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Alejandro González Iñárritu Goes VHS with His Experimental Short 'Naran Ja'

10.27.12 @ 3:17AM Tags : , , ,

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Academy Award nominated director of Biutiful, Babel, and 21 Grams, is well-known for his gritty and realistic style. In his new short film Naran Ja (One Act Orange Dance), he takes that style to a completely different level. Iñárritu was invited to a rehearsal of the L.A. Dance Project’s Moving Parts, and he decided to document an excerpt of the dance in an experimental way on VHS. Most of us might be shooting on pristine digital formats now, but there’s something about VHS that is unlike any other format out there. This piece isn’t for everyone, and when I say experimental, I mean experimental — so with that in mind, click through to check out the video.

Produced with the help of The Creators Project, here’s a bit of what Iñárritu said about the project:

Benjamin’s choreography is both sensual and melancholic. The features of the dancers are unique and noble, as are their bodies. When I saw a rehearsal, I felt a sense of urgency, sex, and violent introspection. A long time ago I had this idea of somebody finding herself in an eternal loop, going down a hill. A kind of physiological limbo…Dance is a difficult subject to shoot. A lot is lost with just two dimensions. In dance everything is about rhythm, and rhythm is about flow. Flowing visually in one continuous shot was my objective and the only way I could have conceived this exercise. It has to do with the point of view and the mind of the protagonist. Here, it is the audio that tells us a parallel story. Shooting it was really enjoyable and extremely liberating.

Iñárritu went on to explain why he chose to use a VHS camera instead of shooting on a newer digital camera:

VHS texture is for digital what grain used to be for film…Digital and most film stock is so sleek now, that everything looks very plastic and unnatural. We have lost the skin of the images. Cameras reproduce reality much more sharply than my eyes can see and that’s why it looks fake…I thought this $39 VHS camera reproduced and exquisite, moshy-moshy, beautiful, horrific greeny-yellowish skin that triggered my emotional memory of TV series from the 70s. I loved it.

As for the technical execution of the video, some of the glitches were performed in post, with the film going through both Smoke and Flame, and the rest was done in-camera. The entire film was digitized on set, to help preserve the image, and the rest of the effects were handled by the LA branch of The Mill, who has been featured a number of times on this site already.

Many will find this boring, ridiculous, or pointless. That’s the beauty of the creative arts — that someone, somewhere will be able to see exactly what you wanted them to see — even if many don’t. In the age of the internet, it’s easy to not make it all the way through such videos, and I have certainly been guilty of it. Even if you don’t care for it, I believe the approach and the philosophy behind the piece is just as interesting. Anything that can liberate you creatively can be a good thing, and sometimes it can be as simple as going out on a limb and letting yourself be inspired by something you’ve never shot before.

For those of you who liked the video, what did you think about it? Did you feel like Iñárritu succeeded in conveying his ideas? For anyone who doesn’t normally enjoy  experimental works, if you liked this one, what made it different from others you’ve seen?



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Soosan Khanoom on 10.27.12 @ 4:59AM


  • very interesting, ideed! so much effort is wasted today to reproduce grittiness while going for “the real thing” can be so much better!

  • shaun wilson on 10.27.12 @ 6:55AM

    Its not an experimental short nor is it experimental at all, its performance video art – big difference.

  • Hated it; couldn’t bear to watch it all the way through. But at the same time found it inspiring.

    If you’ve done any sort of formal study of film-making, I think it’s far too easy to become strait-jacketed, in terms of methods and in terms of your images.

    I think the same thing goes for the blogosphere — spend enough time pixel peeping, comparing cameras and lenses on the basis of sharpness and colours and contrast, and gradually your image-making world constricts on itself.

    • I’m with you. Agree 100%.

    • I agree….I come to no film school and a dozen other sites (which are great by the way and I’m not knocking) but I get so caught up in specs, price, ect……sometimes it’s nice to see something completely different, out of the box…Something that knocks us back into reality a little bit. I’m not the artsy fartsy type…but I totally appreciated this.

    • I respectfully disagree…
      the artist’s vision is complete and sound.
      question is, does it include temporal artifacts due to streaming on the net?

  • Oh god the vhs tape days. I still have nightmares… Mommyyy?

  • beautiful images of yesteryear …….. great idea

  • I thought that was completely horrible. VHS sucks. There’s nothing special about it.

  • You know you’ve cast the right talent when out of nowhere they start dancing with such lyrical beauty. But seriously, in an industry that at times seems obsessed which technical choices often at the expense of content, this short is refreshing. Understanding that VHS gave the short a lo-fi, dreamlike look, I thought the vignetting other issues actually detracted from the images at times.

    But I’ve always liked this his films, and thought 21 Grams was superb and Babel, with it’s three interconnected stories, was brilliant. The just released Cloud Atlas sounds interesting for the same reasons I liked Babel.

  • Another quick thought… Don’t know whether Joe is going to delete this comment… I often find that, partly because of the video quality, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s adult films are real and gritty, and therefore effective, in a way that modern productions aren’t.

    Same goes, of course, for camera choice in found footage, Blair Witch movies, or nostalgic home-movie moments in other films.

    • I think if you’d posted some I might have to delete it…

    • Chad Hustlington on 10.27.12 @ 10:10PM

      You’re totally right. The texture and the imperfect nature of their construction hint at a ‘reality’ behind the image – something ‘authentic’. That’s why a lot of airbrushing, immaculately-lit erotic films don’t connect – they feel artificial.

  • I didn’t think it was horrible but it was pretty boring and weird. And I do like interpretive dance. Ive paid lots of money to see some great stuff live. But this was just hard to sit through. I watched about 3 minutes. I’ll go back and watch it all the way through just because I respect Inarritu immensely but yeah, not likey.

  • Chad Hustlington on 10.27.12 @ 10:01PM

    I really enjoyed it. Really absorbing. The flow of the dance was fantastic, and shooting with no obvious edits really complemented the fluidity of the piece. Personally, the sound design was my favorite part though.

    Some of Harmony Korine’s best work has been his recent stuff shot on VHS (Trash Humpers, his video for Gold on the Ceiling’ by the Black Keys). I really dig how shooting VHS has this surreal, distancing feel, but also makes you feel right there, like shooting on a handycam does.

    @ Paper-bag – I reckon you’re right about being restricted by rules, at least when you’re new. I think you learn in time that rules are just arbitrary and great work can come from breaking them. That’s why I like this – they give such a refreshing perspective on what can be done with a camera :)

    Great post Joe!

  • If anyone is interested in experimental technique check out the work of Brit director Derek Jarman.
    Jarman struggled to find funding in the very early years of his uniquely radical career.
    He used to shoot on Super 8, screen it on a projector then shoot the projection on a video camera – on a format we brits called Hi band U matic. He would then edit on a primitive linear editing system, which involved going down a generation if you wanted to extend or shorten a shot.
    Nonetheless he made a unique contribution to cinema with his early experimentalism.

  • Don’t let the camera get-in-your-way, when creating art. A camera is just a tool, and in this case VHS was a good tool. The feature film “Never Die Alone” (2004) was shot in Super16, then blown-up to 2.35:1 for release, and has a gritty you-are-there look that you’d never get with Anamorphic 35mm (the 4K of it’s day).

    If you have a compelling story the audience will not walk-out just because you shot it in shot 720p. The audience doesn’t care about “pristine” they just want to be entertained. The wildly popular “American Graffiti” (1973) and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) were both shot in Lo-Fi 2 perf-pull-down Techniscope (the 720p of it’s day).

  • I love it…especially in today’s pixel counting age. Let’s not forget there is an art form involved here, and any tool can be used to express it.

    As for Inarritu, I love his work in general…Amores Perros is one of my top 3 movies of all time, an excellent blending of excellent/moving storytelling and dynamic visuals …Great to see him branching out a bit here.

  • Iñarritu’s genius is not on the use of a VHS camera but on opening a back door for us to see creativity. By using this medium as a decoy, I can see who’s a creative individual in this blog and who is full of sh$t! Resolution is nothing without a vision. Chan-wook Park’s “Night Fishing” proved the same point with the iphone.

  • Joe, you missed “Amores Perros”, Iñarritu’s best film.

    • I didn’t miss it, it’s just a lot less known, so half the time I don’t mention it. Iñárritu is actually one of my favorite directors.

      • It is one of mine too. I just wanted to mention it, because even it is less know I think it is one of his best films. But great article as always!

    • One of my favorite films EVER.

  • This reminds me the 1940 experimental short “Meshes of the Afternoon” directed by Maya Deren


  • Harry Kemball on 11.1.12 @ 11:47PM

    More LSD anyone?
    VHS reminds us how far we have come VHS crap.

  • I agree with shaun wilson, this is not experimental as such but a dance video or performance video art. But moreover I just want to say its great, I think to capture dance on film is very hard and this has done it very well indeed; anyone who can’t get into this (unless they simply don’t like dance I suppose…?) may just be stuck into those formulaic yet addictive thought processes which are the killer of creative humanity.

  • Funny, Iñárritu can use VHS on a experimental movie…..a stranger would be considered an idiot.

    • I don’t think so JDias, or maybe only in US mainstream cinema business. That kind of way to shoot is actaully quite common in art video, and video artists are not really famous.

  • As much as I like Innaritu’s films, (though I fail to see how you can discount the screenwriter of Amores Perros and Babel in giving credit), the only way to know if this “experiment” was effective because of the VHS format would be to have an alternate version done via HD and compare. I don’t know if the format is actually the key to this film. It would have been just as effective shot HD. Perhaps more. We’ll never know.

  • I like it! The VHS image is very interesting. Today there is a technological race on picture quality, but bad quality is actually very beautiful, organic, less flat. Instead of always trying to have the best camera we can afford( oh I want that black magic cam!!) we should think about the content first, and then about the best medium to express it, which is not always the more adcanced “technologically” speaking.

  • interesting, not keen on the content, but the concept was great.

  • OK – I have dusted off my JVC GY-X3 now to find some dancers :-) I did find the content a little laborious but I also found that it renewed my old feelings for the VHS format. I loved the images that I got with the camera and my first Festival entry was shot on S-VHS but then I got caught up in the HD tech and the resolution wars. Going to have to rethink some stuff here. Thank you Joe and Mr. Inarritu.

  • Well, i understand there is no media concerning show out an idea, It’s exactly what we ( lot of us you guys) used to do back in the early 90′s with our first camera. But when Gonzalez Iñarritu is the person doing this is considered genius, and doing this for the rest of us is nonsense. Mmmmm

  • Saikat Surai on 11.5.12 @ 10:49PM

    The work tells exactly what it is meant to be. Its not about the dance, the subjective melancholy or nostalgia of the first camera we have. It is also about the question towards our speed towards getting better each day and wiping out yesterday. ‘The skin of the video’ has so many connotations. Thank you Joe and Mr. Inarrutu.

  • He’s one of my favorite filmmkers and I’m glad he enjoyed making it – because certainly didn’t enjoy watching it. That aside, I was VERY inspired by the feeling of freedom (to the filmmaker) it demonstrates and it has me keen to rush out and flex artistic muscles this weekend and film some pedestrians walking, or a baby eating some dirt or … something