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