Spotlight on Shorts

Spotlight on Shorts: Self Esteem: Jenny Slate

In 2009 Jenny Slate was fired from Saturday Night Live for a slip of the tongue. Despite SNL producing a number of controversial skits, there are some words you simply can’t say on network TV at 11:30 at night. This one happened to start with “F” end with “G” and rhymes with “sucking” which SNL can be from time to time.

Since then Slate has been seen in just about everything from Parks and Recreation, House of Lies, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the recently amazing Obvious Child. Apart from her success in TV and Film, Slate and her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, have made a number of short films together including the popular and heart melting “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.  “Self Esteem: Jenny Slate” is another one of their many short film contributions directed by Fleischer and starring Slate. It’s a film that shows the dichotomy between expectation and reality as a group of mysterious onlookers watch and comment on Jenny Slate’s life. Like “Marcel The Shell”, “Self Esteem” manages to be humorous and heart breaking at the same time.

What particularly struck me about “Self Esteem” is the usage of conflicting visual and audio elements. In it, we never see the onlookers who are clearly enamored with Slate and spend the whole film speculating on how amazing it must be to be her. In contrast, we have Jenny Slate, who says virtually nothing. Through subtle looks and actions Slate shows the audience the reality of her life, which is often in direct conflict with her onlookers observations. Through voiceover “Self Esteem” creates an unreliable narrator in the onlookers while Slate’s actions convey her true story to the audience, presumably unbeknownst to her.  What results is a film that manages to address how the expectations put on us can belie the realities we face everyday while also managing to comment on the dangers of putting people of fame on a pedestal.

This mixture of contrasting audio and video has been used to varying degrees in film.   David Lynch relied on it heavily to jar the audience in his film Eraserhead. In other films, music can been chosen to conflict with the feelings audiences commonly experience when viewing scenes of extreme violence like in Reservoir Dogs.

Audio doesn’t always have to complement a film. Sometimes by deliberately choosing what we hear to conflict with the mood of what we see, a filmmaker can explore complicated scenarios without any one character actually addressing it. What results is a film that interacts with the viewer, relying on their senses to connect with the underlying message rather than telling it outright. As an experiment, try watching “Self Esteem” on mute. Note how the message of the film is lost without the onlooker’s constant narration. By doing this you may get a better understanding of how audio and video can work together to tell a story.

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Spotlight on Shorts: Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan

Filmmakers make shorts for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s to showcase their abilities on a small budget or win festival awards in a shorts category. It may even be because they have a compelling story, but it simply can’t be stretched out to 120-minutes. Still, some filmmakers use shorts as a way to pitch a potential feature-length film to audiences and investors by presenting it to them as a short for a fraction of the price. This can prove to be quite effective in that it allows viewers a chance to get a better feel for the full film by presenting it in the medium it’s intended for. Films like Saw have used this method of pitching to much success as their original short film has spawned an entire franchise.

One of my favorite horror movies of the last year was Oculus, directed by Mike Flanagan. The film particularly struck a chord with me because it relied heavily on psychological fear and suspense, a la The Shining, rather than the blitzkrieg of gore and jump-out-of-your-seat moments common with horror films nowadays. Even more impressive is that it’s a wonderfully shot film made for the low, low price of $5,000,000.

Much like Saw, Oculus started out as a 30-minute short entitled “Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan” (and yes, I did search for chapters 1 and 2 to no avail. They don’t appear to exist). Although it was never Flanagan’s original intention to pitch a feature film, the short managed to create enough buzz to attract studios interested in turning it into a full-length film.

The film is simple enough, using a simple white room as its only location and really only starring one actor (if you don’t count the pair of delivery guys who are on-screen for 30-seconds). Much like the feature, “Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan” relies on psychological fear and clever usage of audio to create tension. The rest of the film is purely expositional as the main character, Tim, tells us the history behind the mysterious Lasser Glass as well as his history with it. By keeping things simple, Flanagan managed to keep the budget of “Oculus Chapter 3” to around $1,500.

Those familiar with Oculus the feature will see similarities in plot in “Oculus Chapter 3”. What’s interesting to note is what was changed in its transition from short to feature. Originally, studios wanted Oculus to be a “found footage” film not unlike The Blair Witch Project or VHS, but Flanagan felt that route would destroy the concept of the film.

He had this to say:

“And kind of immediately, as it got out into the festival circuit, people were enjoying it and there was interest in expanding it into a feature — but everybody wanted to do the found footage thing because there was cameras in the room. And I didn’t think that worked for this story because the only thing that really is going to make it work is if we can say that what you’re seeing on the screen isn’t objective. Found footage has to be objective. You have to believe the frame.”

I couldn’t agree more with this. One of the most original things about this film is the ability to create fear around, what essentially is, an inanimate object that you can coincidently buy for $409.90 here if you want to scare the piss out of your visiting guests.

As the short film shows, by incorporating a sense of distortion by the use of editing and sound, the fear in “Oculus Chapter 3” comes from the journey the audience has with the protagonist as our senses are tested and we begin to lose faith in the objective. The fear of “found footage” films is quite the opposite. We trust modern-day audio and video equipment to show us the objective truth that can sometimes be clouded be the limitations of our own senses. “Found Footage” films count on this reality to reveal to us “reliable evidence” to give us physical proof to something that was previously considered metaphysical.

What may be of most use to filmmakers looking to use shorts to pitch a bigger features is how Flanagan manages to expand on “Oculus Chapter 3” in an interesting way without making things seem repetitive. Although films like Cast Away and Buried managed to build a feature around one character and one location, it would’ve been very hard to keep a horror film like Oculus interesting under he same conditions. I mean, mirrors are only so scary to a point.

Flanagan had this to say about the transition:

“The idea was always that we could take these two stories, braid them in a way that the transitions are getting tighter and tighter and tighter and we’re bouncing back more and more frequently, hopefully to the point that the two stories bleed together into a way that we can’t tell the difference any longer and the characters can’t tell the difference any longer. Especially dealing with a monster that’s an inanimate object, it’s the only way you can sustain tension over a long period of time, which was a big concern coming off the short.”

Shorts clearly can be made for a variety of reasons. Although most filmmakers don’t get into the shorts for their money-making potential, that doesn’t mean they can’t lead to bigger projects.  Keep that in mind when writing your next short. Perhaps the life of your short can extend beyond the 120-minute mark and on to the box office.

Spotlight on Shorts: Somebody

This week I really wanted to do a genre focus leading up to my first interview. Since the filmmaker I’ll be interviewing specializes primarily on comedy, we’ll be spotlighting a rather ingenious little comedy short entitled “Somebody“, which premiered last month at the Venice Film Festival.

Directed by filmmaker Miranda July, this film is rather unique in that it promotes a real life app called Somebody. The app allows one user to text another user within the vicinity of somebody they wish to tell something to, but don’t have the courage to say to them face to face. It works not unlike Tinder, but rather than searching for booty calls, it searches for brave individuals who can approach complete strangers and relay messages of a personal nature without the emotional disconnection associated with mere texting.

The film is not exactly a commercial, but an actual comedic short that shows the app in action. It’s seems pretty clear from the tone of the film that July is focused less on promoting the app than she is with pointing out the direction society is headed in a world where social interactions are becoming more and more digitized. This appears to be more of a mock social experiment, exploring a world where communication via social media is becoming increasingly dominant over the old school method of personal interaction.

As a film, “Somebody really shines in the area of casting. The actors really do look like anyone you’d find off the streets; complete with the type of diversity we’ve come to expect walking the streets of a big city. This is used to a comedic effect as users of the app selectively choose the most unlikely participants to relay their heartfelt and/or heartbreaking messages to their recipients. This is very apparent in the first scene where we see a small, lanky hipster being “broken up” with a large, bearded man wearing a tracksuit complete with consoling hug.

The film also uses a familiar technique from films like Timecode by showing actors from the previous scene walk past or show up in later scenes to show that each experience is connected. This has a different effect in “Somebody”, as it introduces us to a world where this app has become a standard communication tool that everybody is using. This is also apparent in the way the rest of the world reacts to the app’s users, oftentimes without any surprise, as if usage of the app has become an everyday occurrence.

July’s method of promoting this film as a package deal of sorts is rather creative. It’s possible that she’s making yet another comment of modern day society by suggesting that promoting a short film requires more than just old fashion word of mouth. In an age where new technology is just as highly looked forward to and hyped up as summer blockbuster films, perhaps July is suggesting that in this day in age media and art need to be a combined to have any chance at getting noticed in a culture that has become oversaturated. Either way, it’s an interesting approach to advertising and I look forward to see its effects.

Spotlight on Shorts: Factory 293

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/92579604″>FACTORY293</a&gt; from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/meaningmakerfilms”>Meaning Maker</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

This week I really wanted to focus on cinematography in film and how nailing it effectively can add to the production value of a film without necessarily adding to the budget. Although having a top of the line HD camera and a large budget certainly will increase the look of a film, I’m always impressed by filmmakers that do a lot with fairly little by taking the time to study shot selections and how they translate to an audience visually. I was lucky to find a short last night called “Factory 293” that’s a fantastic example of this.

“Factory 293” is a period piece written and directed by Roderick MacKay. Set in WWII during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, it follows a factory in the middle of the Russian tundra that produces artillery shells for tanks, really big guns or Soviet era Jaegers specifically designed to take on Nazi Kaiju (how the hell am I supposed to know, I’m not an artillery expert).   Grigori runs the factory and is having an affair with Yelena, a factory worker. From the outset we know that something is clearly bothering Grigori. He rejects Yelena’s advances and glares menacingly at the picture of Stalin hanging on his wall.

When the power goes out, Yelena is charged with turning it back on. In the attempt to restore power, she finds a lone soviet soldier out in the tundra on the brink of freezing to death. From there we learn more about Grigori, the mysterious soldier and the extent of Yelena and Grigori’s relationship.

I think the most surprising thing about this film is that it’s shot far, far away from the frostbitten lands of Russia in sunny Perth, Australia. Even more impressive, is that despite clearly looking like it took place on the planet Hoth, it was shot in the middle of summer. Through the use of fans, fake snow and some incredibly impressive green screening and digital artistry, they managed to turn Perth into something out of Kris Kringle’s nightmares. All this was done within a relatively small budget estimated at $100,000 dollars.

For those of you interested in the process of how MacKay managed to pull this off, it’s chronicled in a Behind the Scenes video below:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/88841934″>FACTORY293 Behind The Scenes</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/meaningmakerfilms”>Meaning Maker</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Despite the impressive digital work in the movie, what really struck me was the choice of shots MacKay went with to tell his story. One specific shot is an overhead angle capturing the portrait of Stalin ominously overhead of Grigori. The shot hints to the ever-looming presence of Stalinist Russia, mimicking the paranoia the dictator was so well-known for, his eyes constantly on the lookout for dissenters to the Soviet cause.

MacKay also does some impressive work with camera focus, specifically while shooting down the barrel of a gun, many of the shots seemingly coming from the point of view of the targets.

All of this excellent cinematography enhances the film further, giving it a very polished look for, relatively, pennies on the dollar. This demonstrates what good shot selection can do for a film, drawing the audience further into the film by making the framing and movement of the camera just as much a part of the storytelling process as the dialogue spoken by the characters. This is a lesson I feel a lot of beginning filmmakers can learn greatly from, that camera position is more than a matter of just getting the actors in frame. Let’s not forget that films are moving pictures and not just a collection of static shots.

Spotlight on Shorts: Death to the Tinman

“Death to the Tinman” is a short film I found a few years ago.  It’s directed by Ray Tintori and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 where it won the short filmmaking award. It was his senior film at Wesleyan University. Since then Tintori has gone on to direct several music videos for several bands such as MGMT and The Killers.

On its surface it’s a simple tale of love and loss, but it also deals with more complex issues such as religion and intolerance.   As the title would suggest, it draws its influence from the Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum. It’s a good example of using a well-known story, old enough to be in public domain, and expanding upon it.

The black and white cinematography gives it an old 1930’s Universal monster movie feel to it.   Although I don’t have any information on the type of budget he was working with, I have to imagine it wasn’t much. Although the film has a period feel to it, the costumes are more modern day, some so simplistic that they look like they came from a Party City. Sometimes it looks like it could pass for something Ed Wood would have put together. Even the Tinman’s suit looks like it was pieced together with old trashcans.

The look of “Death to the Tinman” is something I believe beginning filmmakers can learn from. It’s a great example of a film that substitutes expensive set pieces and costumes with a whole lot of character. When dealing with stories that seem to require extravagant production values, purposely giving it a super low budget, almost duct taped together feel can give it a quirky, childlike mood provided you have a strong story to back it up.

Tintori says that he was influenced by the likes of Werner Hertzog. Tintori had this to say about his contemporary,

“The Herzog thing was also about not being afraid to do enormously complicated stuff: Shooting with an airplane that we built that we were trying to fly all the time. He’s just extremely brave physically, and (this was) a film a that would be physically exhausting to make because you were out in the real world trudging around in a snowstorm or in swamps or something like that.”

He also lists Spike Jonze as an influence, which I think is a little more apparent.

Tintori notes that since he made the film while he was in college, he tried to stick to familiar territory. This is good advice for beginning filmmakers that might try to wow audiences with their first film by tackling complicated subjects that may be out of their realm of experience. Sticking to what you know before culminating strong research habits can allow filmmakers to put out quality work that comes from the heart. Kevin Smith is a great example of someone who has benefitted from this, making his first film Clerks about his experiences working in a convenience store.

Tintori gives what I thin is his best piece of advice on this subject,

“Yeah, I think that sometimes young filmmakers feel like they need to prove themselves by tackling issues that are really older people’s stories. So you end up getting these festivals with a ton of films by really young kids trying to tell stories about middle-aged people going through traumatic, angst-ridden moments in their life, but you get the feeling that the filmmakers actually have no first-hand knowledge of living through any of those things. So while they’re trying to be truthful, it ends up ringing very false. I recently taught a class at the University of Virginia and one of the things I said to the students was to recognize their own level of immaturity and try to make films that knowingly operate on that level.”

Spotlight on Shorts: The Naturalist

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/88646767″>The Naturalist</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/connorhurley”>Connor Hurley</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Most of my favorite films are social commentary films that are presented in unlikely genres. For instance, I absolutely love Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove because it addresses the very serious issue of nuclear warfare, but frames it in the form of a comedy. The film succeeds on so many levels, in part because you have the likes of Peter Sellers, arguably the greatest comedic actor of all time, playing multiple roles, but also because telling the story through comedy allows the audience to more easily digest a rather frightening reality.

“The Naturalist” is a short film I came across that also deals with a serious social commentary, but choses to do so within the confines of an unlikely genre. One would hope that the future portrayed in “The Naturalist” would never come to pass. In it, abnormalities of all sorts are shunned, homosexuality unfortunately being one of them. As our protagonist and his lover hide away from this oppressive world, a friend comes to visit to offer him a “cure” for his sexual orientation.

“The Naturalist” could have easily have been a drama set in present times. The concept of homosexuality being a “disease” to be cured could be paralleled to the current, atrocious practice of gay reparative therapy. Filmmaker Connor Hurley, instead, choses to go the sci-fi route, placing the film within a dystopian future.

This is something I feel all filmmakers can learn from. Just because you may want your film to deal with something like how your addiction to video games have caused your wife and children to resent you as a suitable father figure, doesn’t mean you have to reflect your life verbatim within an environment that’s similar to yours. Any setting or genre can be used to best communicate the moral of your story to the audience. The excellent sci-fi film Snowpiercer deals with class warfare by addressing it within a post-apocalyptic future aboard an eternally running locomotive. Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism. I’m sure the horror of the Holocaust could be addressed within a sword and sorcery fantasy provided it still deals with the core theme in a new and interesting way.

Hurley shot the film on a Red One MX with Cooke S2 lenses and was lit almost solely with natural light. Since the lead actress was sick with tonsillitis throughout the shoot, ADR was necessary for most of her lines.

As you watch “The Naturalist”, pay close attention to how a modern day issue can be further explored within unlikely settings and genres. Perhaps this might inspire one of you burgeoning filmmakers to break though that writer’s block and discover the best way to address your next big idea.