When I was in college taking a course on film production, the Instructor gave each of us an assignment. Drawing inspiration from Dogme 95 He told us to think about our personal philosophies on filmmaking and then to write those viewpoints down in our own filmmaker’s manifesto. I enjoyed the exercise and think it’s an important one for every filmmaker to undertake. Even if you don’t formally write anything down, just thinking about your own voice and the films you like to make can be invaluable in finding stories that you are passionate about.
I’ve been thinking more and more about my current philosophies on filmmaking and how it’s changed and evolved since those college years. My recent two short films, Big and Tall and Hangry, are a significant shift in tone and genre from all of my previous short films. Whereas my earlier works were weightier dramas dealing with the break down of the family dynamic, Big and Tall is a family-friendly adventure story and Hangry is a comedy. In light of these last two shorts, I started thinking about how my approach not only to story has changed, but also to the technique of filmmaking itself.
So, here are a few of my own filmmaking philosophies. Perhaps you’ll agree with me. Perhaps not. And that’s okay. What’s important is that you use this list as a way for you to start thinking about your own approach to filmmaking.
Although film is an art form, I don’t necessarily believe in art for art’s sake. I believe a film should be accessible to general audiences and provide some kind of entertainment value. All genres are acceptable.
MOVE THE CAMERA AND/OR ACTORS FOR BETER COMPOSITIONS
Careful consideration should be made to balance both camera and actor movement to create more dynamic compositions.
LIMIT COVERAGE. LET THE ACTORS PERFORM.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get the coverage you need to tell your story. Nor am I saying that you should shoot everything in one take. What I am saying is that if you are thorough in your pre-production planning on both camera and actor blocking, you will find that many times you can let your actors play out a scene and you don’t have to punch in nearly as much as you think.
UTILIZE FOREGROUND TO BACKGROUND
Don’t keep everything in your frame locked down to one particular spot. Allow them the freedom to move around. Bring things closer to draw the viewer’s attention. Move things further away to minimize their importance. Try moving the camera through the space.
EVERY SHOT SHOULD SERVE THE STORY.
Maybe you’ve seen a drone shot in a film that seems to come out of nowhere. It just feels out of place. It screams, “Hey look! We have a drone and we used it in our film.” If you use a drone shot, make sure there’s a purpose for it in your story. The same goes for films shot entirely in one take. If you’re going to use a long, one-take tracking shot, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and that it serves the story first. You shouldn’t try and market your film based on gimmicks (“Shot entirely in one take!”). That only gets you so far.
GIVE DEPTH TO YOUR SHOTS
Avoid staging scenes right up against flat backgrounds. Give your scene some separation between foreground and background. Shallow depth of field or deep depth of field is acceptable.
RELY ON VISUALS TO TELL THE STORY, NOT DIALOGUE
Think of ways you can convey information to the audience about character and plot visually, rather than through dialogue. I love trying to move story forward through visual storytelling, but sometimes my approach is difficult for actors who are auditioning for me. For my short film Final Hit, I remember that there just wasn’t that much dialogue on the page and the actors auditioning had a lot of questions. Sometimes as a director, a specific expression or action is all I’m looking for to convey information. Consider what you learn from watching the opening scene of Dunkirk just by what you see on screen.
AVOID FLASHBACKS WHENEVER POSSIBLE
Flashbacks tend to slow the pace of the film and are often (but not always) unnecessary.
These are some of the main thoughts I have when I approach filmmaking. I’m sure if I revisit this list again in 10 years some of these items will have once again evolved. And that’s okay. That’s what being an artist is all about. It’s about changing and refining and exploring new avenues.
What are some of your own philosophies toward filmmaking? How would you define your own style and voice? Leave your thoughts in the Comments.
At some point in your film, two people will be talking on camera. It’s inevitable. So, the question is, how do you shoot your dialogue scenes in a way that’s visually interesting and pleasing to the viewer?
INTERESTING LOCATIONS MAKE FOR INTERESTING SHOTS
If your actors need to stand still for a dialogue scene, find an interesting location in which they can have their conversation. If the location itself has a lot of character, or is unique in some way, you can create a lot of visual interest for your scene, even if the actors are relatively still.
Consider how Steven Spielberg shot this dialogue scene from Jaws. The scene itself is pretty straightforward: The Mayor and the Chief of Police are discussing whether or not to close the beaches. Spielberg could have shot this scene anywhere, but he chose to shoot it on a moving ferry. The uniqueness of the location provided a nice composition because although the actors are relatively static, the background is in constant motion.
CREATE DEPTH TO YOUR COMPOSITION
Sometimes a dialogue scene will have to take place in someone’s living room, or in a diner booth, or at a card table, or some other place where the actors are seated and locked into one position. Now, if you decide to shoot those scenes up against a blank wall, the composition won’t be very interesting. Give your shot depth by placing the table and the actors in the center of the room and staging the background accordingly. Angle the camera and the table so that the background falls off into the distance.
My latest short film Hangry is predominately a single conversation between two characters seated at a table. The crew strategically placed the table in the center of the room and arranged other tables in the background to create depth. We also made sure that the camera wasn’t directly facing a wall or any other flat surface. We used colorful wall art to break up the background, used the movement of the extras to add life, and removed a few practical overhead fluorescent lights to create variety between light and shadow, which added texture.
MOVE THE ACTORS
There might come a moment in one of your films when one character answers the door, revealing another character standing on the porch. Now, what happens next? In a lot of the short films I’ve seen, the two characters simply stand there, one on the threshold looking out, and another on the threshold looking in. Then the scene simply cross cuts between over-the-shoulder angles.
To make this setup more interesting, try moving the actors in a way that makes sense to the story:
Does one character suggest taking a walk while they have their conversation? Now the two actors can move off the porch, on to the sidewalk, and you have a walk-and-talk scene.
Does one character invite the other one in to the house? If so, be careful not to place your actors in two chairs. You’ve just traded one uninteresting static shot for another one. Try moving the actors from room to room. Does it make sense for the homeowner to busy him/herself in the kitchen while the other person talks?
MOVE THE CAMERA
Whether you choose to use a slider, dolly, or stabilizer rig, adding camera movement to a scene in which two people primarily stand/sit still and talk, always adds visual interest. But what’s even better is when you can both move the actors and the camera. If you take the time to think through the scene, the purpose of it, the dynamics between the two characters, etc. you can create authentic blocking for your actors coupled with camera movement to create a very dynamic dialogue scene. Watch how Alfred Hitchcock staged this scene in the film Vertigo for inspiration on how to combine actor and camera movement.
Have any other thoughts on how to create a dynamic dialogue scene? Leave them in the Comments.
The Memphis Film Prize has announced the Top 10 Finalists for the 2019 festival and I’m excited to say that my short film Hangry has made it into the Top 10. The festival is scheduled August 2-3 at the Malco Studio on the Square in Memphis. There will be multiple opportunities to see Hangry throughout the weekend. Click here for a complete schedule. There will also be one-on-one Q&A sessions with each filmmaker during the festival weekend. The Grand Prize Winner will receive $10,000 and is determined by a combination of audience votes and judges’ scores. If you’re in the Memphis area that weekend, please make plans to attend and support Hangry.