Avoid that Puddle! Ten Classic Errors Made by New Filmmakers
First published in Screen Education Magazine.
As Buddhists say, it is better to have awareness. Then you don’t walk straight into the puddle. Rather you stop, see the puddle and step around it. Awareness, like good filmmaking skills, takes hard work to master. Making your first short film brings such an amazing sense of satisfaction and joy. Then there is the struggle of improving your technique on many short films and seeing only a little progress. There is so much to take in and it is easy to get lost in all that there is to learn. Filmmaking combines creative talent with technological expertise and the ability to work together in a team. Subtle differences in creative and technical skills can mean the difference between and a good and great film.
Creating films, for many people, is an all-consuming passion. I have worked on a large number of short films and features in many capacities: as a producer, director, editor, writer, actor, camera operator, assistant of various kinds and runner. In my time I have seen utterly awful films and some great ones. There are many classic mistakes that new filmmakers always seem to make. To help you avoid those puddles I have prepared a list of the most common ones.
1. Failing to Communicate
Communication is a vital skill that needs to be developed and refined. Many directors do not think about how to communicate with the cast and crew. As an actor I was once asked to ‘be like a rabbit’… I asked, ‘Do you want a soft and furry kind of rabbit, or do you mean a bouncy kind of rabbit? Or do you want a cute rabbit?’ I managed to extract from him the particular kind of rabbit that he was thinking of (I do not usually play rabbits, I swear) but forcing an actor to interrogate you is not the best way to communicate your goal.
With any scene work you need to discuss what is happening with the actors. You need to look at the plot, the arc of the story, subtext, character and the emotional intensity of the scene. For example, say there is an argument occurring between a couple. The next scene shows that one of them has been murdered. The argument in question needs to be of a particular intensity so the audience will believe the murder. We also need to consider the characters. We need to foreshadow, however subtly, the ability of one of the characters to commit such a deed. We also need to look at the issues, personality and driving force each character brings to the scene. The argument scene will show people outside their comfort zone. People react to everyday situations very differently than they do to life-threatening situations.
By discussing all of this with the actor, you are communicating to him or her what is important in the scene. You will both arrive at the truth or core of the scene together. Now you can experiment with different ways of creating the scene, and you will have the same agenda and goal. This is a recipe for success. Trust the actor to do their job (this doesn’t apply if you have hired your best friend’s girlfriend and she doesn’t know how to act!) and give them time to find their way in the scene.
This applies for all members of your production. I have seen what happens when people on a production have different goals and agendas. It is no good if you can see it all perfectly in your mind but cannot articulate it.
Spend some time thinking about how to convey your story. Discuss it with your crew and cast, and then make sure they have correctly interpreted it.
2. Taking the Wrong Attitude Towards the Actors
While we are on the subject of actors, there are a few more essential things you need to know. A common mistake is asking for a particular emotion from the actor, eg. anger, sadness, happiness. An actor can easily supply an emotion, but by asking them to do so you are shutting down their initiative. There will be no subtext, layering or character. More importantly the character will lack the inner motivation that is essential for any good characterization. The on-screen result will be a one-dimensional emotion that lacks realness.
Many directors look down on actors because they think they are too precious or aren’t a part of the ‘real’ filmmaking process. Even at cast and crew parties, or at lunch whilst filming, you will often see two separate crowds: the filmmakers and the actors. So let’s look at this more closely. Who will be contributing to telling your story the most? The gaffers, the make-up and costume people? Certainly, some crew members play a very large role.
Directors will spend hours with the Director of Photography discussing how to frame the shot or what kind of lighting to use. The sound recordist, if there is one at all, rarely gets any attention. The result is often a sound track that is very poor
But it is the actors whom the audience watch, relate to, cry with and laugh at. It is the actors who convey the most information to the audience. Their emotional and psychological interpretation can make or break the film. Don’t treat actors as an unusual and slightly bizarre breed of people. Once you have a healthy respect for and attitude towards them you’re halfway there. A good actor will do almost anything for you if he or she knows you respect their talent and skills.
3. Great Pictures, Horrible Sound
It is rare to see a student film with good sound. Directors will spend hours with the Director of Photography discussing how to frame the shot or what kind of lighting to use. The sound recordist, if there is one at all, rarely gets any attention. The result is often a sound track that is very poor with lots jarring noises. This may be the case even though the sound people have done the best that they can.
Please, please, please make sure you use appropriate sound equipment and have a sound recordist and gaffer who know something. They don’t need to be very experienced, but they must be interested in that area and have a keen ear. Consider the sound effects you will need beforehand and include them in your filming schedule.
Short films also have a tendency to feature strange music by the director’s friend’s band. I realize that this seems like a win-win situation for you and for your friend. They get exposure and you don’t have to worry about copyright. But if it doesn’t suit the film then you are not really doing yourself any favours in the long run.
4. Strange casting, strange music and stranger locations
We have spoken about featuring your friend’s band in the short film. This also applies to casting friends who want to be famous but have no acting experience, woman who are meant to look alluring and impossibly beautiful but are not, putting a grey beard and some badly drawn wrinkles on your gaffer and throwing him in front of the camera, you doing a cameo appearance, featuring your parents’ house as the drug lord’s house, and shooting all of the film in one room and trying to make it look like several different locations. I think you get the picture. It just looks tawdry and will spoil all the effort you have put into other parts of your film.
You don’t always have to do what your editor suggests, but it is vital to create an environment where he or she can express an opinion and help you. Don’t treat your film like it’s your favourite teddy bear that no one is allowed to touch
5. Bad Scheduling
This is not really a problem for student films as they have access to free equipment, though it often results in a lot of wasted time and frustrated people. But if you have to hire equipment then other considerations arise. Most people don’t have much money to make a film. So what happens? We can’t afford to hire the equipment for five days. Better make it four days. Does this sound familiar? Then at the end of four days you haven’t finished your film and there is a mad scramble to organize another day or more! Bad scheduling makes it worse in the long run so be realistic and give yourself time to create a great movie.
6. Overuse of Special Effects and Flashy Cuts
This mistake is not just made by amateur filmmakers. Jump cuts became the rage and suddenly every movie that came out of Hollywood used jump cuts all the time. Sure it looked great, but we all got bored very quickly and wondered why they were doing it. Flashy cuts and special effects should be used as artistic tools to enhance the film, not as random cool devices used because they are cool. (Did I say cool again? It just seemed ‘cool’ to repeat it). For example, a man is doing a speedy, high-on-drugs dissociated monologue. Jump cuts enhance the fragmented nature of his speech and the speed at which he jumps from one thought to another. Your film will always look a winner if the stylistic choices are used to complement the storytelling and not just because you think they’re cool (there’s that word again – much like an unwanted special effect). We have all seen too many student films that are laden with glaringly unnecessary effects.
Another overused effect is the shaky camera. Shaky looks good when running and chasing is involved because that is what people see when running. Random shaky camerawork, on the other hand, just shows inferior skill and a lack of care. Other special effects errors include too many wipes and cross-fades, overuse of zoom and too much messing with the colour ratios, gamma, light etc. The list goes on and I’m sure you can think of plenty more to add.
Most short films could actually be a great deal shorter. There is no need to linger on a shot or a scene. When in doubt, cut it! Be ruthless, as every second counts on screen
7. Great story, great characters – but it’s too long!
All filmmakers get attached to that great shot or scene because they have put so much work into it. The difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional has learnt to let all that go. You cannot make a great film if you get stuck in the past. Your goal should be to make the best film possible. And remember people absorb information very quickly these days. Most short films could actually be a great deal shorter. There is no need to linger on a shot or a scene. When in doubt, cut it! Be ruthless, as every second counts on screen. Examine your script with this in mind in pre-production. The prize is a film that costs less time and money, and is a lot easier to watch.
A note on the dialogue in short films: watch feature films closely and you will notice that the dialogue occurs much faster than it would in real life. Many short films have dialogue that is too slow, while the beats between the lines are also too long.
8. Not Trusting Your Editor
Your editor is the one person who has completely fresh eyes. Many directors become horrible creatures in the editing suite and react with outrage to any comment that does not fit their agenda. At this point in the filmmaking process you are very close to your project. The editor will have perspective and can see things that you cannot. You don’t always have to do what your editor suggests, but it is vital to create an environment where he or she can express an opinion and help you. Don’t treat your film like it’s your favourite teddy bear that no one is allowed to touch. Sticking to your vision does not mean being a close-minded idiot. Editing is also the time when you need to fix filming and plot mistakes, and your editor’s skills will be invaluable in solving these.
9. The Joke with the Twist at the End (aka the Tropfest Twist)
There are a few filmmakers who have made their fame and fortune with this perfect short story format. However if you look closely at their resume (and I’m not talking about the PR version that is told to newspapers and magazines) you will see a swag of short films that have been solidly and carefully crafted. Funding bodies and investors need to see that you know how to tell a story and that their money is not going to be wasted on you. A gag is not a real story. A story includes a ripper plot with subplots, as well as great characters. Furthermore, there is a story arc, which usually coincides with significant character development. I’m not saying don’t do the gag film, but it should be only one aspect of your filmmaking skills.
A little more on the Tropfest phenomenon: there has been so much hype surrounding Tropfest that people view it as the best short film festival to enter. I’m offering you a free warning. Do not enter this competition if you are a really new filmmaker. A little harsh, you think? Well, no. Tropfest has changed over the years. It was originally specifically intended for new filmmakers, but because of the prizes and instant celebrity status things have changed. Your competition will be ad companies who have access to very expensive equipment and a professional cast and crew who have been working for years, and VCA and AFTRS graduates. The latter are hoping to finally make that one short film that will catapult them into world of feature film funding. I know of one finalist who made her film through the New South Wales Film and TV Office’s New Filmmakers Fund. She then made a shorter version for Tropfest and entered it. How can you compete with a huge budget film and all that experience when you are just starting?
Don’t believe the hype. It takes ten years to be an overnight success. If you have honed your skills for some years and need that lucky break to crack the big time, then and only then is Tropfest for you.
Is it better to win a prize from you local suburban competition and put that on your resume or disappear into the void that is called Tropfest? Enter your short film into the many local festivals that abound and work your way up the ladder.
Which leads me to my next point: if you are going to make a film for Tropfest (my blessings go with you!) then make sure the film can have a life outside of this festival. Some people make their film specifically for Tropfest and then realize that it can’t be entered in many other competitions.
10. Relying Too Much on Your Strengths
We all come to the world of filmmaking with different strengths and weaknesses. It is critical to examine these and work on your weaknesses more than your strengths. It is all too easy to become consumed by (let’s say) the wonderful world of frame composition and lighting (your strengths), and completely forget about character and story arc (your weaknesses). Do not expect to be an overnight sensation simply because you have a particular talent or skill. Great filmmakers have practised and studied and practised some more.
Newspapers and magazines are filled with amazing filmmaking success stories. Remember that they are there for the very reason of being extraordinary. Filmmaking is a very popular career and the competition is fierce. Many people fall by the wayside for many different reasons. The industry is glamorous and exciting. Yet this is not a good enough reason to make films. Examine yourself carefully. Make sure you love filmmaking and are prepared for the long haul. Good luck and keep filming!
Monique Hohnberg has worked as a digital media specialist for NSWFTO and WIFT Australia. She now works as a professional writer and actor. Her writing includes plays, films, poetry, reviews and feature articles.
First published in Screen Education Magazine