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Short films have been around for as long as there have been movies. In fact, the very first movies were shorts. This year, 15 short films have been nominated for Academy Awards. For a long time, actually seeing these films for most people was all but impossible. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, this is no longer the case.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: If you, an ordinary non-Academy member, wanted to see an Oscar-nominated short a few years ago, you couldn't, not unless you lived in a city with an art-house theater that happened to be showing them. Now, if you want to see the Oscar-nominated shorts like "Mr. Hublot," an animated gem about a steampunk Paris filled with mechanical Victorian gadgetry...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "MR. HUBLOT")

ULABY: ...all you have to do is download them on iTunes or Amazon. Or you can watch them on video on demand. They are also playing in more than 400 theaters across the country. The Oscar nominated shorts have become an increasingly hot ticket.

CARTER PILCHER: Since 2006 we've probably had over an 800 percent increase in box office.

ULABY: That's Carter Pilcher, president of ShortsHD, a company dedicated to making shorts more accessible.

PILCHER: Short films used to be kind of out there and nobody saw them. I would say the technology has caught up with the content.

ULABY: Now we have YouTube. It's created an insatiable appetite for short, easily digestible chunks of content, ones we can watch on our mobile devices. And over the past 15 years, shorts have been redefined by Pixar.

It's hard to remember now, but Pixar used to be mainly a hardware company teetering on bankruptcy. Its owner, one Steve Jobs, hired someone to show off what its animation technology could do. That someone, John Lasseter, thought, Why not shorts? He created one about a trembling little toy tormented by an oversized sadistic baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY)

ULABY: Scientists and engineers gave that short, "Tin Toy," a standing ovation in 1988 at a computer-graphics conference, says Pilcher.

PILCHER: And because of that short, they were able to go on and make and get financial backing for big ones.

ULABY: Namely "Toy Story," directed by John Lasseter. Since 1998, every Pixar movie in theaters has been shown with little shorts. They're fun, they add buzz, and for years Pixar's shorts division was run by Osnat Shurer.

OSNAT SHURER: We think of them a little like an hors d'oeuvre before the main course.

ULABY: Or a digestif after. Now Shurer works for Walt Disney Animation Studios, where, as at so many other media companies, shorts have become a trendy way to try things out.

SHURER: The stakes are a little lower, you have permission to take greater risks in shorts.

ULABY: With technology, ideas, and people. At Disney's animation studios, Shurer says, everyone in the company gets to pitch ideas for shorts, from the president to the janitor. This year's Oscar-nominated short from Disney was originally proposed by a story artist.

(SOUNDBITE FROM SHORT FILM, "GET A HORSE")

ULABY: You've seen "Get A Horse" if you've seen the movie "Frozen." It takes some of the oldest existing animated footage of Mickey Mouse, complete with voicing from Walt Disney, and throws just about every kind of new technology imaginable into the mix, says Osnat Shurer.

SHURER: With "Get A Horse," I had never seen anybody break barriers between 2-D CG and 3-D all within one shot.

ULABY: Shorts are also a way for filmmakers to gather feedback, explore tertiary characters, and hype other projects. There's also something liberating about shorts that's not limited to animation. Nick Reed felt freed by the idea that his movie could be just as long as it needed to be.

NICK REED: My feeling was that I wanted to make a film that, when you finished it, you went, I want more.

ULABY: Reed produced the Oscar-nominated short documentary "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life." It's about Alice Herz-Sommer, a Holocaust survivor who lived to be 110. She died this week. Sommer was a musician in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

ALICE HERZ-SOMMER: With music I was always happy. I (unintelligible) without music - even thinking of music makes me happy.

REED: As amazing as she is, my fear was if you make it a 90-minute or a two-hour film, you lose the power.

ULABY: And because shorts don't need to fit into some sort of pre-determined format, it's being shown along with all the other shorts on the ShortsHD channel that reaches 30 million people worldwide. In the U.S., it's on DirectTV and U-verse. Not surprisingly, the channel's popular in France, and Romania, where the company says it's one of the most watched movie channels in the country. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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