They were Oscar-winning documentarians, celebrity filmmakers, and some, just amateurs, and they were all given the same directive: create a film about innovation and keep it down to three minutes. So was the Focus Forward project born.
Touted with the tagline “Short Films, Big Ideas,” Focus Forward is an endeavor from short-film publisher Cinelan that’s backed by General Electric, with the goal of generating a series of brief documentaries about innovative ideas and people that are, quite simply, changing the world. Cinelan cofounding director Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) was a driving force behind the project, which drafted renowned, Oscar-minted filmmakers like Lucy Walker (Waste Land), Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), and Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens) onto the unprecedented roster of directors who contributed the 30 three-minute films.
The final five shorts in the series premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, and two will compete in the festival’s Shorts Competition. Extending the reach of the project beyond just the filmmaking elite, Cinelan and GE also launched the Focus Forward Filmmaking Challenge in conjunction with the 30-film series. More than 600 films were submitted from more than 69 countries, and 20 were named finalists for the $100,000 Grand Jury Prize that was awarded Tuesday to Rafel Duran Torrent’s Cyborg Foundation, about the world’s first officially recognized cyborg.
The Focus Forward films cover everything from teenage scientists to how rare pigs provided the key to a medical miracle, and since the project was launched last January, have logged 11 million views and been shared 18 million times. With multiple platforms available for viewing—the films are available on-demand to cable subscribers; can be streamed online through iTunes, Vimeo, and Amazon; and were screened at more than 45 film festivals—and a crucial Sundance spotlight, these three-minute documentaries have the potential to have an unrivaled reach and impact.
So easily sharable with their short runtimes, the Focus Forward shorts challenge the YouTube Internet culture to swap its daily viewing of the latest viral cat video for a documentary on the underreported yet exceptionally cool innovation. Little by little, we seem to be rising to the challenge.
“The original idea is that anyone would give you a round of boxing,” Spurlock tells The Daily Beast. “Anyone will give you three minutes to watch something, to listen to something. So we said if we can lure in an audience in three minutes, then I think we can keep them around longer. We can hook them and get them to watch the other films.”
It’s true. A visit to Focus Forward’s website, one of the many outlets where the 30 three-minute documentaries are posted, to view just one short quickly turns into a marathon viewing session. Watch Lucy Walker’s delightfully animated The Contenders, about a group of online “gamers” who solved a medical puzzle that has stumped AIDS researchers for more than a decade in just three weeks, and it’s impossible to resist clicking over to Speaking With Light, Alex Gibney’s profile of pioneering research on bioluminescent sea creatures that is helping illuminate pollution levels above ground.
Then move on to Liz Garbus’s Robot, about the surprising future of man’s man-made friend; Leslie Iwerks’s Mushroom Man, about how mushrooms could save the world; or any of the other fascinating profiles of innovation. The genius of the project is that, at three minutes apiece, the films are bite-sized—little documentary snacks that can be satisfactorily consumed independently, but too addicting to resist going back for more. And as informative as they are entertaining, they’re nutritious snacks, at that.
Perhaps the two highest-profile of the “snacks” are the pair that are entered in the Sundance Shorts Competition: Spurlock’s You Don’t Know Jack, and Albert Maysles’s The Secret of Trees.
Spurlock’s film is about Jack Andraka, the intrepid high-school sophomore who developed a revolutionary new test for pancreatic cancer. It profiles a teenager who would seem every bit the normal high-schooler—gangly and giggly with his moppish hair and hooded sweatshirt—were it not for his incredible poise, charisma, eloquence, and bona fide brilliance. “When I was in third grade, I was in quadratic equations when my class was, like, reading clocks,” Andraka says. A marvel youth—a documentarian couldn’t ask for a more engaging subject.
Spurlock first encountered Andraka in June, when the teen was speaking at the TED Conference. “He did an eight-minute presentation on the research he’d done and what he discovered,” Spurlock says, “and after I watched that I was like, ‘This guy is fantastic. I need to make a film about him.’”
You Don’t Know Jack succinctly breaks down the chemistry of the breakthrough Andraka made, but its true power is its portrayal of the discovery’s significance, not to mention the implausibly personable and persistent young scientist behind it. Andraka was sitting in biology class when he had an epiphany that he thought could change the 60-year-old method that was currently being used to detect pancreatic cancer. At just 14 years old, he estimated that he sent up to 200 letters to labs asking to let him work in their facilities, of which he received 199 rejections. That one chance—the one non-rejection—was all it took.
What Andraka ended up with was a pancreatic-cancer test strip the size of a small diabetes test trip, but 168 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive, and more than 400 times more sensitive than the current gold standard. Oh and yeah, as Andraka casually concludes the documentary: “The patient has close to 100 percent chance of survival if they’re diagnosed with that.”
Then there’s the other wonder teen who is the subject of Maysles’s The Secret of Trees. Noticing that leaves in trees were made for collecting sunlight, 13-year-old Aidan Dwyer was certain that there was a pattern to the way the leaves stretched themselves toward the sky. Recognizing a mathematical formula in that pattern, Dwyer wondered what would happen if he replaced leaves with solar panels. The answer: a revolutionary and utterly simple and efficient new way to collect solar energy.
Approached about the idea of creating a three-minute film on innovation for Focus Forward, Maysles thought the idea—short films, big ideas—was genius. “There are so many things to be filmed,” he tells The Daily Beast. “There are so many human experiences to be represented directly. Just tune in to one of these, and you got somebody’s direct experience…in a few minutes you can get to know somebody very well.”
The documentary-film industry is changing, with different platforms across the Internet making it easier for anyone to get into the game, no matter their training—and that’s a great thing, Maysles says: “There are so many avenues for exploring, and with the Internet, anybody who wants to can get access to it. That’s what we dreamed for.”
Plus, having the films play for the Sundance crowd was also a savvy move. “These are people who love movies, who love documentaries, who are pretty much, I think, the core audience of what we’re trying to do,” Spurlock says. “So to have this audience seeing them and appreciating them is a perfect opportunity.”
And simply because the project’s final crop of films just debuted doesn’t mean the Focus Forward journey is over. The films continue to be viewed and shared, and will soon be playing in movie theaters. In place of those extended advertisements for cable-TV shows like Burn Notice that play before the main feature, the Focus Forward films will be played—certainly a more challenging, but hopefully more rewarding pre-screening viewing experience.
It’s also a chief aim of the project to get the shorts seen in schools. “There’s something very inspiring about these movies,” Spurlock says. “I think if you use them in an educational setting, they’ll spark something inside of kids that was kind of lit inside of me when I was first wanted to go to film school way back when.”
It sounds lofty, but as these shorts prove: it may really only take three minutes to change the world.