5 Film Clips That Highlight the Power of Simplicity in Storytelling

film clips

I’ve always been a massive fan of video clips. From waking up early on a Sunday to catch the latest on ‘Video Hits’ to staying up late on a weekend to watch the full, uninterrupted clips on ‘Rage’, there’s a complexity to short form, visual storytelling that I really love and appreciate. Many prominent film directors got their start in film clips, and it’s a great testing ground for their talent, as the required audio of the song forces the director to use only visuals – and a principle of screenwriting, being a primarily visual medium, is that the viewer should be able to have a pretty good understanding of the story without having to hear any dialogue.

I’ve also found film clips to be inspiring, as a storyteller, because they condense the critical elements into a short space of time and effectively highlight the ‘show don’t tell’ principle. Stories, and engaging elements of film clips, can show you how to better communicate through your own work, how to keep it simple and to the point.

While there are many well-known examples of great clips, I thought I’d share a couple of my personal favourites that are probably not as well-known, but which use one key element really well: simplicity.

1. ‘Star Guitar’ – The Chemical Brothers (Directed by Michel Gondry)

Michel Gondry is one of the most amazingly creative film-makers in the world. His work is always something new, something you haven’t seen before, and even in his less successful films, there are still elements that remain with you, new ways of looking at things.

It’s hard to pick one of his film clips as a favourite – they’re all pretty great, but the subtle complexity of Star Guitar often goes under-appreciated. Gondry uses the rhythm of a train ride as the backbone of the video, and co-ordinates the passing objects in time with each element of the song. At first, you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’re waiting for something crazy to happen, but it’s the simplicity that gets you, the motion and repetition. It brings back the nostalgia of riding the train whilst also giving you a new way of looking at it – the creative in the ordinary – all in perfect time to the beat

2.  ‘Sheena is a Parasite’ – The Horrors (Directed by Chris Cunningham)

Another legendary film-clip director – Chris Cunningham is known for his shocking, uncomfortable videos, particularly his work with Aphex Twin (‘Come to Daddy‘ and ‘Windowlicker‘). I’m a big fan of Cunningham’s work, because he pushes the boundaries and confronts his audience – his videos are shocking, but shocking in that he’s showing you something that feels wrong, but you can’t quite tell what you’re looking at. He presents a distorted view of the world, a sort of freak show that plays with your inherent responses, and stays with you as a result.

This is my favourite Cunningham video – the image of Samantha Morton dancing like she’s possessed, then transforming into something else entirely, is both shocking and compelling, in a ‘horrified but can’t look away’ sense. This is typical of Cunningham’s work and fits the mood of the song perfectly.

3. ‘Sunny Road’ – Emiliana Torrini (Directed by Ali Taylor)

A fairly simple animated video – and I’m willing to concede Torrini’s song adds a lot to it – but something about this just works for me. Visually, the animation is great (I couldn’t find a HD version) but the simple story is both sad and hopeful at the same time. It highlights the power of subtlety – like, we don’t need a thorough explanation of what the character is experiencing, but we get a sense of her loneliness and hope through the way she interacts with the world and characters around her. And that hope is sometimes enough.

4. ‘No Surprises’ – Radiohead (Directed by Grant Gee)

Radiohead have made a heap of amazing videos – the visual element has formed a big part of their identity as a band. While the clips for ‘Paranoid Anroid‘, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)‘ and ‘Just‘ are all excellent, ‘No Surprises’ is the most compelling for me. It’s a great example of the power of simplicity – the clip is just one shot, Thom Yorke singing the song, but then the water rises, bringing with it the tension, then it submerges him completely (for a good minute). There’s solid tension there – and that works in-line with the lyrics, which are a commentary on the sometimes overwhelming nature of modern life. Again, few things I’ve seen illustrate the power of simplicity better than this clip, and how compelling such elements can be.

5. ‘My People’ – The Presets (Directed by Kris Moyes)

Admittedly, there’s a massive personal affiliation here, outside of the video itself. So, in 2008, I was watching the ARIA Awards when the winner for music video was announced – which was this one above. Being a fan of film clips, I loved the tone of it, the way the scene gets more and more chaotic as the song goes on. While the effect is relatively simple, the use of repetition is actually kind of amazing, and works with the lyrical content. At the time, I was working with Seed Productions on the film adaptation of my novel ‘Rohypnol’ and they’d asked me if I had any thoughts on possible directors. On seeing this, I thought it’s director, Kris Moyes, would be an excellent fit – an Australian, up-and-coming director with a great visual sense.

Through whatever serendipity, Kris Moyes actually was signed up to be the director of the film – I’d never said anything to the Seed guys about this, it’s pure coincidence that I thought he’d be a good fit and they connected with him. Kris is an amazing director (I highly recommend checking out his work here) and his ideas for the film were great, though it didn’t come to be. But still, a really interesting film clip that again uses simplicity to communicate a more complex sense of place.

These are just a couple of film clips that I really like, and that I think do well at using show don’t tell principles to create a mood or feel in simple but effective ways. These clips highlight that you don’t need complex over-explanation or metaphor to share a powerful story. As the old sayings go, sometimes keeping it simple works best, and sometimes by keeping it simple we’re actually allowing our audiences to live within the story, to interpret and translate the elements for themselves, rather than dictating how they should feel. Showing the story in real terms, presenting the images for your audience, allows them a way in, a way to feel the tension and emotion all for themselves. Sometimes, keeping it simple is just best.

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