If you want to be a good indie filmmaker, you have to understand some of the basic principles of telling interesting visual stories and driving the audience’s emotions. These six ideas transcend individual components of filmmaking, like cinematography or editing. Rather, they are concepts that every budding director should understand and weave into the entire structure of how a film is approached.
1. Get into the story quickly. Films are not books and don’t always need a lengthy backstory to establish characters and plot. Films are a journey and it’s best to get the characters on that road as soon as possible. Most scripts are structured as three-act plays, so with a typical 90-100 minute running time, you should be through act one at roughly one third of the way into the film. If not, you’ll lose the interest of the audience. If you are 20 minutes into the film and you are still establishing the history of the characters without having advanced the story, then look for places to start cutting.
Sometimes this isn’t easy to tell and an extended start may indeed work well, because it does advance the story. One example is There Will Be Blood. The first reel is a tour de force of editing, in which editor Dylan Tichenor builds a largely dialogue-free montage that quickly takes the audience through the first part of Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) history in order to bring the audience up to the film’s present day. It’s absolutely instrumental to the rest of the film.
2. Parallel story lines. A parallel story structure is a great device to show the audience what’s happening to different characters at different locations, but at more or less the same time. With most scripts, parallel actions are designed to eventually converge as related or often unrelated characters ultimately end up in the same place for a shared plot. An interesting take on this is Cloud Atlas, in which an ensemble cast plays different characters spread across six different eras and locations – past, present and future.
The editing style pulled off by Alexander Berner is quite a bit different than traditional parallel story editing. A set of characters might start a scene in one era. Halfway through the scene – through some type of abrupt cut, such as walking through a door – the characters, location and eras shift to somewhere else. However, the story and the editing are such that you clearly understand how the story continues for the first half of that scene, as well as how it led into the second half. This is all without explicitly shooting those parts of each scene. Scene A/era A informs your understanding of scene B/era B and vice versa.
3. Understand camera movement. When a camera zooms, moves or is used in a shaky, handheld manner, this elicits certain emotions from the audience. As a director or DP, you need to understand when each style is appropriate and when it can be overdone. Zooming into a close-up while an actor delivers a line should be done intentionally. It tells the audience, “Listen up. This is important.” If you shoot handheld footage, like most of the Bourne series, it drives a level of documentary-style, frenetic action that should be in keeping with the concept.
The TV series NYPD Blue is credited with introducing TV audiences to the “shaky-cam” style of camera work. Many pros thought it was overdone, with movement often being introduced in an unmotivated fashion. Yet, the original Law & Order series also made extensive use of handheld photography. As this was more in keeping with a subtle documentary style, few complained about its use on that show.
4. Color palettes and art direction. Many new filmmakers often feel that you can get any look you want through color grading. The reality is that it all starts with art direction. Grading should enhance what’s there, not manufacture something that isn’t. To get that “orange & teal” look, you need to have a set and wardrobe that has some greens and blues in it. To get a warm, earthy look, you need a set and wardrobe with browns and reds.
This even extends to black & white films. To get the right contrast and tonal values in black & white, you often have to use set/wardrobe color choices that are not ideal in a color world. That’s because different colors carry differing luminance and midrange values, which becomes very obvious, once you eliminate the color information from the picture. Make sure you take that into account if you plan to produce a black & white film.
5. Score versus sound design. Music should enhance and underscore a film, but it does not have to be wall-to-wall. Some films, like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, are driven by a score of popular tunes. Others are composed with an original score. However, often the “score” consists of sound design elements and simple musical drones designed to heighten tension and otherwise manipulate emotion. The absence of score in a scene can achieve the same effect. Sound effects elements with stark simplicity may have more impact on the audience than music. Learn when to use one or the other or both. Often less is more.
6. Don’t tell too much story. Not every film requires extensive exposition. As I said at the top, a film is not a book. Visual cues are as important as the spoken word and will often tell the audience a lot more in shorthand, than pages and pages of script. The audience is interested in the journey your film’s characters are on and frequently need very little backstory to get an understanding of the characters. Don’t shy away from shooting enough of that sort of detail, but also don’t be afraid to cut it out, when it becomes superfluous.
©2014 Oliver Peters