Story and style

I tallied up the hours I spent editing our first short film, A Country Wedding, and it’s somewhere up around 100. If you multiply that out by my hourly rate I used to charge when I did freelance web design and consulting, that would amount to $6,000. That’s more than three times our budget, and nearly as much as Robert Rodriguez spent making his crazy-good debut feature film.

But you don’t make short films for money. You do it to learn how movies are made, to have fun, to build a portfolio or maybe a combination of all three. I recently saw Rodriguez’s award-winning short film, Bedhead, for the first time. I’d just watched a rough cut of our short and was feeling pretty good about the technical quality and the beauty of many of the shots. But watching Bedhead made me realize that polish and technical quality are probably the least important elements of a short film. What is more important is the story and style.

You can see the evidence of clear brilliance in Bedhead. Sure it’s 16mm, black and white with overdubbed sound and a hand drawn title sequence. He edited that film on two VCRs. But none of this matters, because if you start watching this movie, the next ten minutes fly by and you’re a little sad when it’s over. To me, that’s the mark of a quality short film.

How does Rodriguez make you care about the characters? How does he pull you into the story and make the time pass so quickly? He does it through solid directing and creative camera work. The performances are natural. The editing style and shots are whimsical and fast-paced. You don’t even notice the technical details after a while.

It’s amazing to think what he would have been able to accomplish with Final Cut Pro and a Canon 7D. Or even a Flip camera. What kind of movie would Bedhead have been if he had all this gear 20 years ago?

Anyone interested in independent film has probably read Rodriguez’s book about breaking into the film business. And they know that he spent years making short films with the most crude equipment imaginable. But he still managed to make films that are as watchable today as when they were released nearly 20 years ago. And that’s made me realize that you can get seriously sidetracked worrying about the technical details of a film. It’s dangerous to spend about what camera to use or whether to shoot SD or HD, or to be thinking about what sort of color treatment you’re going to give your movie. It’s more important to focus on the story and style of your project, because that will ultimately determine whether or not it’s successful. Would your movie still be watchable if you were limited to the same equipment that Rodriguez had in making his first films?

Technical details are still important. With amazing filmmaking equipment available at reasonable prices, the bar is constantly being raised, and you need to proceed with care and attention to detail if you want your work to stand out. But I’d be willing to bet that Bedhead would still be a winner at film festivals today, even if it were stacked up against a slate of films shot on an HVX with adapters, edited in Final Cut Pro and color corrected with Magic Bullet.

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