Linearity is the enemy.

Today's guest post is from James Fair, a filmmaker and educator I had the pleasure of meeting at the Galway Film Fleadh last year and recently met up again in NYC.  You might recall him from a prior post "University Challenged: Educational Approaches To Filmmaking". This summer I will direct “The Ballad of Des & Mo”, a feature film shot, edited and screened in 72 consecutive hours as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) in Australia. The plan is to shoot it upon RED One, to cinematic quality with dollies, tripods and tracks. If it goes well, you should never be able to tell that it was made in 72 hours.

‘Why do this?’ I hear you ask. Well, I am fascinated by the organisational structures that digital can offer to filmmakers, and I enjoy experimenting with alternative workflows and roles within filmmaking. I am not convinced that trying to use new technologies with the antiquated organisational structures of a struggling industry is effective. And it seems that the MIFF organisers agree that this is a valid point for us to explore at their event. My argument is that linearity permeates all areas of film production. To be linear is to be direct, undeviating and sequential. I believe that independent filmmakers have a fixation with linearity, and it is an obstacle they need to overcome.

Across the independent filmmaking blogosphere there is a debate raging. Having worked out how to make films cheaply, filmmakers are now trying to find a way to get people to see them. “How can I use the internet to find my audience? Should I go for festivals, video-on-demand, or both?” I believe that these questions are being asked AFTER the film has been made as opposed to BEFORE, and as a result, many are failing.

Perhaps it is inherent in the indie-filmmaker’s artistic belief that a director has a ‘vision’ to share with the world. This is a valid standpoint, but too often the initial priority of the independent filmmaker is to get their vision MADE, and if successful, the priority then shifts to getting it SEEN. But if you shift these priorities into reverse order, the way you get it SEEN often impacts on the way you get it MADE. I believe that this is a problem sprouting from linearity. We are taught that a great film starts with the script. Courses, conferences and books all say pretty much the same thing. But what if you start with your audience and then build your script around it? Sceptics will say that ‘film can not be made by focus groups or committees’. I’m not saying that they should be either, but I do think you should have a good idea of who will be listening to your story when you tell it and it should inform your writing.

[caption id="attachment_3859" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="James Fair with the rest of the Galway 72 team"][/caption]

Another example of a fixation with linearity is the production roles. Traditional models suggest the organisation of film production is similar to a family tree: director and producer at the top and then spawning various roles until the runners at the bottom. Why is it not shaped differently? Why is it not shaped more like a mind-map, where directors/producers are in the middle and routes sprout out and interconnect around them? I ask myself why a director is a director and a producer is a producer. Not in a philosophical chin-rubbing way, but in a pragmatic way. Specialist roles suited the factory-like processes of the studio system, but on a project-by-project basis I believe I am wearing many hats - director, producer, editor and many more. Even the equipment is not specialist anymore because great cameras are affordable to many. I see loads of people with a 7D or a 550. Today people have an exposure to cheap digital filmmaking technologies in a far greater way than in the days when it really would take years and expense to perfect your ‘craft’ on celluloid.

Admittedly the 72 Hour Movie does have a sub-division of skills otherwise it would be chaos. But a large part of the crew is a versatile team of generalists, who are capable of turning their hands to a variety of tasks instead of standing around when their own job role is not needed. More importantly there is horizontal communication across the process, where anyone can talk to anyone else without the bottlenecks of a linear ‘chain of command’ vertical system. It is this transparency and flexibility that helps us achieve our task cheaply and quickly.

Furthermore, linearity suggests that there should be a period of pre-production, production and post-production. Yet in the past I have needed a post-house to work with me during pre-production on my production workflow, and in 72 Hour Movie project the editing will be running concurrently with the filming (we work upon the industry standard of a non-linear edit system and shooting non-sequentially).

Some people will be shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘I know this already’ and they are acting upon it. New terminologies are emerging for the roles; like ‘story architect’ and ‘predator’ (producer/director/writer/editor). But linearity is still prevalent within even the most knowledgeable sages of the filmmaking revolution. It is a condition of the human mind to create sequential narratives based on our beliefs of rationality and cause and effect. We have all seen the lists and steps that you should take to reach success as a filmmaker. This is linearity, pure narrative, and it often doesn’t give enough respect to the complexity of filmmaking. There isn’t a formula for success in this field, or we’d all be doing it (and cynics will tell you that it is a lottery of chance, nepotism and money).

The industry is unpredictable, so as independents we must be flexible and innovative, not restricted by over-organisation and rigid, linear thinking. We must be ready to exploit unexpected opportunities. How do we do that? We must explore things laterally not vertically and challenge our most basic assumptions. We must stop looking to blogs for answers and start looking to them for provocative questions. Ironically, we must, as Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960’s, stop looking to the future through the rear-view mirror. The answers don’t lie in the past when you are in a paradigm shift. We must share our findings; we are in this together.

James Fair is the director upon the innovative 72 Hour Movie project to be hosted at Melbourne International Film Festival this August, where he will lead a team of filmmakers to shoot, edit and then screen a FEATURE LENGTH MOVIE in three days (www.72hourmovie.com). He is also the Award Leader of the MSc Digital Feature Film Production at Staffordshire University, UK.