Alan's Tips for Student Films

I'm not a film student. But I'm the guy who mutters about how annoying your mistakes are while attending the student film festival -- and I'm the guy who can't stop talking about how great your film was when you get it all right.

These are some tips to keep me happy.

I swear a bit in here, but you film students are used to that. Mom, skip to my next blog entry.

  1. Spend more time writing your script than creating a logo for yourself.

    • Read your script out loud.
    • Don't be afraid to rewrite your whole script. No cut-copy-paste superficial editing: rewrite the whole damn thing. After your first draft, you will have a better idea of what you are trying to say, and your next draft will let you really focus on saying that.
    • You had better have a great point or make me laugh. Nothing is worse than a film with no point. I don't give a shit if you used a camera angle you never used before.
    • I'm serious about revising. Otherwise, you might end up like the poor sap who was laughed at by the whole theater for simultaneously attempting to reveal crucial plot information at the beginning of the film and pretending that no one knew that information and "suspensefully" building up to its disclosure at the climax.1 It's idiotic, but even an idiot would avoid this mistake once he/she decided he/she wanted to go for suspense and rewrote the script to eliminate the giveaways.
  2. Seriously, about your logo. Don't over-do it.

    You can create a cutesy "X Productions" name and logo2 for yourself if you really want, but if your film focuses on it for more than 2 seconds, I start choking on your delusions of grandeur. At 5 seconds, I throw up and can't finish my oversalted bag of popcorn (no butter, if you're buying to thank me for my brilliant and frank advice).

  3. Ask friends for feedback on for script. Have them focus on plausibility and dialog (or humor, if that's what you're going for).

  4. Lighting matters.

    Don't half-ass it. Keep your color balance consistent. And if your dialogue indicates it's 3 A.M., don't let me see light shining through the goddamn window.

    Oh, and back-lighting is nearly always bad. When done well, it can really make your film shine; typically, though, it just makes it hard for us to see your actors. Which leads us to our next tip:

  5. Do not use effects because they're cool.

    In web design, we have a maxim that no design element should be used without a purpose. I imagine the same rule works for effects of all kinds in films. What does it do? Nothing? Take it out!

  6. Spend a lot of time editing.

    Boring parts suck. Wow, you zoomed out from the detailed close-up to a wider action scene? Great, but if you take 30 seconds to freaking zoom out, I'll pass out from a lethal case of boredom. Stop wanking while thinking about how classy your zoom-out is and cut to the chase already. If the audience is all aware of your camera work, you're doing it wrong; they are missing your message.

    Long speeches suck. You should have edited your drafts enough to prevent that, but for a documentary that isn't exactly how things work -- so play the money quote and skip the rambling.

  7. Get feedback on your edited film, then edit it some more.

    Your friends have eyes that haven't already seen this on-set, in rough cuts, or the script. Use those eyes. Ask them what parts didn't make sense. DO NOT dismiss their concerns, as your ego will ask you to. Figure out why your friends were confused. Was dialog ambiguous? Did it contradict something visually? Fix it.

  8. Soundtracks are hard.

    I am impressed by how well-done many of your soundtracks are.

    Tips: Use music that suits your film, not just your taste. Don't use a song if the lyrics don't fit. Don't layer a song with lyrics over dialog.

  9. The only default font you can use for your title and credits is Helvetica. If you haven't studied typography, you probably shouldn't pick anything besides the following ridicule-safe fonts:

    • Helvetica (Arial works as a substitute. See Helvetica the movie if you have any doubts)

    • Gotham (A recent font famously used for Obama’s 2008 campaign and since used in many, many other places)

    • Gill Sans (Especially for credits/scenes; great readability even at small sizes)

    • Futura / Century Gothic / Neutra (for a clean or modern feel; titles only, not credits)

    • Large, beautiful, classical (not edgy) serifs

    If all else fails, just remember to never use any of the following (except perhaps in parody):

    • Copperplate

    • Times New Roman

    • Comic Sans (seriously.)

    • Courier or any other unforgivably ugly monospace or typewriter font

    • Bank Gothic (tempting since the pros use it, but it's the most over-used film font since Trajan, and it's wide as all hell anyway).

    Also avoid "pure" (fully saturated) red, yellow, green, and blue (#ff0000, #ffff00, #00ff00, and #0000ff, respectively) for text. You'll look like an amateur. Less-saturated colors, black, or white will do fine. We're here for the movie, not to ooh and ahh over the fact you figured out how to change the font color for no bloody reason.

    An uncommon font that directly relates to your subject is usually excusable, but let me stress that while it is a boring, vanilla choice, you can never go wrong with Helvetica.

    Seriously, I cannot vote for you at the film festival if you use Comic Sans, and I will laugh out loud if your title is set in Curlz.

  10. Do not over-compress your movie or edit at a low resolution. Your film should not look like someone is playing a YouTube clip on the big screen.

  11. Hope (or double-check well ahead of time) that the projectionist will show your film with the proper aspect ratio. Nothing is worse than all your hard work being ruined by the fattened look of your 4:3 actors being shown in 16:9. Yes, this happens, and it makes jerks like me want to walk out.

  12. My friend and film editor Erica Mazzella points out that you should cross-fade your tracks just a bit to avoid blipping. (Added July 14, 2009)

  13. A countdown leader is pointless and makes you look overly amateur.  Thanks to Chris Smith for the tip. (Added September 22, 2010)

If I forgot something, let me know.

Good luck.

Update: Sarah Gonzalez at CAGE added these items to her outstanding collection of film festival tips.

  1. Oh, and his/her dialogue was tacky, canned, and unoriginal, and the plot was altogether weak, and the apparent message was exaggerated, and it wasn't funny. All of those things would benefit from revision, but the attempt at suspense was the kicker. ↩︎

  2. Where X is your initials, a pun, or an in-joke, no doubt. ↩︎

April 29th, 2009. (Updated: July 18, 2012 at 1:46pm.)
Alan Hogan (@alanhogan_com).  Contact · About