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Some Advice

I've been watching some Shootingpeople shorts today, and a theme has developed, and it's not good. I spent most of my career "saving" movies. Basically working uncredited directing additional scenes, then re-editing the entire feature. And in all of those years, I saw the same mistakes over and over again, and they always resulted in the director getting fired. So, just a little advice that I hope you'll think about.

Shot selection: As writers, we can be obsessed with subtext. if a couple is arguing about dirty dishes, we know it's not about the dishes. Right? So why in many of these shorts does the shot selection have no subtext? I find myself looking at really basic coverage that doesn't support the scene, much less the subtext of what the scene is really about. And if you're going to do handheld shaky-cam, have a damned good reason for it. I swear to god, Paul Greengrass has ruined an entire generation of filmmakers. Any Polanski film is full of beautifully shot sub-text. Or maybe most of you have seen "The Kings Speech," it's awash in it. Really THINK about camera placement and what that shot MEANS.

Editing: You've got to edit to the rhythm of your actors. Yes, I know by cutting to that close up on that line emphasizes that line. But if what leading up to that close up doesn't work for the close up cut, it's just awkward and weird. Please feel the rhythm of your actors. Cut with character in mind, not trying to shove a puzzle piece in a place where it doesn't belong. Many quick cuts in a row rarely work. They especially don't work in a drama. Keep in mind we are seeing your film for the first time. We've never seen that insert. You've seen it a thousand times. It takes the human eye 3-5 frames just to register what it is seeing. It takes longer to have some sort of emotional impact. Don't re-edit your film out of boredom. Does an edit actually help the scene, or is it just different? If it's just different, leave it alone. Also, so often you might agonize over a cut that doesn't work for some reason. It's usually not THAT cut, but a cut 3 shots back. Every director thinks they can edit. They can't. Sure, they can put together something cohesive, but to have an emotional impact takes experience and a sense of timing that most simply do not have.

Sound: This is where young filmmakers just don't care for some reason. Especially in the mix. There wasn't one film where I didn't have to have my hand on the volume control. It your film is going to be seen online, please mix for that. A TV typically isn't going to have surround sound and your living room isn't going to be a warehouse sized theatre. Do one mix for the living room and one mix for the theatre. When mixing, try to be consistent. I can barely hear one scene, and the next blasts me out of my chair.

I don't bring this up to be an asshole. I want everyone to succeed. Really. So plan your shots. Take time to talk you your actors. Show your first cuts to fresh eyes. Make sure what you're hearing is what your audience will be hearing. Try finishing your film, then putting it on the shelf for 2 months, then look at it again. All sorts of problems that weren't there will become obvious. And please be aware of your shortcomings. I'm great at fixing shit, seeing problems, making actors better than they are... I suck at trailer editing. Hire, or at least ask experts in their field what they think or how to do something. Then when they tell you, don't get defensive about it.


  • Thanks Dan for sharing your thoughts and I hope people pay attention!

    To that I think we can safely add things like:

    - extended opening credit sequences which do not add anything to the story or even set a tone or mood

    - Watching people going in and out of doors and rooms without and particular reason for showing the entrance and / or exit

    -For some reason, I seem to be stuck in a kind of groundhog day of watching short films with people lying in bed and an alarm going off. Then they get up and do their morning routine. To all intents and purposes these people could all be the same character. There is normally nothing to establish any kind of story or character or anything to intrigue the audience about what comes next

    It's amazing how many films there are which can go for minutes before there is any information that makes you want to carry on watching.

    In the interest of fairness, here are my

    Dan, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts as you seem like a thoughtful and knowledgeable bloke.

    6 years ago
    • Hi Daniel, I watched your films, but there is no way to contact you (no profile filled out). If you'd like you can contact me here:

      6 years ago
  • Excellent post, thank you :-) Do feel free to share like this whenever you want to, it's not assholey, it's ESSENTIAL!

    My pet peeves are shorts with 'studio' opening animations that take 30 seconds - all they do is get in the way. Likewise more than 30s of end rollers makes me weep - 'proper' TV rollers are 30s, your short didn't merit more than that.

    Stringing a 2 minute story over 10 minutes. Quantity doesn't replace quality. Be ruthless, your audience will thank you.

    Show, don't tell - in a visual medium, make use of the visuals. Characters talking about something you could convey visually can get quite boring.

    Guns! My god, why do so many shorts use guns as a lazy shortcut for tension and drama. Stop shooting people! Write some real tension and drama without falling back on the lazy unrealistic prop.

    Just my 2p

    6 years ago
  • Daniel, Oh jesus, credits. Yeah. OK: never ever have a single card hang there for more than 4 seconds. NEVER! And that includes the fade up/fade out. If you want to make it 3 seconds, that's just fine with us. The BEDROOM. Yeah, what IS that? Not only the getting up sequence, but characters in bed talking. Lots and lots of that. Do you U.K. people spend a lot of time in bed?Daniel, are you SURE you want me to look at your films? ;)

    Paddy: Your comment reminds me of an old instructor of mine, Sandy Mackendrick (the lady killers, sweet smell of success) "Student films are either too long, much too long, or very much too long." So true.

    Guns. Yep. Or suicide or murder. What's wrong with a nice cup of tea? And sequences with guns or action are rarely shot well. Try to do it properly, then get weird once you know the rules to break and how far you can bend them. Just so you know before you write that script: action sequences take tons of coverage. If you're trying to do it on the cheap, it will often end badly for you.

    In the end, I would be really happy if people just thought about their shots. I taught for awhile, and that was the hardest thing to pound into their heads. So with that in mind, if you do just this one thing, your films will improve emotionally, and it has to do with lens height. When shooting a face, make the lens the same height as the actor's nose tip, then tilt up slightly. An actor acts with their eyes more than anything, and this is the best position to capture that. If the lens is at their forehead, and you tilt down slightly, the audience can't get the full range of emotion out of their eyes. Level with the eyes is still not as effective as tilting up slightly. To be clear, I'm not saying to get rid of high shots, etc. But on those CU, over-the-shoulders, and even full shots, don't put the lens level with the actor's forehead.

    One last thing: Don't be Michael Bay. Yes, he's successful, but he is also bad. If you do tons of camera moves, the move when you really need it will be lost. Think about that: if you have mostly static shots, then push into that CU when it's called for, you just created emotional impact. If the camera is always moving, you may have an impact for the first couple of minutes, but as the audience gets used to it, it has no impact at all.

    6 years ago
  • Dan seems to have a knack of putting his finger on something only imperfectly formed in my own head. It's called experience I suppose. I do lots of stuff with students and I often wonder what their tutors are doing for their money. I'd recommend they download Dan's post for future reference. Some students have some sort of a flair for editing that others don't and tend to over-compensate for that. Mind you you get that on TV all the time - a director saying 'look at me, see how clever I am'. Empathy? What's that?

    6 years ago
    • **Damn it. My first response was lost, so if it shows up twice, my apologies.** Thanks so much for that Allan. I used to teach a directing seminar at NAB every year (the worlds largest media convention). Without fail, I would have at least 5 people come up to me and say "I went to four years of film school, and we didn't learn half this stuff." So like you, I wonder what the hell these schools are teaching. And I'm talking about people that have come from all over the world, studying at the "best" film schools.

      6 years ago
  • As an actor this is really interesting and above all, useful. In the same way that film directors don't seem to be taught anything about actors, actors (in my experience anyway) are taught bugger all about what goes on in a film directors head. Then we come to work together and we don't understand how to help each other.

    Quality posts like this should be archived in some kind of good advice section. If actors know why a director is doing what they are doing, or why they are asking the actor to do something in a certain way; if we know what they are trying to achieve we can be more effective in helping them achieve it.

    Great post.

    6 years ago
    • Thanks Gareth. The single best thing a director can do is take an acting class. If nothing else, he'll realize how fucking hard your job is. Unfortunately, every film student knows this Hitchcock quote "Actors are just cattle." In my view, unless you love actors and appreciate what they do, you shouldn't be anywhere near a film set. So often I see directors try to talk with actors in a motivational sense that doesn't really work. I've found that if I just explain; "Look, we are really behind, so if you walk to this table I can get the medium shot into a close up, and it will save us a lot of time." Actors get that. What they don't get is some obviously bad reason that their character would walk to the table. That's good advice, Gareth. I always tell actors why I'm doing what I'm doing the first few days until I can feel them out. Some actors want to know, some feels it gets in the way. I think more than anything, you have to be a different director for each individual actor.

      6 years ago
  • All sound advice and film makers ignore a voice of experience at their peril. Thanks Dan

    6 years ago
  • Hi Dan,
    I do agree with a lot of what you say, however, some things to bear in mind: (speaking as a new filmmaker myself) Your comments would probably be put to better use in the comments section under the individual film you've just watched.
    I joined about a month ago and put my very first film on the leader board hoping for advice, support and comments. I had around 350 views, 75 ratings yet not a single comment (until yesterday - thanks Michael).
    I would have given my right arm for some feed back, if only just to gauge how people felt about the film regardless of my new filmmaker flaws and errors. With all due respect Dan, have you actually given those people feedback after watching all those films? If so, then that's great because a lot of the those people probably won't have time to read the bulletins, or are just so fired up with making films it's ignored.

    I think it's important to remember that a lot of these mistakes are down to not having a good script. Everything starts and ends with the script. All the editing and collaboration in the world with actors and crew will not fix a poor script.
    Having just made my second short I can tell you that there are so many things that can go wrong on set that create bad shots, weather, time, exhaustion to name but a few; and then what the fact that what the writer envisages in their head the director discovers does not always work when you're on set. This is something a director has to get round. With time ticking away, tired actors and crew the director probably knows the shot is poor and can't get the one he wants, so if it's not feasible to go back and shoot then the director is left with two choices: to put it out there or bin it completely - hence we now come to your good advice; do you even put it out there, or keep it in the can? Something perhaps all us new filmmakers should consider.
    Finally, personally I love to comment on other peoples films. It takes a minute of time and I'm perplexed as to why others aren't commenting. I particularly comment if I love the film. I haven't as yet commented on the films I feel could benefit from some constructive advice - but that's purely because I don't want to come across sanctimonious telling a new filmmaker their faults when I've only made two shorts myself. When I'm more experienced I'll do this.

    I find the comment from Gareth very enlightening and I'll certainly be taking that on board.


    6 years ago
    • Hi Jane, I think many of us here are familiar with the trials of filming! As a fresh director, it is your name and reputation you're building, and it's up to you to realise a script isn't working. Crazy as it sounds, writers are probably the most important creatives but they can't be precious in film - their script will be hacked about all ways by all kinds of pressures.

      It may be that your 1AD has scheduled badly, it may be that you have had unusually bad luck and didn't prepare to mitigate it, it may be that the script you're shooting is just too long/complex. This is where you as director (it is your shoot) apply your experience. If you see a 10 page script in 3 locations, you should be developing a feel for 'well that's not going to be shot in a day/weekend/whatever' and making those decisions at preproduction time.

      Preproduction is the cheapest time you'll get. In preproduction, you're committing 80% of the budget (possibly more), so if you're making changes, that's when you make them. Armies don't invade a country then try to work out where to go - they have a plan, a B plan, and a bunch of mitigation. Overcast skies? Bunch of ezy-ups on standby. Shooting inside on the dry days, exteriors on the wet? Shift the schedule around. You get the idea.

      When you're on set with say 20++ people waiting on your word, you're spending thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) of pounds a day in between all the hires, fees, locations, insurances, catering, hotels, transport, etc., you're burning money. Every delay or indecision is expensive. It is not the time for trying to work out how to rescue a writers vision - that will suck the remaining energy out of the crew - you as director are setting the mood and tone.

      So yes, in ways it starts and ends with the script, but in reality it starts and ends with the decision to film that script in whatever form.

      6 years ago
  • Hi Paddy,
    I agree preparation is everything. Yet every month on tiny or top end budgets in Hollywood things go terribly wrong no matter how hard the prep. As you say, it’s up to the filmmaker to protect their reputation.

    The major point I’m trying to make is if you have the time and effort to discuss in length on the bulletin your views about certain filmmakers and your pet peeves, yet you genuinely want people to succeed, then I feel it would be much more useful to the filmmakers in question to be brave and tell them directly, professionally and constructively in the section under their films in the comments field specially provided for this use.

    If you/others have got a lot of experience and are already contributing in that section on the leaderboard then great, I rest my case.

    6 years ago
    • Hi Jane, I think there's a lot of advice and discussion on SP over the years. As so many shorts are posted, and so many have the same fundamental problems, that it makes sense for posters like Dan to post centrally, here for instance. It's accessible to everyone, not just tacked onto a specific thread which will be old news every month.

      Personally, I can't bear watching loads and loads of shorts. But neither can the public - if you've ever tried selling a 'shorts night' in a cinema, you'll know it to be true! There's over 100 shorts on that leaderboard, and even allowing 10 mins each plus another 10 minutes replying, that's a full-time job. Makes sense to give broader, centralised advice as Dan did, IMHO :-)

      6 years ago
    • @Paddy Robinson-Griffin Thanks Paddy. I've read a lot of your posts, and most always agree. I suspect you're an old curmudgeon like me!

      6 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich Gor bless ya guv'nor! I've certainly been learning from yours, your experience and perspective ... you must be the senior curmudgeon ;-)

      6 years ago
  • Hi Jane, It's not as simple as all that. I suppose there are about 15 or 20 films on shootingpeople, over the years, that I've given notes on. In those instances, filmmakers would ask directly for advice in a post under these daily feeds. Daniel has asked me to look at his, and when I get the time, I will. But to be specific on a critique takes a couple of hours. Especially when a young director makes, for example, some basic editing mistakes. It's a different thing if I could sit with them, but I can't. So telling someone to carry that medium shot until their eyes exit frame, THEN pick them up on that full shot, for example, takes a lot of explanation just to make sure the director understands which shot I'm actually talking about.

    Aside from the time it takes, the reason I don't do it much any longer is because no one says "Thank you." Typically there is no response at all. There are only 3 filmmakers who asked for help that actually responded. And we still email and talk about film after all these years. To comment under the link for the film would have to be so general, that it would be worthless.

    Of course it takes a good script. But I've seen great scripts ruined by poor direction and poor editing, so a great script is not the be all end all. Even if the story is bad, or just not my cup of tea, filmmakers tend to still make the same mistakes. If they get a great script, it will still end up not nearly as good as it could be. The opposite is true as well; a mediocre script can be given new life with great acting, directing, and editing. Every film I fixed got a distribution deal, and that is no small feat. 95% of the films made, don't. (And don't bother asking what those films are: Non-disclosure agreements "in perpetuity"). I'm just trying to help. As I said, I'd be really happy if directors just gave their shots some thought. They may not know technically what "shared space" or "negative space" is, but if they think about character and what the shot means within that context, they'll get there.

    6 years ago
  • Hi again Dan and Paddy,
    Thanks for the replies. I take on board what you are both saying and I can understand then why you don't comment on films. I have to dig my heels in though being the tenacious beast I am, and say general or not, I don't think it would be worthless at all Dan; just three words for what you thought worked and three words for what you disliked, that would take all of twenty seconds and make a vast difference - but hey, that's only my opinion and I'm certainly not on here to ruffle anyone's feathers.

    I'll shut up about it now.

    All the best
    Jane :)

    6 years ago
    • Have to agree with you Jane! I posted in the bulletin a while ago pleading for people to make comments if they can after watching. I always try to leave a comment if I can say something constructive. There is the worry that people might think 'who are you to make comments, you've only made x films' but even if I'd made none or all my films were rubbish (they are) my opinion of someone elses film is valid. After all, I am the audience. If it's just "I /loved hated this" then that's not helpful, but a simple comment like "I didn't feel I got to know the central character" or something like that is more useful than a few stars. [The "star rating" system is a totally useless gauge of what people think of your film (this is one of my bug bears)...SP used to have a 'score out of 5' system where your film would display the *average* score given by viewers. That way your film might score 2 out of 5 and at least you knew people didn't love it. The current system really just gives you more points the more people who rate - even if someone gives you 1 out of 5 (normally a bad thing) it still helps you up the leaderboard. SP wanted to create a 'positive atmosphere' and were worried about people voting down competing films, but i think people are afraid to make critical remarks. Anyway, i've started ranting again...)

      6 years ago
    • @Matt Jamie I don't disagree with you Matt, but don't you want to know WHY we didn't connect with the main character? So often it falls back into those basic mistakes that all beginning filmmakers make. Or it can be something that needs a more complex explanation, taking quite a bit of time to explore. I probably don't leave comments for the same reason I'm a shit trailer cutter: I can't cut to the heart of the problem unless I talk about every detail that lead to the problem in the first place. And that's on me. I did leave a comment on Jane's film, and really had to keep it general. Hopefully she could understand in detail what I was generally commenting on. She's talented, so I think she got it, but I really don't know. I've worked with a lot of students over the years, and there is one thing that is very common: they'll take their understanding of a comment or technique and run with it. Even if their understanding is a misinterpretation. It's kind of like directing a beginning actor; they will run to the extreme with any direction you give them. And if the direction is bad... well, it takes the rest of the afternoon to correct them from that bad direction.

      And finally, if I don't like something, especially if I'm not asked for my opinion, I hesitate to comment because I don't want to shit on someone's passion. It's just as hard to make a bad film as it is to make a good one. It's fucking difficult. Saying "I couldn't connect with the main character" is just as general as "I found it emotionally empty" or "I didn't care for it very much." Well, what the hell does THAT MEAN?

      Some years ago, a friend of mine was an assistant editor on this big feature. They did one of those awful screenings where they pull people off the street to comment on an unfinished film. EVERYONE said that they didn't trust the main character. Well, the studio went nuts trying to figure out how to make the lead more appealing. But the editor and my friend knew exactly why: the main character's dialogue track was just under 2 frames out of sync. An editor would notice, but a general audience won't. Studio execs won't. Hell, the director didn't even notice. And the execs refused to believe that that was the problem. A week later they showed it again, back in sync this time. The result: glowing reviews.

      I guess what I'm saying is that most problems aren't that easy to fix. They are based on a lack of experience that are common problems to everyone. But in the future, I shall try to leave comments--even though my experience of working with hundreds of students over the years tells me that they'll be misinterpreted, or worse, kill a passion that is still developing. That is completely frightening to me.

      6 years ago
    • @Matt Jamie
      Hi Matt, and everybody else.

      I replied to you in message Matt, sorry as I'm still trying to figure out how shooting people works. So I'm replying properly on here now.

      I think my expectations of shooting people were perhaps a little over optimistic in certain areas. I suppose I thought it would have a forum where shooters would discuss each others films and maybe help out advice-wise, suggest tips, give technical advice and for those more experienced, presumed they might offer a bit of guidance.

      When I put my film on the leader board I didn't realize you should really put it up at the beginning of the month and I'm just sussing it out as of now how everything works on here. I've only just realised in the last month that there are so few comments each month and this is perhaps the norm. I also realise that there's a lot of films for people to get through - however, I still stand by the fact that a couple of lines would help some of the filmmakers. I realize too that some people might not be able to take comments well and will be defensive and this will be a reason some won't comment. Everyone has the right to decide whether to leave feedback or not, I was just voicing that I find it disappointing because as I said, I had just presumed that's what would happen.

      I think the main issue with the leader board as you say Matt, is that people are probably too uncomfortable to comment. Perhaps Shooting people should make the comments anonymous and I reckon nearly everyone would feel free to comment, but that may pose the risk of the nastiness you get on youtube; Maybe there could be a box where shooters could tick to accept comments or not? Just a thought.

      To be honest I really don't understand yet how the leader board works, as I've seen some films on there that don't even get a sniff in at the top section and they are brilliant. Dan pointed out a good fact that there may be an issue with accents and understanding them across the pond from each other.

      Anyway Matt, there's nothing wrong with a rant to get it out of your system if it's bugging you. I do apologise to anyone in this discussion if due to my naivety of what to expect on SP I've created this heated discussion. As I said, I'm not here to ruffle anyone's feathers. I just want to enjoy it and mingle with other shooters, pick up tips, advice etc. I'm an experienced screenwriter but a novice filmmaker who's slowly finding her way through this site so bear with me please.

      Dan, I read your very knowledgeable advice too on editing, and I really appreciate it even if it is over my head at this stage in my filmmaking career. I reckon give it another year and I'll understand fully what you've said.

      Maybe SP might have a look at our discussion and have a review of how the leader board works?

      Anyway, I do have a thirst and a passion for looking at other people's work and I will be happy to comment on shooters' films over the coming year if they should want it.

      Jane :)

      ps. Looked at your show reel Chris, it's beautiful work and I can understand how you implement all you've said. And Matt, I will certainly have a look at your films at the weekend and comment.

      6 years ago
    • @Jane Hamer @Matt Jamie @Dan Selakovich
      Hey! I'm responsible for the SP leaderboard and how it works. We know it's not perfect, but I'm just going to run through the way it works now and why we made it this way when we redesigned it about 18 months ago.

      -The first round is open for uploads from the 1st until the 21st of each month. During this time members vote. (and hopefully comment, I totally agree that comments are invaluable and we'd love to see more commenting on SP- if you think we could make commenting easier I'd love to hear any suggestions)

      -We realised films lower down on the leaderboard, which had been uploaded late, or gone unnoticed by members for whatever reason weren't getting as many stars as they deserved so we introduced 'Wildcards,' so the final round is made up of the top 5 voted films, and 5 films chosen by us from lower down on the leaderboard.
      We watch every single film that gets uploaded.

      - Having a final round also gives us the opportunity to promote 10 films, rather than just the top 3. We upload a blog each month with the 10 finalists talking about their films and share this online, and ask other organisations to do the same, hopefully creating a bit of attention the films wouldn't have got otherwise.

      -We've tried a lot of different voting systems over the years, it's such a difficult thing to get right. Rating out of 5 and having an average didn't work because a lot of people would vote their film high, and everyone else's low so the averages became meaningless and we spent all our time policing cheaters. :(
      Then we introduced likes, but it was pointed out that if you kinda' liked something but didn't love it, you'd be rating them the same. So we came up with the rate out of 5 system.

      We're talking about making the second round shorter, maybe start on the 25th of each month, what do you think?
      Any and all suggestions welcome about what we could change in the competition.

      All the best,

      6 years ago
    • @Stephanie Walton Steph, wait, what? People trash other films just to give their own a higher rank? Damn, that's harsh! And just a really shit thing to do. I've lived through a lot of Hollywood crap of back-stabbing, getting screwed, and general immoral behavior--but that's Hollywood. I would think a community of filmmakers would be just that; a community.

      If that's the case, what possible system could you come up with? An impossible task.

      Jane, if you don't understand my ramblings, just ask. There are ways here in shootingpeople to contact me personally. And I gave my email somewhere in this thread as well. Don't be shy.


      6 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich
      I think the desire to win is just too much!

      6 years ago
  • Respect to you, Selakovich. It's a shame so many people are too busy to take the time to learn.

    6 years ago
  • Brilliant.. Though I know I am guilty of being party to some of these film making crimes (which I was able to identify) and swear to never commit them again, though I am sure I will commit new ones with the hope to learn for the next crime riddled project with the hope to learn for the next,, repeat repeat, repeat until fadeout.

    6 years ago
  • Thank you, Martin. I think it's a case of people don't know what they don't know. I suggest people be Quentin Tarantino in the beginning: just steal from the masters. Then you'll be able to see why shit works after awhile, and eventually, like Tarantino, you'll make it your own.

    Early in my career, I studied not film, but how people see. Especially how people watch a movie screen. It made me a much better editor. About a year ago, I discovered an "eye-trace" video. It showed what an audience was actually looking at while watching a movie. I felt vindicated to know I was right all these years! You can see one of them here:

    Steel, we have all made these mistakes. But as you say, you just keep going and learn each time. That's why I love film so much: you will never quite master it. Every film you say to yourself, well, that could have been more effective if... My personal wish is to have enough money to be able to take my time during principle photography. So often I let little things through that drive me nuts, even years later. Try not to compromise even on little stuff. The more you compromise the more the entire film starts to slip through your fingers.

    6 years ago
  • Hi Dan

    Great post and replies from other shooters

    Here is my take on shooting short films and how to help wrtiers create a great script.

    I am cinematographer who shoots both observational documentaries and dramas.

    When shooting documentaries I always try to film scenes that show the lives of the people in an authentic way. I look to my drama scripts to inspire my cinematography in the same way, even when the story is set ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away!

    However I've read quite a number of scripts, both shorts and features, where after a few pages I’ve realised I have no idea where the story is set or who the characters are. The scene and character descriptions are often lacking in any real detail that reveals important visual information about the characters or location. This has led me to question the authenticity and believability of the story and whether or not I would want to become involved in the project.

    A script is for the people who make the film; it is not for the audience who will see the film.

    Although films have universal themes, the stories themselves are set in very specific locations. The script should describe these worlds and characters accurately and vividly to help capture the readers’ interest and inspire them to become involved in the project, whether that person is a development exec, director, producer, cinematographer, actor, designer, location manager etc.

    A film is experienced as a recorded audio visual event. The sooner you experience your script in this medium, the sooner you will discover what is or is not working and rewrite your script accordingly.

    Based on my experience both drama and documentaries I've developed some practical experiments to help you develop your script to reach its full potential.

    Become the documentary film maker of your story.
    The environment that your characters inhabit has a fundamental influence on their behaviour and therefore the story.

    Visit the world of your story.

    When you get there, soak up the atmosphere. Audio record your thoughts.
    How do you feel about being there?
    What interests you about the location and the people?
    Make audio recordings of the ambient sounds in the streets and inside buildings.
    Take pictures/ video of the people, area and of specific details; especially close ups of wear and tear on objects, clothes and surfaces.
    Talk to/ interview people about their lives and what they are doing.

    Edit this in to an audio visual piece.

    Surround yourself with these Images and Sounds while you write.

    To begin with, write extensive location and character profiles. As you get to know the characters, you can condense this information down to the exact amount of detail needed in the script to communicate important visuals that will help tell the story and reveal vital character details. Remember to include descriptions of important sounds, smells and weather conditions as well they all help to stimulate the reader’s imagination.

    Now shoot your script.

    Do a table reading of the script, or get one actor to read it, and audio record the performance.
    Use any camera or audio recorder you can get hold off, even your phone will do.
    Listen back to the recording. What images and sounds do the scene descriptions create in your mind? Can you see the characters in action? Does the dialogue sound authentic /credible? Does the story make sense?
    Give the recording to another person and gauge their reaction.

    You could go further by working with actors in a workshop environment and video the scenes from different angles and cut then together to get a sense of the visual and editing styles.

    Rewrite the script reflecting your findings.
    Obviously, you will simultaneously be working on developing your pitch and the script’s story structure, plot points, character arcs, emotional subtext etc.

    Get feedback on your script from people who produce, invest in or distribute the genre of film you are writing.

    If a great story makes a great film, then what makes a great story?

    I think the core of a great story is the dilemma the main character faces. This is not a choice between right and wrong or good and evil but the choice between two equally undesirable alternatives and this is much more emotionally engaging for the audience.

    In defining the core dilemma you also define the other important elements of the story i.e. Where, what, why and to whom the dilemma happens to and the action taken by this person as a consequence of their decision thus creating an authentic world for the audience to experience.

    I hope this will help you develop your script so that it will inspire the core creative filmmaking team to go on and create a great movie experience for the audience.


    6 years ago
    • Hi Chris,

      What incredibly generous, professional, supportive advice and guidance you've given. There's so much food for thought that I've read over it several times and will need to do so again just to take it all in.

      It's very interesting to get an experienced cinematographer's view on filmmaking, and interesting to hear how passionate you are about your work and what's going through your mind when you're on set - or even before in the prep.

      Visit the world of your story: This is something we've implemented, but the table reading is something I'd certainly take on board for my third short. I can already identify with how useful that would be; same for the audio. We have tried to do this already, but I think we could go much further looking at your suggestions and gain a lot of depth and texture to the film. This is something I will add to my preps in future.

      Thank you for taking the time and effort to give out guidance that's quite simply...selfless and superb. It's much appreciated and inspiring.

      Jane :)

      6 years ago
  • Good advice, Chris. I think it sums up this simple problem: Often the writer of a short is also the director, so they don't worry about all that detail, because, hey, it's in my head. The problem with that is a film isn't made alone. I've seen a lot of student shoots where the director simply freezes, or doesn't know what to do. Especially that first day. And it's all because they have no plan. You're not shooting a Youtube video, after all. It's never that easy.

    6 years ago
  • Dan, I assume you are a professionally trained editor. Much of what you say reminds me of a GREAT documentary, 'The Cutting Edge - The Magic of Movie Making' about how story is told by editors - some of the best films of all times had great editors that brought the film alive (and in the documentary, many famous directors admit that).

    Walter Murch talks about the eye-line of the protagonists and others in a sequence where he is editing Cold Mountain.

    The whole documentary is fascinating, worth a watch by any new director out there. OH! and most of it can be seen for free on YouTube - although the picture quality there isn't good.

    6 years ago
    • I haven't seen that doc, but it sounds amazing. When you mentioned Walter Murch, it reminded me of a time when I was cutting a feature for MGM, and I subconsciously cut when the actors blinked. At the time, I thought it was some of the best editing I'd done. To be so connected to the rhythm of the actors as to cut when they blinked, was to me, a new level of my ability. The director noticed that I cut on the blink, (again, I was totally unaware). It drove the director nuts, and I had to add 2 frames to each shot to cut when their eyes were open. It ruined the pacing. A couple of years later, Murch's book, "In The Blink Of An Eye" came out. Murch talks about the very same experience--even titling the book based on it. I highlighted the portions of the book and sent it to the director.

      There's also a great book by editor Ralph Rosenblum (who Woody Allen credits with saving Annie Hall). It's called "When the shooting stops, the cutting begins." I think that, and "Blink of an eye" should be required reading by all filmmakers. Even very experienced ones. I've had so many shared experiences (as I think every editor who's been around awhile) with these two great editors, that knowing these books, knowing how an editor thinks, is so important for a director.

      Not so sure I'm professionally trained as an editor. I did go to film school, and was lucky enough to be able to study under Alexander Mackendrick (The Lady Killers, Man in the White Suit, Sweet Smell of Success) where I learned a great deal about directing and story (prerequisites for any editor). I did have a knack for editing, and did a lot of student work there. But my professional life wasn't something I picked for myself. The very first film I edited was this awful horror film called "Open House." After the 1st cut was done, the director was fired. Writers were hired to write new scenes to make the thing work. I directed those new scenes and re-edited the entire picture. It went on to make quite a good profit, and that sealed my fate. Aside from a couple of TV shows and features, the bulk of my career was "saving" movies. At first, quite an ego boost. But after a few years, kind of terrible. You NEVER get a screen credit (which can really be more important than a paycheck), and you are always working on crap in trouble. But, good money and I do get to travel the world, so I shouldn't be complaining!

      6 years ago
  • Hi Jane, I'm delighted you found it helpful. Thanks for the thanks.

    Dan, you are correct in saying that writer/ directors often miss out a lot of important detail in their scripts.

    We have all been there - on a set, serveral hours behind schedule, the light is fading, running out of stock, a prop has gone missing and the director has 5 minutes to shoot the closeup of the main character. It really helps if you have done some practical prep before you start shooting to guide you through the battle field of the shoot.

    If anyone would like help or advice on shooting some workshops for their project I would be very interested in helping out.

    You can view some of my work and CV at

    All the best


    6 years ago
  • Chris, if I could add to your preproduction/principle photography great ideas, to some helpful hints in post:

    When I started, we still cut on film. My favorite being two upright moviolas. Now, when you cut on film, you really THINK about how you are going to approach a scene before you even touch a frame, because it's a labor intensive process. What I notice nowadays, is because computer editing is so fast and easy, that young editors/directors just dive right in and start cutting.

    Here's what I do, and I'll try to keep it short. (I could literally write a book on the psychological aspects of editing from both the editor/director P.O.V. as well as the audiences). Anyway, my process when I cut on film was this, and I still do it this way:

    1. View the rushes once the assistant editor has done his/her thing with them.

    2. View the dailies again that evening with the crew on the BIG SCREEN. Screen size affects pacing. If you're making a film for the big screen, you must edit for the big screen.

    3. Just before cutting that scene, look at ALL the footage for the scene a 3rd time. Think about how each shot looked on the big screen. Where were you looking, what got your attention (eye-trace). How is the pacing of actors and moving shots different on your small screen. Did the director jump the line, and if he did, did he give you a bridge shot? What's the essence of the scene? What does the body language of the actors tell you? Do they give you something to cut on? Is there something in this scene that needs foreshadowing for a scene that comes later? Just everything you consider when you are actually editing. Then stop. Think about how you will approach that scene before you cut a single frame.


    Here's what you need to know from the start: your eyes are lying to you. Think of it this way: We've all been trapped in an elevator with someone that has on WAY too much cologne. We think how can he possibly leave the house smelling like that? Here's how: on day one, he put on just a bit. By day 4, he couldn't smell it. His nose got used to it. So he puts on a little more so that HE can notice it. By day 30, he's on that elevator with you. To HIM he smells like day one. To us, it's a gas attack. Well, your eyes get used to things MUCH quicker than our sense of smell. Next time you're editing, make a bad cut. Now, watch that cut 5 times. By the fifth go around, the cut will be much smoother than it was the first time you saw it. Your brain is filling in shit that is just not there. That's how our brain sees. Your eyes are equivalent to a 2 megapixel camera. Pretty shitty, right? You see with your brain. And all day long, it's filling in sight based on PAST experience. If you sit at FCP trying stuff all day, you are doing yourself a disservice. If you're a director cutting your own work, it will not be as good as an editor that wasn't there planning shots, getting shots, and being on set day after day. As a director, you will see things that don't exist in your own footage.

    By thinking through your cut before you start cutting, and being aware that you have lying eyes, you can mitigate your physical limitations.

    And finally, show your first cut to an audience before doing a second pass. Now I'm not talking about what the studios do: filling a theatre with a bunch of strangers and have them fill out cards. That's worthless, and can be destructive. BUT it is a good idea to have a dozen friends or so view it with these rules: they can't know anything about the story, much less have read the script. And mix up your audience with people in the industry and people outside the industry. Then LISTEN to what they have to say. It's invaluable.

    6 years ago
  • Hi Dan

    Yes, watching rushes is incredibly important to the film making process.

    20 years ago when I was a young clapper loader on features, commercials and TV drama we would watch the previous days rushes on a large screen.

    This would give all the crew, including the writer, a chance to see how their work had translated in to being viewed as a recorded experience. All of us could then adjust or refine how you were working to get a better result.

    Even in documentaries, I encourage the director to view the rushes every day. It’s a great way to see how characters and stories come across on screen.

    Viewing rushes can avoid technical, editorial and financial heartache in the edit.

    So to go back to my advice to writers and directors - you should make the film twice, once as a workshop and then again at full production quantity.



    6 years ago
  • Fascinating discussion here.. It's really made us think in house about the value of feedback in general, but also the immense value in feedback on our work.

    And yet, as both Dan and Paddy say, there's so many films uploaded and it does take time to watch, consider, think and feedback in a way that is helpful. (Btw Dan - i do wish when shooters did get feedback from you they'd respond..) Also Jane, I think feedback from new directors, that is in response to how you feel about a film can be massively useful. What works well for you, and what doesn't - this is just as valid despite less experience because you are an audience viewer. Audience responses (however experienced) are really important.

    And SO! Wanted to run something by you all. What if we asked all shooters who upload a film to FOTM, to then review 3 shorts (we send links to a random three). It wouldn't be compulsory, but we'd send those and ask people to take the time to think/review, offer as much constructive feedback as they can. Ie help another shooter. You'll get your film reviewed, and in turn, you can be helping others?

    Would that be a good thing to do? Perhaps because FOTM is a monthly competition, the films you get sent to review are ones uploaded from the previous month, rather than the month you are competing in?

    What do you guys think??

    Thanks for this discussion. Super helpful for us.

    6 years ago
    • Makes a heap of sense. Personally I'd go a step further, and films can only graduate to stage 2 if the poster has given meaningful feedback on say 5+ films, and SP would give links to those films from the posters own film page. Double bonus of peer review plus being able to see how a director understands the wider medium and so how that informs their own films. Means it's not all take, but has some give too!

      Before I read your post I was going to suggest more or less exactly this this morning, but my original idea was to review 10 films! 5+ is me toning it down ;)

      6 years ago
  • Hi Cath,

    I think that's a really great idea. The fact that the reviews are the ones uploaded from the previous month makes perfect sense.

    I am an audience member aren't I? :) So yes, I will in future point out what doesn't work for me - in a constructive way of course.


    6 years ago
  • That's really funny Paddy. I started at 5 and came down to 3. Super encouraging you had the same idea :)

    I think compulsory still mightn't be the best solution - in part because if people upload to FOTM late, they'll be really rushed to review before their films can be submitted. And then may not take the time. Also I think people have to believe in the idea of it and want to do it.

    So how many?! On Monday I'll ask the tech team to look at what numbers will cover a review for all films. Ie if 75% of Shooters did it, and watched 3, would that cover all films uploaded that month ..? Assume you guys think random is also best ?

    Maybe those filmmakers in the top ten should also be asked to review the top ten from the previous month -or is that just too confusing?


    6 years ago
  • O wait! Sorry read that wrongly, you mean just compulsory for those for stage 2.. that does sound really gooood.

    6 years ago
  • Cath, I don't think a filmmaker feeling rushed should enter into it for this reason: It's a monthly contest, right? There is always next month to submit.

    There seem to be two types on shootingpeople: those that get involved with advice and opinion on a vast range of industry topics, and second: those that have something to promote--like a film. Those in the second group, in my opinion, have a myopic view of shootingpeople. They upload to FOTM only interested in their film. By forcing them to become involved in the films of others, I think you'd accomplish more than you think. You'd certainly curtail the cheaters if they have to give their reasons why they gave that other film a 1 star review, and you'd get filmmakers helping out other filmmakers. (Even if it's last months films they have to comment on, I imagine there are those that make deals like "if you give me five stars and the rest one star, next month when your film is up, I'll do the same for you.").

    I really think viewing and critiquing 3-5 films for anyone in competition should be mandatory.

    Perhaps you could give some guidelines for the critique. For example, I personally don't read the descriptions for the short until after I've watched the film. It allows the film to stand on its own. So often--so very often--I'll watch something and not understand what it is I've just seen. Then read the description; "oh, THAT'S what it was about?" Reading the synopsis beforehand would certainly cloud my judgement. So just some loose rules to remind people that a critique is actually really, really, important and to take it seriously. I don't know. Maybe I'm an idiot.

    6 years ago
  • Thanks Dan. I totally agree about guidelines. I'd love to bring you in to review them when we have them. Let me talk to the team about how we can best do this, tech delivery etc and I'll come back to see what you all think. We have a pretty big schedule in front of us (better production/crewing up functionality, better profiles, new homepage etc) but depending on how big a job it will be, we'll work out when to slot it in. In truth I'm still not 100% sure about mandatory, (also how we'd implement - ie not let people upload? I feel uncomfortable with this, I'd be v.frustrated if I can't upload as soon as I want too) but we could experiment with optional initially, see how it goes. And then come up with other solutions if it doesn't work. I do think takeup could be quite high, because it will be much more directed.

    At any rate - big big thanks again. I will come back with more, once I've explored implementation options with the team.

    6 years ago
    • A mandatory element might just be that you can't win if you haven't done your reviews. I don't personally see why it ought to be much of a hurdle for anyone, even if they enter on the closing day (and so have zero organic votes anyway), to spend an hour properly checking out the competition and providing 100+ words review.

      When you're taking a feature to a festival or market, you have to do a bit of work alongside just sending a DVD to Cannes, you have to write blurb, look at the market, etc. In this case it'd be more like community service, and giving something back to the community you're hoping to take from (video views and publicity if nothing else).

      Dan hits it on the head saying how some members are only here to plug something (to the wrong audience, usually!) - this would give you a feel for the person as well as the result. Especially if their film page had links to the reviews they gave (and it also leads you from film to film...)

      I also have another thought which would certainly not be a mandatory thing, but 5 set questions about the film, so shooters can again get that bit more community involvement and maybe learn something watching the film. Maybe things like 'What did making this film end up costing you overall, including favours etc?', 'What's your favourite shot/scene in your film and why?', 'If you could reshoot a scene, which would it be and why?'...that kind of thing, to give some insight into the production and thinking of the poster. Every film has a few winning shots and a few lemons - is the director aware of them?! Just a thought in case you do do a reworking of the section!

      6 years ago
  • PS. I also like Paddy's idea of linking to people's reviews. That's something we could definitely do when we build the better/new profiles. (Coming once we have implemented much needed better cast/crewing system).

    6 years ago
  • Cath, any help I can give is yours. I really think you should include Paddy as well. He tends to think through stuff, whereas I just puke out my opinion onto these pages.

    I absolutely love Paddy's idea of questions. I think it could allow the filmmaker to give very educational excuses. Recently I had to replace an actress and reshoot a scene. Something a beginner might take to heart when auditioning. Or something that doesn't have much coverage "because we were losing the light." Possibly allow dialogue boxes for questions "well, why did you cast that actress that you replaced?" Let's face it, about the only time people get to ask filmmakers direct questions are those worthless Q and A panels after a screening. And those are usually films with budgets and stars. Not quite the same problems we poor filmmakers have. I would absolutely LOVE to be able to ask a filmmaker questions about his film.

    Do you really think people will participate without making some aspect mandatory? I don't have that much faith in my fellow humans any more. But I live in America where youth seem to not be able to see beyond their own needs. It doesn't have to be as dramatic as a ban on upload, but as Paddy says, you're not in the running until you do your reviews. I mean, how difficult is it to review 3 films? Good lord, filmmakers think it's over when their film is finished. Then the bright light of day hits them when they realize that promoting it is actually more difficult than making it.

    I'd be curious to know how many people let their membership lapse after they've entered their film? If you gently force them to get involved in this amazing community, they may see what great benefits it has outside of a contest.

    BTW, Jane, I know you were expecting something a little different from Shootingpeople, but I can certainly tell you that it's the best film community around despite its faults!

    6 years ago
    • Hi Dan,

      Yes, although it's a lot different than what I expected I'm certainly not disappointed with joining SP. I love the newsletters, bulletins and film op information. I've found a lot of help in the knowledge section and I've signed up for a year.

      I look forward to the changes Cath has just posted. The new implements concerning the leader board/comments will be really interesting and helpful.

      6 years ago
  • Paddy too - for sureeee.

    OK. Have talked with team. What we'd like to do is implement something straight away. What we think could be good to start with is:

    - Every Shooter: when they login to the site, will get a message asking them to review 3 shorts. And in the messaging system it will give a brief explanation of exactly what you guys have talked about above. The films will be randomly selected. We think it'd be cool to have reviews from all shooters - not just directors.
    On the mandatory bit, that is going to be much more complex to implement. We can do it - just not fast. So our thinking is, lets get this up fast, give it a go and see how much participation increases. After a month, we'll let you guys know what's happened and then lets review it.

    - The Thankyou's!
    UH OH. This could be our fault. We've just realised that we don't actually notify people when someone comments/reviews their film. So we are going to message people now, as soon as any comment/review goes onto their film. Thanks for the alert on this. We should have done it before.

    - Paddy QNS
    Yes brilliant. Team reckons we should definitely implement this with new/better profiles build. Just have to get new cast/crew out the door first.

    Will be in touch soon.

    6 years ago
  • Cath, my portal to shootingpeople is the daily email bulletins (screenwriters, filmmakers, etc). What if you did a SEPARATE bulletin for the FOTM? As people upload their films each day, we get an email that's added that film to the list. And of course, an explanation of the importance of reviewing and/or rating the shorts in competition for that month. I'd probably make it so that members could NOT opt out of this bulletin as they can the others. It could be as simple as the title and running time. I wouldn't put a description for reasons I stated in an earlier post. And, of course, make them links so that we can get there in one click.

    I have to admit I'm a lazy bastard, and would love something that easy.

    6 years ago
  • Yup. Totally right about bulletins. FOTM bulletin is an interesting idea - but would be a big build for us. At the moment, there is so much other urgent stuff to do.

    BUT. We are now going to think also, about personalising bulletins as a project. Again, will come after next 3 big builds. But will mean that we can put the message about reviewing/one click links to the randomly selected films at the top of each person's bulletin. Plus other relevant stuff.

    But for now
    So Far: We've now added notifications when anyone reviews someones' film. That's live/working now.

    By end of the week: We should have the reviews message, and one click links to the films in place too. Shooters will be notified as soon as they go to website, also by inbox/mail.

    This way we have been able to get something up FAST! Will let you know how it goes/review it in a month.

    Thanks Again,

    6 years ago
  • Hey, Dan,

    Absolutely concur, but when the producer is paying you to put in a wake-up or fruit cart scene, unfortunately you don't have a lot of choice.

    Re opening and closing titles. Agreed, they're a killer for the audience. Unfortunately, in the low budget film world, title credits are often the only remuneration cast and crew will receive, and if you're established, it's relatively minor. But if you're getting your foot in the door, seeing your name on screen is a huge boost, and that carrot dangling is often an incentive for the unpaid (essentially volunteers) participants to go that extra distance. And I sympathize with the sense of betrayal that PAs etc. feel when they are promised a credit by the filmmakers which they never receive.

    The credits should go at the end so people can tune out. The upfront single cards are a stickier issue.


    6 years ago
    • If the producer wants something in, then it's the director's job to make that stale scene interesting. Though, I've never been forced like that... ever. In fact, most producers I've worked with are more on the ball than the writer when it comes to that sort of scene. Where I have had trouble are love scenes. I absolutely hate them. They stop the story in its tracks, and nearly impossible to make interesting. Probably why I prefer films during the Hays Code era.

      As for credits, I didn't mean to give the impression that there shouldn't be credits. (I read through my posts, and frankly don't know how you came to that conclusion. Sorry.) Since I worked mostly uncredited, I'm sensitive to making sure absolutely EVERYONE gets a credit. My gripe is over the length of time some let those single cards hang there. The rule of thumb is 4 seconds, and that includes the fade up/out. Anybody can read a single card in 4 seconds. You don't want people tuning out before the movie even starts. If you're putting single cards at the end, then the rule still applies. If you're doing an end roll, or a single card with lots of names on it, then go as slow as necessary, but not a second longer.

      6 years ago
  • Guys just to update you: we're now live with asking shooters to review 3 films when they login. It's make a big difference - and the reviews coming in are really wonderful and super helpful.
    Thanks for starting this discussion!

    6 years ago