The regular readers of my site know that most of the content I write about is production and post oriented. I like to touch on filmmaking techniques, new equipment, editing software, etc. as those are the elements that give low-budget filmmakers like myself a means to tell stories. But understanding how to achieve high production value is only half of the battle… The other half is having something truly original and meaningful to say. Often times, filmmakers that have mastered the technical elements of their craft have neglected some of the fundamentals of storytelling, and ultimately their work becomes filled with cliché.
That said, technically-oriented filmmakers are certainly not the only ones prone to clichéd work. Story-oriented filmmakers for instance, may be more aware of the potential pitfalls of writing clichés into their scripts, but their directorial efforts can be just as clichéd in other ways.
There are those filmmakers that are so consumed with the writing of their stories that they neglect to develop their abilities to convey their ideas visually, and the look and direction of their finished films are filled with visual clichés. The point is that no matter how strong you may be in one area (writing, production, post, etc.) there will always be an area of your craft that is less developed, and therefore more prone to cliché.
This is one of countless reasons why I believe all filmmakers to need to have an equal understanding and passion for both the creative and technical aspects of the craft. The vast majority of independent filmmakers are either gear obsessed and neglect story, or story obsessed and neglect production value. A great film is far more than a great script, and far more than a series of beautiful images…
The best films are completely original and offer the viewer an experience that they haven’t had before both on a technical and creative level. In other words, the best films are free of clichés – not just in the writing, but in the technical execution as well.
What Really Is Cliché?
There are many misconceptions amongst filmmakers with regards to what cliché really means… And in fact, many filmmakers make the huge mistake of mistaking cliché for convention. What’s more, is that many incorrectly assume that cliché is only a potential threat during the writing phase of their filmmaking journey, and don’t realize that it can plague every stage of the process.
So how do you define cliché?
A cliché is simply an overused technique or idea that is void of original thought… At least that’s how I would put it. Any choice that you make as a filmmaker can be cliché; an idea for a scene, a character, a camera angle, or a setting, just to name a few examples.
What makes any choice cliché, isn’t the choice itself but the fact that the same choice has been made countless times before. For example, the first time anyone ever wrote a film that opened with a character waking up late in bed to an alarm clock that didn’t go off, may very well have been making a truly original choice. The second, third and fourth people to copy that idea might get away with claiming they’re paying homage to the original, or simply tipping their hat to it. But after a certain point, when an idea has been done to death and it becomes predictable and has been seen countless times, a cliché is born.
Most creative choices that eventually turn into clichés originate as very strong ideas. They are so strong that they influence creatives for generations to come, which of course is how they become cliché as the years go on…
For a simple example of cliché (related to story in this case), consider the ending of The Wizard Of Oz. The idea that the entire story could have been a dream was probably quite remarkable at the time. While that concept may have been done before in novels or the theatre, I doubt that any major films had employed that specific twist before. Fast forward to today though, and using that same technique will feel like a cop out. Why? Because the audience has seen it a thousand times before. What was once a groundbreaking idea or technique, quickly becomes nauseating, boring, and most of all unoriginal after being overused so many times.
I want to re-iterate once again though, that anything in a film can be cliché, not just the story driven elements. The dutch tilt could be considered a cliché of cinematography. Certain types of match cuts could be seen as clichés in the editing room. A character can be a cliché. Anything can fall into this category if it’s unoriginal enough…
No matter how gifted you may be in any given area, you need to be hyper aware of the potential of clichés poisoning your work throughout every stage of the process. After all, a writer/director may craft a beautiful screenplay but then shoot it in a way that is cliché. Or alternatively that same writer/director may be able to execute the production of their script in a completely original way, but will make poor choices in post-production.
Even a director’s filmmaking style can become cliché at some point too. There are countless amateur filmmakers that obviously try to emulate the work of masterful directors like Scorsese or Tarantino, and neglect to find their own voices as storytellers. This doesn’t mean you can’t be influenced by filmmakers, but it does mean that you can’t simply re-create what they have done. Why does anyone want to see the same movie twice? Especially when the second version is a watered down version of the first?
Tarantino is a perfect example of a filmmaker who is heavily influenced by the work of others, but whose work is still highly unique. Sure, Tarantino is a self proclaimed ‘thief’ that draws influences from countless sources of inspiration… But he does it in a way that is completely his own. Much like a musician that fuses together two genres of music, he is able to draw influence from influential filmmakers while still crafting something truly original.
Convention Vs. Cliché
Many filmmakers mistake cliché for convention, and ultimately that is the root of their problem as storytellers.
I like to think of a convention as an unwritten rule or set of guidelines that limits your choices as a filmmaker in a positive way. In other words, if you are writing a crime thriller, writing conventions dictate that a crime needs to take place in the story. If you’re shooting a horror film, cinematography conventions dictate that you’ll want to light and frame your villain a certain way.
While some rules are made to be broken, conventions are often best left alone. This is something that I’ve learned over the years both from making mistakes of my own, but also from studying the work of others. One of my favorite books on screenwriting (Story by Robert McKee), touches on this notion at length, and these same principles can be applied to any aspect of the craft – not just screenwriting.
At first glance. following conventions may seem counter-intuitive if you’re to avoid clichés in your work. After all, if you are trying to create something totally original, wouldn’t you want to break the rules instead of following them? Yes and no. Some rules are made to be broken, and others aren’t. As I stated above, conventions are best left untouched.
To use an example from music, consider the Beatles. They used pop conventions in the vast majority their songs (verse/chorus/bridge) but within those parameters they broke the rules. They tried out new and unique instrumentations, thought provoking lyrics, and so on. But because these new ideas were housed in a format that people generally understood and accepted, they were not only thought of as original, but as iconic and timeless.
The same applies to filmmaking. You could choose to break a writing convention (such as the three act structure for instance), but that wouldn’t make your story any better in itself. If anything, it might give you a false sense of originality that could blind you to the poor choices you’ve made with regards to dialogue, character, direction, lighting, and so on.
Most filmmakers starting out want nothing more than to break conventions… I certainly fell into this category when I was just getting my feet wet, so I would know. But ironically, the more you understand the craft of filmmaking the more you appreciate traditional conventions and use them to your advantage. This doesn’t make your work formulaic at all, in fact it has the exact opposite effect. It simply allows you to focus your creativity in the right places and get the most out of yourself throughout the process.
As you make choices in every stage of the filmmaking process, you need to be acutely aware of whether any given element you are tackling is a convention or a potential cliché. As long as you identify this crucial difference, you are on the right track to creating an original film that is not only free of cliché, but also speaks to the audience in a language that they understand.
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