29 March 2014

Judge dread: building up or knocking down

Creatives and judges have argued over subjective details of their work since the dawn of time, and the world of amateur film making is no different. This post is about judges' feedback and its value to the film maker.

A competition like many others

We recently had our annual competition at our film makers club, where any member who has a film can enter. There is no cost of entry (other than our membership fee) and in return we receive feedback from a panel of two judges, and the chance of winning an award if our film is deemed worthy.

A long running club like ours, which was established in 1932, has now accumulated a number of trophies to award. Many honour past members of note who made extraordinary contributions to the club. In addition a number of commendation certificates are awarded. Altogether we have about a dozen awards or so.

This is all very well when there are thirty or forty entries and the awards dinner is attended by up to a hundred people, which used to be common in years past. Unfortunately those days were decades ago and the 2014 competition was contested by just 15 films (and half of those were entered by two film makers).

Handing out a dozen awards amongst just 15 entries is always going to be difficult for the judges -- although the better films might pick up two or three awards, possibly you'll see some choices that were unlikely in more well-attended past competitions. However we still have another component to fall back on, which is not dependent on the quantity of entries: written feedback by the judges directly to the film maker.

The value of feedback

Personal feedback is considered invaluable by many. Judges' comments can focus on tiny details of the film that might pass by the audience's eyes in a fleeting moment, but nevertheless may contribute to the narrative, the specifics unknown to the lay viewer. Small errors and inconsistencies that have an effect on the flow of a film, more profound than first thought by the film maker, can be explored by the experienced judge who may impart some insight that cannot be gained elsewhere. For some, myself included, feedback is the prize over the silverware. Trophies are a lovely form of recognition but constructive comment can stick in the mind for years and inform choices made in the middle of a future shoot.

The quality of feedback depends entirely on the judges of course. Our club's competition officials seek out suitable judges, recruiting those who are experienced film makers and have judged competitions before. A trained eye is needed to understand a film and what the film maker's intention might be. The quality of feedback also depends on how the judges approach their task.

All creatives could sometimes do with a thicker skin. Responses to our efforts are occasionally unfair or not worth getting upset about. Equally, it is easy to bask in praise and welcome positive comment. But this is the way many of us are. Putting a film in front of an audience after working on it for many hours can go well, poorly or indifferently. The worst comments are "I just don't like it", and perhaps "I do like it, but I don't know why."

The role of judges

Thus we have experienced judges to not only determine if our efforts are any good in the grand scheme of films, but why. Which shot spoiled the tense conversation scene? Which minor sound effect completed the illusion of a country stroll? While these details may appear inconsequential, it's precisely these small matters that have a big effect on how we approach our next film. How we plan camera angles on a piece of paper, how we decide which gear to load in the car, how we take an extra minute to direct an actor while everyone else is waiting and the shopkeeper wants you out before opening time in 10 minutes.

Unfortunately our judges for this year's competition mostly failed to provide this service. Some films received no constructive feedback at all, with just an off-hand comment to the effect of YouTube audiences would probably like this or that it looks like you applied colour grading, or perhaps there is a fault with your camera. The feedback was very brief, in some cases came across as dismissive, and for film makers who had spent much time on their projects it felt condescending and unhelpful.

This might not have been surprising if the club had inadvertently recruited inexperienced judges. But this year we had two judges who are senior figures in the IAC, the Institute of Amateur Cinematography, the national organisation that supports film clubs and their members. The IAC is an organisation that is often looked up to by local clubs such as ours.

This piece is not intended to criticise the IAC, which is a large organisation of volunteers. They (amongst other activities) operate a successful international competition, which is judged by several panels of three judges each, and in my experience and that of my colleagues, the judges of BIAFF deliver excellent quality feedback. I still remember the comments made on my two entries to BIAFF in 2012.

I felt the club as a whole was sorely disappointed with the two judges of our competition this year, as we expected a much more professional job, even for a small competition like ours. Unconstructive feedback risks discouraging film makers from entering future competitions, and to see a drop in the already-low entry numbers would be a great shame.

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