101 Things I Learned in Film School

101 Things I Learned in Film School

by Neil Landau with Matthew Frederick

“In my… twenty years of teaching, screenwriting, and filmmaking, I have been continually struck by how the creative process of filmmaking is at once painstakingly deliberate and fortuitously experimental,” writes Neil Landau, who teaches at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television.

Creating a film or television program entails a variety of skills including budgeting, screenwriting, directing, acting, and numerous technical proficiencies. Here’s a sampling of the insights shared by the author.

Film is a director’s medium; television is a writer’s medium. A movie is a one-of-a-kind undertaking: The production team and actors come together for several weeks or months to create a unique world that disappears upon the completion of filming. A strong director is essential in defining this world—form its artistic details to its broad nuances, script approval to casting, set design to special effects, and lighting and equipment to the overall visual style. A successful television series, by comparison, is long running, and production becomes rather standardized during its first season. The greatest challenge becomes the generation of new material each week, giving the gifted writer a proportionately greater opportunity to shine.”

Start late. A movie should start as late as possible and occur over the shortest reasonable span of time. A film that uses too much time setting up the ordinary world of the characters or that spreads over three weeks a story that can be told in three days will feel slack. In individual scenes, don’t waste valuable time on unnecessary entrances and hellos. See if a scene can be started in the middle. A screenwriter or director who is willing to self-edit will often find that a scene is strengthened by cutting the first two, and often last two, lines of dialogue.”

1 screenplay page = 1 minute of screen time. A screenplay is typically 90 to 120 pages long, which equates with an average movie time of 90 minutes to two hours. Comedy, horror, animated, and family films tend to be on the shorter end of this range because of the audience’s more limited attention span and the difficulty of sustaining thrills, chills, and belly laughs for two full hours. Character-based dramas tend to be the longest films, because the revelation of back-story, exploration of inner psychology, and nuances of character development require subtle, protracted exposition.”

A high concept movie can be explained in one sentence. Selling a movie of TV idea is difficult, but it’s far easier when you can articulate its premise in a one sentence logline, for example: A billionaire weapons inventor dons an indestructible, high-tech suit of armor to fight terrorism. (Ironman)”

Plot is physical events; story is emotional events. Plot is what happens in a movie; story is how the characters feel about what happens.”

Dialogue is not real speech. Dialogue must sound authentic, but it needs to be much more colorful, compact, and on-point than natural speech… Effective movie dialogue propels the plot forward, informs on character, and is structured with a beginning, middle and end—even when the dialogue begins in the middle of a scene.”

Shoot non-chronologically. Use a carefully planned production board with ‘block’ shooting so that all scenes using a given lighting, camera, and sound set-up are filmed before moving on.”

The 180-degree rule. In a given scene, keep the camera(s) on the same side of the actors to preserve the viewer’s orientation. Showing the actors from two different sides can lend the erroneous impression that they are not facing in their actual directions. For example, if two characters in face-to-face are filmed separately and from opposites sides, they may appear as if they are looking away from each other.”

The rule of thirds. Directly centering an object in a frame tends to create a static image that is usually uninteresting and unchallenging to the eye. But dividing the frame into thirds in both directions, you will have a rough guide for effective placement. For broad vistas, the horizon line is usually at the lower third. Primary objects are usually best placed at or near an intersection rather than in an open zone. An actor’s eyes should be near the upper third line. An exception to the rule of thirds is when conveying a character’s isolation or inertia, when a dead-center placement might work best.”

Leave breathing room… Avoid framing actors such that the edge of the frame aligns with the body’s natural cutoff lines (neck, waist, knees, ankles), in order to not make them appear amputated.”

A movie is a novel turned inside out. A novel directly describes the invisible inner motives and emotions of characters, and it leaves it to the reader to formulate a mental picture of the physical world. A movie, conversely, depicts the visible and implies the unseen. Adapting a book to a screenplay thereby calls for a very difficult inversion: The explicit must be made implicit, and the invisible visible.”

Tell the story in the cut. Good storytelling… doesn’t always need to show how a character literally gets from A to B to C.”

Augment action scenes with clean cutaways. A cutaway is a momentary view away from the main action that provides enriching context or detail. A scene showing a young couple walking on the beach might be complemented with a cutaway of a seagull digging in the sand or an older couple strolling nearby… A cutaway is ‘clean’ when isolated from the general action that it can be inserted during editing without creating continuity problems.”

Don’t cast solely by looks. Don’t assume an auditioner who looks perfect for a role will be perfect. Often the best casting choices are against type, which can help define an iconic character. Don’t necessarily reject a candidate because of an initial bad choice in a reading. After all, he or she won’t be directing him- or herself in the film. Instead, give direction to the auditioner and gauge his or her adjustments to it. The auditioner’s reaction during an audition is part of the audition.”

Make it shorter… ‘Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’ — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry”

The book provides an interesting selection of concepts for prospective film students and others seeking a cursory survey of the filmmaking process.  The title not only refers to the number of items presented, but is also  a word play (intentional or not) on the introductory course number Filmmaking 101.

Landau, Neil, and Matthew Frederick. 101 Things I Learned in Film School. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010. Buy from Amazon.com

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