“If only we’d had just one more day. Just think what we would have gotten done.”
Kylie Eddy, co-founder of Lean Filmmaking, smiled to herself as she listened to the film crew at her filmmaking accelerator wish for another day to complete work on the film they had just created. The crew of 17 people had met just two days earlier to participate in a film version of a hackathon. They were divided into two teams consisting of at least two actors, an editor, a shooter, a producer, and a marketer who would be responsible for audience development.
For many of the crew members — all experienced filmmaking veterans — the idea that a film could be put together so quickly, and with such a small group, seemed impossible. Now, just two days later, they had discovered that two days was more than enough time to create a script, cast parts, and shoot and edit a short film.
They worked in abbreviated cycles, similar to sprints, each time showing the film to an audience to gather feedback that would inform subsequent changes to the film. By the end of the weekend, they had run three full cycles.
“We were really shocked at how seamlessly it worked once people got over working in a time boxed environment. There's a certain level of intensity and speed in a hackathon. People don't have time to put their critical mind on. We just time-boxed everything, gave them very specific instructions, and there was very little resistance. We could not believe it. Everyone was like, this is fantastic.”
Just a few years earlier Eddy had been ready to give up filmmaking for good. Now she had the proof she needed that adapting agile to filmmaking could work in real life. The only thing missing was her brother and co-founder, David Eddy, saying, “I told you so.”
The quest for the perfect shot
Like many industries that have stood the test of time, the filmmaking business has spawned a well-established infrastructure with multiple stakeholders, one that resists any form of radical change. This is one reason why major studios prefer to bankroll sequels of already proven films instead of commissioning original productions.
This aversion to risk influences not just the kinds of films that get made, but also who gets hired to make them. The result is that the traditional process of making a film — whether it’s a feature film, a documentary, or anything in-between — that reflects a waterfall-style methodology that is reinforced in film schools around the world. Every aspect of making a film follows a prescribed set of steps performed by specific groups of people.
Audience Feedback: The missing ingredient
Scrum and agile practitioners know that soliciting audience input at regular intervals is critical for developing a successful product that audiences will love. But in filmmaking, soliciting audience feedback is rare.
When it is solicited, it’s invariably after every other aspect of a film — writing the script (which serves as a scoping document), financing, casting, scheduling, planning, filming and post-production editing — has been completed. Even then, the impetus behind getting audience feedback (via a test screening) “is not about changing the product,” Eddy explains. “It’s about how do they market it to the audience.”
Compare this behavior to other art forms that regularly solicit and incorporate customer feedback, like theater productions and standup comedy. Theater productions typically start off in smaller venues where they can refine the script, music, and other production values before making the leap (and financial investment) to larger, better-known theatres. Standup comedians constantly adjust their routines, tweaking specific lines or delivery cadences, based on the audience reception they receive.
Eddy explained that the reason why the film industry is willing to spend thousands, if not millions, of dollars creating films with little to no audience input is due to fear. The idea of soliciting audience feedback triggers an almost visceral fear of losing “creative control” over the filmmaking process. Inviting audience feedback also creates an opportunity for criticism — a circumstance over which filmmakers will go to great lengths to avoid. “If there’s one thing that gets drummed into filmmakers is the pursuit of perfection and the idea that you only get one shot. It's really stressful.”
That need for perfection and “getting it right the first time” is the driving force for much of the advance planning that takes place before even a single scene is filmed. Plans that, as Eddy points out, more often than not are discarded once filming starts and the crew needs to adapt to changing real life conditions.
Unboxing creativity with agile
Adapting agile to filmmaking offers multiple benefits, particularly to independent filmmakers who intend to self-finance their own productions and are working with a small team.
Benefit #1: Reducing Overwhelm
When David Dylan Thomas and Maurice Gaston decided to create a self-funded documentary about the tech scene in Philadelphia, they quickly knew they had hit on a winning concept. “People’s eyes would just light up when we talked about it. And they’d be like, ‘Why haven’t you done this already? You need to do this right now!”
They structured the documentary as a web series, in part because the medium was still new at the time; YouTube had only recently launched so audiences were still in the habit of watching shows on TV, not on a computer.
Given their previous experience with film and video, Thomas and Gaston assumed that creating the documentary would be relatively easy. Thomas had been making movies since high school. “Over the past 20 years I’ve made movies using every kind of film technology imaginable. I’ve made feature length films, short films, documentaries, narrative fiction films, comedies, action, and horror. I've done everything except create a film that I actually got paid for by a studio.” As for Gaston, although he currently worked as a software developer, a previous career had given him the opportunity to edit numerous videos for clients.
It did not take long, however, before both men realized that they had seriously miscalculated how much work their new project would involve. Both had full-time jobs and everything that needed to get done for the documentary — setting up and conducting the interviews, logging and editing the film — would only be done by them, not a team.
They required an effective way to manage a complex workflow and catalog the 10 interviews they had already filmed as well as the 30 to 40 additional interviews they anticipated they still needed to complete. This is when Maurice’s experience as a Scrum Master came in handy. He was familiar with the various tools currently in use to help manage Scrum-led projects. Thomas and Gaston tested several options including Asana and Trello. Gaston laughingly admitted they also designed “an overly complicated Google Spreadsheets system for tracking the sprints” and labeled “the first set of sprints after Indiana Jones films.”
Gaston explained how these early efforts proved provided valuable insights. “They gave us a way to decide which pieces of the process we wanted to track, which aspects of agile and Scrum were important pieces to keep and which weren't.”
For Thomas, learning agile proved transformational. The concepts and processes influenced not just his approach to creating the web series, but how he organized many aspects of his personal life. “I think that the best way to learn a new process is if you apply to something you care deeply about,” Thomas says. “And I cared deeply about this project, so I was able to engage with the process and its pluses and minuses. I remember thinking, wow, I could apply this to a ton of different things, and eventually I did.”
Benefit #2: Inspiring Professional Growth
Filmmaking is inherently a collaborative art that leverages the talents and expertise of a variety of specialists. Using agile to create films, enabled the Eddy siblings to work with smaller, self-organizing, cross-functional teams. They also upended the siloed nature of traditional filmmaking by deliberately involving everyone on the team — the actors, the editors, the writers, and the marketing specialists — in the creation process from the beginning and soliciting their input throughout the process.
Unlike traditional filmmaking, the teams worked on key tasks on a concurrent, not sequential, basis. At the same time that the director and the actors shot a current scene, the writer would be working on the next scene and the editor would be focused on editing the previous scene that had already been shot. The team would then gather for a standup meeting where they could see what the editors had cut, learn why specific scenes had been eliminated, and assess how those decisions impacted the next scene. The group could then decide on next steps.
“This way of filmmaking really messes with people's minds,” Eddy explains. “But it's very exciting and really empowering because you can see the instant impact of your decisions.”
Benefit #3: Restoring Joy to the Creative Process
Until seven years ago, Eddy would have described herself as a traditional filmmaker, one that did “everything by the book.” She studied film, did a post grad in screenwriting, made short films that were successful on the film festival circuit and even worked in distribution for the Walt Disney Company.
Then she decided to make an independent feature film, a decision that ultimately changed the course of her career. “You can make 100 shorts and you’re still not prepared for creating a feature film. It’s the difference between a sprint and a marathon.”
Although the budget was small, just $27,500 AUD, Eddy leveraged every bit of her experience to ensure that her small crew could successfully finish filming in just 12 days. The film premiered at Frameline in San Francisco, played in a number of gay and lesbian film festivals, and had a DVD release in North America. In spite of a promising start, the film did not lead to any future opportunities. Eddy was not hired to do another film.
“It didn’t really have a chance. I thought I knew the audience for my film, because I was the audience for my film. Or so I thought,” Eddy admitted. “I knew what aspect of the film wasn’t quite working but didn’t have any way of going back and changing things.”
“You really only hear of the films that are successful. You hear about how El Mariachi was made for $7,000 and how Robert Rodriguez became a big hit. Or about Quentin Tarantino's first film. But you don't hear about all these people who lost their homes, lost their mortgage, where nothing happened.”
For Eddy the frustration she experienced making her first feature film was so demoralizing that she vowed to never make another film. Fortunately, her brother, David Eddy, was not willing to let her give up her dream. David Eddy was a Scrum Master who worked at a consultancy that guided their customers through the process of implementing agile. It was he who realized that agile could be applied to filmmaking.
Although it took a while to convince his sister (two years to be exact), Eddy eventually agreed to see how she could make a film using agile. It wasn’t easy. “I had to unlearn so many things, particularly that you have to have a script to start.”
Weighing in her brother’s favor was that the potential benefits of trying this approach outweighed the risks. Eddy didn’t want to have to go through another lengthy process of raising money or finding a production studio. She just wanted to start making films again, preferably films that would be well received by their target audience.
“The reality of making films in the traditional manner is that you’re spending all your time and energy working off untested assumptions. Your film might never be seen by anyone. Might not ever connect with an audience. So you might be wasting lots of money on things that you don't need to waste money on.”
Over time, the Eddys created a hybrid of different methodologies, like Scrum and Kanban, to create what they refer to as Lean Filmmaking. The model they created focuses on first selecting the right team.
“There's no point writing a script before you have your team because you don't know who your actors are. This completely revolutionizes how casting is done because there is no casting. Your casting consists of those actors who are in your squad. You write something for them instead of the other way around where something is written and then you have to cast. This allows you to start working on your film more quickly.”
The Eddys established a filmmaking Meetup to test and refine their theories. Their group ultimate became the largest filmmaking Meetup in Australia, with over 2,800 members. Over the next few years they held over 50 events, meeting likeminded people who were interested in discovering a different way to make films.
New tools, new opportunities
As Thomas and Gaston also discovered, the existence of affordable (but powerful) DSL cameras, laptops, and film editing software made it possible to produce high quality films on a reasonable budget. What’s more, the emergence of YouTube eliminated the gatekeepers. Independent filmmakers now had access to a distribution platform that would allow them to directly reach their target audience.
Eddy summed up the transformational impact of using agile to create films. “Seven years ago, I announced that I would never make another film. Now I have so many ideas. Using this process has revitalized my commitment. Even if I'm doing something small, it still connects me to the art in a way that is different from: ‘I'm waiting for funding. I'm waiting for a producer to pick up my script. I’m waiting for all of these elements to come together to make this thing.’ I’ve retaken control of my own creativity.”