The Long Story in the Short Film: An Analysis

I’ve been interested in film for a long time. It’s such a dynamic and powerful medium for communicating feelings and ideas. Although I’m predominantly a writing person, I would argue that you can share stories in a vividness of detail though film that you can’t come close to touching in any other branch of art.

My favorite format is the miniseries. It’s longer than a feature film, which dims in comparison; in a miniseries, you have much more space to develop a complex storyline. On the inverse, the episodes tend to be much longer than that of a typical TV show, and the entire series has a progression that builds more like a novel with chapters than a serial with installments. It’s the perfect amount of space.

My second favorite format is the short film, in large part because of its accessibility. A short film is an approachable project; its parameters are manageable for a newer film artist.

I became interested in short film for the first time a couple years ago, at which point I binged on every short film I could find. I searched YouTube for everything I could think of and scoured the archives of Short of the Week. Short film felt like it had potential to be an amazing medium to tell concise and powerful stories, but I came up completely empty. All of the films I was watching bored me. They felt hollow and empty — they were so short that there was nothing there. The development that was required for a good, deep story didn’t exist. I gave up on the format completely, and spent the next year or so thinking about other things. I’d canned the idea.

I didn’t really become deeply interested in the format again until I encountered Tim Mattia.

Mattia directs music videos that are formatted like short stories. He’s done work for a wide range of high-profile artists – everyone from Halsey to Troye Sivan to Zella Day. I found him via his music video for Christ Stapleton (one of my favorite artists), “Fire Away.”

Go watch it now. Then come back and finish reading this. My analysis contains spoilers, and the incredible build and then implosion of this brilliant film will be ruined if you read about it first. Just do it.

I don’t know about you, but that film rocked my world.

Mattia doesn’t create your typical music video, with artist featured on location someplace vaguely interesting, dancing in front of the camera and lip syncing the lyrics. Mattia shoots short films in their highest, most evolved form. They’re narratives that weave in and out of the song, building off of them but evolving into a story that is entirely different, and typically unexpected. Sometimes they feature the artists as actors in the stories. Sometimes they don’t.

The story Mattia deals with in Fire Away is deep enough and long enough and complex enough to create a feature-length film out of. He tells it in four minutes and twenty-three seconds. He tells it good.

Fire Away made me cry. It is the first — and the only — short film that has ever done that. I watched it about ten times in a row that first time, without getting up — just kept hitting ‘replay.’ Every time it made me cry again.

Once my initial amazement wore off, I went and I did some research — down the rabbit hole, on the trail of something I found insanely fascinating. I found other videos Mattia had produced, like the music video for Halsey’s song Colors. I found other filmmakers working for the same company as Mattia, using similar storytelling techniques — like this music video for Alesso.

I also delved into a deep study of the filmmaking style Mattia is using. I’d encountered something similar to it before, in the short films created by Free People, but nothing of the same scale. The FP films also developed quickly and followed a larger arcing narrative, but they didn’t do it with nearly the depth or the strength that Mattia was pulling off.

The most important points Mattia uses in his technique are the following:

  • Lack of dialogue. This is partially due to the fact that this is, at least in name, a music video, but it’s also a part of the greater technique. There isn’t time wasted following actual conversations. If there are any spoken words at all, they’re brief, and they usually go without response. Space is precious, and minimalism is an ultimate necessity. All communication is visual and physical — body language, eye contact, expressions, etc.
  • Excessively short film clips. The average clip is 2-4 seconds long. With images moving this quickly, there’s a huge amount of space to build ideas, because there’s room for so many shots.
  • Recurring themes – scenes coming up again and again. Sometimes a longer shot is broken up into small pieces and inserted throughout the narrative. For example, the image of the female lead in Fire Away walking barefoot through the corn stubble. This image comes up again and again. It appears to have been cut into pieces, and inserted sequentially throughout the story until you get to the point about two-thirds of the way through the video where it actually fits into the narrative, at which point you finally reach the concluding clip. This tactic comes up again in Mattia’s other work, and it builds a sense of immediacy between audience and story. Unlike a longer narrative film, where the initial scenes are separated in time from the concluding ones, everything’s happening in close proximity, which adds to the sense of interconnectedness in events — you’re immersed in the moment, and you also have omniscient knowledge of how events are tying together.
  • Understanding which images are the right ones. Strong images worth their weight in gold. The way the girl danced with her husband early on in the story. The implications in the glances they exchange at various points throughout the development of their relationship. The expressions on his face as he’s trying to deal with his own emotions. It only takes a couple seconds of footage to recognize (and be impacted by) the fear or the despair on someone’s face. It’s just a matter of choosing the right clip.

By using these tactics, Mattia is able to tell the entirety of a complex story — at least through implication — in under four minutes, and have it hit home just as hard as a story that had developed for an hour and a half would have.

Mattia opens the film with scenes from the climax — the first shot is the iconic progression of the female lead walking barefoot through the corn stubble, one of the backbones of the film. The second shot is of her wrist on the bathroom floor. The third shot is of the male lead walking into the bar (which in a linear progression would come directly after the climax). Filmmakers call this payoff and return. As the audience, you’re set up to make sense of the story as the pieces slowly fall into place.

Think of the climax as the foundation point on which the entire story is pivoting — it’s the focal point everything else centers around. The film starts with that point, then builds the rest around it. It follows a mostly linear progression, but it isn’t strict. Pieces get thrown in as they’re going to make sense to the audience. They also get thrown in as they’ll be most beneficial to the aesthetic balance.

The film also builds off of the song. It moves in and out as the music builds and progresses. The changing of video clips loosely follows the beat.

Notice the role Stapleton plays in the whole film — he’s the bartender. He appears in a brief clip twice in the film, once in the beginning and once at the end. If we look at the film as only a music video, his role is extremely metaphoric — the bartender, pouring whiskey, offering some recompense for sorrow — symbolizing what he does by trade in real life. As a work of short fiction, he blends right into the background of the larger narrative.

Why I Do CrossFit

Why do you do CrossFit?” I get asked this question a lot. Sometimes when I tell people about my fitness habit they want to know if it’s as intense as it’s made out to be. Some people roll their eyes and say, “Oh. You’re one of them.” Almost everybody follows up by asking me why.

Why I Do CrossFit: The Short Answer

1. I want to be strong. Scratch that — I want to be strong as hell. I want the mind of a warrior and the body of an athlete. I want to be able to lift weights, run for miles, do pullups with a weighted vest on. I want to be a toned and agile beast.

2. I want to be capable. The CrossFit mentality is beautiful; it teaches you to say, yeah, I can do that. You don’t fall before a challenge. You rise up to meet it. The CrossFit WODs get you into physical shape to take the world on.

3. I want the clarity intense workouts bring me. A serious workout — when I go all-in — clears my head and gets me focused. When I don’t work out, I feel scattered, stagnant, restless, but when I start working out — especially intensely — my blood starts flowing, my breath goes all the way down to the bottom of my lungs, everything gets cleared out, and I recenter. For the duration of the workout, my focus is narrow and all-consuming, and when I come back out of it I’m ready to take on the world again. It brings me back to my core, and it makes me feel amazing.

4. I want the intense CrossFit culture of self-betterment and competition to translate over to the rest of my life. The way you do one thing in your life becomes the way you do everything. CrossFit WODs are all-in — the clock’s set for fifteen (or ten, or twenty) minutes, the buzzer goes off, and you give it everything you’ve got, sweat dripping onto the floor, until the buzzer goes off again. You give the fight your entire soul. This is the paradigm I want to see bleed over into the rest of my life. I go to the gym and I work out as intensely as I can, and that sets the stage and the focus for everything else I do.

Why I Do CrossFit: The Long Answer

The first time I walked into a CrossFit gym, I was terrified. I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but I can tell you now: I was scared I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I was scared of pushing my body past the limits I’d always stopped at before. I was scared of the pain.

My coach that day was wonderful. She recognized — and clearly acknowledged — that everybody has to fail before they can get good at something. Nobody’s expecting anyone to come in and blow up the gym rankings on their first shot. On the small scale, that first day in the gym, I became comfortable fast. On the larger scale, though, I was scared of CrossFit for months. It’s hard to push your body past its former limits. You’re constantly treading in new waters, and even though you understand in theory what you’re doing, there’s a visceral part of your mind that’s never sure how much more you can take. I don’t like things that make me feel like I’m going to crack.

I remember my first WOD (CrossFit lingo for workout) vividly — kettlebell swings and situps, on a 2-4-6-8 rep scheme (2 reps of kettlebell swings, 2 situps, 4 reps of kettlebell swings, 4 situps, etc.). Kettlebell swings are a killer on the muscles on the insides of your thighs — although I didn’t realize that ’til later.

I survived the whole workout. The buzzer went off, calling it quits, and I felt a quick moment of triumph — the rising, fleeting moment in which I first fell in love with CrossFit. I’d done it. And then my legs cramped up, and started shaking, and I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to stay standing. I couldn’t walk right for three days after. I’d never felt anything like it — I hadn’t known I was capable of hurting that much. The fact that it caused this much pain was reason enough for me to do CrossFit — if it made me hurt that badly, I clearly had work to do.

In the weeks and months that followed, the pain that had scared me became something I fell in love with, almost as deeply as I’d fallen in love with CrossFit itself. I came to love the physical punishment.

I go to the gym and I beat my body to the ground, and then I stand back and feel the pain and watch it rise up again, a little higher than before, a little more muscle mass, a little stronger, the numbers on my weightlifting charts going a little bit higher.

The resilience of the human body — the potential for strength — is absolutely amazing. The practice of CrossFit is an ode to that potential.

It feels good to experience pain when you walk. To feel the ache in muscles that you didn’t know you had when you stretch out your arms, sit up, bend over. One week it’s one group of muscles that kills you. As soon as those start to heal up, you go and work something else. Every time you think you’re getting stronger some new workout scheme comes out of the dark to blindside you and wreck you again. Nothing hurts like those first two weeks, though. You wear the memory of those like a badge of honor. When somebody new walks in the gym with their head held high and then gasps on their hands and knees after their first taste of a WOD, sometimes you slip up and say, hey, the first two weeks are the worst. You get through those and you’ll be able to conquer anything.

When the muscles of your thighs are shaking after a workout so you can’t walk right, and your throat is burning and your chest is heaving but you still can’t get enough air, and your skin is dripping with sweat so that it glistens . . . you relish in the pain, because the work feels good, and because you know you’re getting stronger.

The hurting forces you to feel muscles you wouldn’t normally pay attention to. It reminds you every time you move of the hard work you’ve done (and conquered), and of the potential your body has, with continued work, to get stronger. You worked like hell for that pain, and you wear it underneath your skin like a badge.

I love CrossFit’s warrior mentality. The flags hanging up in the rafters vary from gym to gym — marines, MIA/POW, Don’t Tread On Me, the American flag (or the flag of the gym’s home country — because there are gyms all over the world). The Hero WODs, named after soldiers who were killed in action — whatever you believe about war and the military, it forces you to be stronger, to think about people who’ve done things you’re scared to do, who were braver than you are. To think about the limits they were able to transcend, and their physical prowess. Being a warrior requires extreme physical and mental fitness, and CrossFitters come together in recognition, admiration, and celebration of that.

This is the culture I want to emulate.

Does CrossFit make me a better person? Hell yeah. Does CrossFit make me stronger? Like hell it does — stronger than any other fitness program I’ve ever tried. This stuff works. The results — aesthetic and practical — are tangible.

Thinking about trying CrossFit? Go do it. Don’t let it scare you off. You can make it whatever you want it to be — competitive or non-competitive, and you can scale it to your level. It’ll be one of the best lifestyle decisions you’ve ever made.