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Sunday, January 27, 2013

James Lee, Jinnyboy and I talking about short films (The Star, 6th of January, 2013)

Back in December, I did an interview with The Star's Kenneth Chaw for an article about the rising popularity of short films in Malaysia. The article came out exactly three weeks ago while I was still in Kanazawa. (I found out about that, naturally, from friends on Facebook.)

The other interviewees were filmmakers James Lee and Jin Lim (more popularly known as JinnyBoy), well, excuse ME for not having a name that starts with J.

Kenneth and I had a really long email interview, which never really made it to the final article, but I will be posting that later. For now, you can just have a look at the full article:

Short films are making waves at festivals and raking in millions of YouTube views, but little is known about this increasingly popular entertainment form.

THE short film seems to be everywhere these days. From entries in prestigious film festivals and corporate-sponsored competitions to a neverending stream of YouTube uploads, its profile is at an all-time high.

Even “aunties” have heard of the big names in short film. One lady in her 50s was overheard in a restaurant asking her son, “What is this Jinnyboy-Jinnyboy all about?”

Of course, JinnyboyTV is our local short film YouTube sensation, but this curious lady’s question just goes to show how widespread the phenomenon has become.

Why are millions of Malaysians tuning in to watch short films? When did this sudden fascination with short films begin? And who are these filmmakers who are redefining the way entertainment is produced and consumed?

Star2 spoke to some of the country’s best-known filmmakers – James Lee, Edmund Yeo and JinnyboyTV’s Jin Lim – to gain some insights.

The reel beginning

Director James Lee attributes the proliferation of short films to the advent of digital cinematography. The graphic designer turned filmmaker recalls making his first short film in 1999 using conventional filmmaking techniques.

“My first short film was a gangster flick called Ah Yu’s Story. Only production companies could afford filming equipment back then as it was so expensive – a film camera could fetch up to tens of thousands of ringgit. So I borrowed a friend’s camera and rented his studio to edit the film,” he says.

He described the editing process, using the linear video editing method, as tedious and painstaking. “The film was shot in just two days but it took a month and a half to edit the brief 10- to 15-minute long film,” Lee adds, joking that he has since destroyed all traces of the short film because of its poor quality.

Thankfully, the advent of digital cinematography around the turn of the millennium meant that motion pictures could now be shot and stored digitally, doing away with the heavy (and expensive) rolls of film involved in conventional filmmaking. What’s more, Lee welcomes the non-linear film editing system as it makes the editing process a breeze.

This newfound ease in shooting and editing films gave rise to a burgeoning crop of filmmakers called “The Malaysian New Wave”. Lee, along with Amir Muhammad, Tan Chui Mui, Liew Seng Tat, Woo Ming Jin, the late Yasmin Ahmad and other filmmakers pioneered this independent filmmaking movement whereby films – once produced only by established production houses – could now be made by self-taught filmmakers.

Fast-forward a few years, and the arrival of YouTube in 2005 accelerated the short film phenomenon. Not only were short films easy to produce, the video-sharing website now made them accessible to viewers all over the globe with just the click of a mouse.

JinnyboyTV’s Jin Lim is passionate about making humorous short films that inspire and uplift audiences.

The allure of short films

Lee suspects many young people have gone into making short films because it’s a great way to hone their skills as they try to break into the movie business. “It’s a good training ground for aspiring filmmakers as they get to mess around and experiment with various creative ideas without being bound by commercial pressures,” he opines.

“Twenty years ago when I said I wanted to become a filmmaker, it felt like such a far-fetched dream … Today, if you want to become a filmmaker, there’s no excuse not to try. You can just shoot it with a smartphone and edit it over the weekend,” he adds. (Lee has since gone on to become one of the country’s most prominent mainstream movie directors; his notable works include Histeria and Petaling Street Warriors.)

What attracted Japan-based Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo to short films wasn’t the prospect of becoming a full-length feature film director one day. He considers the short film an art form in itself and is simply in love with it.

“There is a lot of joy and passion in making short films because some stories are more suitable to be told in such a manner,” says Yeo, who left for Tokyo in 2008 to pursue a Masters programme in film.

“I like the fact that short films demand the discipline to tell a story within a limited running time, so you must be precise and do as much as you can. I also don’t have to commit too much of my time or money to make a short film,” he continues.

Being cost and time efficient are certainly factors that attract many people to try their hand at short films, including JinnyboyTV’s Jin Lim. But besides that, the radio deejay-cum-filmmaker saw short films as a great medium to promote the Malaysian culture.

“To put Malaysia on the map and bridge the gap between Malaysia and the rest of the world. That is JinnyboyTV’s objective,” he says.

Lim came to the decision after witnessing a local band being booed off stage by their countrymen in favour of the night’s international act. As such, he believes in portraying typically Malaysian scenarios in his short films to help his compatriots embrace their identity, as evidenced in the slew of distinctly Malaysian-themed short films such as My Generasi and Only In Malaysia.

Though it seems the appeal of short films differs from one filmmaker to another, they all agree on one thing: the format’s ability to deal with topics that are seldom talked about in the mainstream television or film industry.

For instance, many characters in short films have to deal with prejudice and injustice in various forms. These are often conveyed through metaphors, allowing viewers to interpret what they will from the visuals.

There are good reasons, too, why many viewers like to watch short films. With an average running time of 10 to 15 minutes (sometimes even less), such bite-sized entertainment is perfect for viewers who generally have shorter attention spans these days.

And thanks to the Internet, short films are easily accessible and free of charge. Smartphone users can watch them on the go and if they like what they see, share them with their friends and family on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Ultimately, it is the sense of authenticity and rawness that draws viewers to watch short films.

“A lot of viewers find our short films very relatable because we don’t just make up stories. We make them as real as possible by using situations we’ve gone through before,” Lim shares.

A perplexing watch

The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences in the United States (the folks who run the Academy Awards) plainly defines a short film as “an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits.”

But it seems the short film genre – apart from being, well, short – has taken on another definition over the years.

Consider this example: the opening scene is an empty room with a curtain billowing in the breeze that’s coming through an open window. The focus on this delicate movement seems a great way to start the movie. A minute goes by, and then two, and three. Then it hits you: this is the movie.

Short films have somehow gained a reputation for being abstract and conceptual. In fact, many short films that go on to win awards in prestigious film festivals thrive on such avant-garde themes.

“In the 80s and 90s, the only place you could go to study film was overseas. Many students who went to New York, in particular, were exposed to the city’s artistic, experimental way of thinking, and this was reflected in their works when they returned,” Lee says, giving one possible reason for the start of the short film trend in Malaysia.

Yeo sees great beauty in experimental short films as they are open to interpretation. “Films, if you look at them as more than just a mere form of entertainment but also as works of art like literature, can be interpreted differently by different people based on their own backgrounds,” he says.

Yeo nabbed the Sonje Award, honouring directors with the best short films, at the 2010 Busan International Film Festival for his work Inhalation. He believes that short films which may seem abstract or difficult to understand should not be dismissively labelled as such, because they could be touching and emotional to others.

Lim, on the other hand, prefers to take a light-hearted, humorous approach to his short films owing to his cheerful personality. “I always wanted to do comedy. I’m very talkative, and I love cracking jokes and making fun of people,” he says.

JinnyboyTV’s funny flicks like Abuden?! and Ah Wing – Malaysia’s Number 1 Salesman have fetched around a million views each on YouTube. “We ultimately want viewers to feel happy when they watch our short films,” he concludes.

As such, there is truly no set definition of what makes a short film (besides the length, of course). They need not always be deep and philosophical. They can be funny, scary or simply out of this world and explore any genre that full-length commercial films or television shows would.

Creative boundaries

Short films are not subjected to the approval of censorship boards as they are usually either posted on the Internet or screened among small groups of people, giving filmmakers unbridled freedom. As such, it is not uncommon for viewers to find expletives or nudity when watching a short film.

However, Lee believes the public shouldn’t be too quick to take offence. “We must first understand why the expletives were used. Were they used to offend viewers or to add a sense of realness to the scene?” he says, adding that it would be odd to portray a char kuay teow seller, for example, who doesn’t mutter an expletive or two.

Nevertheless, Lee stresses that it is the responsibility of the filmmaker to warn potential viewers of the short film’s mature content.

Lim, on the other hand, avoids the use of profanity and subject matters relating to sex, drugs and alcohol. “We want JinnyboyTV to be a wholesome channel because we know kids are watching it,” he says of his YouTube channel that has more than 100,000 subscribers of various ages.

The next generation of entertainment?

Lee feels that short films in Malaysia have definitely come a long way, but he still sees room for improvement.

“The short films made by filmmakers today are of a higher quality than those made 10 years ago in terms of lighting, image quality and the angles captured. But filmmakers still need to work on ... aspects like storytelling, the script and the acting.”

All three filmmakers agree that the short film phenomenon will continue to exist and grow in the future, though it is unlikely that it will supplant traditional forms of entertainment.

Lim strongly believes that new media, notably video-sharing websites like YouTube, will be the new platform for people to consume what he sees as “the next generation of entertainment”.

Short films starting to appeal to a bigger audience

Here's my most recent short film, LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER. Uploaded by the folks at Rotterdam Film Fest onto their Youtube channel. It will be taken down in February.

If 24 minutes of my hard work is too much for you to stomach, you can always just check out James Lee's Youtube channel. It contains some of his older short films that he had been uploading recently (today he just uploaded his 2005 short film SOMETIMES LOVE IS BEAUTIFUL, which stars filmmaker Tan Chui Mui), trailers of his films, from the independent arthouse ones ("BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE", "IF NOT NOW THEN WHEN?", "CALL IF YOU NEED ME" etc.) to the commercial ones ("THE COLLECTOR", "HISTERIA"). Here's a playlist of James Lee's short films and behind-the-scenes stuff.

To watch JinnyBoy's popular viral hits. Check out his Youtube channel. Here's a playlist of his shorts.