Things I Learned in Film School: Good, Fast, or Cheap

I had this idea to write down some of the more practical things I learned in film school and see if they were helpful to others. I have said many times that, in some respects, a film degree is worth about as much as the paper it’s printed on. It’s not entirely true, of course, but it sounds really cool when you’re paying $48,000 for that paper.

So, here’s my first installment in what I plan to be a continuing series.

Good, Fast, or Cheap: pick two.

I can’t remember if I Iearned this specifically during a class or at an internship, or maybe even after graduating. But, I do think it was during a class. In a film production, you have the triangle of quality. Of the three, good, fast, or cheap, you can have two.

If a film production is to be fast and cheap, it will probably not be good. If good and fast, it won’t be cheap. If cheap and good, it won’t be fast.

There are a lot of cliches in the world and most of them don’t always hold true under close inspection. But, this one really does. I’m sure that someone made a film that was good and cheap and they made it quickly or that a film was made fast and cheap and turned out good.

But, it usually doesn’t work out that way. In fact, I suspect that it holds true more often than not. Take “Mariachi” directed by Robert Rodriguez. It was made extremely cheaply. It was pretty good. And, if I remember correctly, it was not quick in the making. He might have shot it quickly, but it took some doing getting to point where he could shoot it. I seem to remember there being issues in the making of the film that had to be overcome, but it wasn’t quickly.

Very high quality films with great scripts, cinematography, acting, and so on are almost never ever cheap. All of those top flight talents cost money, as does the equipment to make it happen. And, to get those films done in a reasonable amount of time, you need tons of people. A director, assistant director, first assistant, second assistant and so on. Digital effects are done by tens of people on amazingly fast computers. So, good and fast, as in not taking years and years to make, can’t be cheap.

So, you get it. The cool thing is that this triangle of quality, I believe, applies to most other industries as well. In Education, say, if you want a lesson to be good and fast, then you’re going to need some resources like computers and projectors and stuff. If cheap and good, you’re going to be creative and take your time to get it right. It’s not going to be fast.

Construction: fast and cheap houses aren’t good. Good and cheap houses take forever to build. Fast and good houses won’t be cheap.

I think about putting on a pep rally. Part of the problem for my job is that it almost always has to be fast. So, now I have to make a choice between good and cheap. So, when I’m looking at a Homecoming pep rally, I have to go for cheap. That’s why the decorations are done by students, made of butcher paper, tempera paints, and duct tape. The games are done with stuff you can find around a school. I would guess the budget for a pep rally like that is around $150 altogether.

But, we put on two huge academic pep rallies. The rallies are supposed to be rewards to students who have achieved high grades or significant improvement. It’s a big deal. I feel like these rallies have to be good. So, that means I’m really stuck. They still have to be fast since I’m doing them at school. So, now they can’t be cheap. And, they’re not. We spend about $2000 on them. Some people take issue with that, but, the money belongs to the students and I can’t think of a better way to spend it than to make a big, fun, good rally that kids are happy to attend (and they mostly are) that ends up being a reward for them. And, since it’s a school, I think it’s entirely appropriate to spend money rewarding academic achievement.

So, if you’re going to start a project, you should think about the triangle of quality. What are the constraints on your own budget? What about time? Or, does it absolutely have to be good? If any one of those legs of the triangle are already a given then you’re going to be locked in to the other two. This can very much help you in the planning stages to make decisions about how to spend money or time or energy.

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