Just Do It!
The Art of Zen Filmmaking
By Scott Shaw
Let's face it, many people want to make films. They have dreams, they have plans, sometimes they even put a cast and a crew together, but most of these films never get completed. The primary reason for that is that most people have the expectation of their low-budget film coming out looking like a high-budget Hollywood production. But, when the script is too difficult to film, cast members flake-out and quit the movie, or when the flaws of the footage are seen, many filmmakers toss in the towel, and there goes their production.
There is an alternative to the traditional filmmaking process, however. It is called Zen Filmmaking. Zen Filmmaking is about spontaneous creativity. It is about allowing your artistic impulses to guide you through the filmmaking process.
This process is obviously a little different from what is taught in film schools. But, if you keep an open mind, perhaps you may not run into some of the obstacles that have caused many filmmakers to never complete their projects.
There is an old saying in filmmaking, "If it's not on the page, then it’s not on the stage." There is a big problem with screenplays, however. Especially when it comes to making a movie with a limited budget. That problem is, what you envision in your mind is free from all of the constraints that occur when you attempt to begin filming. Your mind has no budget and no boundaries and your characters deliver each line of dialogue with true emotion and feeling.
The initial problem with basing your film upon a formalized script is that you must go and find a cast that can deliver the dialogue as it is written. But, I think we have all seen low-budget films where the characters are delivering dialogue in a manner where they simply appear to be speaking memorized words that have no feeling.
The solution for this problem is to not base your film upon a formalized script. By removing yourself from the constraints of a script, your production becomes freer and you are not bound by what you or your screenwriter may have envisioned. By using this method, not only does your production become much more spontaneous to any unexpected elements that you may encounter while you are filming, but you will not be disappointed by your actors not living up to a level of expected acting expertise.
With no script then, how do you get your story told? What you do is to define an overview of the story in your mind. You then decide what element of your story you are going to film on a specific day. You then create a shot-list.
What you do with your actors is to set them up in the scene, tell them what the scene is about and what information they are supposed to covey. Then, you let them act it out. By relying on improv the performances of your actors become much more natural and believable. If they are going in the wrong direction with the dialogue or are talking too much, simply stop the scene, redirect them, and then begin shooting again.
As we jokingly say in Zen Filmmaking, "Scripts are for sissies."
Locations are obviously one of the most essential elements to any film. The more visually interesting your locations, the more scope you add to your movie.
Many low-budget productions design their storyline around a singular location. This is commonly done in order to keep production costs down. The problem with this is that if you focus your production around a single location, the film becomes very stagnant and visually boring. The simple remedy for this is to film in as many visually interesting locations as possible.
Many low-budget productions go through the process of obtaining a permit to film in a specific location. Zen Filmmaking is really anti-film permit.
The problem with obtaining filming permits is then you are locked into one location and you cannot easily move or shift your production if the inspiration strikes. In addition, many truly visual locations are off limits or out of the budgetary range of a small production. But, if you do not tell the local authorities that you are going to film at these locations, then you can usually get away with it.
In most large urban centers, the police are far too busy to even care about a small production. But, if some figure of authority approaches you and asks what you are doing, never tell them you are making a film, an indie film or even a student film. Because the minute you mention the words film, they assume you have money. Tell them you are making a "Birthday Video." What is a "Birthday Video?" I don’t know. But, neither will they. The worse that can happen is that they will tell you to leave and you can go and film your scenes in another location.
This is also the reason that big film crews do not work when you are creating a Zen Film. The smaller and more streamline your cast and crew, the quicker you can move if you decide to relocate to a more appropriate location and the less egos you will have to contend with.
With the dawn of the digital age, Zen Filmmaking became much easier. As digital video has come to be an accepted filmmaking format, it has freed the indie filmmaker immensely. The equipment is smaller and you can immediately see what you have filmed. This is an essential element that many budding filmmakers overlook — checking the footage for correct color and sound. It is essential that you do this several times during each shoot, because it is much more difficult to go back and reshoot a scene than it is to correct any problems you may be experiencing on the spot.
The edit is where many films fall apart. The filmmaker looks at their footage and is not happy with it. They may see the flaws of the actors or the cinematographer, and the film gets put on the shelf and is never completed. This is a mistake.
The reason this is a mistake is due to the fact this has become a music video world, where anything is acceptable. There are so many things that you can do on your computer to alter the color, contrast, and sound of your film, that there is no reason to be disappointed in anything you have film. You simply need to be willing to change your expectations. In fact, this is one of the primary tenets of Zen Filmmaking, "Accept what you receive."
In Zen Filmmaking, the edit is where a film truly comes together. In the traditional film the editor will look at the script, make a film log, and then try to make the pieces of the puzzle fit. But, there is very little creativity. In Zen Filmmaking you can put the pieces of the puzzle anywhere that you wish. With this, your film is never dependent upon one scene or on one specific take. With Zen Filmmaking, you become free.
Just Do It!
Zen Filmmaking is about getting out there and making your film. Planning is left to a minimal. By allowing your creative instincts to guide you through the filmmaking process, amazing, unexpected, things happen when you get into the moment. While traveling to an intended location, you may see a new location that you would have never thought about and you can go and film. There may be some unexpected event taking place, a fair, a protest, an arrest, a car accident, or a fire truck driving by. Any of these events, and many more, you can integrate your characters into. With this, you will add scope to your film.
Ultimately, Zen Filmmaking is based on the concept of removing as many obstacles from the filmmaking as possible. This includes your own expectation about what your film is supposed to look like, because in reality, no film will ever come out looking exactly as you had imagined.
In Zen Filmmaking it is understood, by freeing yourself from as many constraints as possible, the filmmaking process becomes free and natural, leaving you to embrace a pure form of art and creativity.
Copyright © 2006 — All Rights Reserved
No part of this may be used without the expressed permission of Scott Shaw or his representatives.
A extended version of this article can also be found in Scott Shaw's book, Zen Filmmaking. Click on the title to pick up your copy.
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Scott Shaw and Donald G. Jackson discussing Zen Filmmaking on YouTube