Sunday, December 2, 2012

How to Make Movies... In Your Mind!

By Glenn Campbell in Istanbul

Movie making is frightfully expensive. You have to create a whole artificial world, carefully controlled for both images and sound, and this can present huge practical challenges. You have to hire actors, gaffers, cameramen, carpenters, people to handle lighting, sound, sets and props. Then you have to feed them, so you need caterers, security people, drivers, accountants and... geesh! Soon your little movie is a big cash drain. Even if a movie is purely digital, it can be extremely labor intensive to create the environment and make it function before the characters even step into it.

It costs next to nothing, however, to make a movie in your mind. I don't mean screenwriting, which is labor intensive in itself. I mean just sitting alone, imagining a movie, constructing its plot and running the whole story through your head from beginning to end as though you were watching it on a screen. This shouldn't be much different than, say, imagining your journey from one part of your city to another. After all, every movie is journey, where one event leads to another over a period of an hour or two.

You have certainly seen plenty of movies, so you should know how they work. You remember the good ones that left you satisfied at the end and the bad ones that just made you feel you had wasted your time. It shouldn't be a huge leap to construct your own imaginary movie based on what you have learned over a lifetime of movie watching. If you can't generate a whole film in your head, working out what happens to the characters and why, than you can't expect to do much better with a $100 million budget.

In practice, though, virtual movie making isn't as easy it sounds. If people could make satisfying movies in their heads, they would have no need to see real movies and the whole industry would collapse. Only a few have the skills to produce compelling and complete stories in any medium. Many an aspiring screenwriter or novelist has sat down to write a great filmable story but found themselves blocked partway through. They may have created what they think are interesting characters in a tense situation but they don't know where to go with them. Their common complaint is, "I've got everything worked out except the ending."

And therein lies the problem. The novice writer usually tries to create a story sequentially, starting at the beginning and moving toward the end. He starts with a situation he thinks would be exciting—like "Gladiator challenges roman emperor for control of the ancient world," or "Fate of the universe hangs in the balance as star warrior battles evil warlord."—and he tries to build the story from there. It is only in the story-building phase that people get stuck. They don't know what a story is supposed to do, even though they have seen a thousand of them on the screen.

Everyone thinks they have a great idea for a movie, but they expect someone else to figure out the details. Isn't that what you hire screenwriters for? The screenwriter is supposed to go away with your movie idea and magically come back with the sequence of events the movie will follow. But how does the screenwriter do that? What magic is he using to determine the scenes and how they fit together? Even producers and directors often seem mystified by this process, and certainly the average viewer is. They just figure the screenwriter has "talent", which is supposed to explain everything.

What is this talent? Maybe it is just the ability to see the story backwards, from the end to the beginning. If you know what the ending should be, you can construct each scene as a mechanism to carry the viewer there. Great storytelling is an exercise in reverse engineering. You start with the final product—the big payoff—then infer all the steps you need to arrive at that product.

If you go back and look at any good movie you've seen before (like Skyfall), you'll probably begin to see all the back-engineering at work. No detail in the movie is random; each was deliberately chosen or constructed to serve some purpose later in the movie. If the hero finds himself in Istanbul, that's not a random event, even if it seems to be. The filmmakers have placed him there so he can engage in an exciting chase scene across the roofs of the Grand Bazaar. The whole process of getting him to Istanbul was contrived. In fact, most movie scenes can be seen as devices to move the hero into position for his final conflict.

Magicians use this sort of reverse engineering in just about every trick on stage. If a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, it is not just any hat. It is a specially constructed hat that may have $10,000 worth of sophisticated engineering hidden inside it or beneath the table. But if it looks like an ordinary hat on the outside and the magician treats it like an ordinary hat, people accept it. When the rabbit pops out it seems like, well, magic! What the audience doesn't see is the huge amount of preparation and deliberate design that went into that seemingly innocent chapeau. Movie making is like that. No scene is random, even if it seems so in the movie. It's all a carefully engineered mechanism leading you to the big conflict near the end.

If you think about it, it is completely obvious that movie makers use reverse engineering. If you are going to spend $100 million on an entertainment product, you'll want to control every detail on the screen. You're not going to just choose a castle to film in; you are going to carefully construct the castle with all the dungeons and secret passageways you need to fulfill the needs of the story. Everything in the story is a magician's manipulation to push you toward the desired conclusion.

Yet the audience still falls for it. They are viewing the movie in sequential order, accepting each event at face value as it happens. They don't see the careful engineering that went into every seemingly random occurrence. If the hero ends up in Istanbul, the audience takes it as happenstance, which makes it all the more magical—even plausible—when a chase scene just happens to occur in the most scenic part of the city.

All forms of storytelling are supported by a powerful human delusion: the tendency to accept ordinary-seeming events at face value without considering the storyteller's motives. Swindlers, con artists and entertainers have exploited this weakness since the beginning of time. If a magician shows you a normal-looking hat and treats it as ordinary, people accept it as such, even though they know full well this guy's job is to deceive them. No matter how many movies you go to, you still fall for this ruse. You believe that the sequence of events presented in the screen is natural when it is really just a deliberate set-up for the magic that follows.

When a novice sits down to write a story, he is usually still in the grips of this delusion. He tries to write his story sequentially, naively assuming that's how it's done. He sets his story in Istanbul because he thinks it is a beautiful city with a lot of character, but he doesn't know what to do there. He chooses the setting before he has designed the trick he is going to pull, which is like a magician first going out to buy a hat and only then trying to figure out how to get a rabbit out of it.

Even a story's characters should be reverse engineered. You first decide how the story will be resolved, then you construct the sort of flawed hero who will be most affected by this resolution. You give the hero carefully designed defects so as to make his final triumph all the more powerful. You engineer a supporting cast to give him people to interact with and help illuminate his character. You create characters at the point where they are needed then kill them off as soon as they have served their purpose. Nothing is superfluous or random.

So what is the big payoff the movie is heading toward? It's really quite simple. The hero is going to find a power within him he didn't know he had. At the last moment, just before all is lost, he will have an epiphany which changes his perspective and lets him see his problem in a whole new light. Powering over his own weaknesses, the hero finally takes control of his situation and tries a new approach that's "a long shot but just might work". Everything builds to a final battle. The villain is superhumanly persistent and nearly wins, but the hero calls up his last bit of strength and a secret weapon he has been holding in reserve, which together turn out to be just enough to turn the tide. The villain is stabbed in the heart (or just in the liver if we plan a sequel), and victory is complete.

This standard plot may sound corny, but if it is competently executed, the audience falls for it every time. Even though they've seen this formula countless times, they are still viewing the new movie sequentially and don't perceive the predictable plot ahead. There is something primal in the story of the flawed hero. Overcoming our own flaws is something we all struggle with, and seeing another flawed character pull it off is empowering to us.

The whole rest of the story is concerned with building the environment for the big battle to take place. This involves first creating the battlefield, then creating a monster threat. The story also has to engineer the flaws of the main character so he is exquisitely vulnerable to that threat. If your character is Superman, you have to invent some Kryptonite for him and give his nemesis access to it, but the Kryptonite itself isn't the real issue. Turns out, the hero has major personal problems, and at some point we become disgusted with him. "Don't do that, you idiot!" we want yell at the screen. We don't walk out of the theater because we know he is just like us. By giving the hero flaws, the filmmakers make him one of us. If these are flaws we can imagine in ourselves, they help us bond with the hero and join him for the rest of the journey.

The task of filmmaking—virtual or otherwise—is to implement this formula in a new environment with a new hero and a new kind of threat. Once you decide on these things, you are going to back-engineer the rest of the movie to support the final predictable outcome.

Once you have a satisfying movie in your mind, filming it in real life it is almost trivial. All you need is a few million dollars! Well, at least it isn't a few billion dollars, which is what you might spend if you had to reproduce the whole environment the movie is supposedly set in. That's where special effects can be handy. No sense in building a whole space station, out in space, if you can just model it digitally.

But the most powerful special effect isn't digital. It's a very simple illusion, as old as filmmaking itself—in fact, as old as photography, painting or theatre. When looking at any photo, the viewer naturally assumes that the environment appearing on the edges of the frame extends infinitely in all directions. For example, if you take a picture of twenty people packed together, and some of those people are cut off at the edges of the frame, the viewer naturally assumes there are hundreds of people present, filling whatever space the group is occupying.

That's the core perceptual illusion of all movies, allowing filmmakers to create whole worlds on a limited budget. Show a character interacting with a realistic detail of a space station, and the viewer will assume there's a whole space station beyond the frame. Just cue the viewer in that he's on a space station (perhaps with a painted wide shot of one) and his imagination will fill in the rest.

That's an amazing budget saver! Instead of building a whole space station, you just build a few tiny sections of it. If you have a bigger budget, you can build bigger sections, but it isn't clear that this is more convincing to the audience. The main thing they are focused on is the characters' faces, and there's a natural cropping rectangle where you can see the faces comfortably. If the set is too big, you lose the characters.

The same concept applies to time. Show five-second clip of workers scurrying around the cargo bay of this alleged space station, cut off abruptly at each end, and the viewer will assume these activities have gone on forever and will continue forever after the shot. Likewise, if you show a character drunk just once, without any obvious reason for it, the audience assumes he's an ongoing alcoholic.

Once you have a compelling plot in your head, actual filmmaking is the process of selecting samples of the action to show to the viewer, who will infer the whole. Show bits of the space station, pieces of the character's dysfunction and hints of the impending disaster, and the audience will fill in the rest.

With a great story in your head, you might even be able to film it on a tiny budget. A space station is probably beyond your means, but your resources might support an imaginary world similar to the one you already occupy. The limitations of your resources are always part of the back-engineering process. Professional filmmakers do it all the time: You'd like to film in London, but the budget won't allow it, so you film in your own city and make it look like London, or you change the script to your own city.

Purists are always going to call you out, pointing out the million ways your movie is unrealistic. But it's a movie, for christsakes! It's all fake! All that really matters is that the characters seem real and the action is moving toward that epic battle. If the audience attaches themselves emotionally to your hero, they'll overlook most of the flaws in the rest of your movie.

The only problem with making a movie in your head is no one can see it but you. This may seem like a disadvantage until you realize you can make a LOT of virtual movies in the time it takes a real-world director to make just one. Even the most successful, well-connected directors only produce a few movies in a lifetime. Even if you have unlimited funding, the personal costs are huge. Because so many people are involved, the filmmaker inevitably becomes a social director, getting everyone to work together, and the social aspects of the project end up taking for far more time than actual creating.

Virtual filmmaking has no such social cost. It is 100% creativity! Once you have filmed a movie it your head, you can perhaps nail it down with a few written notes, then instantly move on. While virtual filmmaking does take time (time to think things through), it is nowhere near the time cost of a real movie.

Although no one is seeing the movie but you, you are gaining experience. It's not always as good as "real" experience, but virtual experience still counts for something. That's what "thinking" is all about: gaining personal experience in various possible scenarios without most of the real-world risks or costs. Thinking is a cheap and effective way to model the real world, as long as you test your models against the real world from time to time. Making just a few cheap videos on your own can often give you those data points.

Everyone seems to want a "big break" that will give them the outside resources they think they need to realize their dreams, but very few are really ready to handle it. They haven't fully exploited the resources they already have! $100 million from a major studio comes with some major strings attached, and it doesn't guarantee that you know what you are doing. If you are not ready for it, virtually, your big break can turn into just another form of Hell.

Thinking helps you get ready for high-stakes games you may be playing in the future at relatively low cost. Thinking is cheap, but it's not free. You have to make time for it, and you have to ruthlessly suppress all the spurious distractions that soak up your thinking time. If you've got an iPod in your ear, you're killing your movie. If you want, you can make a couple of movies in your head this weekend, but you have to take the initiative, quit the excuses and start your imaginary filming.

Get off your virtual ass and do it!

Also see my other related essays on creativity:
And these links by others: