockbuster season can last that long, then so can we! This schedule will also allow us the opportunity to continue publishing on diverse topics between shorts.

The series begins this Friday — so sit back, relax, and kick off your summer shorts!

Summer Shorts: Signs

07-Jun-09 12:00 PM by
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Today's short is the final in our seven-day series, and you'll see that I saved the best for last. Unlike World Builder and Unloved, which build upon existing relationships, in Signs, we're there to see one blossom:

Many of this week's shorts have lacked dialogue, but none have thrived within that limitation as eloquently as Signs. It's a similar language barrier to what we saw in Lost in Translation, which I like for many of the same reasons as Signs: the main character, disconnected from everyone, is adrift in an unfamiliar environment, resigned to his endless existence… until he connects with someone who can empathize, changing (and inspiring) everything. It's a palpable and relatable loneliness that comes with an enviously happy ending.

Like everyone else, each of us is different, and I think we've all sometimes felt that our uniqueness separate us from the rest of humanity. Our differences may even seem like bad things, and we think the answer can be found in conformity and uniformity. As Signs demonstrates, it is not in denying, but in expressing, ourselves that we can be most comfortable in our world. Sometimes, that means finding someone to be different with — someone who shows faith and confidence in who you are, before you can find those things in yourself. Regardless, I hope this is the beginning of a radical change for our young office worker, wherever or with whomever he finds himself in the future.

Signs was made as a candidate for the Schweppes Short Film Festival by @Radical.Media, the company that was also responsible for the Superman and Seinfeld commercials for American Express. As amusing as those advertisements were, they lacked the innocence of Signs, as well as its moral:

It is better to have a regret of action than a regret of inaction.

Summer Shorts: The Hunt for Gollum

06-Jun-09 12:00 PM by
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Hot on the heels of yesterday's Dungeons & Dragons short is another fantasy epic, the length and quality of which is in sharp contrast to Choices. The Hunt for Gollum, released on May 3rd, is a prequel set just before the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. At 40 minutes, it stands at the long end of "short", such that it exceeds the constraints of a single YouTube video. The entire film is available as a single high-definition viewing on the official Web site, but here it is divided into four separate videos, compiled into a single playlist:

This film most impressed me in its ability to echo Peter Jackson's trilogy in look, which required not only casting talented look-alikes as Aragorn and Gandalf, but applying high-value costumes and makeup. This could not have been cheap, but the end product benefits from the investment. I speak from experience what a difference such dedication can make. I once appeared in an independent fantasy film called Tomorrow's Night. Whether or not that movie was ever released, I don't know; it may be best if it was shelved, as unlike the low-budget films featured this week, Tomorrow's Night was no-budget.

The no-budget <em>Tomorrow's Night</em> features Ken Gagne as the guy in the potato sack.

The no-budget Tomorrow's Night features Ken Gagne as the guy in the potato sack.

What impressed me less was the script itself. As a prequel, The Hunt for Gollum neither fills necessary gaps nor leaves room for surprises. It can end only so many ways without disrupting what's to follow in J.R.R. Tolkien's well-known trilogy and Peter Jackson's popular adaptation of same. What we get instead is a lot of running around and fighting. Fortunately, that's what Hunt does best, as the choreographer and characters obviously know what they're doing. This film may lack the heavy-handed morality of Choices, but I far prefer it for its ambition and subtlety.

If the idea of an untold tale of LotR doesn't sit well with you, there is some relief to be found in the pending live-action adaptation of The Hobbit, which Peter Jackson is writing as two films. It was originally believed that the second of these films would be an original story filling in the sixty years between the conclusion of The Hobbit and the commencement of Fellowship. Fortunately, Mr. Jackson recently clarified: "We decided it would be a mistake to try to cram everything into one movie… [This] allows us to make The Hobbit in a little more style, if you like, of the [LotR] trilogy."

In part, Independent Online Cinema has done with The Hunt for Gollum what even Peter Jackson would not. Thank goodness to online media for giving us a place to be bold and experimental.

Summer Shorts: Choices

05-Jun-09 12:00 PM by
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All the shorts posted thus far, even those inspired by existing properties, have been standalone films, requiring no background knowledge to appreciate. Choices deviates from that path, being based on one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons, Dungeons & Dragons, the complete series DVD box set of which included this short:

As you might imagine, I did not choose this film for its pedigree of actors. It's instead an example of a cartoon come to life, which is always a risky proposition (especially when the source material, a pencil-and-paper RPG, is yet another medium removed). In its limited television run, the D&D cartoon never saw a satisfying conclusion, opening the door for films such as Choices that posit the protagonists — kids from our own world trapped in a fantasy realm — never made it back home. What situations would they face, and what decisions would they make, in the face of such despair?

Unfortunately, this is a flawed premise for such a vignette, as the same topic was already addressed by the original cartoon. Episode 20 of 27, "The Dragon's Graveyard", had the heroes' salvation sabotaged once again by the evil Venger. After too many such defeats, the kids go on the offense and take the battle to the wicked warlord. The episode culminates in them capturing Venger, and as Hank pulls back his magical bow, the audience asks, will he really do it? Of course not — this is a Saturday morning cartoon! Hank instead shoots Venger's bindings and sets him free, but with a warning.

Hank's decision was as much about a moral lesson for the show's youthful audience as it was about complying with television standards. Whereas Japanese anime has generally been more realistic in showing the consequences of violence, animation intended for an American audience has historically been limited to a safer setting. The ABC cartoon ReBoot often made the most of the situation by parodying its censors, BSnP. In one scene, the hero was to make a hasty entrance by crashing through a window, but instead deployed a protective bubble called a "BSnP" that safely transported him through the barrier with no damage to either.

As an online production, Choices is not restricted by these censors. But without that boundary to work within, it doesn't demonstrate the creativity of either Dungeons & Dragons or ReBoot. Though it's entertaining to see one director's vision of popular series come to life, this adaptation doesn't offer much beyond that.

Summer Shorts: Unloved

04-Jun-09 12:00 PM by
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Like What's In the Box?, today's video is based on a video game, and like World Builder, it's about a man who doesn't know how to show his deep devotion for another. Although the premise isn't all that different from the Twilight Zone episode "Elegy", Unloved exchanges humor and wonder for the morbid and macabre:

Many of the summer shorts featured here this week feature either little to no dialogue, or a heavy emphasis on special effects (or both). In contrast, Unloved is all about mood, atmosphere, and characterization. It subtly prepares us for something, even if we don't know what, as we are disturbed by what we don't see before we are by what we see. It's exactly what I found most engaging in the game it is inspired by, Eternal Darkness. None of the characters or situations in Unloved are lifted from that material, but both media feature similar themes of rational people driven to insanity, and yet whose actions remain perfectly justifiable within their own broken minds.

Both movie and source eloquently fit the game's subtitle: Sanity's Requiem.

Summer Shorts: The Black Hole

03-Jun-09 12:00 PM by
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Today's short is the shortest short of the shorts I'll be posting here shortly. After the frenetic nature of What's in the Box?, I thought it'd be a nice change of pace to enjoy the contemplative and solitary nature of The Black Hole:

Given this film's dimly-lit environment, I was pleasantly surprised to find the overall tone of the film to be less dark. I'd worried that the hole itself would prove to have a nefarious or accursed purpose, similar to the extremely disturbing "Girl With Pencil" short. Fortunately, the director did not borrow Stephen King's style of horribly punishing his main character, resulting instead in a mildly amusing variation on the greed and regret of Office Space.

The Black Hole was produced for the fifth annual National Film Board of Canada Online Short Film Competition, as were three other films, each of them equally dialogue-free. Two are entirely computer-generated, while the third and longest of the set is special effects-free. Like The Black Hole, it's amazing how much can be said with so few words and embellishments.

Summer Shorts: What's in the Box?

02-Jun-09 12:00 PM by
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Today's action-packed film is What's in the Box?, inspired by the the computer game Half-Life:

Although I consider myself a purveyor of fine video games, I've not experienced Half-Life, and so the connection between this movie and the game was unclear. The film's official Web site is oddly cryptic, with an inscrutable text field and a HAL-like red circle. Clicking around brings you to the film itself, but there appears to be no additional content. This air of mystery originally led to public wonderment of whether the video was a commercial, a trailer, or something else entirely. An interview with its young Dutch creator reveals that it was simply a labor of love:

Like World Builder, this film demonstrates the power of special effects, especially as applied to virtual interfaces. Microsoft has predicted that similar tools are in our own future. I hope we'll use them to make our lives simpler, and not to fend off invaders from other dimensions.

Summer Shorts: World Builder

01-Jun-09 12:00 PM by
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Today's video is a wordless film that leaves you guessing as to its nature right up until — and even beyond — the end:

World Builder was created by Bruce Branit, the same artist who nine years earlier created the popular comedy short The 405. Sometimes, professionals such as Mr. Branit produce independent films to realize a vision that no professional studio would support; other times, it's to experiment with new techniques or to acquire experience for a resume. For example, the latter was Victor Navone's motivation ten years ago when he created the "Alien Song" short, and it worked: that demo earned him a permanent job at Pixar. Similarly, Mr. Branit went on from "The 405" to work on Pushing Daisies and Lost.

The extent of special effects in World Builder is apparent. The World Builder Facebook page has a video looking at one scene in four stages of development, from animatic to green screen to final. It's a fascinating reminder of how much of modern entertainment is fabricated, as also evidenced by the Pink Five effects breakdown.

Storywise, World Builder is a touching gesture of love — one that doubtless many people wish they could offer to those who are trapped within themselves. Why this couple had to remain apart even in the virtual space, I'm unsure… but it's comforting to know that, even if he could not be with her, he could still do something for her. The therapy was likely as helpful for the victim as for those left behind.