The names have been removed to protect the innocent

Over the weekend a friend of mine brought over some footage that he wanted to review with me. This was from one of those ‘say let’s have the party right here’ moments he was part of a few months ago. He was on location hanging around with his part of the crew with a couple of days off between shooting days. The gang dropped in on a friend and after a few hours of R&R, they came up with an idea. They had lights, cameras, sound equipment, a good location and talent. Why not shoot a quick short? Actor friends were called, they turned up.

The film was a single scene short with a twist in the coda. The single scene required a group of five to ten actors to improvise on a theme for a while. Then one would deliver a line in the coda that would change the way we saw the previous scene.

So, Saturday was the day to review the seven tapes that were produced that day. 18 months after the shoot. The people involved are busy people, it took time for my friend to ask me whether I could help out. That meant that memories of what was shot, what worked and what might not have worked had faded a while ago. At least he would be seeing the footage with an eye that was almost as fresh as mine.

It turned out that there were problems with what they had. As the sun went down, the many windows in the location turned into mirrors. Some of the lighting was visible in the reflections. Maybe that could be matted out. We had problems finding out which tapes had the production sound. It was a three camera shoot, so the recordist connected their mixer to one of the cameras. It was the one on a locked off wide, but the levels were so low that dialogue could only be heard clearly when my amp was at 10. It’s usually set somewhere between 2 and 3.

But the main problem wasn’t in the sound and picture. It was the direction. The scene was that the actors are stuck in one location for an hour or so. The improvisation they came up with followed the initial direction well, but it didn’t lead anywhere.

Each actor was told to come up with a character on their own and reveal it during the improv. The actors were then filmed non stop for 50 minutes. The tapes were changed, some notes were given and they went at it again for another 30 minutes.

As my friend watched, his estimate of how many useful minutes of footage we might get reduced as time went on. ‘We should be able to make 15 minutes out of this,’ was his initial estimate. This changed to ‘hopefully we might be able to salvage 5 minutes’ then onto ‘I don’t think we’ll be able to get 30 seconds’.

I think that my friends will learn from this. Being amongst film crews is very different to leading the crew and developing the story with the actors.

I suppose the next time they’ll have more plans of how to direct the actors to produce work that can be used. I would suggest a non-camera rehearsal to discover what characters the actors had come up with. Then the group could be directed to improvise for five minutes – such that person C wants something, with person E resisting. A, B, D and F ending up supporting one side or another or abstaining from the conversation. After some sort of resolution, the director could come on and choose new protagonist and antagonist and a new target. After another five minutes the director and group can review where that led. They then have the choice to explore futher along that line, or to redo the segment to see if it leads somewhere else.

If they developed the story this way, they would have ended up with a series of clear beats between people. Mini-scenes that could be extended, modified or removed. Stuff that could have given the director a choice about what to include and what to omit.

And if that didn’t work, they would have learned from that and gone on to do better.

‘Pain is the best teacher’

  1. Norman said:

    As a film teacher, I can testify that more is almost never better. Having more footage isn’t necessarily helpful if it’s not the right footage. Having more budget isn’t necessarily better if it’s not used properly. Having more running time is almost never better.

    There is something great (almost liberating) about restrictions. They force you to focus more on what is important to tell your story. This is something that I talk about continually in my classes, and it is what my next book is all about.

    It sounds like your friend fell into this trap. Without knowing the story well, they couldn’t shoot well, which means they couldn’t focus well, which means that they couldn’t get footage to tell the story well.

    Luckily, no one put up any real money.

  2. Alex said:

    Constraints are great! When I was a designer, one of my favourite aphorisms was “Design is he successive application of constraints until a unique solution is reached”.

    That’s the problem with people who give vague briefs: They only know what they don’t want when they see it.

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