You wanna be a better filmmaker, so you wake up early. You drive to set. You spend the next twelve hours shooting. The next day it starts all over again and, if you’re lucky, this pattern repeats itself for years and at some point you find yourself with a career in film. But this is also a recipe for the destruction of your creative process. Read on for some alternative ideas on how to improve yourself as a filmmaker.
Do yourself a favor and break the pattern. It is important to also look outside the set for ways to become a better narrative filmmaker. Here are seven things to do that don’t involve holding a camera and each serve only to make your work better:
1) GO TO THE THEATRE:
Look at the image of the theatre above. The rectangle around the stage is called a proscenium and it should remind you of something. Looks like the frame of a camera, doesn’t it?
We have the Greeks to thank for the last 2,500 years of theatrical productions, as their work spawned nearly all current art forms. Go to your local theatre, choose a drama, not a musical, and watch the blocking and lighting.
As a DP, I am always fascinated by gorgeous lighting design in theatre. If I want to move a 1K on a set I can move it, but in theatre this is a complicated process. The results that designers get in the theatre are often extraordinary and can inform your field lighting work.
Because of factors such as sightlines, but also the nature of the medium itself, theatrical directors are forced to focus carefully on the blocking of characters as they move about the stage. Directors in theatre always have an eye on composition, and the natural frame of the stage can instruct your work behind the camera if you are open to it.
In film and especially TV, I see too many scenes where the character will walk into a room, stand there to deliver dialogue and march out of the room when the scene is over. Movement in all art forms needs to be organic, purposeful and driven by reason. There is a great deal to be learned from plays, but how to realistically block action is one of the most important takeaways for filmmakers.
2) VISIT AN ART GALLERY:
Painting is concerned with all the 10 attributes of sight; which are: Darkness, Light, Solidity and Color, Form and Position, Distance and Propinquity, Motion and Rest. – Leonardo da Vinci
As filmmakers, we get 24 frames per second to tell our stories. Painters get one. When planning your next production, try to put yourself in the mindset of the painter. Ask yourself: can I do more with less? Can I tell the story I want to tell in a minimal way that leaves the audience space to think and to interpret. Paintings leave a great deal of power in the hands of the viewer. Consider that the time may be right to shift the power back to the audience viewing your work.
3) BREAK YOUR HABITS:
The film community, at least in indie film, is a wonderfully tight knit group of struggling artists, all working towards a common goal of getting. their. film. made. This like-minded community can be limiting at times precisely because it is so like-minded. The single perspective may promote a cohesive production if you are making films for a select audience. It may make for a congratulatory atmosphere if you are discussing films with your peer group. What it does not do is serve creativity.
Change things up. Listen to a lecture from a point of view that is the polar opposite of yours. Submit your project to a festival that is far off the beaten path and travel there if you are accepted. Guide your audience at the Q&A to ask better, different questions that force you and your team to think and ask them questions.
Do you have a favorite shot? Don’t use it on your next project. Favorite camera? Shoot with something different. You get the idea. Habits and robotic sameness are the death of the creative process. Change up your routine in all aspects of your life, not just on the set.
4) WATCH TED TALKS:
All of them.
5) WATCH DOCUMENTARIES:
Documentaries are an incredibly freeing storytelling medium. You don’t need a crew of 40 people and $500,000 to create one and they can tell gripping, personal stories that are every bit as engaging as narrative.
There are also pacing lessons to learn from doc projects. Which moments in a person’s life do you dwell on and devote valuable screen time to, and which do you skip? What is and isn’t relevant to the central story? Docs have been known to tell stories spanning centuries in under 90 minutes, and somehow these stories are coherent and engaging.
Find similarities in how docs tell their stories and apply them to your work. Docs are limited to the footage they have available to them and they find all sorts of clever ways to use non-literal representative b-roll to tell stories. Don’t have the budget to film the car crash? Perhaps there is a way to show the car crash without needing to flip over a car at high speed. Docs very often have these problems figured out.
Watch documentaries for the technique and not just the story.
Traveling — it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. – Ibn Battuta
Meet new characters that will find a way onto your page. Make friends that are outside of the film industry and gift yourself the opportunity to experience the world by plane, train or automobile.
Understanding different perspectives on life is a valuable skill, and it is a skill you won’t gain without travelling a few thousand miles.
7) GO TO REAL LIFE:
Your life shouldn’t be defined by your career, and I myself am guilty of forgetting this from time to time. Look for ways to deepen your work in the world around you, but don’t let the work consume you.
While not always possible in this deadline-driven industry, some of my most rewarding creative breakthroughs have come after setting aside a project for a week or two. Coming back after a break gives you valuable perspective and a distance to the work that helps puts you in the mindset of the audience.
What do you think? Are there other off the set activities that you think can make you a better filmmaker? Comment below!