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What Makes You Happy? (short film)

January 15, 2010

Making a short film doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t really even need a script. All it really needs is you and a camera, with a strong sense of curiosity and adventure.

Super simple concept: take a sharp focusing video camera or DSLR, and hit the streets, asking people the same question. Find the flow of similar answers, cut it with some good music and tweak the images until they look like film. Jeremy Aiken and Jon Rawlinson did it with a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR, a Rode VideoMic, and some color grading software. In the news business, we used to call these “MOS” features: “Man (or Woman) On the Street.”

Today’s question: “What Makes You Happy?”

When I first started viewing this short film, I thought it was just a bunch of people answering a question. As it progresses, you can tell that there is a definite flow to the groups of answers…

This piece has great pacing, nice camera-work (although the white balance is not very consistent), and a pretty thoughtful handling of the material. The sheer numbers of people in the piece suggest how long it took to shoot.

I used to stand on a street corner for an hour, asking people if they “wanted to be on TV” or telling them I “needed some help” putting a piece together. In a single hour of asking maybe 20 people for an interview, I might get 5 or 6 interviews, and might use 2-3 of the answers in a news feature. Judging by the dozens of people in this short film, it must have taken days if not weeks to get good responses.

Still, it’s a simple concept that always produces interesting results. If you’re trying to figure out what to do for a short film project, the “On-the-Street” model is a tried and true formula that relies on the spontaneity of people caught off guard and willing to engage a complete stranger with a camera. I’m thinking you’d probably want a stack of model releases for everyone you interview, as well as photo ID in case you get stopped by a police officer asking what you’re doing. It happens. Don’t be surprised, and *always* be smiley and courteous and “harmless” around the police. They can smell attitude like sharks smell blood in the water. Seriously.

A similar film that is a little darker and plays off the same sort of “MOS” montage is this comedy short by Miranda July starring John C. Riley called, poignantly, “Are You The Favorite Person of Anybody?”

By the way, if you clicked on Miranda July’s name just above the video, you can visit her website. You’ll need a password. It’s pretty much the first word that pops in your head. “Bloomers” worked for me. 🙂

And here’s the “more info” text from the YouTube page: “This is a simple, poignant short film, shot on a budget of $150: a man with a survey stops passersby and asks them, “Are you anybody’s favorite person?” What a heartbreaking question, for somebody who DOESN’T come first in somebody else’s heart! Miranda July, who wrote the short story this is based on, had just finished shooting ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW and made this film in the week between shooting and editing the first rough assembly. Miguel Arteta, who directed, was still in love with her at the time, and in an interview with WHOLPHIN said, “The shoot was painless but sure enough, by the time I started editing, we were broken up. This little short is like a rear-view mirror that survived a fabulous, painful crash.”

Like I said, an odd twist on the theme. Look for MOS segments on your local news broadcast. It’s what reporters who are pressed for time tend to stick at the end of a controversial news feature when they can’t get an “official” or when their newsroom frowns on “official” soundbites in favor of “real people,” who probably have absolutely no connection to the issue being reported about, but who are asked to form an opinion based on their own predispositions. There’s you a sneaky peek behind the scenes of actual news production!

So grab your camera and find a busy street corner, and come up with a question that will produce interesting results. I can guarantee one thing: you’ll have a lot of fun, get a lot of rejections, and probably have a very interesting day.

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