Placed in Blog
The idea behind “Shell” is based on a larger concept I’ve had since 2005. For my senior project at university, I created a mock website for a future company. The idea was that, in the future, people would be able to buy memories– real or not. This technology would allow people to buy the ultimate human gift. What is more intimate and touching than a memory? I always thought the implications of such a company were really intriguing. I tried to make a very convincing website– complete with products, ad campaigns, and testimonials. But the idea itself never extended beyond that senior project. That is, until “Shell.”
When SESIFF (sesiff.org) asked us to create a new short for their festival, I thought this might be a nice opportunity to share the idea. The problem was that the concept seemed so grand in my head and it would take an entire feature film to dive into all the details. Since the festival was based on short films, I needed to somehow condense the concept into a tightly-packaged short film. Somehow capture the essence of the original concept in a short and compelling story. I decided to structure the short around a conversation. Since I was introducing a new idea, I wanted to keep the scene and setting relatively simple. That way, viewers could more easily digest the new information. A quiet conversation is a familiar enough vehicle to do just that.
Even though the original idea was about a company that created technology to sell fake memories, “Shell” takes a more pure approach. Before the business and technology, there was always a central concept– “What if we could remember things we didn’t experience.” One challenge was preventing the dialogue and vocabulary from being too technical, confusing, and unbelievable. But even more tricky, was figuring out how and why two people would talk about such an abstract subject. To develop characters and their histories in less than ten minutes is pretty difficult. I decided to write about a single moment between two very different friends. He is a quiet dreamer and romantic. She is challenging, pragmatic, and realistic. He always had feelings for her but never acted upon them– either because of his insecurities or outside circumstances. In their talk, when she points out his passiveness (again), he finally takes a chance on her. He introduces the notion of “remembering anything” in order to confess his feelings, in his own unique way. He describes something he wished had happened. A memory of both of them that never actually took place. Ultimately, the motivation and inspiration for sharing the peculiar idea is rooted in his hidden feelings for her.
The space between reality and fiction is always an interesting area to explore. The great thing about creative freedom and fiction is that we have total control over what happens, how it happens, and what the ending will be. Unfortunately, the common bittersweet tragedy is that no matter how perfect that ending is, it will remain fiction. Since there were only two locations in the short, I wanted them to be direct contrasts– one as reality and the other as fiction. You’ll see that the real life conversation takes place in a metropolitan environment where everything is angular and man-made. Lights are artificial, colors are dark and cool with shades of blue, purple, and grey. On the flipside, the scene that Chris’ character describes is a more untouched, natural landscape. The atmosphere is warm, comforting with the hazy yellows and greens. Aside from just a visual juxtaposition, I wanted to convey how the visuals we imagine are often more brilliant than truths and reality we experience.
There are a few symbols in the short. The shell is a protective housing that shelters something fragile. Not only that, but it preserves it. As we know, when we put a shell to our ear, it sounds like the ocean waves. It is an experience we can recall. Now imagine if you had never seen the ocean– if you lived too far from a coast. What would the experience of listening to a seashell mean to you? Would it be any less real? Other symbols include the glasses that Chris wears and the window that he looks out of. They are both barriers between what he wants to see and what he really sees. When his glasses are taken off, he has a new perspective on his reality.
If you haven’t guessed already, the production of “Shell” was extremely basic. There was no budget. Basically, the only prop that I had to find was the shell itself. We had two days of shooting– one night in the downtown apartment and one afternoon at the field. The apartment was actually Mimi’s, so that made things very convenient. Once I saw her gorgeous view, I was determined to use it as a set. The field was a very special spot I had stumbled across about three years ago. It took me a few hours of driving just to find it again. But once I did, the field and tree looked just as magical as the first time I saw them. The “crew” consisted of myself and Philip. As for the cast, they are no strangers to Wong Fu Productions. I wrote the dialogue with Chris Dinh in mind. After his amazing voiceover work in When Five Fell, I was eager to cast him in another serious role. Many of you may know Chris as a talented comedic actor but when we met him, he was actually doing more drama than comedy. I’m glad we got to showcase a different side of his ability with this short. It’s been a few years since Mimi Chao been on screen, but like Chris, she was a natural choice. After working with Mimi on previous projects, we’ve developed a sort of trust. Many times, my direction to her would simply be “Do it the way you would do it.” This short relied on subtle performances. Since the amount of dialogue is not extensive, it is the timing and reactions that are crucial. For instance, when Chris’ character is called “neutral and safe” I wanted to see that comment resonate in him, as if he’s heard it far too many times than he’d ever want. It sinks in and really irks his otherwise calm character. All in all, both actors are extremely professional and more importantly good friends of ours. I couldn’t be happier with their performances.
Musically, I felt that it was important to let the two characters talk in silence most of the time. There is subtle piano piece that plays when Chris explains the shell. This was composed by George Shaw. He makes all kinds of amazing music that can fit a variety of scenes. I chose his piano piece because it was thoughtful and worked with the dialogue instead of being too overbearing. You can download George’s “A Single Memory” here. The “main theme” is Jesse Chui’s “Origami Airplanes.” He composed it several years ago for a different short of ours. To me, it captures the ethereal feel of memory and imagination. It’s very memorable and complemented the shots wonderfully. You can download the song here.
Personally, I don’t believe endings truly exist. But if they must, then I’d prefer endings that allow room for possibility and interpretation. The ending of “Shell” is no more than the ending of a moment. As if we turn away at a specific point in time. It’s not that nothing happens afterwards, but rather, we just don’t see it happen. I’ll admit that “Shell” is an extremely romantic ideal that can rarely be matched in real life. It’s not meant to reflect real life experience. But like the line in the short goes, “It’s about the feeling, that’s what matters.” And the feeling I hope you come away with, is one of hope and encouragement to pursue dream and fiction until you reach an even better reality.