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Playing With Audience Expectation in Comedy Short 'THIS IS HOW YOU DIE.'

08.19.13 @ 3:49PM Tags : , , , , ,

this is how you dieWhat if there existed a machine which with a single drop of blood could predict how you were going to die? No dates or wider explanations, just a statement which was demonstrably always correct. Would you succumb to temptation and let it tell your fate? In his short THIS IS HOW YOU DIE., Michael Mohan sets out the swan songs for his soon to be departed characters, whilst playing fast and loose with the interpretations to great comedic effect. Find out what death has in store after the jump.

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Inspired by the anthology book This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable MACHINE OF DEATH, Mohan mentions in his Behind the Scenes guest post on Machine of Death that he decided against attempting a direct translation of the book to film, but rather chose to have fun with the concept of a fate machine and from there build up a multi-layered joke which played on both character and audience expectations. That structure led him to work with a clear, unfussy shooting style:


When figuring out the visual plan for This Is How You Die, I knew that each of these pieces had to function almost like a joke, where the reveal of the death worked in the same way a punchline does (or in the case of “Bear,” an anti-punchline). The setup to each joke had to be simple and clean.

So rather than doing any complex camera work, or making my directorial presence known, I knew the punchline would play best if I didn’t do anything to distract from the comedy. You know, if you think about the best comedy films, they’re always shot as simply as possible.

In a Vimeo comment, Mohan further explains how the final “Bear” segment went through some pruning to remain in spiritual alignment with his source material:

We actually considered having two scenes in the last one, one where we see the main character packing up his car for the camping trip, and being scared by a hairy neighbor in leather pants who is out just watering his garden. “Hey neighbor!” “Hey… Frank.” And then a second scene after he’s returned home from camping a changed man, he goes to apologize to his “bear” neighbor for always acting so weird around him.

Ultimately, we felt like it would go just a bit too far outside the box of the book this is based on. Not that this is a direct adaptation whatsoever, but tonally – it’s a great idea, but just didn’t quite fit.

Shooting on the Red Scarlett across several LA locations, the production mixed blue screen, suspended props and actors and a practical hydraulic blood cannon to realise the short’s various effects shots. The grain laced aesthetic of the final image was achieved in post not with digital plugins, but by overlaying a 4K scan of old film print.

Watching THIS IS HOW YOU DIE., once the first death played out to its splattery end and I realised all bets were off as to the interpretations of the predictions my mind felt compelled to ‘lean forward’ deeper into the film, trying to out-guess the possible scenarios.

How did the film work for you? Were your expectations pleasantly challenged?

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  • Great short, nicely executed, entertaining…
    But the grain and film artifacts are distracting. What was the point? How do they serve the story?

    Odd that RED owners will rave about how great to shoot in 4k and then lessen image in post with cheap tricks. I don’t get it, why spend all that money on such a camera?

    And why even shoot in 4k this will only ever be net film? Why create a data headache?

  • Is there anywhere to obtain a 4K scan of a film print like that?

  • I’m going to risk being pilloried and allow I found the comedy mechanism quite derivative – a large percentage of the comedy in the Monty Python TV series and films relies exclusively on this device. A great deal of the humor in the BBC Radio programme (let’s keep it British!) The Goon Show does the same thing, using only audio. And it was recorded in the 1950s/60s. Once the first vignette showed me what the ground rules were, I was able to predict, exactly, the others. I allow that I find the concept of a vending machine that predicts the mechanism of the user’s specific death to be quite funny, and I love the way the innards of the machine were depicted visually. The sound effects added measurably to the fun, too.

    Smithy, it almost sounds as though you watched the film deliberately looking for technical artifacts. IF, indeed, this is the case, you weren’t watching the film itself, you were looking at a demo reel of how the camera performed. Or failed to perform. Your point is well-taken though: there are a lot of (let’s say one brand) RED owners who seem to think that the fact some shot was done with a particular camera imbues it with some kind of holiness, and that camera shooting the shot de facto defines the shot as somehow “wonderful.” The sad truth of the matter is that utter visual rubbish can be shot with any camera, whether film or digitally-based. One possibility is a given director doesn’t care about technical details, which, to me, telegraphs that they didn’t think enough of their project to stir in technical craftsmanship. And if a given director thinks that, it baffles me why they might think I would consider spending valuable seconds of my life watching it. NOT referencing the film shown here, but rather, painting with a very broad, general brush. Bottom line is that often (not always, but often) perceived technical shortcomings and artifacts are distracting because a given viewer allows (or wants?) them to be distracting. I’ve seen folk who carp on technical minutae simply to have SOMEthing to gripe about.

    Adam, you would probably get an answer more meaningful to you if your post indicated where you were. If you happen to be in Western Canada, you can find this kind of service at Acme Filmworks, based in Calgary, Alberta. As my knowledge of other suppliers is limited, I won’t run the risk of steering anyone in the wrong direction with uninformed information. But I can offer the gentle caveat that 4k scans of anything, in either direction, are likely to be one thing: expensive.

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