Book Review: Filmmaking for Change: Make Films That Transform the World
“Industry veteran Jon Fitzgerald has developed a new manual for making socially relevant films on a low budget, from concept development through production, from marketing through distribution. In straightforward sections, with descriptive breakdowns for each category, the book presents a new paradigm for filmmaking in the modern age, including case studies on numerous films and advice from industry professionals on each topic.” (publisher’s blurb)
Fitzgerald is co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival which started in 1995. Filmmaking for Change is designed for the independent live-action filmmaker, but there is much in this manual for the independent animator as well. From big-studio animated features that are “sort of socially relevant” like Amblin Entertainment’s 1995 Balto or Don Bluth’s/20th Century Fox’s 1997 Anastasia, “based on real history” (with cute talking animals and lots of singing) to independent animator’s features like Iranian-French Marjane Satrapi’s gritty 2007 Persepolis or American Nina Paley’s monumental 2008 one-woman project, Sita Sings the Blues, the record of almost one hundred years of animated features is studded with what started out as an individual filmmaker’s personal project. Maybe he or she was lucky enough to pitch it to a major producer or studio who took it over (which can be a mixed blessing). Or maybe he or she could not find a major backer and had to arrange the concept support, the funding, the production details, the distribution and everything else him- or her-self; or he or she did not want to surrender his/her socially relevant concept to a studio’s or a financial group’s control. Filmmaking for Change shows how you can develop your concept – presumably “socially relevant”, although in the field of animation today, imaginative fantasy adventures without singing and dancing are becoming more commonplace.
Remember, Fitzgerald is talking about live-action movies. “There was a similar revolution in the 1990s. Several indie filmmakers made highly profitable movies, produced at a very low cost. […] It started with El Mariachi (1992), a little film shot for less than $7,000. The movie played to much success on the film festival circuit, was acquired by Columbia, and went on to gross more than two million dollars at the box office.” (p. 7) Socially relevant animation can start out as humbly as a student animator’s class project or as outrageously as a shock-value feature. “Outrageous” was what made animator Ralph Bakshi famous, but several of his best known films such as Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975) were made to call attention to racial and ethnic issues as much as to make a buck. Coonskin is a very good (if notorious) example of how animation can exaggerate a socially relevant theme to make a point, or carry it to a futuristic extreme – see Tom Hanks’ current anti-overuse of natural resources s-f drama, Electric City, a web series for Yahoo! Screen.