Filmmaking: A conceptual, physical and relational approach

Why do some projects work and some don’t? Filmmaking is a unique challenge requiring conceptual, physical and relational skills. These skills are difficult to find and a challenge to develop. Let’s go into this and I’ll give you an idea as to what I am talking about.

Conceptual

Your concept should be succinct and clear, hence the industry-standard practice of a one sheet or an elevator pitch. Without clarity, the concept for a project is often quite fuzzy. It may have not been worked out at all. The last place to work this out is on set. Here’s why: other people on the project may not have conceptual skills. It’s not their job. Conceptual is the first priority. If people don’t understand your concept in a few minutes, stop! Don’t pass go. Don’t spend money. The conceptual phase is actually the cheapest phase of production. It’s easier to change a few words on a page than it is to change your idea requiring, for example, one to move the shoot from one location to another. Even worse is the concept of “well, let’s make it work.” What does this mean? Well, let’s cut our idea in half and jam a square peg into a round hole… What’s happening here? The vision is compromised and the project starts to go off track. Quality takes a hit every time this happens.

If your vision is not clear, taking pencil to paper is the easiest, fastest and least expensive way to advance your project.

Physical

With clarity and a solid vision we can move on to the physical. Here’s where we face another challenge. People with hands-on skills have a very practical understanding of physics. They’re always thinking about how to execute vision. But here’s the rub, in the conceptual world the rules of physics don’t exist. And of course in the conceptual world we’re all challenged by ego, which only wants to defend itself. Ego is not going to pick up the camera and move it to the next set up. So get over it.

Do people with conceptual skills know how to use a hammer? Usually not, and in some cases giving a hammer to a creative could introduce risk! Even though this is a simple example, you should be able to scale it (the hammer) and get the idea.

Crews are performing hundreds if not thousands of physical tasks in a single day. This is a different world, quite different than using your imagination, computer or typewriter. Crews know how to execute in the physical world well beyond the imagination of anyone with conceptual vision. And creatives work without constraint of any kind, without restrictions as to properties of the known Universe. So there’s a disconnect.

“Well, of course you can have the talent leap tall buildings… we’ll just use CGI.” I used to call this the “fix-it-in-post” syndrome. I’ve seen many clients spend $400 an hour to fix a $2 problem. Although CGI, or fix-it-in-post, is relevant for some projects, is it relevant when it’s used to postpone decision-making?

In production a little patience and $1.98 goes a long way. By the way, the longer you wait the more expensive the fix applies exactly right here.

Boom, no big news: creatives don’t always get their way. Sometimes they need to compromise. And this is a good segue to…

Combining Conceptual and Physical

Art is both conceptual and physical. In filmmaking, if your concept cannot be executed in the physical world, within the constraints of the frame, it does not exist. I’m not making an absolute statement  but I am saying that it’s very important to understand the difference between the conceptual language of creatives and the practical language of people working in production.

If one can’t figure out how to make it work in the frame, here is another way things get off track all the time, “let’s shoot it both ways.” Is this an appropriate fallback for every challenge?

Hey, this is really great idea: let’s actually shoot 2 movies, throw one away and keep the other one. Not efficient and not practical. Of course what actually happens is quality usually takes a hit, and by that I mean story. How about making a commitment to story and sticking to it?

A relative concept, shooting “both ways” works really well for “weighting” emotions in a scene or improving (there is never enough) coverage. But it’s not a “get out of jail free card” for creatives.

Do you understand what I’m saying?

Relational

Ah, now to relational. This really gets to the gist of the whole thing, and that is to get people working with one another who wouldn’t necessarily have the same reference were it not for a craft like filmmaking. The context for creators and craft people is very, very different. There is actually no frame of reference, “what were they thinking?”

In actuality they are are not “thinking” like you at all!

Communication is an important part of being relational. There are two parts to communication, listening and receiving. Listening does not mean thinking; i. e. thinking what one is going to say while the other person is talking. Listening is closer to listening without thinking. That is to say, “I hear you, now let’s see if I understand you.”

Now the next step is to go back and see if one can repeat what was said from the other persons’ point of view. With acknowledgment, one can then restate the problem with a new point of view, “the sun is coming from another direction” and then stop to see if the other person can track to a new context, “it will take an extra hour to make this change.” But if, in communication one jumps too far ahead which is to say “okay, that’ll be another hour or two” one risks misunderstanding leading to a disconnect.

Misunderstanding is not at all unusual considering there’s already a natural disconnect between conceptually skilled individuals and physically skilled individuals.

After pencil to paper, communication is the next most practical time to change one’s mind. The truck is not here and the crew may not have arrived. There is plenty of time in the day. We are just talking. Isn’t this great?

The most expensive time to change anything is during production. (Okay, so I’m leaving out post-production but I hope you get the point and follow my line of thinking.)

We can go much further into communication but let’s take an even greater leap and move on to relational skills. Relational behavior means, “What you have to say is equal to or more important then what I have to say.” I don’t know about you but, I already know what I have to say. I’ve been around me a long time. What you have to say is something new. If I am open to you there’s a lot to learn. Of course there is a risk, which is a loss of control.

But actually isn’t this the point? On a creative project aren’t we all working together on a collaborative basis hoping for a spark, something new, something exciting, something out of our control?

When I’m being relational I’m listening to you and not thinking about me. When I’m being relational I’m also listening back to hear if you can track what I have to say. So with this exchange communication is reasonably complete. If someone is able to participate on this level there is a basis for relational communication.

Producers sometimes have a head start with being relational as they are usually adept at interpreting messages while working in a political context. Where communication gets off track is when people feel manipulated after they are asked to work another hour or two, sometimes off the clock because someone hasn’t participated in relational communication. Actually, this is everyone’s job.

Opportunities to be relational happen thousands of times a day.

Creatives struggle during production because context has changed. Actually all contexts change. Change is natural. I am not trying to be biblical here; in production Conceptual meets the “Carpenter,” i.e. craftsman in physical trades. All the rules change and nothing translates… that is until relational communication begins.

We need to learn how to be relational in order to choose whom to work for. And we need to communicate in order to know how to work with them.

Translation

Translation – this is the cool thing about being a Director of Photography. It is a challenge to go deeply into conceptual thought to clarify, mirror back and obtain buy-in during production. The DP is also doing the same thing with physical trades, listening, mirroring and reframing conversations to find the optimum path through many thousands of interpersonal conversations remembering, of course, that if it ain’t happening in the frame, it ain’t happening.

Not everyone gets this. What time is lunch is not “in the frame.” A beeper going off is not “in the frame,” etc., etc. I think you get the point.

So the creative process of filmmaking is ultimately one where the conceptual world, the physical world and the relational world intersect to produce a creative output: a film. When successful everyone is surprised, and of course even if they don’t understand how it happened, everyone takes credit. Except the Director of Photography, they just quietly smile and move on.

3 Responses to Filmmaking: A conceptual, physical and relational approach

  1. Sheila Collins January 28, 2015 at 8:17 pm #

    Thank you for this article, Don. It clearly delineates the major and necessary aspects of film making. As an actor, I often marvel at how well (or poorly) things go on set. Even though I have only a limited understanding of the mechanics of film making, it is always easy to tell when things have been carefully thought out, communication is at an optimal level and that there is mutual respect between and among the creatives and the craftspeople. It’s like seeing a well-oiled machine operate. The atmosphere is relaxed and folks are having fun while working hard.

  2. Kevin January 28, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

    Great article! Good thoughts here for everyone on the filmmaking team.

    • DonPlaton February 11, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

      Thanks Kevin! We also need to keep in mind that soft skills are also very valuable. Many productions are established and maintained by people with political skills that improve and enhance physical production. Just because we don’t see it on set doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a lot of work performed in advance to pave the way.

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