The craft is a multifaceted kaleidoscope of arts and sciences. It is strict methodology in play with constant improvisation, akin to jazz in that the chord progressions and bridge placements are predetermined and it is that firmly held structure that allows the players to create such great variations in the rhythms and melodies. That is the craft of movie making. Narrative movie making, to be clear. Documentaries are different. Art videos are different. Youtube videos are different. Music videos…well, music videos Ven-diagram through everything. The point is that what we will most often be writing about in this blog is the production of narrative movies that are of high production-value. Producing those types of movies requires a large number of different components to be in play and be in proper balance, and there’s the rub.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
Seriously. Like-no, seriously. What are you doing? At the end of my last entry (Playing Catch with Your Grandpa) I made the statement that there are two different types of independent movie making, those being Bad Films and Good Videos. I won’t rhetorically ask which you want to make because no one really wants to make either. Movie makers want to make movies. But that’s a hard thing to do the first time around and all too often we end up with a Bad Film: a project that’s too long that tried for too much that no one enjoys because the necessary narrative elements aren’t in place and there was this weird glare on the camera in one of the scenes and the audio was just, ugh, the audio was just so bad and IT’S EXHAUSTING…so exhausting that you swear off of movie making and rebound hard to a whole new hobby like birdwatching. And you buy a really nice set of binoculars and set yourself out in the middle of the park and think “Yeah, this is so much less stress than trying to make a movie. I don’t know why I ever put myself through that.”
And then you see something and like *that* you’ve got this idea for a movie that you just have to do and you know would be great and the only question left is, “What are you doing?”
In my opinion, you can do one of two things. You can either tell a story, or you can make your reel. For us low-budget indie movie makers it’s insanely difficult to do both, and dangerous to try. There’s a phrase in Hollywood that’s important to remember:
“So-and-so made his reel on that one.”
Now at first, from our standpoint of low-budget movie makers, that’s sounds like a compliment. We know how important a good reel is, and we know how great a feeling it is to have a lot of beautiful shots to put in a reel. But the phrase is actually a slam, a diss, a criticism of much gravity. It refers to a Director of Photography (heaven forbid, even a Director in a really bad case) who, during the production process, sacrificed the good of the movie as a whole for small, narratively-unimportant, beautiful shots. Spending an hour and a half out of an eight hour day to get one shot out of thirty is likely to get you punched in the face by the crew that volunteered their whole day to help you make this movie. Once they realize that you don’t really care about the story or the flow of the movie, once they get the impression that all you care about is getting a couple nice shots for your own personal gain, they loose interest in the project. And in the indie-movie community that word will spread. And that’s bad for you.
So what are you doing? If you’re wanting to hone your craft – if you’re wanting to get better at lighting a shot and doing rack-focuses and blocking and pacing a dolly shot, then let go of the feeling that you need to contain all of those things within a story. If you want to make a Good Video with lots of nice shots, but continue to pretend that each of these artzy shots somehow adds to the dramatizes of the story, you will most likely end up with a Bad Film.
Story telling. The craft of movie making is the craft of telling stories. The better a story is, the more it deserves to be told. But better stories are generally better because they’re more complex. They’re deeper and have meaning that’s difficult to convey. So as the complexity of the story increases, so does the the difficulty of being able to tell that story through an audiovisual medium. And suddenly you do need a big crew to be able to get all of the shots done and then you do need producers and overhead personnel to manage the massive crew and so on and so forth.
Having a story to tell or having the desire to entertain people kinda seem like the only two reasons for a body to go through the work of making a movie. Now, entertaining someone isn’t a difficult thing to do if you’re the right type of person. If you can entertain people when you’re sitting or standing or walking next to them your ability to entertain will probably easily transmit into a movie. Just check out YouTube. There’s a lot of funny people or funny things in the world and a lot of them have been videotaped and uploaded. Yeah, the quality of the video isn’t great, but it’s only a minute long so there’s not a lot of real commitment there. If it ends up not being funny people just go, “Eh. Whatever. It was only a minute.” But most of the time the videos are funny. They’re entertaining. People watch them and recommend them and don’t give a hoot about the shifting white-balance.
That becomes one of the biggest problems – most movie makers aren’t “entertainers”. They’re creators. They’re artists…(in a sense of the word). We all want to make…? Something!…but too often we don’t actually have a story worth telling, or a sketch that people will enjoy and just as often we don’t see that as a problem. We have a vision to create without anything to communicate and we end up with a lot of Bad Films. And bad films are important to make because this is a hands-on craft and we can only learn by doing. Just don’t keep doing Bad Films. That’s all we ask.
Perhaps you’ll be one of the few lucky ones to meet or be friends with a really funny sketch comedy team and they’ll be the next Barats&Bereta or DutchWest. Or maybe you’re boyfriends brother will end up being the next Charlie Kaufman. Perhaps one way or another some incredibly opportunity will land in your lap and all of a sudden you do have a great story to tell. All of a sudden you’re not the only one excited about a project and people are ready and willing to give up a ton of their time to help you make this movie. Will you be ready? There are very few straight-up opportunities in the movie making world. Most of the time there are just straight-up risks and if you take a big risk and fail people will remember that.
So what can you do?
Hone your production abilities. Help others. Form teams and join teams and when you do, be a team player. Know your role and do it well and shut up the rest of the time. What makes it so difficult to produce solidly-told stories of good quality in the indie-flick arena is that we all think our opinion needs to be voiced. If we got at it on our own we end up being a two-person band trying to sound like an orchestra. If we try to form a crew we end up being an orchestra were everyone is trying to play a solo. Be a team player. Work in every position you can so that when you form your own team you have realistic expectations.
Abandon the pretense of having to tell a story. Don’t write a bad story around this one shot you want to shoot. Just grab one of your friends and shoot it. Instead of spending $100 on food for 10 people to make a Bad Film, spend $80 and rent a doorway dolly and have your roommate push you. Do things like that so you can realize how difficult those shots are and how long they take. That way when you finally have a good story that actually does need a three-minute long shot, you are able to actually execute it well.
The craft of movie making is about telling a story. The lighting, the sound, the framing, the color correction – audiences don’t care about these things. Unless they’re bad. True, it is unfair. But this is the hobby, someday profession, you have chosen. So practice making non-bad videos so that the production doesn’t get in the way of the story. Brag about the rack focus and the jib-arm shot to us, your peers. But the audience needs a story.