Monday, April 27, 2015

Grading Rubric for Short Film Premises

Rubric for 5 Short Film Pitches
     The single most important step for a writer of film content is the creation of a premise.  A premise is one sentence that tells you what the story is all about.  As teachers and film producers ourselves, a method of grading or evaluating student work is required, and this method must be both valid and reliable.

     For your consideration, I offer a rubric I've developed over the years to both help students write a premise and for teachers to evaluate them.  At first glance, it may seem as if the rubric would limit students' creativity.  The results are the opposite.  Students generate a huge variety of productions.  In the years I've been using this rubric, never have any students' productions been alike.  Meeting the criteria of the rubric pushes students to be more creative, thus allowing them to reveal their inner selves.

Academic and Artistic Bias

Admittedly, this rubric has a bias towards a certain type of film, an archplot (ark-plot) – a specific hero, with a specific problem that distinct attempts can be enacted in attempt to solve, leading to definitive climax solving the problem.

This rubric is not to be used for an “art film” or a “non-plot”, in which the purpose is to give the audience some vague sort of introspective feeling but not necessarily including a plot, a hero, a beginning, middle, ending, or focus. 

Guidelines for Use

The student should read the premise aloud once, then be silent.  The teacher or judge might ask for the student to repeat the premise aloud again.  No other talking is permitted, no follow-up questions, no discussion.  The rubric is scored.  The student reads their next premise.  The student should be prepared to present at least 5 premises.  The student can continue working on the most successful premise, with the approval of the instructor.


Specific Hero - the judge should be able to clearly identify the hero of the story.  The hero is the person with the problem, who we watch solve their own problem.  The old term “main character” does not adequately describe story building techniques of the film industry.

Entertainment Value – although somewhat more subjective, the premise should give a sense that the film is entertaining.  Entertainment – an emotional experience that is worth repeating.  This definition includes both comedy and tragedy.  For example: Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, but it has entertained audiences for 500 years.  Tragedy does not include stories in which both the hero dies and fails to accomplish their goal.  Although sometimes these stories are produced, the audience tends to walk out or say aloud at the end of the film, “this is so horrible”.  The student prepares a film for the audience.  They are using taxpayer equipment in a taxpayer provided learning situation, so they will need to deliver a responsible product for the taxpayer to enjoy.  A student is learning production.  When they are out of school and have their own equipment, they can produce whatever they want.

Clear Objective / Goal – Does the premise imply or state what will end the story?  The audience will know the story is over because _____.

Steps in Solving Problem – Does the premise imply or describe that the hero will have to be taking a variety of actions to complete the goal?

Story told Visually – Can this story be told with only a few words?  Does the story lend itself to be told though action?  Remember, movie directors say, “Lights, Camera, ACTION”.  They don’t say, “lights camera, talk”.  Does the hero solve the problem and accomplish the goal by performing actions.

Audience Identification – When you hear the premise, do you think, “I understand what is it like to be that character.”  Or “Is that how that must feel”.  Or, “I feel sorry for that character”.  There are the two audience emotions of sympathy and empathy.  Sympathy is when the audience feels sorry for the hero.  Empathy is the audience feeling they are the equal of the hero in some way.

Prepared by Michael G. Hennessy, developed from 2005-2015

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Are you a frustrated filmmaker because you live in the middle of nowhere?

Are you a frustrated filmmaker because you live in the middle of nowhere?

    Some cities are rich with industry production: LA, NYC, ATL, and a few others.  However, we all don’t live there.  So what are to do: Move?  Sometimes that is just not possible.  Quit - NEVER!  Instead try this - Organize.  You can start an indie film group.  That’s what we did, and I am constantly amazed at the results.

Our Story

    In 2005, I heard that a person in our community named Christopher Forbes was producing an indie film.  It was so rare that anyone in our area ever did anything, so I decided to get involved.  Upfront, I was told I wouldn't be paid anything, but that was okay, because doing something is better than doing nothing.  Besides, if he had any money, he wouldn't be doing the movie here.  His “production office” was the back room of a friend’s bar.  Chris told me his camera guy had told him he might not make it to the shoot on Saturday.  However, Chris had heard about some other guy in Aiken, SC who had three Canon GL-1s.  I told Chris to forget the guy who said, “might” and call the guy with the GL-1s.

    Two days later I arrived on location.  It was a Civil War reenactment.  Chris was shooting a film using the production value of the reenactment as a background.  Parked ahead of me was the guy with the GL-1’s.  I walked up to the little trailer behind his pickup truck.  He turned, handed me a GL-1 and said, “Chris wants you to shoot those guys over there”, and that’s how I met Rick Kelly.

    As it turned out, somebody else I knew who was working in corporate production showed up with his Canon XL-1.   Across the field was a sound guy, Dan Keaton.  The bar owner, Brad Owens, showed up, wearing a Civil War uniform.  It turned out to be a pretty good day.   So the production continued for a few months, mainly shooting on weekends.  Admittedly the film was not in Oscar contention, but it didn't matter.  What did matter was that we were all making a movie, “The Battle of Aiken”.

    After a few months, the production ended.  It seemed as if our little group of filmmakers was going to drift apart, as there wasn't another film to hold us together.  We were trying to decide what type of film to produce next, but I quickly realized we would never agree on what film to make.  Somehow the process of developing ourselves as filmmakers had to be separate from the process of making a film.  So I came up with a mission statement.   “AugustaFilm is a social network for people who actively pursue the art and craft of filmmaking.  AugustaFilm does not produce films; its members do.”


    With the mission statement in place we were able to focus on the craft of filmmaking, not on a product.  We started to attract new members.  We decided have our meetings once a month, on the third Tuesday at 7 PM.  Occasionally, there would only be three people at the meeting. But it didn't matter.  Then we were having 10 people show up regularly, then 15.  Soon people from 70 miles away in Columbia, South Carolina started to attending our meetings.  People in Charleston, SC were getting into contact with me.  I introduced two people in Charleston that wished they could attend our meetings; they lived a mile from each other.  Our group established Chapters in Columbia and Charleston, and AugustaFilm became Southeastern Filmmakers, .  We now have over 300 members.

The Benefits

    In the decade that followed, good things have happened to the people in our group.  Rick Kelly expanded his equipment into , the area’s only grip and lighting rental house.  Rick has lit 3 Presidents and Oprah.  Dan Keaton left his computer support job at the local newspaper and now works for Convergent Design, , as their international and national sales director.  Brad Owens and the City government are now in the process of trying to attract industry level productions to our area.  Chris Forbes has had several low-budget films picked up for distribution.  It amazes me when a distributor sends in a Hollywood “name” actor to Augusta, and I get to light them.  I’ve worked on so many low budget film productions and entered numerous contests, I’ve gotten lots of practice.  This makes me a better teacher. 

Best Regards, and remember the first three rules of production: safety, safety, safety.

Michael G. Hennessy

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"I wish they taught film when I was in high school."

     You might be like a lot of indie filmmakers, wishing you could of studied film in your middle and high school years.  Fortunately, you have not given up on your dreams and desires.  You are a filmmaker.  So what if you have not yet won an Academy Award?  That is not the standard by which we are judged.  However, we owe it to ourselves, our family, friends, and groupie(s), that the short film or video on our drawing board will be better than the one we just made.

     That's why I'm here.  I am a professional teacher.  I teach Broadcasting & Film to middle and high school students.  I am the teacher your high school needed.  I am the teacher my old high school needed.

     Who am I?  In many ways, I'm just like you: working a day job, have a family, dream, write, think, read, study, produce, shoot, cut, critique, and repeat.  I do it all, except quit.  Today, let me share with you one thing - if you quit, you will never win.

Best Regards and remember the first three rules of any shoot: safety, safety, safety.

Michael G. Hennessy