Saturday, 12 June 2010

Stories first, explosions second

This is a short article about what I've learned when making the short film Shadows of the Past. And NO, it's not an article about visual effects. Of course, I've learned a lot of things (from camera work and directing to heavy compositing and using 3d packages) and I have probably done a fairly good job when it comes to the look of the film. But still I have a very bad feeling about the project as a whole - because I personally think I failed as a filmmaker. That's why I write this post: to remind myself what went wrong and why.

SotP was of course never meant to be a story-driven film, I planned it as a duel and added the storyline after it was shot (and the story itself went through several transformations during that process). I felt fine about the way everything was heading right until a certain point in postproduction: when the effects were done and I had the final edit exported. It was then when I started to this really what I wanted to create? A visual effects driven story?

Don't get me wrong, I love visual effects and I love the way they expand the movie experience but - that's the thing. Because of the SotP I realized something that I had almost completely forgotten during the last few years. The eye-candy is meant to supplement the story and not the other way around. This is of course no groundbreaking discovery...but it seems to me that today, more and more people tend to deliberately put this fact aside.

Not the explosions but the emotions behind them are important. It is not the technological marvel but the story idea that makes a groundbreaking film. Of course, hot chicks and stunning effects attract the masses and earn a lot of money but we shouldn't forget that there can be great films with both of these things and a clever plot (e.g. the first Matrix). And this brings me to the most important thing - the way I learned I should structure a project.

The idea must come first. Bring something very deep, personal, philosophical, funny, emotive or romantic - it doesn't really matter what it is as long as it's not forced! Tell a story that comes from within you, about something that's been bugging you for so long that it just has to come out, on a paper, into a script, into a the audience for them to learn about it and possibly from it.

What can I say, the good old Aristotle's dramatic structure is a time-proven key for most stories.
But there's more. You can not make a story full of great moments - if every scene was awesome and bombastic, they would all feel average. You need to build a story that's gripping but balanced. When you go up, you need to go down a few scenes later, when you bring action, you need to bring dialog (or slow down in any other form) also. This way the special parts of the story will feel even more so.
And always remember - even if your film generally sucks, if you have a strong intro (to get the people's attention) and more importantly outro (to give them nice feeling when the credits are rolling) you're almost always halfway there. But dare not to count on it!

You need to inhabit your story with interesting 3-dimensional characters. What does 3-dimensional mean? Grey. They are not white nor black. Not good nor evil. They are better and worse and they all have their virtues and flaws. This way they become human beings - because human beings are flawed creations.
And of course never underestimate the power of romance or relationship. A beautiful lover, a dear pet, an old parent - it is always painful to loose them and if I manage to make the reader/viewer worry about the characters, it's immediately a huge success. For as soon as my audience worries about them, suddenly everything that happens is pushed to a whole new level. The audience must live with the story!

Yes, that's right. The look and the atmosphere achieved through camera style, image quality, filters, vfx etc. come fourth. I'd say the ratio is 60:40 (idea, structure,characters:looks,atmosphere), but many writers or storytellers would say it's even more in favor of the former. Make no mistake, the way your film looks influences how your film feels in a lot of ways, But if the first three points are not built well enough, the feel will never be powerful enough to grip.

Of course there's a lot more to it than these 4 points. I didn't mention MUSIC which plays a huge role in the overall filmmaking process - even though it's often underestimated. I wouldn't say that the music is almost as important as the video. It is as important as the video. Of course there are directors who can create a film, not incorporate any music at all and create a very powerful and emotional experience. Hats down to all of them (e.g. watch Generation Kill TV series - no music and you don't even notice it). On the other hand think about examples like Dark Knight-Hans Zimmer or Battlestar Galactica-Bear McReary...I can't imagine how much less powerful the experience would be without the wonderful music.

Anyway, this is a few ideas I realized when finishing the Shadows of the Past project. I delved too much into the look & atmosphere part of the project and I completely forgot to stress the first three. I think I can still be forgiven for the whole film was never meant to be more than an action video and a visual effects showreel but I'm very glad I realized all this. I don't say it's the way, I say it's my way I want to do my future films and all I ask from you is to think about it.

Remember - nowadays, every sh*tty film has wonderful visual effects and people are getting fed up. It's a one way street and eventually no one will be stunned by anything that appears on the screen. Hopefully people will be more and more thrilled by what appears under it. So what's my advice? Build the ideas and the stories first - the looks second. If you want to make flashy videos, go for commercials or game cinematics. Filmmaking is a whole different league.

If you haven't got the story, you haven't got anything.
- Raoul Walsh

P.S. Huge thanks goes to Dorkmann Scott and his "Grey Area" blog post that inspired me and Verica Kordic who made me realize a lot of this.


  1. It's true. Pretty visuals are quickly becoming (have become?) a dime-a-dozen. With studios not paying artists and/or shipping the work overseas, I mean this both literally and figuratively.

    Unlike you I *don't* love visual effects. I am indifferent toward them. If they serve the story then that's fine. At such a point they fuse with the narrative and so their existence is irrelevant—they must be there, like it or not. To use your example, The Matrix's story and the effects were essentially the same thing. Without both there was nothing. If one failed then the other went down with it. I saw The Matrix in the theater because I heard it was a great movie (read: story). And if the effects hadn't been there then I could not imagine the story would have made any sense—because the effects and the story were one. I just saw Pan's Labyrinth on video—same thing, that story required the effects. They had to be there for the story to develop.

    As David Mamet outlines here — — the writer must ask of each scene 1) Who wants what? 2) What happens if they don't get it? 3) Why now?

    He goes on to say that somebody has to make the scene dramatic and such a task is not the responsibility of the actor nor the director (and I would add it's not the responsibility of the effects team either). It is your job as the writer.

  2. Thank you for the comment and the link for David Mamet's outlines, i'll definitely go through that article. You are right - VFX should never be more than a TOOL helping the filmmakers to SHOW fantastic worlds they'd never be able to create without it. Let us all remember that :)

  3. Hi Martin,

    first off, congratulations on passing your "absolutoria" with flying colours!

    Secondly, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your reflection. Sky's the limit, as they say. (not even the sky, in sci-fi:)) It's great to see you reaching ever further, reflecting on the basics.
    Looking forward to seeing whatever you decide to do next. The possibility of having a new 1984 adaptation from you left us really excited! ;)

    Also, I was desparately trying to recall the name of the post-apocalyptic novel and the game you mentioned on the exam. Will you drop me a line with the titles? many thanks.

    And finally, have a great summer and thanks for the great attitude you provided at school, Martin. It was a real pleasure to meet you. All the best!

  4. Hello! I'm very glad you liked this article and I truly enjoyed the "exam" ( :-) also. It was great talking to you both, I just wish it was longer :-)

    The book is called Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky. The game is Mass Effect. Just watch this trailer and you'll get the idea about how epic it is...

    I wish you the best of luck in teaching the next year's first graders, hope they'll be better than we were :-D You are a great teacher. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for both, the reminder and the compliment. It's the curse of being a teacher: you spend the littlest time with the brightest people. But I'm already looking forward to the next term ;)

    And, one recommendation back, talking of sci-fi/post-apocalyptic novels, one that made the greatest impression on me was Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Not sure if we talked about it already or if you know about it. I couldn't put it down, read it in one sitting some three years ago. The atmosphere is built up so naturally and vividly that the book itself feels very "visual". It left a strong impression on me. A very simple father/son survival storyline, superbly told.
    Apparently, the film adaptation with Vigo Mortensen worked well, too, although I haven't seen it, and would definitely recommend reading the novel first.

  6. Ah pity I already saw the film. It didn't really impress me that much even though I love Mortensen. But i'll try to get the book, see how good that is. Thanks! :-)