Embracing Limitations

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This article was originally posted on the website for Play It Safe. Click here to view the original post.

I believe that learning to work within limitations is an incredibly important part of being a filmmaker. On many (if not not all) projects it is simply a requirement. In addition to this, however, I believe that it can actually be a very big help to the creative process. This is something I learned early on in my film career and I still believe it today. Some of my best work has come out of the technical or logistical limitations I had to work with. So with every new project, instead of cursing the limitations and restrictions I face (even though sometimes it’s mighty tempting) I do my best to actually embrace them.

STUDENT FILMS

When I first started uni I very quickly became aware of what I feel to be one of the major problems with student or amateur filmmaking. The uni I was at did not have a lot of gear, and there was not a lot of training. In first year the only cameras we had access to were little MiniDV handycams, and the only lights we had were these busted up Red Heads that starked smoking if you left them on for too long. Now, instead of considering these restrictions and planning accordingly, it seemed to me that a lot of these filmmakers were trying to ignore or work against their limitations. The result: a lot of these films weren’t great.

Many students seemed to be trying to create a cinematic, Hollywood-style movie, but the filmmakers just didn’t have the resources to pull off that kind of a production. They didn’t have the actors for those kinds of roles. The didn’t have the kinds of cameras, lenses, or lighting gear to get those kinds of shots. In fact, a lot of these films weren’t even using an appropriate aspect ratio for the kind of visual compositions they were trying to create.

To my mind, this was a real problem. Maybe they could ignore their lack of resources when watching the final result, but I certainly couldn’t.

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SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

In my opinion, one of a director’s primary goals is to deliver an engaging, authentic experience to the audience. I think a big part of that is getting the audience to suspend their disbelief. An audience will have certain expectations when watching a film. If you work against your limitations, if you break these expectations, then you are going to have problems. That’s when you can really jar an audience and remind them that the people and events they’re watching on screen aren’t real and that it’s all just a movie (and maybe a bad one at that).

Now if it’s your aim to unsettle the audience or point out that film isn’t really capturing reality - and that’s a whole other discussion - then that’s fine. But if you’re trying to engage them on an emotional and storytelling level it’s probably not so great.

Many of these student films were aiming for an engaging, authentic experience but their technical limitations were distracting. When watching these films, I simply could not suspend my disbelief. Every shot, every action, was coming up false.

I found this very frustrating. I didn’t want to create “student films” or “amateur films”, films that pretend to be the real deal but are just a pale reflection. I just wanted to create films that could stand and be judged on their own right.

So, instead of trying to ignore or work against the limitations we had, myself, and a couple of other directors I was working with, decided to take a different approach. We decided to embrace those limitations and let them spark our creativity. Instead of looking at it like a negative, we turned it into a positive. Instead of struggling with what we didn’t have, trying to reach an impossible goal, we started with what we had and then worked out what we could do from there.

ANIMATION

For the first few years, this led us to animation. To achieve a professional result in live action you need a lot of resources and a lot of professional ability. You need cameras, lights, dollies, tripods, a good DP and camera crew, and a whole lot more. With animation, you can create something that looks and sounds really professional using only your home computer. We really loved animation, but that actually wasn’t the main reason we created animated films. It was all about the storytelling we could achieve with the limitations we had.

"Fraught" - a film I created in 2006 with Steph Brotchie & Maia Tarrell. Despite us only using our home computers and having very limited experience with animation, "Fraught" ended up winning Best Australian Film at the 2007 Melbourne International Animation Festival.

"Supermarket Musical Massacre: The Feel-Good Homicide Of The Century!" - the second collaborative film I made with Steph Brotchie & Maia Tarrell.

LIVE ACTION

After a few years of working in animation, technological advancements made it more practical to work in live action on a low budget. First was the RED One which allowed you to get film-like quality results for around a tenth of the cost. Then came the Canon 5D mk II, which really lowered the cost to something like a hundredth of what would have been required to shoot on film. Thanks to these cameras, I - along with the other directors at KICK KICK PUNCH - were able to create live action music videos that would have been simply impossible for us to produce even a year or two earlier.

"Going Away Song" by Watson/Liow

"Tali Meets Mr Ricketts" by Spacecadet Lullabies

MAKING PLAY IT SAFE

Of course there are still a lot of issues with working in live action. You still need lights, dollies, potentially a large crew, etc. Each one of these shoots is an intense affair, involving many different people and resources. Each shoot can usually only last between one and three days. Any longer and the resources required would be impractical. The cost of hiring equipment, and even just paying for the crew’s catering, would be too great.

When it came time for me to start thinking about longer projects, I knew this approach was not going to be practical without serious funding - and that wasn’t a road I was prepared to go down for a number of reasons. When you factor in the hire cost of all the lights, shoulder rigs, follow focuses, and other things that are required on a shoot like this, it’s a substantial amount per day. For a Hollywood film, it’s no big deal. But for me - an independent director who teaches two days a week to keep the lights on - it’s a lot. It quickly became clear that I was going to have to find a new way of doing things. I had new limitations ahead of me, and I had to figure out the best way to embrace them.

Chris Pahlow

Chris Pahlow is an independent writer/director currently in post-production on his debut feature film PLAY IT SAFE. Chris has been fascinated with storytelling since he first earned his pen license and he’s spent the last ten years bringing stories to life through music videos, documentaries, and short films.