Short films are not often thought of as cinematic and tend to slot into the independent cinema category, unless they are labelled simply as student films. For this module we were required to develop, plan and produce a piece of fiction that is considered to be cinematic. Upon hearing the word ‘cinematic’ one may be drawn to the thought of Hollywood blockbuster movies with great sweeping scenes and beautiful characters. Everything within what you might expect to be a cinematic film is perfect and finely-tuned, with nothing looking astray or out of place. A cinematic film is therefore seen simultaneously as beautiful and epic, more often than not with a feature length running time and a few hundred thousand dollars behind it. It is films like this that are regarded as the definition of ‘cinematic’ and it is difficult to find sufficient evidence or writings that consider the term to be a legitimate category for a film to slot into. However, what the term does suggest is that a certain type of film which has an exceptionally large budget and therefore extremely high production values is what one wold refer to as a ‘cinematic’ production. “The big-budget Hollywood blockbuster movie had been continuously riding waves of groundbreaking technologies being developed for both the VFX production and filmmaking industries, and generating healthy box-office figures,” (Venkatasawmy, 2013, p.68) It is no secret that what is regarded as ‘cinematic’ tends to be associated with the great epics that Hollywood churns out every year due to their hefty budgets; however, it is also true that they are rarely afraid to be ambitious with new technologies and stories. As a crew, we can therefore be considered successful in achieving an aspect of being cinematic as we received quite a lot of money from donations on our Kickstarter campaign. Without this money, the production values would have been much lower in the way of production design and locations as we would not have had the opportunity to travel as far.
Our fictional product, which follows two sisters in a world similar to what an audience would identify as post-apocalyptic, deals with themes of survival and the need to stick together in desperate times. After one of the girls discovers that she is pregnant, they are both removed from the compound within which they were confined and find themselves in a vast, open world with endless space and nowhere to go. Thrown into the outside world of which they know nothing and forced to quickly grieve their guardian’s murder which took place just before they were removed from the compound, they decide that the best option is to move on and try to find somewhere safe. However, as they walk along the coast and try to find anything at all that will help them survive, they are unaware of the compound guard who is following them. When Dawn, the older sister, finds the guard with Faith, the younger, she is forced to make a snap decision; kill or be killed. She shoots the guard and later realises that he was in fact trying to help them and they are now left confused and unsure of what awaits them next.
By postponing the revelation of the pivotal information that Faith, the youngest sister, is pregnant, it makes it significantly more dramatic to the audience and more of a surprise. It is likely that the audience would not have expected this as a plotline and perhaps draws them closer to the story and therefore the world because it is quite a relatable situation. Having said this, it can be suggested that the world itself is more cinematic than the narrative; however, this was a creative choice in order to help the audience understand the content and the context. The original script, before the several different drafts, depicted Faith as being ill rather than pregnant and it was considered that she had fallen ill with the virus which would then lead to them being removed from the compound. However, after much discussion with tutors and each other as a crew, it was decided that she should instead be pregnant which would present a lot more jeopardy to the story than her falling ill as audiences can relate to the consequences of being pregnant in worlds similar to this after films such as Children of Men (Cuarón, 2006). This is similar to our production, Project Venture in the sense that the story itself is not necessarily ‘cinematic’, but rather it is the world that the characters are forced to live in.The term ‘cinematic’ is never really associated with student short films as the stereotypical piece is often a drama which could easily be translated onto television within a soap opera or something similar which does not tend to experiment with different techniques or codes and conventions. From the offset, as a crew, we were determined to make something ambitious that would to an extent challenge the stereotype that suggests student films play safely in terms of production values. The director already had an idea that she wanted to use; however, it was the world in which the script was set rather than the actual drama that we adopted for our production. We felt that we had to reduce the drama within the script and make the story significantly simpler and easier to follow due to the fact that the world is so large: it concerns the United Kingdom after an epidemic has forced the surviving civilians to evacuate to compounds lining the East coast. At the beginning of the film, title cards appear for the audience to gain some sort of understanding of the context of what they are about to watch (see fig. 1) which are accompanied by a broken up radio broadcast that I created during post production. Taking inspiration from the beginning of I am Legend (Lawrence, 2007) and using advice from Jerry Ibbotson to layer as many sound effects as I could find and record, I created the radio broadcast to aid the audience’s understanding of the world. My intention was not for this to be listened to completely, rather it was intended to be background noise as the audience reads the title cards and simply gives the introduction more depth than if music was accompanying it. I was determined to be creative and clever with the sound design as, “No matter how strong the visuals, sound is a critical component of any film and is often one of the glaring weaknesses in student and independent projects,” (Mamer, 2009, p. 215) and I was happy to get a creative piece of sound design into the final film. Originally, the drama of the film started after this beginning sequence; however, after advice from Mark Herman, director of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), it was clear that the world would need to be established further before the audience was introduced to any action, as evidenced by Longyear, “The opening of a story must establish the story situation [and] should contain the character situation (character, setting, motivation); it should contain action […] it should contain conflict,” (2002, p.15) Herman’s suggestion resulted in the editor removing a scene that was originally at the start of the film which featured both sisters talking about the pregnancy before they go to confront the father in the shape of the head guard, Number Seventy-One. The decision to take this scene out of the film gives the world a chance to explain itself a little more to the audience without the audience’s mind being on the situation with the sisters. Rather, the first thing that the audience sees is Dawn, the eldest, followed by her sister and their guardian, walking down a long alleyway lined with guards and warning signs (see fig. 2). As the viewer is unaware of who the characters are or what their motives are, it gives them the opportunity to concentrate on the location, to take it all in and to provoke questions about what kind of place the film is set in.
Cinematic narratives often go hand-in-hand with the idea of jeopardy, which, originally, we were missing. The idea of jeopardy is introduced mainly through the warning signs about the virus which are placed along the wire fence throughout the scene when the characters are lead towards the edge of the compound (see fig. 3). This, ideally, should emphasise thethreat of the virus and suggest to the audience that the girls are in lots of trouble. Jeopardy is also evident through the appearance of the guard at the end of the film. The guards play an integral part to the construction of the world and are there as a constant threat and reminder that freewill is no longer commonplace amongst British communities. The planning of the production design for this particular scene was crucial as it is the first time that the guards are introduced to the viewer. The production designer spent several hours during pre-production looking at films and video games of similar genres which are widely considered as cinematic. One of the main inspirations was a police figure from the recent Star Trek (Abrams, 2009) who pursuits a young James T. Kirk driving underage and over the limit (see fig. 4). The intention for the design of the guards had always revolved around the theme of anonymity from the very start of pre-production in order to separate them as much as possible from the civilians within the compound and to give them the threatening aura that was required. It was also important that the guards wore masks as part of their uniform in order to reiterate the threat of the virus, which is again emphasised by the posters lining the edges of the compound (see fig. 5). The lack of personality amongst the guards was also useful economically as we had a lack of actors in the way of extras and the fact that all the guards are dressed the same allowed us to use the same three actors to play different guards with different numbers.
A further symbol of jeopardy which accompanies the guards is a subtle, yet informative piece of sound design. As sound designer, I thought it important that the audience was aware, even subconsciously, of the fact that the girls were not quite alone outside of the compound. During production, there was a particular shot recorded to emphasise this as a guard stepped into frame as the two girls walk away. However, the editor found that this could not be edited together effectively and we decided instead to include a small motif which would signify the presence of guards. For this, I used an ‘electrical buzz’ sound effect and edited it so that it sounded like it had been affected by static. I then inserted variations of this across the sequence whenever the guards came into shot or were nearby and therefore at the end of the scene where the two girls walk away into the distance. Ideally, this puts the idea of jeopardy into the audience’s mind and should not make the appearance of the guard at the end as much of a surprise to a viewer and the effect can be supported by Sonnenschein, “When a sound element is repeated and associated with narrative themes at characters’ transformational stages, they will be escorted with an accumulation of meanings that support the dramatic evolution,” (2001, p.199).possible from the civilians within the compound and to give them the threatening aura that was required. It was also important that the guards wore masks as part of their uniform in order to reiterate the threat of the virus, which is again emphasised by the posters lining the edges of the compound (see fig. 5). The lack of personality amongst the guards was also useful economically as we had a lack of actors in the way of extras and the fact that all the guards are dressed the same allowed us to use the same three actors to play different guards with different numbers.
A film’s soundscape is often crucial to how the audience comprehends the action that they see on screen and this the case for our soundtrack. We brought in a composer to create the soundtrack for the film which would reflect the action. I collaborated with him and showed him examples from what would be considered cinematic films, such as the score of I am Legend (Lawrence, 2007) and Inception (Nolan, 2010), both of which have very powerful soundtracks. He then brought back to us what would be our soundtrack for Project Venture, adding fluidity and depth to the final cut. One example of where the music is particularly effective is when Dawn exclaims that Faith is pregnant, and the music reflects how Number Seventy-One reacts to this with shock and almost panic. The music emphasises the jeopardy of the situation and adds to the cinematic elements of the film.
One of the biggest cinematic elements of the film is the use of locations as two of them are vast, wide open spaces and one is based in a studio, which was heavily production designed. As a crew, we had to travel quite a way to the exterior locations, one being Mappleton beach in East Yorkshire and the other being St Aidan’s RSPB site in Allerton Bywater, West Yorkshire. This would certainly not have been possible without the money that we gratefully received from Kickstarter as it gave us freedom to travel and to find two locations that were exactly how the director envisioned. The first location that we see in the film is St Aidan’s, a large nature reserve with large ponds and endless grass spaces (see fig. 6). This is used to emphasise how small the girls feel when they are on the outside of the compound and is intended to intimidate them. There is a moment when the girls merely stand and try to take in the beauty of the place, suggesting that they have never even imagined anything like this before. The second location at the coast is also similar in the sense that it makes the girls seem small and insignificant to the world outside of the compound and in a way, heightens the jeopardy that surrounds them. The director of photography wanted to suggest that the world outside of the compound is too big to comprehend and decided on the use of lots of extremely wide shots, particularly at the beach. The establishing shot for this location demonstrates how small they are and how far they are having to travel through the employment of an extreme wide during which the girls enter from the left and make slow progress across the screen. The use of the wide shots can be considered as cinematic as films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Jackson, 2001-2003) use wide, sweeping shots to symbolise the beginning of journeys and to establish the world in which the characters live. The use of wide shots within Project Venture contradicts the use of close ups within the compound which are intended to make the inside of it seem claustrophobic and intimidating to be in, with nowhere to hide. The studio set within the ration station is relatively tight and claustrophobic, emphasised by the colour correction undertaken by the director of photography. The colour correction ensures that the darker colours are incredibly rich and emphasises how dark the inside of the ration station set is and takes inspiration from the inside of the drug lord’s office in Wicked Blood (Young, 2014) which we, as a crew, were lucky to have the opportunity to watch at the Camerimage Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, 2013 . The interior of this set is a great contrast to the outside of the compound and further amplifies the themes of threat, jeopardy and claustrophobia.
Without the money donated from sponsors on Kickstarter, I do not believe that we would have achieved as higher production values as we did as we were able to travel to locations far from the city walls of York and use their natural beauty to our advantage. The money also made it possible for a lot more freedom and creativity within the production design department and resulted in the guards and the compound looking as intimidating as they do. The money used on the film aided in the pursuit of a project that looked and sounded cinematic and would also draw its audience deeply into the world that we created. As a crew, we were ambitious and determined to achieve something that would be considered riskier than the stereotypical student film and I firmly believe that we have succeeded in creating a piece of cinematic fiction.
Longyear, B.B. (2002) Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop-I: An Introduction to Fiction Mechanics. Lincoln, iUniverse, Inc.
Mamer, B. (2009) Film Production Technique: Creating the Accomplished Image. Fifth Ed. Belmont, Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Sonnenschein, D. (2001) Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema. Studio City, Michael Wiese Productions.
Venkatasawmy, R. (2013) The Digitization of Cinematic Visual Effects: Hollywood’s Coming of Age. Lanham, Lexington Books.
Children of Men (2006) Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. USA/UK, Universal Pictures.
I am Legend. (2007) Directed by Francis Lawrence. USA, Warner Bros.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) Directed by Peter Jackson. New Zealand, New Line Cinema.
Star Trek (2009) Directed by J.J. Abrams. USA/Germany, Paramount Pictures.