In their witty book Film in Five Seconds , now out in paperback, Italian ad men Matteo Civaschi and Gianmarco Milesi get brutally efficient with the plot lines of 139 classic movies. Dispensing with such niceties as dialogue, setting and subplots, the duo cut Titanic down to four crisply silhouetted icons. They render The Departed as five rats leading to five tombstones. Brokeback Mountain translates into a spare sequence of cowboy-hatted couples resembling refugees from a “Pedestrians Only” traffic sign.
For Civaschi and Miles, who run Milan-based H 57 Creative Station, motion picture pictograms express one variation in their ongoing practice of so-called Shortology. Partially inspired by their need to compress stories into 30-second, 10-second and five-second TV commercials, Civaschi and Miles earlier produced video micro-biographies of Hitler, Jesus Christ, and Michael Jackson.
In a joint email, Civaschi and Milesi explained their fondness for elegant brevity. “We’ve discovered that it’s visually interesting and at the same time hilarious to squeeze important historical events, biographies, or cultural touchstones into a few icons. You get rid of what’s politically correct and go to the brutal truth.”
Prepping the story diagrams for Film in Five Seconds, Civaschi and Milesi rarely did much in the way of research. “We usually chose not to see big blockbusters again,” they explain. “The idea was to use only what stuck in our memory as average viewers rather than super-nerd movie buffs. With lesser known cult movies, we watched them again, took notes and then tried to challenge our readers with something unexpected or surprising.”
Film in Five Seconds extrapolates from a universal visual language familiar to anyone who’s navigated an airport or bulldozed their way through traffic. Civaschi and Milesi note “One of the great things about icons is that they talk to everybody: no translation, no explanations.”
Citing influences ranging from Egyptian hieroglyphics to American minimalists Saul Bass and Paul Rand, the duo has accumulated a library of several hundred custom-formed icons. “Here’s the fundamental law of pictograms,” they say. “You draw the icon that means ‘marriage’ for example, and every time you mean ‘marriage,’ it has to be exactly the same icon. It’s this democratic ‘stiffness’ that makes everything funny. My marriage could be represented by the same icon that describes the Royal Wedding of Prince William.”
Check out Civaschi and Milesi’s infographic synopses for Django Unchained, The Matrix and 17 other films in the slideshow above.