You Can’t Polish a Turd

This is probably the best advice I have ever been given. The man who said it was Murray Bulger, my high school Information Technology teacher and the person who introduced me to making videos when I was 16 years old.

The context was this: If you’re making a film and the story is bad, the camera work is bad, or the sound is bad… the film is going to be bad. The saying “Fix it in post” is only used with sarcasm with the people I work with these days. Sometimes a poor shot can be excused or even made to look intentional, but an audience that has been trained to watch films with the suspension of disbelief will almost always pick up on the one or two bad things about a film because it automatically draws attention to the fact that they are spectators and not really involved in the story.

The term, suspension of disbelief, refers to a spectator getting ‘caught up’ in the story and forgetting they are watching a movie. When an element of the film draws attention to its own artifact, the suspension of disbelief is broken. This is often not what narrative filmmakers want. In order to make a seamless film, it is therefore necessary to make sure every facet is executed to its best potential.

When I started making films, I was very controlling of the production because I didn’t trust my crew to meet my standards. This resulted in my domination of the production and doing every job possible by myself. As I went into film school, this persisted for the first couple of years partially because of the nature of my projects. I was making experimental and documentary films with no more than two subjects, and that made it easier for me to handle camera, sound, direction, etc. As a result, the production quality was not as good as it could have been because I simply couldn’t focus on camera and properly conduct an interview at the same time. I legitimized this with the nature of my projects, but I wonder now if I chose to make those films because of my distrust of other people’s competency.

In my third year of film school, I finally gave up some control. I got Remy Siu, a composer, to do some work with soundscapes for my documentary “The King of Cassiar” so I could focus on the editing and my other schoolwork. In my experimental documentary “Index: Alexander St.” I had the amazing Jon Thomas take charge of the camera and the film would not have been the same without him.

This is when I got another amazing piece of advice from my production teacher, Bridget Hill. “Figure out what you’re not good at and stop doing it!” The message being that if you haven’t made any progress after three years of film school, it might be best to start letting other people do the work for you for the sake of the project. This hit home for me and I realized that the only reason I was doing it all myself was my own unattainable goal to be good at everything. I don’t believe all humans were created equal because I know very well that there are some cinematographers out there who have an eye for lighting that I lack, and to be honest, camera operating has always scared me because I am not great with my hands (another thing I struggled to admit).

And so it began, my slow relinquish of control as I embraced the merits of teamwork. At this point most of the people in my class had found their niche and specialty. I could take advantage of different people’s skills for my film and trust that they could deliver at least the same quality if not better than what I could do. I think it’s too bad that I didn’t realize this earlier in film school because I believe that some of my projects could have been better had I only built my relationships with my classmates sooner. However, by the time I had to shoot “My Uncle Terry,” I had a great crew that was appropriate for the project and they all did a better job than I could have.

My Uncle Terry poster for our graduation screening

My Uncle Terry poster for our graduation screening

The turd polishing metaphor might not apply to all kinds of film. A documentary can get away with a lot more than a fictional narrative because the audience is more willing to forgive. The same exception applies for student films. When a film is experimental, people will probably assume whatever is “wrong” was done on purpose and sometimes narrative filmmakers don’t actually want the suspension of disbelief throughout the whole film. There have been whole movements that reject how Hollywood has shaped the expectations for narrative film such as Dogme 95, started by Lars Von Trier.

However, a traditional (read Hollywood) narrative film has to be perfect in every way to suspend the disbelief of the audience, and the only way to accomplish it is by dividing responsibility among team members you can trust. If one part of the film is bad (doesn’t support the story) then the film is a turd. You can polish that poor line delivery all you want, but it’s still bad. Sorry but it’s true.

I think the above information is well known to many of the experienced filmmakers out there whether or not they learned it through experience the way I did. However, I hope that this modest story of an important lesson reaches someone out there who is like me and helps them succeed at making better films. Filmmaking should not service an ego but should be done for the sake of the project.

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