Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Look Inside My Brain

Because I think it’s important that I show you the principles I espouse applied to my own work, in this blog entry I will breakdown a short film that I directed. 

Two years ago I was asked by the Seattle International Film Festival to participate in the Fly Filmmaking Challenge. These are films made ‘on the fly’. They selected ten directors to each make a five-minute documentary. Our subjects where pulled randomly out of a hat, so we didn’t know what we would be making a film about. That year all of the subjects were Seattle Neighborhoods. Mine was an area called Belltown. We could do whatever we wanted in or about that Neighborhood. We had a couple of weeks pre-production to figure out what we were going to do and get our permits and things taken care of. We then had five days to shoot and five days to cut the five-minute film.
Flickering Images from Marcus Donner on Vimeo.

I remember some of the other directors grumbling that five minutes was just not enough time to do anything with impact. I remember someone saying, “What can you do in five minutes?!” And I remember thinking, if they can sell you Coke in thirty seconds you can do a lot with five minutes. I think that some of the other filmmakers let the five minutes beat them before they even started.

So what was my approach? I knew that a well-told story has three acts, so I needed to make sure the film had three acts. I also knew that documentaries, like all stories can be boring without any emotion at the center of them. Without emotion a documentary is just a string of facts. Who cares? Filmmaker Ken Burns is amazing at finding an emotional hook to hang his films on.

I chose to make my film about a demolished movie theater from my childhood. I had an emotional attachment to it and I know others did as well.

I didn’t know too much about most of the people I interviewed except that they had a love for this theater.
In order to get my three acts I asked three basic questions of my subjects:

1.) Can you describe the building?
2.) Can you tell me of an experience you had here?
3.) How do you feel now that it’s gone?

That was it. I knew that those questions would cover everything I needed. It gave me three acts. It would also give the audience the virtual experience of having been there. This is the way you would have experienced the place if you had ever gone, right? You would see the place have an experience there and now that place is gone.

I chose not to have old pictures of the place because I wanted the viewer to supply their own theater. This also heightens the emotion because they imagine a place they have an attachment to.

Emotion was a big thing for me with this film. I knew I needed a real strong emotion for people to latch onto and I was hoping that one of my subjects would express heartfelt emotion. Well, here’s the thing, it turns out I had the strongest emotion.

I wasn’t supposed to be in the film, but we were ready to shoot before any of our subjects had arrived at the location, so in order to test the camera and crew I decided to shoot an interview with myself just to see what we got. What we got was a real emotional moment on camera that even took me by surprise. When the shoot day was done (we shot all our interviews in one day) I knew that I had to be in the film. Truth is I didn’t want be in the film, but I had to be because I was the person with the strongest emotion.

What we ended up with is a film I’m really proud of. A film I am told has impact. A film that uses the principles I champion in my blog. At the screening of the Fly Films one of the other directors turned to me and said, “I don’t know how you made me cry in five minutes”. Now you all know how. I used Invisible Ink.


son of lim said...

"Flickering Images" remains as one of my most favorite films. When I first watched it, I was so surprised at the level of emotion and the level of intimate connection that you were able to imbue the film and imagery with--all in a 5 minute short documentary. Watching it almost made you feel like you were literally losing an entire series of cherished memories, now that this theater is gone.

Brian McD said...

This is very nice of you to say. It made my day. Thank you.