Sunday, November 26, 2017

Things I'm Learning as an Amateur Filmmaker

    Not quite related to CGI or special effects, but as I've been exploring the filmmaking process between creating ABYDOS and doing pre-production for the sequel, I think it'd be good to share what I've learned from it, both in terms of crimes against filmmaking mistakes I've made and things I've happened to learn along the way.  Best to keep in mind that I'm far from a professional, so these suggestions are more from my experience as a no-budget science-fiction pseudo-horror indie-film writer than a professional screenwriter/director, but if you're in such a position as well, perhaps some of these may prove useful to you.  Without further ado, here we go:
  • Keep the script open to your cast
    This suggestion is probably obvious to many, but it was one of the things I'd seriously messed up on while filming ABYDOS.  I'd kept the script fairly closed and would only reveal brief portions of the script at a time, thinking the relative lack of knowledge of future events would help with the acting (taking inspiration partly from the likes of writer Steven Moffat telling different actors separate pieces of information in Doctor Who and director Ridley Scott not telling his actors when certain jumpscares would happen in Alien, but taken to an extreme).  Of course, this meant that rehearsals were essentially nonexistent, memorization time was minimal (even line-by-line), and the actors didn't even know crucial details their in-movie characters knew.
    I'm already learning from this for the sequel: my draft is completely open to my cast/crew (which is composed of like three people besides myself right now), and I've talked with them about different technical and story-based details, providing an update whenever there's a significant change or solution to a problem.  Note to future me: I am not Ridley Scott.  I am not at the level where I can make such artistic decisions and have them work.  And I've actually never seen Alien so I'm pretty sure taking inspiration from it is a bad idea until whenever I do so.
  • Be open to suggestions
     While I'd also fallen to the trap of working with mostly just my ideas to a degree in the first movie, the script wasn't completely without input from others.  The biggest change was with Chloe's talk with the others upon joining the group (the only time in the movie all four actors are onscreen simultaneously).  I'd initially written the scene to be highly formalized and fairly unemotional (particularly from the veteran members), but my crew noted that it just didn't seem to work; there wasn't much humanity to the scene, which was especially noticeable since the characters are all teenagers (note that these are my siblings, who were on a budget entirely of slurpees at 7-11, so openly disagreeing with the director here isn't as unprofessional as it may seem at first glance).  As a result, I decided to change the script to go with their suggestions, adding in a bit of personality and more generally casual speech, and I believe that really improved the original draft.  (For comparison: my original scene seemed more like the largely unemotional dialogue some of the Star Wars prequels' dialogue is criticized for.) 
    The takeaway: as the amateur director, the movie's image may mainly be yours, but if your crew think a scene really lacks humanity or isn't enjoyable, odds are that the audience may think the same thing. 
  • Lighten the script up a bit
    Even if you're writing dark drama, even if the project has pseudo-horror motifs, even if people are in life-or-death situations. While Marvel's cinematic universe and its related TV shows have most recently brought this technique into popularity, it's been true for a while that a dark story with occasional comedic lines doesn't always subtract from the drama--quite often, it adds to it.  Recently, I was working on improving my draft of ABYDOS II when a character makes a discovery and reacts to the rough equivalent of "What? That can't be right!" Something about the line seemed off or simply forced, however, and no matter how I played with it the line felt like it was just there because it had to be there.  Eventually, however, it occurred to me to replace the line entirely with an equivalent of "Oh."  Despite the its lighthearted nature, the comedic line actually fit in to the dark story much better than the darker line had. 
  • Look up how stuff's pronounced
     I payed attention to how words like "Abydos" and "Djebauti" were pronounced, but it never occurred to me that Chloe's name was pronounced CLOH-ee instead of just CLOHW.  Oops. 
  • If you're doing something cool by sliding your hands across the blade of a knife, please don't actually grab the blade hard or at all
    Filmmaking is a learning experience.  Please don't ask how I know this.  Further info is in the ABYDOS making of.

Ow. 

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