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?

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