The Muted // Understated Option
I just took on a major directorial effort — a commercial starring major influencers.
It was a puzzle created with little money on short notice but I learned plenty & accomplished a lot. So did my crew, obviously (made up of 2 other people only!).
Likewise, the client was open, flexible, & cooperative. This helped a lot since low-budget tends to mean “forced by the whims of exterior circumstances” which then means changing the story on the fly. She also provided much of the featured spectacle. It was a perfect storm of DIY LoFi filmmaking.
I feel like I aced 90% of the directorial challenges on the set, except for one critical scene.
So much changed last minute with that scene that I was basically being given (without even noticing) two distinct options on how to solve a particular (yet major) directorial problem: A smart+obvious+good choice … or A dumb+risky+kinda awesome choice …
And, in a manner very much like my entire personality, I went with the latter.
I didn’t even realize I had a different option available until the night after the shoot. I sprang up from bed and shouted, “FUCK!” and woke up the girl next to me lmao.
I wasn’t so much shocked nor disappointed that I didn’t film the scene in that manner…
I was more disturbed by the fact that I didn’t even notice another option was possible until many hours after the shoot. And so the big lesson I learned — the one lesson that made the entire experience intellectually worthwhile for me — is this ::
Sometimes the muted / understated option can be cool, too.
Not always! But sometimes. It should at least be considered.
I feel if I had gone with the more muted / understated version of the scene (in terms of set location & blocking) that I would have directed a very strong moment using the talent + time + equipment + location that I had.
But instead I went with the bombastic choice, which had a sizable probability of failure.
Did I make the right choice? I’m not sure.
As of right now, with the footage in the can & not having started to edit… I don’t feel super confident I have the best version of that scene that I could’ve. And that annoys me.
Perhaps I couldn’t actually shoot the understated version of the scene for particular practical reasons preventing us from doing so that day (permissions, etc; long story) … but perhaps I could have!
The main main main reasons I didn’t truly consider it was because how understated it was.
In my head I kept thinking, “It’s bombast or bust!”
For that one particular scene, given all the constraints weighing upon me at that moment, I know performing a heroic act of Herzogian filmmaking in the spirit of YOLO was at least exciting to me & my crew, and made the low-budget production experience worthwhile. It’s easy to look back and consider how it all could’ve gone 100% perfect … under laboratory conditions. But that’s not filmmaking!
Filmmaking is suffering. It’s this thing that is constantly falling apart & attracting chaos. The idea is to try & reign in that chaotic energy for brief little spurts while the camera+microphone is rolling.
And the lessons on how to solve run-and-gun creative problems, especially with exclusive talent, is a very particular skill set that feels like expert-level directing stuff.
I’m actually quite happy that I get to intellectually live in this space where I have to consider very nuanced aesthetic things.
The point is, I never considered the understated style as a possibility. That worries me.
I was so focused on getting the bombastic over-the-top version of the scene that I was blind to the obvious smart easy choice that was in front of me all along.
That’s a very “me” thing to do: risk it all for joie de vivre.
Look. Who am I kidding. The movie I directed is awesome. But it’s important to learn & grow from each experience. I love what I shot & I know I’m going to love what I make. I just see now there were ways for me to shoot the scene that would have been solid craftsmanship & make everybody happy.
Instead I have an awesome commercial with a key scene that is giving me a bit of anxiety because in the end I’m going to love it but I’m concerned the client is going to be startled by how much the movie was forced to change due to the low-budget constraints & the last-minute external changes we had no control over. Yes, I could’ve mitigated all of it… Instead, I solved 90% perfectly, and the other 10% interestingly.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have been as excited about the muted + understated version of this controversial “problem” scene as I would the bombastic one…
Perhaps if I shot the understated version, but never shot the bombastic version, I’d regret it my whole life…
“Why didn’t I shoot the crazy one!” I’d think! This blog post would instead be called “ALWAYS SHOOT THE CRAZY VERSION!” Life is funny like that. 🙃🙃🙃 Who knows!
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth to consider the understated option in the moment.
So the new lesson is this —
Add into your creative tool-box the notion that “the muted / understated option” is a possibility.
Run that simulation through your head & see what that visualizes.
In my specific case, it was the difference between shooting in a crazy outdoor setting versus chilling in a pretty indoor setting. In your case, it may be filming versions with two different available outfits; using a bicycle instead of an exotic car; a blank background versus an elaborate background; etc. I have no idea the multitude of ways this binary could present itself. That’s why the philosophical abstract is important.
Another case study is that of Sandwich Video. They are a wildly successful commercial video company dedicated mostly to Silicon Valley startups. Their approach is one of heightened (lol) minimalism & understatedness. It works well for them! The founder of Sandwich Video exploits the function of simplicity by using it to explain new & complex technologies which many people may be reluctant to use.