Filmmaking Lesson #4 : Do Small Well

do small well

A tidbit of wisdom I wish I had heeded early on is ‘Do the small stuff well, first.’

During a lunch break on set this last week the cast, crew, and I found ourselves discussing some of the small student films we have been a part of over the years. More often than not these student films entailed drugs, gunplay, blood effects, action sequences, screaming, and so on. Another thing these films had in common was the fact that most of them did not do well in the end. Despite the awesome camera and sound equipment, the final destination for these films was a dusty shelf rather than the film festival circuit.

While it was fun traversing these memories and laughing about the ridiculous mistakes these projects involved it did cause me pause for thought. Why did these films not do well? Was it the acting? Directing? Writing? Everyone involved had worked their hardest to create a good final project but ultimately, failure. I too have films on old hard drives resting on dusty shelves that I am very glad haven’t seen the light of day. How embarrassing if they did. But one of the blessings time and experience have given me is the ability to look back and recognize that these films failed for one primary reason; we didn’t do small well, first.

A newbie filmmaker wants to dive in and do the next Jason Bourne / Lord of the Rings and they falsely believe that the guns, violence, and effects into these stories will push their film to success. It’s easy for the newb filmmaker to focus on these flashy shiny elements rather than on their technique; can you do simple dialogue scene well? Can you do shot, reverse shot, well? Can you do simple walk-and-talk sequences well? Can you light a scene, block a scene, frame a scene, mic a scene; can you do these simple small things well?

Usually the answer is no. We’re too busy figuring out the best way to punch a guy, fire a weapon, wreck a car, or do chase sequences.

A word of wisdom; do small well, and do that first. Focus on the actors and the dialogue. Focus on the framing and lighting. Take a simple plain ordinary scene and make it extraordinary to watch. If you can pull that off then maybe, just maybe, you will be ready to do big stuff well too.

So put away the guns and corn-syrup blood and tell a simple story about a few people doing simple domestic things and see if you can do it well, and maybe in the end you will be directing the next Jason Bourne.