How I Stopped Making Soulless Films

– Posted in: Directing Films and Videos Directing Story

Author & Steve Ross on the set of "Silence the Shadows"

For way too many years I thought I could rely on mechanics to make my films interesting. I worked hard to create good composition, nice dolly moves and high production values. But my films were largely absent of soul.

The problem was, I offered no unique awareness. I didn’t bring the storyteller into the filmmaking process.

I was simply making pretty pictures as I documented activity and information. The mechanics and even the acting was good, but somehow that wasn’t enough.

In his book, On Directing Film – David Mamet writes in detail about this process. It’s pretty deep and a little hard to follow at times, but it’s well worth the struggle.

Looking back I realize I was very caught up in the world of cameras and lighting, but I was a little lazy when it came to learning about directing story. I didn’t know how to do a director’s script analysis or how to create a motivated shooting script. I didn’t know where to place the  camera to enhance my story, so I choose instead to shoot pretty pictures. This unfortunately lead to emotionally disjointed scenes and a film that lacked soul.

I now realize they didn’t have soul because they lacked point of view. I wasn’t fully utilizing the storytelling power of the camera.

Human interaction is like a tennis game. If you pay attention to yourself watching people conversing in a diner you’ll notice your sightline changes from one person to the next. This usually changes based on your notion of who’s acting upon whom. We don’t always watch the person talking, we turn to see how the listener is reacting. An experienced director understands that every human being is always trying to get, do or achieve something. The time we spend watching a specific person is directly related to our desire to know how they feel. This is “Point of View” and it describes what Martin Scorsese means. We frame the person we want the audience to care more about in and the other person out. What we put in the frame reflects what we want the audience to care about. Here’s a fun scenario that dives into this. Set Up Let’s say it’s Bob and Mary in the diner scene, and we’re considering how we might motivate our camera blocking. Bob has asked Mary for her attention and is now delivering some important news. For exercise purposes we’ll say the movie and the scene is more about Mary. Shot 1 – Let’s start with a shot from an objective, omniscient observer point of view. A 50/50 two shot. Meaning they are framed facing each other. This framing doesn’t align the audience with either character so it is objective as opposed to subjective. Shot 2 – We cut then cut to a shot of Mary because the scene’s about Mary and we’re more interested in what she thinks about Bob’s news then we are about Bob. Let’s introduce a glance. If Mary glances away and then back down, we’ve made Bob and what he’s saying less important. But, the glance up also introduces an opportunity to cut away to what she is looking at. This cut would make Mary even more important and in control, because it would take the audience even further away from Bob. Shot 3 – If we then frame a single shot of the man walking in making eye contact with Mary, the dynamic of the scene really changes. But, what about Bob? What emotion and to whom do we want the audience to align with? That’s exactly what where we place the shot shot determines. Shot 4A – If we move to an “over the shoulder” shot of the person walking in, we’ve aligned the audience with a new point of view. But who is the audience aligned with? Shot 4B – If widen out and frame a three shot it becomes about the situation and were observing from outside the circle of action. Are we aligned with any of the characters? Shot 4C – If we go to a single shot of Bob looking up, is this shot about his interpretation of this new event? These are the point of view questions we must ask ourselves because the align the audience with the emotions of the characters and give the scene a point of view. Here are some of my thoughts.

    • The eye glance represents a beat change between Bob and Mary and this motivates a cut.


  • A single shot of the man entering identifies what she’s is looking at.



  • The single shot was motivated by Mary’s glance, so the audience is still aligned with Mary’s POV.



  • Not until we move the camera and frame to an “over the shoulder” shot of the new guy looking back at Mary does the POV change.



  • We’ve brought the camera up to the new character’s height and included him in the shot which means we’ve now aligned the audience with him. It’s his POV. Even if the audience doesn’t  know him, they care about what he means to Mary. Our camera placement has made him important, so he better be important or I’ve confused the audience.



Point of view extends though out the entire film and is guided by a strong theme or controlling idea. But it’s ultimately a director’s unique awareness and cinematic voice that gives the film its soul. I’ll be blogging more about how I plan to put heart in my storytelling, so be sure to check back. If you were directing this scene, what shots would you use and how would you motivate them with story and character POV? We could all benefit by your thoughts!

Got A Film Idea?

If you liked this blog I’ve got few more that focus on understanding story form a directors POV. Check out these links.

Are you a Director Struggling with Story Structure?

What Does Your Audience Want from Your Film?