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Making Short Films for Multi-Lingual Audiences

February 3, 2011

I’m just starting to work with a group in Europe on some short film projects. I was asked to help them hone their skills in making narrative short films. Their goal is to create short films that will stimulate spiritual conversations. Their challenge is that they want their films to be distributed very easily across many countries and language groups. Ideally, they’d tell stories without the use of dialogue that would need to be dubbed or subtitled.

The Red Balloon

So, without resorting to pantomime (a mainstay of youth evangelism in Europe), how do we create a variety of compelling narrative stories while eliminating one of the primary channels of communication, spoken dialogue and narration?

If you do an internet search for “non-verbal film” you will come up with only a few standard reference points, usually films like Koyaanisqatsi, a well-known non-verbal film that is really a sort of visual tone poem, very impressionistic, but very powerful and influential. That film, and others like it, tend to be intentionally, un-structured in terms of story. They intend to be evocative rather than directive in their message.

For our purposes, we would like to be evocative, to be sure, but we also want to tell a story that is understandable. As I’m searching my memory for examples, I’ve come up with The Red Balloon, a film from my childhood that is very well-known. As far as I remember, there is no real dialogue in that film (not that no one speaks at all) and the story is very clear and has deep emotional range. Another film that I’ve thought of is called, The Snowman. You can usually catch it on television during the holidays. Again, it has a strong storyline but no dialogue. Both of these films are classics for many reasons, including their musical scores and, in the case of The Snowman, the amazing animation style.

So I’m thinking through principles that can help us develop some films that are easily understood across a range of language and cultural groups and that do more than present a funny situation or clever visual twist and little else. Most short films I’ve found that have little or no dialogue tend to be this type: jokes, clever situations, or visual experiments that have little story.

I’m working on my principles. I’d be interested to hear what others think, and if you know if examples of films I should watch.

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