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The 80/100 Principle of Making a Film

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I was going to call this the 100/80 Principle, but it sounds too much like the 180 Rule for camera work—so 80/100 Principle it is. But what exactly is the 80/100 Principle?


As filmmakers, we quickly learn that filmmaking is about making decisions: what camera to use, what location works best, whether or not you need a hair and makeup person, and who delivers the cheapest pizza the fastest. Questions like these matter because the details count when production costs are a factor, like always, and making the decision between name-brand sodas and the generic brand can make or break a budget. Furthermore, you face choices about marketing, festival entries, and such.

Carrying this decision-making dilemma into your daily shooting routine is where you face the 80/100 Principle. And it goes something like this…

Imagine an average shooting day. A key light stops working, 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. You, as director/producer (DP/gaffer/wardrobe/crafty) have a decision to make. “Do I nab the shot, getting the best I can and live with it, OR, do I 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?

80% look at 100% completed, or risking only 80% completed at 100% of what you are going for? Pick one (everybody does) because these decisions of quality and quantity plague every filmmaker.

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). We all know, however, that 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.

Coping With the 80/100 Principle

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

    • Be ready for that choice. Knowing the time will come to make the decision between spending hours tinkering with a car mount or shooting from the back seat, will make the decision-making process an expected surprise. Readiness on and off set each day helps to minimize the anxiety, often opening mental avenues to problem-solving. It's the sharp response time that saves the shot and delivers the scene.

    •  During prepro, 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 possible, creating storyboards, shot lists, 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. The best way to overcome the sense of failure, when you miss that shot, is to change your thinking. The hard truth is, nobody will notice the difference. You know what you wanted, and you know how good it could 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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