Film and the sublime experience: a few thoughts on methods

Project: to articulate and express the sublime feeling via experimental short film. Abstract here.

Here’s a few thoughts on how the various of elements of the experimental film I’ve been working on:


Narrativity has spurred my most difficult challenges in planning the film. An important question to consider was: to what extent should the film avoid a “clear” narrative like what we’re used to seeing in the movies? One of my goals was to create a visceral expression of the sublime emotion without relying on a lot of verbal explanation. This seemed to point to a video art piece free of character and plot. Because of the high use of abstraction in contemporary art regarding the sublime, it seemed like using a conventional narrative might prove too concrete to serve my goal.

But as I found in my research, an understanding of what is being expressed can often depend on its context. (For example, Luc Tuymans’ painting Gas Chamber (1986), which I came across in research, would probably give us a different experience if it had a less explanatory title.) Also, I had a specific plot in mind that I couldn’t forget — but it somehow just didn’t fit with my plan for this project.

I ended up planning for two single video art pieces. Each deals with a slightly different theme of the sublime (one relates more to the natural and uncanny faces of the world, the other to terror and the unknown limits of human knowledge). In order to organize these pieces, I worked on them with an understanding of an overarching story. (I’m planning to work on that larger plot later on, as a follow-up to this project.)


Many of the visual techniques I’ve focused on attempt to create an uncanny mood in the scene — an unsettling sense that something is not quite right. (A lot of this is conveyed through sound and editing.)

The sublime emotion depends on disorientation — it makes the ‘normal’ world strange and forces you to consider it in a different way. So I’ve tried to convey that feeling in the film, and maybe a kind of re-orientationwhen a strange experience reveals something about the ‘normal’ world. Visually speaking, I’m using unnatural lighting, stark contrasts between extreme closeups and extreme long shots, disorienting angles, and other anti-continuity editing strategies.

By “unnatural lighting” I mean not only off-camera lights added to a scene, but also light that doesn’t reflect the actual lighting situations you’d find in the world. Some of my lighting plans are downright illogical (intentionally). The sensation I’m hoping to reflect is one of a world suddenly gone strange, as if it’s really another place — the odd colors of dreams, and the way light there comes from unnatural directions.


The soundtrack is probably the most important part of this project for me. It’s always been pretty easy for me to imagine; many of my ideas and plans for other elements stemmed from how I was thinking about sound. My soundtracks aren’t necessarily what one might call “music…” but what is tonal has a lot of dissonance. (This is also in search of “disorientation.”) Another technique I’ll be using is high contrasts between quiet and loud. (Silence can be really effective.)

I’m using a combination of natural and synthetic sounds. (for example, juxtaposing I make a lot of field recordings of strange sounds from different environments. I’m really excited about some great sounds I recorded on the D.C. Metro recently — a lot of whistling, howling, and rumbling sounds from the train running along the track. I’ve found that adding certain sounds to a visually incompatible environment you can get interesting effects. If it’s a recognizable sound it can serve a metaphorical purpose, and otherwise it can set the mood or be just a useful part of the aural landscape of a scene.

One of the scenes includes an imaginary space that changes its physical characteristics — at one moment an inescapable room, the next total emptiness. Visually these are indistinguishable, except for my actor’s movements…and the soundtrack. A room sounds very different from a great emptiness. (More importantly, it should feel different: technically there’s no sound in a void, but the sound is also reflecting the emotions of the character). All we can see is black, so it depends on the reverberance and other aural touches to hint at the distinction.


By this I’m mostly referring to the length of time between cuts. This helps control mood — faster cutting can create a feeling of urgency, fear, or lack of control, while a longer take can convey calm. (Of course, it also depends on what’s happening during those takes and what the camera is doing!) “Lack of control” is an important theme for this, so you can expect some fast cuts. And the shots you’re cutting between make a difference. Jump cuts (between two shots from almost the same angle) are uncomfortable and startling, but so are cuts from extreme close ups to extreme long shots. The flow of editing rhythm across the piece is important as well. It should rise and fall at different points; it’s not usually that interesting to watch a ceaseless barrage of jump cuts.


I prefer to use a handheld camera style — it can be a little wobbly, but I often feel this imparts a little more immediacy and life to what we see on screen. It can seem less like a “production.” However, for more complicated effects it’s often necessary to use a tripod-mounted, stable shot.

There’s a specific camera movement I want to use — a sweeping of the camera toward the actor, from a long shot to a closeup, choreographed alongside a change in lights.


For these pieces words don’t matter quite as much, because I was aiming to express the main theme without resorting to verbal explanations. Any words I use in these ‘art’ pieces will be there for their more poetic benefits — of sound, rhythm, punctuation, and the ability to call up an idea without explaining it. In short, I’m not using a lot of words here, and I’m a little undecided about whether to include them at all. (I’m not using them to explain a plot or anything, so it’s a little more open to post-production experimentation than usual)