Look Book is King

Learning as we go
Creative Failings & Epiphanies

01/10/16

Look Book is King

The importance of making a good look book

by Joe Talbot

writer - director

Hunters Point Shipyards

We made a look book. You’ve heard of those things.
Or maybe you haven’t. But I’m here to
spread the gospel – as a new director,
it ended up being one of the
most important things we’ve done thus far.

I’M A FIRST-TIME FEATURE-FILMMAKER. And this can be an asset – I’ve got boundless energy, big dreams, and I’m only half-cynical. But in the eyes of the industry, this means I’m unproven. Wiser men and women than me have resolved their lacking track-records by making short films before embarking on a feature. This helps soothe the anxieties of folks who are considering giving you a pot full of money, or perhaps even more valuably, dedicating their time and energy towards your little idea. And it benefits the filmmaker too – it can give you a boost of confidence and useful experience going into your first feature – a process that doesn’t lack for high-anxiety moments where experience and faith can be nice things to call on.

But for those who like doing things the hard way, the good news is there are alternatives to gaining credibility and experience. Shooting a concept trailer can teach you useful know-how onset. Even the screenwriting process can give you a great chance to experiment and build faith in your vision if you, like us, have actors at your disposal. But what may come as more of a surprise to some is that creating a look book was just as critical as shooting the trailer and writing the script, if not more.

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Experimenting with motion and flash to get an “editorial” look

But wait, how’s a look book possibly more important than a script? Well…Everyone has a script. And most of the people you want to read it have very little time. Maybe your first 10 pages are the next Chinatown, but if not, you can grab peoples attention in a quarter of time with a strong look book. And if they love it, then they’ll really kick back and read your script. But I digress.

WHUS AH LOOKY BOOKE?

First thing’s first. There are formal definitions out there. But truth be told, it’s really whatever you want. As long as it gives a strong sense of what you want to create to financiers, crew and anyone else you want to understand your idea, it’s a look book. Some people make solid ones just pulling together Google Images. For ours, we knew we wanted to do something a little more elaborate. Having not made a film before, we felt it was critical to show that (on a small scale) we could achieve a relatively complex vision. In my sense, this material would be critical in persuading both investors and more-seasoned crew (like an awesome DP) to want to collaborate.

This material would be critical in persuading both investors and more-seasoned crew (like an awesome DP) to want to collaborate.

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Joe pleads with Prentice

THE PROCESS

I worked very closely with our photographer, Laila Bahman, to create a visual piece that would feel – to those who had seen the concept trailer – like the next step in our creative evolution. We wanted, of course, for it to be a solid stand-alone piece as well, but it was important that people who’d first seen the trailer feel like the look book was heading further and deeper.

I won’t get too heavily into our process because I think it’s important that every filmmaker do what works for them. I will say that we researched different platforms to host the look book and storyboarded each section the way you would a film. We location-scouted and talked with our actors about what we envisioned. We prop-shopped and set-dressed (dead fish are not fun). Like a movie, we failed a bunch. I’d go off and yell a little bit. Then we’d try something else.

Like a movie, we failed a bunch. I’d go off and yell a little bit. Then we’d try something else.

And that failure proved crucial – you cannot overstate the value of having time to just experiment. Try a bunch of shit out. That’s a huge part of why doing a short can be a good idea. This process gave us a chance to try out things we wouldn’t be able to in the time-constrained craziness of a feature where we’d have a big crew who gets paid by the hour.

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Laila, our photographer, in her happy place

So we shot it, we laid it out, and we painstakingly built it online. Of course, we finished it a mere three hours before it was slated to make its world premier at IFP’s Film Week – a speed-dating of sorts with industry professionals. Our web developer, Marc Nixon (apparently still highly-functioning at 4am), coded it to perfection. I was so deliriously sleep-deprived when we finished, I was talking to Jimmie on the screen.

HELLO WIZARDS OF OZ

When Khaliah (our producer) and I arrived the next morning at IFP’s Emerging Storytellers Lab – our first real exposure to movers and shakers in the industry – the look book was king. It gave a clearer, more detailed sense of the film than I could ever hope to through words. The often-frustrating truth is that words leave so much open to interpretation. When you’re explaining something as specific as an idea in your head, it can be hard.

I want to make a Western…but it’s like Kurosawa…but like ’40s Kurosawa…’40s Kurosawa meets ’70s Cassavettes, you know?

..Maybe. Or maybe they’re off imagining something completely different. In a more realistic realm, I often tell people I want to marry the heightened, stylized look of films like Le Havre or Paradise: Love with a naturalistic, improv-driven style of acting for our film. And then I start to wonder what other versions of our movie their brains start playing when they hear those words. Maybe some people get it. But not all do.

A look book avoids all that. People are getting a direct look into your brain. No filter. No silly words to muff up your vision.

And keep in mind – our look book doesn’t perfectly capture my vision. Not close. There’s so much more I wish I could’ve included. So many things I would tweak or change altogether to better reflect my vision. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. After all, it’s not the finished film. Just a way to get the conversation started. And perhaps most importantly for the purposes of IFP, it confirmed that we didn’t just have an imagined idea, we had a vision that was realized.

AND ON & ON

The look book built buzz at Film Week. It played a strong hand in taking our speed-dating conversations to the next level – every meeting ended with a “Can we read your script?” (which is about the best thing that can happen). And when they do read the script, the words on the page will have deeper meaning. They’re not off imagining Jimmie as Michael B. Jordan or Donald Glover. Or Hunters Point as Fisherman’s Wharf. They know what our characters look like and they know the world we want to capture onscreen.

And it’s continued to be a great asset since. My producers use it to show investors. I use it to show potential collaborators. And it’ll have its greatest use when it’s no longer something we employ. Because when that happens, it will mean it got us to the next level – funded, crewed up, and shooting our film.

by Joe Talbot

writer - director

Joe Talbot is a fifth-generation San Franciscan and Old Hollywood junkie, whose work has shown at San Francisco’s last two remaining cinema palaces: The Castro Theatre and The Roxie Theatre. He is a Sundance Institute fellow and was recently profiled in Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces issue.