Have you seen this Mickey Mouse short yet? If not, take a few minutes and watch it. “Croissant de Triomphe” is not only a fun and stylish piece on animation; it’s also the first time in years that we’ve seen Mickey do something other than ask very young kids to help him find the triangle. There are plans for nineteen additional shorts starring Mickey. It’s a big deal for the Mouse and for the animated short itself, a format that’s been enjoying a major comeback in recent years. Why is the animated short back, why did it go away, and what makes it an important part of animation? Let’s start by looking at the history of the short film.
Shorts: A Brief history
In the early days of cinema, short films – both animated and live-action – were a major part of the moviegoing experience. Some shorts even eclipsed the features they ran alongside in popularity. So what happened? This distribution system changed. Theater owners used to be able to combine features, newsreels, shorts, and anything else they had as they saw fit. The changes to the system meant studios were selling premade packages of features and supporting material to theaters. Shorts became less and less of a draw for moviegoers as more emphasis was put on the feature. Animated shorts stuck around longer than their live-action counterparts, but eventually the cost of making animated shorts outweighed the benefits amidst declining public interest. The emerging market of television eventually became the place for short form animation – both recycled theatrical shorts and new material made with techniques designed to reduce the cost and time of producing animation.
Shorts continued to live on as an more experimental format, seldom seen outside of animation festivals or arthouse theaters. Over the years, many attempts were made to revive the studio short, with varying degrees of success. Few studios produced shorts regularly and the ones that did come out were at the mercy of the features they ran with. While some shorts benefited from airing in front of major releases, others languished alongside such films as A Kid in King Arthur’s Court or The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter. It wasn’t until Pixar started regularly including shorts with their movies – both in theaters and on the DVD release – that theatrical shorts really started to come back. Television also became a haven for short animation, as companies with large numbers of cable channels needed something to fill the time between ads and keep viewers with DVRs from simply skipping the commercials.
Almost since the beginning, animated shorts have been used as a testing ground for new animation techniques. Since feature films are expensive and take a long time to produce, shorts are the ideal place to put new ideas or technologies through their paces, see how it works, and possibly refine the technique for use in a feature. Before Disney made use of the multiplane camera in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they did a test run in the form of the 1937 short The Old Mill. Geri’s Game helped Pixar’s animators learn how to creating a convincing human character long before one played a main role in any of their films. And though there’s no talk of it yet, I’ve got my fingers crossed that Disney’s recent short Paperman is a dry run for a whole feature film in that style.
Training for new or unproven artists
As I said before, feature length animated films take a lot of time and money to produce. Studios may be unwilling to hand the reins of such a costly project over to a team of neophyte artists. Independent animators, with a few happy exceptions, don’t have the financial backing or resources to tackle a full length film on their own. Shorts are a great opportunity for studios to try out new directors, artists or teams and even keep animators gainfully employed between films. Animators working outside of the studio system can hone their craft or show off their skills without having to go into debt or give years of their lives over to one project. With the advent of the internet and online video sites like YouTube, distribution is becoming less and less of an issue for animators whose only goal is to get their work seen and shorts fit the internet browsing mentality far better than longer form pieces do.
Keeping characters alive
Have I mentioned that animated films are costly and time consuming to produce? Even in an age where sequels can be greenlit before the original film even premieres, it takes a while to get a follow-up to a popular movie made. One way to keep characters in the public consciousness when no new films are forthcoming is with shorts. They can whet fans’ appetites for future production or simply give them more of the characters they love without significantly affecting the storyline. Though rumors of a fourth Toy Story film continue to circulate. I think the best course for the series is shorter form stories that don’t dramatically alter the characters’ lives the way Toy Story 3 did.
Shorts are also great for studios that want to try something fresh with a classic character. A new movie starring Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny would likely be subject to all manner of restrictions to make sure that the character remains likable, marketable, beyond criticism, appealing to everyone, etc. While I don’t doubt that shorts get some of this as well, the fact that they can tell quick, simple stories with the characters and still work makes their job a lot easier. It’s tough to write a long narrative centered on Mickey, an all around good guy who can’t do much you wouldn’t want a four year old to imitate. But give him three and a half minute to get some croissants delivered to Minnie and everything’s peachy.
Best format for the job
So far, I’ve been talking about shorts as kind of a substitute for when features are too…well, you know. But sometimes, the most compelling reason for making a short film is that it’s the best fit for the idea. Watch a collection of great shorts and you’ll find not a cavalcade of wannabe feature films, but a variety of stories and concepts fully explored and concluded in its short running time. They’re not limited in their scope either; shorts can convey humor, drama, tragedy, fear, or any other emotion. They can tell stories or explore the most abstract of visuals. Between Hollywood studios’ renewed commitment to them and the internet providing whole new methods of distribution, shorts are back in a big way. And for animation fans, that’s really good news.
Got a favorite animated short? Share it with us in the comments!