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.

One Reply to “The Long Story in the Short Film: An Analysis”

  1. Informative post, this is. It is always nice to come across a post that is useful.

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