Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Taking Time: The student filmmaker's best friend

So many student films today are so good technically, but too often young filmmakers’ work just misses being “festival worthy” because they don’t take the time to polish up those key elements that make a story cinematic.

I remind my students that everything in a film is a construction; from page to screen, it’s all made up. And as such, it’s all about choices. Everything matters. A good film is more than just animating warm bodies through convenient spaces to mouth some words. That takes time.

Here are some tips along this line:

Take time to write scripts in drafts, and have them read. Read them out loud. Put them up on a stage first.

Take time to prepare varied characters and create character bibles that you and your actors can work from together.

Take time to consider what sort of production design help tell your story? Find the right location, costumes, props, colors. Don’t settle for what’s easy and convenient. Work around your resources.

Take time to cast well. Don’t “warm body cast”: i.e., if your roommate is free on Thursday, she’s your star, because you need a girl. Don’t hesitate to write a character that requires an actor, and someone who is the right age, height, etc., to effectively convey your story and theme. You almost never find them in your apartment, or in your film class, or even in your school’s theater department. Go online and look for actors. Go to local theaters and see who is good. Make them an offer.

Then, take time to find and work with a cinematographer. Don’t shoot and direct. Hire a DP and you spend time with your actors. Make them feel safe to be genuine., to use their eyes and gestures without words. Mostly, get them to emote. To act. To act for the camera, not the balcony.

With the chips on the table (so to speak) take time when editing to get a good sense of pace. This is where it helps to bring in an editor to do the cut or work with you. Let someone with some distance feel your story’s rhythm, or help you create it. An editor will help you if you fall in love with images that disrupt your pacing. Don’t fall in love with images that don’t serve your story or theme or characters.

Finally—maybe first—take time to tell a story with a thematic focus. This Big Idea allows everything else to hang nicely and support a strong story.

Often student filmmakers explain the limitations of their films by noting that the money ran out, or they ran out of time for the course. But all that matters is what’s on the screen. Audiences don’t see excuses.

Making movies today, ones that look damn good on the screen and in the DVD box, is easy. Telling stories cinematically is hard. It demands, and deserves, a young filmmaker’s time.

PHOTO: (L-R) Cinematography student Sarah Blevins confers with Paul Sarossy, CSC, BSC during a master class at York University. Photo by Ali Kazimi


  1. Hello sir, I have seen most your posting and I love them. Well, I'm part of a production company and we are filming an independent movie right now and we will love if you can take a look at what we have and advice us on it or possible changes. Here is my email address: kunle@prominentcease.com. 2402773096. We will really appreciate it your response sir. Thanks I will be waiting to here back from you.

  2. "Making movies today, ones that look damn good on the screen and in the DVD box, is easy."

    I would have to disagree with this: there are some pretty schlocky movie posters/dvd box covers, even for Hollywood films. Even most of the best are mediocre.

    However, no one will ever forget Saul Bass's "Vertigo" or "The Man With the Golden Arm" not because they are from Saul Bass, (well maybe now because they are) but back then, they were memberable because they worked. Others that come to mind are "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman", more recently, the Batman movie with Heath Ledger; that poster was genius.

    It is very hard to make a poster/DVD cover that is worthwhile. When I am in the video store, I have picked up movies based on the DVD cover, artwork is most important, and very difficult to get right.

    I will concur that the storytelling is the hardest, and most important, job.