Developing A Cinematic Story

Developing A Cinematic StoryIndependent filmmakers are known to dive into projects without fully developing their story. Some come up with a cool scene idea and toss together a film to facilitate what’s in their mind’s eye for that 2-3 minute segment. The words that flow from their lips two years later is something like, “It didn’t quite turn out the way I pictured.”

The reason is elementary: Film is an argument, and the scene didn’t attempt to address anything worth arguing about.

The first place I’d check out, if given a new time machine, would be that large room where the Constitution of the United States was argued. I can imagine a group of passionate men fueled by their ideals on freedom of speech and religion, and the increasing weight of taxation without representation. It was a venue of the greatest arguments in the history of our country.

Great films cover both sides of an argument. The development process determines how the filmmaker will visualize the argument and lead the audience from a general understanding of the topic to his perspective. But most independent filmmakers can’t tell you what their film argues, which gives insights into why their film will fail at the box office.

A couple months ago, I watched an independent film that will fail during its release this summer because the story’s argument wasn’t explored with the audience, but rather was covered over by 22 unrelated messages. In fact, the argument was so underdeveloped that it took me the first 45 minutes of the film to determine who the main character was and his goal.

Here are a few guidelines that I’d like to suggest to new filmmakers for their consideration during the development phase of their motion picture:

  1. Determine what your film will argue.
  2. List all key points of the argument from every vantage point or perspective.
  3. Determine what view you’d like the audience to hold when leaving the theater.
  4. Select the strongest or most widely-held opposing argument for your antagonist.
  5. Create an 8-step flowchart that moves a person from an opposing viewpoint to your perspective, starting with their belief and ending with yours.
  6. Brainstorm a character that can best move the audience from the start box to the end box of the flowchart in a way that leads the audience to embrace his process.
  7. Based on the above, write a premise that can drive the action or movement of the film.

A simple way to develop a premise is to use an outline similar to the following:

[Title] is a [genre] about a [hero] who, after [big beat that happens to hero], wants to [hero’s desire] by [hero’s plan], which becomes increasingly difficult because of [obstacles/complications].

This quick formula will get your story launched in your mind’s eye and help you to immediately see if the story can be further developed. Here is a sample using The Fugitive that I tweaked for readability.

The Fugitive is a thriller about an innocent doctor who, after being sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife, escapes to find the real murderer, which becomes increasingly difficult with a determined Marshall hot on his trail.

Once you have your argument and premise, the next step is to determine how to weave the two ideas into a compelling story. The throughline will drive the audience’s interest, and the visual depiction of the argument will alter their perception of culture and their future life choices—that is, if the story is well crafted.

A well-designed argument that takes a person from a common view to your perspective is entertaining and can help audiences make culturally significant life changes. Since the motion picture is an argument, it’s easy to see why films have driven our culture for over a hundred years.

Our rich history of cinema suggests that filmmakers must learn how to properly develop their stories for the silver screen. To help encourage filmmakers move in that direction, I’m going to pull together some steps worth sharing in future blogs.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

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The “It” Factor

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Casting is critical to the success of a film. Each story requires just the right combination of talent and chemistry, plus the lead star must have the “It” factor. Without it, the film cannot be anything more than a nice story. But with it, the film can rise to become a box office sensation or a classic that endures the test of time.

To stay fresh with my ability to spot the “It” factor in performers, I decided to follow last season’s America’s Got Talent. I watched the first episode that each artist appeared in and determined my picks for the top five acts. I then watched each corresponding middle episode to determine who would win by the end of the season. And then, I watched the finale.

The “It” factor influenced America’s voting and matched my top five picks. And yes, I guessed winner Darci Lynne after watching her second performance.

So, what is this illusive “It” factor?

Paul Strikwerda, voice actor and author of Nethervoice refers to it as charisma when he wrote, “Originally, the word charisma meant “grace” or “talent from God.” Later on it became the “gift of leadership, power of authority, or charm that can inspire, influence, and motivate others.”

However, the factor to which I refer is much more than charisma, although charisma plays a very important role. Other noted elements that make up the “It” factor include:

Confidence Built from Passion.

The person who is fascinated by some element of life and pursues it with gusto gains a great deal of insight and a certain level of expertise in that area. This gives him the ability to draw from a depth of knowledge and from his own subconscious when placed in a performance arena. The wealth instilled in his heart and mind boosts his confidence beyond the average person who works within any given field.

Ability to Connect with the Audience.

The vulnerable talent draws others to his performance through an emotional connection that few people are able to make with strangers. The connection comes from the performer’s perception that he is just like the people in the audience and he has something important or of value that he wants to generously give the audience. The desire to connect with the audience is always more powerful than the performer’s fear of failure.

Great Observation Skills.

The performer is able to constantly take in information about the audience through watching body movement or listening to their reactions. He then quickly makes slight modifications to the presentation on the fly so the audience can capture every nuance of the performance.

Purpose Driven Performances.

The talent draws motivation from deep within, which is so highly treasured that he’s willing to make a complete fool of himself in order to give the audience his precious message. He becomes relentless in making sure he is understood and the audience receives the benefit he set out to gift them. His purpose far exceeds the talent’s own personal value, giving him an ability to lay down his future for the sake of the audience he blesses in the moment.

Integrity of Mind, Body and Spirit.

The physicality of his facial expressions, his shared words, and the content of his message quickly flow together in unison with little thought. The talent is so consumed with understanding his piece and perfecting it so he can consistently present it live at every performance in the exact same way as if it were being performed fresh for the first time. And, when necessary, can completely change it on the fly based on any given audience’s circumstances, while maintaining its meaning and quality.

These above skills are intuitive to the talent. Many performers learn these skills in order to survive negative circumstances in their childhood. They chose to look at life positively in spite of their suffering and learn how to connect and communicate to improve life for all around. This subconscious “It” factor becomes the powerful tool that can make or break an entertainers career, as those with the “It” factor will always out perform and out last the highly skilled that lack it.

Copyright 2017 by CJ Powers

“Hard Faith” Film Releases

Generational_SinsThe Hollywood Reporter last week featured a story about Christian movies going blue. In 2012, Blue Like Jazz was a Christian film that tested the waters with drugs, sexual innuendo, binge drinking, and foul language. It caught the attention of many supporters, becoming the second largest Kickstarter funded movie at the time.

The filmmakers’ careers were blocked in a unique boycott situation after the film’s release. They were reportedly stopped from ever working on another Christian film. One documentary even had the filmmakers discussing the disdainful treatment that they received from other Christian filmmakers.

A lover of controversy, writer-director Spencer Folmar decided to follow in their footsteps. On October 6, 2017, his film Generational Sins releases in theaters. The film is PG-13 and has 32 profanities. Folmar is trying to coin the genre and is reportedly trademarking the phrase “Hard Faith” films.

Instead of getting boycotted, Folmar is getting a new level of support. The Dove Foundation, known for its family safe seal of approval, has started a new category of approval for those 18-years-old and up. Generational Sins has received the stamp.

Movieguide, a watchdog organization for family friendly and godly films, thinks the film should be judged on its artistic merits, not on its language. However, their position was not one of agreement as they wrote…

“There’s an underlying problem with the approach of looking like the world in order to reach out to it. It’s not how Jesus ministered, it’s not how the apostles preached, and it’s not how the Bible tells believers to live (Rom 12:2, John 17:15-18). What turns Christians off, and many others as well, is when believers, who are likely well intentioned, brag about the edginess of a particular choice because they’ve decided to mix it with Jesus. That doesn’t somehow make it cool all of sudden.”

There were thousands of movies during the golden age of cinema (1933-1963) that were real, morally healthy, and pushing artistic boundaries. Many of those stories were godly, well received, and worthy of the general public’s time and money. None of those films stooped to vile comments on the silver screen.

But the “in thing” today is all about the buzz of new faith-based filmmakers putting the gritty truth into their films in order to reach a more secular audience. The funny thing is that Jesus told stories to the secular public without profanity. Even his parable about a loving father dealing with a prodigal son was shared without being explicit.

Redemptive films, which I strongly support, rarely use any profanity, if at all. They are crafted to demonstrate the character’s repugnant lifestyle without drenching the audience in its filth. It only takes a couple quick scenes to express where the character begins his story arch, which ends in an uplifting place.

A good craftsman can create a story that reflects a raunchy lifestyle without immersing the audience in a bath of displayed evil. While I don’t feel all of the unsavory acts must be done off-screen, I wouldn’t for a moment suggest a director leave the audience feeling like they participated in the character’s depravity. After all, the goal of the film is to show the character’s transformation from an immoral lifestyle through to his redemption.

In the case of redemptive storytelling, the transformation is used to promote the film. In hard faith films, so far, it’s the edginess and profanity that’s being used to promote the film. The focus seems to be on debauchery rather than transformation.

This choice is forcing the film into a limited release schedule with only 14 theaters. In other words, the distributor is assuming the film will flop unless the controversy puts people into the seats.

So, my question is, does 32 profanities in a faith-based film entice you to the theater?

Copyright © 2017 by CJ Powers

Redemptive Films Change Society

RedemptiveMany have asked me to clarify why I’m passionate about creating redemptive stories. The answer rises from the depths of my soul, which I find myself contemplating time and again. The contemplation is not a form of second-guessing, as I’m firm on my position, but it’s about distinguishing the gap between the two.

I’m adamant about society being challenged by story to consider who they are verses who they truly want to be. United Kingdom writer Jeanette Winterson wrote, “True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

Great motion pictures always start with a character living their normal life, which gets turned upside down and explored from a new vantage point in the second act that fuels contemplation. The audience gets to watch the character explore how he or she faces life and its circumstances.

Writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag said, “All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation.”

The character is eventually forced into an emotional corner that requires a life-changing decision. Prior to the final moment, we see the character test out a few possible outcomes, but to no prevail. However, by the end of the third act, the character has chosen to live a new normal life going forward.

Art’s ability to force contemplation and change our viewpoint is of great value to society. Being able to create such media empowers the filmmaker to alter how people perceive society and how the people fit within that new world he presents. It’s no wonder those in power seek to master the media.

Frederick_DouglassFrederick Douglass, in his Pictures and Progress essay wrote, “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.”

But why are pictures, or more specifically motion pictures, so moving?

Douglass further wrote, “To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.”

In other words, there is an innate power within pictures to demonstrate what a better life can look like and how to embrace it from where a person currently stands on any given issue. That is why films start with the character’s normal life, moves him or her into an exploration of the roadblocks in life that force contemplation, and finally resolves with the character choosing a new normal life.

I would venture to say that a motion picture that doesn’t move the audience emotionally from their current place in life to a better one is void of art. The idea that art forces contemplation is an important one, as our society must learn how to change for the better, not to its detriment.

Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren said, “Art is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”

Filmmakers, the best of our picture-making community, have been ordained to inspire society’s growth. There are no other animals around who can hold a torch to this appointed responsibility.

In fact, Douglass said, “Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.”

Redemptive stories are created for society. Its movies start with the character’s normal life, moves them through demonstrable roadblocks, and forces him or her to make a life altering decision that brings the character into a new normal life, which adds to society’s growth.

Creating stories that make a direct impact on society is what I’m all about. That is where my artistic appetite thrives and that is why I’m passionate about making redemptive films.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Where Do I Sit?

Theater_Seats

The weekend has arrived and those dating are most likely headed out to dinner and a movie, but they don’t know where to sit in the theater. Most know to avoid the first few rows and some will make sure they don’t end up in the back of the theater unless they like being remote. But few know, for which seats the director designed the movie.

Theaters range in size and shape and follow the rudimentary formats prescribed by the National Association of Theater Owners and the Motion Picture Association of America. These formats are based on screen ratios and the projector’s “throw” of light based on lumens, curvature of the lens and the screens’ reflective material.

Let’s make it simple…

Without trying to figure out the complex formulas to determine seating placement, a well-designed theater will provide good seating about two thirds of the way back from the screen. Unfortunately that’s based on typical screens being about 20’ X 47’ and the theater having a total depth of… Nope, let’s keep it simple.

Have you ever attended the rehearsal of a stage show? Did you notice that the director always sits in a specific place? Or, how about at a concert venue, did you notice where the mixing board is located?

Microphone jacks are typically placed in the ideal location for the director to plug in his headset or microphone in professional, university and high school theaters. This gives him the closest view of the stage, while still being able to see the entire stage. If he moves closer, he can’t get the big picture. If he moves further back, he can’t focus on the detail.

In film, the same rule of thumb holds true. When a director is viewing his final mixed film, he is seated based on the screen location and surround sound speakers. Even in the mixing room the director is positioned in the ideal location and makes all the decisions based on that spot.

When the show releases to the silver screen the ideal location is about 2.5X the screen height back from the movie screen. If you select a seat in that location, you’ll notice surround speakers directly to the left and right of you. The entire movie was created based on those seats. Any other point of view changes the impact of the film.

For instance, if you don’t like horror films you can sit in the back to diminish the surprise factor and reduce the emotional pull on your heart. If you enjoy rollercoaster like action films you can move closer to the screen to keep your head moving and help your stomach churn your latest meal.

Regardless of the screening room size, you’re safe sitting 2.5X the screen height back from the screen in order to see the film as the director designed it.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

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3 Types of Skilled Movie Directors

DirectorProfessional movie directors make most movies, but few in the audience can discern the difference between which of the three types of directors made the film they watch. The three types of skilled directors are: Technical; Performance; and, Arts & Craft.

Technical Director

Directors fascinated with the technology know how to capture images that look cool and stir the soul. They are most likely first attracted to splash videos before understanding the subtleties of story-based cinema. He or she works well with the crew, but pretty much leaves the actors alone to do their own thing. Sometimes this relaxed process flows from the director’s inexperience, or ignorance of not knowing how to communicate with the actors.

Performance Director

This type of director may have once been an actor. He or she understands the nuances of performance and the depth it can bring to a story. Instead of focusing on the technology, the director spends time with each actor and determines how to draw out the best performance possible. Regardless of the schedule, time is allotted to capture the best performances through coaching, experimentation, and augmented performance technique.

Arts & Crafts Director

This is the rare breed of director who understands the technical and the performance aspects of film production. He or she takes time to work with the actors and tweak their performances, and to help the crew understand exactly what needs to be captured. The director takes these same skills into post-production as well, where he or she represents both the technical and performance sides of the production team in the editing suite.

Most technical directors gravitate toward television where story decisions are made by the producers, head writers, and show runners. Performance directors lean more toward live stage shows. And, arts and craft directors typically thrive in the motion picture industry. Unfortunately, all too often directors are misplaced and find themselves battling to survive, rather than thriving in their ideal environments.

The best combination is for a director to figure out which type resonates within his or her soul and enter the appropriate market. The same holds true with directors that lean toward specific genres. The sports enthusiast director should think twice about making a Hallmark movie, unless he or she is prepared to stretch him or herself creatively.

I’ve directed numerous genres in my life, but I’ve only won highly competitive awards for adventure films. I’ve also won several awards for my dramas, but they came from lesser competitions. In other words, my best combination where I thrive is directing a fun adventure film that’s salted with dramatic moments and humor. That’s not to say I can’t direct other types of stories, I’ve done numerous successful shows outside of my core expertise. But in all honesty they were never on the same level as when I’m paired to an adventure film.

Do you know your favorite director’s core genre?

© 2017 by CJ Powers

7 Common Mistakes of New Filmmakers

Shaky Camera TechniqueI’ve spent time with three filmmakers over the past two years coaching them on their freshman projects. They all had very different working attitudes, but they all made the same mistakes that are common among first time filmmakers.

Here are the 7 Common mistakes consistently made by newbies:

1. Lack of Preparation.

Every new filmmaker is so excited about shooting what’s in his or her head that they dive into production without the proper preparation. They don’t know that by the time shooting starts, seasoned directors have seen their film in their mind’s eye more than 100 times, working out every little detail. This lack of preparation is typically revealed by a lack of footage being shot that’s necessary to tell the story properly.

2. Bad or No Sound Design.

Audiences are used to full soundtracks, which young filmmakers forget to take into consideration until after their first film sounds thin or tinny. Even then, most newbies use 4 to 8 tracks for sound compared to 16, 32, or even 64 tracks of sound layering done by professionals. New filmmakers also have thin sound effects in their first shows.

3. Underdeveloped Story.

Beginners typically start with a cool scene idea that pops into their head and build a story over a handful of weeks. For most rookie filmmakers the development stage is the shortest. The pros take much longer developing the story. In fact, professional story development typically takes longer than preproduction, production and post-production combined.

4. Poor Casting Choices.

This is when beginners hire their friends and anyone that they owe a favor. People typically get cast based on their ability to “do business” on camera rather than being selected for their character development skills and performance. More experienced casting starts with a list of physical and behavioral attributes. The person’s ability to follow direction and draw an audience to the theater is also considered.

5. Bad Dialog.

Newbies tend to write their own scripts in a way that makes every character sound the same. Rarely are rookie filmmakers taught how to give different voices to their characters. Many times the pros will use specialists to make sure the dialog drives conflict and gives a unique voice to each character.

6. Use of Clichés.

The shorter the film the more likely a young filmmaker will use clichés and stereotypes in the creation of his or her story. The reason is based on their lack of development experience, the ease of shooting the obvious, and the lack of screen time available to explore the conflict. Pros avoid clichés like the plague.

7. Sporadic Collaboration.

Young filmmakers struggle with how to paint their vision to the cast and crew without compromise, while teaming through the cinematic collaboration process that puts excellence on screen. New filmmakers tend to find themself over controlling a project, which kills the artistry, or giving in all too often, which waters down the story. Experienced professionals know how to draw the best out of their associates through collaboration and then pick the best recommendation that’s in keeping with the vision, that is, if it’s better than the preplanned direction.

The apprenticeship process has been used for over a hundred years to raise up strong filmmakers, yet newbies continue to side step the process. For some reason most first timers desire to shoot their own film before they know how to make films, something that will continue for the next 100 years. A few survive that find mentors or get sucked into the system and climb up through the ranks. Those are the ones who learn how to avoid the common mistakes.