Zack's Declassified Film Survival Guide: What I Learned On The First Day Of Film School

(Zack Morrison) #1

Zack is a filmmaker, YouTuber, and creator/host of the webseries “We Have A Show.” He has a MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. Here he discusses directing techniques for indie filmmakers…some he learned in school, and some he learned the hard way.

Hi all! This is my first column on Stareable! So thanks a ton for checking this out. I was curious about what to write, and figured it’s always best to start at the beginning. Not like the beginning of time or the uber-basic “what is filmmaking” stuff, but rather, things that I learned on the first day of film school. Now many of you might be thinking, “Hold the phone, this is a DIY indie filmmaker’s site, what’s up with this ‘school’ thing?” I’ve done countless panels and discussions about the “film school vs. no school” thing ad infinitum, and I’m sure one day here we’ll get to that. (I actually discuss it in this vlog I made, HERE). So rather than diving into the philosophical differences among those seeking to best improve their filmmaking skills, I think it would be a good way to start this column off just by sharing pieces of candid advice we received on our very first day; a bullet list straight out of the first page in my notebook.

Columbia’s film school is a masters program, and on day one we hit the ground running. Over the summer, the students in the year ahead of us were shooting their end-of-first-year films, and coincidently (on purpose), they presented their work to the faculty for critique just as we finished orientation. So all of us sat in a room and watched these, honestly, incredible projects. It was so intimidating. I went in straight out of undergrad, so I was the baby of my year, and nothing I made prior ever looked anywhere near remotely as good as these films were. And then one by one, they all got roasted. Like hard, brutally honest critique. But it was all good things to be hearing. Maybe that’s the Stockholm syndrome in me talking, but regardless, the following list was the first set of notes I ever took in film school. And I find myself still looking back on this list every now and then. None of them are things that will blow your mind or revolutionize your perspective on the craft. But all of them are things that I like to keep in mind when I’m on set.

A still from the set of my thesis film, “Everything’s Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major”

• Do not let your character off the hook. Force them to make a choice.
• Give the lead character control of the decision-making.
• Consider the power of a non-verbal exchange of power within a moment.
• Know the world you are shooting in.
• Prep early.
• Shoot local.
• A character’s action needs to be justified by what we know about the character.
• “Who they are” happens before “what they do.”
• Don’t argue with critique. That’s why you’re here.
• Raise the stakes. Read my lips…“Bigger.”
• Proportional stakes: If yes, X happens = If no, Y happens. X should always be equal to Y in scope.
• Know your meat and potatoes.
• The greatest asset for a director is a low threshold for boredom.
• “Raise the curtain late and lower it early.” ~Francis Ford Coppola.
• Know your character’s thru-line.
• Casting.
• Raise the stakes of relationship dynamics. Character A likes X. Character B hates X.
• You can have black and white, but you cannot have grey.
• Fuck grey!
• If you’re sitting down to fight, pour your enemy a glass of wine before ripping their head off.
• This moment will not happen again, so capture it!
• Create tension by leading to a reveal, or reveal the problem immediately to create tension; commit to one.
• If you’re unhappy w/ the results of a story, vent on paper and then let it go. Then roll up your sleeves and see what the Film Gods offer you.
• The dialogue is never the primary channel for tension.
• A film should be able to be watched silent without losing the conflict.
• Do not cut corners on set. You will hate yourself later.
• The “yes/no” story is not enough. There always needs to be a third force.
• Your story is not the one you have in your head; it’s the one the audience sees.
• There are beats that build up to panic.
• Be consistent and deliberate with camera choices.
• You never want to confuse the audience. Misdirection is completely different.
• If you are going to do a high concept/fantasy project, have characters deeply founded in reality.
• Don’t be ambiguous.
• If you must be ambiguous, have a concrete answer w/ deliberate clues to justify that answer. At least in your own head.
• The most important moments are silent.

Yea, like I said, nothing mind-blowing. BUT, isn’t it those tiny details that help us make better stories? What I find often in Indie Film Land—and by the transitive property, Web Series Land—is not a lack of technical prowess. It’s 2018 and the democratization of filmmaking via the 5D Mark II and the entire subsequent “prosumer” cinema camera industry is the greatest thing to ever happen to filmmaking since Thomas Edison invented the whole thing (in New Jersey I might add!). There are so many high-quality projects nowadays, and it’s amazing to see all that talent being put to use. No, the problem areas I find most often, in my own work especially, as well as my peers; is story.

Drama = (Characters + Choices + Conflict) x Time.

I think part of it is that sometimes, often too often, we are too under-staffed, too over-budget, and too out-of-time to really dig into any one single project, or even one single scene. I make a sketch comedy show, and too often, half the material is throw-away because we didn’t have time to develop strong characters, and strong character WANTS to raise the stakes of the comedy. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to get grilled over notes like this for the last few years, and I think at the end of the day, having strong characters with clear wants can, in my opinion, solve almost-every problem you will ever encounter on set.

(Bri Castellini) #2

This is something I learned in undergrad that I WISH my grad program emphasized more. My kingdom for more folks who listen instead of defending when critiqued

(Zack Morrison) #3

I hear ya! The hardest thing for me was learning to remove my emotional attachment to a project when showing it to someone for notes. Like switching my brain from Kirk Mode into Spock Mode. Only when you can talk about your work objectively is how you are going to improve.

(Bri Castellini) #4

True dat. It took me a long time to realise that there’s a difference between genuinely listening to a critique and having to make every suggested change or “fix.” Just because you’re listening doesn’t mean you’re beholden, and just because you don’t make every change doesn’t make you a bad listener.

(Zack Morrison) #5

Absolutely. More often than not, what you’re really listening for is “the note behind the note,” the actual source of the problem that’s generating a red flag for people. Cause sometimes their suggested fix isn’t always right for you, but if you can determine what’s triggering a note, you may be able to find a fix that’s right for you and satisfying for others.

(Meg Carroway) #6

Wow blast from the PAST Ned’s Declassified!!

(this was great! Excited to read the next ones!)

(Hailey Harper) #7

Isn’t slating just for audio sync and to be able to tell what scene the footage is from visually for the editor? How do you not slate it properly?

(Zack Morrison) #8

Very true! But when the clock is ticking, sometimes it’s very easy to start half-assing the slate or skipping it entirely. Same goes for “hold the roll” vs taking the extra few seconds to cut and slate a new take. For whatever reason, it always seems more efficient in the heat of the moment. But then you get to the edit and you realize you can’t find what you’re looking for.

(Hailey Harper) #9

What’s “hold the roll”?

(Zack Morrison) #10

It’s telling the camera not to cut at the end of a take, typically to give a quick note and then run it back from a certain point. Sometimes it’s very helpful to keep momentum up for the actors if it’s a small, quick adjustment. But there are times when it can turn into a reflex reaction for directors who start feeling pressure about being behind schedule, and want to “do it one more time.” IMO, if you’re going to pause and give an adjustment that takes longer than 5 seconds, you should cut and re-slate.

(Bri Castellini) #11

I’ve never heard it called “hold the roll”! On my sets the distinction is “reset!” versus “cut!” and I try to only reset if we’ve been rolling for less than two or three minutes. Especially since I’m also usually the editor so I don’t mind longer takes (and sometimes get fun BTS footage out of the time it takes to reset to first position)

(Zack Morrison) #12

For sure! I mean everyone’s got their own vernacular, and whatever works best for you is the best! Typically I’ll use ‘hold’ for the operators (cause sometimes they get trigger happy), and ‘reset’ after making the adjustment. I edit my own stuff too and I always HATE scrubbing through wasted footage, especially when data storage is limited.

(Zack Morrison) #13


(Bri Castellini) #14

Fair enough- tbh the number of external hard drives I have is frankly silly so maybe not having such long takes would cut down that expense haha. It was especially bad for my first web series since it was found footage so even cutting after each individual scene runthrough still had super long files.

(Zack Morrison) #15

hahah the struggle is SO REAL with hard drives. That’s why I honestly hate working in Raw, or even some flavors of 4k. Sometimes it’s just not worth it the added storage and workflow pains.

(Bri Castellini) #16

Oh god yeah my DP wanted to go Raw on our last short and I was like "absolutely not. I fully do not have the hard drive space nor the funds to buy eight new hard drives "

(Ghetto Nerd Girl) #17

I normally say “back to one…keep rolling,” which at times is a better alternative to keep everyone in action mode or an actor did a line flub at the very beginning not to start over again.