.: 16 July 2017 :.

What I’ve learned creating my first short film

Sometimes it’s liberating to dive headfirst into a new creative discipline. That feeling of not knowing anything. It’s scary and exciting at the same time.

I just love the process of making things, reflecting and coming up with my own theories. It’s how I learn. Today is about me learning how to tell a story through film. Being a designer, I’ve realized that even though I don’t really consider myself as a filmmaker, I do love making films.

Last month I made my first short film, in ten days. We made our first short film I should say. Because even though this article is about my personal reflections, the film is by no means an individual effort. None of this film would have be possible without my awesome teammate and best friend, Trieuvy.

Anyways, we made this film for a speculative design project at Umeå Institute of Design. Traditionally designers have used videos to explain their concept, we took this opportunity to tell a story within our design fiction. We felt that some qualities of storytelling could enable us to evoke a stronger response from the viewer. I hope we succeeded.

Please watch our short film below, otherwise the rest of this article doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

These are some things I learned during making this process. These are some theories I developed.

The key to getting viewers engaged is to purposefully leave things away.

Near the end of our film, Jesse gets faced with a dilemma. Sell the pregnancy data from his friend Mila or disappoint his buddy Liam by not being able to afford a new suit.

We see Jesse’s inner struggle, but we don’t actually see his decision. We don’t actually see whether he swipes to the left or to the right. Instead we see the consequences of his swipe in the final scene. Mila gets bombarded with baby related ads. We don’t show, but we suggest.

I realized that this seemingly simple principle separates great movies from mediocre ones. It’s something I’ve often done wrong myself, I guess because it feels counterintuitive at first. This principle explains why I don’t feel engaged in most Marvel movies, but I deeply connect to the work of Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Arrival).

This seemingly simple principle separates great movies from mediocre ones.

Marvel movies show everything what is happening. If it’s not through the visual, it’s definitely through the dialogue. Quite often, the characters literally explain the plot. This approach greatly impacts your relation to the movie. It makes you feel like a passive observer. Like you can turn off your brain.

On the other end of the spectrum are the movies that master the art of suggesting. Those movies merely suggest what is happening, but don’t actually show it. As a result you feel like you are an essential part of it. You feel like an active participant. You are engaged in the story and you become emotionally attached.

If you want a viewer to care about your story, acknowledge their role. Treat them as a participant. Trust their imagination.

I actually think that the power of leaving away applies to storytelling in general, not just for cinematography. If you want an audience to personally connect to your story, create gaps which they can fill in with their personal experiences. This will make them feel like the story relates to them.

If we can look at the world through the eyes of a character, we can get a unique perspective on ourselves.

To me, speculative design isn’t about the future. It’s about the present. The reason why we show a possible future is because it enables reflection on our present. I think a similar principle goes for the role of characters in a story. By seeing the world through the eyes of a character, we can change the perspective on ourselves. A character can hold us up a mirror.

Just like speculative design changes our perspective on our present, a character can change our perspective on ourselves.

So how would you achieve this through film making? How would you put the viewer into the shoes of a character? I think it’s empathy. I think empathy enables us to look at the world through the eyes of somebody else.

How would you then make an empathetic character? It’s about understanding why a character does certain things. In our film we empathize with Jesse because we understand the motives behind his actions. In the first scene we see Jesse in a suit store, not being able to afford the suit he dreams about. As the story continues, the pressure from his friend Liam, representing society’s perspective, to buy the suit increases.

We understand the embarrassment that comes from him having to lie to his friend that he already went suit shopping, not mentioning he didn’t actually have the money to buy one. We can all relate to the feeling not being able to live up to the high expectations of friends, family and even society as a whole.

So when Jesse unintentionally gets his hands on some highly valued data, we understand why he sells it. Empathy allows us to partially displace moral judgement. We don’t necessary approve, but we are still involved in the story.

I’ve learned that when we empathize with a character and we look at the world through their eyes, we have a fantastic opportunity to learn about ourselves.

Our film itself doesn’t aim to pass judgement on Jesse. After all, Jesse didn’t create this highly individualistic consumeristic society. He just stumbled on to it and is doing what he’s told. We want the viewer to realize that the real problem isn’t Jesse, but the society that creates a rewards a character like this. Jesse is simply fulfilling the supply, that we, society are demanding.

Through a cut, a third meaning emerges.

In our story, Jesse disappointingly stares in front of him after realizing he has far from enough money to buy the suit. During this close-up, the sound of an alarm starts playing. The sound glues the two scenes together. It implies a connection.

Visually we go from a static, closeup of Jesse’s face, to a point of view of his bedroom, rotated 90 degrees. This transition, which is simultaneously connected through audio, but disconnected through the visual, aims to represent the disconnection between Jesse’s dreams and reality.

This simple cut causes the viewer to rethink the first scene. Was it just a dream or not? To me, whether the first scene was a dream or not, is not that important, it’s the doubt of the viewer that is. The cut causes this doubt. It proposes a question.

I’ve learned that every time you cut, you create a new relation, possibly giving new meaning to what was previously shown.

Through an cut you can make an argument, you can explain, you can suggest or you can propose a question. This is known as the Kuleshov effect. Viewers don’t forget what they saw, use this to your advantage.

Visualizing a convincing future, by relying on our present.

Our film takes place in the year 2036. When visualizing the world twenty years from now, it’s tempting to go completely crazy. It’s tempting to think of flying cars, arm implants and house farms. However, even though these wild ideas might be completely realistic twenty years from now, showing this is not necessary more effective in terms of viewer engagement.

I’ve realized that to make the viewer engaged in a future, we need touch-points to our present. We need things that haven’t changed to accept the things that did.

I think that the trick to creating a realistic future is to be very deliberate in what to change and what keep unchanged.

Think of Black Mirror. The number of futuristic products in Black Mirror is actually surprisingly low. Still you completely buy into it.

I think this principle sets apart the movie Her, which takes place in the future. To me, it feels like Theodore is a character from our present, who is put into a future world. Theodore is the touch-point to our present. He struggles with topics that we face today. He responds the first time he sets up his A.I., similar as we would do nowadays. Because of Theodore we buy into the future that the movie presents.

If you enjoyed this article, perhaps you want to follow me through my Interaction Design Master’s thesis journey, starting in January 2017. Follow this publication or subscribe here if you want to receive weekly updates and reflections. ❤

© 2018 Martijn van den Broeck
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