June 24, 2012

Using Sound and Editing to Create a Mood in 'The Gate,' Short Films Can Still Be a Calling Card

I've shared quite a bit of camera information lately, so I thought it was time to come back with another short film. All too often science fiction films rely on certain crutches to tell a story, forgetting that storytelling relies on all of the other aspects of filmmaking technique to succeed. The chilling and gruesome mutations are the main attraction, but the rest of the technique is what keeps The Gate, from Matt Westrup, chilling and powerful through its entirety. There's another reason I'm sharing this short, and that's because it's being turned into a feature film. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the terrible dreams that are sure to come from watching this 8 minute short film:

It's been a little while since I've shared a short (though I guess the M83 music videos could count), but I thought this one in particular was a great lesson in using all of the techniques we have at our disposal as filmmakers. In terms of screenwriting, this is a great example of using a framing device -- the debriefing scene -- and then filling in the rest of the information with the flashbacks of the events they are discussing. The sound design is distinct and specific, especially the sound of the "monsters" -- which of course must be created since they don't exist in real life. If you watch again, you'll notice that specific sounds, like the cup hitting the water cooler, are much louder than they might normally be -- putting us on edge and setting us up for the monster to come across the screen a moment later.

The movie could very easily have trailed off and become boring but by cutting back to the monster every so often, it keeps us on edge. Short films are tough to execute -- even tougher when they rely on special effects and computer animation. The most important thing to remember, however, is that a good film is a combination of all aspects of filmmaking technique, not just one.

Mike Jones and others have said that the short film is dead (just as I'd finished spending a lot of money on my own short film thesis), and it's only usefulness is as a learning experience, not as a calling card. His argument is that a short film does not necessarily show off your ability to sustain an audience through an entire feature (if feature films are your goal), and the format very often relies on a punchline which does not exist in a longer form. His idea (which I agree with to a large degree) is that a narrative web series is a more valuable calling card because it relies on story arcs and character development as opposed to punchlines (of course there are plenty of web series' that also rely on punchlines - but those are usually of the comedies).

There is still one type of short film that without a doubt is still a calling card: the effects-heavy science fiction short. Archetype, a film from Aaron Sims, is going to become a feature film with Sims directing:

Another effects heavy short film, Ataque de Pánico!, from Fede Álvarez, was so well received (partially because of its miniscule $300 budget) that Fede is directing the Evil Dead remake. Here is that short film below:

Neill Blompkamp got the attention of Hollywood with his short film Alive in Joburg, and was eventually able to direct the feature District 9 based on the same idea:

The short film may not be as relevant as it used to be, but if you want it to be a calling card, you've got a far better chance with an effects-heavy science fiction film. That's not to say that you shouldn't continue making short films -- they help you become a better filmmaker -- but with the explosion of the internet they are less likely to catch attention and be used as a calling card.

[via Film School Rejects]

Your Comment


Sound and editing can affect the mood of a film?

Learn something new every day.

June 24, 2012 at 10:10PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


that's now what is put forth

June 24, 2012 at 10:41PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


for better or worse, CGI spectacle is a huge driver of box office. That's why a rubbish film like Skyline is valid as a multiplex product.

June 24, 2012 at 10:38PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


"story" as objective of cinema is a very 20th century idea. It is more accurate to describe the main objective of a movie to be feelings (expressed through sound, editing, picture, etc), ideas, and perhaps a general thesis on something. narrative died along with modernism.

June 24, 2012 at 10:45PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

john jeffreys

I don't know if we are quite post-narrative yet. The feeling that you give the viewer should certainly be at the top of your list, but as of right now most people are still looking for narratives in the traditional sense - beginning, middle, and end - at least for features. Though I'm interested to hear more of your thoughts on that and any examples you might have.

June 25, 2012 at 12:42AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

Joe Marine
Camera Department

Western culture has pretty much told every possible story and introduced and explored every possible type of fable/lesson/moral, etc. So when we ran out of shit to tell, we started recycling the old and making new things out of things we already made. Warhol's pop art and shows on adult swim are some examples. You can easily notice this type of paradigm shift in visual culture with anything, for example, how the "vintage" look is being used extensively in fashion, music videos, graphic design, or how the 80's look and "feel" is transferred in a lot of new album covers for artists. We are now at the point where we have a huge box of shit we made, of cultures and identities from the 20th century, and in the 21st century we use all of those cultural things and put them together and fuse them to make new things, new identities, feelings, cultures, films, photos, music, etc.

That being said, in the 20th century we spent about 90 years in moviemaking working on and defining genres, tropes, and visual themes and beat them to death. Now, we use their corpses to make new films, films that are post-narrative, post-20th century, that are made from 20th century things but are there own species. The WHOLE of a post-narrative film is greater than the sum of its PARTS (aspects of our past cultures)

In terms of cinema, Korine's Gummo is probably the best exmaple of post-narrative cinema. There isint a "main character" or any "beats" or objectives, in the traditional Hollywood sense. Instead, it relies on little arcs of characters in the same "universe," or the town in Ohio in which the film takes place in. Instead of focusing on some kind of main conflict or story it focuses on a main THEME, that is, american white trash in a tornado stricken town. Dialogue doesn't really mean anything anymore; instead of it traditionally being one of the chief catalysts of story development, now all it does is accentuate the characters more. What took its place, then is the use of sound, composition, and image.

I'm sorry if i am sounding vague or whatever but this is a loaded ass topic and im doing my best

June 25, 2012 at 12:53PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

john jeffreys

Somehow I missed this comment. Gummo is a good example, but that stuff is still well outside the mainstream. I think narrative in its current form still has a long way to go, but you're right in saying that there will be more and more independent films that eschew standard narrative and instead focus on themes, emotions, and how the images are composed together.

My favorite film actually that was unlike anything that has come before or after it is The Tracey Fragments. While it didn't completely avoid traditional narrative in structure, it's just a whole different ball game in terms of filmmaking form. I actually think playing with those conventions in the near future will be interesting - not necessarily in a completely experimental form, but seeing what can be done when you turn traditional narrative storytelling on its head in a new way.

June 29, 2012 at 2:23AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

Joe Marine
Camera Department

In my opinion, the essence of any good art- film, painting, writing, music, etc. is where different pieces are unified to express a meaning which requires all of the parts but is greater than all of the parts.

"Story", is just shorthand metaphor for that meaning. Sure there are traditionally successful genres and structures- but let's not confuse recombining and shifting those structures with avoiding the story itself.

Side point- I happen to think that for a 2-hour movie, the traditional structures are time-tested to work well and will tend to be more effective- but that's really a different point. Kindof like why it's easier for me to listen to 2 hours of jazz than heavy metal, though I might prefer 5 minutes of heavy metal to get psyched about something.

Anyway... I don't think any great writier/director would think that "protagnist on a journey who encounters obstacles" with a beginning middle and end is the only way of conveying ideas through film. In fact, I'd say the great movies are great because the directors found ways of making every aspect of the movie more meaningful, poetic color themes in wardrobe and lighting, recurring background elements, genuine facial expressions that say a thousand words, etc. They are well aware of how to use different techniques to convey meaning. Sure it would be interesting to see more experimentation with this in long-form content or as the main thrust. But I would not call that lack of a story- I would call it a strangely told story compared to most commercial content.

January 17, 2013 at 3:25AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

David Komer

I recently went to a screening at the Melbourne International Animation Festival and the majority of the shorts were abstract; trying to make you feel something, opposed to just telling a story. And you know what? I was bored out of my mind. When one of the few shorts with a story did play, it was like a breath of fresh air, a real relief. I was like 'yes! please, more of that!'

I hope to god that narrative does not die anytime soon.

June 25, 2012 at 12:50AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


I agree with you, too much abstract or pointless short film at festivals or online, I'd love to see more narrative short films, an interesting way of telling is the secret and this doesn't mean it can be personal, a personal way of telling a plot and characters. I'd love to see more short film with less punchline or just that can last more than a few minutes to let me in into the story... let a short story grow like you'll be doing for a feature film, so in that way I think it's the best and that's what I'm working in my projects.

Concerning about the short film I liked it it's very well done, Acting and Visual effects... but I feel the lack of more, I'd love to see more of the story going on... so if we call this like a Calling Card works perfectly, then you need a very good script for producers. Something like this can't be done just for the purpose and joy of making a short film. From my point of view I think a short film should be done just because you have the urge of telling that story, then it can be used eventually as a calling card... or also doing a short film similar in the mood of a feature I've wrote... so my short will not be just a sample but a proper story... as a way for visualizing I prefer visualize and edit Animatic of part of my script and a trailer... by the way, great job!

June 25, 2012 at 5:03AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


I do not agree, but certainly there is a tendency towards the old "cinema of attraction" days with all the effects & 3D hassle.
There has always been a more experimental approach to film/video, with less or no focus on narrative structures, but what happens to most people in front of their first few experimental films is a strong statement against your comment. They are mostly very frustrated, confused and looking hard for some kind of narrative.
People still thrive on strong story and emotions.

June 25, 2012 at 4:51AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Precisely, and will always... until we cease being human.

June 25, 2012 at 9:09PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Nah, its until we get over our egos.

June 25, 2012 at 11:00PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

john jeffreys

That sounds like a bunch of professorial BS from an undergraduate film seminar.

How many non-narrative driven films of the past 10 years can anyone even name, let alone consider as memorable?

June 25, 2012 at 8:31AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


To expand on what others have written... Surely any blockbuster where the story serves the set pieces (instead of the other way round) could be considered abstract? Admittedly not in the artistic sense of the word, merely by failing to provide a connect-the-dots narrative that withstands casual analysis.

June 25, 2012 at 10:57AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Fede Álvarez is from my country, Uruguay. I think it's awesome he is directing a film after his shortfilm went viral.

June 24, 2012 at 10:55PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


I think that is awesome, I think cinema will always benefit from an infusion of different ideas from visionary writers/directors across the globe who have different perspectives of how to tell a story because of how they've lived in their own countries.

Neill Blomkamp did excellently with District 9, it was so different and also the first South African film I've seen. I think that different views of the world from different parts of the world can enrich cinema, like how films like Hardboiled or Infernal Affairs gave a different life to the action genre.

June 25, 2012 at 6:22PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

AD Stephens

I think there must certainly be more than meets the eye behind the story of Sims getting the opportunity to direct a feature version of this short 'Panic Attack'. I don't claim to have this information, however, I'm merely speculating that he may have the good fortune of a valuable connection somewhere. It would be hard to fathom that anyone just happened upon this After-Effects-laden piece on YouTube and said let's make a deal...

June 25, 2012 at 2:04AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


I think it's common for people to assume that Fede (Panic Attack) only got the feature gig because of an existing connection / moment of Hollywood madness, but that was far from the first thing he'd made and, in my opinion, he played the 'my short's just blown up' card perfectly by leveraging that attention into face to face meetings.

In his own words: http://www.directorsnotes.com/2010/01/28/dn-ep-154-panic-attack-fede-alv...

June 25, 2012 at 10:13AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Awesome podcast, very informative

June 25, 2012 at 2:13PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Excuse my previous comment, I confused the two films 'Panic Attack' and 'Archetype'. I see the light now!

June 25, 2012 at 2:18AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Archetype is very impressive piece of visual realisation and well acted. Certainly succeeded in making me want to see more...

However Alive in Joburg really demonstrates the power of a story idea/concept that when combined with the subversion of a genre can really transcend the usual cliches. Such a brilliant piece of work. Makes me excited to get out there and create. District 9 is definitely one of my all time fav films.

On the subject matter, excellent discussion point Joe, I've had these discussions a few times, as a means of developing technical skills and understanding, short films obviously make a lot of sense and as long as it is possible to make a good one, they will continue to be calling cards. However I'm very much of the view that story telling in long form is a different skill and in my opinion the most valuable one you can develop.

I also believe that some of the other more critical aspects of film making that are quite rarely discussed, such as building and maintaining relationships, leadership, determination and resourcefulness are best learnt/experienced in longer form projects.

Anyhow, great blog (hadn't seen archetype or panic attack before) Thanks very much.



June 25, 2012 at 12:21PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

Lliam Worthington

It seems that after Neill Blompkamp's "Alive in Joburg" everybody has to make similar alien invasion effects-laden shorts with hope that they will get the attention of Hollywood too :) But it seems to be working :)

June 25, 2012 at 12:57PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


The Gate and Flashing Your Tits

The Gate deserves a strong applause for its effort and execution but it was not very compelling to me. The editing and quick cuts to the ugly beast people things was like a girl flashing her tits during a parade. Its a cheap way to get people to notice you and gain attention. But instead of playing on our lust and sex drive, its playing on our fear and thrill drive.

The worse part was the ending and the horrible bit of propaganda that could have made a big pharma phat cat blush. Buying pharmaceuticals and supplements from non-official sources via the internet = UGLY BEAST PERSON. That was subtle wasn't it. No, that was crap.


June 25, 2012 at 9:50PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


I've only produced/directed/wrote/acted/edited, etc. (yes I'm everything!) my web TV series, Day Zero (http://www.dayzerotv.com), but over 10 episodes in season 1 at 20 minutes give or take a few each, it's like I already made a 3 1/2 hour movie! So that's my calling card, since each episode is like a short film. I've already won 2 awards for the pilot, so I view the short film as something totally different and small... even if I probably should create one as a 2nd project, but it's still kinda small.

June 28, 2012 at 11:09PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


Small? What does that even mean? I feel like what you posted is what you should keep in your own mind and not actually say to other people.

June 29, 2012 at 2:04AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM


I'm always very interested to read about stories such as these, as its one I hope I can follow myself. As someone who produces short, zero budget films, on a regular basis, I'm hoping I might hit gold in the same way as many of my peers.

That said, we were recently given a donation by the actor/celebrity Stephen Fry, which we used to fund this gothic fairytale horror film, inspired by Brothers Grimm: https://vimeo.com/44185686

It's our biggest achievement to date, and I hope sets a high bar for what we can go onto achieve in the future, if given a proper budget to work with. Would appreciate your thoughts on it!

June 29, 2012 at 4:11AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM