MacGyver Filmmaking: An Exercise to Stimulate Your Imagination

It seems like every day a new technical innovation impacts the world of filmmaking. The cameras keep getting better, the software keeps getting faster, the CGI keeps getting more realistic.

New toys are great, but sometimes they can make you lose sight of the essence of telling a visual story. To that end, there’s a fun filmmaking exercise I came up with to keep my wits sharp.

I call it “MacGyver filmmaking”. It’s an exercise in limitations. Here are the rules:

  • You have 2 hour to write and plan, 3 hours to shoot a 1 to 3 minute video, and 4 hours to edi
  • You can only use your immediate surroundings and objects nearby
  • No lighting, no external sound recording , no CGI
  • Grab whoever is nearby to act
  • You have to use an old school digital still camera with a video function. Like this:

So we’re talking about a quick quick quick, no frills, bare boned production. The opportunity is to take all the energy you might have put into worrying about sound, lighting, fx, and everything other than what is right in the frame and simply focus on the story and the editing. The challenge is how to tell your story with such limitations, and that is where the fun happens.

For writer/directors this is a great way to prepare for the challenges of  film set. It also frees you up to forget about logistics and the technical side of filmmaking and just make something up and shoot the darn thing!

A similar approach is used in the 48 Hour Film Festival. Those are a lot of fun, but you still have to assemble a team, grab equipment, light everything etc. This exercise can literally be done with one other person, or even just yourself!

As an example, I made my own MacGyver Short and put it up on Youtube. I decided to make it about my website “Film School Secrets” (which some of you know is about what to do instead of film school). I had my little digital camera, my suit, my diploma, a crucifix, a brick, and a kitten. That’s it.

I storyboarded the script in my mind in about an hour. I didn’t have a tripod so I had to balance the camera using a wooden board. I also didn’t use any sound or lighting, and I edited the darn thing in Windows Movie Maker. (Note: You do not have to subject yourself to using Windows Movie Maker. That is torture).

You can see mine here. These shorts aren’t supposed to look fantastic; it’s the speed and innovation that counts. I managed to get some cool special effects and action with no actors no lights, practically no script, and no crew.

This was mad fun. I was acting and shooting, and my challenge to myself was “How do I make it look like the diploma is attacking me without using any special effects?” So I got some shots of the diploma flying at the camera and basically faked a whole fight scene, adding in the “Terminator 2 music” for impact.

I also found a cheap voice software online and used it to make the robot sound of diploma. I froze right before I wanted to make the kitten and crucifix disappear and had my roommate lift them out of the frame, then spliced the frames together.

To make it look like the diploma was choking me I found a lumbar support pillow from my car and wrapped it around the diploma, then grabbed the back of the pillow and put it around my neck and struggled.

The exercise actually gets more fun the less stuff you give yourself to work with. So take a break from all the high tech toys, and spend a day doing it MacGyver style! Your audience will thank you for it someday.


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