From Idea to Concept
The two audiovisual essays I have curated here are both examples arising from the same, pre-set exercise: they are works of condensation involving an idea about a single film. The purpose of this practical exercise — that Adrian Martin and I proposed to our students in a 2014 course on audiovisual essays at Goethe University in Frankfurt — was to bring analytical and creative research together, in an audiovisual form. Of course, there are a number of ways of approaching or doing this; I will deal with a very particular method defined by certain constraints.
The duration of these pieces is short (less than four minutes), because they are trying to develop their concept in a condensed way; and the object of study is one, single film. Furthermore, they are entirely constructed using only the materials of the chosen film (its images, sounds and/or music — the last of which we allowed to be sourced from an independent soundtrack release, if available). Not even voice-over was permitted!
Henrike Lindenberger, the author of the first audiovisual essay embedded here, chose Jean-Luc Godard’s classic Alphaville (1965) to work with. Her piece begins from an idea that is focused and specific, far from the realms of plot and character, and very cinematic: to study space and architecture as elements that give the film its science-fictional character. Indeed, space and architecture seem to be subjects especially suited to visual exploration (although, as you will notice, she also cleverly manages to give a sonic spin to this adventure).
The idea that drives this audiovisual essay is quite powerful. However, it is one thing to have an idea about a film, and another —which may be related to the former, but goes further and requires a more inventive approach — to build a concept for an audiovisual essay. This is what Lindenberger achieves. When I say concept, I mean it in an extensive way: I refer to the piece’s structure and rhetoric, to the relation between its different, material elements and its editing operations, to all that gives the piece an independent, autonomous, singular form. The concept is what differentiates an audiovisual essay from a mere collection of clips used to demonstrate, prove or serve as examples of a point. The concept is, in short, what transforms the initial, analytical research into a creative process.
So, this audiovisual essay goes far beyond simply collecting clips that relate to space and architecture. Through meticulous work (both of research and rearrangement), this piece reinvents a space — the crystal maze — by dint of reconcentrating it. Of course, the crystal maze image is not entirely foreign to Alphaville itself; however, while in Godard’s film we can sense it, here we can fully experience it — condensed, heightened and dynamised thanks to montage.
How exactly does this piece create its crystal maze? First, by inventing a consistent mechanism: it uses arrows, neon signs and pointing gestures made by characters as cues that mark the restless change in the direction of movement: up and down, left and right. Elevators, stairs, corridors, doors and windows become part of a sinister game of space, full of traps and false exits, through which the characters walk almost as if they were automatons. The use of circular motifs (Anna Karina moving around a table, revolving doors, spiral staircase, the panoramic camera movement that traces a semi-circle …) — as well as the repetition, at the end of the piece, of several shots included at the start — also contribute to underlining this idea of entrapment. And, of course, there are the crystal structures that arise everywhere — walls and cubicles, monolithic or serial: the evil machinery of isolation and oppression.
And, finally, there is the extremely inventive, experimental work done with sound. The piece turns one of the exercise’s constraints – using only music from the chosen film — into a benefit. A Crystal Maze creates an extra or new score by reversing Paul Misraki’s composed themes. The sinister looping of this backward remix gives the piece a definitely nightmarish, Kafkaesque touch and — when combined with the original score — becomes another consistent device that expresses, from a sonic perspective, the labyrinthine space that is rendered visually.
My piece Small Gestures is another example of the same exercise; I demonstrated its construction in class, using the Adobe Premiere timeline as my screen, as a pedagogical example. This audiovisual essay is devoted to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (1949), a chamber piece which fascinates me – as well as an extraordinary and too little known directorial debut. Here, I wanted to focus on its subterranean love story, never directly or openly addressed, but conveyed through small gestures (mainly of the actors, but also of the camera and mise en scène). That is, ultimately, where the concept of the piece would lie – but I had to find my way there by steps.
I knew beforehand some of the fragments I wanted to use in the piece, because I had already written about the film (Álvarez López 2013) and even extracted some clips to accompany that text. However, I then re-watched Le silence de la mer several times, annotating the timings, trying to be as exhaustive as possible. I was amazed to discover how much of the film’s material could indeed be used to work through my idea. To search for all these ‘small gestures’, make clips of them, name them and catalogue them, took me a couple of days. When I began on these operations, all I had was an idea but not yet a concept for my audiovisual essay. Since this driving idea was mainly visual, I was a little worried about the sonic elements — about the jarring effect that could result from putting all this material together (most of these fragments were very short; in some of them we hear ambient noises or silence, in others little scraps of music and dialogue that did not form any complete or coherent phrase).
But, while collecting the clips, I had a more concrete notion about a possible structure for the piece. I realised that I could use one of the monologues recited by Howard Vernon in the film, where he tells the story of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. In a way, this tale mirrors, condenses and prefigures the love story between him and the female character in Le silence de la mer. Of course, this monologue is itself also a ‘small gesture’, and one that allowed me to emphasise the power of speech and its crucial role in the bizarre courtship ritual set in motion by the man. There was yet another reason that pushed me to use this monologue: at a given moment, in order to describe the recognition of love from Beauty toward the Beast, the character uses the following expression: “… and she gave him her hand”. As soon as I heard this sentence, I felt compelled to match it with the image that I wanted to use to close my audiovisual essay: a shot that shows a detail (the drawing of two hands extended toward — but yet not reaching — each other) on the female’s character shawl, which was designed by Melville himself.
Listening over and over to this fabulous passage of speech (which, in the original film, is even longer), I realised I could break it into two, distinct segments: the first, devoted to presenting the characters and the coordinates of their master-slave relation; the second, much shorter, devoted to describing the turn in Beauty’s feelings. Between these two parts, I introduced a central section (using dialogue and sounds from other scenes) dedicated to moments of turbulence and confusion — moments that begin to signal the transformation of the woman’s emotions (mainly through hand gestures), but only in an unconscious, not-yet-recognised way.
So, finally, the element that was less developed in my mind when I started to think about this audiovisual essay — namely, the sound — ended up providing the global structure for the piece, working as a narrative frame according to which I began to organise the entire, visual aspect. In the first section, I tried to find a way to express — through the actors’ poses and postures, through the distances and angles of the camera, through occasional movement and repetition — the parameters of the captivity situation evoked in the monologue, as well as the subtle ‘binomial pair’ of the characters’ personalities. In the central part, I gave particular importance to the hand gestures that play a prominent role in the film, signalling the trouble, confusion and disturbance of the characters’ feelings. And, in the final section, again picking up the monologue that now bursts forth while describing Beauty’s acknowledgment of love, I concentrate almost exclusively on the ardent gestures of the camera (extreme close-ups, inquisitive reframings) and of the woman (smiles, glances).
Small Gestures was made not so much to illustrate the class exercise, as to show the students — directly from my timeline — some of the concrete possibilities that the simplest re-editing operation allows. Mine is, indeed, a very austere piece, technically speaking: no effects of any kind were applied, apart from a few audio transitions, some fades at the start or end of each section, and general adjustments of audio level. The general re-editing operations stay within the range of the most basic actions of splitting, cutting out, trimming and re-organising the different fragments that compose a piece. However, in performing these operations, I was altering not only the horizontal relations (the linear, successive relation between clips) but also the vertical ones (the simultaneous sound/image relation within each clip).
Small Gestures extensively works on constructing a vertical relation that does not exist in the film itself (the original relation is respected in only a few spots of my audiovisual essay): some sounds (such as the tic-toc of the clock) have been looped; the two pieces of music used (as a background for the monologue in parts one and three) were lifted from other scenes. And even if, narratively speaking, the piece shows an emotional progression that coincides with the arc featured in the film, the shots I use to express this progression belong to very different moments from the work: they are not arranged in respect of their original, chronological order, and few shots put together in my audiovisual essay go together, in that precise way, in the film itself (even if the continuity created in the re-editing — an effect especially apparent when working with highly stylistically unified and minimalistic black-and-white productions 1930-1960 — seems to suggest, at some points, that this is the case).
For a viewer, the line that separates the work of an audiovisual essayist from the film’s original editing work is not always easy to draw — especially in pieces that deal with only a single film. Exhibiting Small Gestures in class as it appeared in my timeline allowed me to explain in a detailed, graphic way the particular decisions I took during the re-editing process.
Depending on the particular approach of each maker, the work of research done for and by an audiovisual essay passes through different phases and forms. In my experience, however, I have come to distinguish two main procedures: first, there is a type of research — based on gathering of information and close examination — which maintains certain similarities with the traditional type of academic research. In the exercise described here, this would be research done for the audiovisual essay, motivated by one’s ideas on a film. But, as soon as you begin to play with the most rudimentary operations of editing, such as putting two fragments together — or, sometimes, even when you start to slide across your timeline, jumping backward and forward — there is a new type of research in motion. These actions always imply a renewed encounter with the materials: they bring out new connections, illuminating hidden or buried aspects, giving rise to ideas that did not appear formed as such in the individual fragments, or in the whole film on its surface. This type of research is the research done by the audiovisual essay, by materially working on it.
This research implies a new kind of rigour: no matter how meticulous you have been in the first phase (in the case that you have literally traced the two-step process I have outlined), sometimes — unlike in traditional research, where the more examples that bolster your point, the better — here you may have to drop clips that match your idea about the film but do not fit (for one reason or another) your audiovisual essay. At the same time, you will need to be ready to play, experiment, consider and incorporate all the new knowledge arising from the process of editing.
Audiovisual essays indeed open new and exciting possibilities for research. But, if we want to grasp their full potential — beyond the impact of their rhetorical modes and affective techniques— we also need to study and analyse them closely, in relation to their object(s) of study, in order to precisely understand how they work.
- Álvarez López, Cristina. “El silencio del mar: La palabra”, Transit, 10 December 2013. Online at: http://cinentransit.com/el-silencio-del-mar/.
© Cristina Álvarez López, September 2014