Plot Vs. Pixels: How Good Does It Really Need to Look?


There’s no question the explosion of digital technology in the last 10 years has changed the industry. But one thing hasn’t changed: the essence of a good movie.

Movies are still about great storytelling. But it seems like new filmmakers are still convinced that the perfect, most cutting edge equipment will somehow make their movie stand out.

I frequently get emails from aspiring filmmakers wondering what camera to buy and what accessories to purchase, launching into in depth conversations about pixels and color grading. But rarely do I get questions about how to create a compelling character or a story that audiences will talk to their friends about.

I love new toys as much as the next guy. But I’d rather see a movie that Quentin Tarantino shot on his camera phone about a family having breakfast than another short film shot on the RED with gunshots and no characters that I care about.

It’s not that visuals aren’t important. I cringe when I see indie films with blatant  backlighting, or character’s faces shrouded in strange shadows. But  once you’ve lit a scene evenly and are working with a decent camera, everything else is indulgent. Cameras are light years ahead of where they were even 5 years ago.

I know this might offend some DPs. When I was doing a crew call for a low budget feature last year, I received a resume from an accomplished professional who had shot some network shows. He was shooting $1 Million an episode TV. I was working with a budget under six figures, and my Director wanted to shoot with DSLR.

The DP chided me, insisting that 4K was the bare minimum. His reasoning? 6K was coming up, and pretty soon 1080i would be obsolete, you wouldn’t even be able to watch it on television or the internet. Was this forward thinking or being alarmist? I think the latter.

Visuals Are Important, But Not What Makes a Movie Great

I’ve known DPs and Gaffers who will walk out of a movie if they see what they consider sub par visuals. Meanwhile, the rest of the theater will stay and enjoy the show.

This may be controversial to say: but audiences just don’t care what your movie was shot on, so long as it doesn’t look absolutely horrible.

First features like “Clerks”, “Pi”, and “Following” are all perfect examples. These movies launched the directing careers of Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, and Christopher Nolan. They were all shot on black and white 16mm and looked pretty awful.

Then there was “The Brothers McMullen”, another indie gem by Ed Burns that was in such bad shape, the studio had to do a lot of work in post to make some of the scenes usable.

Danny Boyle’s horror classic “28 Days Later” redefined the zombie genre. It was shot on multiple Canon XL1 Standard Def video cameras with a effective sensor resolution of only .4 Megapixels.

Fan favorites from “The Karate Kid” to “The Breakfast Club” have adequate cinematography. Even “Pulp Fiction” isn’t that visually impressive. Think of how the latest Hollywood CGI juggernaut like “Battleship” is so sorely lacking in terms of story and forgettable.

“Napoleon Dynamite”. “Superbad.” “Memento”. “Paranormal Activity”. Inventive, silly, wildly unpredictable, terrifying. These are the things people talk about with their friends that propels movies into our collective memory.

Is Your Movie Going Theatrical?

I’m not advocating bad lighting or cinematography. But put things in context. Whether you are shooting a short film or making an Independent Feature, the likelihood of a theatrical release is very unlikely. Most people will be consuming your media either on their home computers, laptops, or televisions. Does it make sense to put all your money and energy into the picture resolution when your audience is watching it one  a screen the size of a lunchbox?

It’s better to focus that energy into the quality of the story, while still assuring visual quality. But there’s no need to stress about the Black Magic vs. the 5D or comparison tests, etc. It’s not what matters to your audience.  They don’t notice that the t2i gets a little more camera noise when the lighting falls off on your character’s shoulder: only you and the other DPs do.

I’m sure your movie is going to look great no matter what you shoot on. Here’s some tips to make it even better.

Techies: Take a Screenwriting Class.

Even if you’re a camera hound, take a screenwriting class. Force yourself to create a story with just words and paper, no fancy camera or lighting equipment. Put some care into your story and your characters. Make us care about them, don’t just assume that because they are on screen we are suddenly going to like them.  Share your experiences and workshop with other writers. Learn from the teachers. Experience writers block. Break through it. Create!

ReWrite

When consulting with new filmmakers, I often find they are working with weak scripts. It’s not that they are horrible writers. For the most part, it’s simply that they didn’t put the same care into their script as they did into getting the exact right look in Davinci Resolve. Often they work with first drafts. Simply telling them to re-examine and rewrite a scene often produces great results.

ReWriting is magical, and simple. Sometimes you don’t even have any sage advice or notes to work from. But looking at the script a second time ignites something new in your brain, and you will often find the weak points in your story or dialog.

Read Your Script Aloud to Friends

When Quentin Tarantino accepted the Oscar for Best Screenplay this year, he thanked his friends for listening to him read his scripts out loud. He didn’t thank them for all their notes and comments. But he thanked them for being “the space” or “the listening”. And it’s amazing.

Even a Master like Tarantino has to “test” his stories. There can be a huge disconnect between what you think is great in your mind and how it actually “lands” with an audience. If you read your script, even for a short film, to a group of people… you’ll get really clear on what works and what doesn’t. It’s a great reality check that will help you find the weak spots in your scripts and improve them.

Add Some Humor

Humor is one of the fastest and direct ways to engage an audience. This is particularly true if you aren’t shooting a comedy. The problem with many shorts is that they are way too serious, with not a single moment of levity. So even if you are shooting an action short or a drama, temper the intensity of the plot with at least one comedic beat. It doesn’t have to be a wild joke. Just think of Bruce Willis pausing to look at a Playboy pinup in “Die Hard” while he’s being chased by terrorists.

It helps connect the audience to your character, even if you don’t have time to develop them very much. If you don’t know how to do humor, find a writer who can and ask them to help “sweeten” your script. It happens in Hollywood all the time.

To learn more about how to make your movie with great visuals, an engaging storyline, and how to reach an audience directly, check out filmschoolsolution.com.

Comments for this article (4)

  • Gunner says:

    I’ve been reading every blog you post for the past two weeks and they are all so incredibly helpful. Not sure if this is a common question or problem, but if it is I’d love it if you would write about it. I really want to create short films, more specifically good ones. But all my life I’ve only watched feature films and television shows, and that’s the kind of stories I think up. The kind way too long or complex to try and fit in a short time. Any advice on how I can adapt to begin writing interesting but simple short film scripts?

    • says:

      Hi Gunner,

      Did you have a chance to check out the webinar? You are on the right path thinking full length stories. As for shorts, think of them like chapters of a book. A good book or even a good TV show will often have a complete story within each episode. It’s a matter of segmenting things. But, as you will see in the webinar, shorts aren’t an ideal medium anyway.

      Best of luck,

      Seth

  • DUDI V R says:

    Dear Seth,

    you have given amazing note on visuals and vision.really it will be so helpful for the entry level techs.all the best.

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