Like all aspects of filmmaking, lighting has subtle, psychological effects on the audience. Knowing what these effects are and knowing how and when to use them will greatly enhance any film you make.
Low Key*: Darkly lit or low light scenes evoke a sense of mystery and danger, like this shot from The Shape of Water.
High Key: Brightly lit scenes like the opening of La La Land tend to be happier.
Soft Light: Few or poorly defined shadows create a sense of fantasy. For example, I find dragons and armies of undead more realistic than the fantasy world created in Letters to Juliet.
Hard Light& High Contrast: Well defined shadows create a grittier look like Sin City.
Warm Colors: Orange hues can evoke warm feelings and romance.
Cool Colors: Blue is used to create a sense of cold or uncaring.
The previous two images are both from the movie Limitless. You’ll notice the color difference the most by looking at Bradley Cooper’s skin tone. Skin tone one of the first reference points audiences latch onto.
Other colors can be used to create a sense of unease, like something isn’t right. The Matrix, for example, was decidedly green.
Knowing the Toolkit: Skilled cinematographers, of course, can also use these techniques ironically or to create a new meaning with juxtaposition. One example is flash photography.
You get this effect by having a harsh, bright light source right next to the camera (as you would on a disposable camera or smartphone). Things close to the camera (like faces) get washed out, while the background is underexposed. It also creates harsh shadows. (Look at the distinct black line on the left side of the red coat). It looks amateurish. But if you want your project to look like it was made by amateurs, this is your ticket. Thank you, Blair Witch Project.
One Final Thought
When you think about it, all movies, all TV shows, all video games, every viral video you watch on your phone is really a manipulation of light on a screen. The realty – the screen – remains unchanged. The meaning comes from your mind’s interpretation of that light and the story it creates. Controlling that light is the difference between staring at static and touching an audience.
*The “key” in “low key” and “high key” refers to the “key light” or main light source.
What is it with films and lighting? It’s right there, number 1 in the most cliched of all Hollywood phrases*. And if you’ve ever been on a film set, you know that the vast majority of time is spent lighting and relighting the scene. But why?
At its basic level, film (and the modern equivalent of digital video) is actually a way of recording and preserving light. So while we think of films as epic stories with huge budgets and special effects, it’s really a specific kind of recording device. On a technical level, you could compare film to taking a plaster impression of an animal print or recording tremors with a seismograph.
For those of you old enough to remember developing photos from 35mm film, this is “film” at its most basic. Photons bounce off an object, are focused by a lens onto the film, activate photo-reactive chemicals, and leave an impression. The film is then developed into a negative, and the negative is used to produce the positive picture.
The thing is, that 35 mm film from your disposable CVS camera is actually the same film used in movie cameras and was essentially unchanged for 100 years. Today, the process is digital, but essentially your iPhone and a professional movie camera work the same way. And it’s all about capturing light.
What are we waiting on?
So why does it take so long to light a film set? There’s a problem between seeing and seeing. Your brain plays probably about the same role in sight as your eyes. Yes, your eyes perceive light, but your brain needs to decide what to focus on (literally and figuratively). In addition to actual focal distance, it must determine proportion, patterns, colors, shapes, and movement. Are you looking at a cat or a lion? Or a toy lion? Or a picture of a lion?
Our brains concentrate on only one small part of what we actually see. But when a filmmaker sits you in a darkened room and projects an image 30 feet tall and 100 feet wide, they need to direct your attention. They have to be sure what they are showing you is more interesting than the exit sign in the corner of the theater or that weird haircut on the guy two rows in front of you.
Just to be clear, your director of photography and the camera are taking the place of the two most complex organs in the human body. This involves framing shots appropriately, dressing and costuming appropriately, and making sure the correct subject matter is in focus. And it also involves a LOT of lighting.
Consider this shot from Citizen Kane.
It’s both simple and incredibly effective. The main sources of light come from the back of the room, creating a hard silhouette of both subjects. They are both easy to see while also being obscured. The light beams add a sense of depth, while the desk lamp fills in some of the void. That way we aren’t merely looking at silhouettes.
This shot required critical placement of the lights, camera, and actors. The lights had to be focused and balanced in intensity so the desk wasn’t too dark or the beams too bright. Smoke or fog played a critical role in creating those beams, too.
Physics of Photography
Whether you’re taking photos at a wedding or shooting a film for Spielberg, everyone’s playing by the same rules. Light and film have certain properties and limitations. A lot of cinematography is understanding these limitations and finding a way to get the look you want with the tools you have.
There can be a lot of stuff in a scene: actors, props, sets. How does your audience know where to look? Light, of course. Here’s a very messy photo from my office.
Now where did I leave that fine point black Sharpie? When I change the lighting, it’s a little easier to see.
Ever had an annoying camper shine a flashlight in your eyes in the middle of the night? First, it’s painfully bright. Then it takes your eyes a few seconds to readjust to the darkness. Your irises make minor adjustments constantly, and because it happens so fast, you don’t usually notice. What happens if you’re filming a scene that includes very bright and very dark parts?
Here, Phillies Bear and Phanatic Pillow Pet are very excited to watch the Phillies (currently number 1 in the NL East!), but the problem is, the window behind them is grossly overexposed.
If we set the exposure for outside, it looks like they are sitting in a black hole.
The solution is to add light inside the room or take light away outside (most likely by putting filters on the windows). Either way, it’s going to involve some lighting.
The intensity of lights decreases as you get further away. Not by a little, but by a LOT. In fact, light follows the inverse square law. That means if you double the distance between your subject and your light source, but want to keep the same light intensity, you need to quadruple your lighting power. Bigger shot? More lights.
How many lights did it take to illuminate this post-apocalyptic set from Bladerunner: 2049?
Well, start counting.
You’re out of your depth.
Lighting adds a sense of depth to a scene. After all, we see in three dimensions, but movie screens are flat. If there were no depth, everything would look like a cartoon. In the shot from Bladerunner: 2049, you can see the silhouette in the foreground, our actor in the middle distance, and hazy ruins in the background.
This shot from The Third Man, shows the depth of a tunnel. Even as a still frame, you get a sense of the dimension.
Today, many movies are shot in 3D, but lighting still plays a critical role in creating the space for a scene.
That covers some of the technical hurdles that go into lighting a scene. In the next post, I’ll cover some of the other things a director of photography considers on a set.
*The phrase “lights, camera, action” was probably never used to get a film crew rolling. Even today, lights take a while to warm up. There is also some dispute about the origin of the phrase. In reality, the dialogue before a take goes something like this:
1st Assistant Director: “Let’s roll.”
Production Assistants: “ROLLING!”
Sound department: “Sound speeds.”
2nd Assistant Cameraman: “101 take 1. A mark.” (Hits slate.)
Film sets can be dangerous places. There’s heavy equipment, high voltage, and people working 70 or more hours a week. Every day, we do our best to work safely and return home to our families, but as a new person on a film set, it’s important to stand up for yourself and your safety. More importantly, it’s incumbent on department heads, production managers, and producers to look after their crews. A film set isn’t different than other kinds of work. A producer is the same as a business owner, a foreman, or a school principal. It’s your job to make sure your employees are safe.
Strangely, people get very worked up about trying to get some particular shot before the sun sets even though they don’t have the right gear or the manpower or the permits to do it. They act as though it’s going to win the war or cure cancer, but it’s not. We’re just making movies. Don’t let the pressure get to you.
The reason I’m writing this now is that a friend of mine from high school died recently in a driving accident. He did not work in the film industry, but he had been driving an Isuzu cab-over box truck — a truck that was identical to one I had driven for years as a production assistant.
It takes some skill to drive a truck. They do not stop quickly. They take wide turns. They have poor sight lines. But for some reason, production managers will often assign the job of driving a production truck to a recent college grad without any training. The first time I drove a truck for work, someone threw the keys at me and said, “You know how to drive a truck, right?”
Fortunately, I’d had some experience helping friends move, and I knew enough to take my time and watch my overhead clearance. After some time, I carved out a niche as a “truck PA.” I knew how to load a truck. I knew all of the common stops in New York, which tunnels you could use, what roads had low bridges, and what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requirements were. And because of my added experience and responsibility, I asked for a higher rate.
Most producers paid it. Some did not. They asked if I could recommend other drivers that would work at a lower rate. I refused. They hired people with no experience and they ended up paying for it in other ways.
The people involved in these accidents were okay, but they should never have been put in those positions in the first place. We are only making movies. Don’t put your crew in dangerous situations. Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. It’s going to be okay. Take your time. Be safe. And get home to your family.
It’s really a physics issue. Gravity pulls down, but belts pull in. Freakonomics actually did an episode about this a while back. If you, like me, are required to carry around work tools, this can be a serious problem. (Things are about to get a little specific and wonky, but if you want to learn about filmmaking gear, vests, and my own persnicketiness, read on!)
The Things They Carried
This is my regular complement of work tools.
All told, you’re looking at 3 pounds, 5.7 ounces. And that doesn’t include the cell phone, car keys, etc.
The first thing I did was try to minimize weight. If you have to carry wrenches around, here are two big (or small?) recommendations. First is the Neiko Mini Ratchet. It does require you purchasing 3/16″ hex bits, and I’d recommend putting a drop of glue on the end to be sure they don’t pop out.
Then there’s the Lobtex lightweight adjustable wrench. Besides being incredibly light, this wrench opens up to an inch, so you can still use it on cheeseboroughs. Those little changes saved me just over a pound. Look at the difference!
You do sacrifice some leverage, but it hasn’t been an issue yet.
Strangely, the lightest 25′ tape measure I’ve found just so happens to be my old Stanley at about 13 ounces. I have yet to find a lighter one, and many of the weights listed on Amazon are wrong.
Okay, great. But there’s still the problem of where to keep everything.
Most crew members carry various kinds of pouches, sometimes on a second belt. But that really doesn’t solve the gravity problem since you’re still pulling in against something that is pulling down.
Here, we have a winner. Vertical pockets (somewhat) reasonable price. Thick cotton to resist tears and fire. Great success. Unless you’re working on a stage next to a heating duct… (Also, I notice that it’s on clearance, so I’m not sure what will be available in the future.)
Capitalism, even in its communist form, has a way of funneling things down to “good enough.” There are a handful of these vests sold by different companies, but I have the deep suspicion that they’re all made in the same place.
Anywho, if you’re on Amazon and see a vest with vertical pockets that’s only $30, you’re like, well, why not? Sure it has a sticker on it that reads “Fashion Style” and I had to order three different sizes because no one can just write a chest size on the product, but it’s only $30. Well, after a week of wearing it, one of the buttons popped right off. Then I noticed that the inside pockets weren’t actually stitched into the vest… So, I’d avoid this one.
This had the lightness of the Chinese vest combined with the durability of Duluth, and, of course, Swedish style. And a price tag to match. It did not, however, require allen wrenches to assemble. Plenty of vertical pockets to keep the tools from falling out (with snaps, not velcro). Sadly, it is rather expensive, but hopefully it will last a long time. I would certainly keep your eyes open for sales.
But now, success at last. I don’t have to worry about my pants falling off. It’s very easy to shed all of that weight at the end of the day (Just take the vest off), and you can even sit on a toilet without getting all tangled up in your walkie talkie cables. There you have it.
Cold weather: Duluth.
Warm weather: Fjallraven.
And as your reward for dealing with all of that, enjoy this:
You’ve probably come across a variety of blogs, books, and gurus who insist there are “rules” for writing a screenplay. (Maybe you’ve even read something to that effect on this very blog.) But are there really? Is there a secret formula for success? Well, yes… and no. Depends on who you ask. But maybe this is a better way to explain it.
Here’s one way to look at it. Screenwriting is like building a house. There are some generally agreed upon “rules” for houses: protection from the elements is a must. Generally a door to keep you and your stuff safe. Probably indoor plumbing and electricity. Bathroom and kitchen to make this a full service abode. Hopefully a window or two but otherwise…
The thing is, doors, electricity, and plumbing have rules. Doors need to be appropriately framed with headers. There are physical limitations to what you can do with electricity as well as safety precautions. Water flows downhill. If you want your sinks to drain and your toilet to flush, you’re going to have to install your plumbing correctly.
None of this has any bearing on the number or size of the bathrooms. None of it affects the shape of the house or the material you use. But there are definitely trends because some things are more effective or more efficient than others.
Point is: they’re all houses. They all meet the same basic requirements while expressing the art and lifestyle of the builder and the inhabitants.
Screenplays are similar, and many screenwriters will describe themselves more as craftsmen than artists. Yes, you need a creative mind, but you also need to know when to use a hammer and when to use a saw. Similarly, screenwriters need to be adept at understanding “the immutable laws of screenplay physics” as Blake Snyder calls them. Is your comic relief effective or overpowering? Does the story drag because the protagonist’s obstacles are episodic rather than escalating? Does the dialogue feel wooden because there is no subtext? Or maybe there’s no sense of urgency because your script violates the unity of time.
Or maybe your script feels cliched and predictable because itfollows the rules a bit too closely. (This would be the home building equivalent of a stamped out, mass production condo.)
And this is the final important thing to remember about the rules. Rules are meant to be broken.
Below are 2 examples of VERY successful movies that very clearly break screenwriting “rules.” I don’t care how much you want to bend the rules or try to contort things so they fit into some mold in a bizarro world. These are generally bad screenwriting choices, and yet, nobody cares.
Your Protagonist is not active enough.
Your protagonist should drive the story. Their decisions and actions push the movie forward. That’s why they’re the protagonist. Blake Snyder calls this “The Hero Leads.” And if your hero is just some schmuck who gets dragged from place to place like a cosmic lump on a log, Snyder calls him “Johnny Entropy.” But I have another name: Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge has probably gotten the most mileage out of doing the least work of any protagonist ever. Wikipedia lists 20 film adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and more than two dozen TV adaptations or episodes. But what does Scrooge actually do with all this screen time? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Marley, not Scrooge initiates the Christmas hijinx.Then the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future drag Scrooge on a time bending whirlwind. But apart from some tepid protests, Scrooge just goes along for the ride. Yes, at the end, Scrooge makes one massive 180 degree turn and starts giving his money away. But for the other 80 minutes of screen time, he’s as passive as Mr. Entropy himself.
The thing is, nobody cares. Since his creation 175 years ago, the audience has loved Scrooge’s largely unearned transformation from miser into philanthropist. And every ten years or so, a new production company capitalizes on Scrooge’s ability to do nothing and make cash. Do you always need an active protagonist? Well…
It’s important to hook your audience in the beginning of your script. Fifteen to twenty pages/minutes is a good rule of thumb. It gives you some time to establish your “world” before you hit your characters with the inciting incident. And when you analyze a story, most professionals look at scripts from the perspective of the protagonist’s conscious goal.
In Jurassic Park, a beloved, award winning, visually stunning, and financially successful film, you could make an argument for any number of main characters, but I think many people would agree that Alan Grant (Sam Neill) is the protagonist. What’s his goal? To make it out of Jurassic Park alive. Well that can only be his goal if the dinosaurs have already escaped their pens, which means the power going out is the inciting incident, which means, the inciting incident doesn’t actually happen until almost an hour into the movie!
Does that mean the power going out is the midpoint? Or should Spielberg have cut the first twenty minutes and had more screen time of Grant trying to save children from velociraptors. Or maybe you don’t always need your inciting incident in the first twenty pages.
You could make an argument for any of those things. But the bigger point is that Jurassic Park is a great movie and that the rules are not so hard and fast as they might appear.
As a filmmaker, it’s important to know the rules. Like a builder, you are part artist and part craftsman. The “rules” are more of a user manual than a blueprint. They’ll help you understand how a screenplay works without really telling you how to make one. So don’t cling to the rules like a Dickensian judge. Successful movies, like life, find a way.
Good news. I did not drop off the face of the earth, though my family and friends may have thought otherwise. I was just working on a feature film. Most of our work weeks were 60+ hours with one topping out at 84. But that’s still better than the shooting crew who mostly worked overnight (Starting at 4PM Monday and finishing at 7AM Saturday) and the special effects crew who worked a few 100 hour weeks. As I’ve said before, freelancing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But we did have some fun and we did make a decent chunk of change. Anywho, I’ll try to get some more posts out here in the near future.
A while back I wrote an article about “grips,” one of the first film credits the average movie goer puzzles over. But gripping isn’t my day job. I’m usually a video assist operator. Most people, even my coworkers, don’t really know what video assist entails. Well hold onto your BNC*, because you’re about to find out!
Do you ever watch the bonus features at the end of a movie and see the director watching a television monitor? That’s video assist. The video assist operator sets up that monitor. Pretty basic. More broadly, it’s the video assist operator’s job to get the image from every camera (no matter how many there are or where they are) to the director. In a nice, studio setting, it may look something like this.
This is a control room we built for Comedy Central. On a stage, with one camera, this may be as simple as connecting the camera to a monitor (with some BNC). Things get a little more complex if you’re riding around the street at seventy miles an hour or if one of your cameras is in a helicopter. In those situations, we use transmitters to get the image from the camera to the director.
Once upon a time, we filmed on something called “film.” This was a roll of cellulose coated with a film of photo reactive chemicals that had to be developed before you could see what you shot. Each day, someone would run the film to a lab where it was developed. Then they would race back with “dailies” for the director and producer to review. It worked great for about 70 years.
But in the 1950s, television and video came onto the scene. Television captured images electronically and recorded them onto magnetic videotape so there was no need to “develop” film. Although the quality was far inferior to film, people could now watch what they filmed immediately after they filmed it.
In 1960, Jerry Lewis used this new technology for his film The Bellboy. As both the director and the star, he couldn’t watch his own performance. He connected a video system to the film camera allowing him to instantly playback what was just recorded and make adjustments to his performance. This is generally considered the invention of video assist** and the first use of video playback.
In addition to getting the image to the director, the video assist operator records the action, allowing for immediate playback. This allows directors to re-watch takes without waiting for dailies. Directors may call for playback to check performances, look for continuity errors, see if a piece of gear was in the shot, check to make sure a stunt or effect worked, or watch something back in slow motion.
The video assist system is also used to record rehearsals. When we shot on film, this was a critical way to practice camera and actor movement without wasting thousands of feet of film. Today, most film production is done on digital video, but film crews still use rehearsals to practice shots before all of the lights, makeup, and effects are in their final places.
On a one-day shoot for a thirty-second commercial, playback may not be critical. But on something like a feature film that may take months and is generally not filmed in chronological order, playback can play a major role in keeping a film’s continuity. One intern I worked with said that video assist sounded like the film’s library. I kind of like that. (To be fair, the script supervisor is the film’s librarian, the video assist operator is the guy who has to go to the basement and find all of the old reference books…)
It’s important to point out that video assist is for reference only. When we shoot on film, the video feed or “tap” doesn’t have nearly the depth of field or exposure range of a piece of film. Video playback is not a completely accurate representation of what you filmed. In fact, oddly enough, video taps only record what isn’t on the film. The light entering the camera either exposes the film or goes to the video tap. Most things happen so quickly it doesn’t really matter. But several years ago, I was working with a producer to film gunshots for an action movie. When I played it back for him, he didn’t see the muzzle flash. I had to explain to him that was a good thing because it meant the muzzle flash was on the film. (Ugh. Tech talk.) And while that’s not the case with modern digital cameras, the video feed is a compressed version of what you’re actually recording. Much to the dismay of one producer whose intern deleted their favorite take, video assist operators do not record full resolution video files.
One other note is that for decades, video was recorded on tape. This led video assist operators to also be called video tape recorders or VTR. And while many ADs will still stay “let’s roll video” we moved on to computers about ten years ago.
In addition to the image, the video assist operator works with the sound department to get audio to the director. It’s critical to make sure all of the cameras and the audio are synchronized. Like watching a badly dubbed film, it’s disorienting and distracting to watch things out of sync.
This may sound like a simple thing, but let me give you an idea of what it’s worth to a production. A few years ago, shortly after we switched to high definition signals, quality, affordable transmitters were still in development. The transmitters we used, while great at long distances had a noticeable delay. (It takes some time to crunch down all of that video data, shoot it through the air, and unpack it back into an image.) This isn’t an issue if you’re filming across a football field. It is if you’re sitting ten feet from your actor and the actor on your television is moving noticeably slower. So after one frustrating day of filming on a new television show with transmitters that were less than a year old, our company shelled out $40,000 to upgrade to the latest transmitters.
Gak is a technical film term for stuff. And video assist operators have a lot of gak: monitors, switchers, speakers, cable, transmitters, hard drives, HDMI, BNC, barrels, patch bays, UPS’s, power conditioners, batteries, power cables (OSHA cords, P-Tap, Lemo, Hirose, 4-pin XLR), 3-pin XLR, mini XLR, intercoms, video printers, and on and on and on. Again, all of this is to get the image from the camera or cameras, synchronize it with the audio and give it back to the director for live viewing and playback.
It’s a lot of techno-wizardry and it can be kind of mesmerizing. Maybe that’s why everyone likes to look over your shoulder. Or maybe they just like watching TV. Whatever the case, the video monitors always attract a crowd. The director, assistant director, and script supervisor are generally at the monitor. The producers will often get their own set of monitors. Then there are the hair, makeup, and costume people who need to be sure the actors look their best. And you’ve got the additional assistant directors cueing background actors, the electric and FX department standing by for cues, the humane society looking out for their four legged actors, and a couple of groupies for good measure.
And of course, all of these people need chairs and coolers and tents and heaters if it’s cold and, frankly, before you know it, you’ve got a regular village on your hands: a video village, which has become the industry term for, well this.
One of the biggest positives about video assist, however, is that you always want to be near the director. So if it’s raining, you’ll be dry. If it’s cold, you’ll be warm. If it’s warm, you’ll be cool. And you’re generally the first person to know if craft service is serving something better than hot dogs.
24 Frame Playback
Video assist operators have one more vital function that isn’t related to anything else I’ve mentioned so far. We are responsible for every “on-screen” video display. Every time you see a smart phone or a television or a computer monitor, a video operator has provided that image. Here are a few of the riveting images I’ve put on screens.
Amazing stuff, right? The video operator works in conjunction with the director, props department, and editor or visual effects department to make sure the right images get on the right monitors. Sometimes, that image doesn’t exist yet, so we just put green or grey screens on the monitors. That helps the VFX department create the image in post. Green makes it easier to remove the image. Grey allows light to fall on the set and actors like a real television.
Video assist operators need to be careful about what they put on screen. One of my coworkers was troubleshooting an issue with his personal phone and forgot to delete the number when we went to shoot. Months later when the DVD came out, he was inundated by calls from curious fans who wanted to know who Jason Statham called in the middle of the film
The name, “24 frame playback” comes from the fact that film cameras used to film 24 frames or individual pictures a second. Televisions, however, display 29.97 pictures a second. So for every 1 picture a film camera takes, a television displays 1 ¼ pictures. (Oh God. Math…) Because the television is projecting light, that means ¼ of the television screen will appear brighter than in every picture the film camera takes. That’s why in old movies, you will see television screens flickering in the background. To fix that, playback operators force the television to display images at 24 frames, not 30.
Modern TVs and flat screens like your phone don’t display images the same way older TVs did, so we don’t actually need to create a 24 frame video. That’s why it’s anachronistic to call it “24 frame playback” when it’s no longer 24 frames and playback actually has another meaning. Sheesh.
For some more information about how a television actually works, check out this fascinating video from The Slow Mo Guys.
Roll the Credits
There you have it. Another one of those hundreds of names that scroll by at the end of a movie explained. While it’s true that most of the work of the video assist operator doesn’t end up one screen, the movie – and filmmaking – wouldn’t be the same without them.
*BNC, the ubiquitous tool of the video assist operator, is a type of connector for video cables. BNC is also refers to the cable itself. Many people erroneously think it stands for “British Naval Connector,” a rather shoddy backronym for an American invention. It actually stands for “Bayonet Neill-Concelman,” the connecting mechanism and the name of its inventors.
You’ll read a lot of blogs and books about how to get representation as a screenwriter or how to get a script sold. But most of these present general guidelines or suggestions. I’d like to share my own experiences with one particular script, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. My one caveat is that this is only one script from one person. How applicable will this be to you? I can’t say. But here’s my story…so far.
I don’t recall exactly what instigated the idea, suffice it to say that everything kind of clicked. The script has a clear premise (housewife thinks mother-in-law is a serial killer), small cast, few locations, and it features several great roles for women—something Hollywood seems to be looking for right now. After receiving some good feedback on the first draft, I polished it up and took it to the next level.
I thought having a ballpark budget might be a good thing to know when pitching to producers. (I have subsequently learned they generally don’t care what you think a film would cost to make.) Since I’m friends with a number of production managers, I asked one to come up with a ballpark figure for me, and we landed at just under $1 million. Certainly a million dollars more than I have lying around, but not a high budget picture by any stretch of the imagination. She also pointed out that based on my cast of characters, my script would be eligible for certain breaks from SAG, the actor’s union. Armed with a script and some solid production information, I started talking to producers. This is where I learned the first big lesson.
A lot self help and motivational sources will tell you that when you undertake a new endeavor, you should be very vocal about it, telling your family, friends, and coworkers what you’re up to. The idea is that 1) it makes your endeavor more real, not just an idea. Telling everyone also creates peer pressure for you to follow through. 2) You never know who might take an interest in your endeavor and offer some advice or help. So I started talking about my script.
The first producer I mentioned it to (who did read it), said it was fantastic, I should frame it, hang it on a wall, and “forget it.” He had just finished a low budget feature and was currently being sued by the writer or director or someone and thought that it just wasn’t worth the headache.
The second producer I spoke to sounded very excited. I’d been working with him on commercials for years, and I knew that he produced ultra-low budget movies from time to time. He sounded very enthusiastic, told me to send the script to him, and said he’d be sure to get it in the hands of his director. I spoke to the director, too, and he also sounded interested. I have never seen or heard from either of them since. I did however hear that they’d apparently collaborated on another project recently. (Hopefully, it wasn’t a rip off of my script, but time will tell…)
Then I reached out to a friend of a friend of a friend who’d just written and produced his first film. He was nice enough to call me back and have a lengthy and informative conversation, wherein he also told me it wasn’t worth the headache. More importantly, he said I was looking at the budget completely wrong. The problem is, an ultra-low budget film isn’t expected to make back very much money, so producers and investors generally avoid them. Ultra-low budget films tend to get made by maxing out credit cards, mortgaging the house, or schmoozing a rich uncle. Otherwise, you want to look at the $6-10 million range. Still low budget for sure, but you either need enough money to hire A-list talent or have the script (or chutzpah) to convince people to shell out several million dollars for your idea. This brings me to the second big lesson.
Everybody hates risk. And in the extremely speculative world of filmmaking producers and investors mitigate risk by making sure a script is “pre-sold,” that is, they can guarantee a certain number of tickets will be sold. Projects can be pre-sold in a variety of ways. Star power is the most obvious. Throw an A-list celebrity on screen and you can (almost) guarantee a certain number of tickets. Intellectual property (IP), is one of the most popular things right now. If you can say Ironman comics or The Girl on the Train have sold X number of copies, you can be fairly certain your movie will sell Y number of tickets.
The thing that surprised me with IP as I continued to have conversations with producers was how little success you needed to show. Granted, they’d prefer to buy a New York Times bestselling novel, but I definitely saw a producer’s eyes go green when a fellow screenwriter mentioned that she’d sold a few thousand copies of her vampire erotica.
Another bizarre pre-sell that’s cropped up is large social media followings. Did your short film get a million hits? Do you have a hundred thousand Instagram followers? Is your fake Twitter account for an anthropomorphized self-driving car constantly trending? Maybe it needs it own movie.
Foreign markets are another major pre-sell. The rest of the world likes American movies and they often make more money overseas. That’s even (or especially?) true for movies that aren’t blockbusters. For some reason, China loves investing in American films. And as they say, a billion times anything is a big number. As long as your film has something to do with China, has a Chinese character, doesn’t malign communism, and doesn’t include time travel (yes, that is real caveat), you might be able to convince a producer that your script is worth a boatload of yuan (tariffs notwithstanding). That is, as long as it’s not a comedy. Which brings me to the next big lesson.
Don’t Write a Comedy Feature
Comedy doesn’t translate well. There’s a great documentary called Exporting Raymond where Ray Romano tries (with much struggle and hilarity) to produce Everybody Loves Raymond in Russia. But he had a major issue initially getting the Russians to accept the overall comedic tone of the show. In the movie, Romano explains why simple, stupid pop songs like Brittany Spears do so well overseas. It’s pretty straightforward to translate, “Oops, I did it again. I played with your heart, got lost in the game. Oh baby, baby.” Clever wordplay and cultural jokes don’t travel well. (Consider this anecdote about American football. On a film set, if there’s a mistake that requires another take, the assistant director will often say, “Flag on the play,” a reference most Americans will understand.
A friend of mine was working on a Bollywood film and every time he said “flag on the play,” the grip department thought there was an actual flag—a piece of grip equipment—left in the shot. How’s that for comedy?)
So if you’ve written a comedy, you’ve just cut off a big part of your pre-sold tickets. Not good.
The other problem is that even if a producer thinks you’re funny, producers are usually weird people. Successful producers like to keep the world at arm’s length or do drugs… or both. In any event, even if they like something they can be sure if the hoi polloi will like it. “How will it play in Peoria?” as they like to say. That gives you the opportunity to launch your (semi) successful standup or improv career into a script sale (a phenomenon you may have noticed). But if you, like me, don’t have that track record, producers will hesitant to take a chance on your script.
Give TV a Whirl!
One producer was nice enough to point out to me that television might be worth a try. For one thing, we’re in the platinum age of TV. For another, there’s far more work for writers in TV. Each show has a staff, as compared to the single writer for a feature. A “season” of TV (now often down to ten or thirteen shows), is also much cheaper than a feature film. Both of these are ways producers can mitigate risk on their investments. Which means TV is a great opportunity for new writers and comedy writers… assuming you live in LA.
I should also point out that as a new writer, it’s very unlikely you’ll be the showrunner of your own pilot. Producers are unlikely to pick up a pilot from an unknown writer because they have no idea if the concept has “legs,” if it will keep going for season after season. If it really is that great of a concept, they may try to produce the show, but they’ll almost certainly bring on a more experienced writer to run it. (Ironically, you need a pilot in order to land that first gig, even if it’s just getting coffee.)
That was something to chew over, and brought me to my final big lesson.
Producers (and agents and people in general) are very easily confused. If you pitch them a comedy feature, and they ask what else you’ve written, don’t say a horror television pilot. Their brains will explode. One of the difficulties all writers face is finding their voice. So even though you’ve only ever written hardcore slasher films, you may have a fantastic idea for a rom-com that just won’t leave you alone. And why not give it a try? Maybe you have a knack for it. Fine. Just don’t mention it in a general meeting!
It gets a little weird because I’m the first to acknowledge that people can be talented in many things and if you’re an adept writer, you should be able to shift gears to a new genre at least passably. In any event, it’s not recommended. I suppose that’s why writers have nom de plumes. (And yes, famous directors and writers can get away with hopping to new genres, but they’ve already proven that they know what they’re doing.)
One producer did, however, bring up an interesting strategy. So many middle of the road, mediocre movies are made for TV all of the time, you could probably use your slasher or raunchy comedy sensibilities to spice up something that would otherwise be a totally forgettable movie of the week.
Where’s that Leave Me?
Still writing (a good place to be for a writer, though never high paying enough). I still have my script, and I’m still pitching it to producers. Knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have started out of the gate with this one. If you aren’t anchored in place and want to be a screenwriter, I would recommend moving to LA and lookong into TV.
If not, dramas based on intellectual property (true stories, public domain, folktales, that weird fan fiction your college roommate writes) might be your best bet. But one recurring theme I’d heard in my quest was, always pursue what you’re passionate about. That won’t guarantee anything about ever seeing it made, but at least you can enjoy it for the time (likely years) you’ll be working on it. I’ve also stumbled upon a handful of websites that screenwriters may find interesting.
The Black List makes your script available to producers, agents, and anyone else who pays to get on their site. It offers affordable coverage. Scripts that are well reviewed and build a buzz are published each year on an actual black list: a list of all the great scripts that weren’t produced in the past year. Before you think this is your answer to getting noticed by Hollywood, I should mention that one producer told me, “The Black List is huge.” So you may get noticed, but it’s also very likely, you will be lost in a sea of mediocre scripts.
I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of IMDB as a professional resource. Their “verification” process is weak and opaque. (I’ve been in a production office with a producer screaming at them because they listed private, inaccurate information about a film that was in pre-production.) They also don’t seem to understand actual film crew categories. (There’s no such thing as a “camera/electrical” department and video assist is decidedly neither of those!)
But IMDB Pro can be helpful. It is a subscription service, although you don’t need any professional credentials to join. (Another bizarre feature.) In any event, it’s a good resource to see who represents whom, who owns or works for what company, and what films are in production. Useful data as you target your pitch.
Ink Tip is a kind of classifieds section for scripts. You can list your script for sale or you can browse what producers are looking for. You can also sign up for a free weekly e-mail that gives you access to 2 leads…for free. I have had some “success” connecting with producers through Ink Tip.
Many script services focus on perfecting your craft and tightening up your script. Roadmap Writer’s does that, but their bigger asset is connecting you with agents, managers, and producers. There are webinars, general meetings, and pitch sessions for you to learn about the business side of the industry. And remember, these are working professionals (not script gurus or professors). They can tell you, specifically, why they would never produce your script. Or, on the other hand, if they really like it, they may just add you to their rolodex. As of this writing, 51 screenwriters have gained representation through Roadmap Writers.
I’ll be honest. I haven’t really used Stage 32. It seems to be a kind of Facebook/LinkedIn for filmmakers. But like Roadmap Writers, they also offer pitch sessions, often with the same producers, agents, and managers. From that perspective, it’s another good opportunity to get face time with the very people your’e trying to reach.
This is a great site for following the news in Hollywood. Like IMDB Pro, you can use this to research scripts that are selling and, more importantly, who’s buying them. If you live in LA, they also have a jobs section (although it’s more for assistants than writers).
Last year, I wrote a post about Unity or Time (or why biopics have good acting, but are really boring). The basic problem is that real life is mostly boring. And even when you condense a very interesting person’s life into a two hour window, you’re violating one of the foundational laws of screenplay physics: your main character (real or fictional) is under pressure. If they do not achieve their goal soon, they will face serious, negative consequences. (Kind of hard to make that argument when your screenplay covers seventy years…)
John Lee Hancock’s The Founder sidesteps problem in two very clever ways. Overall, it is a very well put together film, and unquestionably worth your time. But if you’re struggling to make your “based on true events” story engaging, you should take particular note of how The Founder handles time.
The Founder tells the story of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc (deftly and engagingly portrayed by Michael Keaton). One may argue that it is not a proper “biopic” in that it doesn’t tell Kroc’s life story. But that’s point number one. Ray Kroc is only interesting to us because he founded McDonalds (well, franchised it, but whatever… you have to watch the movie). We don’t care what his childhood was like, what he did during the war, or how he whiled away his golden years.* And Hancock wisely choses to focus on that one interesting “moment” of Kroc’s life: the founding of McDonalds.
The second, more interesting point, is in how Hancock handles time: he doesn’t. Intellectually, we know it takes time to get building permits, train staff, track revenue growth, etc. And all of this time, while Kroc is waiting to turn a profit, he’s sweating bullets. But Hancock never tells us how much time has passed. He never shows the changing of the seasons or ages Michael Keaton. So while the real events took anywhere form weeks to years, the pacing of the film feels like each scenes follows day after day and may only have taken a week or two. It’s entirely engrossing.
This all falls back on Robert D. Siegel’s expertly crafted script that continues to escalate and grow with each new scene. We’re not sure how long it takes for Kroc to realize he’s not making any money, and it doesn’t matter. The point is, he’s not making any money. This leads to a second infuriated phone call to the McDonalds brothers, Kroc’s wife finding out about the mortgage, and Kroc’s quest to reduce refrigeration costs (a plot point that instigates all kinds of other interesting complications). The story just keeps pressing onward.
Is this an accurate representation of Ray Kroc’s life? I can’t say. But I can tell you it’s a movie. And it’s a damn good one. So keep these two tricks up your sleeve as you work on your future projects, especially if they’re based on true events. When you get down to it, your audience’s time is the biggest factor you need to consider. And if they are emotionally engaged in your movie, they won’t be looking at the clock. It may not be a burger in thirty seconds, but it’s a service you should definitely aim to provide.
*Some mention of Kroc’s backstory (previous failed business ventures) is appropriately and entertaining revealed as backstory through dialogue in the second act of the film. It’s a great case study in effective use of dialogue and exposition.
As a work of fiction, even the most “realistic” screenplay will have some made-up elements. But there’s a bigger question about how to make aliens or time travel or ghosts “believable.” That’s where we get into “story reality.” What is the reality of this world you have created?
A lot of this has to do with how your characters react to the situations you put them in. If you walk down the street this afternoon and come across someone bleeding to death, how would you react? Call the police? Call an ambulance? Vomit and run away? Now what if you were walking down a beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944? You may vomit and run away, but you might also pull out a machine gun and start shooting Germans. Not a great option in the first example, but perfectly understandable in the second.
The problem is, if you create a fantasy world like Hogwarts or the Shire or Tatooine, your audience can only accept the “reality” of your story based upon how your characters act and react. Apparently, cutting off someone’s arm with a laser sword isn’t a very big deal in the Star Wars cantina. It may, however, be frowned upon at lunch in Hogwarts. Whichever the case, your characters need to react consistently to the “reality” that you have created.
That brings me to Zombie Honeymoon. I can’t necessarily recommend that you watch this movie. I watched it because seeing what doesn’t work can often inform you on what does work. Zombie Honeymoon (hilarious premise) was in many ways a hilarious movie. Newly married husband suddenly becomes a zombie and his wife struggles with the “reality” of that situation. The problem was, she had a very different view of “reality” than everyone else in the script.
The guy at the video store freaks out when he sees the zombie. The local cop is out looking for missing persons. And the best friend runs away when she realizes the husband is “undead.” It’s a consistent reality that aligns with our own reality. But the newlywed wife decides that she’s going to see her husband’s zombification through much as though he had been diagnosed with cancer or Alzheimer’s.
The thing to remember here is that by forty minutes into the movie, her husband has already killed half a dozen people. So instead of marrying Augustus Waters (The Fault in our Stars), she’s really married Michael Corleone (The Godfather).
The premise could still be resuscitated as a farce as the wife hides one body after another and tries to tape her husband’s ears back on for their double date, but it doesn’t. The new wife agonizes over “what to do,” leading to some decent performances and genuinely uncomfortable scenes as she hugs her decomposing husband. But her disregard for everyone else who’s died (including her best friend) and her casual acceptance that her husband is in fact a brain eating, murderous, animated corpse create a disjointed world that doesn’t follow the rules of its own “reality.” It was almost as though everyone else was hired for a horror movie and someone told her it was a Lifetime movie of the week.
Suffice it to say, a consistent “reality” is critical even if your script is reanimating corpses. For more thoughts on story reality and credibility in screenplays, check out these links.