Write.

 

Write. Shoot. Edit.

There, that’s all you need to know. Am I joking? Half.  It’s become almost a catch-phrase. But the essentials of making any film is within these three words. Of course, yes, there are particular skill sets needed to make these words work.

For this six-part post, I will lay down the ground-level mechanics needed in order to make those words work–the skill sets that I started with years back when I held my first video cassette camcorder in high school (Don’t even try to do the math to figure out how old I am). No formal training required, just a love of creating.

The goal is to get you up and running by the time you read this whole thing. I’ve never been a fan of the idea to learn a trade for months or even years before you actually get down to handling it. Especially in an art form, which some folks forget filmmaking is still an art, it is imperative in my opinion to get to DOING as soon as possible. Then repeat, over and over, cumulatively making finer and finer distinctions as you gain more experience and knowledge, assuming of course you continue to learn this craft.

For some of you, you may just be a dabbler, and that’s cool as well. I’m a major dabbler, so when I dabble, I want to get a feel for what I’m doing then decide if it’s something I’d like to pursue more. I encourage you to do the same. There are a TON of skills required to make a decent movie (or home movie, whatever), but only a handful necessary to get it out of your head and in front of your friends, or your mom, or that girl next door who you want to impress with a kick-ass video and not a cheesy mixtape.

Understand, this is a process in it’s simplest form motivated to get you to a finished production.

ASSUMPTIONS:

1. You know how to use your equipment (Camera, editing software, a text editor)

2. You understand a little bit of filmmaking jargon.

3. You’re either a lone filmmaker or have a super-small crew.

I will not name specific programs or gear to use since that is all based on preference.

What’s laid out should have the ability to translate to whatever you work in. Even for the writing phase, I mostly just use a pen and paper.

WRITE

In this first part, I’m going to walk you through what I believe, and still do, is the minimum of what you should write in order to get to the actual shooting of your film.

We need to get to the treatment.

So what is that? To put it simply, it’s some kind of writing describing the movie to whoever it’s being sold to (studio, filmmaker, corporate agent, some scumbag with connections). We can also call it a one-pager, a summary, an outline, a doodle. It’s the writer’s vision of the story and it’s purpose is to get sold.

For us one-manned film crews, suffice it to be an overview of what we want to shoot. It’s not necessary to write formally since it’s just for our own purposes so write your summary in whatever way makes sense to you. Chicken scratch is fine.

I would usually write a treatment as a one-sentence description, THEN, jot down an outline or rough synopsis of the action from beginning to end.

[Note: I use a one-sentence description because it keeps me focused on the bigger picture so I don’t slip away from the core of the story. It’s a thing with me.]

ONE-LINE

A woman finds a blue police-box hidden under rubbish in a nondescript alley way and discovers it’s actually a vehicle to travel through space and time.

(I call it a ONE-LINE just because it’s easier to remember and simpler than calling it my ONE SENTENCE DESCRIPTION)

Opening Image

We see a black screen followed by the sound of WHOOSHING for a moment until the first cut of an image appears of a skyline of a city during sunset.

We’re introduced to a bustling city full of life with bright colors and NOISES OF DAILY ERRANDS one might expect to hear.

Our protagonist, JENNA, is making her way through the crowded streets wearing HIGH HEELS as she yells at the street for a cab to take her to the nearest coffee shop. Every cab rushes past her. Flustered, she spots an alley way and decides it might be quicker to cut through on foot.

She enters this alley way with cardboard boxes lined up each side of the neighboring buildings. SNORING can be heard from some of the boxes and cats run across her path as the CLACK of her heels connect with the pavement.

TIP: While writing, I’m visualizing as much detail as my imagination allows me. The more specific I am, the easier it is to see in my head.

If you’re wondering about the “opening image,” it’s merely a reminder to make sure that the first image your audience sees sets the tone for the rest of your movie. You don’t have to do that, it’s merely an artistic choice, but I think putting some thought into your opening goes a long way to communicate to your audience your intentions right off the bat.

You’ll also notice I CAPITALIZE certain words. When writing the action, I’m bringing attention to key elements that are useful for me as I visualize the scene. For example, I’ll usually ALL CAP the name of a character, crucial actions or sound effects, and significant items.

Using all caps were apparently used in scripts to emphasize words that were important for different departments of a production. The prop guys would scan for props and the sound design folks would look for sounds, etc.

Since we’re trying to get to shooting as soon as possible, we’re not going to bother creating a proper script. (Well save script writing for another post.) A treatment works just fine for a small, one-manned production. But now, what if we want our characters to speak? Well let’s add some dialogue then.

Keep it simple. Put your characters name in caps then below, write what they say.


TIFFANY
Don’t go down there Jenna? It’s stinky.

JENNA
Oh hi, Tiff! Didn’t even see you there.

TIFFANY
You never notice me.

[If you want to add some actions to your characters, use parentheses under their names]

JENNA
(Looking away as she mumbles under her breath)
What a whiner.

LABEL YOUR SCENES

After completing this treatment, it’s time to define your scenes.

A scene is simply everything that goes on in a single location and time.

In a short production, your entire treatment may only be one scene. That definitely makes things easier. So at the beginning of the treatment I’ll write a slug line, or scene heading, that goes like this:


EXT. CITY STREETS – MORNING

 

EXT means exterior (the other option would be INT for interior), then a description of the area, followed by what point of the day the scene takes place. Also, the way you see it typed out above is the way it’s typed out in proper scripts. If you have another shorthand, feel free to use it, no one else is going to see this but you anyway.

I’ll continue down my treatment looking for changes in scenes and label them the same way at the beginning of that change. Lucky for me, I only have one scene. Sweet.

EXT. CITY STREETS – MORNING

Opening Image


We see a black screen followed by the sound of WHOOSHING for a moment until the first cut of an image appears of a skyline of a city during sunset.

Now why didn’t I write a slug line before writing the story? It’s because when I start, I usually want to keep writing without worrying about format, which helps with organizing, but during the creative phase I want to get my ideas down first, THEN I’ll review and allow myself to edit and organize. It’s really about not getting blocked by technicalities.

When you’ve labeled all your slug lines, go back and add a number to each one.

EXT. CITY STREETS – MORNING [01]

This now represents SCENE 1. Just use brackets and a double digit number, or triple digit if you plan to have more than 100 scenes.

SCENE BREAKDOWN

This is just preparing for what you need to make the scene work. By this time, I would have already printed my treatment out and used whatever space I found within the scene to note, by hand (or type it in at the END of each scene in your treatment), what I needed from each category listed below:

Mark whatever is necessary for your scene. Answer whatever you can at this time. Decisions like who your actors are can be made later but obviously, before your start shooting.

Cast. These are your main actors..

Stunts. Who are doing the stunts? If any.

Extras. Other people in the scene with no significant lines.

Special Effects. What practical or digital effects are you using?

Props/Set Decorations. What items are needed?

Vehicles/Animals. Is there a car or a cow in this scene?

Wardrobe/Make-up/Hair. What are they wearing?

Sound FX/Music. Any notable sound design or music wanted?

Special Equipment. Special equipment?

Notes. Anything you need to remind yourself of.

CREATE YOUR SHOT LIST

Now we plan our shots.

Within each scene, we’re going to have a number of shots. How many is completely up to you, but as a rule of thumb, get as many shots as you feel is necessary, then add a couple more. Remember that each shot is usually a new camera set-up.

Reading through our treatment, write down in numbered order, a description of  shots you want.

From my example:

1. Skyline of city.
2. Sidewalks
3. Buildings
4. Hot dog cart.
5. A hot dog.
6. People walking to work.
7. Jenna passes by camera from behind / low high heels shot
8. Jenna pushing people down the sidewalk.

Note: Make this as detailed as you need it to be to visualize. Although by the time you shoot this scene, you may spot better shots.

Well cover some of the most used shots in the next post, but for now, just write down what you need to shoot.

For the dialogue parts, I offer you three shot examples because these particular shots, almost always use the same framing.

Master– which is usually a wide shot of your characters in frame.

[lightbox id=”thumb id” media_type=”image” thumbnail_url=”http://leonterra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/20130730_batman_ironman_master_235_1.jpg” url=”http://leonterra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/20130730_batman_ironman_master_235_1.jpg” width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”left”][/lightbox]

OTS – Over-the-shoulder of each character.

[lightbox id=”thumb id” media_type=”image” thumbnail_url=”http://leonterra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/20130730_batman_OTS_235_2.jpg” url=”http://leonterra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/20130730_batman_OTS_235_2.jpg” width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”left”][/lightbox] [lightbox id=”thumb id” media_type=”image” thumbnail_url=”http://leonterra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/20130730_ironman_OTS_235_3.jpg” url=”http://leonterra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/20130730_ironman_OTS_235_3.jpg” width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”left”][/lightbox] (Oh Jean-Paul and Tony. I can always count on them to stand in)

 

The Master shot is used to cover the entire action and dialogue between two or more people. Most filmmakers use it as a reference when shooting to make sure the subsequent shots such as the OTS all contain the same action which is important when you get to editing.

Over-the-shoulders shots can pretty much be found in almost any film or television show, ever. It’s an expected shot that audiences around the world are used to seeing during the “talky” scenes. One person in focus, and part of the other person in the foreground.

Add these to your shot list and you’re covered.

You can also add variations of these shots to give you more variety in editing, but also note, your actors need to repeat what they do for every shot.

Once you have all the shots you need for each scene, keep it together with your treatment and let’s move on to shooting.

Here’s what my example looks like now.

[lightbox id=”script” media_type=”image” thumbnail_url=”http://leonterra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/example_script-1.png” url=”http://leonterra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/example_script-1.png” width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”left”][/lightbox]

RECAP

Let’s see what we’ve got so far.

Write a TREATMENT. (Your own shorthand treatment)

Label your SCENES.

BREAKDOWN each scene.

Create a SHOT LIST.

So far so good.

That about covers the basics of this writing phase, I use this exact method to churn out a treatment for a project and get ready for shooting as soon as possible. It’s like the diet version of writing and planning your film.

If anything is unclear to you or I’ve missed something you think should be a part of the fundamentals, leave a comment below.

In the next installment, we’ll go through the theories I believe are necessary to know before pressing that record button.

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Featured Image // Typiewriter! by ethanrooni – Flickr