Oscars Spotlight: How the 2019 Live Action Short Film Nominees Made a Big Impact with a Short Runtime

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Short films are the concentrated counterparts of feature-length releases. All the sweet and sour is condensed into a bite-sized story, with no plot fillers or extraneous diversions. They may be shorter than features, but they’re no less significant (#PresentAll24).

Here, Sound & Picture shines a spotlight on all five directors of this year’s Oscar-nominated Short Films (Live Action) — director Jeremy Comte for Fauve, director Guy Nattiv for Skin, director Rodrigo Sorogoyen for Mother, director Marianne Farley for Marguerite, and director Vincent Lambe for Detainment. Find out how they approached both the look and sound on their mini masterpieces.

Fauve

Director Jeremy Comte’s Fauve tells the tale of two young boys whose mischievous adventures lead them to an open pit mine where their seemingly playful competition turns into a deadly situation for one.  The film was shot on location near the Thetford Mines in Quebec, and the location is an important element in the story.

Director Jeremy Comte

Fauve premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and won the Sundance Short Film Special Jury Award.  On the festival circuit, the film earned over 70 awards, including the 2018 TIFF Short Cuts Best Canadian Short Film Award, 2018 Aspen Shortsfest Best Drama Award, and 2018 Palm Springs International ShortFest Best of Fest Award.

S&P:  In terms of the visuals, what were some aesthetic choices you made on Fauve? How, technically, did you achieve that look? 

Jeremy Comte (JC):  I wanted to reflect a naive and cruel childhood in the tone of Fauve, raw and gritty, while capturing the immersive texture of the environment. In the beginning, a light handheld camera (on a gimbal) was kept low to bring in the spectator, as though they’re a child themselves. When the film hits a point of no return, we switched to crane movements and locked-off tripod to accentuate a feeling of claustrophobia.

S&P:  What were some choices you made in regards to the film’s sound? How did you use sound to help tell this story?

JC:  I wanted nature/locations to be its own character in the short, especially when personifying it with sound.  For example, we accentuate the quicksand scene by recording different types of mud and using digestion sounds so it would feel like nature is actually swallowing the boy. There’s no added music to bring tension, so you have no choice but to listen to Nature itself.

Motors and human-like sounds contrast with the sound of the environment in a strong way, accentuating the themes of the film. Music only comes in once, so sound is forward in a rich and vibrant way.

Mother

Director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Mother (Madre) opens up on an apartment where a young woman and her mother are having a casual conversation about a dinner date. The phone rings and it’s the young woman’s six-year-old son calling to say his father left him alone on the beach and has not returned. The young woman tries to find out which beach her son is on, so she can get help to him — either the police or herself. The young woman’s questions become more frantic as her son reveals that his cell phone battery is dying and there’s a stranger on the beach who is walking his way.

Director Rodrigo Sorogoyen

Mother (Madre) has racked up an incredible 106 award wins from festivals around the world, including awards like Audience Choice Award for Best Drama Short at the New York City Short Film Festival, Best Sound Award for Roberto Fernández at the Madrid Film Festival – PNR, and the Goya Award for Best Short Film.

S&P:  In terms of the visuals, what were some aesthetic choices you made on Mother (Madre)? How, technically, did you achieve that look? 

Rodrigo Sorogoyen (RS):  The first choice was to make a sequence shot, which determined everything when making decisions because there is no assembly, you have to illuminate a whole space without being able to touch things so that everything is valid and in the same place.

We used a lot of natural light and we also illuminated from the street so in the moments when the young mother was near the window, there was a very hard light.

When she speaks to the police, the hard light comes in to help transmit the anguish. And also in the end when she speaks to her son for the last time on the landline phone, a lot of light comes in; it is a very beautiful image that contrasts with the moment he is living.

There is also another very important decision, which was to capture everything with a 16mm lens, with a wide angle as that makes the space larger.  At first, it seems like a very pleasant space, habitable, large and diaphanous but later it becomes somewhat distressing after the call. The anguish begins to grow and you are approaching their faces with the wide angle that deforms the sides, which increases the feeling of discomfort.

In the last scene, we approach the young mother’s face and she has much more of an aggressive presence that we wouldn’t have been able to capture if it was shot with another lens. The wide angle gives a lot of rhythm to the scene when the camera moves, because it seems that all the elements pass faster; the scene has a lot of internal rhythm.

S&P:  What were some choices you made in regards to the film’s sound? How did you use sound to help tell this story?

RS:  We wanted a very realistic sound, since it is an everyday scene. When they are far away, we hear them far away. It starts to rain and we hear the rain. When she is talking to the police there is a lot of interference and it becomes uncomfortable.

At the beginning, there is a lot of noise and then the police push a button and we only hear her clear voice gaining more presence.

In the end, we leave out the environmental sounds and we focused on two main things: the voice of the child and the voice of the young mom. It is a very realistic sound that we emphasized according to how close the cameras were to the characters. In the end, the camera ends up very close to actress Marta Nieto (the young mother), the sound is very intense and helps the anguish of the scene.

Skin

Director Guy Nattiv’s Skin is a story of racial violence and retribution. In a small town supermarket, a young boy smiles at a man who is playing with an action figure while in the checkout lane. It’s an innocent interaction but the boy’s father — a neo-Nazi hate-spewing racist — starts a fight with the man because he’s black. The neo-Nazi and his group of racist cronies jump the man while he’s trying to get into his car where his wife and child are waiting; they helplessly watch as he is severely beaten. Later, the man’s friends ambush the neo-Nazi and abduct him while his son helplessly looks on. The neo-Nazi is taken to a garage where he’s tattooed before being released.

Director Guy Nattiv

Skin premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize for Special Presentations. It also won Best Short Film at the 2018 HollyShorts Film Festival.

S&P:  In terms of the visuals, what were some aesthetic choices you made on Skin? How, technically, did you achieve that look? 

Guy Nattiv (GN):  Drew Daniels (my amazing cinematographer) and I wanted a realistic look for Skin,  using natural light to portray the story in a way that feels almost like a documentary, with surrealistic moments.

We shot it about an hour outside of Los Angeles but it felt like anywhere USA. We chose to get extreme close-ups of the characters, so you could almost see the sweat on their skin, and then contrast it with wide shots in order to feel the physical and mental transition of the characters.

In the tattoo sequence, we used a Phantom camera and micro lenses to get the physical torment that the character is going through. We actually used pig skin that my producing partner (and wife) Jaime Ray Newman bought from a butcher and blow-dried to look like human flesh. The shots were so close up and it made for a great stand in. You could see the hair follicles and freckles, and when the tattoo gun pierces it, the pig skin rippled like it was actually attached to a human. Gross, but perfection.

S&P:  What were some choices you made in regards to the film’s sound? How did you use sound to help tell this story?

GN:  A lot of the scenes in the short film Skin are based on natural sound. Instead of a soundtrack and score, our sound designer Ronen Nagel and I chose to use breathing, gun shots, footsteps, laughing, etc., to fill the story. These sounds create the beating heart of the movie. It was important for me to use those sounds in order to complete what you don’t see and to increase the tension throughout the movie. I played around with an actual song with lyrics over the tattoo scene but ultimately decided that the sounds of the tattoo gun and appliances around it were more effective.

Detainment

Director Vincent Lambe’s heart-wrenching film Detainment is based on the true story of the torture and murder of 2-year-old James Bulger in 1993. His killers were two 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Lambe’s film is based on transcripts of the police interviews with the 10-year-olds, and it dramatizes scenes of their confessions and the abduction leading up to James’s murder. Lambe intercuts the interviews with shots of the boys walking around London with Baby James. Detainment isn’t a grisly horror film. There is not a drop of blood shown.  Nevertheless, it is the most terrifying, sickening, and difficult film that I personally have ever watched. The performances by the young actors in the film (Ely Solan as “Jon” and Leon Hughes as “Robert”) were utterly convincing and simultaneously soul-crushing.

Director Vincent Lambe

Detainment premiered at the 2018 Krakow Film Festival where it won the Don Quixote Award. It also won both the Special Jury Prize and the Gold Screen Award at the Young Directors Awards held at The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and three awards at the 2018 Richard Harris International Film Festival including one for Best Overall Short Film, one for Best Director, and Best Actor awards for both Solan and Hughes.

S&P:  In terms of the visuals, what were some aesthetic choices you made on Detainment? How, technically, did you achieve that look? 

Vincent Lambe (VL):  I was working with the wonderfully talented director of photography Patrick Jordan and production designer, Steve Kingston. We talked a lot about the look and tone of the film. The camera is constantly moving and the action is filmed with a documentary style. By staying close on the characters’ faces, it puts the audience in the room, allowing them to experience every moment, every feeling, as if it were their own.

As the action takes place between two interview rooms, we felt it was important for each room to have a different look and feel. We used a palette of grayish-blues for Jon’s interview room, contrasted by the browns of Robert’s interview room. The real rooms would both have had white walls and this is probably the biggest change we made, but it was done as a storytelling device — it helps the audience distinguish between the rooms and always know where they are because there is so much inter-cutting throughout the film.

S&P:  What were some choices you made in regards to the film’s sound? How did you use sound to help tell this story?

VL:  I worked with a brilliant sound designer, Michelle Fingleton from Screen Scene in Dublin, who developed a cacophony of sounds taken from the shopping centre for the opening sequence and we used abstract sounds of trains to create a heightened intensity and ominous foreboding at different moments throughout the film.

Slovenian composer Filip Sijanec composed a beautifully subtle original score. We decided to use the sound of the tapes turning as a motif in the score, which gets amplified at certain points in order to heighten the tension and emotion of certain scenes.

Marguerite

Director Marianne Farley is the only female director nominated in the Short Film (Live Action) category. Her film Marguerite tells the tale of two women who find a common connection despite their differences in age. A young nurse regularly visits the home of an elderly woman in her care. As the nurse tends to the woman, it is revealed that the nurse has a girlfriend. The elderly woman is surprised and ultimately encouraged to share her long buried secret.

Director Marianne Farley

Marguerite premiered at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and has won over 35 awards so far, including Best Live Action Short Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and the Jury Award for Best Short Film at TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival.

S&P:  In terms of the visuals, what were some aesthetic choices you made on Marguerite? How, technically, did you achieve that look? 

Marianne Farley (MF):   Because the film talks about sensuality and compassion it was very important to me that we get close to the characters — to feel like we could see deep inside their soul. I wanted to show skin textures and subtle acting nuances and for that, I chose to do a lot of close-ups.

Another important aspect of the story is definitely Marguerite’s backstory. The idea that she had a secret past inspired the whole production design of the film. In fact in my mind, her house is in a way a third character in the film. Marguerite’s life had to be portrayed everywhere in her environment. The fact the she travelled a lot as a stewardess made her home eclectic and colorful even though she felt lonely inside. The wider shots of Marguerite surrounded by all her souvenirs were a way of illustrating that loneliness.

I chose a warmer color scheme because even though Marguerite is an elderly woman who is extremely affected by her illness, it is not a film about death. It is a film about hope and making peace with your past. It is a film about human connection and love.

I wanted the camera movements to be smooth and slow because of the delicate subject matter. In a way, the audience almost had to feel like they were a fly on the wall. There was a bubble of intimacy that was created on set and that bubble of intimacy was what I wanted to bring to the screen.

S&P:  What were some choices you made in regards to the film’s sound? How did you use sound to help tell this story?

MF:   Working on sound design is one of the aspects of filmmaking I enjoy the most. There is so much you can do with sound. So much depth you can add. I always work with Luc Bouchard from Bande à Part because he is a perfectionist, just like me. He is eager to explore and find the precise sound environment that the story needs.

I love to use sound to support the different themes in the narrative. The passage of time was expressed through the sound of the ticking clock and the sensuality through the sound of the water in the bathtub and the cream getting rubbed on Marguerite’s legs.

Because the story evolves over many months, we added a lot of sound effects to create the different seasons. For example, when we get to the second part of the film, when Marguerite is getting her hair washed, we can hear children playing outside, as they do in the summer. In the last scene of the film, we can hear rain and wind outside of Marguerite’s window, as if it was the autumn season.

-S&P-

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