Monday, 10 November 2014

Film openings for A level

This post is aimed at students doing the film opening task for AS Media with OCR, but there is plenty of advice here which can be of use to students doing other film-related projects, such as a short film or a trailer. The main thing is to make your final project look like what it is supposed to be- so if it is meant to be a trailer, you need to be sure it shows the conventions of a trailer, but if it is a film opening, it MUST follow the conventions of film openings!

The OCR AS video task asks you to make "the titles and opening of a new fiction film, to last a maximum of two minutes". Many students fall into the trap of thinking this is a really easy task and they can just have a laugh doing it and walk off with a good grade. Nothing could be further from the truth! Expectations are very high from this production work and you will need to work systematically and be extremely well organised if you are to be successful.

However, there are a number of steps you can take which will undoubtedly maximise your chances of producing something for which can get you good marks and of which you can be proud!

Step 1: Ideas

Keep them simple. the more complicated your idea, the more will go wrong. Put limits on settings, actions, characters, story. Try to whittle down the pitch so it can be explained in 25 words, like these here or try to summarise it so that if you were explaining it to someone in a lift, you would get through your explanation and they would understand it by the time the lift reached the floor you are going to.

Step 2: Research

This is a much abused term and often seems to be seen by students as doing some kind of survey and watching a few film openings chosen by the teacher.WARNING- this is not enough!

Research for this kind of project really means getting a full understanding of what the task involves by looking properly at real examples and at examples done by previous media students. A few years ago, this would have involved a big collection of VHS tapes but since youtube came along, frankly, it's all there on a plate for you to select from. This link will take you to a whole load of film openings from a range of different genres.

Even better though, is, where you can download openings from a huge variety of films in SD and HD without any adverts or other stuff getting in the way. The site also features directors, designers and others, talking about their work on these openings- for films, tv programmes and video games.

For some really innovative graphic-style titles from the past, the work of designer Saul Bass is well worth a look. There is a collection of his work here on youtube, including this one for Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'

Research needs to cover film conventions- how is an opening established in terms of story, genre, location, character, camerawork?- but also institutions- which personnel, jobs and organisations are credited in those opening two minutes and in what order and why?- and the audience- all media texts are specifically targeted at particular audiences and you need to consider how this is done and who that audience is.

You can do the conventions bit by watching a range of examples and identifying how they work; institutions can be covered by making good use of a range of examples on the artofthetitle site. An exercise that helps with this is this one here, making a timeline of the titles from an existing sequence. This example of what a student did to plot the titles of 'Iron Man'

For the audience research, the temptation is to do loads of questionnaires and then endless pie charts. You really don't need to do this and it is of questionable value anyway. Two strategies I would recommend are for quantitative data (numbers) do some online research to find breakdowns by audience age and gender for particular films and for qualitative data (what people say, in more depth) have some regular feedback sessions with your classmates where you look at each others' ideas, progress, animatics and rough cuts and then finally your finished work to give and get feedback. This needs structuring with some focussed questions, and you could always video it and put bits on your blog for evidence.

Finally, look at old student work. A search for 'G321' on youtube or vimeo or 'Year 12 film openings' will yield lots of results. Your task is to identify the strengths which you could learn from and the weaknesses which you will attempt to avoid!

Here are a couple of sites which contain plenty of them and an example to get you started.



Step 3. Planning

This is the other big aspect of the process where you can do so much to ensure the overall success of your project. I would suggest that a blog is the best place to gether evidence of both your research and your planning, so that the whole project can be seen as a journey. It is also a lasting record for when you come to do the exam at the end of the second year, when you will need to refer back to things you did a while ago in your preparation for the exam. Blogging can allow you to show all kinds of examples which have inspired you and which you have used for research.

For planning, everything needs to be taken into account. It is always tempting not to bother with storyboards but it is a mistake if you do so. You need a visual plan for your work as it won't just happen when you have a camera in your hand! I would recommend using post-its for constructing a storyboard, as you can move the frames around and change the order easily. Once you have done the storyboard, the next step is to turn it into an animatic, which quite literally involves taking a photo of each frame (on your phones or a webcam, nothing fancy) and then dropping the frames onto the timeline of your digital editing program. You can then cut them to length, add titles and sound and then export the whole thing as an animatic- a moving storyboard. here's one...

L3 Group 7: JAHMAL & SVEN - OPENING SEQUENCE ANIMATIC from cmdiploma on Vimeo.

You can get feedback on yours from your peers and then adjust for the final shoot accordingly. Other planning which you could easily evidence on a blog would be moodboards of the overall piece- which could initially be produced using found images- 'recce' shots where you go out on location and take snaps of places you might use and things like costume and prop ideas. All the way through the project you can be taking screengrabs of your work in action, like work you are doing in photoshop or your digital edit program.

The other crucial aspect of planning is logistics.This involves production management skills, thinking ahead to everything that could possibly go wrong on your shoot and to every little detail of what you will need. Nothing should be left to chance- costumes, props, locations, camera equipment and people all need orgnaising. Don't have your actors just wearing any old clothes- plan what they will wear; don't rely on someone else remembering particular props, have a list of who is bringing what. Don't assume everyone will simply turn up- make sure everyone has all the phone numbers and everyone knows exactly where they should be and when.

As for locations, make sure you have got the place you want at the time you want and without other people getting in the way of your shoot. If any of these things can't be achieved, re-think where you are going to shoot. It looks terrible if you have members of the public around in the background or a tripod sitting in the corner, so plan things so that you can control your set!

Step 4. Production

As director, you will need to be in charge of your actors and it will be your job to get the best out of them. Key elements of this are explaining what you need and what their role involves, rehearsing so that their performance looks convincing and enthusing them so they give their best. A lame performance will spoil your film opening!

You also need to know your equipment- you should have had lots of chances to use it to experiment, to try things out as you build up the project but by the time of the main shoot you should be absolutely in command of it. If you fumble around or forget bits of kit, you will have wasted your own and other people's time.

Use your storyboard but get extra takes- don't rely on one angle for everything or just one take. when you come to review the footage there may be little bits you don't like, so several takes of each shot will give you some choice. You might do a bit of improvising on the day with other shots that you haven't thought of before. Extra footage costs nothing, so you might as well get it. go for some unusual angles and go for plenty of variety, especially close-ups.

Step 5: Post-Production

When you have all your footage, you need to get it organised back on the computer in the edit program, labelled and sorted. When you start to edit, always think of the big picture first before you go on to the small detail. If you obsess about getting a particular shot or transition absolutely right before you've got a rough edit in order, you may end up running out of time!

You need to give equal prominence to all the formal aspects- soundtracks,camerawork, choice of mise-en-scene, pace of editing and of course the titles, so be thinking about those all the way through your edit. Don't leave any one aspect until the last minute; it's all important.

Finally, remember it is a film opening not a whole film or trailer; don't have too much happening or try to tell too much of the story, but on the other hand don't make it so impressionistic that it looks like a trailer.

In a future blog, I will consider some good ways of doing the evaluation for the AS specification.


  1. What a great way of giving advice without it coming from the teacher in the classroom! I have posted a link to my blog so that my Y12 students all have access to this as they prepare their AS film openings. Many thanks and I look forward to the student conference tomorrow.

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