Want to Make a Good Movie? Beware the Bells and Whistles

When I told a wannabe filmmaker that the focus of Morehouse College's new Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies program (CTEMS) was to teach undergrad students the fundamental elements of storytelling through a heavy emphasis on writing, he responded, "Just give those kids some cameras and let 'em shoot.  That's how they'll learn." HE COULDN'T BE MORE WRONG!

For the past several years, much of the work produced by aspiring filmmakers has displayed a whiz-bang gee-doesn't that look cool approach but has been utterly deficient in presenting multi-dimensional characters, unique stories, solid plotting, emotional engagement and direction that doesn't purposely draw attention to the director. Most of these movies are blandly derivative or thinly veiled music videos at best.

And why is that?
Director Seith Mann
Too many film aspirants are getting sucked into the vortex of the toys--the bells and whistles and software niceties that can make your 95-year old grandma look like a filmmaker.  Don't get me wrong. I love the toys. In fact, I use them myself.  But they should never be used at the expense of presenting an engaging story.  These bells and whistles are meant to help the filmmaker to tell the story and not be a story unto themselves! Wow, look at the cool way the picture flashes from one color to the next. Help me Muse.

Allow me to illustrate my point a bit more.  The first is a short film I recently stumbled across from director Seith Mann entitled Five Deep Breaths.  I'll set out the link below. It's an excellent example of amazing storytelling where the bells and whistles serve the movie and the director is not drawing attention to himself. It's gritty, character based, the tempo is right and he takes some cinematic chances (check out the vocals on the jazz score "humm, humm...)

The second example is a short ditty I created during Atlanta's recent snow storm.  It's not a tale of great importance or weight but it's an example of how you can create a story using the simplest of tools.  Except for one panning shot that I asked a stranger to do, I shot this entirely myself  using Cisco's tiny Flip Video camera. I used existing light, in-camera sound and I only used Flip's simple software to do some minor editing.

 It was quick, easy, and told a tale without all the bells and whistles of the toys.

See "Five Deep Breaths" (Part 1)
See "Five Deep Breaths" (Part 2)


  1. Hi Avery:
    I like your Man Walking video. The sound of the feet crunching the ice came out very well.

    It is a nice study of different classic camera angles available when shooting a person walking.

    Charles Fortenberry'86

  2. I thought 5 deep breaths was acted well, and the camera work was excellent. But the directing and story were not very good.
    "spoiler alert"
    1)If she was "kicked through a wall" she certainly didn't look like it or act like it. The apartment showed no damage except the damage that she did to it. She looked perfectly healthy after this savage beat down.
    2)At this age (after college) all guys have been in relationships that have gone bad. I don't know anyone who would mount up in a posse on this pretense. Maybe call a call to the police would be a more educated response?
    3) None of these thugs brought a gun? None suspected that he had a gun? 4-eyes did not warn any of his "friends?"
    4) No resolution. What was the boyfriend's side of the story?

    I could go on.
    Charles Fortenberry '86

    1. Charles, thank you for your post. Since I continue to show this movie to my students I feel I should address some of your concerns.
      1. Did you notice the scar and bruise on the left side of the victim's face. Moreover, when the guys mention she got kicked through the wall, the filmmaker was showing their (and hence our) propensity for exaggeration. It's the story that keeps getting more and more dramatic as we build our cases. See Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" and the way the story about the "whores" keeps evolving.

      2. There response was not "educated"... it was visceral.

      3. They didn't bring a gun because it was supposed to be a beat down. They would not expect him to have one because they were not going into a war zone, they were going to a library. Do you think people have guns in libraries? "4 Eyes" did not warn them because he is a conflicted coward.

      4. Resolution: Let it go. It's not a battle worth continuing. "Boyfriend's side?" His girl was betraying him. Any violence he perpetrated against her is not right, but it was prompted by her cheating."