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7 Film School Clichés You Might Want to Avoid

Jourdan Aldredge

All film school students are guilty of these seven clichés. Here’s how to avoid them and make your beginner film projects stand out.

Top image: Groundhog Day via Columbia Pictures

No judgment here. Everyone has to start somewhere. Whether you’re in film school or just shooting on weekends with some friends, there’s a lot to consider when it comes time to jump into your first project.

Do yourself, your professor, and your friends a favor and try to avoid these first-time filmmaking clichés.

1. Alarm Clock Openings

It’s been done a million times in films big and small, but it’s the single most over-used opener in filmmaking. Let your classmates begin their films with a blaring alarm clock flashing 8:00 while a hand slaps the snooze. It only leads to a montage of your main character rubbing their eyes, brushing teeth, and rushing to get ready to leave in time.

How to Avoid: There are other ways to introduce a character and start a scene. If you think about it, seeing a character wake up exactly like everyone in the world does really doesn’t tell you much about them. Consider skipping the intro and jumping into the middle of your next scene. Here’s a good example:

2. Gratuitous Running Sequences

In one of your first film school classes, you’re going to get the assignment to show how to edit a scene. Undoubtedly, you or someone you know will have the idea to create a sequence of a character running through campus because they are late for class. As an exercise, this is perfectly fine, but in a narrative film, it can kill a story in its tracks.

How to Avoid: Consider something smaller and possibly more mundane. Match action cutting isn’t only used for big actions, you can build a sequence out of pretty much any aspect of everyday life. Make a sandwich, replace a car tire, wrap a gift, anything that has movement and progression will do.

3. Blown-Out Tarantino Trunk Shots

We all love Quentin Tarantino — he’s a great filmmaker. However, I’m willing to bet he feels a sharp pain in his side every time a film student sets up one of his patented trunk shots and leaves their camera on auto exposure. Yes, it’s fun to pay homage to your favorite director’s signature shots, but going from a dark space to a blown-out bright sky doesn’t quite pack the same impact in your film as it does in Reservoir Dogs.

How to Avoid: If you are going to try it, set the exposure and white balance for how it will look outside. You can add lights or reflectors inside the trunk to keep your characters from being silhouetted. Or, if you want to show your characters getting something from a trunk, simply shoot it from outside of the car.

4. Predictable Bathroom Mirror Reveals

If anything, the cliché bathroom mirror move teaches some good lessons about framing, blocking, and timing; it can still be effective when done right. Nonetheless, it’s easily the most overused of all horror movie jump scares. Worse yet, when done poorly, it can create a very confusing and fumbled scene.

How to Avoid: Because it’s such a classic trope, over the years it’s systematically been turned on its head many times over. If you’re looking to experiment, trying to add a new angle or twist to the sequence can be a playful way to engage your audience.

5. Unnecessary Vertigo Effect Shots

Again, its definitely a technique that’s fun to try out and can be a great exercise in itself. However, used out of context to the story you’re telling, it can be quite disconnecting and odd. When done properly, the push/pull shot creates a perceived warp in space and distance and requires hair-trigger control of a zoom pull and dolly push. It’s rarely used in films for a reason, only called upon to portray built-up, high-stress situations.

How to Avoid: From a technical standpoint, the vertigo effect is very difficult and usually requires several people working perfectly in unison. You can however “cheat” it, if you will, with a zoom added in post (here’s a good video explaining how). If you’re just looking to portray an upsetting emotion within a character, other methods like a dutch angle can also be an option.

6. Unsightly Cross Dissolves

7 Film School Cliches You Might Want to Avoid: Psycho 2

Cross dissolves, or crossfades, are a standard video and film transition that can, at times, ease a sharp or harsh cut between two scenes. In film history, it has been used at times to create thematic links between shots. However, most of the time, it creates awkward bleeds between images that can create unsightly mixes and can create unwanted connotations.

How to Avoid: If you’re going to use a long cross dissolve, you’re going to need complete control of your shots. Handheld and bumpy shots do not crossfade well, as the lines bounce around and create weird images. If you do shoot on a tripod or secure dolly, the longer the crossfade means the longer you’ll need to hold your shot still at the end. It’s really not always needed either, as there are just as many famous cuts between two shots that don’t crossfade but still create illicit thematic connections.

7. Way Too Long Credits

It’s understandable — you’ve finished your first short film and you’re proud of your accomplishments. The urge to put together an ending sequence that gives you and your friends all the credit you deserve make sense. However, if you’re in a class where several films are going to be shown, or are simply showing it to friends — they will all know who wrote, directed, shot, sound engineered, gaffed, and edited the film.

How to Avoid: Keep it short and sweet. Avoid the long crawling credits. You can still attach you and your friends’ names, but try and incorporate something other than just a blank screen and text. A good example of this may be the ending to Wes Anderson’s first short film Bottle Rocket. Find a way to mix the credits in as part of the story you’re trying to tell.

What are some other first-time filmmaking clichés to avoid? Let us know in the comments.