The Importance of Short Film: Then and Now

Throughout its cinematic life, short film has continually adapted its function. Following the infancy of cinema, where audiences revelled in the delightful spectacle of a new medium, the coinciding development of classical narrative cinema and technological advancement in the early part of the 20th century established the movie industry as a big business on a global scale. As technology and film form continued to develop the feature film quickly became the prime choice of visual entertainment for the masses. However, despite feature film’s continual dominance, short film has retained a sense of purpose and continues to reach out to filmmakers and audiences alike.

In Britain during the 1930’s, short film became increasingly important in the lead up towards the outbreak of the Second World War. Rachel Low writes:

‘Universal education and universal suffrage, mass circulation; newspapers, radio, the development of advertising and the public relations business were the background against which film was forcing its way out of the entertainment-art of the studio feature film to find new functions in society as part of the mass media.’ 1

At the beginning of the decade, short film experienced a recession due to a ‘lack of legislative protection offered to short films in the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act’ and as a result the production of short films decreased2.However, one John Grierson recognised the potential of film to act as an ‘effective medium of communication between the state and the public.’3 Grierson joined the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) in 1927, a government organisation that publicised trade links between Britain and other countries. His role was to develop a programme of publicity films for the EMB but when his first film Drifters (1929) became a critical success it proved, according to Ian Aitken, ‘what was to become the central strategy of the documentary movement during the 1930’s: to seek sponsorship from government bodies with limited remits, and then, whenever possible, to make films which went far beyond those remits.’4 The British Council was one of many government bodies to sponsor such film production throughout this period, with many of the filmmakers and technicians linked to Grierson’s movement, which went from strength to strength as the decade progressed. Of one development, Rachel Low writes that:

‘In the thirties substandard film became widely used. This was film 16mm wide, or sometimes 9.5 or 8mm, instead of the 35mm gauge commonly used in theatres. This development, together with that of safety film and non-theatrical exhibition, was accompanied by an enormous increase in both the quantity and the quality of films of every type made outside the feature studios.’ 5

These technological advancements coupled with the increasing political importance that short film gained in the run up to the war resulted in an increase in British Council films during wartime. Propaganda films were produced to combat the rising threat of Fascism across the continent of Europe. Some of these films attacked and condemned the actions of Great Britain’s enemies but some went to great lengths to boost national morale and maintain the international reputation of an already toppling empire.

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Whereas the Ministry of Information made films that were explicit propaganda, the Council’s documentaries made between 1939 and 1941 were not even allowed to mention the war; this was later rescinded but still the films produced put emphasis on an idyllic picture of Britain, a country not completely immune to the terrors of war but defiant in the face of them nonetheless.

Many of the film units that produced films for the British Council were either ‘directly initiated by members of Grierson’s documentary film movement or indirectly inspired by them.’6 However, ‘after the war the movement’s importance diminished, and its personnel and ideas were dispersed into mainstream cinema, and into the burgeoning industries of public relations and television.’7 This correlates to the number of recognisable names that can be found in the archive of British Council Documentary films.

Out of the 13 films that TIME/IMAGE has currently made available online, a number of famous faces have already emerged. A number of directors- Ken Annakin, Paul Rotha, Philip Leacock and Julian Wintle – became successful figures after plying their trade on British Council films. Annakin (London 1942 (1943) and We of the West Riding(1945)) crossed the Atlantic to direct Hollywood features for renowned studios like Disney and filmed war epics like the star studded The Longest Day (1962) and Battle of the Bulge (1965). The careers of Paul Rotha and Philip Leacock, former associates of Grierson’s film unit and co-directors on the British Council’s Island People(1941), moved in different directions to each other. Rotha, a contentious figure, established himself as a unique documentary filmmaking talent and eventually became Head of Documentary at the BBC. Leacock on the other hand followed in Annakin’s footsteps and moved across the pond to make features. Julian Wintle gave up directing after making Country Town (1943) and opted for a career as a producer instead. Unlike many other successful individuals who worked on the British Council films, Wintle did not immigrate to Hollywood. Instead he continued to work in Britain producing British features and working in television. Amongst his achievements Wintle was executive producer on Joseph Losey’s Blind Date (1959), producer on Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963), a major British cinematic accomplishment, and the producer of the 60s smash-hit TV series The Avengers.

It wasn’t just directors who benefited from the experience of working on British Council films. Perhaps the most decorated individual from the archive discovered to date is cameraman and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Unsworth and other contemporaries, like Jack Cardiff who also made films for the British Council, were amongst the first to experiment with three-strip Technicolor in Britain. It was to become a signature for the latter period of Hollywood’s golden age. Following his work on the British Council’s World Garden (1941), Unsworth went on to be one of the greatest cinematographers of his generation. Working with superstar directors such as Sidney Lumet, Vincente Minelli, Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski, Unsworth contributed to masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Cabaret (1972), and Tess (1980). Likewise, editors Peter Tanner and John Krish (London 1942 (1943) and General Election(1945)), both ended up working on The Avengers with Julian Wintle.

Jack Cardiff, Geoffrey Unsworth and a Technicolour camera.
Image courtesy of

These names lie within what is just a small sample of films from the archive. Who knows whom or what else TIME/IMAGE might discover next? What does seem apparent from this cross-section of names though is that the film industry during the 30s and 40s was as much an industrial trade as any other. Working on these short documentaries set filmmakers and technicians on the path to establishing themselves as highly respected professionals. Filmmaking was a craft, skill and technique that should be learned meticulously over a period of time, like the various trades displayed within the films themselves. This is not to suggest that the British Council films do not possess flourishes of imagination or innovation, quite the opposite. However, the fact that many of the filmmakers and technicians repeated their work on multiple films does lend a sense of continuity.

Today, such continuity may no longer be possible. The British Council no longer commissions or produces films, but their film department still gives support to UK filmmakers, and once a week their team sits down to view a fresh batch of new short films sent in to them. State sponsorship of production is, of course, no longer as secure as it once was. From 2000, the majority of public funding came from the UK Film Council, which as of the 26th July 2010 is to be abolished according to a statement from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.8 The response to such news has cast an air of uncertainty over the future of the British Film industry. Many of the regional screen agencies – responsible for funding short films and nurturing local filmmaking talent – temporarily froze their funding schemes for the production of short film until the situation was made clearer, with one screen agency, Screen East, going into liquidation.9 The responsibilities of the UK Film Council are currently being passed over to the BFI and once completed the number of national and regional screen agencies, which currently stands at eleven, will be reduced to three in England and one in each of the other home nations.10

However, the outlook of the film industry, and short film in particular, is not as apocalyptic as the above may suggest. In fact it is quite possible short film is having somewhat of a renaissance. Many successful films over past few years started life as a short film – take District 9 or Monsters to name but two. As we enter the digital age, like most creative industries, the film industry is having a major transformation. Revolutionary developments in digital technology now allow films to be made at a fraction of the cost in comparison to older film technologies, providing nearly everyone with the creative freedom to make their own films. Some mobiles phones offer the ability to shoot in full high-definition, edit on-board and then post directly onto the internet. Equally, the distribution and exhibition of films are undergoing radical transitions thanks to the overwhelming capabilities of the Internet to reach out to large audiences. Filmmakers need no longer rely upon sales agents to ensure their films receive a wide distribution and the average cinema-goer does not need to leave his or her own home to watch the latest movie release now that films can be readily uploaded and streamed on the net – something mooted to take off even further this year with the advent of Internet Televisions. So, this cultural shift seems to be providing filmmakers with the ability to control the means in which their film is created and displayed, and although public investment in the future of the UK’s filmmaking talent may remain precarious and uncertain, filmmakers are making-do as they learn to fend for themselves creatively.

The British Council may no longer make short films – at least not directly – but it is important to remember how the film industry got to where it is today. This is just one of the reasons why it is so important that we are able to provide access to these films through the medium that today’s young and upcoming filmmakers are utilising. The technology may have developed, the ideas and values depicted may have changed, but when you really look at the importance that short film has in the UK film industry, how much is really different? Maybe today it’s more important than ever.

For more information on the work of the British Council’s film department, or if you are an aspiring filmmaker yourself, check out their website:

Adam Field

1 Low, Rachael (1997) History of British Film Volume V: The History of the British Film 1929-1939: Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930s (London and New York: Routledge)

2 Low, Rachael (1997) History of British Film Volume IV: The History of the British Film 1918-1929(London and New York: Routledge) pg 102

3 Aitken, Ian (2009) The British Cinema Book 3rd Edition, ed. Murphy, Robert (BFI Palgrave and MacMillan: Hampshire) pg 177

4 Aitken, Ian (2009) The British Cinema Book 3rd Edition, ed. Murphy, Robert (BFI Palgrave and MacMillan: Hampshire) pg 177

5 Low, Rachael (1997) History of British Film Volume V: The History of the British Film 1929-1939: Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930s (London and New York: Routledge)

6 Aitken, Ian (1990) Film & Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement (London and New York: Routledge) pg 4

Aitken, Ian (2009) The British Cinema Book 3rd Edition, ed. Murphy, Robert (BFI Palgrave and MacMillan: Hampshire) pg 177

8 – a statement on the DCMS website announcing plans to abolish the UK Film Council 26th July 2010

9 – a statement from the UK Film Council confirming the liquidation of Screen East

10 – ‘The Future of the UK Film Industry’ published on the DCMS website 29 November 2010[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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