One of the most common challenges for novice filmmakers is to present novel ideas without presenting a cliche. While it’s a goal of many, it can also be a common pitfall. Filmmaking cliches are typically common elements of the filmmaking process that filmmakers use to produce films.
The Usual Filmmaking Cliches Suspects
Here are a few of the most common filmmaking cliches:
- Film starts with main character waking up
- Film ends with entire story being a dream
- The narrative tries to follow Hollywood conventions without the production value.
- On-the-nose dialogue (dialogue that states the obvious)
We could write 100 articles about individual filmmaking cliches. And that still wouldn’t be enough.
Many of these filmmaking cliches stem from one issue.
It’s hard for beginner filmmakers to truly detach themselves from prior experiences. But that is ultimately what helps experienced filmmakers avoid cliches. Once you’re able to view your project from an objective viewpoint, it renders a lot of the cliches easily avoidable.
To test out this theory, think of the last student or low budget film you watched. Did you spot commonplace filmmaking cliches?
Bet you did.
Look at most films made by novices. Or even look at your previous films. We’re willing to bet good money that it’s littered with cliches.
Because you didn’t have the perspective. You have it now that you’re removed from the project. But when you’re deep inside the creative process of making a film, your mind only relies on your current experience and knowledge of cinematic language.
Hollywood Cinema and Filmmaking Cliches
Most people’s intro to cinema was via Hollywood. So it’s not surprising that most people use the lexicon of classical cinema as a starting point for creating films.
It’s the reason why many low budget films attempt high concept premises and fall flat due to the chasm in budget differences. Our perception of Hollywood cinema has created a collectively understood language that filmmakers and audiences can understand. There is where filmmaking cliches come from.
But while there’s value in avoiding bad cliches in pursuit of novel portrayals, there is a very fine line. There’s a fine line between a cliche and well-used trope.
A villainous character dressed in black or darker colours is a trope that is well-used based on hardwired behavioural perceptions of evil. Humans perceive darkness and the unknown as a dangerous threat to ourselves.
The example of the villain only becomes a cliche if the villain, also has a lair. And henchmen. And an elaborate escape route from their remote lair. The cliches continue…
This is a filmmaking cliche because it’s an image we’ve seen 1000 times before. But it moves past a hardwired biological response. It is an image that was incepted by 1960s Bond films with billionaire villains who yearned for world domination.
Cliches in film become apparent when the language of Hollywood cinema becomes too heavily saturated. But for you, the screenwriter and/or filmmaker, it’s how you use these tropes and familiar concepts and make them your own and not as filmmaking cliches. The story as a dream, for example, can be reworked by playing with the timeline. Or, the character waking up can be used as story device, like in Groundhog’s Day. So it becomes part of the story rather than a filmmaking cliche.
Filmmakers should venture out into other forms of cinema. Asian. 1960s West African. Experimental. Grindhouse.
Whatever takes your fancy.
To avoid filmmaking cliches, you must stray away from the language you know.
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3-Act Structure Handy Reference Guide (PDF)