Film School Blog

The Emotion Project

Our first assignment in 285 was “The Emotion Project” where we were asked to create a 90 second visual piece where the sole objective is to make the viewer experience the emotion you’ve selected.

The same week we were given this assignment, I started attending a Mindfulness seminar. The instructor explained a variety of different physiological and psychological responses your body has to meditation, but one fact that resonated with me is that an emotion, any emotion, only lasts 90 seconds unless you feed it. *mind explodes*

Knowing that you choose the brevity or longevity of any emotion is an empowering piece of information. I don’t know if the intention to cap this project at 90 seconds was deliberate, but regardless, it’s a cool coincidence.

Tangent aside, now came the hard part: coming up with an idea.

What was I feeling right now? How did I want to feel right now? What emotion do I feel most often? What emotion do I feel rarely? What do I want to make my audience feel for 90 seconds?

I spent an entire morning jotting out all different sorts of emotions on paper, and reflecting on when was the last time I remember feeling that emotion. This is an insightful exercise, by the way, as you’re forcing yourself to visually explore your own emotional narrative, which is highly revealing of your own temperament.

I was trying to explore how I was feeling that Saturday morning. My roommate was out of town for the weekend, so the apartment felt kind of quiet without the sound of her softly practicing guitar in the background. Solitude is something I’m deeply fond of, and probably romanticize too often, but this particular morning I just felt a little lonely.

I hadn’t talked to my mom, who lives in Morocco, in two weeks because of the time difference and our busy schedules. I really missed her and wanted someone to listen to me hash out my different ideas and give me straightforward feedback, so instead, I decided that maybe an interesting emotion to depict would be that one: a kind of stillness or loneliness associated with the ironic presence of someone’s absence. I shot a short film called “Ache” which implemented three techniques that scared me:

1)    I was in it. I hate being in my work. I can’t control the camera from the front of it, and I feel vulnerable, exposed, and talentless.

2)   It was a melancholy film. I don’t usually gravitate toward sadder film ideas, so I thought this would be challenging in that regard.

3)   I was shooting really weird and intimate angles with my GoPro. I literally taped my GoPro to my stomach to give the effect of the beat of my breath. It sorta worked actually… god, I'm embarrassed typing this haha.

I then spent the next few hours editing what I had shot, which meant that the total time I spent making a 90 second film was roughly 3 hours.

And then I watched what I had made.

And hated it.

It sucked. It sucked so badly, that it was funny, y’know? Which didn’t work. I couldn’t turn in a project where I meant to depict one emotion and elicit the opposite. (Actually, yes—I can because this is 285, the class where we’re given the freedom to suck. But I didn’t want to, because I knew I could do better and I wanted to do better). Now I regret deleting the video because it'd be really great to post right now, but you'll just have to take my word for it. Very bad. 

So I settled on making my next film one that aired toward the positive side because I think in general I’m a pretty happy person. Also, if I was going to be in it again, I didn’t want to be in it alone.

Lesson #1: Make films which accurately reflect your own emotional state. 

Lesson #2: Soraya is not an actress.

I started getting philosophical as shit trying to think of a new idea, and recognized that the emotions which I enjoyed feeling most were often the most difficult to articulate. The most special feelings seem to transcend language, which is why film to me is the ultimate artistic medium: it shows people how something feels rather than tells them.

When I was at the Director’s Guild Association, Alejandro González Iñárritu (dir. The Revenant, Birdman) had a really interesting comment related to this. He was talking about how he was trained in theatre before cinema, and his instructor at the time challenged him to convey an emotion in a black room, silently. No light, no sound, nothing. Impossible, he thought. Out of nothing, he had to make something. He had to incite the audience’s imagination and communicate something. But he did. And I’m sure it was beautiful.

Probably shouldn't have mentioned Iñárritu before posting my own work, but here's what I submitted for my emotion project:

It’s called “Infectious” because that’s the closest word I found to describe this emotion. The feeling you get when the atmosphere is warm and hazy and you’re comfortably lost in the stories your friends are telling around you. You’re connected to everyone in that slap-happy, carefree moment. You’re communicating more with awkward eye contact and contagious giggles than with words. This feeling didn’t last just 90 seconds, it lasted 2 ½ hours. We laughed so hard our cheeks hurt afterwards, and my stomach was sore the next day.

I wanted to shoot it in a similar way that That’s 70s Show’s basement scenes were shot, where the camera quickly pans back and forth and around the circle in a way that mimics the movement of someone’s head who’s sitting in the circle with them. One change that I thought might enhance the tangibility of this emotion would be if the camera physically circled us in an unbroken, continuous movement. Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite figure out how to do it since I didn’t have access to dolly tracks or a dolly, and maybe I should have brainstormed more, but I was incorrectly relying on the age-old wisdom that I could “fix it in post”.

Lesson #3: it’s okay to be inspired by other existing projects. That’s why they’re there, to build upon. Originality is a fallacy.

Lesson #4: Always take time to think harder.

Lesson #5: You can’t fix stupid in post.  

Editing this was a beast. I spent a good 4-5 hours editing a 90 second film (!!!) because I couldn’t figure out what the best way to tell this story, or rather, depict this emotion. I have four different versions of it, but eventually I settled on submitting the one that cuts our stories together in a dizzying, incongruent pattern because what we’re saying isn’t important, it’s how we feel.

One editing method that I think punctuated the film nicely was using the classic Ken Burns effect to substitute for the lack of a dolly so I could bring you, the audience, in intimate proximity with us, luring you into the moment.

Criticism that I have for my film is that I wish the sound design were more sophisticated, because audio is a huge emotional trigger. As my film stands the dialogue is too choppy, which diminishes the sense of continuity that I craved. The music softly playing in the background I thought might smooth out the transitions in dialogue and provide one ongoing, continuous third party sound from inside the room. I also wish that since I didn't get the dolly shots, I would have had four cameras simultaneously shooting all of us so I could have more genuine reaction shots. It’s not perfect, but it makes me smile every time I watch it.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the best film submitted that week (thank god I didn’t set that as my expectation), and fortunately, I attend film school with very talented peers who created great films. Here are a few of the ones I watched (haven't seen everyone's) that made me feel something:

Mo’s film "Emotion"

One of the more sophisticated ones I saw that maintained an underlying political argument, something few of us tried to do. It made me feel frustrated, confused, and claustrophobic.

Lukas’ film "Sweet Bird"

As good of a cinematographer as he is an editor. This is a great example of someone with aesthetic talent who can also embed an authentic story underneath. It made me feel butterflies in my stomach.

Kay’s film "Tide Pool"

So cute, so pure, so authentic. It made me feel nostalgic and bittersweet for college because even though I’m in it right now, I now how much I’m going to miss these little moments.

These films didn’t make me feel the emotion they’re depicting, maybe because I’ve never had these experiences, but I just want to briefly admire the filmmaking:

Zack’s film "Office Anxiety"

Oh-em-gee sound design.

Paul’s film "Chipotle Is Life"

Camera work Lubezki would envy.

Justin’s film "Corner of Your Eye"

Fucking a, man.