As filmmakers, what we crave, desire, and dream of probably more than anything else—yes even more than that new Drone—is that moment when we share a piece we’ve created and it makes somebody really FEEL something.
Yet it can often feel like a guessing game, and it’s so hard to be sure that what we’ve crafted—these shots, in this order, with this soundtrack—will be the magic combination that shakes our audience to their core and leaves an imprint they’ll never forget.
Early in my filmmaking career, I can remember lying in bed the night before a wedding, and hoping that the next day would bring the perfect combination of elements to allow for that truly remarkable wedding film. I thought that perhaps emotional vows, in gorgeous locations, with light that was just right could all come together to make something really special.
Over the years I tried everything to try and crack the code. Black and white. Slow motion. I shot one wedding entirely with a Steadicam. No joke, every single shot had movement.
Check out one of our first wedding films. Complete with ring shots, steadicam, and black & white.
I tried shooting with different gear. Before DSLRs and large sensor cameras, we had to use a 35mm adapters—this fancy contraption that went on your camera and made it the size of a bazooka—to shoot shallow depth of field.
Unreal that we used to rock up to a brides house with one of these.
I tried shooting things in different ways. Hanging the wedding dress from a tree, or perhaps placing the rings on some rocks and pouring steaming water over them all while shooting with a tilt-shift lens. I was misguided but I sure put a heck of a lot of effort behind my misdirection.
I’ve gone from spending hours and hours every week reading forums, blogs, and rumor sites about new gear to truly feeling confident and capable with whatever I find in my hands.
Now I look at the process of filmmaking in a whole new way.
There is no more guess work.
I know what needs to come together, and how to make it happen. I know how to create that formerly elusive film or video that could really make the viewer feel something—that could move them.
And while that might sound arrogant or unrealistic, there is a confidence that comes from having a clear process that you know will deliver exceptional results if you have the focus and fortitude to follow it.
To correct what we’re doing wrong we first must acknowledge it.
Let’s look at 3 HUGE myths that we, as filmmakers, often fall into in our pursuit of trying to create videos that really, truly move our audience.
I want to share with you a bunch of mistakes I made when starting out. We all have this common journey of wanting to telling stronger stories and I tried many, many things that totally didn’t work.
1. The Perfect Camera Myth
It’s hard to look at the ads for new gear and not feel like they’ll help you make those stories you’ve been dreaming of. And that can start this endless cycle of chasing down one piece of gear to the next. Years ago it was a camera that was better in lowlight. Then it was a camera that allowed for shallower depth of field. Then it was a camera that had less compression, or more slow motion, or more dynamic range.
One year, no joke, I had purhcased three used Canon XL3 cameras. To this day I still think that’s one sexy camera. But here’s the hilarious part. Over $12,000 in camera gear purchased in the off-season and I never shot a single thing with them. I got them in, tested them out, but a few months later I had already fallen in love with the next camera.
All of a sudden these cameras, these new XL3s that not so long ago were a huge step forward, were already not enough. And so I sold them all before they’d shot a single event, and got two shiny new XHA1s. I was certain they would be the thing that took me to the next level.
Over the years I’ve learned that there is no perfect camera. We evolve as the technology does and we’ll always be wanting something more.
Even if Canon busted out a mirrorless, full-frame camera that boasted 18 stops of dynamic range, up to 1,000 frames slow-motion, raw recording wirelessly to your cell phone, and low-light performance that made a Tarsier jealous (see image below, these critters have eyes heavier than their brain) it would be a mere couple days before we’d want 20 stops of dynamic range and those 1,000 frames of slow motion wouldn’t be quite enough.
2. The ‘Make It Sizzle’ myth
While related to The Perfect Camera myth, this one definitely stands on its own. If we don’t have clear direction, as we accumulate different gear and learn new techniques, what we often look to just do is just make it sizzle. Or, in more eloquent terms, we try and make every shot as badass as possible. And while that sometimes helps the story, or helps us achieve our goal of connecting with the audience, there are far more times when the smoothest MoVI shot or the slickest Drone aerial will never be more than a gimmick in our piece.
It’s totally understandable when you think about it. If we aren’t sure what to do to create that story we want, then we lean on what we know, we lean into our strengths, and focus on creating the strongest visuals we can.
I can remember early in my wedding days trying to come up with the most fantastical shots you could imagine. Back when folks were just starting to talk about story in a wedding video, we were hanging the dress from a tree, and coming up with all kinds of random combinations of objects and locations.
One day, while in California for the wedding of Griffen and Curtis, we decided to start shooting all the details of the wedding during the rehearsal. We had a same-day edit to do the next day, so grabbing some killer shots of the shoes, dress, jewelry, and locations would help us get some shots in the timeline.
We took Griffen’s ring, a really nice Tiffany’s ring worth a pretty penny, and tried to lean it on the bark of a California palm tree. We had the 35mm adapter mentioned above, so there this large adapter on the front of the XHA1 (that perfect camera I chased down), and we were getting some sweet slides of the ring. But as we looked at the shots, we wanted more.
So then the idea came to us to try and roll the ring down the bark. If we could get it to slowly roll while we slide with a shallow depth of field, that would be pretty special (or so we thought). The first few attempts were rather awkward and far from usable.
Then, on the third try, something happened.
The ring disappeared.
Neither of us could see where it went and we started scouring every square inch around our shooting area. Like a bad dream, only a few minutes later, the wedding planner came over to say that the rehearsal was about to start and that she needed the rings back.
I kid you not, here we are in our Sunday finest on our hands and knees digging the earth trying to find this gorgeous Tiffany’s ring while the planner is wondering what’s up.
I actually started thinking about where and how I could replace the ring that evening as to not not have this wedding be the one where the bride killed Patrick.
These shots we put so much sweat, and stress, into creating sure did look cool. But they were far from helping you feel something.
What I’ve learned is that it’s about affect, not effect. Early on, we focus on effect, on doing things that look cool to try and get a reaction, but even if it does, it’s rather minimal and fleeting.
We did find that ring. It got stuck behind a flap of the bark and was literally inside the tree. That was the last adventurous ring shot I ever did.
Amina and I, out chasing some sizzle back in the day.
3. Filmmaking Is A Visual Medium
Now the last myth really builds on the first two. It’s the belief—and focus—on filmmaking as a visual medium.
We can spend so much time on the light, the lenses, the composition, the movement, and do everything we can to maximize the visuals.
It’s the reason we chase down the perfect camera. And why we hunt for sizzle to bolster our stories.
But first off, calling filmmaking a visual medium leaves out half of the picture (come on, it was a clever pun). Sound is HUGE. It adds so much to our experience. But a few of us hop onto BH and think that if only we had that new Rode NTG4+ with built in lithium-ion battery we’d be able to take that next step with our stories.
The reality is, most of us think of audio as a chore rather than a massive opportunity for connection.
But I digress. I don’t believe filmmaking is an auditory medium.
What I’ve come to learn over the years of making stories with everybody from the best golfer in the world to an elderly man with pancreatic cancer and only a few weeks let to live, is that film is neither a visual nor an auditory medium.
Filmmaking is an interpersonal medium.
After all, what we crave most in making our stories is that connection with our audience. For them to finish and hit that play button to excitedly watch the whole thing over again.
Filmmaking is an interpersonal medium. It’s all about how we connect with, and relate to, those who are in our films.
How we treat our audience and make them feel will do more for our story than any camera, lens, or light ever could.
And in trying to build stories that truly move our audience, it’s an understanding of human motivation, wants, needs, and desires that helps us become better storytellers—way more than knowing about f-stops and dynamic range.
Most of us have thought, at one time or another, that if we just had that faster lens, better camera, or the fancy new tool that we could finally create the stories that we’ve been dreaming of. We look externally—better talent, tools, conditions.
We call this the Woeful Gear Bias.
It’s our tendency to look outwards for the solution to our filmmaking woes. We look to gear to solve our storytelling problems. We blame poor external conditions—camera’s not good enough, weather didn’t hold up, it was too crowded—for our own filmmaking shortcomings. We think the reason that people don’t connect to our films is because the conditions haven’t aligned for us to make that moving story. It’s the Woeful Gear Bias.
The truth is, the single biggest tool we have for stronger storytelling is to develop our thinking. To truly and deeply understand story.
This idea of the Woeful Gear Bias is backed by some solid research too. In psych, it’s called the Actor Observer Bias, which is our tendency to attribute our own actions to external factors while attributing other people’s behaviors to internal factors. And what’s even worse is that this bias is exaggerated when it comes to negative outcomes…such as, say, videos that keep missing the mark.
For example, think back to one of your recent videos that really wasn’t what you thought it could have been. Now take a second to try to identify some of the reasons you told yourself or others about why it fell short.
Really take a second and see if you can find those things that you told yourself here and there, whispers if you will, about why it didn’t work out.
I’ll bet 99% of the things you come up with are external. The light was just horrible. You didn’t have the right lens. Your talent wasn’t passionate enough. The bride was too stressed.