Monday Prescription – 5 Mistakes That Kill High Concept

Hello Film Doctor friends.

This Monday Prescription we will discuss tackling “high concept” films as independent projects.


As defined by Jeff Lyons in the, high-concept projects usually possess 7 common traits:

  • High level of entertainment value
  • High degree of originality
  • High level of uniqueness (different than original)
  • Highly visual
  • Possesses a clear emotional focus (root emotion)
  • Targets a broad, general audience, or a large niche market
  • Sparks a “what if” question

So you might find that your project is exactly that – a high-concept one – not every first feature film must be a “kitchen sink drama”, “horror” or ‘mumblecore‘. Yet, you probably will also find that your available production budget is far from the amount usually required for executing these kind of films. And even the cleverest story, the highest of high-concept movies, suffers from poor execution…

Here are 5 common flaws when executing high-concept for the first time and ways of remedying them:

  • “On location” – Flaw:  Many shots done in a flat/office/contained space, predominantly in mid-length framing, so not to reveal lack of production design. Solution: Even if your film is about a person trapped in one location spot (think Phone Booth), a well executed high concept project features landscapes and surroundings (think Phone Booth again). Want to look big? Use big locations. Nothing screams more “low-budget filmmaking”than a film shot predominantly in ‘mids’ and close-ups, and 90% interior. Wide shots with expansive vistas – even when done on location, not a studio set – add production value to your visuals. So instead of living rooms, feature parks, gardens, city landscapes and motorways.
  • “Get high” Flaw: Abundance of static shots with ‘talking heads’ or dialogue Solution: Another sign of low resources is lack of camera movement and shots with little dimension. Aerial and high shots are things that can add scale to your project. Fair enough, renting a helicopter might not be affordable, but there are other ways around it – for example, you can buy stock footage, with the material that you need (e.g. The BBC Motion Gallery, Getty Images Library, Shutterstock, Artbeats, or at Videoblocks etc.) Alternatively, see if you can get access to a roof!
  • “Solitary figures” – Flaw: You might have carefully crafted the main roles in your script and spent time casting your leads, but have you spent enough time considering the amount of background artists required for each scene? No? Well, two passers by on a busy street or three people in a shop might just look fake or make you resort to ‘mids’ and close-ups (see point 1).  Solution: The answer is to create crowd shots. At least one scene that features about 50-60 extras will boost the production value immensely. Absolutely can’t pay for the amount of extras required? Convince all your friends to take part on “shoot-for-lunch” basis. Preparation, preparation, preparation!
  •  “Light it up” – Flaw: “Flat” picture, shots that don’t look ‘cinematic’ enough, too much ‘natural’ lighting. If the image created is lacking “gloss” and contrast usually associated with high concept productions, then the problem is in lighting. Solution: Proper lighting makes all the difference.  So, next to a Production Designer, your other extremely valuable member of the team is Cinematographer – make sure to hire someone who actually specialises in cinematography, rather than an experienced camera operator/self-shooter. You don’t want just footage, but  someone with an eye for detail, colour, light and framing.
  • “Get your act together” – Flaw: “Wooden” performances due to inexperienced actors, lack of direction or rushed casting. Solution:  Ensure you have enough time to cast thoughtfully, to enlist the actors best suited for each role. Stellar performances hold any film together and, even more so, a high concept one – with the “high level of entertainment value” and “root emotion”, as mentioned above.

‘Monday Prescription’ No. 89 – Just because you might not have millions in your production budget, doesn’t mean your project should look cheap or that you can’t achieve a high-concept production. There are always ways of adding production value to your film.

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Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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2 thoughts on “Monday Prescription – 5 Mistakes That Kill High Concept

  • December 2, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    Interesting. But you might want to look up “depth of field.” It does not mean what you think it means.

    • December 2, 2013 at 6:26 pm

      Thanks for the heads up, Katman! The writer of this post has been informed and shot.

      The Film Doctor Team


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