Materials of the Cinematic Language

- Video Sketching as a Foundational Tool

When we work with the cinematic language, we manipulate sound and light to create sensory and emotional responses in ourselves and the audience. Paradoxically, in the process of creating inherently audio-visual works, we go through an enormous amount of words. We lay the foundation for further development in conversation with our collaborators and in writing page after page for ourselves and our financiers, to develop, describe and qualify what must eventually become cinematic form, potentially completely devoid of words. This foundation of words has pervasive implications for what we can and will build on top of it. What if instead, we lay the foundation for our work using the cinematic language?

The aim of this research is to explore the implications of working with Video Sketching as a foundational tool, in order to create an initial audio-visual intermediary, in the development of a proposed audio-visual work. It is a tool to create a cinematic foundation on which further development, with or without words, can be based. It is also foundational in the sense that it aims at a method for sustaining qualities that are native to the languages of cinema and may therefore be difficult or impossible to work with, using words. The research is situated in a personal artistic praxis, in which the idea that there is an artistic cinematic language, separate from what can be said or written, is integral. The research draws upon my experiences as a director and screenwriter, working with feature films, exhibited art installations and cross-over documentaries, in a Danish/European arthouse and genre cinema context. It also draws upon my experiences as a guest teacher at the National Danish Film School and involvement in Danske Filminstruktører, the Danish directors union, affecting policy within the industry. The research has implications for the general field of filmmaking and screenwriting, as well as for film education and policy making in arts- and film-financing systems, in that it questions the heavily entrenched industry methodology of working with words before cinematic form.

The research questions encompass:

The research is conducted through workshops, where a basic idea for a feature film is developed through video sketching, before and in parallel with writing the first draft of the screenplay.

Affording Materials of the Cinematic Language

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.” … “Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it”

(Shelley 1831, p3)

In her introduction to the 1831 version of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley divides her process of invention into three categories of work:

  1. Affording materials.
  2. Seizing on the capabilities of a subject.
  3. Moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

Shelley is relevant, not only because her monster-tale relates to my current preoccupation and subject matter, but also because her creative process[1] sounds familiar. I sometimes joke that I don’t use my imagination when I am creating; I stir up variations of chaos, then select, reorganise and build on what is materialised. To afford the materials, I depend heavily on research, improvisation[2], devising[3] and experimentation[4]. In this research project, I will not add to the scholarship around Shelley, but simply use her statement about the creative process as a guiding principle; this is about affording cinematic materials and to some extent seizing on the cinematic capabilities of a subject. As the research revolves around the initial process, as opposed to finished works, it should be less about moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

What is native to cinematic language? There are many approaches to this topic, including, among others, the Pure Cinema of the silent era[5], the formalism of early Russian cinema[6], the other Pure Cinema of Hitchcock[7], the more recent Slow[8]- and Transcendental[9] cinema, the sensory impacts of Horror cinema[10] and the mainstream spectacles of action blockbusters, e.g. Marvel Cinematic Universe[11]. What these references have in common is a focus on the spatial, temporal and sensory possibilities in cinematic expression, while spanning from niche art to broad entertainment. The cinematic language is thus not relegated to the fringes of filmmaking, but permeates it. How you work with it and what you communicate with it is as diverse and potentially personal as other forms of artistic expression. For this research project I focus on approaches and methods for working with cinematic qualities, where I can access and relate to the tools and processes, rather than the final works and their effects on audiences. I will briefly sum up points of reference, in order to refer to them throughout the research.

One approach to affording cinematic materials is found in the hub of artistic and ethnographic praxes at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL):

“(SEL) is an experimental laboratory that promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography. (…) SEL encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with words.”[12] (Harvard University, The Sensory Ethnography Lab 2010)

SEL’s idea of the medium being central to the field of exploration is evident in films such as Sweetgrass[13], Foreign Parts[14], Manakamana[15], Leviathan[16] and Caniba[17]. The films can be labelled ethnographic documentaries, but are also considered pure and consequent cinematic forms, inherent to their subject matter, and thereby engage with filmmaking on a deeper level.

“For most of the SEL filmmakers, “aesthetic concerns,” as in the serious attention to the philosophical and experiential force of cinematic form, are crucial.” (Leimbacher 2014)

At SEL, form and field/subject are interdependent and the praxes can be seen as cinematic variations of the ethnographic method of participant observation:[18] Form is a result of the sensory meeting between the chaotic world and the filmmakers and their technology.

A contrary approach to SEL is to bring fragments of the world into the calm and control of the studio. This experimental exploration of cinematic form has firm roots in a local Danish context, e.g. with Jørgen Leth, where the cinematic study is the work, most obviously in De Fem Benspænd[19] and Det Perfekte Menneske[20]. In the latter, Leth issues a statement through the film’s protagonist:

“Also today I had an experience that I hope to be able to understand in a few days…” (Leth 1968)

I recognise this as part of the creative process, in the sense that I often create or collect a fragment that I don’t have a need for in the moment. I later find its purpose in the larger context. Leth uses the studio as a non-space, in which he investigates the objects and people he brings into it:

“My film-laboratory is like a ruse that I drive humans into, a human trap” … “It is the light and the camera that get things going, like at the touch of a magic wand.” Leth 1979, p98-99)

By doing so, delicate cinematic substances can take form, isolated from the chaos of the outside. In direct continuation of this heritage lies the multi-camera director’s approach, from the now defunct TV educational course at the National Danish Film School, with Alexander Lind’s “Carl & Niels”[21] as a prominent example.

Cinematic invention can also be a biproduct of production, as seen in the collaborations between visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth, director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro and director Lars Von Trier[22], spanning Dancer in the Dark[23], Dogville[24], Direktøren for det hele[25], Antichrist[26] and Melancholia[27]. The throughline is a series of technical and aesthetic experiments that, I would argue, form an underlying praxis of video sketching that clearly shows in the final works. An interesting example is how an experiment from one production; the stitching of 100 camera angles for Dancer in the Dark, into one collage-image, which led to the technique behind the iconic overhead shots of the villages in Dogville and Manderley. The shots deviate from the central perspective of the single-lens camera, and are thus a quite bold invention for a live-action feature. In the case of Direktøren for det hele the production dispenses with the aesthetic choices of the DOP, by replacing Manuel Claro with Peter Hjorth’s cinematography algorithm Automavision. Cinematic language is, in these cases, even more closely linked to technology and collaboration.

The cinematic language is also a dynamic technical medium in the choreocinema[28] praxis of Maya Deren, who in relation to her pioneering dance film A Study in Choreography for Camera[29] writes:

“I intended this film mainly as a sample of film-dance - that is, a dance so related to camera and cutting that it cannot be “performed” as a unit anywhere but in this particular film”. (Deren 2005, 222)

Deren insists on a choreography inherent to her cinematic language, making it a kinetic art form very different from what can be achieved by “staging a text” or “recording reality”; a choreographic form in its own right. Deren is also relevant in this research for other more practical reasons; her DIY approach to artistic filmmaking. I will return to this later.

Critical thinking about words:

Most paths to creating cinematic expression include a writing process, such as, for instance, relayed in the pivotal Robert Bresson statement:

“My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.” Bresson 1975)

I ask: Why let it die on paper to begin with? It is a paradox that much of the time we spend developing audio-visual works is occupied by using words, written or spoken, as a medium to develop and qualify what is eventually going to become cinematic form, “placed in a certain order” as per Bresson or “moulded and fashioned” as per Shelley. There are limits to what words; conversation, pitch, treatment, synopsis, screenplay, etc., can express, and what qualities these formats can contain and sustain. Audio-visual form, however, does not suffer from these limitations, especially when it comes to working with physical spaces, bodies, motion, rhythm, duration and other elements that the cinematic techniques capture, manipulate and express so well. Why then, are audio-visual works, to the best of my knowledge, so rarely developed in cinematic form from start to finish? It seems so obvious that there are cinematic qualities that do not qualify in text. And with the brutal reality of filmmakers spending years developing and financing a feature film or TV series, it seems a big creative risk to be so far removed from the form of the work for so long: What happens to the ideas and qualities that are native to cinematic language, discovered early in a process, when they have to survive months or years of written development? Or even worse, by focusing on writing, does the text then become an unintentional filter that sifts out native cinematic qualities, in favour of what is possible to qualify in words? How do films that have their primary qualities in the cinematic language, outside of what words can carry, stand a chance to qualify in a financing context where the script takes centre stage? Or if the film does qualify and go into production, could a development process revolving around words influence the work, so that the pure cinematic qualities; body, space and time, have lessened in contest with qualities that are easier conveyed in words; actions, dialogue, plot, character development?

The script consultant Franz Rodenkirchen asks the fundamental question in his essay: “Can we write cinema?”. Being a script consultant it is, to little surprise, that he concludes that we can, but with limitations:

In my work as a script advisor, I frequently come across filmmakers who are not primarily interested in creating a story that can be summarized via plot or character change. These projects have one thing in common: when we try to pitch them, the way pitching stories is understood, it usually doesn’t work, it doesn’t communicate well. There is not enough happening that can be told as a story, or rather, pronouncing what is happening will not necessarily give you any idea of what the film is going to be like, how it is going to look and feel.“ (Rodenkirchen 2016)

One of these filmmakers is Carlos Reygadas, per Rodenkirchen’s example:

“The Mexican film director Carlos Reygadas did not even make an attempt to indicate a story in the summary for his film project Post Tenebras Lux when he presented it at CineMart 2011. Instead he wrote: “it is a feature film with a loose plot link in its discourse, but really clear in its poetics. It is not united by the plot, but by the harmony in the expression of the feelings.” (Rodenkirchen 2016)

Getting away with such a financing approach takes a great deal of trust in the filmmaker’s ability to uphold their unwritten vision and work in their cinematic language. From a financing perspective, with great trust there is no need for an intermediary that by itself qualifies cinematic qualities, in the same way the script qualifies plot advances and dialogue. Rodenkirchen is concerned with cinematic experience versus written information, exemplified with regards to duration:

The problem in scriptwriting occurs when we try to write a one-minute-long shot of a sunny room and give an indication why this should be observed for so long and how. If nothing moves, we can only feel the time dimension through the length of viewing. But we won’t spend a minute reading the sentence “The room is sunny.” So what works in the viewing won’t work in the reading. Description cannot transmit the actual duration by simply stating the fact of a sunny room. And it doesn’t help much to write “we’ll be looking at this image for one minute”, because that is merely information about duration, not the experience of it. (Rodenkirchen 2016)

Duration is not the only cinematic quality that is hard to express in writing. A film like Under the Skin[30], directed by Jonathan Glazer and written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer is an example of a story that is very much driven by pure cinematic expression. In the screenplay the first line of dialogue is found on page 10, after 13 scenes of description of sound, images and a ittle bit of action. The publicly available screenplay is an interesting read, in that it mixes concrete descriptions of action with abstract descriptions of the intended experience in the audience.

The script spans 90 pages, the precise industry standard length of a legitimate screenplay for a feature film. I suspect this script has been written after the film was made, or at least re-written, so that “under” the script lies an elaborate process of developing cinematic expressions, not in text but in cinematic form – both in the development of the film itself, but also as a continuation of the artistic praxis of Jonathan Glazer, as an artist and director. This is hinted at in an interview [31], but I have not been able to verify my suspicion. It is also a pretext that “Under the Skin” was at some point meant to become a blockbuster starring Brad Pitt and Scarlet Johansson, but the project pivoted after Pitt left and Johansson stayed. In Film4’s 20-minute interview Glazer talks both of discarding versions of the script that were “…just the adaptation of the book” and then “We were trying to create these set-pieces almost. Put down these cards quite early on, in our writing”. I understand “set-pieces” as meaning cinematic compositions with intentional cinematic artistry, and I note that work performed after discarding several drafts of the screenplay is considered “early on”. I therefore conclude that Glazer, in his work, has a method for working with purely cinematic qualities.

My personal experiences mirror the findings from Rodenkirchen, when in the script for my debut feature film “Cutterhead”, I wrote:

“They take turns breathing through the oxygen machine, holding on to it for longer and longer, getting more and more desperate, fearing the other will no longer want to share.” (Bro 2017)

This single sentence corresponds to a montage almost 10 minutes in duration, at the climatic point of the story. Rodenkirchen proposes a solution to the duration problem through working with spacing, so that at least the expectation for length of the script: one minute per page[32], is met. In my case one sentence would take up 10 pages in the script. It would be an absurd read if taken literally, but the issue of duration exposes the formal, economic usefulness of the script. Scripts are used both to develop the work, to evaluate the quality of the proposed works, and to calculate the cost of producing it. An intermediary completely replacing the manuscript, such as the video sketch, would need a connection to the logic of movie-production economics, as well as the experience of the story, if it is to be useful as a standalone tool. As a supplement to the script, on the other hand, the requirements are less.

Engaging with words and the formal systems

I do not propose to eliminate words in the filmmaking process altogether. The screenplay is the industry standard intermediary and is a very clever and cost-efficient tool for developing, qualifying and assessing an audio-visual work. To my knowledge, most feature films have their foundation in text; a screenplay by one person is staged into cinematic form by the same or another. This is a tried-and-tested process that interfaces smoothly with industry standards for developing, financing and producing in a European filmmaking context, where independent productions rely heavily on combined funding from film institutes, arts foundations, broadcasters, distributors, regional funds, international co-production partners and in other ways, multiple sources of funding. There is simply no way around handing in scripts.

However, there are formal frameworks that are beginning to embrace another approach. To stay in the Danish context, the talent-funding scheme “New Danish Screen” at the Danish Film Institute (DFI), have done two rounds of their special call for applications: “Skitsen” - “The Sketch”[33]. My own debut feature Cutterhead was funded through the initial grant, here described by Artistic Director, Mette Damgaard Sørensen:

“At NDS, we’re in the middle of a big experiment, where we’re supporting visually based development of feature films costing DKK 3 million (approx. EUR 400,000) in a pilot programme called Skitsen (The Sketch). Our expectations are big.” “…we’re very concerned with the potential of the low-budget feature film format – and especially, how the films are developed. More specifically, we want to initiate and explore new ways of conceiving, developing, producing and distributing feature films. That takes curiosity and openness on our part – and courage, cooperation and radicalness on the part of the filmmakers. Skitsen is our attempt to make that happen.” (The Danish Film Institute 2016)

In the years leading up to “The Sketch”, some of my peers and I were very vocal about the limitations of the default in the system, where support for writing always came before any other form of development. At the same time emerging directors such as Anika Berg (Team Hurricane[34]) and Hlynur Pálmason (Vinterbrødre/Winter Brothers[35]) were going against the grain and showed, by example, that working with form before text could be beneficial. The 2016 sketch initiative came as a welcome counter-reaction to the writing default. In 2019 the second round was announced. In 2020, when the general terms for support through the DFI were up for revision, being a board member in the directors union (Danske Filminstruktører), I was part of a push to change the wording in the application procedure, so that the initial entry into the DFI system would be considered “development funding”, as opposed to “manuscript funding”.

“In the future, the manuscript support is part of the development support, and manuscript support has therefore been discontinued as an independent form of support and is now included in the development support.”[36] (The Danish Film Institute 2020)

The formal doors now seem to be wide open to non-word-based development, but there are more things to consider, primarily cost: Development funding is limited and visual/auditive development is often seen to be more expensive than writing. Writing only takes the writer’s time and a laptop, with the addition of maybe a research trip and a consultant or two. “The Sketch” offered 500,000 DKK (€67,000) to create a 12-minute sketch and a production concept. On top of this was a fee of around 300,000 DKK (€40,000) to write a script. You could argue that some of the funds that are usually spent later in development are simply transferred to the initial process, but it is nonetheless riskier for a DFI film commissioner to hand out a 500,000DKK grant for an initial sketching than a 100,000DKK grant for the initial writing. Could they support five initially written developments for the cost of one initially sketched? This leads me to conclude that in order to advance sketching to become as ubiquitous as writing, cost needs to be considered and potentially lowered.

Is it always expensive to work with initial, foundational video sketching? Could you develop and qualify the work much closer to the final form, using video, without needing a budget that approximates a full-blown production? I would argue that, from a practical standpoint, making a collection of video clips can be almost as cost-effective as writing a script. Means for capturing and manipulating video and audio are very accessible to most people at little or no cost. From an artistic standpoint there are also benefits to a no- or low-budget approach. Maya Deren promotes the idea of the amateur filmmaker, who chooses to be unhindered by productional and economic circumstances.

“Artistic freedom means that the amateur film-maker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words, words, words, words, to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot, or to the display of a star or a sponsor’s product; nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes. Like the amateur still-photographer, the amateur film-maker can devote himself to capturing the poetry and beauty of places and events and, since he is using a motion-picture camera, he can explore the vast world of the beauty of movement.” (Deren 1959, p1)

The approach promoted by Deren is great if you like to work alone and want to stay close to the final form: Don’t spend time qualifying your film in words or otherwise, just go out and make it. In her day, access to production means such as a camera, sound recorder, celluloid film and magnetic tape, was far more limited than today, where most people have a complete amateur production and distribution facility in their mobile phone. So why not just go out and video sketch as an alternative or companion to writing? You only need time, a phone, a laptop and the world. You don’t even need to clear copyrights, as you are only making an intermediary with no legal requirements. You have complete artistic freedom within your own practical limitations. However, I would argue that if you wish to create something that utilises a broader palette of the cinematic production tools, you are going to need collaborations and funds. And to get that, you will need to qualify what you are setting out to make, before you get to make it.

So now, what if you lack the merits of Reygadas or Glazer and the amateur aspirations of Deren, but wish to develop a work following the ambition of SEL, that may only with difficulty, if at all, be rendered in words? Purposefully misunderstanding the amateur cue from Deren, I propose utilising available means, not to make the final work, but to create an intermediary that either replaces or stands in parallel to the written word: To work with the video sketch as a foundational tool.

Personal experiences:

Here is a brief summary of my artistic development so far: Amateur video and animation creator -> Architecture-> Video- and installation art -> VFX work and music videos -> Writing-based narrative fiction -> Devising and improvisation based narrative fiction and documentary hybrids -> Devising and Sketching based narrative fiction.

When I joined the film education collective Super16[37] I felt comfortable making visual art, but inexperienced in narrative storytelling. Through mentoring by Annette K. Olesen, I became fascinated with “devising” as a method in which the script originates from collaborative, improvisatory work by a performing ensemble.[38] I was very inspired by Mike Leigh, and especially Poul Clements’ description of his process in “The Improvised Play”[39]. I made three short films using variations of devising methods to fuel the writing process. At the time, staging and directing felt like separate disciplines, but it became evident to me that devising also had certain aesthetic and productional advantages. It made it artistically and practically possible to create works that I could never have conceived at my desk: “Kiss my Brother”[40] with its choreography and outlook of a physically impaired protagonist, “Liv”[41] made through collaboration with an entire fishing village and “Barvalo”[42], a strictly Mike Leighian film, made in collaboration with Danish families with Roma backgrounds. When I look back on the short films as a whole, I realise that they were all created out of a practical, physical and aesthetic chaos. They were all materialised through improvisation and devising, with a constant search for meaningful aesthetic and practical bits and pieces to put into a film. I rarely felt like I had a clear idea for a film in my mind, which I then materialised. I rather felt like I conducted methodical work to create material and then reorganised the possibilities and material into a film, curated by my taste, desires and circumstances.

However, when I was no longer a student, and applied for funding through New Danish Screen (NDS), I felt a formal pressure to write first, then develop using cinematic form. Although this was very foreign to me, I did manage to secure an initial grant for a project: for writing. The step from no-budget student to low-budget talent also meant I was obligated and wanted to provide a salary for my collaborators. I ended up performing a rough devising process out of my own salary, within the arena of my proposed film, but it was not really what I was supposed to be doing with regards to NDS. It also made me very poor, since I spent 3-4 times longer; working in the arena and writing at the same time. The project was eventually turned down after an evaluation of the script only. A few months later NDS came out with ”The Sketch” and obviously I applied straight away.

My debut feature film Cutterhead[43] started from a desire to explore the temporary microcosm of the then ongoing Metro construction taking place all around and under Copenhagen. The conditions from NDS were to qualify a proposed low-budget film through a 12-minute video clip and optional text. We established a collaboration with Valerio Violo, the head of the tunnel-boring contractor, and ventured underground. I worked with actress Christine Sønderris who, as a devising-probe, collided with the arena and people in it, in character. Meanwhile we; cinematographer, sound designer, production designer and producer, explored the practical and aesthetic possibilities of making a film in the ongoing construction. We found a story that very much relies on choreography and progression through physical spaces. The project became fully funded, based on the collection of video sketches. Then the script was written with no pressure to qualify or finance further, other than our own artistic ambitions.

The collection of sketches can be found here: - the password is “sanktbarbara”.

The film had a long festival run and theatrical release in Denmark and France, and is now widely available to stream worldwide. One poignant comment, with regards to the cinematic attributes of the film, was the special mention from the CphPix jury:

"For creating a Hitchcockian pressure chamber that pumps the adrenaline and stokes the claustrophobia of its audience. A very physical experience leaving us wanting for more visions from this director.” (Leite, Lafosse, and Ganslandt 2018)

I recognise the physical aspect and Hitchcock reference as relating to the idea of Pure Cinema, making it a case where the sketching process qualified cinematic qualities, during the initial development.


The following is a step-by-step description of the sketching process in the ongoing development process of a proposed feature film. It is composed of notes, lists and results, combined with thoughts on the process.

Before sketching begins

I believe the sketching process benefits from having a stated goal from the outset. Namely, something to aim for or a specific field of interest, other than just a joy in the unknown. It is a very open process, but a couple of ideas help me stay on-point when looking for materials; ideas of what a cinematic quality is, as well as some sense of feasibility in a feature film. Most importantly I rely on my own feeling of personal resonance with the materials I find. I do not necessarily need to be able to (in words) qualify why something is “right”. It most certainly can just “feel right” to me, and if I can show it to someone else and see a similar resonance, even better.


My initial desire for this process was to make a film that has “The Body as Arena”. Exactly what that means, I might never clarify, but it gives me direction and narrows the field of interest to something manageable. I deliberately avoid seeking other films or art that explores the theme, as I’m not looking for finished results, but rather for raw materials. It may be relevant to look at artworks and film references when the initial sketching is over, but not at this point. The first thing I do is to find ways to explore the concept of “The Body as Arena”. These are some very early notes:

What if I think of settings, not as spaces with bodies in them, but as bodies with space around them? What is the scale, level of detail? Visually and in sound? (skin, movement, need to be close?). A body is an entire world. How are rooms and open spaces formed, technically and aesthetically around bodies? Are the spaces of no importance at all? What is it like inside the body? How does the blood flow in the veins? Does the nervous system have a sound? What rhythms, what noise? What harmonies, what resonances, dissonances? What wanted and comforting sounds, what unwanted and scary? How are separate bodies affected by each other’s sounds? Parent/child/stranger.

I didn’t know at the time, but the “parent/child/stranger” note led to the decision to work with these three social positions between the characters later on. I then researched sounds from the circulatory and nervous systems. Here is another note:

John Cage writes “there is no silence, only deterministic and non-deterministic sound.” In the anechoic room he found that he has two self-noises; a low frequency flow of blood and a high frequency of the nervous system.”

I then found out that in recent scientific research[44], it has been proposed that signals between nerve cells are not electrical, but rather sound waves in liquid. I felt an intuitive connection to this idea, in the way I personally experience being affected by external and internal sounds. It might not be “true” in a scientific sense, but it feels true to me. Moreover, “sound waves in liquid” made me think of diving and the way sound moves and feels differently underwater. I believe this affected my idea to set the story in a landscape by the sea at a later stage. I noted:

Does the consciousness have a sound? Do different people have different sounds? Does the soul have a sound or a song? Could you listen to and learn someone else’s sound? E.g. grandmother dies, grandchild knows her sound, no one else knows (maybe the audience). She could hear it later as a ghost. What are the sounds of health and strength? Heartbeats, lungs? What are the sounds of disease? Old age?

This led me to a field of medicine called auscultation[45]; the internal sounds of the body. A digital stethoscope manufacturer “ThinkLabs” has a YouTube channel with high-quality recordings of heart and lung sounds.[46] When listening to these catalogues of sounds I went through a variety of emotions. The constant normal heartbeat was somewhat comforting, while watery crackling in the lungs gave me a feeling of great discomfort. These are not rational responses, since I am no medical professional. They are rather subconscious responses, connected to my own situation; being conscious within my own body. This is a philosophical field of its own, but I left it alone at the time. At the same time, I recognised that being inside a body (ausculatively speaking) resembles being underwater. Foetus references came to mind. I got the feeling that I was on to something that made sense as a component in a cinematic form: Underwater relates to being inside the body, and the body as an arena. However, so far, this is not sketching, still just researching.

Having jumped into the rabbit hole of medical sound- and image making, I found other inspiration for material: image creation through fMRI scanning, tissue samples and micrography. These were also really interesting and could in some form go into sketching or simply go into a film, if it made sense down the line. Continuing my new interest in the circulatory system I found that there is an old idea in medicine, to connect the circulatory systems of two organisms in parabiosis. This has been performed with mice, in labs, but has lately also been suggested as a form of rejuvenation procedure for humans; to have a young person transfer some of their health to an older person. As it turns out, the young mouse becomes anatomically “older” too. Further down the rabbit hole I found “Longevity” start-ups selling blood from young people to old rich people, in a dubious attempt to counter the aging process. There are some exciting ethical dilemmas of capitalist influencer start-up mentality, with a podcast[47] as an example, more or less advocating for slavery and the abolishment of human rights – a post-human field. For a while, I played around with the idea of a plot: An older medical professional makes a deal with a young “lab rat”, to share circulatory systems in order to rejuvenate the old one.

It was around this time I wrote the following short description of the story-idea plus a couple of pages on my intended sketching process, and, with my producer and collaborator Amalie Lyngbo Quist, applied for initial development funding from the DFI. I wrote the following pitch, as well as a description of my method of sketching before or while writing:

Ji is a Korean single mother and factory worker, who one day is visited by Ann, an older Danish doctor, who owns a global medical company. Ann hires Ji to risk her life in a medical experiment, where they mix their genes, so Ji’s body produces the substance Ann needs to survive. The experiment is a success and it creates a deep connection between them. The exchange not only takes a toll on Ji’s good health, but also her relation to her daughter, who is seduced by Ann’s wealth and effortless care. Ann then adopts Ji’s daughter when Ji is close to dying. But Ji doesn’t die; As an unexpected consequence of the experiment, Ji is reborn as a genetic copy of Ann, taking over her power and privileges, with her daughter as heir.

Looking back at it now, I recognise that I was also influenced by travelling in South Korea and contemporary politics concerning adoption. I had probably seen Malene Choi’s “The Return”[48] and/or Sun Hee’s “Forget me not”[49]. In my research I had found that South Korea has one of the world’s most liberal systems for experimental medicine and human trials. It is an interesting example of a sort of medical colonialism.

We were lucky enough to receive a “first draft” grant from DFI commissioner Silje Riise Næs, with a clear premise that sketching was part of the process, already funded by the National Danish Film School. The plan was then to conduct a video-sketching process with this basic plot for a story, and have it affect the writing of the script. The sketching process was ready to take off! But… Circumstances such as a student blockage at the National Danish Film School and the first Covid-19 lockdown meant that it took a very long time before we could actually perform the workshops needed for the video-sketching process. In order to maintain momentum in the project I decided to deviate from my method and simply write a first draft of the screenplay, without doing anything more than the initial research. However, when I finished the draft I was so unhappy with it that I put it back in the drawer and decided to wait until it was possible to get the workshops up and running. I was mainly dissatisfied because it did not feel like a cinematic project.

This gave me time to reconsider my story ideas. While I liked the simple high-concept idea for its physical intimacy in a heavily class-influenced bargain, I also found that “to live forever” is not at character motivation I relate to. On the other hand, I can relate to a character with a disease, wanting to be cured. Even more so I can relate to a parent of a child with a disease, wanting their child to be cured, almost no matter what it takes, including drawing on another person through parabiosis. It may sound banal, but in this case, for a plot, I think banal is good. It leaves space for the film to more than the logistics of the story. During the writing of the “secret” draft, I also grew tired of the plot construction where strangers meet, clash and connect. I also felt that it was not necessarily my desire or place to tell a pseudo-adoption story, when others have a more personal connection to the subject.

But I did come up with some new ideas that would become a starting point for video sketches: In the script I had the idea of setting the story (complementing the “body as arena”) in a collage of landscapes from where I grew up – Thy, in the north-western part of Jutland. The sea, wind, salt and sand will eventually erase any trace of human activity, so maybe the landscape could be an externalisation of “the inevitable transformation of everything”? There is a connecting poetic in that. It is a landscape I know very well and have a personal relation to. However, because I know the landscape so well, going out on a location scout did not appeal to me as sketch material. I felt like I knew what I would find and want to work with, so I might as well wait for the actual pre-production. I did, however, write a scene where a character, after dying, is released into the water and consumed by a myriad of crabs on the bottom. I saw some appealing horror and beauty in that. I then got the idea that a character could be picked clean by crabs on the ocean floor and be reborn as something new; a sea creature of some kind. Something akin to the “Ji’s rebirth as Ann” element from the original plot idea, but also something completely different. I changed my idea of the relationships between the characters slightly, so it was now a parent (medically skilled), her terminally ill daughter (lung condition inspired by the sounds), and a stranger-donor. I had circled back to the “parent/child/stranger” note from very early on.

With all this writing and researching, was I still in the initial phase of the development? Even though I had gone through the secret first draft of a screenplay, I would still consider the sketching process as the foundational phase of the development: The discarded writing in this case serves as very thorough research that informs the sketching. If I had a finished script to build upon and “solve”, it would be another kind of sketching. Something closer to staging or pre-production, which I would not consider foundational. At this point it was still a fairly loose idea for a story, making it a good ground for exploration, looking for unknown qualities that come to life in a cinematic form, without being too specific. After this massive detour, while the covid restrictions in Denmark were momentarily relaxed and the National Danish Film School was not in too much internal conflict, it was finally time to start sketching.

Planning meaningful sketches

I started planning the actual sketching process based on the research and the idea of the characters: “parent - child - stranger”. I was aiming for a limited field of interest and a specific method for the individual sketch. In other words, I needed to know how we were going to work, but not what we would create. The following are headlines for the sketches I decided to do in the first of two workshops. In the documentation further below, the individual sketches are described in more detail.

Overall theme -> Body as Arena

For the workshop I engaged the following collaborators:

Actor 1: Coco Hjardemaal

Actor 2: Johanne Louise Schmidt

Cinematographer: Martin Munch

Sound recordist: Duran Darkins

Choreographer: Edhem Jesenkovich

Line producer: Lea Lykke

I have performed a great deal of work in the past with Martin, some with Lars and Duran and a little with Johanne. The rest of the collaborations were new. We hired a few production assistants and a camera assistant and producer Amalie Lyngbo Quist was involved to observe. We also established a collaboration with “Øresundsakvariet”, a branch of Copenhagen University, which has a public aquarium in Helsingør. For practical reasons, we then divided the workshop into two parts: a few days in the studio at the Film School and a few days at the aquarium and at sea.

Workshop 1

Thoughts on choosing to involve a choreographer and actors:

Edhem is a choreographer, with experience as a dancer and choreographer from a large number of modern dance performances. I chose to involve him to help focus on the physical qualities of the bodies in space and bodies in relation to each other. I chose to work with actors, rather than dancers, so as not to move too far away from a production context, where I would most likely cast professional actors. However, I chose two players with whom I feel have a strong physical consciousness and expression. I met with Edhem before the workshop and agreed how we should approach it. We talked about my ideas for the story and my desire to work with the body as an arena. From this, he came up with a “shopping list” of exercises and improvisations that he thought could be beneficial in working with the actors. These are his notes:

_Dear Rasmus. Here is a little plan from my side and that is of course flexible. Plan is in order. I think it works from a physical point of view so we progress from something that is not heavy on the body to something more advanced.

Warm up ca. 45 min.

Improv tasks:

  1. Weight support between 2 bodies (“listening” to each other with different body parts)
  2. Trust (closed eyes, fall, catch take care, alertness)
  3. Receiving information and acting on it (give impulses, receive impulses to a different body parts)
  4. Dummy (getting up from the floor empty without any feeling, emotions or colours, complete emptiness and effortless – almost slow motion moving in space)
  5. Manipulation (one manipulates the other; one is giving the other one is listening)
  6. Deep connection (staying connected constantly, being glued with different body parts and finding a way to move from A to B )
  7. Inhalation – hyperventilation (how the breath can affect our ability to move and function)
  8. Heaviness (looking for different ways to make a body triple the size of your own, not necessarily expression but feeling in the body?)
  9. Not letting go (one is off the floor on the top of another, finding different ways to move on the top of the body not using the floor)

I understand these are common contact improvisation exercises, and recognise how they relate to other impro- and devising practices that I’m more familiar with. I recognise that there is no stated goal for the exercises, but rather descriptions of methods. It is stated what to do, but not what is supposed to become.

I now had two “plans”: My own list of sketches and Edhem’s plan. I decided to use Edhem’s plan to structure the workshop and my own list of sketches as a shopping list. In that way, several of the exercises initiated by Edhem could feed into different sketches.

Guide to watching the materials:

After collecting the video material, I started to “mould and fashion” using Davinci Resolve; montage, colour correction and sound editing, whatever felt relevant to the material. I began by conducting a broad selection of anything and everything I felt a connection to. It ended up with around 2 hours of material. I then started to reduce everything that felt was redundant and condensed it down to 45 min. I then watched the material, while narrating my immediate thoughts and emotions into a microphone. Finally, I re-edited the material, independent of how it was shot, by the logic of my sketches.

Materials from different improvisations are used and manipulated for different purposes in different sketches. The reasoning behind this is that it is not the “what we do on the day” that is the sketch. Rather, the sketch is what the material becomes when it is selected, combined, worked with in Davinci Resolve or in another way – and experienced. The videos below are all exported solely for the purpose of this paper. I make it a point in my collaborations to show the sketches directly from the editing software, so that we can quickly change the colours, add or omit a layer of sound, combine other clips, etc. Of course, this is only possible if people are in the same room, so it is a hard rule to follow. I also break the rule when I hand in material, e.g. to a commissioner.

Every video has an audio layer where I narrate what qualities I see and what thoughts I have about them. In that way, every video becomes a little essay. The written commentary after each video is focused on how the sketch points forward and some reflections on whether I find it successful or not. Please note that, for a sketch to be successful, it does not need to feel like something that could be a part of a finished work. If the sketch creates a thought, an experience or the seed for another sketch, I find that equally successful.

Parameters for success:

And a couple of bonus producer questions:

Sketch 1 - Sketch 1: Compositions that work with “the body as a landscape”.

How can one experience the body as a landscape? Rolling hills, valleys, caves, plains, etc. - How does it become meaningful aesthetically? How does it possibly play with the conventional “landscape” - the heath, forest, ledge, etc. Maybe it is a macro exercise?

Sketch 1 - Body as a landscape - 3:41

It helps to omit recognisable features, such as fingers or faces. Moreover, it helps to have more than one body in a shot – it confuses your sense of orientation and scale. To a spider or a bug, the skin of a person is an entire world. Topology of skin on the back of an actor. Creates hills, like a map. Flat, graphic style. Something very visceral to marks on skin when pressed, stressed, pinched, etc. Something you rarely see in a meaningful context in a film, but very human and recognisable; touch, painful, pleasurable, etc. This very simplistic approach does have its limitations. The illusion is easily broken. Bugs are at risk of appearing silly. I like the bodies in this non-space of the studio. Keeps focus on the body. Could also be done with shallow depth of field, on a more concrete location? This could and should be explored a lot more, in context with a script.

Ideas for further exploration: Grading, depth of field, washing of colours in distance (like a mountain range) Overlapping dialogue: Have images be very strict and abstract, combine with character exchange.

Sketch 2 - Separation between bodies and the world.

Can the body be equal to the surrounding world? Other materials? Forest floor, rock, sand, etc.?

Notes: This subject was not touched upon in the first workshop.

Sketch 3 - Damages

How to break through the skin and work aesthetically with wounds, surgery, healing, iodine, cleansing? Things where one changes the surface or topology of the body. - SFX workshop? + Catalogue of wounds, scars, injuries and scratches we can find on people? Wet, dry, sweat, etc.

Sketch 3 - Damages - 1:33

Notes: Choreography in showing damages - time - stories related to body - cuts, injuries, vulnerability - letting us closer – could be something used quite early in a story to establish a focus on the body as a thing. This is a very narrow sketch. It explores choreography in the situation where you show a part of your body and tell a story about it. It makes the body an object and the injuries traces of a personal history. However, I still find it very interesting. This situation could be a set piece in a story and I could definitely build something around it.

Ideas for further exploration:

Sketch 4 - Water and body

What else can you do with the skin? Body + Textile + Water

From extremely dirty to clean? (soap, foam)

Notes: This subject was not touched upon in the first workshop.

Sketch 5: Body sounds

What sounds do the bodies have? How does the blood flowing through the veins sound? How does the nervous system sound? What rhythms, what noise is inside, subjectively? What sounds can be shared? What harmonies, resonances, dissonances? What desired and safe sounds, what unwanted and eerie? How are the bodies affected by each other’s sounds?

Sketch 5 - Internal sounds - 1:27

Notes: In this sketch I combined a shot of the throat and visible pulse, with different heart and lung sounds. Even without story context and without medical knowledge, I go through different emotions when I watch and listen to this. There is something comforting and calming to the “normal” steady pulse, while there is something alarming in the arrhythmic and noisy ones. I come to think of on-the-nose sound effects where you hear an audible pulse on the soundtrack, causing your own pulse to go up and create an effect. It’s cheesy, but it works. Maybe there is a way to refine it and make it an integral part of the film? Something that makes it feel natural and “deserved”, so it’s not experienced as a gimmick that takes you out of the immersion in the story.

Moreover, I come to think of personal experiences where I have been very aware of my own pulse, from anxiety. Too much focus on the pulse and I become uneasy. I suppose that can be used, if done right.

Ideas for further exploration: I still need to do some more refined sketching with this, where it is a part of a concrete scene and situation. In order for it to become a “set piece”, as Glazer puts it, it needs to feel a little more as a whole.

Sketch 6: Breathing

There is a development in how the characters breathe. Agnes from having a sick, rasping, Velcro-like sound in her breathing. The sound comes from fluid in the lungs, from dead tissue and the intensity of the sound is coupled 1:1 with how sick she is. It must also affect her voice and the way she speaks. In the beginning, she has oxygen tubes in her nose, which add extra oxygen to the breathing. They must also have a sound, and affect both breathing and voice. She gets more and more healthy, so her breathing is freed from the rasping sound and she becomes a “normal” child. Jin: From strong, healthy and young - to the noise and blockage of breath - stops breathing - and to siren screams through the throat. Is there also a “vocal” sound underwater?

Sketch 6 - Breathing - 4:37

There are different ways I can approach this. A natural situation where this takes place is at the medical examination: The doctor listens to your blood flow and lungs as a part of their work. When you are close to someone you also hear their sounds.

Maybe it is a recurring motif; first at the doctor’s examination, then in a private situation; could be one character listens to another. A character has an alarming sound, but it is kept a secret between a character and the audience. And then maybe at some point it becomes an atmospheric sound, so that we move – in sound at least – from outside the body to inside. We get to know the sound, at part of the arena.

Sketch 7: Sounds in water.

How does a sea creature, with an intact human subjectivity, experience the world underwater? How can we explore the world beneath the surface as an audible arena, then can go from being a hostile, dangerous place, to a domestic one. In the same way that the wind is heard in the trees, could the current be heard underwater?

Sketch 7 - Underwater sounds - 1:20

NOTES We didn’t do a lot of work in this field. As a side effect of our crab experiments (Sketch 9), we found out that there is no human sense of direction from sound underwater, because sound travels faster in liquid than in air. Also sound travels further underwater than in air: A boat can be quite far away and still feel like it is right next to you. There might be some element I can draw from this, but I’m not sure what and how.

Sketch 8: The conjoining - parabiosis

I have a loose idea that Jin and Agnes are to be “sewn” together. It’s a pretty intimate condition, possibly a bit like being Siamese twins, or like a mother with a baby in her womb. The voices must be affected when they are so close to each other. And one must become very aware of each other’s sounds, when one hears every smack and a whisper. What if you want to have a private conversation with a third person? Should one then listen to music while the other speaks? And can’t you still feel the vibrations?

Sketch 8 - The Conjoining - 8:30

NOTES This was a regular devising exercise, where the two actors played off of each other, from a clear situation: “You will have to be surgically conjoined, figure out where.” One thing I felt strongly was a hesitation towards them being strangers; so, under negotiating the conjoining, they are also getting to know each other for the first time. It is a completely different basis for a story if the characters are establishing a new relationship compared to if we meet them when they are already involved. This is a common side effect of devising from scratch. However, being very experienced actors, they started trying things out; Johanne getting annoyed and taking it out on Coco, as an example. They started feeling a bit like siblings and to have little conflicts where clear character traits came to the fore. So, aside from experiencing the physical effects of being this close together, I also started to get an idea of the possible characters. After the improvisation, I interviewed both the actors about what took place there. This is a standard part of the process as expressed in, for example, Mike Leigh’s process. This gave additional insights to the possible characters. I then decided to have Coco perform another small improvisation: Improvise a vocal letter to Johanne, based on this experience. I then combined her monologue with some of the more abstract exercises:

Sketch 8b - The Letter - 2:50

This gave me an experience of suddenly being much closer to a narrative. That this character had gone through an emotional transformation. I assume that if I had used a trained dancer instead of an actor, I would not have achieved this result. Coco, in a way, translated a series of physical improvisations and one character improv, into a character with an arc. Even though I may not use the “negotiation” as a scene in the screenplay, I know that I can use many of the minor details from the improvisations.

Sketch 9: Crabs!

I imagine that a character, after being transformed into a big grotesque tumour, is dumped in the water. The crabs come crawling and peel away the excess, leaving her reborn as a sea creature.

Sketch 9- CRABS! - 12:58

Most of my notes are in the narration in the video. Therefore, I’ll just sum up what I found.

We obtained some knowledge into what it would take to work with living crabs underwater. On the one hand it is very difficult and tricky, but, on the other, even in a couple of days, we found ways to create really beautiful shots. I would feel comfortable writing scenes for this. We also had conversations with biologists and divers about the underwater natural environment in Denmark. It is a little-known fact that we have areas with beautiful and wild underwater landscapes. We are used to imagining a muddy sea floor with no life except the occasional flounder or cod. But that is totally wrong. There is a great potential to show a hidden world that could have enormous significance for our lives and society. If we could show how colourful and amazing our natural world is under the water, as well as above? By this I imply areas that should be protected much better, etc. I see a potential in setting this film out from other Danish films by having much of it take place underwater. As far as I know, no one in Denmark has accomplished a proper production underwater. Maybe we can hire a team of divers and have the actors learn to free-dive. Or we can research whether we could do a virtual production setup, in a water tank, to make an environment we can better control. This is definitely worthy of further investigation!

Another takeaway from this sketch is colour. It was interesting to see how the light, just a few metres below, turned extremely green. The red light does not penetrate very far through water, so it is the green that dominates. We used artificial light on the teddy bear and the crabs, so there was a huge separation and depth in the image, between our (almost) full spectrum light and the green of the background. I find it extremely interesting, because it is a completely different way of experiencing the world: That part of the colour spectrum disappears over distance. You could thus make camera movements underwater, which by virtue of distance (dolly in) will give a movement in the colours – e.g. from greenish to full spectrum. During workshop 1 we managed to work a little bit with the field. We tested three-colour lighting; RGB, from different angles. This creates white light and coloured drop shadows. It also provides primary coloured reflections in water and in wet skin. Like oil refracting light or like the skin of an eel. All of this made me want to revisit Göethe’s colour theory[50] and one of my favourite books, Josef Albers’ “Interaction of colour”[51]. It also made me think of the “Skagen Painters”[52] who very notably work with perceived colour in light and shadow by the North Sea. This alone is an area for further exploration. It would be interesting to explore whether there are other ways of working with “colour in relation to distance”, to create an unique cinematic style for the story.

After workshop 1

I will now try to sum up what I have taken with me from the first batch of sketches.

Other notes: It was very difficult for me to get the sound designer, Lars Halvorsen, involved in these sketches, which was somewhat frustrating. He was not interested in being on set, even though he would not be there as a recordist. He did not seem to respond to the method or research material or themes. My hunch is that he wished for a much more concrete task and story to tell. That this process was too open and unclear for his creative temperament. In any case, it was important to me to get him involved in workshop 2, somehow!

I then started to write the screenplay from scratch, while planning workshop 2.

Workshop 2:

I decided to narrow my focus on a couple of findings from workshop 1. My idea was to iterate on the sketches, either in depth on an existing idea or from new ideas that sprung from the first batch of sketches.

I decided upon these two:

  1. Colour dynamics underwater: How to technically work with colour in relation to depth? It became a very technical exploration as you will see.

  2. Mermaid scream / voice: Elaborate on the idea of a mermaid voice and scream, with someone who has a lot of control over their voice - an opera singer.

Sketch B1 - Depth and colour

In the time surrounding this work I became part of a network, connecting people who work in the emerging field of Virtual Production. I asked the network if someone knew how to work with colour in relation to distance. Anders Thorsby, a very experienced production pipeline supervisor, joined to help out. Allan O Lyckow, who has many years of experience with motion control and motion tracking, then invited us to come and experiment at “The Volume”, a temporary virtual production space at Filmgear. Here ,we met Marti Stærfeldt who is a CGI and VFX designer and Unreal Engine operator. Along with Martin Munch, the cinematographer, we started working on a test workflow.

We quickly found out that this had probably not previously been achieved. This meant two things; that it would potentially be a very original take on the cinematic image, and that it would be very difficult or even impossible.

Sketch B1 - Depth and colour - 2:38

We did not find a workflow that enables us to create a perfect depth map that corresponds to the material we shot on the cinema camera. As it turned out, this is really difficult. However, we became better at understanding the difficulties. As I say in the clip, “we are only beginning to scratch the surface” of how to work with this. We do have a workflow that enables us to pre-visualise the concept of colour in relation to distance, by creating a scene using 3D CGI software. That way we achieve a perfect depth map.

Working with colour like this resembles the way focus and depth of field works; i.e. a character or an object can be in a shallow focus, to create separation and focus of interest in the cinematic image. A well-known effect and creative choice in every shot being an effect of the aperture and focal length of the lens. Working with colour in a similar (or completely different) way, could have a similar potential as a creative choice. It would be a cinematic language that would have to be “negotiated” with the audience, who are not used to it.

We will continue to experiment and look for a workflow that makes it possible. If not for this film, then for another.

Sketch B2: Opera + Mermaid - 4:00

As I had started to write the script, I had the idea of having a character sing an old psalm, a favourite of mine: “Se nu stiger Solen”. So I had Hedvig start out from this. I have to be honest and admit that this session was not very successful. Because of scheduling problems, we were only able to spend an hour or so together, so we did not get very far. It was, however, interesting just to try working with an opera singer, and experience this kind of instrumental control over a voice. Maybe further down the line we will know why we did this. Again, I had difficulties engaging the sound designer in the collaboration. Something I will get back to later.

After the workshops

I now had a relatively large selection of more or less coherent sketches and experiences. With these in mind, I set out to finish the first draft of the script. For other financing purposes a short synopsis was written that outlines the story as it stands in this draft:

“Mermaids” is a sensory fairy tale chronicling medical professional MOTHER (45)’s quest to save her terminally ill daughter AGNES (12). Agnes has cancerous tissue spreading in her lungs and the doctors’ advice to Mother is clear: Enjoy the time you have left and let go. But Mother cannot. She brings Agnes to her own birth island, a natural reserve off the coast of Denmark, in order to carry out her secret treatment, transferring her own tissue and life force to Agnes. She is aided by an elderly local, RAGNHILD. The treatment weakens Mother. Eventually her heart gives out, but Ragnhild and Agnes bring her back to life. The treatment and shock causes Agnes to mutate, covering her skin with slimy tissue and seemingly killing her. Mother and Ragnhild release her body into the ocean. But Agnes isn’t dead; she wakes up in a mutated body resembling the mermaids of fairy tales, with the ability to breathe underwater. As a natural catastrophe strikes the island, Mother finds Agnes again, and accepts her daughter as a creature of the sea.

Since this research and method fundamentally concerns the cinematic qualities that are not captured in words, the script focuses on character development and narrative drive, while leaving space for approximating to cinematic quality by describing it. Here is an example from the script:[53]

Mother’s swimsuit is completely black in the distance, as the red colour disappears with distance underwater. As she gets closer, the red colour becomes clear again.

I delivered a package to the film commissioner at the DFI, consisting of a 90-page draft of the screenplay, a 35-minute collection of video sketches (the sketches above, in one file, in a different order) and a motivational letter.

The film commissioner responded a few weeks later with the following, in her invitation to further discussion and – thankfully – additional funding:

… I am also very happy with the delivery format - with cinematic sketches, the director’s thoughts and various forms of visual testing, including filming of marine life in controlled forms! It’s a good way to immerse yourself in the film’s artistic ambitions, technique, identity and direction. … I also think one clearly sees the strength in combining the written word with a form of cinematic and philosophical testing. What I experience, perhaps paradoxically, is that the sketch comes closer to what I perceive as the essence of the film than what the script might do in its first draft form. In fact, I must admit that if this was a manuscript I did not know the process around, which I read with regular consultant glasses, there was probably a certain danger that it could end up in the rejection pile. Instead, I’m left as a consultant with a fruitful starting point for a conversation with you about the entire result you have delivered. I must also say that it is rare that a first draft and overall reporting has triggered as many different thoughts in me as it did here!

At this point the project leaves the foundational phase, and therefore concludes the empirical part of the research.


How is the creative process affected, when initial development is video based as opposed to words based?

I set out to create a foundation for developing a feature film, using cinematic language through video sketching. I did not expect a wordless process, but I am surprised by how many words I ended up getting through in search of cinematic materials: words in researching, preparing and communicating fields of interest to be explored. I even wrote an entire script that I discarded before truly committing to exploration by way of sketching. This somewhat goes against my stated methodology, forcing me to take a critical look at my process. What makes me gravitate towards words, contrary to my stated intention? Is it easier, more accessible and cheaper? Maybe it feels safer to stay away from cinematic form, to have the ideas unmaterialised for longer, avoiding judgement, my own and others’? A more pragmatic and answerable question could be: When are words the right medium, and when are they a hindrance to the cinematic language? The process above tells me that words are helpful when they help establish a creative arena in which non-word-based qualities can surface. A process completely devoid of words has a greater risk of being directionless, leading to exploration without coherence. To be more specific, in this case words are helpful when they help inform or communicate a specific task, but not when they are used to communicate a final creative choice.

I would like to point out a danger in working with video-sketching as a foundational tool: the risk of staying in the plane of ideas, not materialising them into the plane of substance, what Shelley calls “materials”. When you write a screenplay, you go from abstract ideas and intentions to more concrete description. It is obviously not a film as yet, but a concrete intermediary. An abstract idea or intention for a cinematic quality, written or spoken, is not materialised. Staying in the safe plane of ideas may be a way of protecting yourself against the brutal reality of materialising them. Unmaterialised ideas are safe against shortcomings and critique, materials are not.

Are there qualities that are better or only possible to qualify using video?

I would not have come up with the aesthetic technique for working with colour in relation to distance without using video sketching as a tool – let alone qualify the idea and have it connect with other ideas to form a story element. The idea of colour in relation to distance might be possible to describe in text from a technical standpoint, but it cannot be sensed. Therefore I conclude that there are in fact qualities that are only possible to qualify using video, colour/distance being just an example from my own praxis.

I feel it opens up further questions about what cinematic qualities are, and how they relate to ways of being and perceiving, but this is a research field on its own. This research only deals with how, in a creative process, you can approach working with cinematic qualities.

Can it be an artistic advantage to work in a non-word-based intermediary in early development?

A critique of foundational sketching could be that it is working with form before or without content. This is also the main advantage. Many praxes of film production are seen as “supporting a vision”, “staging”, “solving” or in other ways, designing to form to fit the content. The creative process of working with video sketches as a foundational tool is different from the words-based process, in that it implies working with what is usually considered form, before what is usually considered content. I am interested in form as content, rather than the form representing, staging or dealing with content. Video sketching as a foundational tool is thus different to video sketching as a tool to advance a written foundation. The latter kind comes after writing, whereas the foundational sketching is done either before, in parallel or instead of writing. Whether it is an advantage, depends on the context and artistic intention in early development.

Interfacing with the formal system

In this case, the formal system is a single commissioner at the DFI. Of course she cannot be taken as a representative for formal systems in general. I can only claim that at this time, with this project and this commissioner, the method of working with video sketches as a foundational tool works very well. I might take the commissioner’s comments on the script as a hint that I am a poor writer, or at least that my cinematic language is stronger than my written language. Or I could insist that the primary qualities of this development, so far, are in video form and therefore the manuscript should not be expected to qualify the same things. To critique my own screenwriting, I see my attempt to “complete” the story in the draft, apart from the sketches, even though I insist on the sketches being equally or more important at this stage. I continue to impose a pressure on myself, to qualify everything in writing. So now I ask myself, why do I try to write something that I insist cannot be written? I think part of the answer is fear of rejection. I suspected the commissioner to be evaluating the writing ahead of the sketching. This time I was proved wrong. This leaves me with an even stronger desire to be very precise with regards to the purpose of my writing and my video-sketching, respectively. Because in the end, what is good for the development of the film should also be good for interfacing with formal systems, as well as financial and commercial partners. Setting myself false goals of qualification one way or the other, through writing or otherwise should be avoided. The reason for this is obvious; the formal systems are full of sentient human beings who respond to the cinematic language, just like I do.

Comparing this process with sketching for Cutterhead

Comparing this process to the Cutterhead process is, in some ways, comparing apples and oranges. Cutterhead was a one-location film in its poetics and plot; progression through narrowing spaces, physically, mentally and aesthetically. The arena was limited to the Metro construction, where the current project has a more open arena and aesthetic. “The body as an arena” is harder for me to define than “The metro construction as an arena”. I find the result above more open and exploratory than the collection of sketches for Cutterhead. The Cutterhead sketches felt much closer to a finished production, which was both good and bad. Good because the sketches felt like slices from a finished film, making it easy for both the commissioners at New Danish Screen, as well as sales agents and festival programmers, to see the artistic and commercial potential in our proposed film. We were also able to precisely budget the production, because much of the sketching was of a similar practical scale as the following production. They were in fact “vertical slices”[54]. Lastly, some of the sketch material worked so well that we ended up using it in the final edit. This made the following production slightly cheaper, which is crucial when you are on a tight budget. It was bad that the Cutterhead sketches felt much closer to a finished production, because having the sketch material enter into the finished film gives very strict creative limitations: We were stuck with our initial choices for cast, costumes, shooting style, etc.; many of the central choices that affect the cinematic qualities of a film. Not to speak of the need for the material to fit within the narrative. Or perhaps the other way around; the narrative to fit around the cinematic qualities, as there was no script when the sketches were shot. In other words, the form of the film was already set when the sketches were finished. It would have been better to be able to learn from the practical and artistic experiences through the sketch, and make alternative choices to implement in the production. Thus the initial sketches for Cutterhead were not limited to the initial process, but reached all the way to the final projection. What is not visible in the 12-minute video sketch for Cutterhead is the extended research and devising process that took place before the more production-like creation of the collected sketches. In that sense, you could compare the process above to what came before the production-like phase in the Cutterhead sketches.

Distinctions between Research, Sketching and Production

If I put the two sketching processes on a spectrum with research on one end, and production on the other, I would let the Cutterhead sketch cover part of production and the current process stay closer to research.

It is tempting to see sketching as a part of pre-production, in the sense that this is often where a script is staged, or translated into cinematic form.

But I would argue against it. Sketching as pre-production implies that there is an idea already developed and materialised, on which the work is based; most often the manuscript. This makes it harder, if not impossible, to base a development on purely cinematic qualities rather than written ones. It was definitely possible with New Danish Screen’s “The Sketch”, but there was also a strong emphasis on feasibility on a small budget. (3 mio. DKK). I think this emphasis made me and others show “pre-production-like” sketches, where we showed off what we already knew, rather than sketches that explored the purely cinematic, using cinematic language, more openly. “Skitsen” was not, as such, very concerned with how the idea was initially developed: What the foundation was.

I argue that foundational sketching should be seen as a field of its own instead of, or in parallel with writing. You could call it “Sketching as writing”, where words are substituted for video.

To go back to Mary Shelley’s humble admission, “the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.” Sketching, as a foundational tool, helps afford cinematic materials and brings into life the substance itself. Sketching can also be “moulding and fashioning”, but then it begins to leave the foundational phase.

Collaborations and means of production

I divide sketching into two practical categories: 1) Those I can perform on my own with the equipment I have access to myself. This approach offers a straight line from Maya Deren’s DIY argument. 2) Sketches that I perform through collaborations: In order to manifest a character you need an actor or non-actor, a complex photographic sketch needs a cinematographer, proper sound recording needs a recordist and so on.

Concerning technical equipment, because this project was within the National Danish Film School, I had access to a film studio and a very professional level of equipment, e.g. the Arri LF cinema camera and high-quality lenses. One could argue that this is not a neutral case study, compared to being an independent outfit, working outside of an institution. My experience tells me otherwise; camera rental houses, studio spaces and even post-production facilities are generally very welcoming, wanting little or no pay for their participation in experiments and early development. This is especially true if your team consists of professionals who have a good relationship with these businesses and have a steady flow of well-paying gigs with them. They have a much more direct and consistent relationship than any director would have. Plus, if you are setting out to make an experimental art film or anything that has a high level of artistic ambition, they see it as a welcome change from the daily grind.

Should this not be a viable solution, there are other ways to get gear; for example the Danske Filminstruktører finances “Solidaric Camera Rental”, a self-organised and free camera rental, that can be used by anyone who calls themselves a Director. You could also do as Werner Herzog claims [55] to have done, and steal the camera you need. A third option is having an eye on foundational sketching between projects, as was the case with Von Trier and his collaborators. Novel ideas can be a surplus from one production to the other, rather than a deliberate effort. The bottom line is this; equipment is not hard to gain access to.

With regards to editing, in order to be able to work with the material you create in a sketching process, you need a computer and editing software. I would argue that this is easier than ever before. Most people have, or have access to, a computer with sufficient data power. In recent years, the industry standard software for colour correction; Davinci Resolve, has become a versatile platform with professional editing, colour correction, sound editing, VFX compositing and delivering capabilities. This relatively new interweaving of capabilities is brilliant for the sketching process, since you can move between temporal editing, sound manipulation, colour correction and image manipulation without interruption. These capabilities used to be as expensive as an apartment, but today they are available for free. I would recommend Davinci Resolve [56] today, but tomorrow it might be something else. I would like to note that in the field of professional picture- and sound editing, you can encounter a degree of conservatism. As a personal anecdote, I had a surprisingly negative reaction to proposing Davinci Resolve as an alternative to AVID; the most common editing software platform in the industry, for a sketching workshop at the National Danish Film School. Regardless, I insist on a more open attitude to the ever-changing technological possibilities, for students and professionals alike, especially when it comes to sketching. Furthermore sound editors are, in my experience, very hesitant to deviate from the Avid/Protools workflow [57], but it is a hindrance for sketching as it turns the process into a one-way street; from temporal picture editing to sound editing and colour correction, and rarely back again.

For directors, I advocate a thorough understanding of available tools, methods and technology in the sketching process. If not for cinematic authors to be able to handle the tools themselves, then to be able to establish meaningful collaborations with others who do. To some extent this refers back to Maya Deren and her DIY approach to filmmaking. It is a sympathetic logic that a sketching process should be a dialogue with the technical, and be cheap and nimble, in order to move fast and not waste money. But there is another factor to consider; the depth of the collaboration: I find that discovering magnificent cinematic qualities, overcoming technical problems and finding novel solutions with your collaborators, deepens your collective knowledge of the qualities and especially how to recreate or develop them, when needed. You get a shorthand and a common understanding, even if you end up doing something different, but based on a shared knowledge.

It reminds me of how Mike Leigh describes his collaboration with actors [58], when they have to recreate a situation or emotion, based on an improvisation they have previously made, sometimes months or years prior to the actual production. They “know” the feeling that relates to the dialogue, because they were there when it was created. In fact, they were the ones who came up with it. The point is, it is not necessarily a bad idea to have the sketching process set up with the complexity of a small production, even though it takes more planning, more money and more time. This approach offers a wider range of possibilities and deepens the potential of the collaborations. It also makes sense to conduct some sort of productional benchmarking, so you realise how time consuming, expensive or risky a certain approach is, should you end up using the experiences in a full-blown production. However, this should be an afterthought, so as not to limit the creative freedom of the foundational process. If not, it enhances a risk of wanting to “produce a work” and not “explore in a sketch”. The production mindset is very different from the explorative mindset and it can be very difficult to keep yourself and others in the latter. I usually start my workshops with a little speech like this, from the above process:

We are going to explore using film form, in order to create a cinematic foundation for a film, to be made in the future. By doing this now we can discover and qualify essential cinematic elements that we cannot write or speak out. Qualities that are only possible to experience using the film language. And we are doing so early, to establish a premise around the cinematic ambitions for this film, among us, but also with commissioners and financiers. So we get room to breathe creatively.

We are not making a film yet. The materials we create during these explorations are not going to be a part of a finished film. The product is not important, but our shared experiences are. They will make the foundation for the future film. We should not limit ourselves to service plot points or character traits from the story I have hinted at, but can work thematically and aesthetically around them. We are not looking for anything specific, but we are looking for everything stimulating and amazing to us. Especially if we cannot describe it in words… Because we are not trying to do anything specific, we can’t fail. I’m happy if we only find a fragment, a movement or an idea for further exploration. We can in fact come home with nothing and it would be okay. However, I do expect us to find cinematic gold and rough diamonds in unknown places!

It is hardly every cinematographer, actor or sound designer who can engage in a process such as this. Some love the freedom of exploration, others feel very uncomfortable in its uncertainty. I don’t take this as good or bad traits in a collaborator, I take it as a difference in personal desire and creative temperament. Therefore, it is important to know your collaborators well and only invite those into the sketching process who feel comfortable in it. In the same way only some actors like to participate in devising, some collaborators in cinema-making like to take part in the initial creation.

To further expand on the collaborations, I offer some of my collaborators’ insights in a selection of statements from recorded interviews, after the workshops:


Martin Munch and I have been working together for more than a decade. I suppose he has become used to my way of working, as I often involve him in the very early development. But never as early as this.

This way of working is definitely more challenging than the classic role of the DOP. I normally read a script and think about the story. Then try to understand the mind of the director, to get a common language, usually based on references, and then we set a mood. … Then on set you react to the light, the set build or the location. When you do like this, go into the studio with a couple of actors and an abstract theme, you don’t know where to look or how to make it look. There is no reference, so you feel like “where am I, where is my creativity?”. That can be frightening, but eventually it makes you realize yourself a lot more. And it makes you look with a more open mind. … You are not trying to solve something anymore, but looking to discover something. And it might not even be in the shot, it might only be a discovery in your mind, at least so far. (Martin Munch 2021)

Martin continues to talk about the shared experience that stems from experimenting together, rather than basing the common language on references. This is something that Johanne elaborates upon:


Johanne Louise Schmidt felt very at home in the workshop. She has an enormous amount of experience with devising, physical improv and cooperative creation, mainly from working on the stage. Most notably as a part of the experimental ensemble “The Red Room”, at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. Johanne feels that being part of the very early stages of a project, gives you a connection to the material at a very deep level:

“When we do research, do improv or look for a visual expression, then yours and my cells remember. Even if we only end up using a fraction of what we find, I believe that the experience and the exchange of energy that takes place, creates a sensory connection.” (Johanne Louise Schmidt 2021)

Johannes feels that being involved from an early stage makes the actors’ work more important. The actor is traditionally seen only as a performing artist and not as a creator. But for her generation of actors, there is a great urge to be part of the creation of the visual or physical language of a piece, especially in the theatre. Devising and working with “opening” the text, is a throughline in contemporary theatre, at least from Johanne’s perspective, who feels like actors have a lot to offer. Going into more detail about the method, Johanne speaks of the importance of being patient, and aware of your urge to produce and entertain.

“Sometimes you keep searching and searching, but then you find a FRAGMENT. Like in our workshop where I carried her on my back. When she needs to go out and get air. That was something. That’s enough” (Johanne Louise Schmidt 2021)

We also spoke about involving a choreographer, to insist on movements and physicality as a focus. This led to a discussion on whether you can “input” something purely physical into an improvisation, but still “output” something that may be better expressed in words. In my own experiences with devising, the debriefing is crucial: After an improvisation, you interview the actors on their experience of the character and the situation. It is a very concrete interview, devoid of analysis, that simply exposes the subjective experience of the actor, through the character. I chose not to do this in the workshop, because I thought that since I was interested in the physical and non-word-based, It would not make sense. But I now feel like this was a mistake: The mental work of the actors, in a purely physical improvisation, is equally important as in a “talking” improvisation and could very well inform the development of the characters. You can get a debriefing out of the character that is words-based, even though the input is not. I saw a glimpse of this, when I had Coco improvise “The Letter” monologue in Sketch 8b.

Sound department

I did not manage to involve the sound designer in the sketching process to the extent that I had hoped. Even though I thought there was plenty of inspiration for sound-driven sketches in my research, I sensed a great deal of hesitation from both the on-set recordist and the sound designer. I do not think the reason was lack of skill or quality of cooperation, as we have had very successful collaborations on other projects. Based on my conversation with sound designer Lars Halvorsen we point towards possible explanations. The first is the tradition of the film set:

“There is a strong focus on the visual on a film set. The sound department would never ask the camera department to wait for a couple of hours to make some sound recordings. That is the priority and the tradition on set; You have the decoration, the makeup, the clothes and the light, etc. Let’s go! If the sound is not right we can do it later. On set, the job of the sound department is to get something you MIGHT be able to use. Maybe you bring that mentality into this kind of process as well.” (Lars Halvorsen 2021)

This is not to diminish the role of the sound recordist on set. The craft is extremely important, and the better your on-set dialogue and atmosphere recordings are, the better the end result. However, where the cinematographer or director of photography is the lead visual creative on set, in close cooperation with the director, the main creative in the sound department; the designer is rarely present on set. Creative sound work is thus seen as post production, rather than production. This makes the distance from the foundational work to the sound designers work, much greater than for the cinematographer, who is involved very early on, often during research, initial development or at least pre-production. However, Lars does see it as a significant advantage to be involved early on, because you can inform the project with a auditive sensibility:

“This sea-creature for example; the shape of it is really crucial for how it could sound. After the transformation, does it still have vocal chords? This affects how it could sound. And the house they stay at, how close is it to the sea? Is it removed from the shore or ON the water, almost?” (Lars Halvorsen 2021)

In this way, the emerging concepts for sound design are linked to the visual concepts. In this case the shape of the creature and the placement of the main location could be changed by attention to sound. On a more general note, it is about developing auditive concepts. A stage you, according to Lars, often only reach in the last few weeks of post-production, as a reaction to the images. If you can get there much earlier, of course this is good for the creative, auditive possibilities that are half of the cinematic expression.

In my mind, responding to how a location or creature design should be, are great adjustments to developing material, but it is not foundational, which leads us to the second possible explanation, personal preference.

“Sound people are different. Some love to sit down without a picture, dive into their sound archive and make a montage from scratch. I don’t. I like it when there is a substance and a structure to start from. I get a lot from reading manuscripts and having conversations with the director, about the mood and setting levels of abstraction. I find that very giving, and I like it when it can inform the manuscript. But when it comes to doing work, I would like to save my efforts for the post production, when there is a picture to work from. If I spend a week making a sound-montage, I feel like I’m wasting my time. (…) Most sound people I know, if they play an instrument, are bass players like myself. They are not lead guitarists or singers like the cinematographers. I like to stay a few steps back and keep things going. I am equally most comfortable in post production. (Lars Halvorsen 2021)

The third possible explanation is that sound is a much more fluid and abstract medium than the image. The sound department sources their sounds from all kinds of places; archives, effects creators, foley, music, etc. It’s never too late to bring in a new sound.

“The object you see is often different from the object you hear. Sound is not as concrete as what you filmed with the camera. It is much more abstract and I use a lot of sounds that are not related to the concrete thing you see.” (Lars Halvorsen 2021)

Lars proposes a way to include sound work in the foundational phase, by collecting an archive of sounds that can inform the sketches. And then, when there is visual material you can create a small intermediary video work together. He references the collaboration between sound designer Peter Albrechtsen and director Christina Rosendahl. [59] Rosendahl hires Peter for a couple of weeks in pre-production to create specific sound-driven montages, before there are images.

I still feel there is something unanswered: What if you are looking for a sound-quality or sound-object to be so important, so foundational, that you can build an entire development or story on top of it? There is a basis to explore a completely separate process for foundational sketching for sound.


I want to note that I chose to not involve an editor in this process. I wanted to work with the material directly, myself. I find that a lot of ideas and concepts come from getting my hands dirty, doing montage, simple sound editing, colour grading, etc. That is not to say there is no space for an editor or a colour artist in a foundation-sketching process, if they are comfortable in it and it makes sense in the exploration. However, as for the sound designer, their creative work is typically done in the post production phase, so I would expect similar issues.

Other disciplines that resemble sketching.

Mood Reels or Sizzle Reels, [60] made to help pitch or sell a projekt, often by utilising clips from films and other sources, can be confused with foundational sketching. They concern selling and showing what you already know, not about materialising something new. Material from a sketch process, foundational or not, could of course be used in a pitch, helping to sell the project. As such, foundational sketching can inform a Mood Reel, but not the other way around.

Pre-visualisation and Testing is performed to show or develop something that is already defined, e.g. to plan complex production design builds, staging, stunts, etc. Problem solving can be very creative, but it is not foundational. I see the potential for a thorough foundational sketching process to inform the production. Some sketches give practical experiences that can help the producer benchmark a certain style of production, to better estimate the cost of production.

In animation, there is a broad tradition of working with cinematic qualities early on. These processes are formalised as character sketches, animation tests, storyboarding and Animatics [61]; a succession of storyboards with corresponding voice-acting, communicating both time and an indication of what is seen. Making the animatic is usually part of pre-production or production, not initial development. [62] In that sense, it lacks the foundational aspect. However, depending on how a cinematic is used to explore cinematic qualities, it could most certainly be used as parts of a foundational sketching process.

Near future

In the emerging field of virtual production, Epic, the company behind Unreal Engine, outlines an iterative style of production where you – based on an idea or written treatment – move through production in a circular manner where final edit leads back to the art department and other pre-production disciplines – an iterative process similar to how games are typically developed.

Being a game engine company, they are trying to fit a game design logic to a film production workflow. It makes a lot of sense as a pre-production and production tool, for some films, but it could be equally interesting to work with it as a tool for foundational sketching. In a sense, this entails bringing the circle containing “idea” on the left, into the flow, but substituting written for sketched. Thus working with qualities that are purely cinematic could be simulated in the foundational phase, rather than captured. Maybe it is easier, quicker and cheaper than working with a film crew? I would perhaps fear missing out on the happy accidents that occur when you are not exposed to the chaos of the real world. On the other hand, the virtual world has its own kind of chaos, if you know where to look for it. Like in the physical studio, the game engine is an empty void before you consciously bring something into it. You can fill the void with sounds, 3D scans of locations and objects, actors in motion capture suits, linked to digital characters. A quick internet visit to 3D model marketspaces is as easy and chaotic as going on location research and if you please, you can even go to outer space or imaginary dimensions. Simon Jon Andreason, head of the Animation Department at the National Danish Film School, is doing some very interesting research in relation to game engines, devising and world building. [63]

A process without words?

Many game design processes include greyboxing; roughly sketching out locations and objects in a digital space, that are then iterated upon until the scene (or level) reaches its final form. Some games are even published in an open beta, greyboxing stage, and then continually updated. It would be like premiering your first edit with no sound or image post production. A monomedial and potentially wordless approach to making a film could be developing it as a piece of software that is continually updated via a game engine. Maybe you can use it as a substitute for the script, strictly as an intermediary before you produce the film in a classical manner, or you simply iterate on it and publish it in software form, as a game without the interactive element. You could keep editing and refining, indefinitely, without ever resorting to words-based intermedia. You could say the same thing for video and nonlinear editing, without resorting to words. However, when you record the image or the audio, the material is somewhat set in stone, and the editing is mainly about selecting what goes in or out. In software everything is parametric, so you can change even the most minute detail within an image, without discarding everything else. With regards to foundational sketching, the advantage could come from synthesising and atomising the process in a way that you cannot do with actors in a studio. A specific movement of an actor’s hand during an improvisation could be motion-captured and repurposed much later on. Maybe this movement is transferred to another character or an alien creature or building or abstract texture, or parametrically transformed into a piece of music? In that way, a fragment from the chaotic explorative sketch; the movement of a hand could become a controlled fragment transcending all phases from research, through sketching and production, ending up in the final work, without limiting the creative choices around it.

There is a potential to experiment with a more radical mono-medial approach, where the work is purely developed within its own medium. Setting the process apart from the more direct making of video art, I would still propose a foundational phase, a development phase and a production + post production phase. It would substitute the screenwriting software with the editing software, or possibly the game engine, and plan a purely form-based iterative process. Depending on the artistic sensibility of the authors, I would expect this to lead to another weighting of qualities, away from narrative and towards pure cinematic sensory experience.


Working with video sketching as a foundational tool offers a platform for developing, qualifying and discussing the cinema-specific artistic sensibilities of a project, without subordinating them to the narrative qualities of the story, or basing them on personal artistic merits. A collection of sketches exploring cinematic qualities enhances collaboration around cinematic language and brings the cinematic form to a level of importance at least on par with the written narrative, in the initial development. Thus the video sketch as a foundational tool, gives creative inertia and longevity to cinematic qualities.

Working with foundational video sketching is certainly possible in the formal framework of DFI. Their experiences from “The Sketch” at New Danish Screen have made the approach comfortable to the wider system.

The foundational approach requires collaborators to explore within a defined field of interest, rather than solve an artistic problem. Working with sketches as a foundation taps into a kind of creativity with a lot of uncertainty and no real way of “getting it right”. However, it offers a potential for collaborations on a very deep, involved level, as you share inventions and experiences as part of the development, rather than only reaching a word- or reference-based common language. This is easily done in relation to actors and cinematographers who are used to creative responsibilities in development and pre-production, but very difficult in relation tosound designers who usually have their main creative responsibilities in post-production. The reasons for this lie in personal preferences, creative tradition and workflow standards.

Time and money are obstacles to the broader adoption of video sketching as a foundational tool. Involving people, physical spaces and technical equipment is more complex than writing a script on a laptop. The development of a film is not necessarily made more expensive as a whole, by basing it on video sketching, but there is a need for larger funding in the very beginning of a development, making it a bigger financial risk to stakeholders. Working with available means and limiting technical complexity are ways to keep costs and risks down.

Working with sketching as a foundation, in parallel with writing, makes it possible to combine qualities that are inherently cinematic with qualities that are better developed through writing. This demands a clear focus on what belongs where; the qualities that are native to the cinematic language tend to fall somewhat flat in the manuscripts, or read as gimmicks rather than the sensory experiences or purely cinematic story elements they are meant to be. Even though these qualities are found in the initial sketching, they still have to survive the entire development process, with a traditional focus on the manuscript. A solution to this is to insist on always having the text accompanied by a collection of video sketches. It might be beneficial to completely omit purely cinematic elements from the manuscript, rather than failing in the attempt to describe them, following the logic that some qualities are simply impossible to communicate with words.

Lastly, as cinema is a highly technical medium, the current technological evolution enables a much broader adoption of video based developments, with the potential of strengthening cinematic qualities in audio-visual works as a whole, and feature films for the cinema in particular. By using video sketching as a foundational tool, with attention to temporal, spatial and sensory qualities, it is possible to afford and sustain materials of the cinematic language.

This research project was conducted at the National Film School of Denmark.

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  55. (Jones 2014) ↩︎

  56. (Blackmagic Design, n.d.) ↩︎

  57. (Avid Technologies 2010) ↩︎

  58. (Leigh 2008) ↩︎

  59. (Moovy TV 2020) ↩︎

  60. (Anderson 2012) ↩︎

  61. (Pixar 2019) ↩︎

  62. (Catmull and Wallace 2014) ↩︎

  63. (Andreasen 2020) ↩︎