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Filming on a Microbudget
By Paul Hardy
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2008 Paul Hardy
All rights reserved.
Getting an idea for a film is tough. It helps to read widely, as many newspapers as possible, watch a broad range of television and see as many films as you can; the more knowledge you have of the world, the more resources you have to draw upon. Extrapolating further events from something that really happened to you is often a good source, but many stories are stranger flights of fantasy that come from something in your unconscious; they might start from a grain of reality but something else must be added. In my (highly subjective) experience, the key has always been daydreaming; the willingness to let your mind wander without restraint. Taking long walks always helps this to happen, and I personally find public transport to be enormously helpful. But try not to be anxious about getting an idea, as that gets in the way – just relax your mind and it'll often wander off down some interesting paths. If you're not working alone, brainstorming is also a very good technique; get together with friends and a whiteboard/flipchart/whatever and knock out some ideas. Let ideas pile up without judgement and then see what among them sparks your interest.
Another way to get ideas is to work backwards. Make a list of all the things, people or places that you could use to make a film, and see if that sparks your imagination to come up with an idea. Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Desperado, The Faculty) made a short film called Bedhead with his brothers and sisters as performers, the family house as a location, and only what was already available in the house for props. It went on to win multiple awards.
Once you've got an idea, you need to subject it to a few very tough questions before you turn it into a film:
– Is this actually a story? Not every idea will be useful. It's necessary to learn about story structure and what actually makes stories work before you allow your idea to progress beyond idle imagination. Skip forward to the Script & Structure section for more information but it's a good idea to read some books on screenwriting as well.
– What's my audience? Not every idea will be of interest to anyone besides yourself. It's important to be aware of the needs of the audience right from the very start, whether that audience is very small (your immediate family) or massive (the world), or anything inbetween (women, men, OAPs, under-fives, religious groups, national groups, people who watch BBC4 rather than BBC3 etc.). What does a given audience expect? What can they cope with? Will they even understand? Even if you only have a vague notion of who your audience are, you must remember that they're the people you're doing this for (unless you only ever intend to screen the film to yourself).
– Is it the right length? Short films can be anything from a few seconds to 40 minutes or so. The longer the film, the more difficult it's going to be to make; if your story is running long, it may be worth considering using it to build an idea for a feature film. Longer fictional shorts are very difficult to find distribution for, and ten minutes is often considered an appropriate length in the UK. Many short film schemes require this, and cinema distributors of short films tend to stipulate this as the maximum. Ten minutes will allow you to go into some depth with an idea, and is a good benchmark to set yourself. There is also something to be said for making a very short film of 60–90 seconds; while this may not seem like much, bear in mind that television commercials are often shorter and yet capable of telling a perfectly good story. It's an excellent way to learn a very efficient approach to storytelling which will pay off when you make longer films.
– Do I have the resources to do this? If your idea concerns space aliens battling Roman soldiers upon the bloody fields of the Somme, then the answer is probably no. If it involves the titanic struggles of your child to throw a ball through a hoop, then the answer is probably yes. Take a look at the idea and work out if you can do it – what props does it need? What equipment? Are there large travel expenses? How many people are in the crew? Are there large crowd scenes that will be difficult? Time is also a resource – are you completely free? Do you have holiday time coming up? Can you only shoot on weekends? There are lots of things that are surprisingly difficult, and you often won't appreciate these until you've made a few films, so it's best to keep your first project small, and build from there.
Script & Structure
Writers sometimes like to give the impression that ideas strike in a burst of genius, needing only to be typed out and delivered to set; films collude in this, often showing the process of screenwriting as a matter of banging away at the keyboard until all the pages are filled.
This is a lie, but an understandable one. The actual process of writing isn't very photogenic, as it involves a lot of hard work, dead ends, rewriting, and staring at a blank screen wondering where to go next. Even if you do have a burst of genius, it won't be enough, because you need to find a way of structuring your idea into a story.
Story structure is nothing to be frightened of; it hides beneath the surface of every story you've ever heard or seen and normally goes unnoticed, unless you know what you're looking for. There are two main story structures you'll be familiar with:
– Two Part Structure has, as the name implies, two parts: Setup and Resolution. Example: A woman goes through a theft detection gate in a shop, which beeps. She protests to staff that she's stolen nothing (Setup). Which is when a charity collector next to the gate reveals the remote control that's causing the beeps. She reluctantly pays up (Resolution). This basic system of reversals of expectation is at the heart of all storytelling, but is most often seen only in short films or within scenes of longer films, because it's a little inflexible by itself.
– Three Part Structure is necessary to tell longer stories, and does so by adding another section: we now have Setup, Conflict, and then a Resolution. An example is: A man and a woman spot each other across a crowded room, make eye contact and like what they see (Setup). But they are each joined by another woman, and it looks like these new women are their girlfriends, dashing their hopes (Conflict). But the two new women turn out to be merely friends of the original couple; and the new women suddenly see each other across the crowded room, make eye contact and like what they see (Resolution).
Satisfy the Audience in an Unexpected Way
The trick is to give the audience what they want, but not in the way they were expecting. In the Three Part Structure example above, we expect to see a pattern of Boy Meets Girl (Setup), Boy Loses Girl (Conflict), Boy Gets Girl Back (Resolution). But instead, what we get for the third part of the structure is Completely Different Girl Gets Girl. It fulfils our expectations because someone's got someone – just not the people we were originally expecting.
The audience will have expectations of a story – expectations that you have given them and which you cannot ignore. If they see a romantic story happening, then you need to give them the resolution to the romantic story – but you'll only be doing it well if you do it in a way they didn't expect.
Another way to keep things interesting is by using subtext. Subtext is a layer of meaning hidden beneath the obvious meaning you'll find in the script – but hidden in a way that makes it possible for the audience to figure it out, thus creating that little spark of involuntary participation that draws them into the experience.
You can find examples in almost every seduction scene in cinema history. In The Thomas Crown Affair, the mastermind of a robbery (played by Steve McQueen) is being chased by an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway), but she's only acting on a hunch. They play chess, but the game is only what's happening on the surface (the text); the way they play the game, with lots of little looks and nibbling the end of pawns (the subtext), reveals that she's pursuing him in a romantic as well as an investigative sense. In this instance, subtext is revealed through performance in a fairly blatant way, but it's still more interesting to watch than if the seduction had been put into straightforward dialogue. Showing how people feel is always more interesting than having them explain it.
Subtext in dialogue scenes can turn them from dull exposition to electrifying turning points in the story. A classic example is the line 'round up the usual suspects' delivered by Captain Renault (Claude Rains) at the end of Casablanca. In this one line, he simultaneously orders his men to conduct a routine series of arrests following the murder of Major Strasser, protects the man who actually shot Major Strasser, and reveals an abrupt and complete change of loyalty from the Nazis to the French Resistance. If all of this had been put into dialogue, it would have taken half a page and bored the hell out of the audience. Instead, it's a single line that's gone down in cinematic history.
Show, Don't Tell
The best principle for storytelling is: show, don't tell. We usually speak of 'telling a story,' which makes sense when your story is written in text or spoken out loud, but in film, what you should really be doing is 'showing a story.' The basic process of filmmaking is to string together a sequence of images that tells a story – NOT a sequence of speeches. Changes and revelations should be, as far as possible, transmitted to the audience in a visual manner. Consider the examples I gave above: is it necessary for the man and the woman locking eyes across a crowded room to have to explain to someone else that they really fancy each other? No. If an audience see something for themselves, they become more involved than if they had simply been told the same information. Of course, it's not always possible to make a film without having people speak to each other, but if the dialogue has subtext, the principle still works; if two people are talking about something innocuous but there's a deeper meaning, then the audience has to make that little bit of deduction which gets them more interested in what's happening.
Keep it Simple, Stupid
One common mistake is to overestimate the audience's ability to make connections. Filmmakers tend to do this because they're very familiar with the story and the characters and already know what things mean – so surely it should be obvious to everyone else, right? Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Try to look back over the story and see it from the eye of a first-time audience: what do they know about the scene and the characters? Small details that might seem to speak volumes might not even be noticed. Knowing how much they can be expected to understand while not boring them with too much information and detail is a fine art but one you're going to have to learn. If in doubt, the venerable KISS principle applies – Keep it Simple, Stupid.
Start Late, Get Out Early
When's the best place for your story to start? As late as possible. When's the best place for it to finish? As soon as possible. If you can start in the middle of something already happening (a chase, for example), that's a wonderful way to grab the attention of the audience – their minds will be racing to construct the events that happened before the film started. Don't have anyone stop to explain what happened before, though – go for the visual explanation over the spoken one every time. Then at the end of the film, make sure you know when it's finished. The moment after the epilogue is not the end of the story; the end of the story is the moment when whatever was at stake has been resolved (boy and girl get back together, hero kills the villain etc.). As soon as this final event has happened, try and finish the film as soon as humanly possible, at that very moment if logic allows. The same principle applies to individual scenes. Why show someone turning up at a doorstep when the moment it gets interesting is the conversation they have inside? Why show them leaving when the next interesting thing is what happens when they get home? Every single thing you show should have some relevance to the story; it may be permissible to show someone turning up on a doorstep if their appearance is a massive shock; it may be fine to show them leaving if the person they were visiting is staring daggers at their back. But if there's no story reason to show something happening, don't show it.
The Writing Process
When you start writing, the last thing you should be doing is jumping right into the script itself. First of all, you need to figure out what it is you're going to write. Here's a rough idea of how the process works ...
– An Outline is a step-by-step, scene-by-scene layout of the story. Each scene gets a single line, a quick summary of what happens, rather than going into details about how it happens. The purpose of an outline like this is to help you figure out the story, the character arcs and the structure. It's common to put each individual scene on an index card so they can be shuffled about while you're designing the story; using individual entries in a spreadsheet program is another good way to do this.
– Tell the story to someone else, just to get an idea of whether or not it works. You'll see it in their eyes if it does. If not, you'll see a slight frown as they try and think of something polite to say. If you get the latter response, it's probably time to do some more work on the outline.
– A Treatment is the next step – a detailed description of what happens in each scene that could easily be longer than the script itself, but is purely a working document you use to figure out the details of exactly what happens in each scene. Confusingly, a 'treatment' is also used to refer to a much shorter description of the main points of the story – one sheet of A4 for a short film – to be used as a selling document to interest producers and funders in getting the film made.
– Write the script. This should go pretty quickly if you have a detailed treatment, as you've already done all the hard work. The first draft is a document you will love and cherish and believe to be the greatest thing ever. Unfortunately, you're wrong. Put it away for a week, and then look at it again. You'll soon see flaws. So the next step is ...
– Rewrite the script. If it's really bad, you may have to go back to an even earlier stage, but this is all good, because at least you're improving it and not rushing to production with a script that's rubbish. A good technique here is to read it out loud, especially when working on the dialogue, as you'll soon hear whether or not it's actually possible to say this stuff. You'll probably have to rewrite it more than once; you may well find that you don't really figure out what the story's about until you stumble over something while doing the fourth draft, which means you have to rewrite everything from scratch – but as long as the script keeps getting better, it's worth it. Three to five drafts of a script are quite common.
– Get people to read it and let you know if they think it works. You'll almost certainly still find problems, but as before, at least you get the chance to solve them.
Do you need to write a properly formatted screenplay for your short film? No. What you need is a blueprint for your film which will enable you to get your ideas across to other people. A script is the default way to do this since most films will require a mixture of visual action and dialogue.
Properly formatted scripts (which are different to plays or TV) also have a very useful feature which will assist you in making the film: on average, a single page of formatted script equals one minute of screen time. Working out the length of your film is a matter of counting the pages, then allowing for a couple of minutes' variation. It's also a minimum standard of professionalism – if you send someone in the industry an unformatted script, they may file it in the bin because writers who can't be bothered to learn script format usually haven't bothered to learn anything else. Screenwriting programs are commonly available these days, but if you have no access to these and need to set up your word processor from scratch, these are the basic settings:
– Slugline/Scene Heading (e.g. INT. EVIL LAIR – NIGHT) All capitals. 1½" from the left edge of paper.
– Screen Description 1½" from the left edge of paper.
– Character Name All capitals. 3½" from left edge of paper.
– Dialogue 2½" from left edge of paper.
– Personal Direction/Parenthetical 3" from left edge of paper.
– Effects (e.g. Fade in) Right aligned. 1½" from right edge of paper.
– Top and bottom margin 1".
– Font for everything 12pt Courier.
Excerpted from Filming on a Microbudget by Paul Hardy. Copyright © 2008 Paul Hardy. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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