Riding the Clown Train

Clown Train (Jaime Donnelly, 2009) uses a mix of discordant and minimalistic sound, as well as hard and manipulated lighting to create a tense, eerie and terrifying atmosphere.

The sound used in Clown Train is mostly non-diegetic, atmospheric sounds, such as a high-pitched whine – much like the squeal of brakes – and a strange, rhythmic drumming – like tapping on a window. It also featured very minimalistic dialogue from the two characters. There is no background train sounds, such as wheels running over tracks or the sound of engines, alluding to the fact that the train is stationary. There is an echo to the voices that doesn’t exist in the buzzing of flickering lights and the rhythmic tapping, which would suggest that the latter two are intentionally added in post-production.

This sort of minimalistic and highly discomforting mix of sounds is most prevalent in horror-thrillers, because the lack of background sounds, or soft background sounds, lead the audience to pay closer attention, and feel more vulnerable. However, whilst in traditional thriller films, the stretch of quiet sounds is usually punctuated by a sudden loud bang, in Clown Train, aurally there wasn’t a sudden crescendo, save for when the clown shouts ‘BASHES his head in’. Yet this line wasn’t the climax of the actual scene.

Visually speaking, the color palette was extremely stark and de-saturated, meaning the introduction of the overly colourful clown was even more pronounced. The director and cinematographer must have made a conscious decision to ensure that everything but the clown is in a neutral and lowkey color – both costume, set and lighting – so that the clown is extremely standout. There is also an interesting usage of lighting to further the story and help with transitions – a sudden flicker of the light sees the clown move across space, and also moves time forward during the plot. Therefore, the light acts as both a plot device, a transition device, and an atmospheric device.

Finally, in terms of narrative, while the visuals and audio compels the audience to continue watching, the final meaning of the plot is somewhat lost, at least to me. However, an excellent mix of the previous two points mean that the overall tone and style carries the narrative across.

Clown Train creates a strong, alienating atmosphere through a mix of discordant sound and harsh lighting.

Writing the Short Film

Writing for short film can be challenging, given the short constraints of both time and possibly resources. Most importantly, short films require the utmost conciseness in depiction, as the audience is only expecting to have to stay for 7-10 minutes.

When reading the sample short films from Cooper and Dancyger (2005), the most striking point to me was the lack of dialogue, and the heavy focus on visual narration. For example, instead of having the protagonist Marty say things such as “what can I do to make my date like me?” we see a process of him researching what it is that makes women attracted to men – “TEARS=LOVIN’” – and physically trying out ways to make himself cry, and finally settling on his baseball cards. Instead of any dialogue, the script opts to show him going through his ideas instead.

As a result, the script is overall more captivating as the audience is drawn to watch the story unfold and create their own understanding, instead of being told how the character is feeling or thinking. Furthermore, it allows the writer to tell a deeper story of a character in a limited amount of time: we know a lot about Marty’s love of baseball cards, and his bachelor ways, via the visual language of seeing his apartment and his actions at the funeral.

The other important factor in a short film is to have distinct and succinct characters. In this case, it’s easier to create characters who easily fit into the archetypes – or the characteristics of classic archetypes. Each of the short films also feature very little number of characters, if not only 2 major characters and less than 3 more side characters. This allows deeper character development in shorter time frames, but also allows the audience to not be confused by too many on screen characters at once, especially since they won’t have very much time to learn the names, and so would rely on visual and personality traits (as well as continuity) to remember who is whom.

Similarly, location would also need to be visually succinct and easily recognizable: a funeral parlour; suburban street; train station; Nazi occupied France etc, are all locations with easily recognizable signs, and would require little to no signage for the audience.

These two factors are key in writing a strong short film, which will carry across during production when the director and crew are able to glean from the script the tone and style with which to convey in such a short time.