Picking a 3, 8 or 12-Week Shooting Schedule

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Sample Scheduling Strip Board

A friend of mine surprised me with a note detailing the results of his unique research. He was adamant about learning why certain films succeed with a shooting schedule that kills other films. The correlation was eye opening and made me curious about my list of shooting scripts.

Typical Movies of the Week (MOW) fit easily into a 3-week schedule due to time constraints and budgets. Although some networks are satisfied with the results garnered by 2-week schedules because they prefer few set-ups and lots of close-ups.

Beginning filmmakers also use the 2-3 week schedule because they don’t yet have the artistic flair or knowledge of what to do with the extra time provided in an 8-week schedule. Many newbie directors can’t tell what the actor did right or wrong, so they move to the next shot without any exploration of how to best capture the human condition.

Oscar® loves the 8-week schedule because it keeps the story intimate and gives plenty of time to explore the artistic values that expose the human condition. The vast majority of Academy Award nominees and winners hold well to the 8-week shooting schedule. Few Oscar® winners use a shorter or longer shooting schedule.

Highly commercial films are forced to use the 12-week schedule due to its elaborate shots, visual effects and global storylines. The bigger box office spectaculars have even stretched the shooting schedule out to 6 months in order to properly create the world of adventure adored by audiences worldwide.

Understanding why the films in each category could succeed was impressive, but I found the list of failures more enlightening.

Many horror and Faith-based films attempt to make an 8-week film in 2-weeks and wonder why their box office couldn’t hit Hollywood’s $40MM mark that determines success within the industry. While most horror films shot within a 3-week schedule hit $12MM, Faith-based films tend to hit $3MM. I was curious about the gap.

According to the research, horror films use a simple “coming after you” action device to move the story forward and salts in a secondary plotline of romance or something from “Geekdom.” Faith-based films seldom use action plotlines, so the story has no forward movement. The filmmakers rely solely on the message’s innate value rather than salting it into an action throughline.

Of course, 8 and 12-week scheduled films usually have a strong action plotline and one or two subplots to entertain the masses. This structure in of itself demands more shooting time and exploration of the human condition. Comedies on the other hand don’t adhere to the story structure, as they explore improvisational work by the talent. Doing so can accidentally remove the pacing and format of the story, making it fall apart in the eyes of the audience.

Most $40MM plus stories are shot on the 8-week schedule using full story structure with an action plotline and two subplots. The longer schedule attracts larger names to the project that can draw a larger audience. The key to the film’s success typically rests on the director, writer and talent. Story is king and knowing how to direct is essential.

Most of the stories I write are for 8 and 12-week schedules. However, most of the shows I’ve been hired to direct have been for 3 and 8-week shooting schedules. The shorter schedules were due to investors or producers that wanted to spend as little money as possible to achieve their results, rather than investing the amount needed to honor the story’s natural schedule.

When I shot Mystery at the Johnson Farm we scheduled 11 pages a day and shot lots of close-ups with little coverage. When I was in The Dark Night’s parade scene we were capturing less than a page a day. On Nolan’s heavy stunt days they were lucky to capture one to two eights of a page a day.

The story demands a certain amount schedule for each of its specific scenes. To rob the story of what it requires only lowers the quality of the film. To give too much time to scenes causes the show to become bloated, forcing the editor to battle the director—trimming favorite shots for the sake of pacing and entertainment value.

The key question with independent film … is the story well structured enough to require the golden 8-week schedule or is it too weak? If it’s weak the filmmaker can either adjust the script or refocus his distribution to a small cable network in place of a theatrical release.

©2017 by CJ Powers

Caged No More – Review

Lisa_ArnoldLisa Arnold is at a turning point in her filmmaking career. Her directing chops in the faith-based genre are within reach of the Kendrick (Fireproof, Courageous, War Room) brothers’ skills. While she is still known for her acting, she’s quietly becoming a director to be reckoned with.

Caged No More demonstrated her passion for heart touching story. Her technical skills also exceeded the typical faith-based production techniques. Several scenes bumped up into the quality levels typical in TV movies and a few scenes were straight-out cinematic.

She relentlessly went after the audience in Caged No More, giving viewers little time to breath between heart wrenching scenes. She did present some humor to lighten the mood a third of the way into the story, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from gripping my heart as the story escalated. I actually had to pause the DVD twice to allow my emotions to calm down.

cagednomore-screenshots-0002Part of this emotional charge came from Arnold’s subject matter. Caged No More is about the abduction of Jr. High girls into sex trafficking. The last national record I read had >14,000 girls ages 12 – 14 sold annually. That does not include girls 15 – 18. Nor does it count girls from less secure countries. And, it doesn’t count the boys who are also sold.

Caged No More finds an interesting balance with Arnold’s passion, the elements in faith-based films required by churches, and a form of entertainment that keeps the plot moving. Her careful crafting of the message is ideal for introducing congregations to the horrific reality our girls face.

Unfortunately, the film is not one I’d watch again due to the lack of breather moments. Nor am I interested in seeing the sequel due out in 2017, just in case she hasn’t figured out how to lace in more humor for people like me.

cagednomore-screenshots-0030However, if you love to cry during movies, I highly recommend you watch Caged No More and watch the second film in the trilogy next year. It will also give you an opportunity to see why Arnold will soon become the “queen” of faith-based films, standing next to the king Kendrick brothers in the limelight.

As for me, I’ll be trying to figure out how to un-see what was presented so I can get back to a normal life. That’s not to say Arnold didn’t use extreme tact in her presentation, she did, but once you learn what she presents you’ll feel obligated to take some form of action to save at least one girl.

Well done, Arnold! Oh, and give me a call sometime if you want to brainstorm breather moments for your sequel – giving folks like me a chance to watch.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in hopes that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

The 3 A’s of Story Movement

When I was a child, my dad told me that a motion picture was about movement. I said, “dah!” But later I realized he was profoundly right. I’ve seen too many films that were not about movement. I’m not talking about the physical motion you see on screen where either the camera is moving or the actor moves, although that is present in film.

I’m speaking about story movement.

Every great story has the triple A’s of story movement: Anticipation, Action, and Aftermath. It is no different than the beginning, middle and end, except for one small factor: It’s about building a question in the mind of a viewer that must be quenched by watching more of the show.

ANTICIPATION

The “what” of a story is typically known by the audience before watching the film. The key is to make sure the audience doesn’t presume the “how” of the story before it unfolds. However, to create story movement the director must build anticipation in the audience to see if things play out in the expected way. While the ending might turn out close to expectations, how the story unfolds must be new and unique.

Blog_AAA-1My picture of a character reaching for a flower is symbolic of anticipation. It causes the audience to wonder if the character will caress the flower and smell it, or pick it. Both possibilities have been seen before, so how it’s done tells a new story worth watching. Not knowing how things will play out causes the audience to anticipate several possibilities. The audience is compelled to continue watching to see the outcome.

ACTION

Blog_AAA-2The flower being picked confirms the anticipated event to be new or what was expected, but done in a fresh way. It also raises another question. The audience now wants to know what will happen to the flower. The action drives the viewer to seek the end of the scene. They need to know if the character will hand the flower to someone, put it in a vase, toss it over the neighbors fence, or maybe realize that picking it killed the poor thing and grieve. The possibilities are endless.

AFTERMATH

Blog_AAA-3The aftermath isn’t always negative, but many times it is, except for the midpoint and climax of the film. But it’s always emotional so the audience shares the experience and desires to know more about what will happen in the next scene. Many writers speak about this moment being critical to moving a story forward using a consequence or conflict.

Every scene must have the three A’s to drive the audience’s desire for more story. Without it, the film falls apart. The magic of the three A’s is that it works every time, keeping the story moving and raises questions in the audience’s mind about what comes next. Great stories compel the audience to watch every subsequent scene until the film’s resolving climax and epilog.

© 2016 by CJ Powers

How to Study Film Craft through Analysis

How to Study Film Craft through AnalysisPeople are shocked to hear how often I watch movies. After I share that I’m not just watching, but studying the films, they become amazed at how I draw information from the greatest directors of our time. The steps are simple enough and the value of my findings exceeds that of what a focused film student can gain from a professor, so I’ve decided to share the steps of my analysis process.

  1. Watch the Film for Fun. The first screening is done for the purpose of entertainment and gives a solid overview of story and the emotional impact it makes. It reveals the obvious set pieces and whether it worked or didn’t. The structure of the story also becomes apparent.
  1. Analyze Favorite Scenes. The next several viewings are only of the best scenes that stood out during the first screening. These subsequent viewings allow for the analysis of the camera, set-ups, orchestration and editorial flow. Further focus can be placed on transitions, entrances and exits, character reveals, and over all cinematic presence.
  1. Ask Questions. Pinpoint a favorite sequence, segment and shot. Ask why it worked and what set up was necessary to make it work. Ask what the role of the camera, editing, acting, music and other key elements were in the successful creation of the scene. Then, ask “what if” questions and determine if the scene could be changed for the good or bad.
  1. Breakdown the Scene. Rebuild the scene from a preproduction perspective, making directorial notes that are executable. Determine the emotional scale of each shot, scene and sequence. Reduce the dramatic blocks and narrative beats to writing. Create margin notes for expanding an actor’s performance with verbs that can increase or decrease the performance for a potential reshoot. Find a way to be immersed in the emotional investment of the main characters and notate the highlights for a sequel treatment.
  1. Recut the Film. Capture favorite scenes and dreaded scenes to video and re-edit the segments for greater emotional impact. Shift the tone of the scene by changing the cutting pace, music or soundtrack. Or, take a weak film and cut it down to a half hour piece, dropping all slow segments and subplots, but maintaining the action plot beats.

These analysis steps put a director through several of the processes of making a film without making a film. It’s great for practice, but more importantly it gives the director experiential understanding of what works and what doesn’t – Leading to a more diverse tool belt for his next movie.

What steps do you take in analyzing a film?

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Controlling Kills Creativity

Control Kills CreativityWhen I was the lead carpenter for the Before Broadway Players, my director asked me to create a special effects box that looked high tech and gave the audience the sense that it was beyond this world. Having been empowered, I quickly put everything I had into the tech and the final stage prop created a great publicity buzz.

I was only able to use my ingenuity because I had a director who understood that controlling his team’s decisions would kill their creativity and force the audience to pretend the box was more than just junk parts glued in place.

There’s a fine balance between setting vision or giving a project direction, and controlling everyone involved. The latter tends to dilute creativity and drives creative types to withdraw their best efforts and replace it with something mundane.

It’s true that at certain key moments control is necessary to get things on track with market needs, but continuous control robs the team of unique successes and slaughters their inspiration for innovation in the arts. Put simply: long-term control kills the art form.

So why is it that new directors tend to control the actors and crew, rather than collaborate with them?

It might be due to insecurity. Or, maybe watching previous works demolished by the wrong choice in team or talent selection. In any case, I believe all directors can find a balance between control and collaboration by practicing three important steps.

EVALUATE YOUR ACTIONS. Most controlling leaders are not aware of their grasp on people. They make decisions based on their goal, not the person they work with. This causes them to stifle innovation from those around them, which is detrimental in all of the arts, but especially motion pictures.

To break free of control issues a director can ask himself several questions:

A. Are my ideas always the best?
B. Have my cast and crew stopped contributing?
C. Do people constantly ask questions for approval, rather than risk their creativity?
D. Have all of my projects gone flat and are no longer interesting?

If any of the answers above are yes, then the director must practice letting go.

PRACTICE LETTING GO. The word practice is critical in revealing the ongoing process for the controller. No one can throw a one time switch and suddenly turn everything into a great collaboration. It takes single daily steps to accomplish the change. There are a handful of questions a director can ask himself to move forward in letting go:

A. What responsibility can I delegate?
B. How can I measure the delegate’s success without taking over?
C. What new responsibility can I use to fill my time?
D. What new behaviors can I develop to keep my hands off the delegate’s details?

By letting go of the minutia and filling time with more important focuses, the director can empower his team to put their soul into the project.

LEARN TO EMPOWER. The best way to empower someone isn’t by understanding their ability to perform a task, but rather understand their behaviors and how they make choices. It’s the choices that determine if the individual will follow the vision or head off in a different direction.

A director, who spends a lot of time understanding people and how characters develop, can plan how behaviors can be triggered. To move in this direction, the director can ask himself the following questions to prepare:

A. What behaviors are needed to accomplish the responsibility?
B. What choices must be present to give comfort when I let go?
C. How can these behaviors be inspired or given to the person?
D. What support is required to empower the person?

Empowered individuals always out perform controlled people. Yet, it takes hard work on the director’s part to empower the people, while maintaining his vision.

Some new directors who get past the control factor shift to the opposite extreme with a mishmash of unclear activities. Empowering people does not stop the director from painting a vision and directing everyone towards it, as there is a great difference between getting buried in the minutia and inspiring everyone’s behaviors to reach the goal.

Whether you’re a film director or a manager, what do you do to empower your people?

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

10 Directing Techniques that Raise a Film’s Quality (Part 1)

There are over 100 documented techniques that directors develop to master their craft. Independent filmmakers have little patience to develop the skills that delay gratification. This lack of preparation causes poorly managed shoots, fewer artistic choices, bad acting and less coverage.

To avoid the nightmare that generates lower quality films, every filmmaker can improve his preparation by practicing ten directing techniques.

1. Search for Great Stories

There are seven steps to determine if a script is worth shooting. All seven are a part of analyzing the story. By reading a lot of scripts and working through the process of determining which ones are great stories, the director will be able to quickly spot flaws in the next script handed to him for consideration. He will also be able to determine if the flaw can be fixed or if the story should be pitched.

I read and conduct a partial to full analysis on 2-3 stories a month to keep my chops up. This means I read 2-3 stories a week to find the ones worth analyzing. It doesn’t take more than 3-10 pages of reading to know if the story is worth finishing. Those that are worth a full read are considered for analysis.

2. Breakdown Set Pieces

FlashdanceSet pieces are scenes that are designed to have an obvious imposing effect on the audience. They are iconic to the story and many times become culturally iconic. The mere mention of fire trails or light sabers reminds us of Back to the Future and Star Wars. Or, for those who don’t like sci-fi, think about the horse head in bed and a dancer being doused with water, which reminds us of The Godfather and Flashdance.

By finding the 3-8 set pieces in the story, a director can use those scenes to practice the remaining skills. When I first started breaking down set pieces, it took me 45-60 minutes per scene to understand what made those scenes pop. Now, I can find the iconic building blocks within a few minutes per scene.

3. Mark Story Beats

Every script has story beats. Some beats are obvious and some are clouded by subplots or old beats that were never taken out of a previous draft. Some systems recommend 7 beats, others 8, 12, 14, 16, 17, 23, 28, and 32. Each genre tends to have its own rules of beat placement and writing systems. For instance, both the myth and hero processes place varying emotional levels of beats into the story structure.

Marking all the story structure beats within the script gives the director a clear understanding of the story structure, pace, and distortions. Every year I download all Oscar nominated screenplays and search for the beat structure within each story. Patterns within genres and between screenwriters become evident and increase my speed and ability to spot key story elements that must be treated with high importance during a shoot.

4. Mark Entrances, Exits and Power Changes

Well-written screenplays have a shift in power between characters several times within any given scene. Marking each character’s entrances/exits and power shifts, breaks the scene into manageable parts. It also gives the director insight into segmenting the shoot for the greatest on screen emotional impact.

I’ve found that by marking scenes according to the exchange of power, I can instantly tell if the scene will entertain or fall flat. I’ve also found that most scenes that belong in a story, yet are flat, typically have a central element that will play better if the scene is rewritten using subtext. And, those flat scenes that are empty I cut from the story.

5. Notate Verbs for Motivation

With every power shift within a scene the talent needs a new motivation for her character. The best way to inspire the talent is to have a verb ready to suggest the motivation. The verb can be written on the script page with a stronger and weaker verb for back up.

When I’ve suggested to the talent that her character needs to “influence,” I can turn to my back up verbs if she plays it too big or small. For instance, if she plays “influence” too big I can suggest her character needs to “urge,” or if she plays it too small I can suggest she needs to “incite.” By listing all three words on the page, I have immediate tools available for altering a performance should I need it.

To be continued in (Part 2)

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Story, Structure and Style

© ktsdesign - Fotolia.comMentoring in the moment is an important function of giving back. Not only does it give me an opportunity to help new upcoming filmmakers move up a level in the business, but it also gives me a fresh perspective on what unforeseen industry changes might be slowly approaching.

In a recent conversation with a young female director, I was asked, “What are the three most important things that a director brings to a script?” After answering, I realized that there are indeed three specific things a director brings to a script that determines the success of a film.

STORY

The director brings the story to life by attaching his vision to it. He is responsible for finding the holes in the story and making it whole. He also has the power to determine how it is to be told and position it so the audience can easily understand and embrace it. If the story fails, it’s the director’s fault.

One first time director argued the point with me by suggesting he was not at fault, but his bad writer was to blame. I asked him if he was sure and he confidently defended his position. Once I could see that he put his entire defense into the bad writer, I asked why he chose to make the film when he knew the writing was so bad. His argument proved him to be either a bad director or a foolish one for shooting an unworthy story.

STRUCTURE

The director determines the beats of the film and the visuals that will best depict the story. He is responsible for the development of the characters and the emotional highs and lows of the picture. He even holds the responsibility to inspire his team to perform admirably within the confines of the budget.

An experienced director with 35 plus features under his belt told me that he left the structure of the film to the writers and director of photography, while he focused solely on the actors. I asked him how the film was translated from the page to the screen without his artistic touch. He suddenly realized that he had given up his artistic choices to chance happenings – When the written word happened to match well with the visual depiction.

STYLE

All directors have an artistic style that evolves into something that few can replicate. When a person watches a Woody Allen movie, everyone knows it’s his, even if his name was left out of the credits. Just sharing director names at a party immediately invokes the look, feel and overall style of his work within the person’s mind. Consider Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Nolan. It’s hard to say those three names without seeing their style show up in your mind’s eye.

I recently chatted with an up coming director who was struggling with his first short film. Every time someone helped him improve his story, he lost interest in it and started over. I realized that something about the suggestions must have spun the style of his show within his mind to become something he was no longer passionate about. This was disconcerting since directors always spin the suggestions into their own version that matches their stylistic vision.

Directors put their fingerprint on everything they do. It shows up in the perspective from which the story is told to the structure of its emotional beats to the overall look and feel that is presented. The director owns the success of a film and has the three key tools that place his fingerprint onto his work.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers