What filmmakers can learn from designers.

Reading this article will make you a better filmmaker.

Are you intrigued? You probably are. The sentence above is designed to keep you reading. You may be sceptical as to whether my claim is true, but the only way to find out for sure is to read on…

This technique is used by design and advertising professionals as a way to get your attention. In this post I will show you how thinking more like a designer will make you a better filmmaker.

Why am I talking about design in a post about filmmaking?

As well as being a filmmaker, I’ve also worked as a web designer for the past 6 years. To start with these felt like two separate disciplines, but over time I realised that through designing websites I was actually learning a lot more about filmmaking than I first thought (and vice versa).

The most important thing I learned about design is that you must be pragmatic; design is all about finding the best way to engage your audience.

Think like a designer

Designers are always trying to come up with the best solution. They’re ruthlessly self critical and always asking WHY?

This is because they know that the odds are stacked against them — there is so much competition for your attention that if their advert doesn’t engage you, you’re probably going to gloss over it.

Filmmakers are faced with the same issue — they must get an audience invested in their film. In fact they have a much harder job as they’ve got to keep you glued to your seat for anything up to 3 hours at a time.

The interesting thing is that many novice filmmakers don’t tend to think about their work from this perspective. Designers have no choice—if their design isn’t getting people’s attention then the client will be on the phone asking why no one is buying their stuff. But novice filmmakers rarely have this kind of incentive to put their audience first. This can mean they end up taking their audience’s attention for granted.

I think this is a problem — if you’re not thinking of how you’re going to engage an audience in your film then it’s probably going to suck.

The problem with short films.

Naturally, films by newbie filmmakers will have their flaws. There’s a lot to learn and if you’re starting out it’s no surprise if your film’s camerawork is a little wonky, or the acting a little naff.

But bad production values don’t necessarily make a bad film, even bad acting or dialogue can be forgiven to a point. There are plenty of examples of amateur films which are incredibly successful, in spite of these things.

Why is that?

What people want above all is to be engaged in a good story and in my opinion that can be boiled down to one thing — mystery.

A good example to illustrate this point is the indie film Primer. Some of the camerawork and editing isn’t great and some of the acting was a bit weak, yet it managed to keep my attention the whole way through.

The reason I kept watching Primer, in spite of it’s flaws, was that I felt as though it was going somewhere. There was a mystery hinted at in the very beginning and I kept watching to find out what was going to happen. It was well crafted in this respect.

If you look hard enough, you will find some kind of mystery at the heart of ANY good film.

It’s more apparent in some films than others, but it’s always there and it’s what keeps the audience watching.

This could be anything, from the mystery of whether or not two people will get together in a rom com, to the mystery of what’s going on inside a character’s head in a psychological thriller. As a filmmaker your job is to get the audience to care about the mystery in your film, then keep them interested by giving them new information.

Well, duh…

This sounds pretty obvious, but I’m constantly amazed at how many filmmakers don’t appear to get this simple fact…

I’ve seen hundreds of short films online where nothing at all has happened within the first 5 minutes. There’s nothing to engage with and by this time I’ve normally switched off, or skipped ahead to find out if the film is actually going anywhere (if not then I switch off).

the 1st rule of filmmaking: stuff doesn’t happen = people get bored

“But I’m an artist. I’m a slave to no-one and I don’t have to worry about revealing information. I can include long, pointless conversations or 3 minute long shots of light bulbs for no reason.”


There’s a difference between a film that’s a work of art and one that’s badly made.

The filmmakers who are famous for being artistic or unvonventional are fully aware of the need for revealing information. They know the rules and they know exactly what they’re doing. You don’t. What you’re doing is boring the pants off your audience by imitating something you’ve seen elsewhere, but imitating the wrong things.

Don’t believe me?

Here are a few examples to show that almost any successful film is based around some kind of mystery, even the more unconventional ones:

This Is England

A fairly challenging film but gripping nonetheless and that’s because you get the sense that something bad is going to happen. The film puts you in the shoes of the other characters and makes you feel what it must be like to hang around with this scary man. The mystery here is what the guy is capable of and the film makes you wonder what that might be.

Un Chien Andalou

There is no narrative to speak of in this film and it’s about as abstract as they come, but still very compelling. The reason for that is because it’s continually giving you new information, just none of it seems to make sense. Your curiosity leads you to want to make sense of it so you keep watching.

It feels like there is something to get.

Pulp Fiction

Another film with unusual structure that actually makes it more interesting. It’s like lots of mini mysteries woven into one. After a while you start to wonder how all the fragments of the puzzle fit together and get the sense that the characters paths will cross later in the film.

These are just a few examples, but you get the idea.

Whatever kind of film you’re making, it’s up to you to work out where the mystery lies. You should always be asking yourself why? Why should the audience give a sh*t about my film? What it is that’s going to keep them watching?

It doesn’t matter whether it’s an action packed thriller, a comedy or a serious drama, the right information must be revealed to the audience at the right time and in the right way, otherwise you’ll lose them.

It’s not complicated to engage an audience, all it takes is some thought.

People tend to glorify professional filmmakers and act as though they have some special kind of genius that mere mortals lack (often filmmakers will do nothing to discourage this of course), but the only difference between you and Spielberg is that he knows the rules and you do not.

The rules are quite simple. You need something that the audience doesn’t know, then you must think of ways to make them want to know what that thing is.

Learn from the folks who are expert attention seekers.

Designers, advertisers & marketers have been studying how to get people hooked for a hundred years and at the end of the day, they’re dealing with the same audience as you.

You may consider yourself an ‘artist’ and look down upon advertising as a lower art form, but if you do you’re a fool. The same principles that advertisers use to get people engaged can be applied to filmmaking. And guess what, all of your favourite filmmakers know this.

Advertising uses a principle known as AIDA which stands for —

The first thing you should do is grab someone’s ATTENTION — if you don’t have someone’s attention then you’re not going to be able to get them INTERESTED and certainly won’t get them to take ACTION (i.e buy your stuff).

This is remarkably relevant to filmmaking—what you’re selling is the climax to your film. The audience is your customer and you want them to come away from your film feeling satisfied with their purchase.

I don’t mean satisfied in a cheesy Hollywood feel good kind of a way, just whatever way is appropriate for your kind of film. If it’s a horror film then the audience want to leave a nervous wreck, if it’s an abstract artistic masterpiece then they want to have their mind blown.

Step 1: Get their Attention

A general rule for any film is to start by showing something intriguing near the beginning, to get the audience’s ATTENTION. If you don’t then they’ll stop caring pretty quickly.

For short films this should usually be within the first minute or so. You don’t have the luxury of the kind of lengthy builds up feature films can afford. The shorter the film, the quicker you must engage the audience.

Youtube ads are a great example of this rule, the makers know they have literally about 3 seconds to get your attention or you’ll have clicked the skip button.

Your opening doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatic (though most of the time it probably should be) there just has to be something to let the audience know that the film is going somewhere.

Step 2: Keep them interested

From there your job is to keep the audience INTERESTED. You do this by revealing (or withholding) information, making the audience feel that the film is progressing towards it’s resolution at all times.

If you don’t do this then their DESIRE will be to start wondering what’s for dinner, rather than to sit and watch the rest of your film!

I’ll repeat that— your film must be moving forward at all times, no matter what kind of film it is!

Whoever the filmmaker — Hitchcock, Ozu, or Michael Bay. They will all employ this sort of cold, calculated thinking. It’s what separates genius from self indulgence, amateur from professional, the real deal from cheap imitation.

All of the great filmmakers know their audience well and know the power of revealing or withholding information for effect. They respect their audience and value their attention.

They know that as soon as new information has stopped being revealed the audience will start to switch off.

This kind of thinking will help with all aspects of production as they all involve revealing information in some way —

  • A cinematographer must consider why they’re choosing a certain angle and what information or emotion is being relayed by the shot choice.
  • The costume department will consider what an outfit says about a character.
  • An editor should consider how their choice of shot or cut point is going to advance the story.

Not forgetting writing of course. This is where you have the potential to make the most impact on the film’s structure. A writer must think about if a scene or piece of dialogue is revealing something new about the characters or story, or whether it’s simply restating something which has already been made clear.

Lengthy dialogue scenes are fine so long as new information is being revealed at all times.

Tarantino is famous for his dialogue, but the scenes in the finished film will have started off much longer, they have been whittled down during editing to be just the right length.

All writers and filmmakers are self indulgent at the start of the filmmaking process and it is through the process of editing— the continous asking of “does this really need to be here?” that you end up with a film that’s watchable.

Remember, editing should happen all throughout the filmmaking process, it’s just as important to edit your script as it is to edit the film later.

And finally…

As a filmmaker your ultimate secret weapon is that you know what is going to happen at the end of the film and the audience doesn’t. If you’re not thinking about the best way to reveal this information to them then it’s a wasted opportunity.

It may not always be easy to know how, but so long as you’re thinking like a designer and always asking why, whether there is a better way that something could be done, then you’re on the right track.