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Who shoots short shorts?

Filmmakers explore small-screen possibilties

In many ways, the five mobile shorts featured in the Sundance’s Global Short Film Project, happening this week at 3GSM in Barcelona, may seem as much a glance at film’s past as a peek into its future.

Most are silent and use very basic storytelling techniques largely due to the small mobile screen size that, depending on the filmmaker, was either a thrilling challenge or totally frustrating.

The Sundance Institute launched the project with mobile trade group the GSM Assn. in November as a way to explore mobile content through the eyes of notable indie filmmakers who also happen to be Sundance alumni.

“We didn’t want them to be just five well-done stories with one joke,” Sundance Film Festival programming director John Cooper says. “We wanted them to show the range of short films in general.”

The rules were simple: Make a three- to five-minute film, on a budget of $20,000, to be viewed on a 2-inch-square screen by an international audience.

“The screen size determines everything,” notes Maria Maggenti, whose feature “Puccini for Beginners” bowed at Sundance a year ago.

She says her short, “Los Viajes de King Tiny,” which is based on a walking tour of Los Angeles, led by her Japanese Chin, “forced me to go back to a primitive form of storytelling.”

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton — whose “Little Miss Sunshine” is up for four Oscars, including the top prize — came to the experience with a bit of cynicism about the mobile medium’s future as a format for filmmakers.

Before creating “A Slip in Time” — a short featuring classic slapstick pratfalls such as the old banana-peel slip and the pie to the face — they started by studying viral videos and considering films that people would want to pass around.

“Originally, we thought about doing something like a chain letter,” Dayton says.

Users would add something to the film as they passed it along to give it a Beat poetry feel. But in the end, the two chose to return to slapstick comedy.

They found the small screen frustrating as it doesn’t allow for much dialogue or character development. Also, there are certain shots — such as those involving landscape — that just won’t work.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to be making films for this format for the rest of my life,” Faris says.

But while a 2-inch screen can limit dialogue and intricate detail, it’s also more forgiving of a film’s picture quality.

“Because it’s so small, you can get away with a lot,” says filmmaker Cory McAbee, who put together the musical short “Reno” for the festival. “With (2001 Sundance Grand Jury Prize nom) ‘The American Astronaut,’ I used black-and-white and said it was a special effect because there were a lot of things you didn’t have to mask. This is sort of the size version of that. A lot of things you can do a little more simply because of the way it’s going to be seen.”

Maggenti ended up shooting the film herself with a high-def camera, something she says she never would have attempted had it been made for a larger screen.

Even Faris acknowledges there were some advantages.

“It allowed us to do something we would never do for the bigscreen. (The picture quality) looks like crap. In that way, it offered this opportunity,” she says.

The other challenge was making it accessible to a multilingual audience, which is why most of the pics ended up silent.

McAbee — whose band, the Billy Nayer Show, provides a musical backdrop to his short –ended up making what he calls a “micromusical.”

“The thing about that size is the sound is pretty good,” he notes. “Being that the sound is all-encompassing, the size of the screen is not as important.”

Maggenti says she found the experience to be a more stripped-down and personal way of telling a story.

“It’s an interesting way for a wide range of filmmakers to go back to their roots, to tell a small tale in a very small range and reach a wide range of people,” she explains.

But Faris and Dayton see mobile as more of a format for sharing user-generated video and newsclips than a place for waves of filmmakers.

“I think that there is a place for the fourth screen,” Dayton says, “but the fourth screen will never replace the first, second or third.”

Other filmmakers participating in the Sundance program include Jody Hill (and his “Learning to Skateboard”) and Justin Lin (“La Revolucion de Iguodala!”)

Starting Feb. 12, 3GSM attendees can stop by the Global Short Film Project booth to view the films and upload them to their phones.

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