Anatomy of the Best Loglines

Knowing where to start in the creative process of writing can be daunting for a first time filmmaker. I know it was for me. I’ve tried building a story around every possible thing imaginable, and I found Blake Snyder’s longline method from his infamous book, Save the Cat, to be the most effective.

His argument centers around starting your writing process by creating something called a logline (your entire movie summarized in a sentence). He would say, if you can’t do this in a compelling way from the start, then you don’t have a story worth telling.

Many of you more seasoned writers may find this approach “formulaic,” however for writers starting out, this is a great place to begin.  

Ingredients for the best logline:

  • One Character
  • One Goal
  • One Source of Conflict with a dash of Irony

In short what you will be creating is the following equation:

Your hero is going for their goal, but something ironic happens to stop them.

If you cannot put your story within this simple formula, then perhaps your story is too complicated, OR missing a crucial element.

FOR EXAMPLE:

Disgraced pilot, E. Ripley is left with PTSD after her encounter with the xenomorph and tries to rebuild a life for herself. However, when a human colony is overrun with xenomorphs, Ripley may be their only hope.

From the film Aliens

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Element 1: Establish Your Hero

The first step is to insert your main character into your logline. This isn’t a place to go into great detail on their backstory; all that’s needed are one or two descriptive words. Sometimes the scenario they find themselves in is sufficient enough information.

As Blake Snyder says, you want to paint a clear enough picture in the minds of those who will hear your logline. They need to be able to see where your story is going. This includes who your character is.

In my example, I defined Ellen Ripley as a disgraced pilot with PTSD. We know she’s an underdog, and it will be easy for the audience to get behind her.

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Element 2: Establish Your Hero’s Goal

The next step is to show what the character is trying to accomplish before they are confronted by the story’s major conflict.

In Vertigo, Scottie is investigating Madeline for her husband (his goal) before he begins to fall in love with her (the conflict).

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle wants more than what her small town has to offer (goal) before she is held prisoner in an enchanted castle (the conflict).

Sometimes the goal can be something more passive, or simply keeping the status quo. For example, in Toy Story, Woody isn’t actively trying to do something new, but is enjoying the “status quo” of being the toy on top.

Don’t just tell us WHO your character is, but where we find them at the start of the story.

For Ellen Ripley, I have her trying to rebuild a life for herself.

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Element 3: Conflict with a Dash of Irony

Lastly, we introduce our story’s major source of conflict into the logline.

This is where people tend to struggle the most, either because they realize they have no real source of conflict throughout their story. Even if they do it’s lacking the crucial element of irony which gives a story it’s hook, edge, or bite.

Conflict is truly what starts your story and what moves it forward. Without this element, there is no story.

In my example from Aliens, the conflict comes from the xenomorphs overtaking a colony, forcing the corporation to turn to Ripley for help.

It’s conflict, because it’s both stopping her from starting a new life, while giving her an opportunity to gain her old life back.

Irony?

Before I explain how irony comes to play in this equation, let me explain what irony IS. There are two forms of irony: situational and irony of fate. Situational irony is when events defy expectations, while irony of fate is when it seems the gods, fate, the universe, etc are toying with humanity for their own amusement.

Situational irony would be getting robbed by a police officer (an amoral act practiced by someone who is sent out to stop such behavior). Jesus being crucified by the very people he was to save is another great example of situational irony. Both examples play on your expectations and subvert them.

Irony of fate is when something occurs with lasting consequence beyond a specific situation. A former athlete who is now paralyzed is an example of irony of fate. Beethoven, one of the world’s greatest composers lost his hearing. He can no longer hear the beautiful music he puts out into the world. Irony of fate.

Irony is all about subverting our expectations in an effort to hook us.

The irony in Aliens is drawn mostly from the situation Ripley finds herself in; she was seen as a pariah and a liability by the company at the start of the film, and becomes the very person who could save them.

That’s irony.

There’s no right way to go through the writing process, but by beginning with a logline my writing has grown simpler and stronger. I hope it helps you on your own writing journey. For more great film advice, check out Blake Snyder’s book, Save the Cat.

Written by Brenden Bell.

 

Keep It Simple- Why Fewer Shots Are Actually More

Written By Greg Garofalo.

When creating a shot list or storyboard for a film, I usually find I have a tendency to be extra careful in making sure I have every angle I could possibly need. Often times, my storyboards will consist of four to five different setups in a scene.

To me it made sense. Make sure that I have everything I need and have some back ups just in case.

What I didn’t realise at the time was how much this was actually hurting my film.

I was creating more shots than I needed out of fear. I was giving myself a safety net and a safety net is one thing you shouldn’t give yourself.

Unless you’ve struck gold and found a location that can accommodate you 24/7, I’m guessing you only a certain amount of time to get your short film made.

I’m also guessing (unless you’re paying well enough…  or at all) that your cast and crew have schedules and lives of their own.

In the world of independent film, you don’t have time to get 26 shots on your two page scene 3.

You need to find a way to efficiently bring your vision to life, without sacrificing your artistic intent.

So how do you shrink the 15 set ups you wanted to get into seven to ten?

First off, you need to trust yourself.

There’s usually a difference between how many shots we think we need as opposed to how many we actually need.

One method I used to differentiate the two was to create a “wish list” and a “must list.”

I would find every shot that was absolutely crucial in my story: how a character got from point A to point B, making sure I had all of the dialogue in my scenes and so forth.

I scheduled my shoot in a way that if I ran out of time I would theoretically still have what I needed to make a film.

I started noticing that I was planning less and less shots. Instead of creating the look of my film through a million shots I was becoming more intentional and creative with each set up and using fewer shots and more effectively getting the job done.

Think of how many shots you really need and stick to it.

Instead of four set ups, aim for two to three. The result? You’re going to end up with a much easier time both on set and in the editing room.

Of course, each film is different and you want to stick with what enhances your story the best. Know the difference between what’s important and what isn’t.

Now I know what you’re thinking:

“But Greg, what about action films? This is a good idea for comedies and dramas, but action films are supposed to have a million different angles.”

Well Steve. They don’t.

Keep in mind I’m not talking about having a high number of set ups and angles, but an excessive amount.

A common misconceptions of action films is that in order to keep the pace going you need 50,000 angles to cut back and forth from.

That’s not really true though, and that kind of thinking can really hurt your film.

My favourite example of this is Taken v John Wick.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCKhktcbfQM 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYHeaQvLEJo 

Now yes the John Wick scene is a lot longer, but notice how long it takes John Wick over a minute to get to to ten set ups. It takes Taken 6 seconds. See what I mean?

Sure John Wick has a high number of setups in that few minute scene, but notice how every shot has a purpose. There’s no rush to get to the next angle, every shot is designed to either drive the action, or hold the suspense.

Some of this is of course the film’s editing, but it was directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch intention to avoid the million angle action film.

Now someone behind the scenes on Taken however, decided that they needed umpteen different shots of Liam Neeson climbing a fence in order to make the chase exciting. The directors of John Wick however trusted both their story and their visual style was exciting enough.

The result: A highly entertaining and visually unique action flick.

JW

When you force yourself out of that safety net, you become more creative and more intentional. Your audience will feel that.

Your scene might require ten shots, or it could require three. There is no magic number of shots you need to have, or cut out. Make sure you’re not adding any extra shots out of fear, or insecurity. Trust yourself, cut the safety net and make a great film.

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How To Use Comic Books To Improve Your Filmmaking

Written by Greg Garofalo.

Film is a visual medium, unlike other forms of story everything is told mainly in what isn’t said. The classic rule of thumb is “Show don’t tell.” It’s something you have to get used to when you become a filmmaker.

One unconventional way of studying this is by reading comic books. Yep that’s right, comic books.

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Comics are an extremely visual medium, they also happen to base themselves off of cinematic angles. As in film, most of the story is told through what you see and not what is said.

I always like to go back to Matt Fraction’s run on Hawkeye.

Honestly, I believe this could be translated almost shot for shot into possibly the best movie ever made (and yes that is part of my pitch to direct, Marvel if you’re listening my contact info is at the bottom).

Take this panel for example from that particular run.

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Now let’s pretend this is a scene from a film and each panel is a shot and the characters aren’t drawn, they’re framed. What do you notice about the Femme Fatale?

Let’s dissect it visually shot for shot:

Shot 1) You never see her face you only hear her voice.

Shot 2) We only see her feet walking towards Clint.

Shot 3) We see most of her body but she’s turned away from us.

Shot 4) We finally see her face, but part of it is framed out.

Together, we are given a scene that visually supports the narrative of Clint’s question: “Are you lying?” We never see the woman fully for who she is, she’s revealed to us slowly as we gradually see more and more, but still not a full picture. We can assume that whatever she says is only a partial truth; we won’t get the full story.

Reading further, we see that the dialogue supports this idea with the woman’s line: “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.” She isn’t exactly going to lie to him, but we’re not going to get the truth either.

We can do the same thing with Hawkeye’s character. From what we see of his apartment in the two above photos, Clint lives in a dirty, cheap place.

In the first photo he’s drinking coffee straight out of the pot and is covered in small bandages. We are instantly given something entertaining about his personality and know that he doesn’t really care about how he looks.

The bandages are a key point of Hawkeye’s character in this story; remember this is a superhero story. To have a hero with bandages tells us he’s not invincible. He’s a normal guy. This isn’t a superman we’re seeing, but an everyday guy.

It also adds a lot of personality to Hawkeye. There’s something that sets him apart visually from other characters and that peaks our interests as readers.

Basically, comic books are one big storyboard and can be a great tool to study and draw inspiration from.

Find a comic (probably a story that’s more grounded in reality than this…)

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…and try to mimic the feel of the book. Use it as a storyboard and see what you can make out of it.

Take notes on the visual exposition of the characters, and on the lighting in the scenes. How can you apply it to the films that you make?

Something else that works great for using comics to help you with your short film is knowing comics are self contained, while being a serialized story at the same time.

It’s a perfect format for short films because instantly you get thrown right into the action without being bogged down by exposition. I’ll use Hawkeye again for this. Here’s the first page of the first issue of My Life As a Weapon.

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Instantly we’re put into an exciting and interesting situation and we are compelled to turn the page and see what happens next.

Now, not every character is going to be falling out of a window in every short film, but it’s a great way to learn about getting right to the point. Viewers get bored easily and you need to find a way to get them hooked. Especially if you don’t have thousands of dollars invested into your project.

Now, if comic books aren’t really your thing and you hate them with a passion… well then, sorry I wasted your time.

HOWEVER!

If you love both film and comics, here’s a way to use your love of comics for film.

‘Nuff said.

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The Director’s Playbook

Written by Greg Garofalo.

It hurts me when film students direct their first film, fail spectacularly and decide directing isn’t for them. Now in all fairness, there are many who find a newfound passion in being director of photography, or production design and that’s great.

However, there are some who just think they don’t have the knack for it and they give up. So if you just finished your first film and you’re having an existential crisis, or if you’re just about to start your first film, take a deep breath and keep reading.

Everywhere you look for directing advice you usually find articles and books on the artistic vision you will have to have in order to direct a film.

That’s all well and good, but no one tells you that directing is more of a skill than a talent.

Don’t get me wrong, as a director you are the creative force behind a project and you need to have a vision. However, you need to be skilled and gain experience in order to get that idea off the ground. Like any other skill though, it can be learned. Here are some tips that can help you fine tune that skill.

1. BE CONFIDENT

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This one probably seems like a no brainer… or something out of a self help book, but it’s super important and can make or break your film. As the director, you are the captain of the ship and everyone is looking to you for leadership. If you know what you’re doing (or at least act like you do) it’s going to inspire a similar confidence in your cast and crew.

It isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The first film I ever directed I was a deer in the headlights. I was so nervous I was literally shaking. It was bad.. like really bad.

My second film I did was great, I had a much clearer vision of what I wanted and had a better strategy on how to bring that idea to life.

The difference in this confidence? I made sure to take a deep breath and believe in myself.

I know that sounds like a cat poster (or the lyrics to the Arthur theme song) but it’s true. During my first film I was constantly questioning the story I had written and my abilities as a director. Thoughts like “I have no idea what I’m doing”, “this isn’t working out” and “I just want to be done.” all raced through my mind.

My second film I decided to just take things one step at a time, to focus on each task one at a time, rather than look at things as a big impossible obstacle.

Taking things one step at a time and a deep breath will carry you a long way.

2. KNOWING YOUR STORY

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I can’t stress this enough. Don’t just memorise the script, but memorise the beats and the emotion of the script too. Learn to study your script like an actor would. Find the motivations, the character arcs, the foreshadowing, etc.

A great film is like a great novel; there’s always something more to dissect. Diagram your story and know every inch of emotion, theme and development.

To understand the beats and the emotion of your scripts, do some research on story itself. Start with the basics and study things like The Three Act Structure and  Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.

This might not sound like something required for directing, but as the director you are the storyteller. Regardless if you wrote the script yourself or not you need to understand visual storytelling and what makes an objectively good story from a bad one.

3. PRACTICE AND LEARN VISUAL STORYTELLING

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A prose author focuses on the internal conflict of their characters, while a playwright will tell the story through dialogue. A screenwriter needs to rely on the visuals to drive the story.

Mad Max Fury Road is a great example of visual storytelling; look at Max and Furiosa’s fight.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dB74pkelfUI (embed in article)

It’s a dense scene, packed with visual narrative, and everything is intentional.

  • Max is demanding to be cut free when the woman sees her former captors on the horizon, Max doesn’t care. Instantly the film establishes a sense of urgency and a major conflict.
  • Furiosa is not the kind of character to just sit by and let things happen; she’s going to get the situation back under her control.
  • Even the refugee women get involved in the fight. Their involvement shows not only just how desperate they are to get away, but how the women won’t be helpless damsels. They’re going to be strong characters as well.

This is all set up without a word of dialogue.

When you watch it ask questions like:

  • What does Furiosa’s amputated arm tell you about her?
  • How does the desert setting complement the story?
  • What does the costumes tell you about the characters?
  • How does the center framing of the characters affect how you view the action?

I could go on, but you could fill a book dissecting that film. Open your eyes and ask yourself as a director, how do you show a story rather than tell one?

  • Film some shorts without any dialogue and force yourself to show a completely visual narrative and then ask how dialogue can enhance that story.
  • Watch films with the sound muted and take notes on what’s happening in the story, did the filmmaker succeed in visual story or did they rely on expositional dialogue to get through to their audience.
  • Read comic books. Yup, you read that right; comic books are an inherently visual story medium, they basically read like one big storyboard

4. PLAN A STRATEGY FOR DIRECTING YOUR ACTORS

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This is a HUGE one. I’ve noticed that actor-director communication not only makes or breaks the film, but it’s also a deciding factor for many aspiring directors in whether or not they decide to continue to direct.

After all, if you don’t have the knack for talking to actors you obviously can’t direct, right?

  1. Directing actors is a learned skill, it isn’t an inherent gift. Yes, you might be good with people and all that, but none of your people skills matter if you don’t have a strategy.

A friend of mine was directing a comedy recently. When I asked him how it was going he told me that he didn’t think his actors understood that his script was supposed to be funny.

In reality, it had nothing to do with his script and everything to do with directing.

Often times, comedy will call for a bit of exaggeration in both an actor’s mannerisms and their line delivery. This is something that is directly opposite of what most screen actors are taught. A screen actor is taught to keep a scene as real as possible. Minimize your mannerisms and facial expressions, play to real life and all that jazz.

My friend never took this into account; he just expected his actors to instinctually ham up their performance. While I’m sure his actors understand this about comedy, an actor isn’t going to break a cardinal rule without the director’s direction. See what I’m getting at?

In order to successfully direct actors, you need to get in their head. Study different acting methods such as Uta Hagen, Stanislavski and more. Learn about objective based directing rather than emotions based. Are you telling your actor how to feel or are you giving them a goal to build towards?

Also, make sure you have a meeting beforehand with your talent and make sure they know the subtext of your story. Give them as much character information as you can and learn about the methods they study and adhere to.

Not only will this help your actor know the story better, but it will help you make a better game plan. You’re a coach and you need to know your players’ strengths and weaknesses in order to win the game.

5. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED AND IMPROVE YOUR COMMUNICATION SKILLS

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When it comes to filmmaking, you need to know that things are going to go wrong. No exceptions…things WILL go wrong.

You’ll have difficulty with your location, your equipment might break down or overheat, your crew’s morale will drop, and airplanes will seem to only fly during a take. You name it, it’s going to happen. You need to be ready for it.

Problems with shooting is nothing new, it’s just how it goes. You need to learn to roll with the punches and work around the obstacles. Make a joke out of it; find ways to keep morale up.

Make sure craft services has plenty of snacks to pass out. Trust me food, always tastes 1000x better on a film set than in any other context.

Keeping the mood light and fun is a double edged sword. You need to make sure your crew is on track too. I worked with a director who would throw a spare water bottle out of “anger” to jolt the crew back on track and it worked.

You don’t have to copy that, but find ways to keep your set under control without running it like an oppressive dictator.

You also need to make sure your direction is clear and concise. There’s no time on set to go into a lengthy explanation on how you need something done, you just gotta get it out.

6. RELAX AND FAIL, FAIL, FAIL

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You’re not going to be Scorsese overnight. Don’t be afraid to take a chance and fail at it. Just because your first, second, or third film fall flat on their face doesn’t mean you shouldn’t direct.

If you really want to direct, do it and don’t let failure stop you. Pick yourself back up and do it again and again until you get it.