A critical reading of the finished film

Short films are a distinct narrative form. They exist in a specific institutional context – in the UK, more often than not, the short film is a student or independent film usually seen at festivals or in some form of competition. The most successful films in this context often attempt to tell a complete story, possibly with some form of narrative twist or device. This is certainly the case with Threshold which manages a satisfying story development with a memorable ending in little over 5 minutes.

Narrative

The narrative idea is well chosen, fulfilling the promise of an adaptation from a news story in that the set-up is immediately recognisable, if not directly from the news then from other stories themselves taken from news events. The iconography of contamination/emergency service procedures are immediately apparent in the incident tape, the medical packaging and finally the character in mask and protective glasses. The simple location of a corridor in a functional building confirms the everyday and familiar. The iconography and topical references are also markers of specific genres. The science fiction/horror tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre (think 28 Weeks Later?) are present alongside elements of television soap opera and social realist drama. These are ‘ordinary people’ caught up in the paranoia of the ‘discourse of pandemics’ .

The narrative works because of the decisions taken about how to present the script on screen. Filmic narratives are concerned with the manipulation of narrative time and space. Threshold does not signal that it is concerned with ‘real time’ but it suggests a close relationship between ‘screen time’ and ‘story time’. Although the actual story starts much earlier (the couple have some form of earlier relationship and the pandemic began several days ago), these ‘inferred events’ are clearly represented in the dialogue. The events that we see enacted might perhaps have taken place over ten minutes rather than five, but this still means that editing transitions don’t have to create the ‘passing of time’. Instead they can be utilised to suggest tension and conflict.

Manipulating narrative space

In terms of narrative space, the setting is restrictive – a single corridor with several doors and a single room. This both simplifies spatial arrangements and provides interesting possibilities for actions. It does however require some thought about camera placement and shot composition/framing – we need to know where the characters are in relation to each other.

The overall strategy is to follow the 180 degree rule, so that the camera does not ‘cross the line’. The woman is to the left of the door and the man to the right as we look down the corridor. You’ll need to replay the sequence a few times to notice what happens when the man opens the door. There are two occasions when he does this and both times the camera does cross the line. Given that the spatial geography of the set – corridor, room, corridor entrance – is not complex and that there are only three characters in all, it is unlikely that the audience loses the narrative thread at these points. But these are points of drama in the narrative – the characters see each other, they make contact, they make decisions, they may be in danger. Does the editing decision add to this sense of confusion/tension?

Mise en scène and lighting

Only two of the three characters have lines of dialogue and they don’t say much. This throws more weight onto costume, make-up, facial expression, body posture etc. –  and onto decisions about camerawork and the use of the setting in framing the action. So, for instance, an early low angle (in fact the camera is almost at ground level), long shot shows the woman coming into the corridor with, in the foreground, the detritus of the emergency scenario – a discarded milk bottle, newspapers and junk mail (a similar shot appears when she leaves the flat).

We get a subjective camera shot (i.e. her view) of the police tape and some low angle long shots and MCUs of the woman in the corridor. Here we notice the importance of costume and lighting. The corridor is dark with the only light source coming from the entranceway and then it must be bounced round a corner. Extra, minimal lighting is necessary to tell the story and the lighting effect can be achieved in various ways. The paintwork in the corridor is gloss and the light bounces of painted and metallic surfaces.

The woman is dressed mainly in black/dark colours and this gives good contrast when the light is reflected from her pale, exposed skin. As she lifts her scarf to protect her mouth she exposes, very briefly, her throat and upper chest since beneath the long unbuttoned coat her top has a (modest) square cut neck. With her relatively short hair and her fingerless gloves, the woman is both ‘covered’ and ‘exposed’ and her neck and hands are clearly visible in the darkness. She is also wearing a series of metal studs around her ears and these also catch the light.

Different audiences will make different readings of her costume, hairstyle and piercings. She could come across as ‘ordinary’, ‘modern’ or ‘distinctive’ so there will be both cultural significance as well as functional significance – her potential vulnerability to infection through ‘exposure’. Her appearance is clearly contrasted with that of the man inside the flat. He is mostly shown in CU/MCU and the obvious points to make are his grey sweatshirt (visible in the greater illumination in the room), his unshaven appearance and sweat (picked up by the lighting). These features of his appearance cause problems for continuity and if we are being critical there are issues of colour balance in the presentation inside the flat compared to the shots looking into the flat from the corridor. Note how inside the flat the man looks sweaty and red-faced, but from viewed from outside he has a similar pallor to the woman.

Sound

Sound is often neglected by critics and by novice filmmakers. Here a great deal of effort has gone into the sound mix. Listen carefully at the beginning to the background sound of sirens and dogs barking mixed very low behind the credits. The remainder of the soundtrack mixes ‘effects’ such as the sound of the woman’s heels on the concrete floor of the corridor, keys jangling, doors opening and the rustle of papers with dialogue clear in the mix.

End shot

'This is the end...', photo by Andrew Parkhill

Summary

Threshold is successful in meeting its objectives – telling a story based on a news item that engages an audience. Inevitably, working on no budget in a difficult environment, there are aspects that could be improved if there was time to reshoot – but this is true of most low/no budget shoots. The important outcome of this training exercise is that the participants worked together effectively to realise the potential of a script which fulfilled the requirements of the adaptation brief.

(This was written purely on the basis of watching the film – I didn’t get to learn what actually went on during the shoot until afterwards. You can read the reflections of the crew members on the Reflections page.)

Roy Stafford

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