The original idea for a Lean Filmmaking experiment

What would the filmmaking process would look like if we applied agile and lean ideas to it? I was thinking this back in 2011. Because my sister, Kylie, is a filmmaker I pitched her an experiment to see if we could try to answer these questions.

Here is that original email.

On 23 May 2011 18:33, David Eddy wrote:
Subject: Lean Filmmaking — The first experiment
Hi,
I’ve been thinking about Lean concepts and how they could related to Filmmaking and am ready to present these in the format of an experiment to be performed. Ideally I would love to facilitate this experiment, but given our time constraints and being in a separate city this will probably not be possible. Instead I hope to give enough background here for you to facilitate yourself!
Applying Lean concepts to Filmmaking
There are many concepts in Lean and I will attempt to include these into my proposed Filmmaking process. The important thing to remember is that the process is a way to organise the work but the real test is to embrace the values behind the process. The challenge for the facilitator is to keep these in mind and steer the team in the right direction.
So lets sum up the Values and Concepts behind the process first:
Enhanced collaboration
Given filmmaking’s success is primarily determined by collaboration between multiple creative disciplines, then any process should make strong collaboration a core goal. Collaboration can be enhanced by a team sharing responsibility for delivering the completed product, rather than having producers and directors driving all others.
Continuous Improvement
The creative process is enhanced by experimenting, prototyping and exploring multiple options. The filmmaking process should acknowledge the learning process that the creative endeavor requires of all its participates, and encourage rapid shared learning. With the tools available today a process that encourages tight feedback cycles is possible.
Flexibility in the production process
At all time the focus of the team should be to produce an engaging story that connects with an audience. This may seem an obvious statement, but the core idea is that technologies and techniques should not be the focus of any process and efforts to avoid them if they put constraints on working in a flexible way. So simple technologies and techniques that provide flexibility within the process by having fast setup times and allow short feedback cycles should be favored.
Eliminate Waste
A core theme of lean in the business world is a focus on eliminating waste, and one of the core areas of waste in a creative process is hand offs. Hand offs are prevalent in the standard film making process. Writers hand over scripts to producers, producers hand over to directors, etc. These are expensive and wasteful activities that require relearning for all people along the way.
Get it in front of an audience
A script has no value, in fact every step along the way has no value until it is finally delivered to an audience. So any process should maximise the delivery of finished work as a priority and focus over polishing documents.
That is some of the inspiration for the lean filmmaking experiment, now onto the process it self.
The Lean Film Making process [version 1.0]
This process takes a very different view of the normal way video/films are made, and instead tries to focus on how to produce high quality (engaging) work in the most effective way. I am sure there are production studios that use similar techniques in certain areas, I especially imagine computer animation would lend itself to this. The assumption here is that the experiment be for low cost productions, and how to scale it up to larger productions is something for another time.
What to start with:
The idea is to compress the whole production process down into as short a time as possible and rely on having talented people self organise to produce great quality work. This in theory will allow the team to share the creative process and allow the shared momentum to flow through the full production process. As such the starting inputs into this process is perhaps only a very high level concept (or a few) and the ability to assemble a team (either by money or influence) and provide the tools (cameras/locations/editing lab). It would be a mistake to have any script, even in draft form, and the high level concept should be very high. It is also important that whoever is presenting the initial concept only sees it as seeding the process, and is not attached to dramatic changes in its direction.
Step 1. Assemble the entire creative team and tools
Given the largest constraint on any production is getting the right creative people, this forms the first step. This is a cross functional team, that is as a group they have all the skills among them to take a simple idea and turn it into a film. Given the entire process is time boxed, the first step is to negotiate/organise with the team how long this can be. The important thing is that all team members sign up for the entire duration as members are expected to help out in all disciplines and co-ordinate and schedule the work together.
Step 2. Envisioning
This is a short process to get enough information ready to start. It should be time boxed to around 10–15% of the overall time available for the production.
The goals of the Envisioning step is to:
- Introduce the team to themselves
- Choose the concept/story to tell
- A very high level “Story Map”
- Choose number of production cycles.
For example if you had 2 days available for the production then you should do a 2hr envisioning process at the start of day 1. The team take 10mins to quickly go around and introduce themselves and their areas of expertise and skills. After the introductions the number of “production cycles” is determined. These cycles need to be long enough to be able to write/film/edit complete scenes while being as short as possible. In the 2 day example the team choose 3hr, so they will do 5 cycles in total.
Then the facilitator kicks of a brain storming session to lock in a concept, if they already have the “seed concept” then they do an elevator pitch to the team of the one or more ideas. Then some brainstorming games are used to decide on a core concept for the story, during this process the team decide what are the important elements that the concept needs (.e.g. Theme, Style, Story). The facilitator brings the team to a decision after 45mins. After a 5min break the team begin work on the high level “Story Map”. Key story elements, characters, reflection points are mapped out onto a wall using physical cards. This does not need to be at the “shot” level, rather it is high level and should create a good overview of how the story will be told, what scenes there will be, the characters and some details around the important areas as required. Some games and brainstorming techniques can be used.
During the process all information and ideas are collected on the story wall with this representing the main physical output of the process, and the goal is that the team come away with a shared vision for moving forward.
Note: If you had 1 week to produce then the cycles would probably be 1 day long.
Step 3. Continuous “Production Cycles” of plan, write, produce, review, refine
The Story Wall represents the goal, and at the end of each production cycle we want to have a stand alone piece of work that meets that vision as best as possible, and also to integrate the knowledge gained from creating it back into the vision for the next cycle.
Repeat the cycle:
 [Plan] > [ Write/Act/Film/Edit ] > [ Review ] > [ Retrospective ]
The team first plan the cycle to figure out what can be achieved in the cycle and what areas to focus on. People work out who will do what for this cycle, with as many activities being in parallel as possible. The idea is to write, act, film and edit the whole story in the timebox, ready to be reviewed as a complete working set. Then repeat the entire cycle focusing improvements on areas that need it most. To achieve the first cycle goal will mean cutting many corners, e.g. time to rehearse, elaborate setups and fancy camera work… but the goal is not to have a polished and perfect result, rather it is to explore the story and process by making it. This will mean the team will have to collaborate to produce the various bits, for example the writer may not be the only one writing dialog, and there may be two scenes filmed at once.
At the end of the Cycle a working copy should be ready to review. The whole team and ideally external “indicative audience members” review the film and provide feedback. The whole team then have a retrospective meeting to discuss what worked well with both the story and also the methods used to produce it and agree on changes to both. Changes can include rewriting dialog, scenes or throwing out characters — really anything that will improve the film. The next cycle then begins the whole process.
The result is that the film is built up over time, and changes and adapts to the constraints and feedback the team have. An analogy is how a painter builds up a painting, from sketch to its final form.
During the earlier cycles you can expect more dramatic changes, and as progress is made the later cycles adds refinements over wholesale changes.
Step 4. Closing
The final cycle results in the final version of the film. Whether the team is likely to work together again or not it is worth having an overall retrospective to talk about how things could be done differently, what worked well and any changes to the techniques that could support tight turnaround times for the cycles.
Well that is enough for now — I was wondering if any of this sounds interesting to you and if you would be able to run this experiment over either 1 or 2 days?

Since this email we’ve successfully run this experiment. It was our first two day weekend experiment event and you can see the results on our Lean Filmmaking YouTube channel. Since then we’ve run a ton of other experiments with our Lean Filmmaking Melbourne meetup group. We are continuously improving the process by learning what works and what doesn’t work but many of these original values remain at the core of our philosophy.


Originally published at leanfilmmaking.com on June 30, 2015.