Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Surviving Film School: Part 2

In the last post I discussed the characteristics of a good film. 
But what are some characteristics of a bad film?

Usually we can't figure out who the main character is, or what it is that character is trying to do.  We can't figure out his goal.

There is too much exposition.  Instead of seeing the action, characters often just tell us what they feel, or think, or what they just did, or what they are going to do.  The worst is when a character tells us what they are going to do, then we see them do it, then they tell us what they just did!
We don't care what happens next, or why.  We have nothing invested in the story.  There is no emotional connection, either to a character or her goal.

The camerawork is clumsy.  Shots are framed poorly.  They seem unbalanced, and not in the good, crooked-angle kind of way.  We don't know where to look in the frame.  There are no original shots.  The camera is too still, or it moves around too much; there might be dolly shots that aren't motivated.  
The sound design adds nothing to the story.  Or the sound itself might just be bad.  Dialogue might be tough to hear, music might be inappropriate or cliched,  presence (ambiance) might be choppy or non-existent.

The editing is plodding.  Or so frenetic you can't tell where you are.  Instead of controlling rhythm and pace to create tension or fear or joy or sadness, the editing merely advances the story.  Or it might not even do that!

The film is dark and underexposed, or too bright, or the lighting is too flat and gray.  There is no color in the film, no sense of lighting to help define time and place.

The acting is wooden.  It seems like the actors are reading lines instead of talking to each other.  Or the actors might be miscast.

Locations are poorly chosen.  They add nothing to the story.   Sets too are poorly, or minimally, designed.   Costumes are inappropriate.

Finally, we know we've seen a bad film when we feel we've wasted our time, or that the film had no redeemable feature.  Sometimes a film just misses the mark, but has too many faults to recommend it.  Sometimes you wonder, why didn't anyone making this film see how bad it would be?  Why didn't anyone tell them?  Most frustrating is when you can see the good film buried deep in the bad film!


How to avoid bad pre-production!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Surviving Film School: Part 1

What Makes A Good Film?
Let me get this out of the way - I'm a film teacher.  I've never worked in Hollywood or made a feature film.  I do make short films and I have worked for hire over the years as a producer, writer, director, and editor.  

But what I am primarily is a teacher.  I've been teaching in film school for over ten years.  I've taught freshman and sophomores, seniors and grad students.  I've seen students' first films and final thesis films, class exercises, documentaries, animated films, films on 16 mm, 35 mm, HDSLR, even VHS.

I've seen hundreds, maybe THOUSANDS, of student films.   

And to be honest, many of them stink.

We do our best as film teachers to instruct students in both the technical and creative aspects of film making.  Some students get it.  They recognize how much work goes into a film, how it's a collaborative process.  They divide the labor, so they aren't doing all of the work themselves.  They have something to say, and are eager to share with an audience.  They work their butts off to make each student film better than the one before.  They want to learn.  They want to make good films. 

A VHS tape, if you've never seen one.  (photo by J. Betke)
Other students sleep through class, miss assignments, only care about making films "their" way, and get easily demoralized.  They don't foster friendships, meaning they get stuck doing all the work themselves.  They are sloppy on set.  They want to be filmmakers, but are unwilling to do the work needed to make good films.

This blog will help student filmmakers, and other beginners, recognize what mistakes make a bad film, and along the way hopefully show you how to do things the right way.  In other words, we will show you why student films stink, and how to make sure yours don't.

Let's start this by discussing what constitutes a good film.

There is usually "Suspension of Disbelief."  The film "looks and feels" like a professional movie.  It looks like you're watching a scene from real life, or, if it's a genre film like science fiction, horror, or even a western, an imagined real life. 

There are no glaring production mistakes, and the story is often shot from one character's point of view.  The camera is placed at appropriate angles, the lighting is such that you can see what's important, and it might even help set the mood.  You can hear what you need to hear.  The dialogue is believable and you can't tell that the actors are acting. 

You care what happens to the characters.  You want to know what happens next; you want to know how the story will end.    

There is usually an emotional investment.  You laugh or you cry, you feel anxious or tense.  It's more than just being shocked or startled, or laughing at a joke; you find humor in situations, or you are scared for a character.

Finally, you feel somehow fulfilled when the film is over.  You can't always put your finger on it, but you know somehow you've changed.  Either you got a peek at a life you didn't previously know, or you felt a sincere emotion.  Maybe the film touched you in some way.  You can't stop thinking about why the characters acted the way that they did, why they made the choices they made. 

You tell your friends how great the movie was and you recommend it.  You post links to its trailer.  In the back of your mind you might remember some shots that looked great, or a line of dialogue, or an actor's performance.  And the movie stays with you, in a good way, for years. 

NEXT: What are some common problems of bad films?