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At DIFF, Short Films Take Center Stage
by Stephen Becker 2 Apr 2014

The Dallas International Film Festival starts Thursday. And on the bill will be more than 50 short films. It’s the only time most of these shorts will be shown on a big screen. So we asked: Why do budding directors put so much effort into a piece that’s often less than 15 minutes long?

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I Was a Teenage Girl was shot in director Augustine Frizzell's house. Photos: Dallas International Film Festival

I Was a Teenage Girl was shot in director Augustine Frizzell’s house. Photos: Dallas International Film Festival

The Dallas International Film Festival starts Thursday. And on the bill will be more than 50 short films. It’s the only time most of these shorts will be shown on a big screen. So why do budding directors put so much effort into a piece that’s often less than 15 minutes long?

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People who make short films have all heard some variation of this question: Why make a movie that no one’s going to see and won’t make any money?

But the truth is that fame and fortune aren’t really motivators for these filmmakers.

“The first thing I wanted to do was just get the practice of making a film, says Augustine Frizzell, a Dallas actress who’s working on the other side of the camera this time. “So I thought the best way to do that was to make something small and affordable.”

Her film – called I Was a Teenage Girl – checks all the short-film boxes. It was shot over a long weekend in her East Dallas house. Everyone worked for free. And her daughter, Atheena, even plays one of the two teen girls who have a brief but deep conversation about relationships.

“I really want to make a larger movie – something longer,” she says. “But it’s expensive and a long commitment. And I think when you want to make something artistic, you kinda just want to do it then.”

Daniel Laabs' Easy was made for about $6,000.

Daniel Laabs’ Easy was made for about $6,000.

Dallas’ Daniel Laabs also wants to make a feature film one day. But for now, he’s focused on shorts. He’s made five to date, and his last one, called 8, won an award at South by Southwest at few years back. But maybe more importantly, producers of corporate videos saw 8 and started hiring Laabs as an editor.

“I was gainfully employed for two years after that film – because of that film,” he says. “In that sense, yes – you do make money from a short film. You can potentially get a lot of work.”

His new film, Easy, is a character study that follows two brothers over the course of a long day. The estimated price tag? $6,000.

“Part of what makes a successful storyteller is being able to work within a box,” he says. “If you’re gonna be successful at what you do, that means you play really well in a confined space.”

Toby Halbrooks shot Dig primarily in his back yard.

Toby Halbrooks shot Dig primarily in his back yard.

Dallas’ Toby Halbrooks knows all about working within limitations. He’s produced a number of independent films, but his short, Dig, is his first stab at directing. It’s literally about a guy digging a massive hole in his back yard, which confounds his neighbors.

The film showed at the Sundance Film Festival. But where it really exploded was YouTube – one of the outlets that’s expanded the reach of short filmmakers. That’s where a prominent libertarian website discovered it, which shocked Halbrooks.

“Thousands and thousands of people watched it and … dissected it in ways that you could only dream that people would watch your film and look at it so closely,” he said shortly after Sundance.

Halbrooks is currently working on a script for a remake of Pete’s Dragon for Disney. He’s writing it with a frequent collaborator named David Lowery, who’s also Augustine Frizzell’s husband. The Dallas director broke through on the indie scene last year with his feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Like his fellow local filmmakers, Lowery honed his skills making shorts.

“I attribute pretty much everything that I know about filmmaking to short films I’ve made,” he says. “All the things that show up in my features – all of the things that show up in everything I do now – were cultivated in the short films that I’ve made.”

Even though he makes features now, Lowery admits that his short attention span makes them hard to watch.

“A short film, on the other hand, is perfectly bite-sized and gives me just the right amount of narrative, creative nourishment to push me along in the day,” he says.

And with YouTube, Vimeo and other sites, there’s an endless buffet.

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