How to avoid filmic failure

Film Failure

To depend on spectacular special effects to carry a film is like relying upon a paint job to add horsepower to your Yugo.

If you really think about it, most films have fairly good actors, sound, lighting, props or wardrobe. Even student films can have a good look to them. Film crews are typically quite excellent, often only limited by budget or time. Why then are some films world-class master-pieces and others are dogs? It certainly isn't money; it's the story, it's always the story.

Often I get asked which films have the best special effects. I answer that my favorite is a humble picture named, "Forest Gump." The reason is simple, all 113 special effects don't call attention to themselves, instead, they move the story forward, so as viewers, we can enjoy the film, by not being pulled in and out of it.

Film is a method of telling a story, not a showcase for the latest high tech wizardry. In fact, the most dramatic stage, the most elaborate costumes, and most exotic journeys happen within our own imagination, in the Theater of the Mind. It's effective and it's cheap (especially in my mind.) It's when we build and photograph a physical set, that we begin disappoint the audience. If we fall short, today's audiences will feel ripped off, if they don't, tomorrow's certainly will.

Special effects can never carry the story, in fact, if the special effects are too good, they will distract your audience and pull them out of the film, usually just long to comment on the, "awesome computer graphics." Today's audiences are very sophisticated and know all the tricks, they know good special effects and how they are created, but they also they know a great story when they see one.

Don't depend on any gimmicks to carry your story. It won't happen. Common gimmicks are sex, graphic violence, sentimentalism, blood and gore, "Realistic" language, shock humor, movie stars, special effects, and sometimes music. A gimmick is anything you feel you need to add to the script to attract, provoke, shock or educate the audience. Great writing does the opposite, it trims away the excess and leaves only a story that moves forward with every line of dialogue and every shot. Watch any old classic and you'll see what I mean. Every frame has meaning, sometimes in multiple layers, dialog is seldom right on the mark, and almost always hides a hidden agenda, but each word moves the story forward. We forgive the film-makers for their silly props and special effects because the story is far too compelling, we can't stop to criticize the miniatures, for if we do, we will miss the next part of the story. Do the same thing and you have created a classic, regardless of your budget.

Story is not a series of events that happen to the lead character and his reaction to them. That is a character study, the European approach to film. Story is much more complicated and simple at the same time. Story is a goal and the person who is trying to reach it. Sometimes the goal is an object, sometimes it is something deep within the main character, sometimes it is a connection with another person. A story is a main character striving towards his goal, meeting opposition, making a decision and then receiving the consequence for his decision. This action produces a fresh new set of circumstances that the main character must face and the process starts again, but with higher stakes. Eventually he may or may not reach his goal, but the story must have integrity. It must play true to the struggle and the sacrifices the main character made to reach his goal. If he fought a great battle to restore honor to his family name, he must receive glory. If he sacrificed family and friends to gain an object of vanity, he must suffer the loneliness of his conquest.

Drama is two opponents, fighting zealously for the same goal or against each other. If the opponents are equally matched, we can not predict the outcome. The NBA final playoff is an excellent example of high drama, especially if the score remains close during the game. The winner is determined at the very last split second of the game. High drama is compelling. If your story lacks it, you will get polite praise. If your story contains it, the audience will jump to its feet, yelling, screaming, crying, applauding.

A story must be creative. If it's been done before, you can't do it. You must do it another way. Often beginners tend to copy scenes they're seen from other films. The net result is a cliché that not only diminishes their project, but vulgarizes the one they copied. Being creative is not just being different. Being different is often just an act of rebellion, being creative is the act of . . . well . . . being creative. Use of a gimmick is not clever either. True creativity is the ability to tell a story with fresh and new elements, without resorting to gimmicks, clichés or the work of someone else.

As mentioned before, the story must have integrity. It must be congruent. Each character must be consistent. The payoff must match the conflict. It's wonderful when a character does something that is a surprise, but that surprise must make sense the moment we see it. I'm reminded of a movie-of-the-week about the youngest sailor to serve in the U.S. Navy during W.W.II. The climax of the story was supposed to a big dramatic scene about the young sailor's refusal to participate in a government cover-up of the scandal, yet the basic premise of the story was his own lie in order to join the military. Had his story been about his return to honesty it would have worked, but it was a story about his courage in a sea battle. We stopped cheering for this hero because he suddenly became honest, an unearned surprise.

Your story must not change mid-way through. The big disappointment of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was its inconsistency. It was really half of two stories told in the same film event. Either story would have been interesting, but by changing in the middle of act two, neither story had a chance. The first thing you need to decide is the kind of film you want to make and stick to it, don't let that be determined in the cutting room. Don't try to create a docu-drama-comedy-parody. If you can't get your brain to focus and define your project, get therapy before you continue, it will cost less in the long run. Even films about chaos need order.

Don't be seduced by cinemagraphic fads. They will come and go and if you use one, you will be left with a dated film that will irritate and annoy future viewers. Fads most often come in the form of film genre. Sometimes fads are in the form of camera technique. If your method says, hey, look at me, I'm the director, drop it and film it the traditional way.

Don't preach. If you have something you've just got to say and you try to build a story around it you will fail. Instead write a story that has a strong character with a mission or a goal. You can reveal a new idea to us when you educate your characters during the course of their struggles. If your characters are true, they will learn and grow and become something new at the end of the movie. If you can't get control of your story because you can't help but throw in a few "good points", then simply throw the story away and write an educational or religious film.

Don't force us to sip from the cup of your anger and pain. A film is not your personal medium to express the emotions you can't express in any other way. Writing is therapeutic, and that is why too many new directors and writers waste years trying to promote a film that is nothing more than an extension of their own obsessions or bad emotional health. Write your first script, take it beyond the limits, express your rage and all your passions, get it out of your system, then burn the script, forget about it and move on to become a great story teller. A film is a gift to the world, think about the gift you are giving.

If your self-importance is attached to your film or your career as a film-maker, you will fail. You will fail because you are overly infatuated with the medium and have over-rated its power. You will always be disappointed with the audience because they will not see nor appreciate the sacrifices and pain you suffered in order to bring them your message. A great film will inspire millions, but it will not give you the sense of value you should have gotten from your parents. Film is a lifestyle, but it is not life.

Great story telling is not instinctive, it has emerged over centuries. There are rules to story telling and I've touched on some of them here, but to really become a master story teller you must understand every essential. The elements of creative story design must become so deeply scored into the walls of your cranium that they cannot be erased. You can not break the rules until you master them. You can not master them until you know what they are. You can always find classes on dialogue, but you will rarely find someone who really knows story. Search to learn, search and learn.

Become a great story teller first and a film-maker second.

Steve Biggs
Special Effect Supply
May 15, 2001