Helping others and investing in networks really does pay off
My research topic for my doctorate in business leadership was about collaboration through online social networks and how it leads to increased innovation and improved problem solving. Before gathering my primary research data, I had to absorb all I could from the canon of scholarly literature about leadership, collaboration, social networks and a dozen or so other broad topics. This was a wonderful refresher on many great ideas about leadership, the strength of weak ties, information sharing and the power of helping others.
My primary research involved an extensive survey of individuals who used online social networks, as well as in-depth interviews with senior managers who had attempted to embrace the use of online social networks in their organizations. My research was able to show that people and organizations that used social networks to collaborate and share information were able to solve problems more effectively and were more innovative as a result.
Many of the lessons from my thesis research are universal in nature, and now that I am a filmmaker, I see how the truths of my research really play out in film directing and the business of film production. Let me share some of my insights:
I got to have a first-hand experience of many of these truths over the course of making many films in recent years. One that stands out for me is the feature film “Breathe Easy” which was a global collaboration of filmmakers from around the world who connected up via social media, and produced individual segments of the film in their home countries that all rolled up into an amazing final product, setting some new records for collaboration in film. For me personally, that was such a huge payoff for all the years I put into my doctorate, because I got to see my findings come to life in the filmmaking world that I love!
For more about the ideas in my thesis, you can read the whole thing via the link here, or get a PDF copy of the book I wrote afterwards, “Collaborative Intelligence,” here. Happy collaborating to you!
Make art because it matters to you and because it might make the world a more beautiful place
Filmmakers get a lot of advice shoved down their throats about marketability, knowing the audience, targeting, distribution and making money from their films. As an MBA who had a career in business and market research before becoming an actor and filmmaker, I’m here to tell you that none of that matters. You should make a film because you feel like it, because it’s important to you and because your movie may reach someone somewhere, and leave them uplifted or affected somehow.
People spend more on a restaurant meal than you need to spend to make a small film. What would you rather have: a meal that is down the toilet a day later or a film that lives on? It’s an individual choice, and you should feel free to make that choice in favor of making a film. With careful design, planning, and a bunch of good friends, you can even make a feature film for less than people spend on a used car or a cruise vacation. Again, are you willing to forgo the car or the vacation in favor of leaving behind a real achievement like a feature film? If so, go for it!
Notice that nobody says “How will I make my money back from this cruise vacation, or this meal?” Yet people feel free to heap economic expectations on artistic projects like films. Why is that? I suspect it is part of a societal bias that sees art as being a frivolous activity, unlike, say, making and buying plastic junk that the world doesn’t need. The fact is, the world needs more art, more beauty and more thought. So let’s take the economics out of the equation, first by looking at some likely truths:
If you can muster up $5,000 or even $10,000, and want to make a feature film, then go for it! Set a tight budget and control it mercilessly. Write for simplicity and filmability: a small number of cast and locations, no fancy stuff. Constraint breeds ingenuity, and you will find a low-cost way of getting your most important story elements across. Can’t afford to film a car crash that is pivotal to your story? Have an actor react to a heard but unseen car crash and be describing it to someone on their cell phone; insert a free sound effect for the crash later. See where I’m going? You will find a way.
We need to make art because it matters, because it is beautiful, because it can reach people, uplift them and make them think. Your film need only make you and the few people who see it happy. Maybe you will reach more people than you planned, and maybe your message will change society. But the motivation needn’t be and shouldn’t be making money. If you want to make money, do market research, define your target market, figure out what that market wants and is willing to pay for, and make that, then spend tons more money making the market aware of your product. But then you are an order-taker, not an artist, and that isn’t likely what moves you and makes your heart sing. Make your films because they matter, and share them with a world hungry for art and beauty. Forget making money, make art instead!
On the occasion of the 2016 Miniature Film Festival in Vancouver, we decided to issue a manifesto, inspired by the 100th anniversary of the Dada Manifesto, issued by Hugo Ball, and read aloud in Zurich on the occasion of the first public Dada soirée. Having seen hundreds of miniature films, we were prepared to share some thoughts on our beliefs about this art form. The Miniature Film Manifesto was read aloud by Robert David Duncan at the 2016 Miniature Film Festival. The points in our Miniature Film Manifesto are intended to provoke thought, agreement, disagreement and discourse. Above all, they are intended to include and to encourage all miniature film art and artists!
MINIATURE FILM MANIFESTO
1. Every being is an artist.
2. Art is anything that has been created, acted upon, thought about, arranged, curated or combined.
3. All imagery, including static, moving, auditory and imaginary are forms of motion picture art.
4. Rules and conventions of motion picture art are to be understood, respected, then rejected and replaced as desired.
5. Miniature in the context of motion picture art refers to a basic unit that conveys a story, thought, message, idea or feeling, rather than a specific length of time. It can range from zero seconds upward.
We hope you will feel free to react to these ideas, share them, discuss them, supplement them and even reject them. Above all, keep being an artist and keep making miniature films!
Work with others because you love to, not because you need to
I recently solo shot a film called “Ronnie’s Wake” and it was a really fun experience. If you have read my book “Micro Short Filmmaking: A guided learning journey” or taken a class with me, then you are getting comfortable doing things yourself and making your own short films.
Perhaps you have picked up bits of editing skills, camera skills and other talents on your own, through watching others or through self-study. Now I’d say you are ready to solo shoot a film!
One of the keys to solo shooting is to plan for it from the beginning. You need to be aware of the many roles you will be called on to play in creating a solo shot film. Here are a few:
I have recently been experimenting more with blending the roles of cinematographer and actor. As I wrote in an earlier piece, I like small cinema cameras because of the sensitivity and mobility they can bring to filming a scene, floating around like a butterfly unobtrusively bringing the viewer right into the essence of the action. But what happens when the cinematographer is also a main character in the piece? Do the preparation and impulses that an actor brings to a scene then bleed over into the cinematography if that same actor is also doing the filming?
In recent work, I have been using first-person point of view (POV) for micro short segments that get embedded in larger narrative pieces. The person telling the story is also filming the story. Of necessity, the acting is going to inform the filming, and to some extent vice-versa. It’s interesting to me to see how, by freeing up the camera from the need to be semi-static or obtrusive, there is a lot more room to play with framing and other cinematic impulses in ways that might normally not be the domain of the actor.
In the 1947 film “The Lady in the Lake” director Robert Montgomery experimented with also being a lead actor in the film, using first-person POV for the unseen character Philip Marlowe, who is only glimpsed briefly in a mirror throughout the entire film. It’s a very interesting device to me, but I can well imagine it would have been a lot more feasible and perhaps more fun if Montgomery had been able to hold the camera himself, as in the case of a smartphone with a lightweight rig, allowing for more nimble and reactive playing with acting impulses while filming.
Experimenting with these techniques has been quite freeing, by unfreezing some precepts around camera placement, blocking, framing and other cinematic elements, and giving more play to impulses that might have been thought to be the more proper domain of actors. In this way, the actor-director-cinematographer has a much more nimble, emotively-driven set of impulses to steer the work of making the filmic shot work. This opens up very cool potential for moving masters and other dynamic camera work.
If you’d like to play around with these ideas in your own work, here are some tips for you:
Stop telling yourself you don't know them
Over the past year I have been mulling over the roadblocks that prevent actors from having an easier time learning lines. What got me thinking about this was realizing that we can often remember entire song lyrics from ages ago without ever having set out to memorize them. So why does learning lines present such a challenge to many actors? I have come to the conclusion that the greatest roadblock comes from the tendency to tell ourselves we don’t know the lines. We do this both consciously and subconsciously, at the beginning of the learning task, throughout the learning process, and before we step out on stage or in front of the camera.
Our instructors at the Stella Adler Studio in New York used to tell us that if we’ve done the work, then we need to trust that the lines will be there when we need them. For most of us, that would be like falling backwards and hoping the universe will catch us. Um, I don’t think so. I’d rather some more certainty than that. So most of us will study, fret, use all kinds of gimmicks, apps and techniques to keep cramming the lines into our heads, bodies and wherever else we think they might fit.
And then it hit me. The thing that is common to all of these activities is that we believe we don’t know the lines. When a script lands on our desk, our first thought is often along the lines of “Oh, crap. I don’t know this stuff, and I need to.” Not knowing the material becomes the dominant narrative of how we approach the task. Every time we make a mistake, we chide ourselves with “Crap, I don’t know this!” This makes us more nervous, more self-doubting and more likely to make mistakes.
I decided to experiment with doing the opposite. Rather than decide I didn’t know the material, I decided to assume that the material was going in just fine, was finding a home inside me, and would be there when I needed it. When a complicated new script arrived, I audio recorded it as I usually do, and just lived with the material for a while. I had it playing in the background as I was falling asleep, as I surfed Facebook, as I went about doing other things. The script that had seemed so complicated eventually became familiar, and even predictable.
What I didn’t do was do a ton of detailed line learning, cursing every time I got something wrong or telling myself I didn’t know the material. I chose to believe I knew it. Though it was terrifying, I went to the first rehearsal and left my script in my bag, going totally crutch-free. To my surprise and amazement, the lines actually were there! I mean to a 75% or 80% level, without having caused myself undue stress and self-doubt in the learning process. I found it a lot easier from that point onward to focus my attention on the softer parts, tightening up the ones that needed tightening.
So my experiment was a success, and will form the basis for how I approach learning lines in the future. If you are looking for some different ideas around learning your lines here are some ideas to experiment with:
Embedding micro short films into a larger narrative whole
Once you have made a micro short film or two, you start to develop a way of seeing and a way of doing that lets you perceive an opportunity to address a particular theme in a quick, easy to shoot manner. The attitudes and practices I cover in my book, Micro Short Filmmaking: A guided learning journey and in my training workshops enable you to spot a filmable situation, marry it to a particular passion theme and narrative of yours, and bundle it up into a completed film in a few days.
When you become practiced at pulling together micro shorts, it is only a matter of time until you start to consider stringing a bunch of them together into a larger work. This isn’t a new idea, but it is a great one. So-called “framed tales,” for example, have been done in literature for ages. An example is Dubliners, by James Joyce, where several stories in a collection share elements of place, character and themes. The same can be done with micro shorts, particularly if you start with the intention of embedding them into a larger work.
If you write to include embedded micro shorts in your storytelling, it gives you an instant increase of control over the ultimate outcome of your project. If, for example, half of your larger film can be told by embedding micro short films into it, and you already know how to shoot a micro film yourself, you know right away you will be able to film half the film yourself. This a lot stronger position to be in than needing to wait for other talent, gear or money to come your way. The frame of the overall film just becomes a series of segments that you can start grabbing today.
To do this, you will want to have a really clear layout of the entire narrative, from beginning to end. One of the best ways to do this is to start building your timeline in your editing software as soon as you have the script finished to your satisfaction. Start with the obvious, the beginning and end titles, and block out an appropriate space between the two for the rest of the film. By this point, you should at least also have a clear sense of the first and last shots of the film, and ideally most everything in between. Figure out what parts of the film can be told with an embedded micro short. You may want to try using my swipescaping technique for some segments.
If you are using voiceover narrative for some of your embedded micro short segments, you can actually start recording those now, and find the appropriate video imagery later. This lets you populate your timeline with proper length audio clips, in the right order, and also tells you how much video footage you need to acquire to marry with the audio portion of each segment. The end result of starting this process is that you end up with a clearly thought-out shopping list in your mind for what footage you need. For example, if you need 85 seconds of a street scene, you can be wandering around with your smartphone or other camera, ready to grab that footage when you see it.
To experiment with this technique, why not try a short film, say 6 minutes, half of which could be made up from standalone one-minute micro shorts? Or some variation of that formula? Give it a try, and start gathering your imagery today. Grab a copy of my book if you would like some encouragement and guidance in making micro shorts, or take a class with me. Don’t forget to bring your camera, and have fun!
Mobility, powerful features and the fact they are always with you
This summer, we shot a feature film that was made using 2 different camera platforms, a bigger more traditionally cinematic camera, and an iPhone 5. In general, my experience up till then had been along the lines of “bigger cameras for bigger films and smaller cameras for smaller films.” In pairing up big and small cameras on the shoot of “It’s About Love” I was eager to move both camera sizes into parity on a bigger, more complex film.
There is a ton that I love about working with small cameras, and the next 3 films I am in pre-production on will be shot with an iPhone 6S+ as the main camera. It’s true that the 6S+ takes a big jump in terms of its videography abilities (like 4K resolution capture), but mostly I find that pocketable cinema cameras have some undeniably fun and powerful capabilities that lend themselves to making films of any size and scale. Here are a few things I love about working with little cameras:
Can we define our own set of standards and raise the bar on professionalism?
Most of the independent filmmakers, producers and directors I’ve met are delightful, professional people who are working hard and working well to make films with really limited resources. Like most people, I had a learning experience or two early in my career that helped me refine what I consider to be ethical behavior. But let’s face it, it is a stressful and imperfect line of work, and I am sure most us have cut corners or slipped up at some point.
But moving forward, how can we – as an unregulated collection of practitioners – work together to raise the bar on what we consider professional behavior? I touch on this in my book about micro short filmmaking, where I look at some of attributes of successful, collaborative, professional filmmakers. What I propose here is to toss down a few suggested codes of ethical behavior for us to react to, modify or add to going forward.
Rather than playing the role of an authority, I would prefer that we all ponder these ideas, adapt them to what we can individually work with, and try together to raise the bar on our own professionalism. Ideally, it would be great if everyone who comes into contact with an independent filmmaker leaves the experience feeling well and fairly treated, feeling that promises made to them were honored, and feeling that they would be happy to repeat the experience. We all know from experience what the opposite of that feels like. So here are a few ideas:
As independent filmmakers, producers and directors:
Perhaps not what you think!
For some of us, the image that comes to mind of an actor is not an entirely pleasant one. You might picture a self-absorbed, overly expressive narcissist who doesn’t just enter a room but swamps it with their physical, verbal and emotional self. Those people do exist in the world of acting, but in my experience, they are relatively few and far between, and they tend to drift away quite early in the journey toward becoming a good actor. Acting takes a lot of hard, quiet work, with little or no recognition, and narcissists can generally get their fuel more easily elsewhere.
So that leaves the rest of us. Happily in my experience, the most dedicated and best actors I have known are kind, humble, hardworking and thoughtful people. They can be shy, introverted and quiet. There are actors that work more from emotions, and others who work from a more intellectual approach. In short, actors come in all types, and it’s hard to pin down a specific personality type that suits the work. This means that being an actor is really for everybody who wants to give it a try. There is a place for all of us in this wonderful craft, and by giving it a go, you will naturally gravitate toward the side of the work that makes you the most happy and best reflects your abilities.
There are some qualities that do tend to show up repeatedly among the actors I have known, and here are a few of them. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and for every truth there are several exceptions, but here goes. No doubt you will see yourself in one or more of these!
Every actor is a unique and complex mix of qualities, including some of the ones above and many others. There are as many different kinds of actors as there are non-actors, and you should feel very comfortable finding your own place in this wonderful mix of humanity. In fact, we are all actors already! Some of the roles we play are family member, the self we show at work, the self we show to good friends, the self we show to our parents, and so forth. A professional actor just learns how to grab control of the levers of the craft of acting and use them in a way that creates entertainment and tells a story.
I had fun building this partial list of actor attributes. What would you add to it?
Robert David Duncan, award-winning director, actor, writer and producer with a passionate interest in art, storytelling and the whole amazing journey called life. Founder of Fat Punk Productions and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.