Developing Your Dream Film: An Interview with Filmmaker Anson Fogel
As one of the adventure-seekers at Camp4Collective, Anson Fogel has an extensive background in all that is film. His years of experience as a DP have informed him in a variety of filmmaking styles, including documentary, narrative and commercial. With projects for big brands like Apple, Volkswagen and Samsung, as well as seven Vimeo Staff Picks under his belt, Anson's personal projects are no less impressive than his commercial work. For Field Notes #100, we spoke with Anson about the word "inspiration" and what it takes to bringing an idea to life.
Do you seek new project ideas or do they just come to you? How do you know when you find a good idea that you want to develop?
Anson Fogel: Well, the answer is both. You know, I direct television commercials and brand work, but I also direct documentary and narrative work personally, so the answer is it depends. Most of the time, somebody comes to us for paying work. Someone comes to us and says, "We have some rough sketch of an idea. How much would it cost? Are you interested?" In some cases, we compete to get that work. In terms of the time that I would spend working on short or long films for myself, the bar for that is much, much higher. I'm in the process of developing a couple of feature length films, but I've spent years trying to vet the different scripts and ideas to narrow it down to something that I would spend two years of my life making... I can talk about the criteria for taking an idea further than just an idea.
I don't have any lack of ideas. I have come up with ideas for stories, for films, and sometimes those are more well suited to a short, and sometimes they're more well suited to being feature length. I take notes and I write them down. I have a "film ideas" application on my phone and if I have an idea, I just sort of write it down. The vast majority of the ideas aren't very good. I think the most important criteria is how much passion do you have for that idea? For me, is it something that I really feel strongly about emotionally, intellectually? That's the first criteria.
The second criteria is, is it makeable? Maybe I have an idea for a science fiction movie that's going to cost $200 million -- that matters a lot, just the makeability. Is it something that you could actually, feasibly get funding for and pull off?
Three is: is it something that will resonate with an audience? That matters…no one is going to fund something that won't resonate with an audience.
Then the last is this sort of random X factor like...is it unique? Does the piece have something to say that hasn't been said before that feels fresh, that feels unique, that feels relevant to me and to an audience? That is sort of a difficult thing to define.
If something passes all four of those tests -- which honestly doesn’t happen very much -- then that is sort of step one. If it fights through all of those different barriers, then again, depending on the nature of the work, the next step is pretty varied. The next step is starting to decide, well, what would this look like? Can we get the rights? Can we get access to the character or characters, the places, if it's a documentary? I've been fighting to option the rights to a particular book for a couple of years. That's a multi-year process of negotiating and going back and forth. I think for even smaller work, you have to start writing. In narrative scripts, that might look like actually writing a screenplay or hiring and working with a screenwriter and then revising it five hundred million times.
For short work, I typically do what's called a paper cut, which is a text description of each shot. We open on this shot and it looks like this. Then we go to this shot and it looks like this. This is what it sounds like. This is what the sound is doing. This is what the music's doing. If there's dialogue, we script out the dialogue. It's called a paper cut. It's quick and dirty, but I use the paper cutting process for just about everything I do -- whether it's a 60-second commercial or a seven-minute film.
For longer work, like multi-minute doc pieces or features, we generally do what's referred to as a “beat sheet,” which is a little higher level than a paper cut, where we write down the emotional arc of the story. We'll describe what is the beginning, the middle and the end, what are the conflicts, what is the audience supposed to be feeling, minute two, minute four, minute six and what does it feel, taste and smell like? Is it really dark? Is it really bright? Is the audience seeing things from an objective perspective? Is the audience seeing things from a subjective perspective? Again, that's all just part of the writing process. I guess in the simplest sense, what I'm saying is I don't ever go into production without knowing exactly what I'm going to do. There is never a process where we just show up with a camera and start shooting.
In terms of inspiration, for me, I look for something that I care a lot about, or something that resonates with me emotionally. Then do I feel something or think something that I really feel compelled to share? I guess that's what inspiration is. I think inspiration is a word that's a little bit overused. Inspiration in and of itself is certainly not going to result in a good film but it's “Do I have something to say?” Did I observe something or experience a feeling that I felt was really unique and that compelled me to share that with an audience? A lot of times, that means people. Is there something about a character, real or imagined, that I think is really unique and compelling and ultimately answers some question about what it is to be human?