I want to share with you a few things I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with on my last projects. First off, minimalism is not merely about owning few objects. It is not a race toward having as little possessions as possible. Instead, it is a very mindful practice.
It’s not about using little gear
In my opinion, being a minimalist filmmaker is absolutely not an effort to use as little gear as possible because you can’t really know in advance what you will need on set down to the last clamp or magic arm, and because some projects simply require a lot of gear. What’s important instead is to know why you pack each piece of equipment.
There is a definition of minimalism by Joshua Becker (author of the blog becomingminimalist.com) that I use a lot. Not only does it give a great idea of what minimalism is, but it is also a map that you can follow to implement this practice in any activity.
“Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.”
If you follow this definition, it becomes obvious that you are not a minimalist just because you leave 80% of your gear at home. You first have to assess what gear is important, and what gear isn’t.
How to choose the gear, then ?
The image we usually have of minimalism is obviously about owning few possessions. But that image is simply a manifestation at a surface level of a much deeper work : the assessment of what we most value. In order to do this work, we have to go to the root of our activity. Here is what this process looks like :
1. What gear should I use on this project ? Let’s go deeper.
2. What types of shots are planned ? Let’s go deeper.
3. What’s in the story ? If the screenplay is well written, the screenwriter should already have gotten rid of all unnecessary elements. Which means that she focused on what added value to the story and removed every distraction. So, minimalist story : check !
Now that we have identified our starting point (the story), we can go back to the surface level, layer by layer. According to the above list, our next point of focus is the shot list. To design it, you need to know the core intention of each scene. Every choice you make regarding movement, cuts, angles, … has to be meaningful. To make those decisions, you need to be very clear about the things that matter to the story, and support them through visual choices. Adding aesthetic effects that don’t support any intention already present in the screenplay will simply result in adding distractions.
Only after having designed the shot list with intentionality can you move to the final level : choosing the gear. At this point, it should be pretty obvious since you know exactly what you want the visuals to convey, and you know how you will do it. So, now you can make choices and leave some gear behind if that makes sense to you, but this part is the mere manifestation of all the lucid work you have been doing before about knowing the story you want to tell.
Focusing on the essentials of the story
Minimalism doesn’t just apply to what gear you bring on set, it is rather a system that you can use through every step of the creation process. Especially as an indie filmmaker, it is what allows a director to make a great film despite all the constraints she will face. Just as previously highlighted with the choice of gear, minimalism is about knowing what the core intent is for each decision you make.
When you have to compromise on whatever resource you hoped you’d get (planning, budget, locations, crew members, …), minimalism can help you determine what you can get rid of and what has to be kept no matter what. Since you know what deep message you want to convey with each scene, character, shot, … you can always find a way to convey that same message using totally different tools. It means that even if the shooting conditions are drastically transformed in surface for logistical reasons, you can make it so that it doesn’t affect the core message of the film. You might not have a crane anymore, or that great actor, or it might rain instead of being sunny, but you know exactly what you want to tell, and you will find a way to tell it whatever the means.
You can very well convey the same narrative message through a scene in a swimming pool instead of a scene in a garage. Maybe you liked the fact that the two characters were open and vulnerable in swimsuits, and that was the foundation for a very honest dialogue. Well, these characters could be in the garage and could find an old box belonging to a relative they lost. All of a sudden, you make them human and vulnerable again. They can share their feelings about that loss, and here is the foundation for your honest dialogue ! Having this laser-focused vision on the depths of your story is also an invaluable asset to articulate your intentions to other crew members or actors.
Another advantage of this practice is that you can lead the whole project while keeping your eyes on the deep elements that truly shape the story. In situations of stress or unpredictable events, it allows you to be much less affected by all the changes in surface, and to keep your direction, sculpting the way you tell the story as you adapt.
Not only is it great to not get overwhelmed by the unexpected, but it is also a very healthy way of behaving, especially on set. You can practice letting go of your expectations for each shot, and simply focusing on telling your story, being more relaxed, more available to opportunities, and more helpful toward other team members.
A director once told me a story about a film she made as part of the 48H Film Project. The whole team had been hustling through insane amounts of stress and fatigue to shoot the film, and they entered the edit room exhausted, with less than 24h left before the deadline. They knew they still had one scene to shoot when the sun would rise, and everything seemed like it would work out. Until, at some point during the edit, one of the team members checked the rules of the contest and realized that they had forgotten to include one of the constraints in their story (the character’s occupation). They all got overwhelmed by discouragement : although their current schedule was doable, going back to writing to incorporate the missing constraint, shooting several more scenes as a result and editing all that was simply not possible. They started to look for ways to force the constraint into the edit while keeping all their footage to finish the film on time, but nothing seemed to work. After a while, the main actor shook everyone out of their despair by reminding them that the film they had written was good, and that they were going to finish it, with or without the constraint. Everybody agreed and let go of the expectation to be a part of the contest. They went back shooting the last missing scene, feeling more relaxed and appreciating the film for what it was. And right in the middle of the shoot, the director found the perfect, organic way to incorporate the constraint into the scene !
It had asked to become flexible enough to not be attached to the story as it was, and it only got possible because they all had let go of their expectations and got more relaxed. In the end, they were able to finish the film on time, to respect all the rules, and they won several awards in the contest.
Being able to see your film at the deepest level, and to not get attached to the surface layers of it simplifies everything, and allows you to make that film, no matter the external circumstances. During the whole production of the Godfather series, Francis Ford Coppola had three word in mind. Three words to sum up the entire narration of the films : ‘succession of power’. He was able to make every decision he was asked to make very quickly, because he always had this deep view of the story as a beacon.