The Two Minute Masterpiece programme is a collaboration between BBC Northern Ireland and Screen Arts Northern Ireland. Originally aimed at young female filmmakers, but the next round – which is taking applicants until 25th October – is expanding out encourage applications from other under-represented parts of Northern Irish society. Applicant pitch treatments for 2 minute films and are then successful applicants are given a budget – small but proportionately generous – to make the film. Presumably this is a way of balancing limited budgets against inflation, so you get small but perfectly formed films with high production values. It also means that all the films – with explanatory introduction – fit into a fifteen minute slot, which I suspect a lot of casual viewers are much more likely to take a chance on than they might otherwise.
One of the great pleasures of watching short films, I find, is coming across films that really make a virtue out of the limitations of the form. They may only have two minutes to work with but my goodness they make every second count. Personally, I found that the first two films – Demons Before Breakfast and Truce – felt longer than two minutes in a good way; they packed so much so much into their short running times. Truce in particular paced itself such that the build of tension would itself up naturally, and never felt rushed, leaving the viewer certain that it must surely have been longer.
I have a soft spot for micro-shorts not only because I admire the skill involved, but also because I’ve greatly enjoyed taking part in challenges like this myself. The very first film I ever made as a student had a 90 second run time and I still look back on it with fondness. One of the dangers when you first start making films is getting caught in the trap between being over adventurous – and having your ideas overtake your abilities – and fixating on what you think your audience wants and therefore making something that excites neither you nor them. With a micro-short you’re so confined by the limit of duration that you have to find other ways to be creative, to make every second count.
(There’s something delightful about the combination of documentary and surrealism in Femme Fatale and the sparse but clever humour of A to Z of NI with it’s deeply embedded sense of place.)
In general, I’ve always felt that between five and ten minutes is the perfect duration for a short film, long enough that you can properly explore a concept, short enough that you have to keep everything on a tight leash. Certainly there were a couple of films in this selection that I felt could have done with an extra minute or two, that even a five minute run time would have benefited them, given them a little more room to breathe. And yet perhaps that instead spoke of a different kind of skill from these young film-makers, that they left me wanting more, wanting to spend just a little longer with the characters that they’d sketched so briefly and yet so compellingly.