Even the biggest directors started out somewhere – and for most of them, that somewhere was on the set of a short film. Regardless of their special charms, and the artistry, craft and skill that goes into making them, most short films never see the light of day, let alone the inside of a cinema screen – which makes the release of Cinema 16 all the more important. This excellent new DVD collects sixteen shorts by directors from across the spectrum of British filmmaking: from established names like Ridley Scott and Mike Leigh, and new talents including Asif Kapadia, Lynne Ramsay and Christopher Nolan, through to art-film crossover directors Peter Greenaway and John Smith and little-known names like Adrian McDowall and Simon Ellis.

The style and range of the films included are as various as the filmmakers. The collection ranges from the comic snapshots of contemporary Britain provided by Martin Parr’s ‘UK Images’ (1997) to the sun-baked plains of India in Asif Kapadia’s ‘The Sheep Thief’ (1997), and from the grey streets of suburban Edinburgh in Adrian McDowall’s ‘Who’s My Favourite Girl’ (1999) to the surreal interiors of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi short, ‘Doodlebug’ (1997). Some last barely three minutes, while others are over half-an-hour long. The selection runs the gamut of film formats from 35mm to 16mm to DV. Some are in black-and-white, others are in colour, and one has no images at all. All of the films include personal commentaries with either the filmmakers themselves or the producers behind them. The result is a comprehensive snapshot from the last thirty years of British short filmmaking.

The highlights are undoubtedly the two shorts from the most famous filmmakers in the collection, Ridley Scott and Mike Leigh. ‘Boy and Bicycle’, made in 1958 by a sixteen-year old Ridley, follows his brother Tony on a daylong bike ride around post-war Liverpool. The stream-of-consciousness narrative and monochrome imagery bear the obvious influence of both the British and French New Waves, but Scott’s imagination and visual flair are apparent even at such a tender age. ‘The Short and Curlies’ (1987), an early short by Mike Leigh, centres on three women in a suburban hairdressing salon, and prefigures much of the director’s later work, exploring unfulfilled lives and fractured relationships using non-sequitur dialogue and semi-documentary camerawork. But there are also pleasant surprises from some unexpected (and largely unknown) names. ‘Inside Out’ (1999), directed by the Guard brothers, is a neatly crafted tale about a chance meeting on the city’s streets, while ‘Je T’Aime John Wayne’ (2000), directed by Toby Macdonald, is a smart, snappy and imaginative pastiche of the French New Wave. London has never looked so good.

The varied nature of the material means that the DVD is inevitably something of a mixed bag, however. ‘Joyride’ (1995), directed by Jim Gillespie, is a nasty, trashy little short about the kidnapping of an electricity repairman, which paved the way for a nasty, trashy feature film, I Know What You Did Last Summer (1998). Peter Greenaway’s ‘Dear Phone’ (1976), which cuts together a collection of British telephone boxes with a series of narrated short stories, would try the patience of even his most ardent fan. Brian Percival’s ‘About A Girl’ (2001) is a clumsy and heavy-handed short which wallows self-consciously in the grime and grimness of Britain up north, and ends on an embarrassingly cynical shock image of teenage despair. Simon Ellis’ ‘Telling Lies’ (2000) abandons images altogether, instead using a collection of telephone voiceovers which cut comically against their on-screen transcriptions. While imaginative and funny, it doesn’t really stand up against the stronger films in the collection. But perhaps the greatest strength of this DVD is the sheer range of films which are included – from horror film to arthouse, from comedy to melodrama, and from social documentary to historical epic. It’s a selection box of cinematic ideas – if you don’t like one, there are another fifteen to try, at least one of which you’re bound to enjoy.

Some of these shorts, like ‘Doodlebug’, ‘Joyride’ and ‘Je T’Aime John Wayne’ are pure works of fiction, less about the real world than the act of filmmaking itself. Others are more overtly political. Stephen Daldry’s Eight (1998), addresses the ongoing effects of the Hillsborough disaster through the eyes of a football-mad boy, and has been quoted by its director as the dry-run for Billy Elliott, which followed two years later. Many employ the approach of documentary: ‘The Girl Chewing Gum’ (1976), directed by Jim Smith, is filmed in real-time on a single street in Dalston, while Lynne Ramsay’s ‘Gasman’ (1997) employs the same austere beauty and detached eye which so distinguished her feature debut, Ratcatcher, a year later. Others, like Asif Kapadia’s ‘The Sheep Thief’ and Morag MacKinnon’s ‘Home’ (1998), which follows a surreal day in the life of a council housing officer, straddle the boundaries between reality and dream. The result is a DVD which explores the endless variety and versatility of the short film format and the narrative freedom it offers to new and experienced directors alike.

Cinema 16 represents a new and innovative way of presenting the short for a modern audience. By mixing up the work of new and established names, by utilising the interactive nature of digital formats, and by including such an eclectic range of material, this DVD for the first time packages the short film as a viable commercial product. It’s a winning combination all round – filmmakers get a chance to release material which would otherwise never be seen, while viewers get a brilliant sample from another side of the cinema they rarely get to see. The format is flexible, varied and hugely promising for the future – translate the idea to a collection of shorts by American indies, or French New Wavers, or seventies Brat filmmakers, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s overpriced at £19.99 (£15.99, or perhaps even less, would open up the market substantially), but this is a relatively minor complaint. This collection has been carefully selected, lovingly produced and impeccably presented, and the DVD brings the fine art of short filmmaking to a wider audience than ever before. I can only hope it’s the first of many.

One nagging question remains, however. With this kind of talent at its disposal, how can the British film industry possibly be in the dreadful state it’s in?