A passion project from Director Alberto Arellano, Mental Soirée invites our imaginations to run wild, scintillates our taste buds and beckons viewers to enter into a universe where telepathy is not only possible but can be quantifiably studied using three simple steps. Blurring the line between storytelling, poetry and experimentation, Arellano’s outlandish thought experiment asks audiences to dine at a buffet of concepts and take away whatever they want. The film’s fantastical FX, achieved on set through the use of high speed cinematography rather than with CGI, are also a sight to behold and bring life to a story told through colours, shapes and symbols. We sat down with Arellano to talk about using the tutorial format to blur the line between reality and fiction, the sumptuous food styling which added to the atmosphere of the universe he so delicately built and the weaving together of a music soundscape which adds its own unique element.
You’re a director drawn to imaginative art direction and suggestive universes, where was the desire to explore telepathy born from?
As philosopher José Ortega y Gasset would say, “man is himself and his circumstances” to which I would add…and his thoughts too, which do not always correspond to reality. Thoughts belong to another place, but at the same time, these thoughts may be the most authentic thing that a human being possesses as an individual, something intimate and private. This idea of the world of thoughts mixed with other concepts tempted me to start this story.
Evoking a tutorial format was something that became the narrative structure of the film.
I wanted to make an artefact that would tell an evocative story and at the same time awaken doubts in the viewer between what’s real and fiction, between watching an experiment or testing it yourself. It would be like asking someone how to make a poem out of a washing machine instruction manual. This inspired me, a challenge! It must be said that washing machines, as beautiful as they are, were not my priority at all, but the question itself was, there was a premise to start with. Evoking a tutorial format was something that became the narrative structure of the film, creating those three steps in the tutorial in order to achieve telepathy.
The mind as a protagonist and also as a place where everything can happen motivated me a lot, on the one hand the mind is the control room for thoughts and emotions but I also wanted to show the idea of the mind as a shipwreck, leaving the concept of disorder. Researching around that area I found old books about extrasensory perception and one in particular, Mental Radio by Upton Sinclair with a foreword by Albert Einstein (yes Einstein and telepathy) where he went over an experiment with two brothers who duplicated a very high percentage of images through telepathy, which was amazing and it was real!
To tell our story we needed a unique universe which had its own rules and I wanted to generate a creative scenario to act as a playground in which the imagination could flow freely, but where at the same time ideas were justified within a framework that maintains certain similarities with reality and storyline. It was important that the film functioned as an experiment to maintain that scientific, truthful tone in which the spectator can either immerse himself in the story and enjoy it or actively participate by following the steps of the tutorial to communicate telepathically.
And as in life itself, not everything is rational or empirical so I added a layer with a more emotive and magnetic-mysterious side based on feelings. For example, one of the most important things in our lives is falling in love and emotional events, personal relationships or even decision-making are based on this unknown or extrasensory perception. The film invites the viewer to enter into this universe, in which time, feelings, thoughts and senses are diluted, then we put all these ideas and some others more in the shaker and emerged Mental Soirée (Manual for a study of Telepathy).
I wanted to generate a creative scenario to act as a playground in which the imagination could flow freely.
Apart from the concept of using a tutorial format, how were you able to put all of your research and thoughts into a concise structure for the film?
It’s hard to explain, sometimes this process is more like composing a song, in the sense that the script inspires images and vice versa, like music can inspire lyrics. Before drawing the storyboard, I was interested in the challenge of having a pseudo-scientific and descriptive script which tells the story by itself and then later on, creates a visual layer that evokes situations and opens up new meanings. Suggesting a particular imaginary but justified within the theme and story at the same time. I worked through it all as if it were a tennis match. You have to go ball by ball, similar to drawing shot by shot creating the scenes which properly explain the sequence…so you win the set, which adds more sequences and will tell the story and transmit the message in the best manner…then…match ball!
How did you then move into making the film a reality?
We had several meetings in which I explained the whole project, script and treatment to Jakub Laskus, CEO of Chptr and Bites studio and Agnieszka Celej, art director. What always happens to me in these initial moments or meetings is I end up feeling a little like Don Quixote, struggling against the elements, like a man fighting giants but this time it seems synergy worked and it was really rewarding to see how people were joining the project, and how something which started as so personal ends up belonging to everyone, in fact it’s magic! to sum up…It’s better to fight giants together.
Then we started with the standard procedure for production. All the ideas were in order on storyboards because there were quite a lot of precise effects based on high speed camera movements and FX involved, so we had to have boards as a tool for the understanding between departments which is the moment the Producers Stanisław Czerniawski and Sara Gołębiowska appeared on the scene. We worked together on the online pre-production and then I spent a week in Warsaw, divided into 3 days of pre-production to build the sets, searching for props, and testing with camera, robots (Bolt) and FX team, and then 3 days of shooting, in which we used two Bolt within Phantom high speed cameras and Alexa.
Can you go into more detail on the stunningly detailed FX you were able to create?
Firstly I have to say that there is no CGI involved, everything was made in-camera and shot directly on set. The FX team from Bites studio did an amazing job finding ingenious solutions to get those spectacular shots in real time. The key to many of those shots, like the water ring, was a matter of finding both the right perspective and the perfect moment to shoot it. It was shot at 1300 fps with motion control and camera rotating.
The challenge was to find a visual language coherent with the story and the different moods that we wanted to transmit.
For other shots they created specific rigs with pistons that fired in sync with camera movements and motion control and the food flew out, a matter of coordination and technical support. I have to say that we were pretty ambitious as we aimed to use some visual objectives to enhance and move the story forward, in order to elevate it by giving it a more dreamlike, spectacular and aesthetic approach. Furthermore, working on FX directly on set gives a more artisanal value to the film, which I think is noticeable and it enormously reduced our time in post.
What other considerations went into the creation of the dreamlike aesthetic you immerse the viewer in here?
I wanted to transmit a mesmerizing, delightful and magnetic look for the film. From talking to Mikołaj Krawczunas the director of photography, the challenge was to find a visual language coherent with the story and the different moods that we wanted to transmit. Evocative and elegant but charming in a way. Our universe should be unique, that’s why there are no real speed shots (25fps) everything is either slow motion or super slow motion, from 100fps to 1200fps, shot with high speed cameras. The light treatment goes from darker to brighter, starting with a darker world of thoughts to the final part which is more luminous and saturated, and always trying to suggest sensuality and mystery through the journey until the end. In terms of composition, the search for classical beauty was vital for me. Careful, designed, stylized composition.
I liked the idea of aspiring sonically for the music to be in itself similar to an ASMR film providing calm and tranquillity and for that both the music and sound design were crucial. We had the handicap that the voiceover leads the storytelling from the beginning to the end so it had an important narrative weight but also in terms of the sound aesthetics as it sets the auditory tone of the film. Together with Edu Martinez, the composer, we started from a base, an almost meditative track, relaxed, like a continuous synth, and slowly added in different instruments – appearing as if they were actors, adding layers that described new soundscapes or emotions depending on the step of the tutorial we were in. Each step of the tutorial has its own particular mood or intention.
The mouthwatering food plays such a huge part in the telepathy, how did you go about the food styling and direction of those key elements?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use food and objects as a vehicle to convey feelings and emotions, and I really love food. Food is totally related and connected to the senses, which precisely enhanced the extrasensory perception of the story. It is also proven that the stomach has direct links to our emotions due to the huge volume of receptors so it made sense to play with food in the storytelling. Our main approach was to make the food tempting and appetizing. I wanted it to be hedonistic manner but at the same time graphic and delicate. Taking care of the composition of the dish itself as well as the aesthetic in the frame. Malwina Wachulec, our food stylist did an incredible job cooking everything and giving it that magical touch that Mental Soirée needed.
And how did all those considered on set components finally coalesce in the edit?
After the shoot I arrived back in Spain with a huge amount of material and was super happy with the shooting. I could not wait to start editing but all of the editors who I usually collaborated with were busy and so I started to edit the film by myself. I had the story super internalized and I usually edit my personal projects so it was not a big deal but sometimes I prefer to ping-pong ideas with an editor, in order to open the spectrum of possibilities.
For me, it was important that all aspects of the film including the graphics (title credits or the different steps from the tutorial) breathed the same spirit of the film. At the same time I wanted to show mistakes, like an old typo from laboratory files or a typewriter, all of these thoughts were incredibly materialized by Eirik Aanonsen. Regarding the color grade, it was made in an impressive manner by Fran Condor, who really enhanced the images, making them more powerful and vivid. Creating some dreamy-sexy but mysterious allure, we had some tricky parts with hue and color saturation because colors are pretty decisive to convey our story, and I wanted to have an adult and delicate look, but everything ended up perfectly, so cool!
What are you working on next?
I’m in the pre-production of some stop-motion commercials and preparing documents for my next medium-length film which as you can imagine I’m really looking forward to.