Winging it…

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Helmuth von Moltke famously said, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” (or, at least, that’s how it’s usually paraphrased). And so it is with filmmaking. Yes, you have a script, a carefully planned shot list and maybe even storyboards. But you’re still going to have to improvise.


And unless you’re making a massively expensive, FX-heavy Hollywood blockbuster, this is a good thing.

Filmmaking is a creative process. Improvising – because you have encountered unforeseen issues, or have seen an opportunity to tell the story in a more effective way, or because your actors have been inspired to try something different – is at the core of what we do. It’s what distinguishes genuinely creative filmmaking from what Hollywood does, which is mostly about manufacturing a product for profit.

But it can create problems. And sometimes you don’t know about them until you come to edit.

I think it was Francis Ford Coppola who said you make a movie three times – when you write it, when you shoot it and when you edit it. You can view editing as a discrete creative process in its own right. Assuming you don’t have an unlimited budget for re-shoots and pickup shots, when you get into the editing suite you’re faced with a simple task – you have a whole heap of footage and you have to make a movie out of it.

Sometimes it’s best to forget about the film you thought you were making – the one in your head when you wrote it. That disappeared long ago, and for good reasons.

The director, the actors, the cinematographer, the art director, indeed everyone with a creative input to the project, will have added and moulded and chipped away at the original form of the work. That’s why they’re there, adding depth in some places, trimming fat in others. The work as shot will be nothing like the work as written. It’s not a matter of whether it’s better (although it probably is): it’s just that it’s now the product of many minds and hands.

And then along comes the editor and makes it something else again. It’s not always easy, though.

It can be a challenge to make a scene work. Some shots simply won’t cut together.

The methodical way is to use storyboards or shot lists, working out the coverage and angles you need ahead of time. We started out by using spreadsheets to do shot lists, which works well enough if you stick rigidly to the plan – but who wants to do that?

Shot list in shoot day mode

Shot list in shoot day mode

My frustration with the inflexibility of spreadsheets is what led me to write the StoryFlow app. It provides that essential listing you need to ensure that you’ve got all the shots covered. But it also allows you to diverge from the plan.

I appreciated this most during part of the shooting for The Garden, our latest film which is finally emerging from its somewhat tortuous post-production phase. And I understood the value of the app on the day we didn’t use it. And again later, during editing.

We were shooting a scene we’d briefly rehearsed, and for which we thought we had the shots mapped out. But on the day, I wanted to try something different. And we realised that at least one pre-planned shot wasn’t going to work. I say ‘on the day’ but it was actually split over a couple of days, and that was part of the problem.

We started adding shots. That meant giving them new shot numbers, which we needed for the clapper board and the camera, continuity and sound logs. And that seemed easy – the last pre-planned shot for scene 2 was shot 14, so we’ll call the first improved set-up shot 15. But on the next day, we’d forgotten that we’d done that. When I came to edit, I realised we had two files named 2.15-01, 2.15-02 etc (the last numbers indicating the takes). Sorting them out, matching with the audio files and then making sense of the logs took a lot of tedious effort.

Next time we’ll make sure to use StoryFlow. That way, when we add a shot on the day, it’ll get an unambiguous shot number. And knowing that might encourage us to take more risks and be more creative without worrying about the admin.


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