Here's An Important Exercise For All Filmmakers

Chad Holland - 00100lPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20190504104821480_COVER.jpg

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.

ACCESSIBILITY

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.

Should The Director Also Edit The Film?

Recently I've been reading through Walter Murch's book In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective On Film Editing. Murch is celebrated film editor, sound designer, director, and screenwriter who has worked on a number of notable films, such as The Conversation, American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Part II and Part III, and The English Patient.  

His book provides valuable insights not only into the actual process of editing, but also the philosophy of editing itself. It's WAY more more than an instructional handbook. His thoughts on life, the mind, cinema, relationships between editor and subject matter, and an editor's methods are fascinating and extremely helpful to me as I seek to become a better filmmaker.

Sidebar: For additional information about the process and philosophy of film editing, take a look at this video from Every Frame A Painting.

 

One chapter from Murch's book I found particularly noteworthy is entitled "Seeing Around the Edge of the Frame." It deals with the contrast betweeen the relationship the editor has with the material vs. the relationship the director has with the material.

A director will ALWAYS remember the conditions under which a particular scene was shot. As the director looks at the footage, he/she knows what was happening beyond the edge of the frame; i.e. what it took to get the shot. That knowledge will affect a director's feelings toward the footage. As Murch puts it: 

 "'We worked like hell to get that shot, it has to be in the film.' You (the director, in this case) are convinced that what you got was what you wanted, but there's a possibility that you may be forcing yourself to see it that way because it cost so much-in money, time, angst-to get it.

"By the same token, there are occasions when you shoot something that you dislike, when everyone is in a bad mood... Later on, when you look at that take, all you can remember was the hateful moment it was shot, and so you may be blind to the potentials it might have in a different context." 

These thoughts mean a lot to me, because often I'm the one editing my own material. So then, the question arises, "Should the director also serve as the editor?" Or to put it another way, "Can a director be an effective editor of his/her own film?" 

During post-production on my short film Final Hit I struggled with the exact thing Murch describes in his book. There was a particular scene in the film that I just didn't want to cut, because I remembered how much time it took to get each shot. I thought back to the time and effort the cast and crew put into the shoot and I thought if I cut the scene I would somehow be disrespecting their talents and abilities. 

I intended for the scene to be a character moment for the protagonist. It was supposed to reveal to the audience something specific about the type of person he is. However, in my gut I knew the scene wasn't working, so I made the tough choice to cut it from the film.

So, getting back to the question: Can a director also edit his/her own film? Many directors have. I think a director can also be an effective editor, but I've learned from Murch's book the importance of distancing oneself from the material after the shoot ends. As he says:

 "Between the end of shooting and before the first cut is finished, the very best thing that can happen to the director (and the film) is that he say goodbye to everyone and disappear for two weeks - up to the mountains or down to the sea or out to Mars or somewhere...

"Wherever he goes, he should try to think, as much as possible, about things that have absolutely nothing to do with the film. It is difficult, but it is necessary to create a barrier, a cellular wall between shooting and editing." 

I've also learned the value of working with an editor who can provide more objectivity to the film and who can help make the final cut even stronger.

 

 

Visual Style

While I was in college, one of my film production professors asked the class to write an essay, describing their own philosophies on film making. We had just concluded a study on Dogma95, and based on that topic, our professor wanted each of us to come up with our own treatise. 

In this shot from a marketing video, I chose not to show the entire scene. Rather, I focused on small details to draw the viewer to those things in the frame that I felt were most important.

In this shot from a marketing video, I chose not to show the entire scene. Rather, I focused on small details to draw the viewer to those things in the frame that I felt were most important.

If you study other directors long enough, you will start to see patterns in the way they compose, light, and stage a scene. Consider this video essay about Stanley Kubrick.  I know that I too have a visual style. I have a particular way that I like to approach a video project. However, sometimes that philosophy is hard for me to verbalize. Here are a few points in an effort to summarize my own visual style (Bear in mind that I do not use these tactics 100% of the time. These are simply general thoughts regarding my own visual style. I realize that each subject, each story, requires a visual approach that best fits that situation. I have, and will, adapt my style for the best interest(s) of the project):

Shallow depth of field helps to focus the viewer's attention to a particular part of the frame.

Shallow depth of field helps to focus the viewer's attention to a particular part of the frame.

In this shot from another marketing video, the composition is slightly off center and I have placed the camera at an angle away from the desks, to avoid a flat, two-dimensional look.

In this shot from another marketing video, the composition is slightly off center and I have placed the camera at an angle away from the desks, to avoid a flat, two-dimensional look.

High, or low-angle shots offer viewers a unique perspective and make the scene more visually interesting.

High, or low-angle shots offer viewers a unique perspective and make the scene more visually interesting.

  • Draw the viewer in by focusing on that which is most important in the scene. I enjoy capturing the little details of a scene. A wide shot can be over-stimulating, if there is a lot going on within that scene. A viewer may not know what to look at. I like to find the beauty in the small, quiet details, and then shoot that.
  • Use shallow depth of field. This is an extension of my first point. A shallow depth of field brings into view only that which you want the viewer to pay close attention to.
  • Keep the camera moving. Whether on dolly rails, a slider, a jib, or something else, I like to move the camera through the scene. After all, it's "motion picture." For me, a moving camera is another layer that adds interest to a story. I'm not a big fan of pans and zooms, because the camera remains on the periphery of what's happening.
  • Give depth to your shot with camera placement. To me, a perfectly symmetrical shot, or a shot in which the camera lens is perfectly perpendicular to the subject creates a look that is flat; i.e. two-dimensional. I like to keep compositions slightly off-center and I like to avoid looking at the subject "dead-on." Whenever possible, I like for there to be activity in every visual plane of the shot.  
  • Utilize high and low angles. I enjoy capturing those shots that reflect a point-of-view that viewers don't see everyday.
  • Take the time to carefully light each scene, to give each shot an artistic look. Although I'm dealing with motion picture, I also understand that each second of video is made up of 24 or 30 individual still frames. Each of those frames is its own still image. It should stand on its own as having artistic, photographic merit. And personally, I enjoy painting with light. I enjoy walking on to the location and determining how I am going to make this particular scene look its best.