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Saturday, January 08, 2011

How hard can it be?

Making a movie is hard.  Making a good movie is really hard.

It’s so damn difficult you wouldn’t believe it until you try it. 

Really, you wouldn’t.

As the director Sydney Pollack said, “Every art form is involved in film, in some way.”  To be a film-maker, you have to be first and foremost a story-teller.  That in itself isn’t easy, as the number of failed novelists, scriptwriters, and poets will attest.  Not only do you have to tell a good story, but you have to tell it well.  And when you try to do it in a movie – an audio-visual medium – you need to be able to use many, many different tools to tell your story.  You need to be painter, sculptor, dancer, actor, mime artist, fashion designer, architect, musician, and wordsmith, all at once.

If you’re making a film on your own, you have to provide every film-making skill.  You have to be the screenwriter, the cameraman, the sound recordist, the lighting engineer, the production designer, the set designer, construction foreman, set dresser, the costume designer (in fact, the whole costume & make-up department), head of casting, location scout, effects technician, stunt arranger, fight arranger, editor, dubbing engineer, composer, and probably the voice talent and the entire swing gang as well.  Not to mention being the producer and director.  Each of those skills is something you train for several years to do, and then expect to spend the next twenty years honing your craft until you can do it properly. 

That’s an accumulated fifty-odd years of training just to learn the basics of all the skills you need on a film set – and that’s even before you get into digital post-production, or the realities of dealing with real film production.  Bertolucci used to boast that his favourite production crew had over a thousand years of experience between them – and that was just the heads of departments.

To make a good film, all those aspects have to come together.  If any of them is weak, the whole film suffers.  It’s easy to think that making a movie is just about pointing a camera at some actors saying some lines.  All that produces is bad – or dull – footage.  It’s why watching other people’s holiday videos is so dull, but watching a National Geographic special can be riveting. To make those aspects come together requires not just skill, but patience, ingenuity, and hard work. Movies are a kind of magic, and like all illusions, the watchword is, “you would not believe how much trouble we went to”.  And literally so.  The audience does not allow themselves to believe that what they are seeing is all carefully, painstakingly constructed.  They prefer to believe that it’s real, it just happens. 

“It takes two years on the stage for an actor or an actress to learn how to speak correctly and to manage his voice properly, and it takes about ten years to master the subtle art of being able to hold one’s audience.”
—D. W. Griffith

So how much work is involved?

Obviously there’s a hell of a lot of variation, but here’s some back of the envelope numbers for you. Even low-cost TV takes a minimum 6 man-days per minute of finished footage, and that’s extraordinarily fast shooting with an experienced crew.  Normal production speed is considerably less than half that. For the zero-budget live action short I’m working on for FML Film Club, we’re allowing four hours to shoot a 90-second film. It has one location and two actors, and we’ll have five crew (camera, sound, lights, director, producer). That’s four man-days right there, just for the shoot. A one-hour pre-production meeting chews up over half a day. All told, by the time we including writing, editing, music and everything else, we’re expecting it to take maybe 7 or 8 man-days.

High-end TV drama and cheap movies take typically 50 man-days per minute, and with top-end movies, we’re talking hundreds or even thousands.

OK, just think about that for a second.

That’s 48 man-hours of work to shoot a single minute of a soap opera or sitcom, once you know what you’re doing and you’re practiced at it.  Over a thousand hours goes into every single episode of EastEnders, Casualty or Better Off Ted.  If you were working solo, that’s basically the equivalent of putting in three hours a day, every single day, for a year, just for one episode. 

Jack that up to the next level, and look at cheap film.  We’re not talking about anything fancy here, we’re talking about straight to video flicks, or cheap cable TV movies.  For a feature-length film, you need about 30,000 hours of work.  Now you’d have to put in about six hours a day, seven days a week for ten years – in other words, that’s the only thing you do other than work, eat and sleep, or else it’s your full-time job.  For ten years.

To be fair, a lot of that time is wasted.  You may have 50 people on set, all chewing up time, but mostly standing around.  Maybe as much as 75% of that time is wasted.  So maybe, if you work really, really efficiently, we’re only talking about three months of serious hobby to make an episode of a soap opera, and only two years of obsession to make a feature. 

So that’s what it takes to make a cheap movie.  Fifty years of training to learn the basics, and then two years of unrelenting hard work to make it happen.  Multiply that by at least ten if you want to be Steven Spielberg.

You’re kidding me, right?

Nope. If anything, I’ve underestimated.

Most amateurs’ expectations of what it takes to make a movie are a mere fraction of that.  Even those who go into it with their eyes wide open reckon they can master the basics in a few months, and then make a movie in a couple of months or so.  Real movie novices expect to be able to just pick up the tools, have them all figured out in half an hour, and make a kick-ass movie in a weekend and still have time to go to a party. When confronted with the reality of movie-making, most simply go into shock.

It’s the same whatever tools you use. Moviestorm and other machinima tools such as Muvizu are blindingly fast in comparison to most other ways of filming. When Dave & I started this a few years ago, we made No License in about 30 man-days using Battlefield 1942, and that was regarded as quick for a five-minute action movie. Last week, I made a two-minute FML movie single-handed in one day using Moviestorm. The film students and experienced film-makers in the group were astounded by how fast I’d created the movie and how easy Moviestorm was to use compared to what they were used to. We actually briefly considered re-filming that film live action as our first project, but soon realised it would have taken maybe 15-20 man-days, and we simply didn’t have the time.

Man-hours to produce one minute of finished movie (approx)

By contrast, one of the most common complaints we hear from novices about Moviestorm is how long it takes to create anything. In these days of instant gratification, people often expect to make a three-minute video in under an hour. It’s not unusual to find people who want to be able to make a three minute video in three minutes.

Sure, it can be done, if you’re making the right kind of movie, as long as you know exactly what you’re doing and you’re prepared to cut a lot of corners (and settle for mediocre quality). There are plenty of simple tools like Xtranormal which allow you to create simple bits of footage in minutes using templates or wizards, which is fine as long as the templates are going to give you what you wanted. But the difference between those and making a movie is like the difference between being brilliant at Guitar Hero and being able to play the guitar. At some point you’ve got to learn to make the chords, drive the pedals, and learn that picking action, not just press buttons to make prerecorded music come out.

And, sticking with the guitar metaphor, while Jimmy Page may be able to sit down and simply play a blues that you or I can only envy, those classic Led Zep recordings took months in the studio to perfect. With all his years of experience and skill, it still takes him time to create something astounding. Even he can’t produce a killer track in one take on demand.

Sadly, there’s no getting around it. Making movies still takes a lot of work, and anyone who actually succeeds in making something has achieved more than most people realise.  Tools can make any creative endeavour a lot faster and easier. We like to think tools like Moviestorm make moviemaking a hell of a lot easier. They don’t, however, make it painless. Whatever your medium, quality takes both time and skill, and skill takes yet more time to develop.

And it will always, always, take longer than you think.

“The funniest thing is that all the things every director goes through, I thought I could shortcut, but there was no getting around those issues.”
—George Clooney


(8) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

kibishipaul on 01/08 at 11:13 PM

Excellent article Matt. It sometimes seems that the more movies I make the longer it takes for each one and I get frustrated and very occasionally feel like throwing the computer off the top of the building! I know all of the things you’ve stated here very well, but sometimes it’s good to see it in black and white to get a bit of perspective. Making movies is very hard, but, so long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, rewarding and a lot of fun smile

Kate on 01/09 at 06:01 AM

Absolutely, and that’s a big list, what’s missing? Human resources; secretarial staff, marketing, staff management, press officer….therapist? Associated arts; drama coach, set designer, set construction.
I’m sure we can think of some more.

NB I’m not sure I’d link Xtranormal and Muvizu. Muvizu is more complex and versatile.

Barry on 01/14 at 04:22 AM

Hi Matt. That’s a pretty decent appraisal of the movie-making process and the hassle that goes with it. Oh, and thanks for the mention. I’d just like to say that Muvizu doesn’t actually have any templates or wizards. That isn’t a boast, in fact it may even be a bit of self-criticism: we’ve a core of users who ask for these helpers a lot. I think Kate’s bang-on-the-money. Muvizu appears simple but is actually quite deep. Different tools for different people, I guess. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your post.

Astroturf Alert: I’m Muvizu’s Lead Artist.

(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/15 at 05:41 AM

Barry - apologies if I’ve given the wrong impression of Muvizu. It’s been a while since I last used it.

Contractor Perth on 03/20 at 08:10 AM

If I were the director Sydney Pollack I will said, “art form is involved in film, in some way.”  I think to be a film-maker; you have to be first and foremost a story-teller. Thanks!

(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/15 at 10:11 AM

I feel delighted to read such a good post, I would like to thank the Author for this marvelous efforts.this post is good in regards of both knowledge as well as information. Thanks for the post.

Methew Symonds on 05/09 at 07:33 AM

Awesome article Matt. It sometimes seems that the more movies I make the longer it takes for each one and I get frustrated and very occasionally feel like throwing the computer off the top of the building!

(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 05/18 at 09:26 PM

good site.

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