The golden age of the short
Shorts move from film-class project to big time on Web
By Jamie Allen
CNN.com Senior Writer
(CNN) -- Joe Shields, aka Internet animation king Joe Cartoon, the one who brought "Frog in a Blender" and "Gerbil in a Microwave" to computer desktops everywhere, is one of those guys who defines the entertainment possibilities of the World Wide Web.
A short time ago, the 39-year-old husband and father of three was just an unknown cartoonist with a twisted sense of humor, living in that entertainment mecca known as Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was struggling to be heard.
"I was doing toy design and ad campaigns, just trying to get people to accept the Joe Cartoon Company for what it is," he says. "But there was always a middle man between me and the audience."
A little over a year and half ago, Shields decided to take his fate into his own hands. He posted some of his work on the Web, and his site received about 200 hits a day. Then he learned the Flash animation program, allowing him to bring his often-bizarre, adolescent 'toons to life. His daily hits increased more than tenfold, to 2,500.
"Then we released 'Frog in a Blender' and all hell broke loose," he says. "We were shutting down servers and we were blowing things up. You know, it was cool. Now we're doing about 700,000 hits a day."
Now, Shields is a hot commodity. He has signed deals with AtomFilms.com and Shockwave.com, two companies that are capitalizing on the growing popularity of short films and animations on the Web. He's also taking meetings in Hollywood, though he won't say exactly to whom he's been talking to in the land of dreams.
Bottom line: Shields is one of countless animation and live action artists who are using the short entertainment genre and the Internet to catapult their careers to new heights, without resorting to the Hollywood system.
"This is one of those times in history where things are being redefined," says Shields. "At one time, it was the automobile, and that changed the world. Today, it's Joe Cartoon. I'm the freaking poster child.
"Well," he concedes, "there are other guys."
Plenty of them, in fact. And there are plenty of outlets for them to show their work. Apparently, there are millions of people who are willing to download or stream shorts for their viewing pleasure.
'Well above expectations'
Short entertainment, in fact, is one of the hottest businesses on the Web. Along with AtomFilms and Shockwave, a quick survey reveals sites like AntEye.com, ifilm.com, eveo.com, cinemanow.com and 60SecondFilmFestival.com, with dozens more crowding search engines.
Top Hollywood names are getting involved, too. Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG and Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment are launching a short film site called POP.com. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is funding the joint venture.
But it's the new entities that are making a splash right now. AtomFilms, a site devoted solely to shorts, launched in March 1999. It was one of the first to embrace the narrative on the Net, says chief marketing and online officer Matt Hulett. Its early-bird status is coming up worms.
"We're performing well above expectations," Hulett says. "We passed our one-year estimate within the first couple of months of launching. We're doing about 2.5 million movie streams a month. From the download perspective, we do a million a month. We have 700,000 registered users, and that number is growing quickly."
Hulett says AtomFilms' most popular short is "Gerbil in a Microwave," Shields' Flash-animated follow-up to "Frog in a Blender." He estimates that 20 million to 30 million people have viewed it.
With numbers like this, it's easy to see why sites are lining up to provide a channel for short entertainment artists.
Why has the short suddenly become so popular?
After all, the genre has been around since the days of the Kinetoscope, when humans figured out how to create moving pictures on celluloid. But while feature films thrived in the 20th century, short films were relegated to college classrooms and film festivals, regarded in recent decades as nothing more than the baby steps of future Scorseses and Coppolas.
A major reason for their rise in popularity is the Internet, which seems custom made to promote tiny bursts of entertainment. Technology hasn't reached the point where it's convenient for surfers to download or stream a 90-minute feature film. But, they can easily access a short and watch it as a capper to their lunch hour or between studies at school.
The result: Directors are flooding the Web with their minivisions, and companies are capitalizing on supply and demand by showing the shorts for free.
"It's a symbiotic relationship," says David Phillips, whose short "When Chickens Attack" is one offering on 60SecondFilmFestival.com. "These Web sites are looking for free content to get people to come to their site, and people like me are looking for ways to get our stuff out there in the public."
And movie fans are rediscovering the appeal of the short.
Matti Leshem, CEO of AntEye.com, says the Internet is allowing a movie-addicted generation to budget its entertainment time, and viewers are finding quick fixes away from the box office.
"If you watch a six-minute film, and you're really watching it, it can be a profound experience," says Leshem. "But you could sit through a two-hour action-adventure film and get absolutely nothing out of it, other than feeling your endorphins flow."
'Screwing around at work'
The idea of marketing short films on the Net has been around for some time, says Jen Heck, director of 60SecondFilmFestival.com, which is an offshoot of entertainment site Charged.com. But, she says, the light bulb has turned on for many in the industry only within the past year.
"Sundance 2000 was definitely a defining moment" for short film on the Net, says Heck, who took part in panels at the January festival. "From the beginning of launching the 60SecondFilmFestival.com, people were like, 'That's really cool, that's great.' But after Sundance, it was like, 'That's really cool, that's great. How can we get involved?'"
Shields offers a simple reason for the sudden Internet acclaim for animated and live action shorts -- a new economy mentality that mixes work and play.
"I think it's because people are screwing around at work," he says. "Let's be honest. The boss goes to lunch, and boom! They're visiting sites. I also think it's entertaining to these people because this content doesn't exist anywhere else. And all these independent artists that are out there don't have the barriers that they used to have."
The competition is fierce to create the top short entertainment channel on the Web. Since companies don't usually charge viewers for shorts, they make their money through advertising and business-to-business tactics. AtomFilms, in particular, has developed an aggressive marketing approach.
The company made its presence felt at this year's Sundance, offering rides in an AtomFilms Winnebago around Park City, Utah, while showing passengers content from the site.
Not to be outdone, AntEye.com launched its site this year by sending out a procession of RVs -- dubbed "mobile digital studios," complete with digital editing equipment -- to six cities across North America, including Toronto, Canada, Austin, Texas, and Atlanta. Each RV was on the hunt for short films of any kind. AntEye's Leshem says they received more than 600 entries.
On the Shockwave beat, the company recently crowed about signing "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to a contract that will have them concoct 39 shorts for the site. Not long after, director, author and animator Tim Burton signed on with Shockwave.
AtomFilms countered last month with a plan to expand its content to hand-held PCs and cell phones, with the intention of eventually providing users with shorts anytime, anywhere. And just last week at the Cannes Film Festival, it debuted "The New Arrival," the first film to use 360-degree technology. It allows viewers to move the camera to watch what they want to watch in the four-minute film.
Head to the sites over lunch one day and you'll see AtomFilms promoting the 2000 Oscar-winning short "My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York," directed by Barbara Schock. The next day at ifilm, you'll see "More," an Oscar-nominated animated work by Mark Osborne.
Osborne, in fact, knows firsthand how much things have changed in the short-entertainment genre. He says he made a short film in 1994 called "Greener." It screened at 25 film festivals.
"And that was it," he says.
"More," however, lived up to its name. The six-minute film offers a moving portrait of an inventor living in a drab world who tries to return to the colorful days of childhood through his latest creation. It won best short at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, enjoyed the nod from Oscar that same year and has since screened at more than 100 festivals.
It also attracted the attention of several sites who wanted to post it for their growing audiences.
"It's weird to think that a year ago at this time it was like, 'Short films on the web? That's a novel idea.'" Osborne admits. "I actually waited because I wanted to see where this was going."
Last October, Osborne chose ifilm to screen his work. Since then, "More" has been a top-rated film on the site, downloaded 110,000 times, Osborne says.
"More people are seeing it on the Web than probably have ever seen it in film festivals and screenings," he says.
It could lead to greater success. Osborne is using the film's high visibility to help find a distributor for his Sundance 2000 live action feature, "Dropping Out." Anyone who views "More" is also provided a link to a trailer of the feature.
Obviously, there's no shortage of content for sites. AtomFilms claims it's now receiving between 500 to 1,000 shorts a week. By some estimates, over 300,000 short films and animations are made each year.
But not all the content is award-winning, and much of it is still not taken seriously.
Shields' Joe Cartoon work, for instance, might be one of AtomFilms' favorite marketing tools, but he won't be found on the Internet Movie Database, which lists information for features and popular shorts.
As Shields says, that's the point: Viewers finally have the chance to see things they won't find in mainstream culture. With Shields' work, they can actually interact with the gory animation, allowing the audience to engage in animal torture: In "Frog in a Blender," for example, you can make an Amphibian Smoothee, so to speak.
This brand of humor has bled to other short film sites, at times with the perspective reversed.
On the 60SecondFilmFestival.com, viewers can engage in "When Chickens Attack," a parody of FOX TV specials. A Seattle-based artist who runs his own design firm, Phillips' live action short is crudely set on a toy farm. It shows a woman who is bloodied and burned by chickens she attempts to feed.
"This is really just an expressive art form that I've got total control over," he says. "Nobody's telling me how to do it ... it's just another artistic outlet, like painting."
Other content on various sites brings the experimental to the fore. "The Sadness of Sex," a 10-episode series of shorts located on ifilm, uses an illusory, Freudian and often-comical narrative to describe the creation and dissipation of a love affair and its aftermath.
Show me the money
These artists, and the thousands of others online, are those who in the past might have been ignored by the masses. Now, not only are they being seen, they see a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
This is particularly true of no-name talents, who would be honored to become the next Joe Cartoon. Many sites are responding/competing by offering the promise of a Big Break to such filmmakers.
"We are really trying to reach out to this whole army of filmmakers who have been empowered by digital video and desktop editing and all the possibilities," says Heck of 60SecondFilmFestival.com. "Our goal is to get our filmmakers involved with companies that can pay them for what they want to do, what they love to do."
The Internet has given new filmmakers new opportunities to show their work to a large audience. Is this the start of a new movie revolution, or is this more overblown Internet hype?
AtomFilms goes further. Hulett mentions the site's MogulMaker promotion, which allows loyal visitors to build up points by interacting with the site. Currently, five finalists are competing for the grand prize -- the opportunity to act as executive producer for a $100,000 AtomFilms movie.
AntEye answers with its own promotion. Leshem says the site has posted every short that it has collected so far (sites like AtomFilms post only a small percentage of the ones it receives), and AntEye execs have picked favorites. They're meeting with the winning filmmakers to talk about movie budgets up to $250,000.
"This year alone we're going to be producing 32 pilots," says Leshem. "This is really an engine for the discovery of break-through talent.
"This is about a new Hollywood," continues Leshem. "This is about a Hollywood where you don't have to know an agent to get your work heard. You don't have to have a friend who works for UPN. You don't have to sleep your way to the top.
"This is about a Hollywood where people are literally seen for their talent, without any kind of arbitrary judgment. And I think Hollywood is actually going to respond to this positively."
But filmmakers should take heed -- this isn't yet the road to Hollywood riches.
"It's not really benefiting most filmmakers" in a financial sense, says Osborne. "I don't think it's at the point where it's a money-making venture, but it pays for your film's processing."
'Quit standing around crying'
Perhaps if Hollywood responds positively, money will flow. Most believe this is inevitable. In fact, "Quantum Project" -- a 32-minute movie billed as the first "Hollywood-level production" to be created exclusively for an Internet audience -- debuted at SightSound.com on May 5. It cost surfers $3.95 to download.
But the days of heading to your home office to watch the latest blockbuster on your computer are still far off. Hollywood, says Shields, is still scratching its collective head over the merging of Internet and film, perhaps because of the music industry's problems with MP3 and Napster, which allow music fans to download CD-quality music on PCs.
"I think the whole thing confuses them right now," Shields says. "They'll get their hooks into a lot of it down the road. But now is the time for the little guys to jump all over this."
Shields, in fact, has some advice for wannabe filmmakers.
"Quit standing around crying like a bunch of sissies and just do it," he says.
For the wannabes, there seems to be no limit to the possibilities. It's come to this: If you're a beginning filmmaker or animation artist who creates an interesting vision, your short will be seen by thousands, perhaps millions, and you'll be well on your way to a creative career.
Clearly, guys like Shields see no limit to the content they can provide to their audiences. In fact, his latest work is coming to a computer screen near you.
"Stay tuned, because I'm gonna get real weird," Shields warns. Remember, this is the guy who created "Frog in a Blender."
"AtomFilms is about to release my new one," he says. "It's about a guy who wants you to look at his monkey."
At this point, Shields inherits what is apparently the mentally unstable voice of the main character in his new animation.
"Yeah. Look at my monkey! Are you lookin' at my monkey? You better be lookin' at my monkey, boy!"
He calms down.
"I'm going to leave it right there," he says.
No doubt, plenty will be lookin'.
First direct-to-Internet movie fails to impress
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