Vacuum, a new short film by London-based animator Gabriel Gabriel Garble, opens with a mechanical whir and a bird’s-eye view of a supermarket conveyor belt. As a pack of six vacuum-packed grapes passes along the belt in front of us, a cold voice from a PA system cuts across the incessant drone: “Organic scents are prohibited by law in public spaces.”
This is the dystopian world inhabited by our protagonist, the vulnerable-looking Antoine, who – we learn in the next shot – is the one buying those grapes. As Gabriel tells It’s Nice That, he wanted to create “an oppressive world controlled by a government that aims to narrow down the five human senses. Vacuum particularly focuses on the sense of smell.” Antoine, it turns out in the next sequence, is a talented perfumer and uses his skills in creating scents as a form of escapism. But in the world Gabriel has constructed, the creation of a natural fragrance becomes both a liberating and transgressive act.
At its heart, Vacuum, which won the Best Animated Short Film award at Venice Film Week, is a self-portrait focused on the power of art. “A huge part of my early life can be described as nesting dolls after nesting dolls of oppression,” says Gabriel. “I could stay sane all those years because of art. As long as I could sustain an art practice, external pressures could not touch me.” Having said that, Gabriel is keen that the project doesn’t invite just one kind of reading: “I have kept the narrative very subjective so that each viewer can take away something unique for themselves from their interpretation of the film.”
Nonetheless the animator has made some key artistic decisions that shape the feeling we get from watching the three-minute film, if not our reading of it. In certain scenes, Gabriel designed the aspect ratio to be tighter (4:3) to create a sense of claustrophobia and unease; in others, when Antoine is feeling happier and freer, the wider 16:9 ratio is used. Similarly, when the aspect ratio is narrower, the protagonist is surrounded by what Gabriel calls “angular, negative shapes”, whereas in the more open scenes, “the colour of Antoine’s suit matches the colour of his surroundings”.
The animation, too, is designed to evoke particular feelings in the viewer. When he mixes his perfumes, Antoine rotates the flask inwards, towards his body, because “he is a private person”, says Gabriel. He also keeps his limbs close to his body at all times, which underlines this sense of him as an introverted character.
Gabriel says he values animation as a medium, because “it can do literally anything live action cannot” and because it’s a “universal language in itself – you do not need dialogue to be able to follow the story, just body language alone”. Vacuum, which is light on dialogue and uses body language to convey a massive amount of meaning, is as good a proof of that theory as you’re ever likely to find.