Today, we’re opening the doors for our 3rd session of the Take Action Filmmaking Challenge!
“Take Action” (as well call it for short) is a premium, 11-week class for filmmakers looking for weekly accountability, structured challenges every week, and a group of like-minded passionate people to help push them to the next level of their filmmaking journey.
After two classes this year, we’ve had almost 200 students take part in the challenge – and we’re excited at what is going to be our most intense, honed in, and action-packed class to date (our past students have given us a few great ideas for this next session).
Challenge registration is open for the next week only! We’ve gotta get everyone in and ready for class (starts a week after that).
To celebrate the new group of filmmakers committing to this craziness, we’ve decided to have some fun today giving you a breakdown of what type of challenges and content is constantly drilled into our students during the intense 11 weeks.
We’ve taken the core lessons of each challenge week — and mapped them to Pop Culture Icons (characters and brands) — that inspire us to stay on our toes and focused on what we know will continually make us better storytellers.
As you construct your own stories, plan shoots, set up interviews, edit, and problem solve… you’ll often find that you need to wear many hats as a filmmaker… you need to become a new version of yourself depending on the exact situation.
So on any given shoot, you may have to become MacGyver, Luke Skywalker, and Oprah all within a few minutes…
Oh man, this is gonna be a fun one…
1. MacGyver: Problem Solver Extraordinaire
Here we have a man who can detonate a bomb, start a car, and eat a salad using only a paperclip. Why? Because he’s the master of problem solving, and he can find a way out of his problem using only what he can find in his immediate surroundings.
So, what does that have to do with filmmaking?…
Many members of the Stillmotion team (mainly Grant) will tell you that this is what filmmaking is all about; problem solving on the set (and throughout the whole process, really) to get everything you need for a story to come together.
A lot of people are quick to label themselves either a “good” problem solver or a “bad” one based on their personality, but we’d argue that it all comes down to how you’re looking at your problem, and how you’re planning for it.
Basically, when you walk on set things can go one of two ways:
Wrong: “…so what are the problems I’ll be solving today?”
Right: “…where can I find the solutions to the problems I already anticipated?”
See the difference?
“Anticipate the problems” might sound easier said than done, but if you’re spending enough time on pre-production, many of those problems will present themselves to you. Go into the shoot with some ideas ready for problems you know you’ll need to solve, as well as the ones you know you *might* need to solve.
Once we were on a shoot lighting an interview for NBC, and we really needed one more light to fill things out. We simply didn’t have one with us — but we weren’t going to accept that as our fate.
We went looking around our immediate area, and found an old white food court sign in the garbage. We’re certainly not above digging through NBC’s trash, so we grabbed it and cleaned it off, and guess what? It worked perfectly as a bounce card, and it saved the day for us.
We couldn’t fully plan for the way this room was going to handle our light setup, but the mindset is something that we could plan for. We needed that extra light and didn’t have it, but we were in the right head space to know that there might be something in a garbage can that we can use for this.
So if you can get into that MacGyver mindset (it’s rumored that rocking his mullet helps), you’ve accomplished one of the greatest challenges of filmmaking: maximum problem solving.
2. Calvin and Hobbes: The Illustrated Vision
Imagine if Bill Watterson came to you and tried to explain this Calvin & Hobbes strip using only his words… and then he asked you to give them a bunch of money to make it into a short film.
Kind of hard to even imagine, isn’t it?
That’s why storyboarding is so important. A storyboard takes the scenes and shots that you, the filmmaker, can imagine for your film — and makes them into a visual piece that you can present to others.
Two major reasons why storyboarding is a must:
Reason #1: It sets you apart from your competitors.
Often a client will come to you and ask that you tell the story of their business, but they’ll also contact another filmmaking company to do the same thing. This makes sense, because they want to see who has the better idea for how to tell their story.
Having your idea built out on a storyboard is not only going to show the client how serious you are about the project, it’s going to give them a much firmer grasp on your idea than you just explaining it to them.
Having a visual aid like this has landed us so many clients, because it allows you to get to the next step with the client right away. You’ll end your meeting with them having already discussed where the idea can go, how it can change, and why it’s awesome — this is far preferable to spending the entire meeting explaining what your idea is.
Reason #2: It prepares YOU for the project.
Taking an idea from your head space and throwing it into a real-live shoot is a big leap to make. Storyboarding is that very crucial step in between “idea” and “reality” — and it’s not one that you want to skip.
By visualizing your whole film in front of you, you’re in a much better place to ask questions like…
Where can I source these props?
What kind of lighting am I imagining for this shot?
What should my background be in this scene?
What color of t-shirt should my talent wear with that background?
The list goes on and on…
A lot of these very necessary questions you need to ask yourself and your team about production… aren’t even going to surface if you don’t storyboard your idea for all to visualize.
Here are 4 panels of our storyboard for our current feature-length documentary, #standwithme:
Two ways you can make a storyboard:
1. Draw it out: This is how we make ours, it’s nice because there is a lot of room for imagination — anything you’re dreaming of for a shot can be included and visualized on paper.
If drawing just isn’t your thing — ask an illustrator to help you out! But remember, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.
2. Photo story: Another really great option for a storyboard is to use photographs to map out the story you’re trying to tell. Obviously this option will depend on your project — you won’t always have the resources to take photos on site or with the talent… but don’t be afraid to get creative.
Most importantly, a storyboard is going to help you make the final call on whether or not your idea will even work for your story — and this is not something you want to realize on shoot day. Storytelling is all about brainstorming and putting the ideas on the table — if you don’t storyboard, you’re skipping a huge step of pre-production that really might cause your story to suffer.
3. Oprah: Interview Master
Oprah Winfrey: the great one.
Her interviews are relaxed, they’re real, and she eases right into the heart of her guests without any phoniness… that’s how she got where she is today.
Obviously none of us can quite reach the magnitude of Oprah, but her interview style is something we can definitely learn from. She keeps it conversational and real, she knows when to stop talking, and she is so present in the moment — this is what makes it so easy for her guests to open up to her.
We do a lot of interviews, and we’ve experienced firsthand how easy it is for an interview to go in a direction you didn’t plan for. If you don’t make a good connection from the beginning, the interviewee might shut down, or you might ask them something that gets them going on a 15-minute rant about a topic you can’t use in your story at all.
Every little thing matters… from the way you shake their hand to the color of their t-shirt.
How to enter the Oprah mindset:
1. Make it a conversation, not a performance…
The more you make your talent feel like they’re doing an on-camera interview, the more they’re going to treat it that way. What you want is for them to get comfortable and open up to you, and the only way to do that is by establishing some kind of connection with them in the limited time that you have, and maintaining that connection by staying conversational in the way that you talk and present yourself.
2. Research, research, research…
The more you know about your character’s back story, the more you’ll know how to get them to open up at the right time in the interview. This means you’ll need to research them as much as possible before the interview, and don’t be afraid to be a bit of a creep. Google them heavily, and even check out their Facebook page if you can.
You’ll also feel much more confident in yourself as the interviewer if you’ve done your research. The last thing you want is to come off as nervous and unprepared — doing a lot of research on the subject and the topic at hand is what prepares you.
3. Don’t make it feel like a production…
When your subject sits down for the interview and you’re still making adjustments and asking them to “turn a little bit to the left,” it removes them from the moment and makes them feel like they’re a part of a production.
This is NOT GOOD for your interview and will make it feel staged, people won’t connect to the final piece. Using a stand-in is going eliminate a lot of those issues, and communicating with your team members effectively.
Here at Stillmotion, we’ve developed a system of hand signals that we use once the talent enters the room. The DP checks with audio, the audio person indicates that they’re speeding, camera begins rolling and a squeeze of the shoulder from the DP lets the interviewer know we’re rolling.
This way, the subject sits down and the interview begins without them even knowing :)
4. Think about wardrobe…
Imagine doing all that research and preparing for the best interview ever, and your subject shows up wearing a rainbow sequined top. This is why it’s important to give your subject a call and ask them to wear something that will look good on-camera. Usually this is just a solid color, and that will depend on your background.
People are generally nice, and it’s not going to bother them at all to wear something that you request.
5. Embrace moments of silence…
Don’t be afraid of a long silence. Sometimes your subject might be so close to opening up, and they just need a few more seconds of silence to actually get there…. show that you’re present, but don’t push your subject out of every silence.
Check out how Oprah puts some of our suggestions to work in this interview with Lance Armstrong…
Oprah’s questions are very pointed, but she still keeps it conversational — she often will ask a question and follow it up with what are the “obvious” or “possible” answers to the question itself.
Oprah: “Had you expected defiance? Anger? Disappointment?…”
This is preferable to simply asking “what did you expect?” — because it puts the subject in the position of answering something more specific — it’s easier for them to give an answer that means something rather than something they think sounds correct.
She also masters that silence. There are several long silences where Oprah could easily read them as situations where she should push him one way or another, but she continues to wait… and then we see Lance break down into tears.
Of course we can’t really be Oprah…
But we can watch a ton of her interviews and learn from them, thanks to the Internet.
4. Rod Serling: Entering The Narration Zone
The introduction that opens every episode of The Twilight Zone is quick to remind you that the show is “a dimension of sight, sound, and mind.”
Although sound is presented as an equal, it’s easy to forget about its power.
Specifically, the power — and ever-present option — of adding narration to your project.
What Rod does well on The Twilight Zone is he sets up a (really bizarre) story and the concept behind it very well, chiming in at various points throughout to keep us on the right track as viewers. He grounds us, and pushes us in the direction to reflect on what we’re watching.
Without his narration, the show would not be compelling and, frankly it just wouldn’t make much sense.
How to enter the narration zone:
- First ask: Is the story telling itself?
- Voice over vs. on-screen text: which fits the piece?
- Draft a script and do a trial read.
- Do another draft.
- Hire a voice actor and record.
- Does it still fit the story?
In a wedding film we made for one couple, we couldn’t quite get the magical story we were trying to tell across in the piece.
Once we added a voice over narration, it became something entirely different:
For the full story on why we made this choice and how we executed, check it out on our blog.
Crafting a narration for your piece might seem like an intimidating task, but really the hardest part is deciding whether or not it fits your story.
We could have gone several different directions with this piece, but we made this particular choice because it was the most fitting way to tell Winnie and Jerry’s story. They had a very fairy-tale like story, and we found a voice actor who fit that “fairy tale” style perfectly — we wrote a script that also followed that style, and the piece turned out to be our most creative wedding piece to date.
5. Luke Skywalker: Jedi With Lighting
As we all know, Luke’s particularly skilled with his lightsaber, and we want you to view your lighting in the same way: it’s a versatile tool that you can shape any way you want, even without fancy equipment, so long as you’re prepared to get creative.
The more creative you are with this tool will ultimately determine your success, especially when working with natural light.
Having the ability to work with natural light using only modifiers is going to save you time and time again while shooting, and it’s absolutely a mindset you want to be in during any shoot — especially when you’re outside.
How to be the Luke Skywalker of natural lighting:
1. Where’s the sun?
The sun is your light source, so look at where your camera is in relation to the direction of the sun. The more off-axis you place it, the more shape your image is going to have.
2. How bright is it?
An ideal day for shooting outside is somewhat overcast, as it will give you a naturally softer light. Often this isn’t the case, so on a bright day you’ll want to look for shading of some kid to act as diffusion in addition to your modifiers.
3. Look for natural reflectors.
See a large white wall? See anything white at all that can be placed near the talent? Consider using it as a reflector for a fill light.
4. Try to keep it balanced.
Be aware of where the background is and where the talent is. If your background is in the shade and your talent is in the sun, you’ll end up overexposed, and vice-versa.
Here’s our helpful tutorial on shooting outside with modifiers, that demonstrates all of these methods:
Maintaining this mindset is no easy task, but we stress that you do because these situations come up all the time.
Modifying light is one of the hardest things to wrap your head around, but if you have a firm understanding of the properties of light and keep them in mind at all times, you’ll be in a good place to walk into a room or outdoor space and know how to modify the light that is already there.
May the modifiers be with you!
6. Beyoncé: The Master of Movement
Look, we’re not saying you should strive to be Beyoncé…
We’re just saying you should strive to be Beyoncé with your monopod…
Seriously, movement tools like the monopod allow us to get such a range of shots with such ease… and once you can firmly grasp the range of movement options your monopod offers, you’ve got a whole new world of ways to enhance your story.
A few examples:
What does panning do for the viewer? You could easily open a scene of say, a basketball player shooting a free throw, using a centered long shot of the subject bouncing the basketball and getting ready to shoot.
But if you get in tighter, start at the shoes and pan up to the beads of sweat dripping off of their forehead… things are going to feel much more intense, and the viewer is going to feel more connected with the pressure this player is feeling in the moment. Panning pulls at the viewer, taking them from point A to point B in a single shot, forcing them to think about the action happening on-screen.
Why go handheld when you could relax in the comfort of a nice stable tripod?
Sometimes your story calls for a raw, handheld feel. You want things to feel shaky, real, and less produced. But it’s not as simple as just putting the camera in your hands and pointing it at the scene… the correct way to shoot handheld is to keep the camera in tight to your body, keep it as stable as possible, and add shake intentionally.
The master moves purposefully…
The big thing to understand if you’re aiming to move you monopod like Beyoncé is that every single movement has purpose and should be planned. The big mistake that people often make with movement is to just… well, move… without really thinking it through.
7. Sir Mix-A-Lot: History Made In 4 Minutes
There are many people on this list to idolize, and although Sir Mix-A-Lot might not be one of them, we’ve got to hand it to him for making a lasting impact in a short time. Someone is dancing to “Baby Got Back” right now, and the song’s honest message lives on.
While we certainly don’t hope to see your career be as short-lived as Sir Mix-A-Lot’s, he does serve as a great inspiration when it comes to making the most out of a short-form edit. He did a lot in a short amount of time by creating an intriguing introduction, pulling his audience in, and making a lasting impression…
Short-form edits require the same mindset.
Our short form edits matter so much in these trying times of the world wide web. We want our work to be shareable, and have an impact on viewers right away… but this isn’t easy to do. Every shot matters so much, and the way you arrange and pace those shots is what will either keep people watching or send them packing.
How to make a winning short-form edit:
1. Step back and re-watch everything…
Gather all your footage, string it out and watch everything. Look for the moments that have the most impact, the moments that make your hair stand up or just make you feel something for whatever reason. Take notes with time stamps on these moments as you go.
2. Reflect on the subject/person…
What are a few keywords that really represent your subject in these strongest moments? These will guide you to stay in line with the vision throughout the editing process.
3. Develop the intro and outro…
From these strongest pieces of footage, begin separating the beginning and end footage. Which clips work better as an introduction to the story, and which ones work better as an ending note?
4. Details in the middle…
The middle is a deeper look into the subject, the details that wouldn’t have meant anything to us at the beginning — but they do now, because we’ve already been introduced.
5. Start arranging the b-roll…
Similar to the process of separating the intro and outro footage, you’ll want to sort through and pick out the strongest b-roll sequences and reserve them for the opening and closing of your edit. Which shots represent the opening, and which ones say “the end.”
6. Think about the b-roll some more…
Where can you use the b-roll to let the narrative breathe, or cover up a choppy cut? Also — is the b-roll you’re using story relevant? It should be… :)
Many of our supporters have already seen this wedding highlight, but it’s important to us when talking about short-form edits to mention JC and Esther’s film. This is a short-form edit that was passed around the internet enough that it fell into the hands of CBS, who would become a life-changing client for us.
8. Kramer: Introduce and Intrigue
Time and time again, Kramer succeeds in catching our attention upon every entrance, and holding it by creating intrigue. Whether you’re working with comedy or not, this is what you want to strive for when you open your film: catching the viewer and really holding onto them.
This is done during the editing process, and what you’ll find when you sit down to edit your footage is that there are a million different ways to arrange your shots, and it’s hard to know which is really going to make the biggest splash.
How to enter The Kramer mindset for your opening:
1. Rank your strongest footage.
When you’re sitting down to edit and arrange all of your footage for your film, you’ll find that you want to know which stuff is really the strongest and most emotionally captivating, because these moments will need to enter your film at very specific times.
2. Open with the second strongest footage.
Often we’ll open an edit with our second strongest footage at the beginning. Of course we’ll want to “save the best for last” essentially and put the strongest, most emotional footage at the end — but your audience will never make it to then end if they’re not interested. Your opening has to be some of your best footage in order to show the viewer that you mean business.
3. What’s unique? What’s weird?
After you’ve pulled your audience in with something “wow” — find something unique, weird, or special about the story or character to keep the introductory period going strong. You’re trying to pull them in — that doesn’t mean you want to satisfy their minds, but rather leave them asking questions about what they’ve just seen, so they’ll keep watching for the answers.
In our opening sequence for our Old Skool Cafe piece, we show portions of our interviews with different youths from the program. They’re talking about their pasts and struggles, and it’s heavy emotional material — it’s not the most emotional we have, but it’s close.
As they’re talking about their experiences and we get a clearer idea of the difference between their past and present, we’re also seeing tightly shot images of a restaurant environment. A close-up of someone tying an apron, another slicing a potato… and at this point none of the speakers have mentioned anything about a kitchen or cooking.
What’s the connection? Why are their stories being juxtaposed with images of a restaurant?
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…
9. Jaws: Conflict, Tension, and Sharks
Tension is a constant in this movie — you feel it every time there’s water in the frame, which is most of the time.
Because this movie is primarily a Man vs. Nature conflict, and the “nature” is represented by the character of an unpredictable man-eating shark that could surface at any moment. So — the conflict is present, and the characters carry out the tension that exists around it.
Now, with documentary it’s a little different in that you don’t always get to choose the conflict, it exists already. And you don’t get to write the characters, they just are.
As our own Creative Director Grant Peelle says, conflict is defined by who the story’s “demons” are… who or what is the bad guy, essentially, and how can you as the storyteller expose the tension that surrounds that conflict? Demons, sharks, whatever you want to call them… the important part is that you know who — or what — they are.
Be the Jaws:
1. What’s the plot?
Before you can dive into the complexities of the conflict and create tension, you need to be able to clearly identify your plot. What are the events that will take place in the story?
2. Identify the conflict.
Most conflicts can be sorted into one of a handful of categories that storytellers have been using for centuries:
- Man vs. Man
- Man vs. Society
- Man vs. Nature
- Man vs. Self
(For the sake of clarity, let’s just accept that “man” is the standard pronoun used in these kinds of things).
3. Identify any other conflicts…
Often there will be more than one conflict. But this is a good thing! This can help you add even more tension to your plot, and it makes the story more interesting and complex. Sometimes a story will have a little bit of everything goin’ on.
Sticking with the Jaws example, there’s an element of Man vs. Man and Man vs. Society in this story as well, and these allow the plot to “thicken,” and add more tension amongst characters, presenting our main character with more challenges.
4. Creating tension…
There are so many ways to do this, it’s very difficult to put it into just a few words…
Being in the “Jaws” mindset will encourage you to use some of the more technical aspects of filmmaking to do that.
A few basic tools you can use to create tension:
- Camera Movement
- Music (duh-nuh… duh-nuh… duhnuh-duhnuh-duhnuh…)
This is just a very brief overview of the concept behind creating conflict and tension in a film. How you actually pick up your tools and put these practices into action… is a lesson for a whole other day.
10. David Blaine: How Does It End?
David Blaine, creepy and weird as he is, definitely knows how to set up an ending.
In this card trick, for example, he sets up for his ending by making the actual card trick one that isn’t particularly “crazy” or impressive. He intentionally makes the people feel a little underwhelmed with the card trick, to make it more of a sting when he pulls the man’s watch out of his pocket.
Magic is all about the setup, and this is the mindset you should be in when thinking about ending your film. You’re not trying to trick your audience and hand them their watch, but you are trying to create a feeling that they’ll walk away with.
Ask yourself: do you want your audience to…
- Share it with friends?
- Leave a nasty comment?
- Spring into action?
- Watch it again?
Really think about how you want people to feel when they get done watching your film.
What do you want your audience to think, feel, or do?
While the intro is out building intrigue and interest, the ending of your film needs to be able to transform your audiences into and action, a feeling, or a mindset.
Be intentional with where you take them!
Recapping the multiple personalities you’ll need…
We believe flexibility — and the ability to wear many hats on shoots will completely transform your films.
The next time you plan a shoot — or sit down to edit — ask yourself… which personality does my film need right now…
- MacGyver: Problem solving with partial information and/or limited resources
- Calvin & Hobbes: Storyboarding and sharing your vision with the world
- Oprah: Building rapport and pulling powerful emotions out of your interviews
- Rod Serling: Picking the narration style that creates a unique experience for your story
- Luke Skywalker: Mastering your skill with light (indoor & outdoor)
- Beyoncé: Using movement with purpose and story (not just because it looks cool)
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Tightening short, impactful sequences and films (for maximum affect)
- Kramer: Hooking your audience by building interest and intrigue
- Jaws: Keeping your audience wanting more with tension and conflict
- David Blaine: Finishing your film in a way that gives the audience purpose or direction
Whew… that’s an eclectic group of people… but our hope when you look at these examples is that you’ll approach each area of filmmaking with the same kind of intensity that allows these figures to be the icons that they are.
Your next step is to write down which of these “pop culture icons” you’ll want to focus on — and a few action steps on how you can implement some of the strategies we outlined on your next shoot.
Over time, we think you’ll slowly start adapting a little bit of each!
If you’re ready to really take action, we’d love to help hold you accountable with the new challenge.
You can find out all the information you’d ever want on the Take Action Filmmaking Challenge right here. Registration is open for the new week and we’re excited to meet you!
What’s your most valuable “personality” when making films?
Anyone you think we should add to this list?