Case Study: Making a short film using Make-Show-Adjust Cycles

Nov 09, 2022

Lean Filmmaking is a unique iterative method that uses Make-Show-Adjust Cycles (MSA Cycles) to re-imagine the process of making films.

Let’s take a look at a practical example that demonstrates how squads can validate assumptions and test stories by creating low-fi drafts in MSA Cycles.

This case study is from a short film, The Bridge, produced during our first ever Filmmakathon.

A Filmmakathon is loosely based on the structure of a tech hackathon, specifically designed for filmmakers to learn and practice the fundamentals of Lean Filmmaking. Over a weekend, participants make short films in four MSA Cycles, from nothing to done, culminating in a reverse screening in front of a live audience.

In this Filmmakathon, there was no script, no advance pre-production and no budget. 

None of the participants had even worked together before. And none had ever used a lean or agile process.

The squad that made this film had six members: two actors, writer/director, cinematographer, editor and production manager.

They had to work within their constraints: using only the actors in their squad, shooting with gear they already owned, keeping locations within walking distance, and of course the biggest constraint – time.

Rather than spending too much time writing a script or planning a detailed shoot, the focus was on executing the most basic version of the idea in the simplest way, getting feedback and refining the film through MSA Cycles. 

The Filmmakathon started on Friday night. In a few hours, the squad developed an idea for a short film from scratch using an ideation process. 

In this first cycle the goal was to just get an idea into a video form. They drew a basic storyboard and the two actors did an improvised voice over.

This is the video from Cycle 1.

Even though it’s super lo-fi there’s still a lot to be learnt from this first draft. 

There’s a rough spark of an idea about someone seeing a person they think is going to jump off a bridge and their very annoying, uncaring, friend. 

The squad got some feedback and planned for the next cycle.

On Saturday morning, the second cycle was translated from the storyboard into a lo-fi draft. 

The squad had three hours to complete this cycle so had to choose the most important things to do first. 

Remember, they’re trying to test the story and not focusing on production values at this early stage.

Let’s take a look at Cycle 2.

This is basically the storyboard version translated into live action and starting to explore this idea that the main character is in some kind of time loop. 

But they tried to do too much and ran out of time. 

They got feedback and it was brutal! Everyone just hated the friend and couldn’t see past their awful relationship. 

Not going to lie. The squad had a bit of a meltdown at this point but they pulled themselves together for the next cycle.

On Saturday afternoon they had a longer block of five hours to complete another draft for the third cycle. 

This felt like so much time after the previous very short cycles. But even so, it went quickly and they had to be careful with how they allocated their time. 

By focusing on incremental story improvements, they also had a big breakthrough that changed the direction of the film. 

Let’s take a look at what they did for Cycle 3.

This is a pretty big shift in the construction of the character. 

Everyone who gave feedback said they hated the friend but when it moved to an interior monologue of the main character, suddenly it became more interesting and acceptable. 

They also found a way to better explore the idea of being in a time loop. 

But if anything, it removed some of the mystery and they wanted to find a better way for the reveal to loop.

They focused on these improvements for their final version.

On Sunday morning the squads had five hours to make the final version of their film in the fourth cycle, before screening it to family, friends and fans.

Let’s take a look at the last cycle.

 You can see that they got the right balance for the reveal at the end. 

They also added that disconcerting piano score that adds some dramatic tension.

When you think about that they started with that crappy storyboard, they made great progress in a couple of days.

They also really tested their assumptions. 

In the original storyboard version of the idea, the squad thought they’d have to shoot at night on a large bridge, to make this feel dramatic.

But because the constraints of the weekend meant they couldn’t shoot at night or spend any time travelling to find a suitable bridge, both of those things had to go. 

The squad was adamant that they were the most important things to tell the story with the eerie tone that they wanted to evoke.

But as you can see, neither of those things were essential to the story and by moving beyond those initial ideas they came up with something more original.

They ran out of time to rename the film and that’s why the film is still called The Bridge. Even though there was no longer a physical bridge - it became more of a metaphysical bridge to cross over to another time.

The squad had countless constraints but we think they still produced a totally watchable film.

At the end of the Filmmakathon, we invited an audience to watch a reverse screening of all the versions – starting with the last cycle and working our way back to the first cycle. 

The cumulative effect of watching all of the videos back-to-back was a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved in a short time with the right method. 

Our biggest takeaway from doing cycles was how quickly the squads adapted to the Lean Filmmaking method once they felt the benefits for themselves, despite being skeptical that it would work.

These benefits included transparent communication, creative problem-solving and informed decision-making. 

Some of the tools they used to make a film in such a short time included a Story Scaffold, fan improvements and running ceremonies like cycle planning, standups and squad retrospectives.

This allowed the squad to learn and improve, even while working within stringent constraints.

Remember, they started with nothing. No script, no pre-planning and no budget. 

And did all of this in just a weekend. 

We honestly think that if you tried to make a film in a weekend using traditional filmmaking processes, it would be a struggle to achieve this much in such a short time.

This was also their first time putting Lean Filmmaking into practice and working in this new way.

Imagine how much you could achieve once you’ve built trust with a squad over a longer period of time and honed your skills in the Lean Filmmaking method.

We hope that this case study gives you some more insight into using MSA Cycles, so you can apply these lessons to your own film.


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