The cleverness factor is one of the most underutilized factors in the old Hollywood filmmaking world. Why is that? Well, to answer that, I should explain what the cleverness factor is and what it is not. Or rather, what it is not, and then what it is.
The cleverness factor is not the ability to make a smart movie. While many of the smartest movies in Old Hollywood have had Indie directors, old Hollywood has turned out some smart movies without them. Instead, the cleverness factor is far more related to the craft of the stage magician. See, the illusionist cannot in fact make a coin magically disappear from one hand and reappear in your ear, so he uses a clever trick to make you think that he has this power.
Old Hollywood doesn’t have to cheat on special effects and the like because the studios either have the money or will partner with enough studios to raise the money to actually do any special effect in the book. Only those who lack such deep pockets or such resourceful connections have to cheat. They are the only ones who have to make use of the cleverness factor.
The cleverness factor asks the question: If I cannot mesmerize an audience with flashy special effects, what other things mesmerize people in general? When you ask this question, you’re starting to make the low financial means of your production an asset, rather than a liability.
Probably the best example of this idea that I have seen was not in a film, but in a music video. Most music videos use at least some combination of: special effects, elaborate sets and costumes, hot women, fancy camera angles, mood-filled lighting, and fast, stylistic editing to mesmerize their audiences. However, recently, a band called ‘OK Go’ decided to use the cleverness factor to create their “Here It Goes Again” music video which had none of these. The set was bland, the backdrop was a water-resistant tarp used for camping, the lighting left a huge hotspot on the tarp, the band wore only their street clothes, there were no special effects, and there were no edits because the camera never changed position.
What these crazy folks did was to set up eight treadmills in two rows of four with each treadmill alternating direction from the one next to it. With that, they used a routine of bizarre and fascinating choreography to show the amount of difference that can be found, even when one is only going back and forth down the road of life. As you watch the video the first time, you just sit in wonder, watching what the people on the treadmills are going to do next, finding yourself amazed by how something so common as a treadmill can be used so dynamically. At that point, all the underwhelming elements of production fade away and you’re left even more mesmerized than you would be if you watched four minutes of the typical effects extravaganza old Hollywood creates in their films.
OK Go’s music video didn’t take a boatload of money…it just took time and work. Time is something that old Hollywood doesn’t have because it’s investing so much money into films that it needs them to get done and out to distribution as quickly as possible to try to recoup it’s losses. However, as we don’t have all the debts tied into our films, we have the luxury of taking the time to take full advantage of the cleverness factor. So, as you think about the film you’re about to work on (or are currently working on), ask yourself where other factors of human fascination might serve your storyline far better than the complex effects you can’t afford or don’t have the know-how to pull off.