Grab an instrument and bash out a message
Born of a time of growing divide between the rich and the poor, the upwardly and downwardly mobile, and fueled by hopelessness and rage, punk rock gave music back to everybody. Also known as D.I.Y. for "do it yourself," punk was less of an organized movement and more of a coincidence of individual free spirits rebelling against the status quo. By picking up the nearest instrument and bashing away at it, whether it was tuned or not, whether you could even play it or not and shouting messages over the roar, punk music provided the perfect antidote to disco and corporate rock. All of a sudden, anyone could and should be in a band, and a new and accessible sense of artistic freedom was launched.
Of course, there was nothing totally new about this phenomenon. We could look at many other times when the old wave was disrupted by a new one throughout history. Gustave Courbet and the avant-garde school of realism in painting, Dada, surrealism, and many other art and social movements were reactions to times of social change and upheaval.
So are micro short filmmakers the new punks? Let's consider the similarities.
In this and other blog posts, we have considered things like punk, animism, outsider art, folk art, graffiti, swipescaping and other possible inputs to a micro short filmmaking aesthetic. In the end, it is for each micro short filmmaker to determine their own original definition and practice of the art form. We live in artistically fluid times for filmmaking, and that is a beautiful thing. You don't need to go to film school (not that there's anything wrong with that) or copy from the old masters. Originate, follow your own instincts and have fun defining your own micro short filmmaking style!
Breaking into the one-minute barrier
Though a "micro short film" can be anything we want it to be, let's take a look at the one-minute micro short format. This is what we focus on in the Miniature Film Festival, of which I am the founder and festival director. It can be surprisingly challenging to put together a micro short film, and many people will struggle with the format until it becomes part of their filmmaking DNA. This is particularly true of one-minute films, as distinct from trailers and other fragments of larger work. But thankfully it is both a fun and rewarding challenge!
Why is it challenging? Well, one issue is time. We are talking about films here, and films have beginnings, endings, titles and credits. These consume time , though some ingenuity can let you blend story and titles. Your one-minute film can easily drop to 40 seconds of working story time, net of these beginning and ending components.
Another issue is the level of complexity that the one-minute form can comfortably contain. With around 40 seconds of working story time, there may be a practical limit on story components like number of characters the film can handle. You can set up a certain amount of back story and situation with a opening title slide or some succinct narration or a quick visual reveal of some action, for example a theft or a broken dog's leash with no dog present. But basically, you are looking at getting one idea across in a minute, including titles. Related to this is the challenge of story arc. Even "dog is lost, child is heartbroken, something special happens, dog comes back, child is happy" is still going to be a tight squeeze into a minute!
The one-minute form perhaps lends itself best to a one thought, one message type of theme. Messages or themes like "be nice" "first appearances can be deceiving" "life is sweet" "work sucks" "underdog wins" can all be good, fun, challenging fodder for a short story, lending themselves to a clever reveal or reversal near the end. Having seen and screened over 80 micro shorts from all over the world in the 2015 Miniature Film Festival, I can attest to the fact that we are limited only by our imaginations and our ingenuity! The festival audience agreed, going from laughter to tears in 60 seconds.
Here are some essential ingredients and tips for you:
The importance of visual stories and why we need to share them
I was at the International Mobil Film Festival in San Diego last week, presenting my micro short film "Mr. Sadheart's Small Day" and teaching a workshop session on micro short filmmaking. It was incredibly uplifting to be around a group of artists who are passionate about storytelling and equally passionate about encouraging others to make films and share their stories.
Susan Botello, the founder of the festival, and I had a great conversation about why people need to share stories. Susan made the interesting observation about how stories - and the need to relate them - actually came before language. So, before there was language, how did we explain that we meant to pick up some nuts and berries on the way home to the cave, but got chased away by a giant mastodon? I mean a huge mastodon! We drew a cave painting maybe, or danced around and illustrated the story with gestures. Early theatre. And what if a whole herd of huge mastodons was still chasing us? Let's just speculate that we probably didn't strive for perfection in the sharing of the story! The same can be said of many micro short films: the story is the big thing, the delivery device is secondary. The urgency is in the artistic impulse, and perfection can wait for another day and another story.
What about graffiti? The tag or piece of art that says "I passed by here, and had something to say." The moment mattered, the artist mattered and the impulse was creative. With many micro short films, the moment matters. "Mr. Sadheart's Small Day" was born from that kind of moment - a chance spotting in a train window of a finger-drawn sad face in the window dust, encased in a heart. Was it a modern day cave drawing? A piece of graffiti? Who was Mr. Sadheart, as I called him? I hadn't even seen him until the sun in the train window suddenly lit him up. I grabbed my phone and shot some footage. Forty seconds later he disappeared as we pulled into the station. The micro short film "Mr. Sadheart's Small Day" relates what it's like to be him. My puppetry instructor in New York, Kevin Augustine, taught me that everything is a puppet if we want it to be, and each puppet has a soul. My work as the artist was to channel Mr. Sadheart's soul and give it a voice. Micro short filmmaking can be - and perhaps should be - impulsive, creative, sudden, subconscious even, like graffiti.
Outsider art has similarly been noted for its unique qualities of being outside the mainstream system. I remember seeing an incredible exhibition of it in New York, and one piece of it continues to live in my memory, an entire wall covered from corner to corner in tiny, intricate drawings and patterns that quite likely only made sense to the artist. It was the magnificence of the obsession that moved me. Once confined mostly to mental institutions, outsider art is now revered and enjoyed by a much wider following, much like folk art before it. Micro short filmmaking can also have outsider art qualities - obsessive, childlike, pure, impulsive.
The importance of the mobile phone camera is huge, because suddenly everyone who either has or can borrow a phone can be a filmmaker. We all have stories we need to tell. Stories are all around us, and like Mr. Sadheart's story, they need us as artists to give them voice. Yes, that's you! You are an artist and you are a filmmaker. You are part cave painter, part graffiti artist and part outsider artist. Go tell your stories. Make a micro short film and share it with the world!
Harnessing the smartphone's ability to impart motion and dynamism to objects
I have coined a term, "swipescaping" to describe an experimental technique I have used in some of my micro short films. The technique makes use of the phone's extreme mobility, which in my experience gives the device a unique ability to impart motion and dynamism to inanimate objects. I used swipescaping in the film "Deathbed Regrets," an experimental film that has received several official festival selections as well as a nomination for Best Short Documentary.
Swipescaping is a blend of art installation and technology. Essentially, you arrange objects of interest, ones that contribute to the story, in a way that makes sense to your artistic instincts. This can involve placing them in certain groupings, and altering elements such as proximity of one object to another, lighting and other traditional aspects of cinematography. The objects chosen might be old photos, coins, other mementos, bits of clothing, food, maps - whatever supports the story in your artistic judgement.
Once arranged, you use the smartphone or similar miniature video device to take the viewer on a guided tour of the installation, as if they were viewing it from a tiny airplane. The power of this technique lies in timing the motion of the camera, which can move in and out, linger, circle back, speed up or slow down in ways that will visually support the narrative arc of the film. By leading the viewer on this tour, you can bring dynamism to a static display. A photo or other static object appears to move as the camera hovers over it like a hummingbird.
I recently used swipescaping in the film "Fragments of Paris," making use of the visual journey in both filming and post editing to support the narrative arc of the story. This is a bit of a departure from some of my other micro short films which have been driven to some extent by the video footage from filmable found situations, with the narrative being adapted to the visual. Swipescaping lends itself to the visual journey being driven from the narrative perhaps to a greater extent.
Here are a few thoughts to help you explore swipescaping as an experimental technique:
I hope you find this technique interesting and useful. Have fun with it!
What would that turnip say if it could speak?
Creating equivocal, less certain characters for a post-self-help age
Do more equivocal times call for more equivocal characters? How do we adjust characterization to reflect the unsure, post-self-help, sensitivity-trained ways we live now? Is it still sufficient for characters to want something and do anything to get it?
The mantra of "Who am I? What do I want? Who or what is in my way? What will I do about it" is one of the traditional building blocks of actor training. It's as good a starting point as any to help an actor situate themselves in the given circumstances, and start to feel their way into a character and the story. The spectacle of blindly self-interested characters colliding against each other has long made for great stage comedy and tragedy - it's life with the boring bits removed.
But what exactly are those so-called "boring bits" and should we be paying more attention to them in writing and building characters? We live, arguably, in a post-self-help era, and a lot more is popularly known about different personality types, communication styles, the harmful effects of poor parenting, and character traits like narcissism, passive aggression, excessive pleasing, drama addiction and others. People in Shakespeare's time weren't "working on their issues." They were just needing what they needed, and doing what they had to do to try and get it.
Now, we are trained to be aware, to meditate, to control our reactions, to be interpersonally and culturally sensitive, to take factors like the other person's social and emotional makeup into account. In short, people are a lot more considerate, or at least aware enough about how to avoid or handle others they might have friction with. There's more carefulness, less reactivity in the moment, and a lot more couching of our words in the language of sensitivity.
But what about the seemingly peaceful meditation instructor who would like to rip a new one for a beggar on the way to class because she is stressed about debt and tired of helping others? Or the bullied worker whose first impulse is "rage abatement breathing" instead of fight or flight? We may be more aware in our dealings with one another, but are we still rage and hurt driven, self-interested little babies at heart? We may project more awareness and sensitivity, but deep down, we may not have changed much. The audience deserves to be able to read all of this.
So how do we depict this complexity? In film, we are aided hugely by advances in cinematography. Smaller, higher-resolution cameras allow us to get right in people's faces and read the tiniest of nuances. To be able to grab great resolution footage with a device as portable as a high-end smartphone opens up amazing possibilities. To hang around a character on a long take can reveal some very cool moments that can help us depict some of those not-so-boring bits of life.
In terms of writing characters, we also need to let actors do more. I really admire the work of director Mike Leigh, and his approach to working with actors and developing characters. By working extensively on a character's back story, the actor can bring a wealth of character self-knowledge to the role. Not just the fact that, for example, they were poorly parented, but how those wounds have led to a pattern of life-limiting decisions. The script can and often should be a living, malleable document that evolves with the characters.
If our aim is to tell contemporary stories in a way that audiences can identify with, perhaps we should be adding some of the smaller internal character details - the glimpse of a childhood wound, the self-doubt, the socially accepted untruths - back into our film stories. Should we lean a bit less on the words, a bit less on the actions and a bit more on the internal moments of humanity that can be rendered visible? Might this help our stories more truthfully reflect who and what we really are, self-knowledge and all? What do you think?
Thanks for stopping by! I will be using this space to share my reflections, observations , helpful advice and other things that come to my fairly active and creative mind. I came to acting and filmmaking in mid-life with a varied background that includes business consulting, public speaking and teaching as well as writing and the arts. I really believe that no experience in life is wasted and I find that I draw a lot on all the education and challenges that life has provided me with. In this blog, I will share some of my insights, experiences, background on my creative projects and films, as well as words of advice that people can use to help them move ahead in their own pursuits in all avenues of life. I look forward to sharing this journey with you!
Robert David Duncan, award-winning director, actor, writer and producer with a passionate interest in art, storytelling and the whole amazing journey called life. Founder of Fat Punk Productions and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.