Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Blogs > A Serious Amateur's Guide to Making Movies - Step 1: Explore the Topic

A Serious Amateur's Guide to Making Movies - Step 1: Explore the Topic

By  Aug 9, 2010

Topics: Digital Audio, Video

Doing your homework first will save time and effort later.

A movie needs a topic. It isn’t enough to just come up with a vague idea and start shooting video. Instead, it’s best to develop a movie topic and spend some time learning about it—before you do anything else.

Finding a Topic

Need a topic? Fortunately, they lurk everywhere. It’s just a matter of finding a good one to start with.

You might already have an idea. Great! But don’t skip this section. You might pick up some tips that make you reconsider or look at it from another way.

There are so many interesting things in the world around us. For my movie, I choose cherry harvest. Doesn’t sound too interesting, does it? The average person is aware that cherries grow on trees and somehow get from there to the supermarket. You assume that people pick them. But who are these people? How do they pick them? What happens to the cherries from the time they leave the tree to the time they get to the supermarket?

In the course of my summer job as a cherry drying pilot, I was exposed to the harvest process. I found it fascinating. Last year, I shot some basic video with my Flip camera. This year I decided to go the next step and document the process formally as a movie production exercise. That’s what Cherries: from Tree to Truck is all about.

You might want to start with something that’s part of your life:

  • Your kid’s soccer/T-ball/softball/football/lacrosse/etc. game. Not only will a good movie of your kid in action score points (pun intended) with the grandparents—they love brag material—but it’ll help you document your kid growing up. You can then torture your kid by showing it to his/her kids someday.
  • Any other activity involving your kid. For the same reasons just mentioned.
  • A local concert/ball game/wine festival/outdoor gathering. It’s a great way to document the event so you can remember it later on. (Especially with a wine festival, if you’re planning to do a lot of tasting.) Outdoor activities are great because lighting isn’t much of an issue.
  • Something at work, such as a group training session, a new product announcement, or an overview of your workplace. If it’s something you can hand off to your boss for company use, he/she probably won’t mind you poking around with a video camera. In fact, you might even score a few points. If it’s not work-related, though, don’t get yourself in trouble.

These are just some examples off the top of my head. Brainstorm. You’ll come up with more.

Sidebar: Brainstorming is the process of sitting down without distractions and focusing on an idea. There’s usually a piece of paper and writing implement involved so you can write down what you come up with. Let the ideas flow and jot them down, even if they seem weird. One idea will soon lead to another. Brainstorming can work well with small groups of people focused on the same topic. I do my best brainstorming in the shower, when I’m driving or flying, or on my morning walk—unfortunately, all times when there is no paper and pen around.

Exploring the Topic

Once you have an idea for a topic, take some time to learn about it. By understanding much of what there is to know about the topic, you’ll get a better idea on how to approach it.

For my cherry harvest movie, I visited the orchard several times during the harvest. Fortunately, the owner of the orchard wasn’t too busy to talk to me and tell me about what was going on. He answered questions, providing me with basic (to him) information such as the names of the containers used for gathering the cherries, the weight of the containers, and the details of the cooling process. I got his permission to come back and shoot video.

Let’s look at another example: a movie of a kid’s soccer game. What does it entail? Before the game, maybe someone comes out and puts up the nets. There might be a referee’s meeting, a coin toss, a team meeting. The coach might offer advice or there might be a group cheer. Maybe there are cheerleaders. (Can you tell I don’t have kids and have never attended a kid’s soccer game?) The game starts, kids run around. One kid is pulled and replaced by another. Someone falls; does the school nurse come out on the field? Is there an ambulance nearby? What are the other parents doing, saying, yelling? What about the other kids watching? How about your kid? How does he/she play? (Don’t worry; with good editing, you can make him/her look like the team’s star player.) What happens afterward? Do they congratulate each other in a long line of handshakes? Cry? Jump for joy? Go out for ice cream? What are the players saying before, during, and after the game? When you ask your kid about a play, what does he/she say?

By exploring your topic, you can get a good idea of how to approach it. You might learn that you need to get to the playing field an hour before the game to watch them set up. Or that you need to get permission to shoot in the locker room or dugout. You should also start getting an idea of the story you want to tell. Will it be the story of your kid? Or his team? Or the game itself? Will you shoot something you can share with other parents? Or will you focus on your own pride and joy?

In my example, I was a third-party witness to only one part of the cherry growing/harvest/selling process: picking the fruit and getting it into the truck. That determined my story. I could have focused on the pickers and picking process—how the pickers learned their skill, what they do, what tips they had and how they moved the ladders, reached fruit at the top of trees, and weeded out the bad fruit. I could have delved into where they came from, where they lived locally, and what they planned to do when their 3-1/2 days of work were over. I could have discussed how the orchard owner makes sure they’re legal to work in the country and how they’re paid. I saw part of this narrow focus topic at the orchard. Of course, I didn’t get the details because I simply didn’t need them for the broader topic I settled with: the bigger picture of getting the cherries off the trees and into the truck.

You Won’t Learn Everything

No matter what you pick up when you explore the topic, you probably won’t get the whole picture. Questions will come up as you work on the storyboard and shot lists. More details (and questions!) will come out as you shoot. That’s okay.

The main thing is to spend some time researching—there, I said the R word—the topic before you go any further.

Think you can skip this step? Think again. If you’re serious about creating a watchable video, you won’t take shortcuts. Skipping this step is a shortcut that’ll result in either a lot of extra work—such as making additional trips to get more footage—or a movie that’s not quite as good as you can make it be—because you tried to make it without all the information and footage you needed.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at Step 2: Planning the Shoot(s).