#66) Film School, Simplicity and Narrative Intuition

Of all the exercises we did in film school, this one was the best.





As much fun as I had in film school at USC, I was a little disappointed at times with some of the faculty who put little effort into their teaching.  Many of them pretty much said to go shoot a film and they would critique it — not much more than that.

But we did do one very simple and memorable exercise in our first semester production class. They broke us into groups of four, gave us one page of the screenplay for the movie “Chinatown,” and told us to come up with a shot list for everything on the page.

My group broke it down into 17 shots.  It was the scene where Jack Nicholson is watching through binoculars as a young boy on a donkey rides slowly through the empty creek bed.  We had a crane shot, a few dolly shots, close-ups of the boy and dolly, close-ups of Jack as he talks to him.

Everyone put their shot lists up on the board.  The other groups were in the same range — between about 15 and 20 shots.  And then they showed us the scene.  We were all stunned.

It was 3 simple shots.

That’s all.  No fancy camera moves, no cutting back and forth, just simple storytelling, first and foremost.


This exercise came to mind this week because a young filmmaker showed me a one minute video he had just shot.  It was packed with text and twists and turns and quick cuts and … it was a tangled up mess.  This happens a lot.

People get excited about filmmaking and think it’s all about impressing your audience with the complexities of what you can pull off.  A truly great filmmaker has the experience and intuition to solve the challenge of telling the story in the fewest and simplest number of steps.   Just like an elegant mathematical proof.

The way you get to this point of being able to see the simplicity in the story is through lots and lots and lots of experience.  No real short cuts.  You just have to get to work gathering experience and seeking the ultimate goal which is narrative intuition.


And just to show you the eternal ubiquity of the ABT, here’s the story I just told you.  “We made our shot lists AND we thought we nailed it, BUT then they showed us we were making it 5 times more complicated than needed, THEREFORE we were humbled.”

Get to know the ABT, it’s your ticket to narrative intuition.