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.”

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

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.”

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.”

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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