I’m going to ask a few questions today and also take us back in time… Have you ever watched a movie where the story seemed like it was just a bunch of Visual Effects, with no substance?
Conversely, can you think of a movie where the FX and VFX were just icing on the cake?
When I first started out, the movie The Matrix was all the rage. I don’t know if you remember but at the time, that movie was fresh and exciting and as a filmmaker, inspiring. I remember enjoying the movie because first and foremost, it had a great story. The visual effects and fancy camera techniques were secondary, complementary and completely necessary to tell the story. (By the way, I’m not talking about The Matrix 2 or 3… I didn’t understand those movies.)
Two important lessons I learned during that time:
1. The super cool techniques used in the movie were nothing new.
2. Many filmmakers were inspired to mimic similar VFX in their own work.
I know this because, if you traveled the festival circuit after that movie, you would have seen all sorts of short films that tried to incorporate similar Matrix-esq gimmicks into a story that-didn’t-quite fit. Why?
While your opinion of what makes a movie good might differ from mine, hopefully we subscribe to a similar filmmaking philosophy – That is, anything that we include in our final cut must fit the story and push the story forward. And yes, staging locations in a recognizable city or adding overhead shots or adding some other nifty, super cool camera tricks can work to make your movie look more expensive than it is – But sometimes if you’re really honest, these fancy tricks aren’t necessarily complementary to your story.
As filmmakers, this is where we run into trouble. Sometimes it’s just downright difficult to cut all those super cool shots from our movie. (Some of my filmmaker friends would argue that the folks responsible for the most recient Indiana Jones movie and the Star Wars prequels may have fallen into a similar FX-for-the-sake-of-FX trap.)
So it’s a balance. And in case you’re wondering, here are FIVE easy ways filmmakers can increase production value:
1. Shoot on a clean format. I’m assuming you won’t be shooting on Imax or 35mm. So if the choice is DV or HD, go for HD!
2. Shoot in a city. If it fits your story, getting a couple shots of a city in the background can make your movie look great.
3. Get the camera moving on a dolly or steady cam.
4. Incorporate overhead shots to make it look like you have a crane.
5. Many filmmakers find ways to utilize expensive cars, semi-name actors and immaculate locations.
Just remember, regardless of the tactics you utilize to raise the production value, telling THE STORY should be your primary focus. Each fancy camera move, the colors you choose, the format, locations and your choice in actors should all be motivated by the story, and not your deep rooted need to use a neat-o tool just because you have it. If the element is not inline with your overall story, you run the risk of distracting your audience and taking them out of the movie.