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Nothing Ever Good Enough? How to Use the 80/100 Principle to Make a Film

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Aspiring filmmakers quickly learn that pulling off a film production takes a lot of decisions, from what camera to use, to what location works best, whether or not you need a hair and makeup person (you do), and who delivers the cheapest pizza the fastest. Questions like these matter because, when production costs are a factor, the details count.

What you need is a method! To make all those decisions in a consistent way, you need some guiding principles. In this tutorial you'll learn about the 80/100 Principle of Filmmaking, a framework for filmic decision making. The 80/100 Principle works for everything from for first-person documentaries to giant blockbusters.

Hands holding a clapper board next to a box of popcorn
Director holding a clapper board, from Envato Elements

Is Nothing Ever Good Enough for You?

Let's imagine an average shooting day on your film set. You are the director.

Everything is going great. Ideal, really. The actors are sticking their lines, the shots are looking awesome, and everyone is happy. Then a key light stops working. No problem, you have a backup. Oops, the field mixer batteries died in the middle of the perfect shot. The gate is dusty, the principle talent has a cold sore, the sunlight is dropping and the right moment is slipping fast. Things are starting to go very sideways here. Now everyone is stressed out, and tired. Nevermind shooting a good scene, you'll be lucky to get out of this day in one piece. You brain hurts.

As director/producer (or director of photography, gaffer, wardrobe, crafty) have a decision to make. Do you nab the shot, getting the best you can, or do you call 'wrap,' push production back yet another day, and pick up the shot tomorrow?” Whether or not you realize it, you just put the 80/100 Principle into practice:

  • Do you nab the shot, taking 80% of what you want in an effort to get 100% of the film completed?
  • Do you call "wrap," pushing production back another day, and risk getting only 80% of the film competed, but looking 100% like you want it to?

You can make a film that is 80% the quality you wanted, and get it 100% completed, or you can make 80% of a film that looks completely like what you are going for.

These decisions plague every filmmaker. Every day. You make this decision with every small question you answer in making your film.

Coping With Reality

There are two ways to try and avoid this dilemma, but neither is fool-proof. First, you can throw more money at it (assuming your cards aren't already maxed). However, poorly managed films are money pits. Second, you can be more thorough during pre-production. But even then, unexpected costs and challenges on set (weather, talent, equipment failure, acts of God) can quickly present the 80/100 choice anyway.

Here are some tips and suggestions to help you cope with the 80/100 Principle:

Know Your Values

Be ready for choice. Know that the time will come eventually to make the decision on all manner of things unforeseen, like between spending hours tinkering with a car mount or shooting from the back seat, for example.

Get Yourself Ready

Try to make the decision-making process into an expected surprise. Develop a readiness routine, on and off set each day, to minimize your anxiety. Often, it's the sharp thinking and quick response time in the situation that saves the shot and delivers the scene.

Understand and Manage Time

During pre-production, start making decisions about the most important setups, building the time necessary for the shots into the schedule. Consider bumping all non-essential shots to days outside of the principle photography window, allowing extra set up and shooting time for the ones that matter most.

Try to shoot the most time-intensive setups and important shots at the beginning of the production to avoid other shots getting pushed back on top of them, crunching your schedule. You can assume that you'll fall behind from day one, so planning those pristine and award-winning setups on the front-end will give you the flexibility to bump or cheat the less necessary ones.

Do As Much Pre-production as You Can

Do as much pre-production as possible. Create storyboards, shot lists, and equipment needs. Then do the same for alternative setups/shots on the most important scenes. Having options will prepare you for surprises. No need to do this for all scenes, just the ones that matter the most.

Adjust Your Paradigm

Change your thinking. There's no way around it. This is the best way to overcome both the sense of failure when you miss that shot and the creeping sense of malaise as a production drags on. Overcoming these obstacles is an essential part of making a film.

The truth is nobody will notice the difference. You know what you wanted, and you know how good it might have been, but to the rest of us, the scene is simply part of a bigger story. If you are hinging everything on one or two scenes, then you need to rethink the story.

As most filmmakers will attest, it’s better to pedal a completed film with some rough angles than to push an incomplete project, so at the end of the day, getting the shot matters. If you can sell your film and make some money, you can always go back and reshoot for the "director's cut."

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