A shorts attention span has been one of the things that’s made Pixar the wondrous enterprise that it is. The features have been great. They still are. Have you seen “Soul”? But the Pixar commitment to shorts is one of the things that from the beginning has made the studio stand out.
That commitment is being showcased on Disney+, which has started streaming “Pixar Popcorn.” It’s a series consisting of nine “mini shorts.” As to how “mini shorts” differ from the standard kind, your guess is as good as mine.
The “Pixar Popcorn” films feature characters from, yes, Pixar features. “Dancing With the Cars” and “Unparalleled Parking” are from the “Cars” movies. The subtitle of “Chore Day: The Incredibles Way” tells you it comes from the two “Incredibles” movies. “Cookie Num Num” does, too. “Soul of the City”? “Soul.” “Dory Finding” reverses the title of its originating feature. “A Day in the Life of the Dead” springs from “Coco.” “To Fitness and Beyond” and “Fluffy Stuff With Ducky & Bunny” both center on characters from the “Toy Story” movies.
Shorts, long a standard part of movie exhibition programs, pretty much disappeared by the late 1950s. Those programs had once consisted of a double feature, newsreel, and short subjects (live action, cartoon, or both). The programs shrank in no small part owing to the arrival of a new medium. Television, with its endless appetite for programming, appropriated the format. Sitcoms and Saturday-morning cartoon shows were simply shorts (and serials) repurposed and interlarded with ads.
Shorts lived on, mostly at festivals and film schools. How else do filmmakers get their start making films? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has retained them in three categories, for documentary, live action, and animation. The academy defines a short as “an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits.”
But for several decades who among the great moviegoing public ever saw a short in a theater? Then Pixar came along. Its logo announces its allegiance to movie shorts. That lovable desk lamp which substitutes for the “i” in “Pixar” made its debut in 1986, as star of the second Pixar short, “Luxo Jr.” The first Pixar short? “The Adventures of André & Wally B” (1984) though technically it wasn’t Pixar, since it was produced by The Graphics Group, owned by Lucasfilm. The Graphics Group became Pixar two years later.
(Yes, it’s true. It’s courtesy of Lucasfilm that Disney owns both the “Star Wars” franchise, directly, and Pixar, indirectly. The Magic Kingdom should erect a monument to Skywalker Ranch.)
Since those first two shorts, Pixar has produced a steady stream of them. Just as every Pixar feature lists “production babies” in the closing credits, so, too, have Pixar features until recently all been preceded by a short. The hors d’oeuvre could be as delicious (if not as filling) as the main course. The titles include “For the Birds” (2000), “Boundin’” (2003), “Lifted” (2006), “La Luna” (2011), “Piper” (2016).
Consider as an example “The Blue Umbrella” (2013). During a rainy rush hour, every visible pedestrian carries an umbrella. Nothing unusual about that. What is unusual is that everything in the city has eyes. Storm drains, gutters, mailboxes, and, of course, umbrellas all have them. In a neat reversal of the standard order of things, it’s people who don’t have eyes — or, to be accurate, we can’t see if they do, since they’re all underneath those umbrellas. The humans may be ambulatory, but they’re the ones who are inanimate.
One of the charms of “The Blue Umbrella” is how it extends the small, but not-inconsiderable, tradition of movie brollies: the assassination attempt in “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), the title number in “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), Mary Poppins’s means of ascent, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964), the crowds in “Blade Runner” (1982).
So, too, has Pixar extended the tradition of the short. But why hasn’t that extending become more . . . extensive. On the one hand, our cultural attention span keeps contracting (thank you, Worldwide Web). We are children of the gif, favoring scenes, sequences, snippets over lengthier narrative. Except when we don’t — when we are children of the binge. Did you watch “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020) in one sitting or two? But that is the “on the other hand.” Along with attention spans growing shorter, standard entertainment templates have evolved, television drama being the prime example but far from the only one.
Diminished attention span+altered templates=return of the short. Probably not, but the need for content by streaming services makes the appetite of network television look like fasting. There are also the opportunities afforded both filmmakers and consumers by YouTube, which abounds in short films — well, YouTube abounds in everything — and it makes you wonder why there hasn’t already been a shorts revival.
It’s not just animation. Todd Douglas Miller’s “Apollo 11,” the best documentary of 2019, is getting a shorts follow-up later this month. Miller’s 23-minute “Apollo 11: Quarantine” gets an IMAX release Jan. 29. It’s true that IMAX documentaries have rarely been feature length. But they’ve also been made for specialized audiences, as Miller’s film is not. Or, closer to home, there’s Thomas Fahey and Brian Kelley’s 47-minute “Remember This Year,” about the impact of COVID-19 in Milton. You can watch it here.
Animated and nonfiction shorts are out there. It’s with fictional narrative that shorts have the least traction. But there’s at least one counter-example filmmakers and audiences alike could keep in mind: Chris Marker’s 28-minute “La Jetée” (1962). Speaking of YouTube, you can watch it here. Yes, it’s French. Yes, it consists nearly entirely of still photographs. Yet it’s almost 60 years old. But its moody style — or is it a stylized mood? — of lyrical dystopianism has made it as influential as any film of the last six decades. Marker (who made a lot of documentary shorts, too) reminds us that less really can be more sometimes, that shorter can be better — and also more memorably filmic. Call it the Buzz Lightyear approach. Forget about fitness or infinity. What about to brevity — and beyond?
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.