Most (if not all) filmmakers have produced films that they are not proud of. Our first efforts are where we try new things, learn the craft, and copy what we have seen in our favorite films.
Here is a list of undesirable but common traits student films share. Avoid them. Students often believe their film is the first to contain a brave, new style, but these sins have been committed by most filmmakers, who ideally clear their system of them by the time they’re professionals. I’m no exception. I was guilty of most of these, so hopefully this list will help you avoid the same pitfalls.
2.39 ASPECT RATIO
We’ve all seen epic, large-scale sci-fi or action films using this widescreen aspect ratio. It was chosen to benefit and enhance the storytelling and not used arbitrarily. What makes a film look expensive is the action on screen, not the screen itself. Consider this aspect ratio carefully before committing to it. If you do decide to use this frame, make sure it is planned and shot accordingly, rather than cropping the image in post and losing half your frame.
BLACK AND WHITE
Black and white has always had the connotation of meaningful arthouse films or film noir. Shooting in black and white can be a powerful tool, but again ask what your reason is for choosing it. From a cinematography perspective, it might be wise to decide beforehand that you will be converting to black and white so that the lighting choices can help separate people and locations when shooting. You’ll no longer have the use of color to help determine separation or depth.
Yes, lens flare can look good, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of cinematography. Use it sparingly.
GETTING HUNG UP ON GEAR, RESOLUTION, OR TECHNOLOGY
If you have the option, the established workflow, and the hard-drive space, shoot with the best resolution you can. If that happens to be 4K, go for it. Be aware of the means, workflow, and other significant implications of shooting 4K; don’t just do it because you think it will somehow make your film better. Don’t let the tail wag the dog here. If it will cost you more to shoot 4K, consider diverting that money to better production design, visual effects, or whatever else might need attention. Shooting with a popular camera doesn’t mean the film will be any better. It might be what the last James Bond film used, but if you don’t know where to put the camera or how to shoot good images, that’s all moot. Focus on the story and characters, not the hardware and software. Pixels don’t matter; good stories do.
DIRECTORS TRYING TO BE NEW AND DIFFERENT WITH STRANGE AND OBSCURE CAMERA ANGLES
In my student days, we were guilty of this one. I think the strangest place we put the camera was the inside of a baked-bean can! As to why the camera was in there, we couldn’t tell you. It was a time of trial and exploration, though, and some directors just want to show off. Don’t think you have to draw attention to yourself or the camera. A camera is sometimes best placed at eye level, in front of the action, not spinning around from the ceiling.
PROJECTS THAT ARE TOO AMBITIOUS
Sometimes a film works best in our heads, where we can see all the great set design, wonderful costumes, and fancy props. However, you simply don’t have the means to pull it off. I’ve read scripts set in the dystopian near future or in alternate worlds, and the necessary resources just aren’t there. I am not encroaching on anyone’s creativity, but understand what can be achieved successfully with your budget. Is it better to write a contemporary film where audiences can get immersed in the drama, or try for futuristic high spectacle that forces them to immediately make concessions?
THE GUN-BARREL-DOWN-THE-LENS SHOT
Don’t. It was a cliché 25 years ago and is even more so now.
NO DEPTH TO SHOTS OR FILMING AGAINST PLAIN WALLS
Depth is something we discussed in the cinematography and directing chapters. Stage and block your scenes so you have a foreground, midground, and background to your shots. It helps orientation, shows off your lovely location, and looks more pleasing to the eye. If you’re forced into a plain corner of a set, can the background be broken up a with a picture frame or plant? Could the action shift a little to the left or right so the window is in the frame?
On low-budget projects, you may not have the lighting equipment required to control and manage your exposure. If there are elements of your frame that are blowing out or overexposing in an environment you can’t control, restage the shot accordingly. This could be as simple as your actor taking a step back, or panning the camera a little to the left.
TOO MANY EDITS OR INSERT SHOTS
Just because you shot four angles of the action doesn’t mean you have to use them all in the edit. Let the pace of the action on screen tell you when to cut. I’ve see many student films with cuts every two seconds covering a simple action. It’s a chance for people to show off their camera skills and editing skills, but the real talent lies in knowing what to use and when. The camera operator may have supplied you with a nice pull focus from the plant to the actor’s face, but cut it if it disrupts the pace or takes the audience out of the film. Having inserts or cutaways of benign actions or objects are also a staple of the student film, like hands picking up a teacup in close-up only for the audience to see that the character has done that in the following shot. Unless it is an important piece of business that we need to see in close-up, don’t force it in the edit just because it was shot.
SWEARING FOR THE SAKE OF IT
Another one that my filmmaking colleagues and I were guilty of. Yes, Tarantino has swearing in his films, so does Scorsese; but, like they used to tell you at school about smoking, it’s not cool, kids. Use it when appropriate rather than thinking it makes your film more adult.
YOUNG ACTORS PLAYING OLDER
Having your 16-year-old friend play a 35-year-old police detective is cute, but doesn’t work on film. That character needs some weight. If you need older actors, use them. This is where your resourcefulness comes in. Who do you know? Who do they know who can help you?
A classic. We’ve all seen films with wind rustling on the soundtrack or low, inaudible mumbling from actors who have their back to the camera or are off-mic. Hire a good sound recordist or restage the action so your microphone picks up the sound. Monitor the audio with headphones so you know when you’ve got it and when you need another take.
DREAM SEQUENCES OR FLASHBACKS
Dream sequences and flashbacks can work if done and timed well. But they are seldom warranted and are used to conceal script weaknesses. A character jolting upright after a nightmare is also a tired cliché.
HAVING LONG, MEANDERING EDITING THAT IS MEANT TO SUGGEST MEANING
Audiences have short attention spans. Longer-than-necessary shots don’t add weight, just bore the pants off us. Stanley Kubrick might have gotten away with it, but still, don’t. Meaning comes from story and theme, not shot length.
So I hope this list helps you avoid some of the mistakes that I and a great many other filmmakers have made before you. Keep story front and centre, and don't get swayed by things that aren't as important.
This post is an excerpt from my film book "Shooting Better Movies: The Student Filmmakers' Guide" available on Amazon. BUY IT HERE