While many of today's veteran filmmakers rose to fame with the movies they made in their 20s and 30s, a visit to almost any director's IMDB profile will reveal that their careers began somewhat earlier. Years before the likes of Jaws and ET, for example, Steven Spielberg directed a war movie called The Last Gun. He was just 13 years old.
Meanwhile Scorsese's debut was not Mean Streets or even Boxcar Bertha, but something called Vesuvius VI, which was also the product of an overactive teenage imagination. Even younger directors currently working in Hollywood or further afield are invariably responsible for films that few of us have heard of, and even fewer yet have seen: the Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright's debut was a film called Rolf Harris Saves the World.
Often little more than glorified home videos, such films are a chance for future masters to learn the rules of moviemaking and to experiment. While we will probably never know if these early works were actually any good, they do have something in common: they were all short. "What I like about shorts is that you can be more experimental," says François Vogel, a French short-filmmaker, whose work was the subject of the Gulf Film Festival's In Focus section this week.
His films employ bafflingly complex camera and computer trickery to achieve their surreal ends. They include Stretching, a film compiled from thousands of shots of Vogel working out in various locations across New York, with the background architecture pulsating with every bend of his body. Another work, Dizzy, employs footage from eight spinning cameras set up in a tennis court and was complicated enough to require no fewer than four years of post-production, using computer editing software.
"Although my short films are about trying to do new things with camerawork and visuals, you can also use [the medium] to look at narrative and characters. If I have an idea I would like to see on film, I just try to do it," he says. From one country to another, the exact length a short film should be is a matter of debate. In the US, the term generally refers to works of between 20 and 40 minutes in length, but the GFF defines it as anything from a minute long, up to an hour.
Before about 1910 and the birth of the full-length feature, all films were what we would now call short. Prior to the days of movie theatres, travelling roadshows would arrive in small towns across the US and Europe, showing silent movies of just a few minutes in length. For many audience members, it was the first time they had seen a moving image on screen. The films on show included documentary footage from around the world, rudimentary animations and dramas acted out like plays in front of a fixed camera.
One of the first filmmakers to create a name for himself internationally was the Frenchman Georges Méliès. Although his works were rarely longer than 15 minutes, they found audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, he is believed to have created not only the first horror film, 1896's The House of the Devil, but also the first piece of science-fiction cinema, with the ground-breaking 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon.
Although the birth of full-length features dramatically reduced the audience for shorts, they continued to be played regularly in cinemas until the 1930s, often grouped together on a bill, or played before features. In today's world of television drama, advertisements and music promotions, one could argue that we are surrounded by short films. However most filmmakers believe such works are undeserving of the title.
"The thing that is a pity with commercials, is that no matter how interesting the film is, it still exists to sell a product," says Vogel, who has directed advertisements himself. "But with traditional short films there is nothing to sell. Music videos are somewhere in between." Today, many of Hollywood's most visually inventive directors (including Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and David Fincher) rose to fame for films that premièred on MTV, rather than the big screen.
But the home of the traditional short film is now the film festival. Of the many hundreds of cinema events taking place around the world each year, almost all have programmes dedicated to screening shorts. There are even festivals that refuse to screen full-length features. "The problem with short films and the thing I don't like about them is that it's difficult to show them to people," says Vogel.
"Audiences are used to going to the cinema to see features, but that doesn't really happen with short films. Festivals are a great chance for people to see them, but only a small number of people go to them." Like the celebrated auteurs who cut their teeth on short films, many of those working in the medium today undoubtedly have ambitions to direct feature-length films. Shorts can help novice filmmakers hone their craft and get noticed by the right people.
But not all short-film directors are biding their time until they are able to direct a feature. Many see the medium's length restrictions as a strangely liberating way of focusing their ideas, whether they are primarily narrative or visual. "I have no interest in making a feature at the moment," says Vogel. "I make short films that are experimental and try out new ideas, but not everyone has to do the same."
Many directors of full-length features regularly make shorts as well. Jonze, for example, followed last year's major release Where the Wild Things Are with I'm Here, a 30-minute short about two robots falling in love in Los Angeles. With the rise of video-sharing websites such as YouTube, people around the world are now able to chose from millions of short pieces of film available online, although with the wide selection comes an inevitable variance in quality. But while some might expect short filmmakers to embrace the new technology as a place where their work can finally find a home, Vogel is less than excited.
"I don't put my short films on YouTube because the quality is bad and the image is too small. Maybe that's going to change, but even then it's just people watching them inside their houses, which isn't the same as going to the cinema or watching them as a group," he says. But despite feeling that new technology has yet to help short films find audiences, Vogel believes that other advancements have made it easier for aspiring filmmakers to begin working.
"If I had been born 20 years earlier it would have been much more difficult for me; I would need bigger equipment which costs more money," he says. "Now, anybody with an amateur camera and a computer can become a filmmaker, and they will usually begin with shorts."