Sunday, September 21, 2008

Story Post- An Appreciation

I recently rewatched a great series of shorts collectively entitled "Paris Je T'aime", and on second viewing, things began to jump out at me, that I either hadn't noticed, appreciated, or ascribed due importance to. With that said I'd like to talk about one of my favourite shorts on the dvd here.

This post is about smart storytelling shots. Shots that by the way they're filmed - the choice of angle, colour, depth of field, movement and lighting - tell you how you are supposed to think and feel about what is happening. This is the kind of thing that REALLY excites me about filmmaking. Like in great lines of prose or in really specific design, there is a genius in filmmaking: the purposeful selection of rich storytelling shots. Since they fly by us at 24 frames per second creating the cumulative effect of an immersive story, the individual decisions, the details, can go by unnoticed. I'd like to pick some here, and examine them.

Typically when I watch something for a second or third time I tend, as I'm watching, to try and predict the next several shots, or series of shots in a scene or sequence. I'm often close, and the more I do it, the closer I get. However, there are times when the director chooses something I hadn't guessed, and sometimes it's nothing like what I had in mind. These are the things I tend to pay attention to. Why was this chosen? Why am I surprised by it? It is my limitation or their ingenuity? The answer is almost always, in the case of great films, both. As I watched the "Paris Je T'aime" shorts, specifically the segment "Loin du 16ième" by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, I was surprised and delighted by a few great storytelling choices, which I'll explore here:
Also, there are spoilers here, since I'm going into it. So if you haven't seen it, please watch it first.

Ok, so we open on a title card, and a pre-dawn view of the city. A young mother, Ana, played perfectly by Catalina Sandino Moreno, gets up early, and drops her infant child off in a large nursery, packed with cradles. This opening is great. We very quickly get who she is: a single mother working to scrape by in Paris. The conditions she leaves her baby in would be heartbreaking for her, but there it is.

As she leaves, we hear the baby cry offscreen, and after a moment's pause, she goes back to the cradle to console the child. We're given a great scene here, in that we feel her joy at interacting with her child, her maternal gifts, and we're also - though we don't know it yet - being set up for a pay off. It's just great to watch, and she plays it so well. The shots of her hand with the baby emphasize their connection. The baby smiles, giggles and then quickly falls asleep, assured by his mother's touch, and a beautiful lullaby she sings to him, which again, comes up later.

After this warm, endearing scene we face her commute. We don't know where she's going but the directors really contrast her journey with the scene we've just witnessed. We get jarring hand-held tracking shots, cramped compositions, all focused on Ana and her hustle bustle. It's paced really well here, because as soon as I thought "man this commute is taking forever", they cut to her surfacing from the subway in an affluent part of the city.

She enters the home, presumably of her employer, and though we don't know what the deal is yet, we can guess. There's a great little detail they add here: a glass door onto the laundry room, where she hangs up her coat, and puts her things away. I may be reading into this but that's such a great detail. Who has glass doors in their houses? Rich people, that's who. So we are given a little more about her situation at this point. It could have been a wooden door, but I think the impact of this shot would have been lessened considerably. This is where my ears really perked up, so to speak.

So she puts her stuff away and is given some last minute orders from her employer, who is never seen - another great touch. The employer leaves with an offscreen door slam, and we're treated to a nice wide shot of the apartment, just as the employer's baby begins to cry. At this point, we as the audience, have made 4 of 2 and 2. So we know where this is going. Ana opens a door to the nursery and enters. Before doing that however, she ties up her hair. Another great detail. She's holding back here, and we start to get it. This is all happening in seconds though, in master shots. The filmmakers aren't drawing attention to this stuff, just letting it texture the main narrative.
So now we're in the nursery, designed to contrast the nursery Ana's baby was placed in at the beginning of the film as thoroughly as possible, and it works. Compare the two shots and think colour and composition.

So of course Ana goes to the child and begins her lullaby, the one they set up in the first minute. It's heartbreaking now, as we reeaallly get the point. She's almost stoic as she sings; this is a job. The maternal warmth is gone from her face. The shot is similar to the previous one compositionally, but the light is cold, her hair is up, and she's clearly just going through the motions. Here's were it gets interesting. I was watching this, and thinking, "Ok they're going to stay on this for a moment, then just have her look up, giving us the total disconnect, and we're out".

That's when they cut to this:

THIS is the shot I hadn't anticipated, but LOVE. We get everything here. We get the pay off with the beginning shots of her baby, she is physically distanced from this child, her attention - by way of depth of field - is not on this child. The shot is an insert, which suggests to me that it was conceived in the planning, and not on set spontaneously. This was something they designed into the structure of their narrative, and is something we, as board artists, can and must do too. This is the stuff that really gets me fired up about boarding. These little gems of genius.

They aren't done yet. So we get the look up as I had thought, breaking the eyeline with the baby, completing the disconnect. She's still singing while she looks up, as another idea is made clear by a POV insert...

She's thinking about her own baby, so far away from her. It also serves to mirror the opening shot, giving us a little bit of visual symmetry. It's really great work.

Then we're back on her for the last shot. We're left to ponder her and her situation. Beautifully realized and humanized. It's such a great example of economy; each shot is packed with such specific storytelling details. There's a great texture to it all, and a leanness that could easily be mistaken for brevity or simplicity.

Ending off, I would like to make clear if it isn't already, that this is an appreciation, not a pedagogical dissertation; this is not what I do day-to-day, but what I ASPIRE to, long term. However, I do have a few more of these up my sleeve, for different films. I'd love to encourage the discussion of filmmaking, so if there is a demand for it, I'll bump it up the post queue.
Also, go rent the dvd. This is one of many great shorts on it, and having such different styles and content in close proximity is such a benefit to its intrinsic artistic value, and also its inspirational and educational value.



Becky said...

Thanks for the great info! It's fun breaking scenes down and understanding what makes them so great.

What I really liked about the set-up is that you're not aware that you're being set up. (It always brings me out of a movie when there's a shot that seems out of place and is a really obvious set up for later - it seems like lazy film-making.)

Thanks again :)

Anthony Holden said...

Great observations! It really is the small details and textures that help seal the deal in storytelling.
This was an inspiring breakdown--thanks for sharing!

Lettie Lo said...

this is an awesome read! hope to see more of the similar posts in the future, thanks again!

Randeep Katari said...


This is a great post man. Not only does it clearly convey your analysis, but your passion for filmmaking as well. Incredibly inspiring, I would absolutely love for you to do a bunch more of these, time permitting. I've seen this film a bunch of times (due to my unhealthy obsession with Paris) and this one short also jumped out at me in that you really, really do feel something during it. Great analysis, and can't wait for more. I also really love the point where you say that the audience makes 4 out of 2 and 2; I personally like it when I (as the audience) am given some credit and not spoon fed.

Can't wait for the next.

Anonymous said...

I watched this on the plane when I flew West last summer. I am totaly with you on "Loin du 16o" I liked that a lot along with elements from "Quais de Seine" and "14ème Arrondissement" I was meaning to watch these shorts again, break them down and get my head around them. Thanks for the Story Post; it reminded me to do just that.
-Bill T.

Anand said...

Thanks a lot for posting this.. This short is definitely may favorite one from the series. Please do post more like this...its very helpful...!!

Stephen Heneveld said...

Great post. I think it's safe to say you definitely have the audience for more "appreciations".

I was also a fan of the "made 4 of 2 and 2" comment because it was at this point that I began to wonder how sad this was going to get.

Were we going to see her break down and treat this baby as her own after she looked out the window as a way of consoling herself? Was she going to pick up the baby and turn her back on the window because it was too difficult? Were we going to see that last shot of the cradle packed nursery?

Of course, I really enjoyed the choices that were actually made - beautifully subtle.

Looking forward to more posts.

J said...

Hey guys,
Thanks for the comments. I'll definitely do more of these in the future. I have a few planned, just need to sit down and do them....

Vince Gorman said...

I'll echo everyone's comments and say that I appreciate your analysis and I share your excitement with filmmaking and tearing it apart and really figuring out what makes it work.

Emil said...

This is awesome!
I came across your blog upon a google reader recommendation.

I, too, have been completely inspired by these precious collections of shorts. The piece by Alfonso Cuaron in the collection is another gem worth mentioning.

If you love film-making, I'd highly recommend the movie "Prestige". The story itself is a little sub-par, but the visual storytelling is amazing! I must have watched that movie a gazillion times!!

dancing platypuss said...

cool pretty interesting man!

A said...

This was really interesting and insightful!

Danny Araya said...

I know it's been two years since this post, but I really learned a lot about boarding and the power a collection of shots can have through this, thanks for the insight!

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