Having spent his career working within the worlds of photography and journalism, Grant Scott is well aware of the importance of narrative in imagemaking. But, as he has begun to find out, that awareness of storytelling is not obvious in a lot of recent short filmmaking.
One of the greatest editorial art directors of the 20th century was a man called Alexey Brodovitch. Not a day goes by when I do not think of how he would approach a creative decision before making one of my own. Brodovitch was a Russian-born photographer, designer, art director and teacher, widely recognised for his art direction of Harper’s Bazaar magazine between 1938 and 1958. He was also instrumental in the photographic careers of such iconic photographers as Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Lillian Bassman, Paul Himmel, Man Ray and many others. He had two simple words he always used when commissioning a photographer to work for him: “Surprise me”.
Throughout my career I have tried to apply those two words to my own work and to the work of others. It’s not an easy task, as I’m sure you can imagine. We are all looking and hoping to be surprised. It is this need to be surprised that has left me disappointed by a lot of the work I am currently seeing. Primarily, because a lot of it seems to be fitting too easily into specific genres and categories that feel derivative and/or unresolved and lack the crucial element of all great film and imagemaking: a sense of narrative. The four main areas of filmmaking I am talking about here are what I describe as ‘time-lapse’, ‘psychodrama’, ‘making shapes and moves to music’ and ‘playing with frame rates’. You may recognise all of these descriptions; you may not recognise any of them. But believe me, after spending even a short amount of time online looking for short film inspiration, you will soon see what I mean. The ability to create moving and visually- impressive time-lapse films, which HDSLRs now offer, has led to some interesting work, of that there is no doubt.
But how many films do we need to see of lights turning off and on across cityscapes, and clouds scudding across the sky? And at what point do these films go from being experimental exercises in editing and camera functionality, to slow-moving travel films set to classical music? To me they are rapidly falling into the same trap as HDR (high dynamic range) photography; the trap of becoming a creative gimmick, with little substance or understanding of its relevance within the broader world of image making. Time-lapse? For me it’s had its day. I like what I’ve seen but I have seen enough.
The history of the psychodrama within the short story format is long and glorious, with no shortage of great stories upon which to base a script, going right back to the dawn of time. So why is it that so many of the films that I see appear to have been based on the same one? They begin with a dark, shadowy figure and usually an unknowing young girl (although an unknowing woman can be substituted) seen walking through a deserted warehouse/factory/isolated wood/decaying house, usually carrying a rag doll limply. (This is all in desaturated colour tones with minimal light and the occasional vignette.) The opening scene is then followed by a series of visual clues or red herrings, built from chop edits, glimpsed artefacts and perhaps a cat running away, to build tension. It rarely does. Instead it creates frustration and boredom.
The climax will be an ‘enigmatic’ but inconclusive resolution. We are always left to imagine what would, should or could have happened and, of course, we are always expected to imagine the worst, while a black screen appears with either the word ‘End’ or ‘Fin’ in small type, in the middle of the screen. Too many psychodramas over-egg the psycho and completely forget the element of drama. ‘Making shapes to music’ does exactly what it says on the tin. When the dance is incredible (as in Wim Wenders’ film, Pina) the results are stunning, beautiful and questioning of both the human body and the cinematographer’s creativity.
When it is not, these films are dull, boring and repetitive. But this genre is not confined to the world of dance. It can be extended to any form of physical movement and has become a one-size-fits-all cloak of sophistication, which is used to wrap around any slow-motion feat of bodily extension and manipulation (including skateboarders, BMX riders and surfers). We have posted a number of the best from this genre on our website, but I cannot tell you how many we had to go through to find them. Yes, the body can do amazing things; yes, you can see this clearly in slow motion; and yes, isn’t it amazing what a digital camera today can achieve? But can we now please move on? That just leaves ‘playing with frame rates’. Now, there is definitely a place for experimentation in all creativity, but technical experimentation for the sake of technical experimentation is exactly that. It is not a movie experience.
The stoic and nimble-fingered bass player with The Who, John ‘The Ox’ Entwistle, once said that he liked playing heavy metal because it was like smelling his own farts. If, like me, this rather crude and unpleasant simile rings true, then you will know where I am coming from when it comes to tech for tech’s sake. However slow or fast you can make the human body move is not of interest to me, and it does not result in a compelling filmic experience. As part of a whole it can be an intrinsic part of a filmmaker’s arsenal, but that is what it should be recognised as: a tool, and not the finished article.
Playing with frame rates is not filmmaking. Now I don’t want to sound like some grumpy editor unleashing a torrent of negativity at an ever-growing and experimenting community of image makers. Some great examples of each of the genres of film I have mentioned here sit proudly on our website. However, I do want to raise the question of narrative and storytelling before we all become obsessed with surface and ignore the importance of narrative depth. Photographers have always discussed the importance of narrative within the single still image and the photo story.
A good script has always been the foundation of a good film. These are not new considerations. But with the exciting possibilities that new technology offers, it is often both easy and tempting to ignore those intrinsic elements, which may not be sexy but create the difference between a light snack and a satisfying meal. In short, I suppose that my message and plea to all image makers is to embrace the new, never cease experimenting and pushing creative boundaries, have fun and feel no inhibition or fear of what is possible. Just make sure that you don’t forget the importance of the foundations upon which all great creativity should sit. In essence we are all storytellers; let’s not forget to tell our stories in the best way that we can.
© Grant Scott 2012