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How to make an award winning film

Steve Evanson

Steve Evanson - Research in Film Awards judge and co-creator of the global TV brand Coast

Turning your research into a film can seem like a daunting prospect. Here's Steve Evanson, Research in Film Awards judge and co-creator of the global TV brand Coast, offers his advice for how to make a successful film.

It’s been my great pleasure to be a judge on the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Research in Film Awards. Here are my secrets for making a successful film; tips that I hope will make your movie better and the audience happier.

1. Who are the audience?

The first question for any film is who are you making it for? Once you know your audience, ask yourself: what do they want and expect from you? Then you can plan to satisfy and surprise your viewers. The temptation is to treat your film like an academic publication aimed at your peers but the judges are looking for a film that will appeal to a general audience. That doesn’t mean dumbing down your research - people like to be challenged. But you have to hook them in to take them on a journey that pays off the promise of your film’s opening. That’s where the story comes in.

2. What’s the story?

Ask any child and they’ll say they want a story with a beginning, middle and end. We’ve all grown up to expect those three key elements - it seems so obvious - the so called ‘three act structure’. But I’ve seen many bad films that have forgotten this golden rule of successful story-telling. A useful way to think of the three acts are: set-up, struggle and resolution.

Set-up: What’s the minimum I need to know to hook me in and pose a big question your film will answer.

Struggle: Take the viewers on a journey of understanding, a satisfying ‘struggle’ to resolve the problem identified in the set-up.

 Resolution: The initial big question has been answered. But what are the consequences of that answer? Often this is an emotional response that resolves the story in a way that satisfies both head and heart.

To help you do this: imagine telling a story from your research to a friend in the pub. You’d set up an intriguing question to keep them listening, enjoy telling them how it wasn’t easy to find the answer - but you managed it eventually. To round the story off you might share how solving the problem made you feel. But it doesn’t have to be your struggle at the centre of the story, and that’s where characters come in.

filming on set

3. Who’s the character?

People like stories about people. Your research maybe conceptual, ideas based, but I’d urge you to look for a character that will draw the audience into the issues you want to explore. Popular stories have a character who wants something (set-up), but someone or something stands in their way (struggle), will they get what they seek (resolution)? This character on a journey can be you - don’t be shy about putting yourself in the story - or someone you’ve discovered in your work, alive or dead. Perhaps even an invented character, or a community. This character takes us through the film. Their struggle to understand something, achieve something, or find something, is our motivation to watch. Through their experience we explore the concepts you want to share from your research.

4. What’s the tone?

 Do you have a favourite film you can watch again and again? Long after you know the plot inside out what draws you back is the world the film creates. This world is a rich mix of characters, visuals, music and editing. Concentrate on the world you are creating, consider setting the tone with your shooting style, music, variation between scenes, and variation of pace. Use films you admire for inspiration. To paraphrase Apple founder Steve Jobs: we all steal, the trick is to steal from the best.

5. What can I cut?

The quality of your film depends just as much on what you leave out as what you put in. Watch the first edit of your film with a ruthless eye. Is that sequence, interview, or commentary absolutely necessary to advance your story? If not cut it. Don’t try to be clever by leaving in baggy indulgent moments. Your job as a filmmaker is to make the viewer feel clever. Help them to work out where the story is going with clear signposting. Make them feel they are one step ahead of you; that makes any surprises all the more satisfying. If you are working with an editor, rely on them to help you shape the story. They won’t have the same emotional involvement with the shots, so it’s easier for them to weed out material - no matter how nice - that might be holding up the story.

Shorter is always better, for a general audience, and of course the judges who have many other films to watch.

Good luck, and be bold, but please tell a story.

See also our What do film commissioning editors look for? feature.

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