Show Don't Tell: Breaking the Rules of Filmmaking

Show Don't Tell: Breaking the Rules of Filmmaking
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The essential aspect of visual art that makes it ART is the ability to Show the viewer something, rather than flat out telling them. Otherwise why are we making a film and not just going around telling people stories? There are amazing filmmakers out there who outright ignore this rule (more of a best-practice) of good filmmaking, but it’s a rule for a reason! Like Quentin Tarantino (who I think is brilliant!), but seriously he must love the sound of his own voice. I can tell because of the abundance of unnecessary dialogue in his films. Don’t get me wrong, not every film has to be a silent one, but if I’m sitting there listening to someone explain what could be 20minutes of action-filled scenes, reduced to dialogue. That’s just a waste!

By the way… A hallmark of any bad student film is a smart-mouth character trying to sound cool in a monologue. Not really giving any substance or subtext to anything he’s saying, or speaking like a cleverly-written novel. No one talks like that! And I see it not only in narrative films but even on TV news or in marketing videos. Print copy does not directly translate to spoken word. Even if you have to dumb down the copy a bit, it’s important to say something that can be understood by the ear… but I digress.

In the day and age of the internet, smartphones and always being connected, “Show don’t Tell” is even harder to do. I believe in subtlety, and the art of filmmaking. I’d rather interweave a complex scene in editing with shots, pacing and music that suggest a theme or feeling… than to just outright have someone say exactly “on the nose” of what they mean. (If you heard the term “on the nose” before… Congratulations! You probably went to film school.)

But being on the nose is not only a crime to good writing, but an insult to the intelligence of your audience. Even if you don’t care about either of those things, you should care that it’s hindering your storytelling. The audience feels most connected to a character when they like that character, and they like the character when they “experience” things together. Just telling your audience in dialogue that your character is a dick because he suffered a great loss will surely not garner as much forgiveness for his behavior as would a well-crafted, seamless film that immerses the viewer in a visual experience of his loss. If we see him go through this tough time, it gives the audience an emotion and empathy for the character. Hence they become invested in the story.

How to incorporate today’s technology into our stories

It’s not only badly-written or too-much dialogue that is the shortcut to good storytelling though. I believe that email being read on screen, or a text, or even a phone conversation that’s longer than 2 seconds (anything longer than, “I’m on my way, be there soon” is too long), can cheapen the experience of our films. I admit… Emails, social media and technology are a huge part of our lives in this day and age. Featuring them in a film should make it more relatable to our current audience, but it’s also a surefire way to date your film. Just look at films from the early 2000s where they pull out a flip-phone, and try not to judge. Go ahead, do it. It’s just funny! How about the movie “You’ve got Mail”… with AOL & Dialup… Really? Remember when Carrie Bradshaw took her huge, boxy Mac computer to the store? Ridiculous. Those films (and TV episodes) are forever dated because of their reliance on technology to tell the story. Now I’m not saying NOT to EVER use technology as part of your film, but in my opinion it shortens the shelf life of your film. (Even the term shelf-life is outdated, there are no shelves anymore holding films. You know what I mean though.)

Unless we’re creating a period piece or a sci-fi, we still have to be current to the time we are in today. Showing texts on screen have become normal (and well done) on “House of Cards” because we all text! They found a way to deliver the texts to us in the way that we experience texts every day. It’s not strange for us to follow a conversation in that way, it’s not jarring. Rather than rely on cheesy reenactments, the show “Catfish” on MTV is really successful in telling a backstory mainly through visuals of texting, images and social media posts. It takes finess and style to integrate today’s technology, texts and phonecalls into a film. Without a seamless style of integrating these into the story, where it isn’t completely obvious that they are using this as a shortcut rather than just showing you what happened, it can be downright lame.

How to enjoy your work

My priority as a filmmaker is creating something that I am proud of, and something that I like. These two things are huge accomplishments for me, as I am a perfectionist who tends to be harder on myself than others. I still cringe watching the first scene of my short film “Give a Little” giving so much away in a phonecall. If I had it to do again I’d create the perfect scene that somehow shows that this character’s mother has passed away and that her father’s intention is to spend Christmas with the only family he has left. Truth of the matter is though, if I had shot all that, it would be a feature film. In a short, I had to take short-cuts to tell a story that’s complex. That phonecall was my short-cut and even though this film is streaming on Roku, and has won several awards, I still nit-pick that one scene because of it’s reliance on dialogue. I felt though, that without that backstory, the character would not be liked. I’d rather have empathy and use a shortcut, than give up the connection between the audience and the protagonist.

The impact of mobile devices on film viewing

Most videos are viewed either on a tiny screen, or while the viewer is looking at another screen. So who’s really watching our films and paying enough attention to catch the subtleties of our color grading to enhance the mood? I wish it wasn’t this way, but this is the reality we live in. And with this huge attachment to social media comes a shorter attention span. Hence the popularity of viral videos, but as filmmakers we are at a different level of creating videos. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard. We’re trying to make art that transcends time, not something that will be consumed for a minute in passing and then disappear 2 days later into the depths of the internet. So what is the compromise? How do we as filmmakers find a happy medium between videos with and without substance? What do we do as storytellers to avoid giving away our entire story in dialogue or text? How have you incorporated modern technology into your films?

Let me know by tweeting me @LoudaVision

Truly, From the Heart...

Laura Meoli

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