Cinema 16: American Short Films

By Chris Lane and Simon Cropper

reframe-cinema-16-american-short-films-1.jpgScreen shots from REFRAME

New film criticism software that runs commentary with clips from DVDs


REFRAME is DVD playing computer software that allows film and video to be combined with unofficial critical commentary. The software employs Shockwave (an Adobe file format for web-based multimedia) and has emerged from research collaboration between Tony Cryer, Nick Haeffner, Chris Lane, Ken MacKinnon & Souli Spiropoulou, a media research group based at London Metropolitan University.

The player version of the software is being showcased in this issue of Vertigo for the first time, and features the Cinema 16 DVD release American Short Films. You will need this DVD to be able to use the software. The commentary about two films on the disc has been written by Simon Cropper, editor of Time Out Guides, and regular contributor to Vertigo.

A key distinction between REFRAME and other ways of re-presenting DVDs is that the software does not circumvent digital rights management measures designed to prevent piracy. Instead, it sidesteps the issues raised by digital rights management and DVD ripping by requiring the original DVD to be present in the computer for the synchronised unofficial critical commentary to play. In the future REFRAME will be developed to allow the sharing of audience commentary on film and will be a regular feature of the Vertigo website.

reframe-cinema-16-american-short-films-2.jpgD.A. Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express and Tim Burton’s Vincent: two films on the Cinema 16 DVD

Watch and read the REFRAME Cinema 16: American Short Films article*

*The original DVD needs to be in your computer's DVD drive to see the REFRAME article. The Software should work on both Macs and PCs. The Shockwave plug-in is required.

For more information about REFRAME or for help with running the software, please email Chris Lane


Simon Cropper’s viewing notes on D.A. Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express (1953)

Daybreak Express’, shot with a hand-wound camera over three days in 1953, was the first film by master documentary maker DA (Donn Alan) Pennebaker. It’s pure jazz, an electrified set of variations on views of the ‘Elevated’ – the overground section of the New York subway.

First appearance of the train. The light of the setting sun through its windows is a beautiful touch.

A row of lamps – a foretaste of the geometrical abstraction to come.

Now begins the 1934 Duke Ellington track that gives the film its title, heartbeat and a lot of its character. The onomatopoeia in the music is obvious.

The cuts come faster as the music gathers pace…

… and we’re off, in the direction of Times Square.

The orchestra’s horns, and Sonny Greer on train whistle, mimic the Elevated’s sirens.

Passengers: count the hats. Pennebaker inserts black frames, for example…

… here, to create the illusion of fleeting shadows.

A view through a passing train gives way to…

… a view from a passing train.

Is that Pennebaker’s reflection on the train windows?

Travelling shot.

The warm orange cast fosters a mood of cheerful nostalgia – as, of course, does the music.

Alhough the film runs for five minutes, Ellington’s track plays for just under three – so its final two thirds or so are repeated. Listen for the splice, which comes…

… here.

Now Pennebaker tilts his camera skywards – somewhat fraudulently, as these shots were clearly taken from a car. Trains don’t corner like…

… this.

The motion gets ever more delirious…

… and the pace ever quicker.

This speeded-up view from a train cab isn’t Pennebaker’s invention, but it’s a reliably hypnotic trope.

The music builds to a paroxysm…

… as the real world is replaced by pure abstraction.

This could be Norman McLaren.

Terminus, and a lovely, lyrical flare of sunlight through the station doors.

Pennebaker’s most recent film was the TV documentary ‘Assume the Position with Mr Wuhl’ (2006). He teaches a documentary film class at Yale University. His official website is

Simon Cropper’s viewing notes on Tim Burton’s Vincent (1982)

Tim Burton was working as an animator for Disney when he made this gleefully morbid stop-motion short in 1982. It’s several things: a spot-on pastiche of Expressionist cinema and B-movie horror motifs, a cinephile tribute to a childhood hero, and a self-mocking slice of autobiography. It displays a literary edge and technical accomplishment unusual in a film that runs just short of six minutes.

This cat reappears in Burton’s later feature, ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993).

Vincent, playing a mournful recorder version of ‘The Hoochie Koochie Dance’.

The narration begins: rhyming couplets in the style of Dr Seuss.

The narrator is none other than…

Vincent Price. As the visual expression of the boy’s hero worship, his pupils become dots and he acquires a raffish pencil moustache and cigarette holder.

It’s worth looking at the details of the cat’s reaction in slow motion.

Match on action: Vincent’s real costume reappears.

Match on action: mad scientist garb and Gothic mansion decor. That organ on the soundtrack prefigures the extensive use of organ in the Danny Elfmann scores for Burton’s later features.

Vincent’ makes good use of 2D cut-outs – as here, for this nice ‘opening jaw’ iris shot.

A grown-up, the first of two. As in the 'Tom & Jerry' cartoons, we never see their faces.

The sound design is effective and elegantly simple.

Big Ben, shadows, fog: a strong sense of place created with great economy.

Vincent’s features are modelled on those of the young Burton.

The mention of Poe calls up thoughts of Roger Corman and, of course, Price.

Buried alive – a fate that occurs in Poe’s stories ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and ‘The Premature Burial’.

Both visual design and narrative collude in another comic overthrow of Vincent’s never-never land.

Another faceless grown-up.

Another nice piece of 2D animation: shades of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1919).

Portrait of the young boy as a misunderstood artist – a romantic archetype.

This incursion of the real world is less dramatically distinct than previously. Darkness fills most of the frame – a sign that Vincent’s fantasies are starting to get the upper hand.

Quill pen, skull: classic Dr Frankenstein desk accessories. ‘Vincent’ uses props even more sparsely than sound effects.

The film was Burton’s first collaboration with designer Rick Heinrichs, who later worked with the director on features including ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990) and ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (1999).

Price’s willingness to provide the voiceover was instrumental in persuading Disney to fund the film. He later said that as tributes went, it was “better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard”.

The portrayal of Vincent‘s nightmarish delirium is a good example of the film’s visual sophistication and film-historic savvy.

Rather unexpectedly mournful ending, the credits scored to the dirgeful melody heard at the start. Should we think Vincent really is dead?

Vincent’ was Burton’s first film to get a release, albeit a limited one: it didn’t match the Disney house style, and Disney was unsure how to market it. That said, it was well received at festivals and became Burton’s calling card in Hollywood.