Cats have nine lives. A film has four lives. This is what the film theory of effect equivalence says. This article explains why screenwriters, directors, producers and editors have internalized this theory. And what the resulting bridging of risks and opportunities means for filmmakers and the production of feature films and videos.
Old hands in the movie business swear: Movies are easy to watch because they’re hard to make. Clever foxes also know that a film or a video is not created once, but always four times. For filmmakers, this is not only film theory and risk, but also a great opportunity.
Film theory: 4 levels of effect equivalence
In film theory,effect equivalence means nothing other than that a film or video must be aimed at an identical effect goal in all phases of its production. Film theories distinguish between four essential stages in the creation and cinematic design of a film or video: story (screenplay), filming (shooting), montage (editing) and audience success. The question of impact equivalence is the question of bridging between these four levels.
Shooting preparations can go wrong and it is not uncommon for the bear to dance or all hell to break loose during filming. Incomparably more critical and dangerous – but also more interesting from the point of view of film theory! – it becomes, if one examines and structures the making of a film not from the point of view of the production process, but under consideration of its effect goals.
The shooting is the correction of the script. Editing is the correction of the shooting.
Feature films, TV movies and commissioned films begin in the mind of the writer, director, creative director or art director. All of these people have a vested interest in seeing their vision, concept or idea as unadulterated as possible on the screen or monitor as film and video. But this is only possible if the film and its ideal foundation survive a journey through four different stages without damage.
These four levels of effect equivalence in film are:
- Story (Screenplay)
- Film editing (montage)
- Audience success / Reception
From the point of view of film production, the greatest risks arise in the “translation services” that have to be provided at the shooting and film editing stages.
However, the intended effect, which was the basis and the trigger for the start of the implementation, can change at any (!) of these four fundamental stages. Or, in the worst case, get lost, rendering a film or video pointless and useless that, as a script or after shooting, still had the potential to be a masterpiece. Conversely, a film can also only achieve its true artistic greatness during the shooting or editing process.
In the beginning there was fire. And the power of creation. Fire making also began with an idea, a vision, coupled with the stubborn will to try something new, something unprecedented, detached from old familiar knowledge. In order for this new thing to meet the expectations and requirements (of oneself and others), a fair amount of work and inspiration has always been necessary. Also in film. Far from any film theory, moving image creation is tedious, demanding and often difficult.
But once the miracle has happened, there is nothing more beautiful in this world than the first draft of the script. It is still spared the constraints of production reality. Nor is the script unspoiled by a possible lack of talent.
But then it starts: Just like for the salmon on their long migration from the sea into the rivers, for the future film one obstacle quickly follows the next.
A screenplay, the word says it, is a book. A script lays the groundwork. Words on paper may make a movie. But they’re not a movie (yet). To become a film, words and sentences must be transformed into actions in front of the camera and translated into the language of the actors and the grammar of the film.
A screenwriter knows all the tricks of the film trade, underlines the characters and twists in the plot he describes with sentence rhythm and sentence structure when writing the screenplay, emphasises and, as it were, already simulates the later editing.
But no script can avoid the translation from one medium (paper) to the other (film).
If the transfer from one form of representation (word) to another (moving image) succeeds across the media types, an effect equivalence between screenplay and filming (shot material) arises in film theory. The heartbeat has remained, the circulation intact and the work more concrete and beautiful than ever.
- In a perfect world, the author, as the father of the idea, effortlessly and with joy immediately recognizes his child, which has not been entrusted to the care of the director without great concern. The original vision has been preserved. A good script made a good movie.
- In the day-to-day business, films are often created from scratch in the course of shooting. This is not only part of everyday life when creating an image film. The content develops a different, new life, is redefined or interpreted differently, with or without intention, by external and internal constraints than at the creation stage.
- What is consciously and controlledly allowed in documentary films or on television in factual entertainment and light entertainment is a poor guide for marketing and communication with moving images.
- Image films and TV commercials are like tailor-made shoes. A clear profile, the purpose and task thought through in detail and not a word in the script a coincidence, that characterizes most films for companies.
If a commissioned film fails in climbing a step, the desire to make a statement always fails as well.
3Film Editing / Montage
In the opinion of many great filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese as well as the French cult director François Truffaut, film editing (montage) is just as important as shooting. In this step the film is created again, dialectically assembled and condensed by the editor.
- In editing, the film is given the final form that the audience gets to see and the film experience is cast in the final form. The only thing that can be added in the edit is what was shot during the shoot.
- Almost anything can be left out of the montage: characters, plot lines, but also the original intention of the author or director.
- This does not necessarily require, as in Hollywood, a producer who usurps the final cut in picture editing.
- Editing can save a movie. Or ride them into the ground.
Even at this level, it is anything but self-evident (not only in film theory) that the vision born in the screenplay and guarded with hard work over the course of filming will not be transformed into a divergent statement.
Once the feat has been accomplished and each stage of work has congenially transformed the work into their world, which becomes increasingly concrete from stage to stage, without having lost its foundation, comes the true endurance test: the audience. At this level, director Billy Wilder’s insight still holds true: “Every single person in the audience is an idiot, but all together they’re a genius.”
Even if watching films is a highly strange, frighteningly individual process from the point of view of perception and film theory: the audience is always right. Because films are always a means of communication and an economic good, the viewer, and only he, ultimately determines the final form of perception! This also applies to films and videos on the Internet. Moving image is what the audience sees in it.
Conclusion on the film theory of effect equivalence
In each of the four phases of effect equivalence, a film must be recreated in certain respects. Each stage brings opportunities to correct mistakes from previous stages, but also carries high risks without expertise, talent and experience.
What does impact equivalence mean?
- Each film has four stages to overcome during its production. At some of these stages there is a media break (words have to be transformed into images, for example in the case of the screenplay), while at the same time the project becomes more concrete at each stage.
- The director’s goal must be to be able to follow his vision through all stages of production. The effect already intended in the script should be ensured. This is why we speak of the theory of effect equivalence (equality of effect).
- The main four transformation steps are: from script to shooting, from there to editing and from the finished film to the cinema audience.
It’s not without reason that directors fight for sovereignty over editing, writers and editors strive for the director’s chair, and the relatively new function of showrunner is considered the ultimate by filmmakers all over the world.
If you want to think very sharply, you will recognize as the fifth stage, or even more precisely, as stage three and a half (i.e. after editing, but before the target audience’s vision), a further step in film theory as a prerequisite for the foundations of a successful film: marketing. This includes not only video thumbnails for YouTube, but a whole universe. And communication plain language.
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