PRODUCTION TIPS: 10 Film Questions That Will Make You a Better Director

How many times have you asked someone about a movie and they just said, "It was great!" or "It sucked!"? More times than you can count, I'm sure, in fact we all do it, even the person who writes a dissertation on the brutality in millenial horror films and French art cinema. There is nothing wrong with that per se since we don't always have the time or the interest to analyze a film. 

BUT as budding filmmakers and lovers of cinema, it is worth the time to dig deep into a film that moves you to love it or hate it. We have all heard the stories of film directors who never went to film school but just watched tons of movies and learned everything they needed to know about directing and storytelling from that. Legendary screenwriting teacher, Syd Field, always recommends watching movies as part of his way to teach screenwriting. Advising filmmakers to watch movies to become better directors is nothing groundbreaking but it bears repeating.

However, what is rarely taught is HOW to watch a movie.

While you never really had to go to film school to become successful in film, you did need to have storytelling talent, luck (or connections) and an ability to understand the language of film. Many directors learn that language intuitively and many others learn it in film school but any director worth their salt will admit that they are always watching movies to always stay learning.

Because the ultimate strengths of a film are its story and how it's told, I like to focus on the elements that build the story cinematically most of all when I study a film. It is a time-consuming process so I only recommend doing this on good or bad films you really wish to breakdown and learn from but trust me it is worth doing if you want to grow as a director.

10 Questions to Ask of A Film to Become a Better Director
  1. What are the main external conflicts and dilemmas of the film?
    • This is the stuff that loglines and trailers are made of. A protagonist after something or someone and blocked by an antagonist is the primordial template for many stories in film today. 
  2. What are the main internal conflicts and dilemmas of the film?
    • This is where the character's inner battles and motivations come into play and where we learn the deeper reasons why a character can or can not achieve what they want.
  3. Does the objective narrator of the film have a "personality?" If so, what kind is it? Is it an active or a passive one?
    • As director and teacher, Nicolas Proferes, states "the narrator is the camera" and there are 6 things you can do with it:
      • Cut to another angle.
      • Change the image size.
      • Depict a depth of field.
      • Put it into motion.
      • Change the focal length of the lens.
      • Change speeds, or stop the motion altogether with a freeze frame.
    • The camera as narrator can be objective and present scenes and shots in a third-person, "straightforward" way. Or the camera can be subjective and use its power to give the audience access to the interior life or perceptions of a character. Most films tend to mix objective and subjective narration.
    • The personality of the narrator/camera is imbued with a director's style and accomplished directors develop distinctive styles that we recognize immediately in their film's personality. The camera can be curious, omniscient, lyrical or playful. Think of how quickly we recognize Wes Anderson's whimsical style or Spielberg's humanist style or Bunuel's surrealist style in their films even when we don't know they directed it.
    • Finally, the narrator can be active or passive. If it's active, the camera constantly interprets the meaning or consequences of an action for us. If it's passive, the camera remains distant and is satisfied letting the audience merely watch and figure it out.
  4. If the main character's POV is used, how does the director use it? How often? When How?
  5. How are transitions used? Which of the following 6 types of transitions dominate? 
    • Cut.
    • Fade In/Out.
    • Dissolve.
    • Wipe. 
    • Masking
    • Real Time. 
      • Technically, this not a transition in the sense that one shot is replaced with another like the first 5 BUT it is a transition in time where the beginning shot changes over time and the actions within the frame, no matter how slight, replace the beginning shot with the end shot.
  6. Do main characters have a strong and memorable entrance? Are they comical, dramatic, suspenseful, sensual, etc?
  7. Does the art direction / production design do more than set the period and mood? Does it serve as a metaphor for the characters or the themes?
  8. Does the film possess the traditional dramatic structure found in most Hollywood and indie films or does it diverge and adopt a differing storytelling structure? If so, what is that structure?
    • Traditional dramatic storytelling structure in cinema is based on Aristotle's analysis in his Poetics and is composed of the following:
      • Exposition.
      • Rising action.
      • Conflict.
      • Falling action.
      • Denouement, resolution, revelation or catastrophe.
  9. What particular scenes or sequences stand out? Is it because of the staging, the music, the camera, the lighting, the acting, the sounds, the editing, or some combination of all or any of these?
  10. Can you breakdown how those particular scenes were done?
    • Put your thinking cap on, take a sheet of paper and draw a simple floor plan where you lay out the camera set-ups for that scene.
    • For extra credit, try to figure out what lenses, lighting, sounds, and acting methods went into creating that scene.
Unlike pencilling or guitar playing, the costly nature of filmmaking means it is difficult to constantly hone and improve your directing skills without having the money, equipment and people available to make films. However, you can use your time on the viewer's chair to improve your directing skills by actively engaging with the film and answering the questions above.


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