Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Making your First Film better

Whether you’re a student or hobbyist, there are some common mistakes made in a filmmaker’s first film. Many attempt to do too much with an extremely low-budget, short film. Worse yet, students will often make their first film too long.

The same concepts that apply to feature screenplay writing apply to first film projects.  The exception is with experimental film, where no rules apply except the creativity of the creator. Most beginners are assigned to tell a story by their instructor or are attempting a short story-telling film. Lets focus on the short story-telling film project.

Short films use the same structure and story telling techniques as longer films. The difference is that turning points and elements such as rising and falling action are quicker. Turning points are when the direction of the story makes a sudden turn. If one exercises the concepts of the popular instructor and writer, Syd Field, then turning points for a five minute film would be at approximately two minutes and four minutes. Most script analysts consider a feature length film’s entire exposition to take up only about two to four inches of a script page spread throughout the script (approximately 25 seconds). Therefore, for a five minute film, there would only be about five seconds worth of exposition. This is a critical factor in student films and is a common mistake. Student films are often filled with exposition such as characters making long speeches about what previously has happened to them. For that reason, students are wise to consider making their first film with no dialogue. Then they might not encounter the problems associated with exposition. Use of exposition is one of the more difficult problems of making films.

Students should first strive to express their story in one short sentence. This is also true for veteran screenplay writers preparing their pitch. Most often that sentence takes hours or days to write. It is an important step, as executives won’t listen to you after hearing that sentence if they don’t like it.

Next, write a paragraph describing your story. One of the greatest problems is that students often don’t have a clear protagonist or antagonist. These are the same problems that experienced screenplay writers have. Writing is always a continual challenge.

Let’s look at shooting. The single most common problem with cinematography on student projects is camera movement. Of course exposure and composition are critical, but badly motivated camera movement is common in student films. Save complex camera moves for later when you’re much more experienced and know when to use them properly. Any camera movement must be unobtrusive and motivated by the action. I’m not suggesting that all shots should be static. Instead, limit your movement and make sure it doesn’t call attention to itself unless it is intentional. No single element (camera, music, acting) should stand out on its own. Conveying your story in a seamless and unobtrusive manner so the audience becomes one with the story is crucial to your filmmaking success.

This is just a brief look at common problems in student films. There are often many other mistakes. Sound out of sync with the speaker and distorted sound often destroy a student film. I’d really like to emphasis again the importance of storytelling. If the student has a clear handle on his story, then the student takes the rest of the process very seriously and does a good first film.

It’s also important to choose the most experienced crew possible. Don’t simply work with friends. Find another student who has worked as cameraman on several other student films so you have someone with experience. Filmmaking is expensive. Be very selective when picking your crew and actors. Always try to surround yourself with crewmembers who are more experienced than yourself. Hopefully they will help save you on this first film project. If you are shooting on film, then spend a lot of time with your lab manager getting advice and help. Sometimes labs have special student rates.

The more time you spend in preparation prior to shooting, the more successful your project will be. Producing is planning and preparation. Get your script critiqued by your instructor or an experienced filmmaker. Put your cameraman together with the film lab manager and discuss what film stock you would be best using. Create storyboards so you and your cameraman have carefully visualized the shooting in advance. Visit your locations with your cameraman and other pertinent crewmembers in advance. Be aware of any power problems that your gaffer might experience. Note whether or not there are any loud ambient sounds at the locations. If your using individuals homes or offices, make sure your arrangements for using them are in writing and the agreement is very clear. Also, make sure you have releases from all the talent or extras that appear on camera. Take extra release forms with you on the shooting day just in case you have to use someone unexpectedly as an extra or cast member. Create breakdown sheets for each scene that includes all the requirements such a personal, props, crew, cast and location needs. Complete a shooting schedule and some alternative schedules in case of rainy days or sick crew or cast. If possible, create a production board for your scheduling.

Most of all expect the unexpected and try to anticipate problems. Spending several days with your actors rehearsing and blocking their movement is invaluable. If you can bring some key crewmembers to rehearsal such as your cameraman and editor, then it may be possible to discover some unforeseen problems. It’s far better to discover them in a rehearsal hall than on location.

These same suggestions apply to feature length professional motion pictures and not just to the beginner. For instance, on shooting days you might want to contact your actors or crewmembers in the early morning to insure they are awake and on the way to the location. Student filmmakers will likely have a voluntary crew. You need to provide superb leadership when you have a free crew. I’ve known students who decided to behave very autocratically to their crew only to have them resign from their free job leaving the beginning filmmaker in tears. Your job is to motivate the crewmembers in a friendly manner and exercise much patience.

These are only a few suggestions for successful first short films. If your film is successful and you enter it into student film competitions and win some awards, then you are very fortunate. Most student films don’t qualify for any competitions. Remember, short films are your first calling card for your potential film career. Future employers at production companies often pay more attention to these films than anything else on your resume. It is truly worth the effort to do an excellent short film if you’re pursuing a career as a filmmaker.