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Shortcuts and Balloons: The Aesthetics of Tropfest

Added on by Kenta McGrath.

Originally published in Metro #177 (Winter 2013).

Tropfest 2013 has come and gone. A young filmmaker by the name of Nick Clifford has walked away with A$10,000, a Toyota Corolla, a camera and a flight to LA, where he’ll meet important movie people and discuss a promising future. Perhaps a bigger prize than all this is that we now know his name. His winning film is called We’ve All Been There and is a quick YouTube search away.

Tropfest is the world’s biggest short film festival and Australia’s best known. It’s in a unique and privileged position, having elevated the short film in Australia to a status enjoyed in very few countries. Undoubtedly, it’s generated much interest in films in general, and provided a leg-up for many filmmakers to do bigger and better things. Pragmatically speaking, the short film is important in Australia because for most filmmakers it’s a necessary stepping-stone to making features. Very few filmmakers – narrative filmmakers, at least – dedicate themselves solely to the short form; once they’ve started making features, they rarely return. The short film is what gets filmmakers noticed – what they wave in the air to attract funds to enable them to say what they really want to say, in the way they want to say it. For Australian filmmakers, making shorts is therefore a vital part of the coming-of-age process, where they can learn and experiment in a relatively risk-free environment. It’s how they find their voice and footing as an artist.

When I watched 2013’s Tropfest winner We’ve All Been There, familiar alarm bells were ringing within the first twenty seconds. By this stage, Clifford’s film had already bombarded me with clichés, including but not limited to: a character’s car breaking down in the countryside and her kicking a flat tyre in frustration; the same character waving a mobile phone in the air to get reception; and a red-herring villain in the form of a rough-looking country bloke, complete with stubble, flannel shirt, tattoos, and whiskey rock blaring from his speakers. Then there were the wind turbines, the man’s pick-up truck, the log-cabin diner in the middle of the bush (accompanied by a banjo on the soundtrack), the kitsch uniforms worn by the staff, and the tip left for a struggling waitress. The setting and iconography all present a strange, quasi-American world (specifically, the Deep South) populated incongruously by characters with Australian accents. It’s a world that doesn’t ring true in any way, yet it’s one we all know, having encountered variations of it many times before in movies (though not Australian ones). We’re lulled into accepting it because it all looks so nice, and it’s immediately recognisable. The film’s narrative – likely to be read either as an Aussie battler story or a more universal good Samaritan story, depending on which character(s) you identify with most – expresses the lie that movies have told us over many decades, in countless variations: with a bit of luck, everything’s going to be fine. Money is both life’s biggest problem and the quickest and easiest solution. Like a fairytale, it can also appear out of nowhere. As many Tropfest films have done before it, We’ve All Been There relies on a convenient twist – in this case, a coincidence – to deliver a happy ending and reinforce the lie. I don’t mean to single out Clifford’s film, because it’s no better or worse than a thousand other bad films. But I’m becoming more and more convinced that Tropfest – or rather the culture of filmmaking cultivated by Tropfest – encourages an approach to filmmaking that can only be harmful to Australian cinema. As this year’s winner, Clifford’s film is yet one more example that reinforces my concerns.

We've All Been There

We've All Been There

First and foremost, my issue with Tropfest stems from the fact that it’s a competition. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, the crucial factor is that while films are generally made and then screened at festivals where they may or may not win prizes, Tropfest films are made for Tropfest and nothing else. The terms and conditions of the festival guarantee that Tropfest is the reason for the film’s existence, and usually, its final resting place. The most well-known clause – Tropfest’s single piece of marketing genius – requires all entries to include, in some shape or form, a Tropfest Signature Item (TSI), which ‘proves ... that films have been made specifically for that year’s festival’. [1] The TSI may be used literally or as a motif or theme, with TSIs from earlier Tropfests being quite concrete (muffin, coffee bean, teaspoon) and recent ones being more open to interpretation (key, light bulb, change). The item never has any sort of cultural, social or political relevance but exists primarily to ensure that Tropfest retains exclusivity. Tropfest films often interpret the TSI in clever and funny ways – a pregnant belly for ‘balloon’ in We’ve All Been There, the ‘key’ in ‘mon-key’ in 2011’s winning animation Animal Beatbox (Damon Gameau) – and this is part of the films’ appeal as well as the judges’ scoring criteria. When the TSI is used in an obvious or humorous way, however, it’s an appeal that rarely carries outside the festival. Take, for instance, the use of the TSI ‘the number 8’ in the 2008 winner Marry Me (Michelle Lehman). It’s presented nonchalantly in numerous wide shots, as a house number painted on the curb outside a suburban home where much of the film takes place. In the context of Tropfest it’s simple and effective. Outside of it, it’s an odd, conspicuous and distracting blip on the mise en scène. A lesser-known clause is that Tropfest will own all the final films. Last year, Tropfest retained exclusive licence on all the final films for an extended period (it expires and switches to non-exclusive licence in August 2013 [2]); this year Tropfest retains the rights in perpetuity, [3] meaning that filmmakers can no longer screen their work on their own terms at all. Tropfest does submit a selection of films to other festivals and has previously allowed finalists to screen their work elsewhere, after discussions with them. However, filmmakers still enter Tropfest with the knowledge – as outlined in the terms and conditions – that they’ll relinquish ownership and control of their film should it be accepted.

Call it many things but above all a Tropfest film is a simple calling-card, for if you happen to win, you give your film away in exchange for the perks of winning. I know filmmakers who have scrambled together crew and resources to pump out a Tropfest quickie, some entering multiple times or lending a hand on others’ films too, as if it were a lottery. If a film doesn’t make the cut it’s usually the last you hear of it, presumably because they weren’t genuinely interested in making it in the first place, and probably because they embedded the TSI in such manner that it doesn’t quite work in any other context. If a film makes the cut it’s usually the last you hear of it anyway, Tropfest-associated screenings notwithstanding. Firstly, because the filmmakers can no longer screen it where, when and how they like. Secondly, because if they don’t win, it’ll likely be forgotten, like the names of athletes who never made it onto the podium of an Olympic event. Tropfest is a competition that ends vertically rather than laterally, with a steep drop between first place and everybody else. Being a finalist doesn’t guarantee anything, and history won’t show kindness or pay attention. This explains why many filmmakers enter the festival multiple times. For example, 2010 winner Abe Forsythe won on his third time as finalist and tenth attempt overall with Shock, claiming after the victory that he won’t (need to) enter again. [4] After all, Tropfest is not simply a film festival but has become a massive publicised and televised phenomenon in which the winning filmmaker’s (not the runner-up’s) smiling face, humble speech and anecdotes are of huge public interest. At least in Australia, these are what most people see on the tail end of the evening news, not the winning film itself. ‘Where will he or she go from here?’ It’s this question that the festival and its award ceremony conjure, and which gets filmmakers dreaming big.

All of this, you might say, doesn’t prevent a filmmaker from making a great film that stands on its own two feet, with or without the knowledge that it was created specifically for a festival with specific requirements. And you can’t blame young filmmakers for seeking shortcuts to fame and success – our world teaches us to reach out for these shortcuts – and having fun and learning a thing or two in the process. I’d be inclined to agree if not for the fact that this competitive environment has had a significant impact on the way filmmakers approach the short film form in this country, and by extension, films more generally. It has consequences, both aesthetic and ethical. Tropfest encourages conformity, because any film too formally or narratively daring will simply not get through. It also encourages a somewhat dishonest approach to filmmaking whereby individual creative decisions are informed less by what the film or subject matter requires, or what the filmmaker might genuinely want to express, and more by considering how to impress judges in the shortest possible timeframe. It doesn’t encourage art – though art may sometimes happen – but instead a standardised approach to filmmaking more closely aligned with commercials and showreels, where brevity, bravado and surface are of the utmost importance. 

Tropfest founder John Polson and 2013 winner Nick Clifford.

Tropfest founder John Polson and 2013 winner Nick Clifford.

Besides the lure of first prize and everything that entails, there are some specific ways in which Tropfest influences how a film is made. The most significant rule is that a film must not exceed seven minutes in length. This shapes everything from the kind of story told and the choice and function of the music to the length that each shot is held for, what the camera shows and how it chooses to show it. Incidentally, most Tropfest films hover very close to the seven-minute mark, which suggests that filmmakers are trying to squeeze in as much as possible, as they would in a showreel (nine out of this year’s sixteen finalists have the unlikely running time of almost exactly seven minutes). This density is also reflected in the generally quick pace of the editing, in the abundant dialogue and in the lack of silence and reflective space. Most entries use music constantly in their soundtrack, and rarely will you find one that doesn’t open with a musical cue, loudly declaring its tone and intentions from the outset.

Early in We’ve All Been There, there’s an extended tracking shot through the diner, which evokes that famous Steadicam shot in Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990). It quickly becomes apparent that it’s an unnecessarily flashy shot, utterly unmotivated by the characters, situation or setting, and echoed nowhere else. Besides being superficially impressive (and camouflaging some absurd dialogue), here the camerawork and lighting fulfill the unspoken requirement that a film make itself noticed, and do so quickly if it’s to stand out from the pack of hundreds and avoid the cull. In Tropfest films, characters tend to be either likeable or unlikeable (or switch from one to the other) and either triumph or get their comeuppance, usually through luck and coincidence. All of these elements are stylistic and narrative manifestations of a short time limit, which – as in TV commercials, where every second counts – discourages ambiguity and encourages a superficial, uncomplicated approach to storytelling.

Another clause states that films must be presented in the 16:9 aspect ratio, which shouldn’t cause too many headaches given that it’s the standard used by most filmmakers and viewers today. This requirement nonetheless wipes out several formats (16mm film, for one) and excludes those who bravely and creatively use outdated aspect ratios out of choice (yes, this actually happens). More problematic, however, is this year’s addition of a Nikon DSLR entry category (replacing the Telstra Mobile Masterpieces category), designed to ‘showcase the versatility and capabilities of video recording technology in DSLRs and ... give filmmakers a new, accessible outlet to express their creativity’. [5] Films entered in this category are still eligible for the main competition – so it’s not a separate category, really – but if you shoot your film with a DSLR there’s an added incentive of winning equipment prizes from Nikon, a major sponsor. (According to Tropfest, over a quarter of all entries were shot on a DSLR, including five of the sixteen finalists. [6] Nikon claimed an inflated figure of 40 per cent of total entries as of 21 December 2012, two weeks before the entry deadline. [7]) The existence of this category and the fact that it’s not a separate strand is worrying, for it implies an aesthetic preference for the crisp, glossy, high-production look that these cameras offer – a preference very much tied in with Tropfest and Nikon’s mutual commercial interests. It’s a preference that also contributes – how could it not? – to the ever-improving production values, bigger budgets and glossier images of the entries in general. This is precisely the DSLR’s appeal – ‘Hollywood heavyhitters are now using DSLR cameras to make high-quality productions,’ Nikon boasts [8] – and young filmmakers are flocking to the technology.

In a Crikey interview conducted a day after this year’s festival, Tropfest founder John Polson responded to criticism of the entries’ increasing budgets (and use of famous actors) by stating, ‘I won’t pretend that’s not true. But I’ve never said we’re going to discriminate against big budgets.’ [9] Indeed they haven’t. Tropfest doesn’t require filmmakers to disclose the budget of their film and besides, the exact amount of money that goes into a film is often difficult to gauge. However, Tropfest continues to promote an environment in which bigger films are likelier to prosper, and ‘smaller’ filmmakers are likelier to modify the aesthetic and approach to their own films – whether by seeking to raise additional funds to ‘improve’ the technical aspects, or using certain equipment to replicate the look and feel of a more expensive film as much as possible – in order to compete with them. Most of this year’s entries demonstrate high production values and technical prowess in spades, as do three of the last four winners (the exception being the cheaply made animation Animal Beatbox, exempt from comparison by virtue of the fact that its cheapness is an integral part of its charm and humour). Viewed in isolation, the rules of Tropfest seem minor – nothing filmmakers can’t easily work around. The Nikon category, similarly, is something filmmakers may simply choose to ignore. But big changes often occur in small steps. With each passing year, added technical conditions and sponsorship may mean that a certain way of making films – a certain look or aesthetic – risks vanishing and becoming unacceptable, or seemingly unacceptable, in the eyes of the world’s biggest short film festival. In a few years, perhaps the festival will require all films to be shot on HD, with a specific resolution, or using a specific type of (Nikon?) camera.

While the range of subject matter in Tropfest films varies widely, there’s an alarming degree of uniformity in their approach to narrative. With the exception of documentaries and animations, Tropfest films tend to fall neatly into one of two distinct categories that have emerged over the years. The first and most common is the ‘twist’ film, which relies on narrative and stylistic manipulation (often based on deception, giving us misleading generic and musical cues, or offering only fragments of information until a climactic moment) to carefully direct the viewer towards a surprise or gag ending. Examples from this year’s pool include the ‘hustler’ who falls prey to his own methods in The Hustle (Topher Field); the man who unburies his bound-and-gagged wife only to ask where she put the TV remote in Remote (Michael Noonan); and the cruel Iñárritu-esque twists of fate that lead to a trifecta of false arrest, the accidental tasering of a pregnant woman and the implied death of her unborn child in Taser (Matt Bird). The second category is what I’ll call the ‘conceit’ film, where a narrative or stylistic concept – usually humorous and/or absurd – is established at the outset, with the rest of the film providing variations and developments on this single idea. Examples from this year include the jaunty, synchronised direct-to-camera narration in Great Day (Hannah May Reilly); an infant strapped to the back of its zombifying/zombified father in Cargo (Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke); and the classically trained actor working as a costumed cow on morning TV in CA$H COW – a 63% True Story (Daniel Reisinger). Some films, of course, use both approaches. Finalist Let it Rain (Matt Hardie) is an action-flick parody in which water and water pistols, not bullets and guns, kill people. It runs with this conceit before revealing at the end that all the characters are simply grown men playing a juvenile role-playing game.

These templates, as they seem to have become, encourage narratives that for the most part have little grounding in reality. Continuing with the precedent set by earlier winners and most recently by Animal Beatbox and Lemonade Stand (Alethea Jones, 2012), most of this year’s entries are jovial comedies in which the stakes are low to non-existent. The trivial nature of the films are further emphasised by the use of stylistic devices such as slow motion (to show a young girl having her stuffed toy returned in Kevin Lim’s The Pledge for Mister Bunny) or dramatic music (Vivaldi accompanying a tossed milkshake in Great Day) to give scenes an ironic gravitas. Overwhelmingly, Tropfest films take a lighthearted, ironic and non-committal approach to trivial and non-trivial subject matter alike. On the odd occasion where films seem to address serious themes, the filmmakers express no interest in treating them as such. According to 2010 winner Abe Forsythe, Shock was inspired by controversial 2Day FM radio host Kyle Sandilands; in particular, the notorious incident in which he strapped a lie detector to a 14-year-old girl to provoke sexual confessions, leading to an on-air revelation of her being raped. [10] Shock depicts a man (Patrick Brammall) bursting sporadically and comically into tears as he wakes, showers and travels to work before he’s revealed to be a popular radio host (the ‘twist’), taking up the mic and delivering the usual Sandilands-esque crass banter with his co-hosts. Bizarrely, given the film’s source of inspiration, it bypasses empathy altogether and aims straight for sympathy. ‘I hope the audience was moved by my lead character,’ Forsythe said after the win. ‘I hope they feel sorry for him and others that have to do their jobs.’ [11] For many Australians who take issue with Sandilands and everything he represents, this is a decidedly lacklustre and apathetic position for a filmmaker to adopt. More troubling is the fact that the film refuses to address, in any way, any of the moral and ethical concerns raised by Sandilands, his show and his radio station on a daily basis, or by the particular incident that supposedly inspired the film. It simply acquits him – because there is no trial – for the sake of an extended gag, and what Forsythe calls ‘a different perspective’. The film’s connection to Sandilands, therefore, is an utterly apolitical one. Shock simply exploits his name to raise its own profile, using it as an intertextual boost. Indeed, without the end caption (an ironic dedication to Sandilands) drawing the link between the on-screen and real-life characters, the film would make little sense. For overseas viewers who don’t know who Sandilands is, it wouldn’t make sense either way.

2Day FM radio host Kyle Sandilands

2Day FM radio host Kyle Sandilands

Similarly, this year we walk away from films that are ostensibly about poverty (We’ve All Been There), racial stereotyping and violence (Taser), prostitution (Sophie Lowe & Rhys Wakefield’s A Man Walks into a Bar) and mental illness (Matt Cerwen’s Inside) having learned nothing about these subjects, and having seen instead a sentimental morality tale, a high-octane genre piece, a romantic comedy and a zany, conceptual music video, respectively. I’m not trying to discount these films simply because they fail to engage effectively with social realities, for that’s clearly not their aim. What I find troubling is that in Tropfest this is the norm – the status quo that it endorses and perpetuates year after year. When it comes to depicting social realities, there’s only steadfast refusal: Tropfest films simply don’t go there. With very few exceptions, they’re all similar in that they never tell us anything we don’t already know or know to be false, they tell us nothing we may not want to see or hear, and nothing that discomforts, illuminates or challenges. They’re easily understood, digested and liked; they never leave questions unanswered. In these films, reality always takes a back seat because the filmmakers so desperately try to please, to tick boxes and get boxes ticked – to win.

Over the last few years I’ve seen hundreds of short films, made mainly by film students. A huge number of them display traits learned directly or indirectly from Tropfest. Instead of a short film being treated for what it is – not a condensed feature film or a vehicle to deliver tricks and gags but a genuine art form in its own right, capable of expressing things in a manner not possible in other ways – I see filmmakers compelled to mimic high production values, resort to technical and narrative gimmickry, and provide quick, comfortable answers to even more comfortable questions. Most of them will go on to make better films, but often, bad habits and bad motives die hard. It’s a worry when art begins to look, sound and feel the same and tell the same lies, and when a festival that inadvertently encourages this becomes the standard to which young filmmakers aspire. Even a cursory glance at short films from around the world, or the programs of other festivals, reveals that Tropfest films are grossly misrepresentative of how filmmakers approach the medium (in this sense, Australian short films are lagging far behind). It’s also a worry when filmmakers continue to place themselves in a position where compromises are accepted without question, where inspiration comes not from wanting to make art but instead the fantasy of quick success, and when filmmaking becomes a matter of winning and losing. If filmmakers come of age by making short films, it’s important, like any coming of age, to learn strange and genuinely new things, to find what you love and hate, to piss people off and make mistakes, to be brave and to tell it like you really see it at that point in time, before all this becomes something you have to fight yourself and others to do. If that’s important, and I hope it is, you don’t need a balloon. 

1. ‘TSI’, Movie Extra Tropfest, <>, accessed 18 February 2013.

2. ‘2012 Entry Guidelines’, <>, accessed 8 May 2013.

3. ‘Terms and Conditions of Entry: Movie Extra Tropfest 2013’, <>, accessed 18 February 2013.

4. Anne Maria Nicholson, ‘Persistance Pays off for Tropfest Winner’ (transcript), Lateline, ABC, 22 February 2010, <>, accessed 3 March 2013.

5. ‘Filmmakers, Start Your Engines!’, media release, Movie Extra Tropfest, 4 October 2012, <>, accessed 1 February 2013.

6. ‘Tropfest Announces the Final Cut for 2013’, media release, Movie Extra Tropfest, 5 February 2013, <>, accessed 1 March 2013.

7. ‘Nikon Partners with Tropfest to Create the New DSLR Category’, My Nikon Life, <>, accessed 1 March 2013.

8. ibid.

9. Luke Buckmaster, ‘Tropfest Phenomenon Comes Down to Heart, Polson Insists’, Crikey, 18 February 2013, <>, accessed 19 February 2013.

 10. Louise Schwartzkoff, ‘Kyle Injects the Shock Element in Tropfest’, The Age, 22 February 2010, <>, accessed 3 March 2013.

11. ‘Shock Jock Short Wins Tropfest’, ABC News, 22 February 2010, <>, accessed 3 March 2013.