Cats have nine lives. A film has four lives. Each film and video is made four times! This is what the film theory of effect equivalence says. Filmpuls explains in this article why you need to know this theory as a writer, director, producer or film editor and what it means for the production of feature films and video.
Old hands in the film business know this: films are easy to watch because they are difficult to make. But clever foxes also know that a film or video is not made once, but always four times. This is not only film theory for filmmakers, but also a great opportunity.
- Every film has to pass through four stages during its production. At some of these stages, there is a media break (words have to be transformed into images, as in the case of the script), while at the same time the project is made more concrete in each step.
- The director’s goal must be to be able to pursue his or her vision through all stages of production. The effect already aimed for in the script should be ensured. This is why we also speak of the theory of effect equivalence (equality of effect).
- The most important four transformation steps are: from the script to the shooting, from there to the editing and from the finished film to the cinema audience.
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 target in all phases of its production.
Film theory distinguishes between four different stages in the creation of a film or video (creation, preparation for shooting, image and sound editing). These four stages are linked by the question of effect equivalence.
Preparations for shooting can be flawed, and during shooting it is not uncommon for the bear to dance or the devil to come out. It becomes incomparably more critical and dangerous (but also even more interesting from the point of view of film theory!) when the making of a film is examined not from the point of view of the production process, but rather in consideration of its impact objectives.
In this way four individual stages can be distinguished.
These are hurdles to be mastered for the life cycle of a film or web video. In extreme cases, these can even “kill” a film. Therefore the knowledge of the 4 levels of effect equivalence is more than film theory and indispensable for filmmakers.
Cinema films, TV films and commissioned films begin in the mind of the author, the director, the creative director or the art director. All of these people have a keen 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 stages of effect equivalence in film are:
- Conception (stage 1)
- Shooting (stage 2)
- Cut (Level 3)
- Visioning / Reception (Level 4)
The intended effect, which was the basis and the trigger for the start of the implementation, can change on each (!) of these four fundamental levels. Or, in the worst case, even get lost and thus make a film or video meaningless and useless.
In the beginning there was fire. And the power of creation. Making fire, too, began with an idea, a vision coupled with the persistent will to try something new, something never seen before, detached from familiar knowledge. In order for this new thing to meet the (own and foreign) ideas and requirements, a good portion 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 script version. It is still spared from the constraints of production reality. The screenplay is still unspoiled by a possible lack of talent.
But then it begins: As for the salmon on their long journey from the sea to the rivers, one obstacle quickly follows another for the future film.
A script, the word says it, is a book. A script lays the foundations. Words on paper possibly make a film. But they are not (yet) a film. To become a film, the words and sentences must be transformed into actions in front of the camera and translated into the language of the actors and into the grammar of the film.
A screenwriter knows all the tricks and knacks of the film craft, underlines the characters and turns in the plot with sentence rhythm and sentence structure, emphasizes and simulates the later cut.
But there is no script that 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 media types, then in film theory an effect equivalence between script and filming (filmed material) arises. The heartbeat has remained, the circulation intact and the work more concrete and beautiful than ever before.
In a perfect world, the author, as the father of the idea, immediately recognizes his child, who has not without great concern entrusted the director’s care, effortlessly and with joy. The original vision has been preserved. A good script has become a good film.
The shooting is the correction of the script. The cut is the correction of the shooting.
In everyday business, films are often created anew in the course of shooting. This is not only part of everyday life when making image films. The content develops a different, new life, is redefined with or without intention by external and internal constraints or is interpreted differently than at the creation stage.
What is deliberately and in a controlled way allowed in documentaries or on television for factual and light entertainment is a bad advisor for marketing and communication with moving images.
Image films and TV spots are like tailor-made shoes. A clear profile, the purpose and task thought out in detail and not a word in the script a coincidence, that characterizes most films for companies.
If a commissioned film fails to climb a step, the desired message always fails as well.
3Cutting / Assembly
In the opinion of many great filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and French cult director François Truffaut, film editing (montage) is just as important as filming. In this step, the film is created again, dialectically montaged and compressed by the editor. During editing, the film is given the final form that the audience will see and the film experience is cast into the final form. Only what was recorded during the shooting can be added during editing.
Almost anything can be omitted in the montage: characters, storylines, but also the original intention of the author or director. This does not necessarily require a producer, as in Hollywood, who takes over the final cut in the image editing.
The montage can save a film. Or ride into the ground. Even at this stage (not only in film theory) it is anything but self-evident that the vision born in the script and guarded with hard work over the shooting does not finally find its way into a deviant wish for a statement.
Once the trick is done and each step has congenially transformed the work into its world, which is becoming increasingly concrete from step to step, without having lost its foundation, the true acid test comes: the audience. At this stage, even if the supporters of democracy are no longer allowed to claim this reflexively after Trump’s triumph, director Billy Wilder’s insight still holds true: “Every single person in the audience is an idiot, but all together they are a genius.
Even if watching films is a highly strange, frighteningly individual process from the perspective of perception and film theory: the audience is always right. Because films are always means of communication and economic goods, the audience, and only they, 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
A film is not only created four times in film theory:
- as a screenplay,
- during the shooting,
- in the cutting room and
- in the mind of the audience.
In each of these phases, the film has to be recreated to a certain extent. This requires information and communication in plain language. Each stage brings opportunities to correct mistakes from previous stages, but without expertise, talent and experience, it also carries high risks.
It is not without reason that directors fight for the sovereignty over the editing, that authors and editors strive for the director’s chair and that the relatively new function of showrunner is considered the ultimate by filmmakers all over the world.
If you want to think very sharply, the fifth step, or even more precisely, the three-and-a-half step (i.e. after editing but before the target audience’s vision), is to recognize in film theory a further step as a prerequisite for the basics of a successful film: marketing. This includes not only video thumbnails for YouTube, but a whole universe.