Text, photographs and videos by Jean-Sébastien Monzani.
I’ve never been much interested in speaking of reality in my artwork. Magic-realism better suits the short-stories that I like to create: authors such as Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges or Dino Buzzati as well as visual poetry in performance arts have a strong influence on me. In this article, I will discuss how I’ve started to move from photo-stories to short movies.
I don’t quite know how or why I choose my artwork themes but it’s clear to me than cinema has a deep influence on me. Back in 2000, “In the Mood for Love” from director Wong Kar Wai opened up a new vision for me, and a different approach to colors and light. Telling stories through photo-series became a preeminent characteristic of my work over the years: I’ve went from simple “moody” images to full-text stories.
I was not the first person to do this (Peter Lindbergh often creates “stories” as well) but I think I’ve quite promoted this style and approach, which gives a deeper meaning to a photo sequence.
From photos to movies : challenges
My interest in theater (writing, directing or acting) combined with these photos-sessions and music-compositions really made me wondering how I could blend all of these. For quite some time, the budget required for matching movie-quality and depth of field was way higher than what I was willing to spend. Fortunately, my dreams of shooting movies with a DSLR came true in 2009.
I was quite used to prepare my sessions. With movies, things just got more complex: a small team is almost mandatory, as well as careful planning of the shots and sequences. The skills I had developed by almost exclusively mixing available light and shooting on location quite helped, though. And some of my models were actually actors / actresses.
But shooting films raised new challenges too. Visual ellipsis is straightforward with photos (the viewer can imagine what’s between them) but becomes more tedious with movies. Rhythm and continuity all play a role as well. While photos focus on the “decisive moment”, fictional movies must make this moment last and be believable. And I don’t even speak about writing a proper scenario.
Light makes the mood. But available light changes and evolves: what looks great might won’t last long as soon as the sun moves. The great shallow depth of field that was my trademark in portraits makes it quite difficult for the actor as his/her motion becomes rather restricted. And speaking of motion, camera movements are quite common in movie-production, but unless you have rails, cranes or other similar equipments, it’s quite difficult to reproduce them properly.
Therefore, there is a strong temptation to think a lot about equipment. The internet is full of gear geeks who keep testing lenses, gadgets and photo-equipment and lengthily discuss their advantages. Too much of these always seemed stupid and boring to me: technical knowledge is important, and mastering the tools you use is mandatory. However, art is not about pixel-peeping or shouting about an expensive camera (which won’t make your photos any better).
Finally, color-retouching is also different in movies, and more restrictive, requiring me to shoot as close as possible to the final image that I have in mind. The extra surreal elements that I often add in my photo-montages must also be animated, and special effects require skills and time.
Limitation is your friend
Instead of hopping that buying new stuff will make my work any better, my approach has always been to go with the minimum equipment and to push it to its limits. When it comes to art, I truly believe that limitations are a source of inspiration. A quick example comes into my mind: I have this tendency to add more and more instruments when I compose music. It’s so easy on the computer, there’s no limit! However, it’s quickly clear that the less sounds you add, the most effective the music actually is. “Perfection in design is not achieved when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I firmly believe it.
So, rather than focusing on gear and camera-motion, I try to develop at least something interesting to watch.
Benefits of short-films
My friends often tell me that my work looks like advertising: I think it’s because of the clean approach that I have to composition and images, as well as these extra elements that I sometimes add.
However, this underlines a quite interesting characteristic of short-movies: there is no need to develop and present a story like in a full-length movie. This freedom is pushed to its limits by advertising of course, but also by artists whose ideas are sometimes reused by bigger brands by the way…
In my opinion, there is a very strong creativity in short-movies that isn’t matched most often by what we see in theatres. I really try to exploit this. This leads to a funny paradox: my photos are presented like narrative stories, but my films are getting more and more experimental. I know this sometimes confuses my viewers, but it’s a great opportunity to experiment and be excited. After years of photography, it was more and more difficult to find new ideas, rather than exploring themes I had already covered. Movies opened up a new box full of possibilities!
Why and how
I devote almost all of my free time at investigating new possibilities to artwork. What emerges from this constant process is still a little bit out of my control. I don’t quite know why I want to shoot this or that. It would be tempting to analyze my themes as my own personals thoughts or opinions but it isn’t quite true. Most of the time, I think visually. An image prompts into my mind and I quickly draw it in my sketchbook. I don’t ask myself “I am going to talk about this theme” but rather “This image would be great”. I don’t know why it would be artistically pleasing, but it motivates me to shoot it. Most of the time, it’s after I’ve created all of them that I come with a full-understanding of their subject. However, I like to occasionally leave their interpretation to the viewer without giving all the keys to their meaning(s). I like to think of my spectators as being active rather than passive.
A funny exception to this is my most successful video to date, called “Your Secret”: the concept is all about pushing the spectator to imagine something beautiful, and by the comments I get, I’m quite please to see that it works.
It’s still quite amusing to me that this one is very different from what I do or what I will do. Maybe I’ll have another similar idea in the future but it has to be original: I won’t be motivated in recreating the same work again anyway.
Besides originality, I am an impatient perfectionist – two attributes that usually don’t go along that well. While I can spend days thinking of a movie, its recording and processing is usually fast: filming takes about 3 hours and post-processing lasts a few days. Therefore, when it comes to preparation, I will test my special effects ahead, before shooting the real thing. This helps me evaluate what’s the most effective and easy way to integrate them later on.
The proper balance
I’m quite lucky to have this training in processing images, directing people, writing music and using available light for shooting. However, I’ve humbly learned that a movie is more than the sum of its components. Finding the proper balance, creating a scenario and maintaining rhythm and interest is a specific skill that I need to develop. Collaboration is also crucial and can give both help and originality. For instance, I’ve worked with music composer Angelo Vitaliano on Normality.
What motivates me are not the skills I’ve learned, but what I’ve never tried and don’t know how to do yet. My minimalistic approach when it comes to equipment is both a chance and a limitation that I try to use as an advantage. I hope that reading this article will convince you that creativity isn’t about what you own but how you use it.