Tuesday, August 23, 2005


The following are a few guidelines that can be followed when developing and planning the visual style for any feature film, documentary, commercial, or music video.

1. Read
Read the script. Then read it again, even if you wrote it. Read it at one sitting, no cell phones, no pagers, no interruptions. Read it straight through it like you would see it on the screen. Try not to make notes on the first read…just enjoy the story. On the second pass, start to think about the look, the overall visual feeling the script gives you.

2. Write
Make notes, make lists, make a plan. Jot down films you want to reference. Note the major locations. List the main characters. Expand this document with another reading of the script, adding more notes on the visual aspects of the project. Write down all your concerns about the script: difficult situations, expensive situations, impossible situations. Be realistic; it’s easy to get dragged into a project that, due to budget or time constraints, can’t possibly be completed. Be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do visually. Prepare to talk about the story, the plot, the theme, how it begins and ends.

3. Listen, then talk
Meet or call the key collaborators. Be prepared for these conversations…it will be obvious if you’re not. First and foremost, listen. Listen carefully and listen a lot. Extract as much information from the these filmmakers as you possibly can, then lay your ideas on the table. Be definitive; offer concrete ideas. Explain, in simple, non-technical terms, your vision for the film: tone, contrast, color, camera movement, photographic energy. Be honest opinion about the script, both strengths and weaknesses. Then listen some more.

4. Watch
Watch all the reference material you can find. Films you’ve seen, films you haven’t seen, films the collaborators recommend. Tear images out of magazines and create a visual file for reference. Go to museums and see the paintings that will have the strongest influence on the project’s photography. And write everything down.

5. Test
Draw, make still photographs, roll some video tape. Continue to build the visual foundation for the film. Test color, test filters, test lenses, test perspective. Use these tests as a visual communication device. Use video to explain a particularly complex camera move. Use a black and white still photo to explain contrast. Use color slide film to explain subtle color and filter combinations. Shoot, on motion picture film, makeup and wardrobe tests. Watch carefully how the actors’ faces respond to light, shadow, color, and camera position. Test, test, and more test. It’s far better to test at this stage than on set with the actors all watching.

6. Story board & shot list
Draw the shots and/or list the shots. Stick figures work just fine; it’s just a map. Shot lists can assist all the departments: camera, grip, set lighting, art, script. Make them as complete as you can, a solid plan for the photography. But remember, these boards and lists are just a plan to deviate from. The actors and the moment will combine to cause the best of plans to get scrapped for something spontaneous. Be prepared, but be open.

7. Hire the best
Get the finest crew you possibly can. Try to put people in the key positions who have more experience than you do. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. Surround yourself with people who will collaborate, contribute to the overall process, and provide a constant flow of ideas.

8. Know your vendors
Use your vendors’ expense accounts…that’s what they’re there for. Go to lunch with the film or tape rep, have coffee at the lab, take a bottle of wine to the camera rental house, and a case of beer to the grip and electric house. Create long-term relationships with your vendors…these are the people who will rescue you when things go haywire, and offer ideas when you lay a problem on the table. View the vendors as part of the crew, another group of collaborators you have to work with.

9. Make it all count
Only shoot what you want to see on the screen. Anything that rolls that’s just ‘good enough’ will still be just ‘good enough’ in the theater, anything that is out of focus will still be out of focus in the theater. Treat every shot like it’s the most important shot in the film. Resist the pressure of time and money as a sacrifice to quality. Design great shots within the confines of your schedule and budget. Plan to watch the film in the theater without ever having to make an excuse for a particular shot.

10. Always think out of the box
The road most traveled has been traveled and traveled. Try a different path.

© 2001, Jeffrey Seckendorf


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