Filmmaking is all about balance. This notion applies not only to creative choices (balancing story beats, character types, etc.) but also to the filmmaking process as a whole. Finding the right balance when making a film is critical to the overall success of any given project, yet today so many filmmakers spend so much of their time in all the wrong places. Throughout this article I’m going to outline what I believe to be the perfect balance for tackling the extremely challenging task of creating a film.
Most of us filmmakers gravitate towards one aspect of the filmmaking process, and tend to spend more time than we should focused on whatever that interest may be. For some of us (and likely many of the readers of this site) it’s cinematography, while for others it might be writing or production design, for instance. Obviously if you are solely a cinematographer, writer, production designer, etc. than your primary focus needs to be that one thing as you are a specialist in that area. This article however, is intended for directors, producers, and other filmmakers that are involved in every step of the process and whose success is dictated largely by their ability to find the right balance in their work.
When I first started making films, I was hyper focused on performance and cinematography and far less focused on many other critical areas of the craft. I had always been naturally drawn to beautiful imagery, and my background in performance (when I was in high school) gave me a huge push towards directing talent, and as such my early films largely reflected this bias. This might not sound all that bad on the surface, and in some respects it was a great launching off point especially at a young age – however after making my first film or two I had the distinct feeling that my final products felt a bit lopsided. The reason being that I was so overly focused on these two elements, that I hadn’t been spending enough time on some of the other areas that I should have been paying more attention to. More importantly though, during the time that I did spend on other areas of the process (editing for example), I wasn’t always focused on the right things. I may have been editing a scene and focusing so heavily on picking the right camera angle, that I missed a key moment in the scene that was captured on a less desirable shot. Or I may have written my story primarily with the actors in mind first (in order to give them something really meaty to work with) but neglected to look at the bigger picture – ultimately making the mistake of writing my story to best serve the actors and not the film.
My example is just a personal reflection on what I could have done differently, but as I stated earlier this issue affects nearly every filmmaker – just in different ways. Whatever aspect of the craft you are most drawn to should always remain a passion of yours as it will define your style as a filmmaker and give you a unique point of view… But in order for your talent in that area to really shine, it needs to work well in the context of the film as a whole, as that is what will elevate that skill past a technical talent and into a creative talent. After making a few films of your own, if you find that you are overwhelmingly more passionate about one aspect of the craft over all else (say cinematography for example), then perhaps you really are a cinematographer at heart. Not everyone is a director or producer, or wants to be a jack of all trades. So take my advice below for your next film and do your best to find that balance, but also understand that if things stay lopsided for too long, you might be naturally more inclined to focus on a more specific area of filmmaking.
The Perfect Balance
Take a look at the graphic below, which I believe represents the unbalanced process that most filmmakers default to early on in their careers. For this graphic, I used cinematography as an example of the primary skill set which is being over-emphasized in this case.
Please note that the percentiles here aren’t simply a breakdown of time, but rather a reflection of time as it relates to effort. In other words, someone working within the balance that I am showing above might spend 1 day shooting a project and 9 days editing it, but that doesn’t mean they are spending only 10% of their time focused on cinematography. They may be so driven by their (or their DPs) cinematography work that they cannot separate themselves from it in the edit, and even though they are spending the majority of their time editing (9 out of 10 days), they are spending an abundance of those 9 days focused on editing to serve their cinematography, and not focused enough on editing to serve the story, performances, pacing, and so on.
I tend to find that filmmakers most commonly gravitate towards cinematography and writing early on in their careers. On the cinematography/camera end of the spectrum, you have first time directors that have come up from a DP background, and are so focused on getting the right image that they lose sight of other aspects of their production. On the writing side, you have filmmakers that have literary backgrounds and care very little about what their product actually looks or feels like, but are completely wrapped up with whether or not their script gets translated from the page verbatim. As you can imagine even based on this limited example, both types of filmmakers (those more focused on cinematography, and those focused on writing), would benefit immensely from placing an emphasis on the other aspect of their process in addition to their primary skill. The DP driven filmmaker’s work would be more meaningful if the writing was there to back it up, and the writing-centric filmmaker’s work would be watchable if it actually held some production value. This notion extends far further than just these two areas of the craft, however I do find that many filmmakers fall into one of these two categories when starting out.
One other thing that I’ll point out in the chart above is that there is an overabundance of time off. Filmmaking is an extremely time consuming art form – at least it is when you’re giving it 110%, and when you are so focused on one or two areas of the craft it’s easy to feel like your job is done before it actually is. There’s nothing wrong with taking some time away from your project (in fact I highly encourage it – more on that later), but when you are away from things for too long you run the risk of losing momentum and allowing other aspects of your project to fall by the wayside.
So what is the perfect time balance for filmmakers? If you ask me, it looks something like this (again, based on a cinematography-inclined filmmaker):
In the previous graphic, I showed that only 10% of time/effort was being dedicated to the other major areas of the craft (outside of the primary interest), but in this version that has been upped to 50%. At the same time the primary focus has been cut from 60% to 30%, and the time off has also been cut significantly – dropping down to 20% from 30%.
Based on these graphics alone, it’s pretty obvious (visually speaking) why the other major areas of focus needed to jump up to 50%. After all, filmmaking is all about balance, and for only 10% of your time and effort to be spent on every single other aspect of filmmaking other than your primary skill is pretty ridiculous. By bringing things up to 50% however, and bringing down the amount of time spent on your primary skill to 30% you are effectively solving two problems. Not only are you are you not spending unnecessarily high amounts of time/effort on the skill that you already possess, but you are now also challenging yourself to perfect other areas of the craft that you may have been neglecting. The truth of the matter is that if you already understand the craft of cinematography very well, you shouldn’t need to spend as much time and effort in that department (while on an actual project) as you should in the areas where you are less comfortable. With that said though, I don’t recommend that you completely reverse the ratio (hence why your primary skill is still sitting at 30%), because that passion of yours is not only going to define your style as a filmmaker, but it will also drive you forward throughout the creative process. You don’t want to take it away so much that you aren’t having fun anymore and that you’ve completely lost touch with who you are as a filmmaker, but rather limit it so that you can also focus on the other areas of the craft that will showcase how great that skill really is.
I also want to quickly make the point that I am by no means suggesting that you need to write/cast/scout/edit your film by yourself in order to become a more balanced filmmaker. But I am suggesting though, that you maintain a substantial involvement in those areas so that when you are working with your editor for instance, you focus on the edit from an objective point of view, and not simply from the point of view of a cinematographer.
The reason why I cut the amount of time off in the second graphic down to 20% is very simple: You are going to need that extra time to work on all other aspects of the craft that you are less familiar with, and you don’t want that to cut too far into your time focusing on your primary skill (since after all, that is what will define your work to a degree). It’s also not ideal to take too much time away from your project as you might lose momentum (as discussed earlier) so by limiting your time off during productions you are keeping your head in the project and ultimately maintaining a better focus.
One more note on taking time away from your projects…
The 20% time off that I am suggesting is specifically relevant while you are in production/post-production for your film. You don’t always want to be working in overdrive as you will burn yourself out, and time away from a project or work in general is absolutely essential. When I feel like I am not seeing clearly creatively, I will immediately distance myself from the project at hand and let myself recharge, so that when I come back to the project I am excited to work on it again. There are times (specifically while shooting and editing) that you’re going to need to take less time away which is where the 20% comes in, but you should still be able to maintain a drive for your project since you will be balancing your workload properly and not overdoing it in any one area. The key with time off is yet again to balance it properly. Don’t take too much time away or you’ll fall behind, but don’t burn yourself out either.
And finally, remember that these are simply guidelines. I am by no means suggesting that you actually break down your time and measure how much time and effort you are spending on one thing vs. another, but rather I am suggesting that you are consciously self-aware of how you are spending your time. By attempting to balance things in an optimal way your work will inevitably improve by leaps and bounds as you become a more well rounded filmmaker.