I really enjoy designing a characters world. Every tiny detail. What coffee they drink, how they wear their hair and how they live, everything…
What a person choses to surround themselves with is a clear mirror to their soul. Colors, textures, variety, abundance. All indicators of what goes on inside someone’s mind.
I am a writer and a filmmaker, as well as a mum and all these activities require that I pay close attention to detail. With kids, especially teenagers, this means that I notice when they leave, when they come back and what they smell like…Who their friends are and what they smell like too. I have found over the years that what someone smells like is a pretty good indicator of what they get up to, as well as who they get up to it with and how they clean up afterwards. My sense of smell has never been keener.
As a filmmaker I live and die by my attention to detail. It can make or break a shot, the choice of location, actor, crew…everything. Not paying attention can cost me money, and it has. If the sound guy isn’t paying attention I will have to either lose a shot or have to replace the sound with expensive ADR. If the wardrobe person isn’t paying attention, the continuity is off and the shot is useless, worse still, if the rest of us doesn’t notice either, then we don’t even know what’s wrong until we are in the edit and it’s too late for another take.
Paying attention isn’t all about mistakes, it can add gorgeous and beautiful details to film. It can make something with a small budget look much more expensively made. You also have to pay attention to the smallest of details in the script, to the words each character would use, and how they communicate with each other. It’s not just about the words that move the story along and get us from A to B, it’s about the way each character’s individual voice differs from the next. It’s really easy to forget that we all talk in different voices, our words are used differently and these specific nuances in how we interact with each other are so important in the language of a film. It also gives the actors a place to begin to build their characters, and you certainly don’t want everyone to sound exactly the same!
You must pay attention to what a character wears and how they wear it, attention to the uniqueness of every location, wallpaper, sheets, pictures on the wall, cars driven, the color of someone’s hair. Every detail as important as the next.
These days, when there is so much really great TV and film the audience is much more sophisticated, much more discerning. The details become a game, like hidden easter eggs in video games.
For an audience paying attention to the details of a story, whether it’s a film or a book or a poem, can be how they are drawn into the story, how they are connected to the characters and what makes these characters authentic and real. Recognizing authenticity in something is how we remember our own humanity, as well as seeing the humanity in others.
So when you think about it, details really do matter, it isn’t all about the “big picture.” It is about every tiny detail of life, the smallest of things that, like a massive, complex mosaic, make up the big picture.
The smaller the budget the more these details are important I think. There is less to see, fewer things to hide a mistake behind. But therein lies the amazing opportunity.
When you have to strip everything back, as we often do in very, very independent filmmaking, it’s these few and specific details that we use to create our worlds and where we can have so much fun doing it.
What ice cream are they eating, is it something specific to the region they are in or the time? Are the sheets on the bed what this character would really have in her own room, or is it just what your neighbor’s brother has on his bed when you show up at 6am on Sunday morning?
What car does the murderer drive, probably a Volvo because that’s exactly the right car for a psycho. The color of someone’s sweater denotes the mood they are in. The picture of the cat on the bedside table, where there is no cat to be seen, a sense of loss perhaps. A bass guitar, CNN on in the background, a french press rather than a coffee machine, sprouted wheat bagels, the bicycle must be red…on and on and on, everything can be utilized to create the world that you pull your audience into.
This takes time of course, but is can be as worthwhile as being able to film in an actual restaurant, or being able to borrow your cousin’s boss’s DeLorean…
Don’t underestimate the power of the detail and please do not dismiss an opportunity to satisfy that demon within you that likes to control every minute detail of everything. Finally you get the chance to stop everything and remove the picture of the moose on the wall and replace it with an obviously erotic picture of a flower’s stamen being ‘taken’ by a pollen ladened bumble bee….This is what it’s all about folks!!!