They won't be long, but they may be captivating

Times Staff Writer

In an age where animated movies use sophisticated computer software and the characters look eerily human, Don Hertzfeldt's work is an anomaly.

Using animation paper and ink and limited to his $20,000 out-of-pocket budget, Hertzfeldt spent nearly four years making his short film "The Meaning of Life." It took nearly two years just to animate the opening crowd scene, in which more than 40 stick-figure characters with bug eyes pass one another on the street under dark storm clouds, muttering humorous and angry phrases against a Tchaikovsky score.

"When I go speak to film classes, the first thing students ask me is what kind of software I use," Hertzfeldt said. "When I tell them I don't use computers for anything, I get a lot of blank stares. There's not a lot of understanding about how cartoons used to be made."

There are few venues where short films like Hertzfeldt's are shown, and rarely are they seen outside of festival settings such as Cannes or Sundance, said John Cooper, director of programming at the Sundance Institute.

"It's one of those things that whenever people see shorts they absolutely love them, but there never seems to be a commercially viable way to get them out there," Cooper said. "We're trying to really turn people on to discovering short films."

The Hammer Museum in Westwood is hosting a four-week program of short films put together by Cooper and the Sundance Institute, featuring films that have previously screened at Sundance over the last 15 years.

Last Friday, more than 800 people packed the museum's open-air courtyard for the first installment, which showed four films that won top Sundance honors, including "Wasp," which went on to win an Academy Award in 2004. Tonight, the program will screen shorts by up-and-coming or established feature directors, including Spike Jonze's 1996 short "How They Get There."

Next Friday, Hertzfeldt's work will be shown with five others, showcasing more experimental and edgy forms. On July 29, documentaries will wrap up the series.

Since Cooper started Sundance's short film program in 1991, the festival has debuted the shorts of now-famous directors such as Jonze and Wes Anderson, among many others. But Cooper said that short films are more than just an amateur director's "audition" for a feature film and are used to tell personal stories and try experimental techniques.

"People are becoming more inventive with short films and taking chances," Cooper said. "The whole trend has changed to finding pure talent as opposed to having it look like a mini-big movie." Mike Mills' short film "Architecture of Reassurance," which screens tonight at the Hammer, is based on his childhood fascination with the cookie-cutter suburban housing developments that surrounded him growing up in Santa Barbara.

Mills began designing album covers and directing music videos for artists such as Frank Black and Blues Explosion and directing advertisements for Adidas, Nike and Gap, which helped him pool together the $30,000 budget to make the 23-minute short.

While the film helped him gain attention in the movie industry and allowed him to hone the writing and directing skills necessary to make a full-length feature, it wasn't the "calling card" to a feature-length film. For his feature, "Thumbsucker," which opens in September, Mills believes it was his ability to handle million-dollar budgets for advertising campaigns and videos, which had more "cultural clout," that lent him legitimacy to executives.

But as exposure and interest in short films has grown in recent years, Mills believes the future for young filmmakers will be in shorts. For Mills, watching his film in a festival setting is one of the most nerve-racking and gratifying experiences of his career.

"It's the most emotionally rewarding and most scary experience I've had in my life," he said. "To go to a screening and see the way people took it in is my ultimate reward."

While most short films never make it near a movie theater, some take on a life of their own as cult hits within the independent film community.

Director Phil Morrison will show his 20-minute short comedy "Tater Tomater" at the Hammer tonight, which follows a small-town cafeteria worker as she works her shift serving tomatoes and Tater Tots while wearing the obligatory hairnet. "Tater? Tomater?" she drawls in a high-pitched voice.

An emotional breakdown at the end of her shift leads her on a rhyming jag, as she screams "radiator, incubator, humiliator" before graduating to more explicit rhymes as she is carried out from behind her station.

The film, which screened at Sundance in 1992, inspired the website, where a collection of fans or "Tater Tots" can take the Tater Poll, buy a video of the film, read stories by Tater fans and sign the Tater guestbook.

It has aired on PBS, at New York's Bleecker Street Cinema, on the USA Network and, he was told, at an Atlanta cross-dresser's bar.

"I feel like it has its own life that I don't really feel part of in a way," said Morrison, who made the film when he was 18 as an undergraduate at NYU. "It's like a kid that has left the nest."

Fifteen years after "Tater Tomater," Morrison will release his first full-length feature film, "Junebug," next month.

Morrison said that while the making of his short film helped him make contacts in the industry, he didn't do it for career advancement.

"I didn't make it in order to show off to someone how good we would be at making features," he said. "It's cool that with what the Hammer's doing, little by little, they're creating an environment that shorts can be an end unto themselves."

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