Having just wrapped post-production on our short film “How to Kill a Pitch,” I’ve spent some time (mostly in a dark edit suite) thinking about narrative filmmaking and how it’s different than a lot of the flashy, graphics-heavy commercial work that we often produce for advertising and marketing campaigns. Technically, narrative filmmaking refers to any fictional storytelling. But a narrative short film is quite different than a corporate-driven story. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it all. And of course, from a directing standpoint, many things are the same, regardless of the type of film we’re making – managing people, projects, and budgets, visualizing story elements, proper lighting, to name a few. But the narrative short film, and specifically dialogue and a scene structure bring a whole new set of challenges and opportunities that really allow independent filmmakers like our team at Mercury to shine.
Without giving away the humorous and wonderfully jaded story of “How to Kill at Pitch,” I thought I’d share my mental (and now written) list of what I love about directing the narrative short film:
1) Prop, block, light, shoot. This is the mantra for all filmmaking, but the first two steps (incorporating props and staging the movement within the camera frame) are often condensed in product shots and/or more simple visual scenes that have movement of models but no character arc or dialogue. With a full-blown dialogue scene, people laugh, cry, walk and talk, dance, throw things around the room, all sorts of action and movement that has to be timed to their words. It’s complicated and requires a lot of coordination behind the scenes, which I enjoy.
2) Working with actors. It’s fun to work through motivation, mood and performances overall with actors and actresses. They’re more engaging than a product on a turntable (although more temperamental, too, unless it’s a Chambord bottle). Talent can bring something new to a character, play off of each other and add depth to a scene that makes a director’s job so much easier and more alive. It’s really rewarding to direct and watch performances unfold during rehearsals and on set.
3) Dialogue. I love talking and not just my own. J It’s fun to write and direct dialogue, it can funnel so many different emotions. It can be beast to get right but makes the fictional world of a film colorful and meaningful, and gives such insight into relationships. Directing dialogue scenes takes a real intuition for human behavior and requires a love for words, voice intonation, and layered meanings. Bringing words to life through the voices and performances of actors is one of my favorite things in filmmaking.
4) Freedom. There’s something about making a film that’s my own with no constraints other than my imagination and being genuine and believable. In a narrative short film, I can create the world and everything about it.
5) Scene Structure. Establishing shot, long shot, medium shot, closeup, over-the-shoulder, shot-reverse-shot. These terms all refer to the way of filming a movie scene (not necessarily in that order or all in one scene). Having the opportunity to work through a scene and get complete “coverage” is absolutely essential in the narrative short film. And each new shot may require a news lens and new lighting setup. For commercials that are focused on a scene, we do this as well, but it’s less common because many commercials are one-shot-per-scene scenarios.
After nearly twenty years of producing, directing and writing films, I haven’t lost passion for the craft. In fact, I’ve recently renewed my excitement with a host of new and diverse film projects this year, including “How to Kill a Pitch.” And there’s still nothing like the experience of being on set. It’s not magical or mysterious in the way that a typical movie fan sees filmmaking – the process itself is actually quite tedious, exhausting, requires a significant amount of thinking on your feet and averages extremely long working days (15 hours isn’t an unusual workday in film production, thus the exhausting part). What’s energizing to me is the collaboration, the mental and physical challenge of the work and the process of transforming an idea from script to screen.