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12 Extra-Useful Filmmaking Tips for Ambitious Filmmakers
“Filmmaking advice based on hard-earned experience!”
1. Write or obtain an awesome screenplay
Without a dazzlingly awesome screenplay you are dead in the water. Beautiful lighting, creative camerawork and smooth editing are pointless if the story isn’t compelling.
The first and most important concept you need to take on board is the three-act structure:
2. Film lighting
The way you light your film significantly affects how your audience perceives it. Using moody lighting with dark shadows in a teen comedy is not advisable; by the same token, your film noir is unlikely to work if there are bright colors and flat lighting. Imaginative and tonally appropriate lighting is crucial to successful filmmaking. Read more about film lighting.
3. Good camerawork
Good framing techniques will work wonders for your film. I am convinced – and there is evidence of this in every film – that imaginative camerawork will increase the connection between the audience and your story. There is so much mediocre camerawork around that you may as well err on the side of unusual angles – just make sure that your choices are motivated by the characters and the scene, not by a self-defeating lust for wacky camera angles.
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds prescribes the placement of significant vertical and horizontal elements along the horizontal and vertical thirds, as shown in the illustration below:
It must be emphasised that the rule of thirds is only a guideline, and following it indiscriminately may result in an unbalanced and ugly composition.
The illustration below shows my philosophy in the framing of close-ups. Anyone can shoot a close-up, but framing a balanced and visually pleasing one takes a little bit of judgement and practice. I strongly recommend you read my detailed post on how to shoot close-ups.
Shooting over-the-shoulder shots
Over-the-shoulder shots are peculiar to the art of filmmaking and are much maligned by some filmmakers for being time-consuming to shoot correctly, but in my opinion every ambitious filmmaker would be well advised to master not only the visual elements that go into a pleasing over-that-shoulder shot, but also how to communicate with the cast and crew to achieve the correct framing. The illustration below shows my over-the-shoulder shot framing philosophy:
I strongly recommend you read my detailed guide on how to shoot over-the-shoulder shots.
Always focus on your subject’s eyes, unless you specifically want something else to be in focus. You may not notice it in the viewfinder, but if the eyes are soft and the background is sharp it will be obvious on a TV screen and your audience will hate it.
Whatever it is that you want to be in focus, use this technique: zoom in all the way on the subject, pull focus and zoom back to get the framing you want. In this way your subject will be pin-sharp. You should do this as a matter of course on every single setup, and indeed on every take, especially if the subject moved after the last take.
The reason for zooming in before focusing is that the longest focal length has the smallest depth of field – if something is in focus at the longest end of the zoom, it will be in focus at every other focal length too.
When shooting outside, lighting conditions are likely to be bright, but you can still use a wide aperture if you use a neutral-density filter. Neutral-density filters are essentially color-neutral (grey) filters which reduce the brightness of the light reaching the film or CCDs. The point is that you reduce the intensity of the light by using a neutral-density filter and then compensate for it by using a wider aperture. Professional camcorders sometimes have one or two inbuilt neutral-density filters, which you can engage with a toggle switch. They can reduce the intensity of the light by several stops.
Foreground objects add texture and increase the illusion of depth. Foreground objects, which can be anything from an actor’s shoulder to a tree branch, are known as dingle in the film business. It is imperative that the foreground element should be out of focus; if it is sharp, it will distract from the main subject and will lose its textural effect. A fine example of the use of dingle is the battle scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr Strangelove”: almost every shot of soldiers assaulting the building have plants and branches, out of focus, in the foreground. He was so keen on foreground branches that he occasionally used light stands to hold cut branches in the correct position. It was worth the effort: the way he shot that scene gives the viewer a strong feeling of being there, crawling behind the soldiers.
Another dramatic example comes from Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet”:
4. Camera movement: equipment, techniques and best practices
This is closely related to the camerawork issue and is in fact a part of it. As with imaginative camera angles, camera movement should be used to draw the audience into the story. This means that camera movement should be motivated by the action and by the characters, not simply by whether the actors are moving or not.
Camera movement is one of the aspects that distinguishes movie making from still photography.
In camera movement the feeling of motion is generated by the fact that objects that are close to the camera appear to move more quickly in the frame than objects that are more distant. This is what creates the illusion of three-dimensional motion on a two-dimensional screen.
When the camera moves towards an object, its size grows faster in the frame than that of objects behind it. (Compare this to zooming, which magnifies everything equally and therefore does not create a feeling of motion.)
When the camera moves sideways (tracking), objects that are closer to the camera appear to move faster across the frame than objects that are more distant. This effect is known as parallax, and is what makes tracking shots such an effective film technique.
Types of camera movement:
1. Tracking sideways
In this camera movement the camera moves in a direction that is approximately perpendicular to its visual axis. In other words, it moves sideways. Sideways tracking is one of the most common camera movements, but Steven Spielberg is the best at getting the most of this type of shot.
2. Camera moving towards an object: the track-in shot
In a track-in shot the camera moves towards an object, more or less head-on. The direction of camera movement is the same as the camera’s visual axis. This kind of camera movement is best executed with a camera on a solid dolly, only resorting to the Steadicam when it is impossible to use a dolly.
For more details, read my post on shooting the perfect track-in shot.
3. Vertical camera movement: craning / booming
Vertical camera movement produces a feeling of motion for exactly the same reason as horizontal camera movement: a multi-layered 3D effect is created because objects that are closer to the camera move across the frame faster than those that are more distant.
Film equipment to use in camera movement
For both sideways and track-in shots the best camera support to use is a good solid dolly. Avoid using “prosumer” lightweight dollies: they make it much more difficult to achieve truly smooth and professional results. Go for the PeeWee dolly or something even heavier, and hire a really good dolly grip – they are worth every penny!
For vertical camera movement you can use a jib or crane. Camera cranes come in many different sizes and which one you choose will depend on what camera you are using and what kind of crane shot you want to shoot. The Cobra Crane II is an awesome crane for camcorders up to 25 pounds – I used it with great success on my first film and it worked like a charm. It is designed to be operated by a single person. Bigger cranes should be operated by professional operators, not least because they can be very dangerous!
The Steadicam® is a very clever camera stabilization device that isolates the camera from the camera operator’s body, allowing very smooth shots that are not constrained by tracks like the dolly. In my view the Steadicam® is a fantastic tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox, but ONLY in cases when it is truly the best way to get the shot and a dolly would NOT do a better job. If you are following an actor running on rough ground, the Steadicam® is the perfect solution for the shot. If you are shooting a sideways tracking shot on a smooth floor, nothing beats a dolly and there is absolutely no excuse for using the Steadicam®, unless you are behind schedule and do not have time to lay dolly tracks and set up a proper tracking shot.
Camera movement best practices
1. Using wide lenses enhances parallax, which is the effect in which objects closer to the camera move across the field of view faster.
2. Long lenses also work well with camera movement, but this produces a very different look because the visual planes are compressed. You should familiarise with the look produced by lenses of different focal lengths.
3. Sideways tracking shots are MASSIVELY more effective when there are objects in the foreground (close to the camera), because this enhances the feeling of parallax. Steven Spielberg is the best at shooting this type of tracking shot. Foreground objects will enhance parallax regardless of focal length, but different focal lengths will produce different looks.
4. All of the above also applies to crane shots (vertical camera movement).
5. Tracking shots should begin as smoothly as possible. To shoot real tracking shots you need a real dolly grip with real skill.
6. Track-in shots – in which the camera tracks into a subject, going from a wide shot to a tighter shot – are a valuable film technique in every filmmaker’s arsenal but very few know how to make it work. It is all about tweaking the speed, framing and focal length for the specific mood you want.
7. The Steadicam® is not a dolly and should ONLY be used when it is truly the best option for the shot. Few things in filmmaking look cheaper than a tracking shot executed with a Steadicam® when a dolly would have produced better results.
8. Zooming can be combined with sideways camera movement. Ridley Scott uses this technique a lot.
9. If you zoom out while tracking in, the result is the vertigo effect, first used by Hitchcock and overused by thousands of indie filmmakers ever since. Handle with care!
10. The way to develop a real sense of camera movement is to practice constantly with a camcorder.
5. Using zoom lenses
(Zoom Shot example taken from my first film.)
Zooming has been much maligned in recent years, but in my opinion this is an over-reaction to its excessive or incorrect use. There is still plenty of use for zoom shots in filmmaking and they are far from obsolete, as demonstrated by the masterful zoom shots of Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, among others.
Beginning filmmakers are usually told to avoid zoom shots, but the truth is that zoom shots can be extremely cool if done properly. Two outstanding movies with plenty of good zoom shots are Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” and Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (this was a significant departure for Spielberg, who never uses zoom shots).
There is a fine line between a zoom shot that is tacky and one that is visually compelling. The difference lies in the execution and in the context. Combining the zoom with translational motion (tracking) can work very well.
Ridley Scott’s Zoom + Tilt technique
Ridley Scott has come up with a wonderful technique that he sometimes uses: he sometimes zooms in as a subject approaches the camera, and simultaneously tilts up, since the camera is quite low down. It is quite striking because the zoom, which has the effect of magnifying the subject, is combined with the subject walking towards the camera, which also has the effect of enlarging it in the frame. There is one such shot in “Gladiator,” in the scene in which Commodus demands loyalty from his sister after the conspiracy against him is foiled:
This zoom technique is powerful and it is not a coincidence that he reserves it for powerful characters in extraordinary situations.
Very slow zooms can work extremely well. James Cameron occasionally uses zoom shots, but they are so slow and smooth that most people are not consciously aware of them. An excellent example of a James Cameron zoom shot is in “Terminator 2″ – as Dyson is dying and holding a piece of junk above the detonator, the camera zooms very slowly on him. The zoom then stops, Dyson exhales his last breath, drops the piece of junk onto the detonator, and the Cyberdine building blows up.
6. Record uncompromisingly high-quality location sound
Poor sound is a major weakness – maybe the major weakness – of independent films. Some professionals claim that audiences can put up with poor image quality if the story is good, but they will never put up with poor sound. I am inclined to agree with this. Accordingly, you should take the sound recording issue seriously. Read more about recording good production sound.
Casting is another issue you cannot afford to get wrong. Casting can be a royal pain, but it is worth the effort as the actors are supposed to breathe life into your characters and miscasting your film can irremediably compromise its success.
With so many competent actors keen to build a reel these days, there is no excuse for not using proper actors in your project. After the story, the actors are probably the next worst thing to cut corners with. As Craig Schlattman puts it in his Filmmaking 101, “…do not proceed with the film under any circumstances unless you’re thrilled with your cast, you’ll only wish you had when you see it in the editing room.” Enough said.
Casting directors are professionals whose job is to sift through scores of potential actors for every part and audition them, only bringing the strongest candidates to the director’s attention. They take a huge burden off the director, who simply does not have the time to trawl through hundreds of headshots and resumes. The director chooses from the candidates that have been pre-selected by the casting director.
Of course, many independent films cannot afford the services of a casting director, but bear in mind that there is such a thing and that if you can secure the services of one – through a favor, a mutual friend or simply by cutting them a check – your film will be properly cast, probably with talent that you would not have otherwise been able to attach to your project.
Continuity refers to static elements (such as an actor’s clothes in a given scene) or dynamic elements (such as a cigarette becoming progressively shorter during a scene). Continuity supervisors ensure that these elements are controlled in such a way that they are consistent with the story when the film is edited – this can be a major issue if the film is not shot in chronological order.
Most films are shot out of sequence and continuity is an issue to be taken seriously.
You should have someone (the continuity supervisor) who takes Polaroid snaps of actors, locations, etc. to ensure the continuity of makeup, costumes, arrangement of props and set pieces, the level of water in a glass, and many other things.
There is also the issue of continuity in acting – instruct your actors to be consistent with sipping drinks, smoking a cigarette and other actions. In other words, if an actor is doing a smoke-and-talk scene, instruct her to take puffs at specific points during the dialog, and to repeat the timing for every take.
This may seem excessive, but I guarantee you will be glad you made the effort when you edit the movie. If the actress takes sips from her glass at random times during the scene, cutting from one shot to another with no continuity errors may prove very tricky indeed. She could be drinking in one shot and when you cut to a different angle, she could be taking the glass away from her mouth – an obvious continuity error. You’ve been warned.
9. Production design
The world of your film must be conceptualized in advance, right down to the color scheme, props, furniture and costumes. You don’t turn up to a location and put up with whatever’s there – you must decide in advance what color everything should be, what style the furniture should be in, and so on, right down to the finest detail – that’s real filmmaking. The reason for this is that the appearance of everything in your movie will affect the viewer’s perception of it, and tells the world about how you see things as a film director.
One of the things that really set professional work apart from home videos is control of the color scheme. The color scheme is simply the collection of colors in the film or video: the clothes, the backgrounds, the props, the makeup, the locations, etc.
Deciding on a color palette before you shoot and sticking to it in production will work wonders for the production value of your project.
Don’t film your actors against a white wall, especially if you’re shooting on video. If you really must have a white wall as a background, make sure it is not lit flatly: dappled light will make it look a lot better.
Make sure the costumes work well with the background (set or location) and with the people wearing them.
If color schemes are not your thing, an art director and/or production designer will do the trick (for most projects you should have them anyway). A talented production designer can add a lot of value to your project; a few well-placed props of the right color, a fresh coat of paint or some well-designed set-pieces can make the difference between a terrible location and one that looks like a million bucks. Production design is one of the aspects of filmmaking that are most neglected by independent filmmakers; you have a lot to gain by enlisting the services of a talented production designer.
The use of color is very important to the overall look of a project; like most other things, although the viewer may not be discussing the color palette after watching your work, you can rest assured that the color scheme – or lack thereof – most certainly affected their perception of it. In big-budget Hollywood movies a lot of attention is given to the color of even the finest detail, and with good reason!
10. Film editing
Editing – the assembly of different shots aimed at creating a coherent sequence – is an artform that is unique to filmmaking. As a film director you should be totally on top of how film editing works, because if you’re not, the film will be a nightmare to edit and will be full of inconsistencies, jump cuts and other distracting mistakes. If you don’t understand film editing, the way you shoot scenes and move your actors is bound to cause major difficulties in the editing room.
The first and most important thing to learn in film editing is that, for the smoothest results, you should cut on action, especially if you are cutting from a wide shot to a tighter shot along the same visual axis. The following example is taken from a film I directed and edited:
There are more examples and tips in my post on movie editing techniques.
11. Role of the 1st assistant director
The First Assistant Director (1st AD) has a fascinating and critically important role in filmmaking. A 1st AD has two principal blocks of duties: scheduling the shoot on a shot-by-shot basis during pre-production and the direct management of the film crew on the shoot itself, ensuring that the shoot sticks to the schedule.
If we conceptualize the Director as the Commanding Officer, the 1st AD is the sergeant. This analogy describes the relationship between the Director and the 1st AD very well, in my experience.
Scheduling the shoot
Once the director has produced the shot list and the tech scout has been held with the 1st AD, the Cinematographer, the Production Manager and the Production Designer, the 1st AD’s next big job is to produce a schedule for the shoot.
The schedule breaks down the film shoot on a shot-by-shot basis, so that every day has its own schedule with time slots allotted to each and every setup. It’s a pretty technical job and requires real experience. If a shot looks deceptively simple but actually entails hidden complications that will make it very time-consuming, an experienced 1st AD will spot this immediately and allow enough time for it in the schedule.
A good 1st AD will also warn the director and the other heads of department about any potential problems he foresees on the tech scout. For instance, he might warn that the air-conditioning system in a location is likely to cause difficulties with sound recording. You cannot go to school for this sort of thing — 1st ADs become brilliant exclusively through experience.
Managing the film crew on the shoot
The 1st AD manages and communicates directly with crew members on the film shoot so that the director can concentrate on the actors and on the heads of department (mainly the cinematographer and production designer).
The first AD ensures that the film shoot sticks to the schedule right down to the minute, which entails an awful lot of communication with all crew members. The 1st AD pushes the film crew to maintain momentum and deploy all production resources with maximum efficiency.
It is an incredibly demanding and exhausting job, and many people don’t realize just how senior the position of the 1st AD really is. It really does not have much to do with film direction — it is a profession onto itself.
I absolutely love 1st ADs — I admire them, I enjoy working with them and, as an independent filmmaker, I wish I had started using them sooner. They are truly one of the director’s greatest allies, especially on time-critical projects, such as TV spots.
It is not uncommon for a 1st AD to be older and more experienced than the director, even on big-budget productions. It goes without saying that the very best 1st ADs are absolutely focused on their career as 1st ADs and have no interest in becoming directors.
Even if you’re a complete rookie and are preparing your first shoot, I strongly recommend that you draft the services of the most experienced 1st AD who is willing to work with you. Your 1st AD will add so much value to your film shoot it’s not even funny — trust me on this.
12. Technical directing tips
The Eyeline/180° rule is probably the most basic rule in filmmaking. When two actors are talking to each other, there is an imaginary line between them variously known as the eyeline, line of action, line of continuity or line of interest.
Whatever you like to call it, the camera must not cross that line when you film the other actor (unless, of course, the camera is actually moving). If you cross the eyeline, when you edit the scene both actors will be looking in the same direction (e.g. from left to right), and it will look as if they are both talking to a third party when, in fact, they are talking to each other. In the heat of production, sometimes even A-list directors make this mistake, which is ugly and potentially very confusing for the audience.
Conversely, if you shoot all of your setups on one side of the eyeline, one actor will be looking from left to right and the other will be looking from right to left, and the scene will make sense.
It is possible to cross the eyeline correctly, by using a third actor (or an object) as a pivot. Suppose you have three actors: A, B and C, and suppose that for some reason you want to cross the eyeline between A and B. To cut from a shot of A to a shot of B taken from the other side of the eyeline would be incorrect.
What you can do is cut from a shot of A to a shot of C and then to a shot of B taken from the other side of the A-B eyeline. When you set up the shot of C, you cross the A-B eyeline without crossing the A-C eyeline. This bridges the gap and ensures that the eyelines are correct at all times. Those with some shooting experience can probably work out what I’m talking about here, if they don’t already know; for everyone else, I hope to add a diagram (or a real example from my work) to this section at some point in the future.
Let your actors walk in and out of shot
Regardless of whether you actually want to use the entries and exits in your final cut, this will allow you to avoid jump cuts if the edits you had in mind don’t quite work they way you expected.
Direct using subtext
Direct your actors using subtext, which essentially means telling them what the character is really feeling and trying to achieve, over and above the words actually spoken. In a high-quality screenplay there is often a significant difference between what a character says and what the character actually means. The true unspoken meaning is known as subtext, and all serious filmmakers and screenwriters need to understand this simple but vitally important concept, because it makes a huge difference to the actors’ performances.
Brief your actors in advance
Take care to brief actors on your work methods, particularly if there is anything particularly idiosyncratic to your directing style.
For example, if you like to shoot a lot of takes, you really should warn your actors in advance and explain that this is how you work. If you do not brief them in advance, some actors might get very upset on the shoot when they realize that you are going to do 30 takes of every set up.
Setting up over-the-shoulder shots
If you are shooting an over-the-shoulder shot, the way to increase or reduce the amount of shoulder in the frame is to ask the actor to shift his/her weight on the left or right foot. This works very well.
Make your crew feel valued
The better you get at making everyone in your film crew feel valued, right down to the rookie trainee grip, the more you will find that they will be willing to go to the ends of the Earth for you. Building loyalty in your crew will really pay off when everyone starts to get tired on a protracted shoot, which is almost always the case in independent feature films.
This is Part 3 of the CWN series on how to write screenplays. Click here to go to Part 1 of the series. At the bottom of the page, you’ll also find links to related pages on how to write a movie script and information about free screenplay software.
How to write screenplays – Developing your script
Once you know what you’re screenplay’s going to be about and what’s going to happen, how do you turn all that into an actual script?
In a 1990 New York Times interview, film maker David Lynch talks about regular visits to Bob’s Big Boy, where he would drink chocolate shakes and coffee with lots of sugar, and then on his sugar high, he would write his movie ideas on paper napkins. In the same interview, David Lynch recommended the use of index cards as a screenwriting tool, a technique he learned when he studied with the Czech film maker Frank Daniel. “If you want to make a feature film, you get ideas for 70 scenes. Put them on 3-by-5 cards,” Lynch explained. “As soon as you have 70, you have a feature film.”
In the book How to Write a Selling Screenplay, Christopher Keane recommends going through two steps, The Mini Treatment and The Scene Breakdown, at least twice during the screenplay-writing process. The Mini Treatment involves quickly writing out the movie’s story in 3-5 pages, divided into three acts. The Mini Treatment does not go into detail — it is just a “this happens, and then this happens” summary. Then Christopher Keane gets out the old 3-by-5 index cards to break the story into scenes. Like David Lynch, he uses one card for each scene, and he jots down the main points of the scene in just a few sentences.
Before you start to suspect that I have just invested my life savings in the 3-by-5 index card industry, I will mention that there are a number of writing softwares which reproduce the notecard thing in a virtual form, with added bells and whistles besides. Scrivener and Writer’s Blocks are two such softwares which currently both offer free trials so you can have a look and see if they’re for you.
How to write screenplays – Script format
It is important to use standard formatting for your screenplay to show that you’re a professional. There are a number of free tools available that can help you do it. Click here to read about different types of free screenwriting software.
How to write screenplays – Next steps
Please click on one of the links below:
Here, you’ll find a guide to screenplay structure, including advice on how to write a screenplay with the right number of pages, acts, scenes, and so on. This is Part 2 of the CWN series on how to write a movie script. Click here to go to Part 1 of the series. At the bottom of the page, you’ll also find links to related pages with screenwriting tips and information about free screenplay software.
The basics of screenplay structure
Screenplays for feature-length movies tend to follow some fairly standard rules. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be creative. Any set of rules that applies to such wildly different films Shrek, Twilight, Million Dollar Baby, and Little Miss Sunshine probably has room for your creative vision as well.
As I said earlier, if you decide not to break the rules, no one’s going to come and drag you off from jail. But no one’s likely to produce your film either.
Let’s talk numbers
Full-length screenplays are generally 100-120 pages, using formatting that I will discuss in a moment. The inciting incident (aka the event that gets your hero off his couch) normally takes place about ten or fifteen pages in.
The bulk of the screenplay shows the hero struggling against difficulties in order to reach a final goal. This struggle builds to the story climax, which takes place near the screenplay’s end.
Different screenwriters and screenwriting teachers analyze the rest of the structure in different ways. Most agree that screenplays typically have three acts, or parts, basically a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Act 1 is about 30 pages and introduces the story. This is when we get to know the hero and when the inciting incident gets him out of his sofa and into battle mode. Act 2, about 60 pages, is the main part of the story. This is where your poor hero gets knocked around and the stakes get raised. His problems just get worse and worse, and the need to solve them seems more and more urgent. Act 3 is often a bit shorter than Act 1, maybe 20-30 pages. This is where you have the story climax, the final, last-ditch battle that determines the end of the movie. Then the dust clears and the hero rides off into the sunset (or gets trampled to death by his horse).
You can find a detailed analysis of the 3-act screenplay structure on Alexandra Sokoloff’s wonderful writing blog.
In addition to three acts, Alexandra Sokoloff also proposes that screenplays can generally be broken down to eight fifteen-minute segments. Writer/Director Nathan Marshall, on the other hand, breaks the three acts into five key moments, including a point at about page 17, or 17-minutes into the screenplay, when the main conflict is laid out.
The structure of scenes
A feature-length screenplay is made of about 50-70 scenes. These scenes are the bricks in the wall, the beads in the necklace, the vertebrae in the spine, or whatever metaphor you want to insert here. Each scene has a setting (where it happens), a time, and something that is shown or happens. Each scene in your screenplay should have a purpose. It should either move your character closer or farther from his goal or should deepen the audience’s understanding of the character or the situation.
In his book How to Write a Selling Screenplay, Christopher Keane suggests thinking of every scene as a tiny screenplay with its own beginning, middle, and end (it’s often best to have an open ending, though, that leaves the audience wondering what will happen next). Christopher Keane refers to some advice on writing scenes from screenwriter William Goldman: decide what the central point of your scene is, then back up just a little and start your scene there.
The best way to learn about screenplay structure is to read lot of screenplays and study how they’re put together. You can find lots of screenplays on websites such as www.script-o-rama.com.
Click on one of the links below:
How to Write a Movie Script – Screenwriting Tips 1
This is Part 1 of the CWN series on how to write a movie script. Here you’ll find easy tips on getting started, coming up with your screenplay idea and developing your story. At the bottom of the page, you’ll find links to related pages with screenwriting tips and information about free screenplay software.
How to write a movie script – Is screenwriting for you?
Some aspects of screenwriting that are special:
- It’s visual. Movies, above all, are series of images. Try an experiment: watch a movie on DVD with the sound off. I bet you can follow the whole story. More than theater plays, which tend to use dialogue to move their stories along, movies tell their stories in a visual form.
- It follows defined conventions. Novels come in many lengths. But a screenplay for a feature film is about 100-120 pages long. In terms of structure, screenplays also follow a clearer set of rules than novels or short stories.
Of course, as an artist, you are free to break the rules, in the sense that no one will come to your house and arrest you for doing so. But no one’s likely to produce your screenplay either.
- It’s collaborative. Before they’re produced, screenplays are generally rewritten many times, by many different people. In fact, the screenwriter whose name appears on the final credits may not be the one who wrote the original screenplay. You can read interesting commentary about this on Alexandra Sokoloff’s screenwriting blog.
- It’s geographically concentrated. You can write novels from Alaska or Tokyo or from your cell in a federal prison and get them published. Your chances of becoming a successful screenwriter, on the other hand, are a lot better if you live in L.A..
How to write a movie script – getting started
If you’ve decided to write a movie script, here are some questions to ask yourself.
- What kind of script will you write?Think about your favorite movies. Do you love a particular genre: romantic comedies, action films, horror? Your best bet is to write a movie script in the genre you like to watch. It’s probably the one that you know the best, and your passion will come through in the writing.
- Who will your hero(ine) be?Maybe you already have a clear idea for a movie and know exactly who it will be about. Otherwise, you can get ideas for characters in a lot of places — people you know, people you read about in the newspapers or who catch your eye in the supermarket or the bank. Whatever your situation, it can be helpful to fill out a character profile to get to know your character better.
The details you write in the character profile won’t all have a place in your film script. But knowing as much as possible about your character will help you think of him or her as a real person. Then, as you’re writing the script, you will be able to ask yourself at every moment, “What would he or she do now? What would he or she say? How would he or she respond to that?” This will allow you to make the right decisions for your screenplay. Some writers even report that their characters seem to take over and do the writing for them.
- What is your conflict?Movies are about conflicts, problems. If there’s no conflict, if everyone’s happy and there’s peace and love on Earth, then there’s no story. Nothing’s happening. An audience has no reason to sit through two hours of nothing happening. They’d rather go back to their own miserable, but varied, lives.
How do you create a conflict? Think of something your hero desperately wants and put roadblocks in his path. Or give your hero a problem he has to solve urgently, and put roadblocks in the way of solving it. The movie will be about your hero’s struggle to get past these roadblocks and reach his goal or solve his problem.
This means that the roadblocks have to be big enough to keep him busy. If your hero solves his problem in 5 minutes, you don’t have much movie left (all this is assuming you’re writing a feature-length film). On the other hand, your hero has to have an extremely good reason to go to all this trouble. If he just gives up and walks away (or if the audience thinks he should), then you don’t have much of a movie there either.
Need ideas for conflicts? Download our fun Story Machine.
- What’s your inciting incident?Something happens in a movie that forces the hero act. Something yanks him off of his sofa, pries the beer out of his hand, and gives him no choice except to go after his goal right now. This event called the inciting incident, and it normally occurs between ten and fifteen pages into your screenplay.
Let’s say your hero is happily watching a rerun of “Friends,” when a spaceship crashes through his roof. Or he gets a phone call informing him his daughter has been kidnaped. Or the phone call is from his boss telling him he’s fired. Or his beautiful new neighbor taps on his living room window, and he realizes that he’s in love.
Any of these events is definitely going to get your hero off the couch. He can’t just ignore the spaceship or the ransom call and go on watching his show to see if Ross and Rachel finally get it together. He has to react.
- What’s the status quo?Movies often open with the status quo, business as usual, the hero’s daily life before the inciting incident bursts into it like a wrecking ball. Then the spaceship lands in his living room, and there’s no way it’s going to be business as usual after that. But what is business as usual for your hero? What kind of life does your inciting incident interrupt? Your character profile can help you figure this out.
- What is your story climax?The story climax is the high point of your movie. It’s the final showdown. It’s when the hero finds his daughter’s kidnappers in their hideout. Now it’s either him or them. Either he gets his daughter back, or the kidnapers will kill both him and his daughter. Or it’s when the hero of a romantic comedy rushes to the church to stop the heroine from marrying the wrong man (how many times have you seen this scene in movies? And as far as I can tell this never happens in real life. Not once have I been invited to a wedding where the bride ended up with someone different from the guy on the invitations).
If your movie is a series of battles between the hero and the roadblocks in his path, the climax is the decisive battle that wins or loses the war.
The climax takes place near the end of the movie. Everything that happens before it is building to that point. Afterward, the dust settles into place, and we see how things have ended up. The hero brings his kidnaped daughter home as the kidnaper is carted off to jail. The hero and heroine ride off together into the sunset.
Click here to learn about free screenwriting software you can use to write a movie script.
Click here for a complete list of CWN pages on how to write a movie script.
I took a screenwriting workshop recently with Lex Gigeroff and it was excellent and inspirational in a lot of ways as Lex presents in a very dynamic and engaging manner.
Two important points that I took away from it which I have always believed is the importance of being open to constructive feedback and doing multiple drafts of one’s screenplay.
As Lex pointed out, even the most advanced writer has to deal with feedback and changes and be open to it all. He certainly is and he has quite a background in writing for television.
Lex also talked about writing the screenplay out fully on the first draft and then putting it away for a few weeks and not looking at it. Then, going back to it and taking it out of the drawer and going through it again. this can be done several times and it really does work as the person has a different perspective when they have not looked at what they’ve written for a while. Writing something great, takes writing, time and reflection, writing, more time and reflection….
If you are a screenwriter (doesn’t matter the level), please share your thoughts on your writing methodology and how open you are to constructive feedback. How many drafts do you do for you scripts?
Welcome to the NB Film Co-op Blog.
This will be a place for members and non-members to ask Cat any questions on their minds about anything to do with the Co-op.