Can a six-second movie be considered art?

Time will tell. baboon, CC BY-NC

If 2013 was the year of the selfie, then 2014 is the year of the hyper-short film. Today, people don’t just watch films in cinemas or living rooms. Instead, the term “movies” takes on a new connotation, as people download and consume on the move: on foot, or on the train, sometimes with just seconds to spare, as the content flows through their Facebook or Twitter streams on their mobile devices.

This new form throws up many questions – what kinds of creative opportunities arise from these time restrictions and mobile environments, and how these platforms change the way we fund, make and watch film. Are there new kinds of creative sensibilities that filmmakers require to create truly remarkable hyper-short films? I am not sure that the movie industry knows yet, but there are some great talents out there already, such as Zach King, Vine magician, whose stop-motion illusions reach millions of viewers.

Yet there is some degree of creative resistance to this innovation and uncertainty about its value as an art form. After all, what can one really achieve creatively in six seconds? This seems an unreasonably short amount of time in which to express something important and lasting.

Six seconds

But Vine’s six-second limit isn’t finite. They’re designed to be repeated, watched on loop. So, while the film may last just six seconds, any single user may watch that loop repeatedly ten or more times before moving on to something else.

The idea of an infinite loop within a film is also a novel feature of hyper-short filmmaking that distinguishes it from other formats. Unlike other films with their beginning, middle and end, the hyper-short format is often set up in a way that its beginning and ending – at least – are indistinguishable. We have got used to non-linear story lines in film, but a circular narrative may be something quite different. Perhaps Christopher Nolan’s Memento took us close to that world, but not quite.

A Victorian zoetrope at rest. muller, CC BY-NC-SA

This looping dimension to hyper-shorts is reminiscent of the way we were entertained by fairground zoetropes in a pre-cinema world – cylindrical drums that contain strips of images, which, when spun, create a sense of movement when viewed through the narrow slits on the side.

The brevity of six seconds is where the debate lies. Some don’t believe that such work can be creative. Some fail to see that such a short film is capable of telling a story. But such a focus fails to take into account that time is never straightforward when it comes to art.

Artistic time

Imagine you were in Madrid, and went to see Picasso’s Guernica. You might only stand in front of such a painting for ten seconds (shame on you if so!) But the amount of time you actually gaze at it is beside the point. You would probably also think about the work after you saw it – and before. Some works you would forget immediately, others would stick in your mind.

This doesn’t just apply to visual art. Poems, for example, may be just one or two lines and yet we would not question their value or impact because of the speed at which they can be read.

It’s obvious that talking about the duration of a poem or painting in terms of its worth is a futile effort. The duration of any work of art stretches back into the history of that work’s creation, the biography of its creator and its content.

And so while the format of hyper-short film may be six seconds long, the experience of art cannot be bound by such rudimentary timetabling. It has the capacity to stay with us for much longer and to involve a significantly greater amount of time than is reflected solely by focusing on its duration as a product. And so we should trust the viewer – and focus less on the film’s duration.

Beyond time

The power of creativity to influence us is not time bound. Art always exists within a temporal economy – pop music songs are around three minutes, feature length movies around 100 minutes. Where work breaks out of these norms, its reason for doing so is always demanded. We want to know if there’s something special about them to warrant this transgression.

This is particularly so in the case of extraordinarily long feature films or plays. Are they so creatively groundbreaking, that they demand to break the conventions of consumer experiences? This might be said of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which lasts 15 hours, if played out in full.

Hyper-short film making operates at the other end of the scale, but we ask a similar question. These clips remind us of how time is relevant in the creation of art and, while there is a lot of dull hyper-short film making out there, there is a growing amount of extraordinarily creative work being developed through this medium, including a resurgence of stop-motion film making.

In a world of social media and limited attention span, hyper-short film making may become an even more crucial dimension of what is required of artists to be good film makers. Alternatively, this extremely short format may give rise to a new desire for art to transcend the norms of conventional film making, re-configuring our expectations of the medium.

Either way, the growth of mobile cinema experiences points in the direction of more such film-making, at least for the foreseeable future. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. Time will tell.

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