The Most Common Filmmaking Mistakes That We See Filmmakers Make and How to Avoid Them
Hey guys so today the video is all about looking at the anatomy of a good film. What makes a good film? and what the hell is goodanyway? it's all subjective right?
Nobody is ever really in control of making a good film. studio spend millions on projects and sometimes fail to make them 'good.' They don't do this on purpose, they try their best but they fail.
In fact, if you try to make a good film sometimes that desire can lead you into creative inertia. you try to focus on an elusive good. and you have nothing really to grasp. and you start to worry about what other people think of your work.
It's really interesting, at lift-off we've noticed it's sometimes a good idea to invert a problem. By which I mean flip it around on its head. So, if you're not in control of making a 'good' film then invert the problem. So the question becomes what can I do to avoid making a bad film?
So what are the things that we can avoid? What are the things that make a film bad?
First a quick disclaimer - today will be talking about rules - there are no rules really, I'm sure you've heard this before, a rule is really only a guide. once you have mastered things you can take off your stabilisers. but also don't forget that rules are rules because they generally work, and they've been proved to work overtime.
Of course, we can all find examples of films that break rules and are still great. Pulp Fiction and all that talking comes to mind. I mean seriously - read the screenplay - it's 3 bloody hours of chit-chat - it shouldn't work, but it just does.
So rules are more like guidelines.
So in this video we will cover:
The purpose of a story
The beats of a story & the economics of storytelling
Now a lot of these things could be entire videos on their own. They are all pretty huge topics. This isn't supposed to be a definitive guide. But hopefully it'll inspire some further reading for you, and help you to look at your own work with fresh eyes.
These are the top 4 pitfalls that we've noticed at the lift off global network. These things come up again and again and again, different forms and different sizes, but if a project is bad in inverted commas, and then it usually fails at one or more of these things.
So let's get straight to it.
1. The purpose of a story
Why does your film exist? You've probably heard this one said before.
But honestly, can you answer it? What is the beating heart to your story? What is its core?
If you're a writer you must absolutely know why your story exists. And if you're a director you need to know because it should inform your every choice.
Screenwriter and author Robert McKee calls this the controlling idea. This is the beating heart of the story, the thing that which everything else around the production must hang.
Can you clearly define it?
It should be distilled into a simple sentence or phrase. this is the argument that without which the film feels unnecessary.
Robert McKee says that it has two components, a value and a Cause. and he gives the example of Groundhog Day, where a controlling idea could be ‘happiness fills our lives when we learn to love unconditionally’
The value is ‘happiness fills our lives’
And the cause is ‘when we learn to love unconditionally’
So in this example the heart of the film is happiness fills our lives when we learn to love unconditionally, everything around the film hangs on this controlling idea, every shot, every piece of Direction, everything on the Cutting Room floor, if it doesn't serve to explore this controlling idea then it's superfluous.
And it doesn't have to be serious it's not just for movies with morals. For example in die-hard, the controlling idea could be described as ‘covetous hatred leads to death and destruction but sacrificial love leads to life and celebration’
That's a value-cause in anthesis to another value-cause. So is actually quite complex, but can you see how the whole film hangs around this Idea?
covetous hatred leads to death and destruction but sacrificial love leads to life and celebration’
So the controlling idea is really the heart of the story. And without the heart the story won't beat.
And it should be specific and clear. if you have a project, and you think ‘ yeah I kinda know it's something to do with ‘Love conquering all’ then that's a sure fire way to know, that you're in danger of creating something general and Bland.
What about something along the lines of ‘love conquers all when we learn to look past our differences.’
Love conquers all if I manage to first tie up my shoelaces.
They're both very different films right? The first one could be a social drama about racism, and the second one could be a Boy Meets Girl, comedy.
So you must define the heart of your story. and this applies whether you're an actor a writer a producer or director.
Number 2. The beats of a story & the economics of storytelling
This is really about the building blocks of a film, and the specific choices we make as filmmakers, to convey a story in the most succinct and effective way possible.
So a quick background, if you haven't already come across them.
Beats are the building blocks of a story. Beats are ‘this thing happens, then this thing happens and then this thing happens.’
And beats are fundamentally what brings together the art of writing, directing, and acting. a writer writes the beats, a director directs the beats, and an actor acts that beats.
Now different people have different definitions of exactly what beats mean, so don't get too hung up on definitions, remember it's a tool so only use it if it helps you, but broadly speaking beats - this happens then this happened then this happens - make up a scene, and scenes are grouped together to make up a sequence, and sequences are grouped together to make up an act, and acts are grouped together to make up a film. And within each there peaks and troughs and highs and lows.
So that's a quick crash course.
Now why this section is important is really the second part of the title, the economics of story-telling bit. By which I mean, what is the most economical way that you can tell the story? what is the most efficient, dynamic or interesting choice in each moment, in each beat?
You will have heard it said before that filmmaking is a visual medium, wherever possible you need to tell your story visually. If a character is upset, they shouldn't say ‘I'm upset’ but rather you could convey that beat with the a gesture or in subtext in an interaction with another character.
Obviously, that's a very simple example. But each moment of your film has infinite possibilities, and its important to be conscious of this, and to search for the most dynamic, or expressive, or interesting, whatever is suitable to the theme and moment of each beat.
And the economics of storytelling means not repeating the same beat over and over and over again. if we see your character is upset we take it as read, you don't need to keep repeating that same beat.
If you do, then it has the effect of slowing down the story for your audience, they start to get ahead of you and second guess and predict what is going to happen.
You have to trust your audience, they're intelligent they don't need things spoonfed.
Even if it's subtle, so subtle that the repetition is barely perceptible your audience will start to get bored and they won't know why necessarily.
A really great exercise that you can do right now, if you have already made a film, even if you haven't, find a film, watch a scene, and try and break it down beat by Beat, if you directed it then great, if you didn't imagine that you were responsible for directing and the choices in it.
Have a look at the scene and think - is there a way that I could’ve told the story more economically? for example, what did this long Steadicam shot with lens flare really add? Yeah, perhaps it was about the characters triumph, but were my choices really the best? Were there perhaps other choices? in what other ways could I have made these beats?
If we're able to analyse our own work on this level, then we're onto a winner because on set will be asking the right questions of ourselves and our team. and as actors will be asking ourselves if our choices really serve the story in the best possible way, and as writers, we will be asking if each moment is really necessary to the heart of the story.
And this brings us onto number 3. Cliche
The definition of cliche is ‘a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought’ So cliche in filmmaking terms is repeating the same devices or forms of expression over and over again, until they become naff and lose their original impact.
The scene, an explosion goes off by our hero, he's thrown back, there's a moment of blackout, slowly on screen his vision fades in, the distant sounds of the war are strangely muted in the background, there is a ringing, he is Shell Shocked. Suddenly coming to his senses he realises where he is once more as bombs explode all around him. Staggering to his feet he holds his helmet as he yells ‘take cover’!
In this example there are several cliches. I would argue the blackout, the muted soundtrack, the ringing in his ears are all playing to a well-worn trope. How many times have you seen this scene in different movies?
It's not that it's a bad scene, or that you shouldn't use the devices I've just described, but you should ask yourself, are these my ideas, my creations? Are they really the best choice? Or, am I just repeating something that I've seen before?
Oftentimes if you go back and look at your work, your favourite moments, the Moments that came very easy to you, and this applies whether you're an actor a director or a writer, came easily to you because they were repetitions of things that already exist, so they somehow feel safe, or like the 'right choice.'
I'm not saying that you shouldn't repeat a form or do something that's already been done, after all there's nothing new Under the Sun, but you need to be aware of this tricky beast called cliche. because if you're not then it's very easy to walk into the relms of naff, and cheesy.
Cliche is a tricky beast, because as I said before, sometimes the worst choices feel like the best, and sometimes they are actually the choices that everyone on set gets really excited about on set and think are a great idea but are actually just naff and cheesy in the cutting room.
And naff and cheesy leads us onto number 4. playing the state
Playing the state is a phrase that is used to describe an actors portrayal of emotion. We say an actor is playing the state when they are more interested in the emotional state of their character, and inhabiting that emotional state, than they are in anything else.
Another way to look at it, is that in real life people generally don't want to display their emotions they want to do something despite what they feel, if I'm upset with you I might want to challenge you, in the forefront of my mind is the fact that I want to challenge you not the fact that im upset.
Yet an inexperienced actor will often choose to display that they are upset, over the fact their character wants to challenge another one. this is what is meant by playing state rather than playing the action.
in the example I just gave the action would be to challenge and the state is upset. One is specific and one is vague.
I'm sure everyone has had the experience of noticing this in films, you don't need to be a professional director or an actor to see it, it's very clear to the general because it comes across as hammy, and as audiences, we don't believe it.
It's usually at the heart if what people mean when they say 'the acting was bad'
another example is tears. Oftentimes in real life people are trying not to cry, yet when an actor has to cry they're trying to cry, and they can't, and it becomes a complete mess.
You will offen notice and actor trying to force something out.
And it all comes down to playing an objective. Now in the filmmaking and acting worlds this has been repeated over and over and over again, and it's rare that people actually really grasp it for real, playing an objective or having an objective is purely so that an actor can focus on reaction and what they're trying to do to another person or an object in order to try and get what they want in the scene.
They are not playing emotion.
So again have a look back at your own work, take a random scene have a look at the acting, are there moments that you can notice where an actor falls out of playing an action and into playing the state?
See if you can start to notice it. And as a director begin to develop ways to combat it. See if you can direct an actor out of playing the state and into playing an action and the best way to go about it isn't to tell them that they're playing state. Because this will make them internally focus on their own performance. Where as you want to redirect their focus onto an object, preferably onto another actor. Their entire attention should be on playing an action and how that effects the other character. This is called reacting because if what they're doing isn't working, in other words if they're not achieving their objective, then they need to try something different, and if you have two actors doing this in a scene suddenly you're entire scene becomes alive, and your job as a director become very easy.
So really see if you can start to notice if an actor is playing an objective or playing a state.
So again guys, these are four massive topics, each one needs its own careful attention, and really each one needs revisiting every stage of your career.
But if you begin to implement these in your own work then you'll be well on your way. And as I said at the beginning, if a film fails it usually has a mixture of these elements.
These are the four pillars. So to recap, the first thing we covered was the purpose of a story. What is the heart of the story, and how does that inform all of the choices that we make as writers, directors, actors and producers?
Number two was the beats of the story and the economics of the storytelling, and really what are the choices that we can make that lead us to the most suitable, succinct, expressive, whatever is required for the genre and style, and to really make sure that we're not repeating things and slowing things down for the audience.
And in number 3 we covered cliche in the different forms of expression in whatever creative discipline we are in, wether writing directing or acting - are we using cliche, things that we've seen before, patterns in storytelling that end up making our work cheesy and naff?
And finally talked about acting and directing towards playing actions, and staying away from playing the state and general muddy emotion.
So there's a lot there. And hopefully it will inspire some topics of conversation
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