How NOT to make a fan film

I’ve seen many fan films on the net and they almost all suck.

That’s not really surprising, except that the reason they suck is because they all make the same stupid mistakes. Frankly these choices are baffling to me. As a natural director and editor, but most importantly a STORYTELLER, the number one thing all these films do wrong is they TELL instead of SHOW.

That’s really the biggest grife.

My experience is mostly coming from Star Wars fan films here, but I’ve seen plenty of Machinima and films for other movies and they all follow the same detrimental patterns.

Here is an overview of how to not fuck up your fan film:

1) Don’t use (or overuse) narration

ESPECIALLY at the beginning, narration just smacks of shitty storytelling and every other fan film does it. I don’t want to be told about events that happened in your fan fiction, because I don’t care. I want to see a CHARACTER that I can RELATE to. And the way to do that is with characterization and dialog.

Frankly I’ve never cared for narration in ANY film, even blockbusters. The opening crawl of Star Wars bothers me, but at least you can ignore it and just continue watching the movie.

What’s even worse is I’d say the VAST MAJORITY of fan films not only use narration for the beginning, but they make it 1/3 of the entire film, if not more. This is a travesty.

If you have nothing more going for your film than a cheesy fight, then you don’t have a film. And you might as well SKIP the boring narration.

2) Don’t drag out the introduction

This is a fan film. This is not the original film. And even if it was, you don’t want or NEED all those intro logos and cutscenes. It doesn’t make your film unique, it just drags things out and it actually ends up looking very UN-professional.

I know when you’re editing this great film you’ve constructed there is temptation to dress it up as if its a huge movie production, but frankly the only reason anyone tolerates that dressing up is because they’re in a movie theater and their full attention is on the screen and there’s some professional music playing AND there’s the hype factor going for it.

Just start out with a fade-in from black or slap up a title at some point. You can also insert the title after your opening footage, like some TV shows or movies do for emphasis, such as the 2011 Star Trek.

3) Don’t copy the inspiration so much

What I mean by this is when you show a shot of a starship zooming down to a planet, or gratuitous shots of CGI starships just to show that you are copying the brand you’re copying from. Every Star Wars fan film wants to start out with their CGI ship heading down to a planet. To be honest I think these shots are great and they showcase the CGI abilities of the creator. But many of them are the same–a shuttle is heading down to a planet.

Start in the middle of the action.

Start with some dialog!

Start with a dude walking.

Don’t show us his face.

Etc. Just be creative, establish a narrative without the need of “shuttle heads to a planet or crashlands.”

For example, here is the intro of Empire Strikes Back:

In this vid we see a ship, but immediately it starts the story. We can tell something unusual is happening–what are those things leaving the ship? Then they crashland, only to be found by Luke Skywalker. Immediately we are shown the introduction to the narrative–that the Empire is discovering the Rebel Base.

And it’s done ALL without narration or dialog.

Now of course SOME copying of the original narrative is needed to establish the fan film as belonging to that inspiration or franchise. BUT if the sole purpose of your fan film is to say “IT’S A MIMIC OF THE REAL THING” then chances are you will NOT have a real story to tell and the entire production will suffer.

4) Don’t use forests

9/10 of the fan films I see, not just Star Wars, involve the HEAVY use of forests.

Of course, this makes sense. Nobody making a fan film who isn’t serious about it wants to design a real set. But when your entire film is set in a forest, it looks fake and it looks like shit.

At the very least, some better fan films make use of a CGI landscape to look like an alien planet. But even in the film I linked, the entire first third of the film is set in a forest, following a character walking, with boring and pointless narration.

Here’s my problem:

If you have the industrial capability of making lightsabers and spaceships, then you have the capability of making a believably alien landscape or set.

See this film for a perfect example.

5) Don’t directly copy the novel

Many fans will be disappointed by my opinion, but I honestly believe movies are better off adapting rather than directly pulling from the novel. I do think many movies go wrong by totally ignoring their concept, and changing too many elements. But at the same time, fan films suffer in particular from directly quoting dialog.

If you’re making a fan film from a source with lots of dialog, cut the dialog down into snippy, witty movie dialog.

That’s just how a movie works. You don’t want to bog down people with heavy exposition (including narration).

This film is the BEST fan film I’ve ever seen on the net and it even breaks this rule with a horribly boring intro scene where the characters just go ON and ON about something from the novel that they’re trying to imitate.

Which brings me to my next point:

6) Your film should stand on its own

Though many people cry about movies ruining their novel inspirations, a movie should still stand on its own without heavy narrative or explanation. That is because it is a MOVIE and people do not want to sit and watch a 6-hour movie for a reason.

The ENTIRE PURPOSE of the moving picture medium is to SHOW things that you no longer have to TELL. Which is why most fan films fail–they fail to grasp the medium that they’re using and why it’s important.

There is a wealth and depth of information that can be told through pictures alone. An entire gripping story can be told even without any dialog:

But perhaps the worst offender is the last item:

7) Your fight scene should not take up half the movie

If all you’ve got is a lightsaber battle in a forest, then a movie you do not have. Just skip the boring forests, the narration, and cut to the battle.

OR actually make a good story.

But if all you’ve got is a (probably badly) choreographed lightsaber to showcase the fact that you can make a lightsaber, then your film doesn’t have much to offer.

It’s a cute thing to do as an amateur or indie moviemaker, and I get that everybody wants to upload their lightsaber battle to show their family and friends.

It’s like when people make their first video game mods. They will take a texture and recolor it and then upload it and nobody will download it because it’s so simple and dirty and sleazy.

But that’s life.

8) No gratuitous fight scenes

There is a very verbal dissention between people on the lightsaber battles of Star Wars.

Many people hate the prequels for their highly choreographed, lifeless lightsaber battles. I especially hate them because they are not realistic.

People have this idea that swordfighting a delicate art when in reality most swordfights in history are over very quickly [link] because the combatants are trying to kill each other as quickly as possible. It’s not about form or trying to hit the other person’s sword [link]. It’s about aggression and dominance and DEATH.

For this bullet point, I will just let Plinkett from RedLetterMedia explain it for me:

Most notably, this quote from the video:

I gotta really stress this point that lightsaber duels have less to do with the fight itself, but moreso with the internalization of the characters.

In all these fan films I am not very invested in characters which then, of course, are supposed to launch into highly choreographed fights.

Again, for a good reference of a fan film with a memorable fight check out this video:

9) During fight scenes make sure we can tell what’s going on

A big mistake I see during fan films (and many blockbusters) is that the fighting is nonsensical.

When we see a fight, we don’t just want to see ACTION. We want to see cause and effects.

This means that if you show a character shooting an arrow, show it flying, and then show it hit, and make sure we can tell who’s getting hit.

Do it in slow motion if you have to.

[link to arrow video]

10) It’s not over when everybody dies

Many films tend to end with a death or two (or several).

But when a film ends we want CLOSURE and we want to know the EFFECT.

In other words, there was a PURPOSE to the fight. One guy decided to kill the other guy for a REASON. Show us the AFTERMATH. And not just an epilogue.

11) Gratutious credit sequences

I’ve done this too. It’s fun when you’re showing your friends.

But it’s not professional for a brief fan film.

But it’s especially telling when a third of your video is credits.

Or when a third of your video is exposition or narration, another third is a fight, and then the last third is credits.

If you want to make a memorable film, open it quickly with a memorable image, in medias res as they say, and end it with something that provokes thought.

A fan film is a fan film, it tells a story. It’s not a cheap imitation of the movie (unless that’s what you’re going for).

Have a style, have creativity. Be out to tell a story, not just copy the inspiration.

Make sure the things you are doing advance the STORY and the CHARACTERS (the most interesting thing).

The irony of this is that a fan film with great and memorable characters and story and dialog, but with poor effects or setpieces is far more interesting than a film that showcases the CGI work, and shits on everything else.

You can have both, but your primary interest should be in the STORY.

That way your effects will have greatly amplified meaning.

Just be out to tell a good story, and everything else will fall into place.

Without the story, you have nothing.

P.S. And for god’s sake, stop replicating that opening crawl.

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