We here at Sonlight Pictures watch a lot of Christian movies. It’s part of the gig. We do it to support our fellow filmmakers and to see what our competition is bringing in the way of production value and innovation.
Through this extensive viewing experience we’ve been noting “lessons learned” from some of the areas these films have done successfully as well as areas for improvement.
We are painfully aware, as fellow filmmakers, just how difficult it is to complete a film, let alone a successful one. However, we feel that we should always push ourselves to be better with each production and expect the highest standards possible that we can reach. Over the next few blog entries here we’ll be offering up some advice to fellow Christian filmmakers on key areas of storytelling that are most commonly missing in the current crop of Christian films being made today.
Let’s start with areas that would seem obvious, however, due to budget constraints, can sometimes be harder to achieve than one may think. They are the Three Fundamentals of Film making.
The three fundamentals of film making are… I need to see it, I need to hear it and I need to believe it. If any one of these three key elements is missing the film will fail to deliver.
- This means that lighting and direction need to be successful (see it)
- Audio needs to be loud enough, without distracting background noise and words need to be spoken clearly (hear it)
- The story logic needs to make sense and the actors need to be able to relay the emotions and lines effectively (believe it).
Our job as filmmakers is to create a world that the viewer will embrace and within which they will become emotionally involved. We should avoid any and everything that will pull our audience out of that one moment we’ve spent so many months of writing, shooting and editing to make work. If it’s a bad line reading or a weak visual choice or the story simply doesn’t make sense… any one of these will undermine all of the efforts we’ve done to tell our story.
Alfred Hitchcock was a master, a genius really, when it came to understanding what the audience wanted. He used this insight to his advantage by choosing when to give an audience what they craved and when to keep things from the audience in order to create suspense.
To understand what I mean, simply watch the scene from The Birds where Tippi Hedren smokes outside the schoolhouse while the birds gather on the jungle gym. He gives us some information, sets our expectations, then keeps information from us, then when we think we know what’s going to happen next, he surprises us with a result we never saw coming.
Above all else, Hitchcock wanted you to embrace the central character and feel the emotions tied to the obstacles that faced them. He also understood that if your story does not make sense, if your character makes a decision that the audience would not make, they will turn on the character and actually wish them harm.
For example, if you’re in a house alone and you think there’s a bad guy in the closet, well, you DON’T open the closet! You run to your neighbor and call the cops. Opening the closet door is NOT a decision the audience would make. So, if the character makes a bad decision like that then the audience will lose all connection with the character. Whatever bad things happen because of the decision, instead of feeling empathy, the audience will respond by saying to themselves “Well, you deserve it! That’s what you get when you open the closet door!”
Story logic is key. The story has to make sense. The characters decisions have to make sense. This is not a challenge in Christian films alone, but in film making as a whole. It sounds simple, but not everyone is aware of the general audience expectations. What makes perfect sense to the lone writer may not make sense to the public at large.
We recently watched a Christian film where the main characters were forced to play a “game” in order to uncover a mystery. The game conveniently happened to be within the skill set of the main characters. The problem was that the villain had no legitimate reason for the game to exist in the first place. It did not benefit the villain or their plans in any way what-so-ever. It was simply there so that the main characters could participate in the mystery. We kept watching the story saying “Well, that’s cool and all, but why would the villain do that? It makes no sense!”
Story logic is the first and most important component in the three fundamentals. It precedes the making of the film. It is defined before one figures out how to light it, how to capture the audio, how to direct it and if the actors can pull it off. Make sure the story works.
Writing is the cheapest part of the film making process. Take your time and get it right.
Don’t tell me, show me.