Conventional filmmaking is driven by the needs of the plot. And to aid the plot along, the camera and the mise-en-scène should guide the viewer along the protagonist’s journey, investing us in their quest. But for his beguiling new short Writer/Director Ali Gill, inspired by Wimmelbooks — a form of German puzzle books for children that use huge detailed tableaus filled with hidden clues — shoots entirely with static frames, told from the perspective of a car. There are three protagonists in Wimmelbook. One man going about his business, weaving in and out of the frame, and unseen two voices in the car, discussing the implications of making a dangerous, yet vital decision. The viewer is invited not just to passively watch the film, but to treat it like an interactive video game. The possibilities of this form are fascinating and potentially endless. Following the film’s UK screening debut at the Raindance Film Festival yesterday, DN is delighted to present Wimmelbook’s online premiere alongside a chat with Gill where we discuss being inspired by Where’s Wally?, shooting with a minimal team, and how he hopes the film is received.
First of all, I’d love to know more about these Wimmelbooks and how they became a launching point for your film!
It was about the format of the books themselves as opposed to any specific references. I guess that’s because if you say Wimmelbook to most people, they aren’t aware of the term, yet most people’s experience with them would be something like Where’s Wally? They’re books we generally experience as kids. They weren’t necessarily useful in terms of the stories contained within them or the tone. Maybe you’re so familiar with the books you’re not appreciative of the form. I guess it’s closer to a puzzle than a book. Often there are so many details thrown at you and the books are trying to give you red herrings.
Thinking about the format from a zoomed-out perspective, some of them are just really interesting. The main starting point of the film was applying that format and making something that felt closer to a puzzle than a traditional narrative piece. There are lots of similarities in that there’s one character you keep seeing so each scene is a gatefold spread of a Wimmelbook. But we wanted the whole film to feel like one big puzzle itself, where you’re trying to figure out who the characters are and what’s going on.
We wanted the whole film to feel like one big puzzle itself.
It’s interesting you mention Where’s Wally? because they have a dog you see every now and then, but you have a cat instead! But also, those books are so filled with detail in every frame where I feel like you use more empty spaces. Was it interesting to play around with that?
I don’t know if I was necessarily conscious of that. One thing that was an exciting launching point was the busyness of the frames. It kind of goes against all the rules of filmmaking normally where you’re trying to direct the audience to this point and highlight it. It was exciting to hide a key bit of information or have the character do something within the crowd. In terms of the quieter scenes, where it’s more sparing, it wasn’t trying to do anything with negative space. There just needed to be moments which did contain this character isolated, doing his own thing, especially as the characters we’re tracking are doing something quite nasty. But I think it’s refreshing to have these crowd scenes and then these moments where you only have this person.
And in conventional filmmaking, especially in shorts, the focus is always on the protagonist. And there’s lots of focus pulling. But I don’t think you have a focus puller and there’s a massive depth of frame. I’d love to know more about how you shot the film in the car and the type of technical difficulties you faced in these moments.
Yeah, we didn’t have a focus puller. We had a mobile unit, a real skeleton crew: myself and the DOP Mads Junker. Then we had what’s effectively a support vehicle, a van with the producer, a runner and the actor. We basically drove from location to location and dropped the actor off and briefed him, then we would be hanging back in our car. We kind of designed a low-tech DIY and very effective camera rig. The camera was positioned between the driver and the passenger seats. I was in the driver’s seat and Mads was in the back, effectively pulling focus himself. We also had a microphone that we had on a Magic Arm, and we pulled the window down and manoeuvred it outside the car so we were able to pick out ambient sound.
We had this big frame but there’s still some element of depth and skewedness to the look of it.
It was shot on a Sony FX 9. We did a few camera tests, really experimenting with long lens looks. We tried shooting on a 200mm lens, but when it came down to it we actually just went a bit wide and generally started shooting on around 70mm. So we kind of had this big frame but there’s still some element of depth and skewedness to the look of it.
It’s definitely the kind of film I’d love to see in the cinema. I love the potential it has for storytelling. You have to scan the landscape and become an active participant in the film. But at the same time, there’s a kind of paradox to the image where you can let it wash over you. What did you think about when it comes to audience engagement?
There’s something exciting about it being played in the cinema and having that scale. That feeling is closer to a format where you can actively scan around the screen and lean in and look at different stuff. Maybe it’s kind of easy to see what’s going on. Maybe it feels closer to being in the car yourself. I guess the entire point of the film is to tell the story very obliquely and to bury a lot of the key details. Often the information is buried within a passing joke between the two voices, or from the radio jingles, or the main character is doing it, but there are 20 people in front of him. The balance is trying to tell a story that makes sense, and you can decipher, but isn’t handed to you on a plate. I do worry if it goes too far in one direction, or if it fully works as a straight-narrative film.
I guess the entire point of the film is to tell the story very obliquely and to bury a lot of the key details.
The point is that it’s supposed to be an active participatory experience. Maybe it would work better if you were sat around a laptop with a pen and paper and you could pause it after each scene or have a moment to go back and scan it again. One of the main references for the film was this properly interactive film, part video game, called Her Story, by Sam Barlow. It’s effectively five police interviews with this woman suspected of killing her husband. But the format is that you’re playing on this emulated mid-90s desktop computer and the interviews have been chopped up into 20 second chunks. So you’re basically playing with a database and have time to reflect on what you’re going to search. I guess both things are trying to do a similar thing by telling a story through the cracks.
One film that this definitely reminded me of was Michael Haneke’s Caché, especially with that final scene. I have strong memories of replaying the final scene to see if I missed something. Was this an influence at all?
Yes, it was a big reference. As you said, it has that feeling of every time you go to a videotape shot, you’re worried if you’re missing something or something is going on at the edges of the film. There’s something quite nice about that film in that a lot of the wide shots from the videotapes are quite mundane and quite flat. But there’s also something incredibly tense about them. They feel loaded.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing three other short film projects. There are definitely similarities to this in the visual style and how they’re designed to have lots of unbroken takes and being quite restrained with the camera. They might be slightly different in tone and moving into slightly more comic and satirical tone of voice. But yeah, trying to finish those off and get one of them off the ground soon.