The Shorts Program and Calavera Films: Sundance 2014

Sundance may be littered with big names, packed with stars and intimidating now to newer filmmakers, but there is still a place for the next generation. The Shorts program is exactly the place to find the artists to watch. Drunk History: Douglass & Lincoln won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking in 2010 and is now a TV show on Comedy Central. Destin Cretton’s breakout film Short Term 12 first began as a short by the same name at Sundance in 2009. Bottom Line: the program is a launching pad.

As a journalist, I like to keep my eyes open for this new, exciting talent. Who are among the next generation of producers, directors, DPs, writers, actors and designers? There have been a handful of rising artists I’ve noticed at Sundance in the past few years including Borderline Films, Coatwolf productions, Court 13 Productions and Big Beach Films. Calavera also falls in that category.

Calavera has been building its portfolio with multiple shorts and most recently with All That I Am, which took home the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast at SXSW last year. At Sundance they had two shorts, Master Muscles and Yearbook. It was the latter and its director Bernardo Britto that took home the Animated Short Award.  It’s clear these young filmmakers are making a name for themselves within the program.

I got to chat with Producer Brett Potter, Britto and Master Muscle’s director Efren Hernandez about getting into the program and using it to cultivate their craft. As any indie filmmaker will agree, getting funding is challenging. When you’re making a short, it can be even harder. Brett admits Calavera had to find money to make Yearbook, and they spent time working with Britto on “schedules, cuts, notes, casting and everything else he needed support on. Most of the man-hours were put into the film by Bernardo, in his underwear, in his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

Master Muscles, on the other hand, which follows an odd couple on a road trip, was a different story. Potter explains that it “was a weekend on Long Island with a small crew and a point-and-shoot camera. The real work was put in by Efren who spent a lot of time earning the trust of Jehina [who plays the main character in the short].” He worked with her extensively before the three day shoot, which was overall relaxed and fun.”

Taking home the award for Yearbook was “a really special moment” for Potter. Just this year Damien Chazelle won the Jury and Audience award for Whiplash and first gained exposure in the shorts program last year. Finding success in the shorts is a promising moment.  Britto agrees, "It was pretty crazy when I realized that they were talking about our movie and that I'd actually won. Normally I don't like people screaming, but it meant a lot to have all my friends there celebrating with me.” Hernandez jokes, “My girlfriend cried. She thought I was going to win the animation award.”

Given the production company is already gaining steam, I was curious if these shorts were a pathway to features or more so just a chance to get their voice heard. "Yearbook is the best possible version of itself at 5 minutes and 40 seconds. It was conceived as a short and developed to take advantage of all the weird things that you can only do in the short form. I didn't make it so that I could get funding for a feature, I just made it because I really did have a tiny moment of existential despair and the movie was my only way of dealing with it,” Britto discusses. Hernandez agrees that Master Muscles was also meant to be a short. “I wrote it to be something I could make with very little resources, that would exist as it's own thing. It isn't something I would develop into a feature. It was a good way to work through some stylistic and thematic ideas that I've been thinking about for a long time. Now I can work on the things that didn't work and try to keep doing the things that did.”

That opportunity to “try” is exactly what makes short filmmaking beneficial. You learn how to hone your skills without the pressure of a full-length production. Calavera is just one of the budding clans of artists to watch out for. Although the bigger movies can pull focus during a festival, especially a popular one like Sundance, the shorts programs are the places to look for the talent that’s up next.