Amber Gibson: Hello and welcome to Inside ACMI X: the series where we interview residents working at ACMI X; ACMI's industry-leading coworking space designed for practitioners working in film, TV, video games and creative tech. I'm Amber Gibson, the Community Coordinator. Today we've invited filmmaker, author, and co-founder of Lean Filmmaking; Kylie Eddy, to talk about how she's reimagined the development, production and distribution of independent films, and is challenging conventional wisdom with new ways of working. Last year, Kylie, with her collaborator and brother, David Eddy, released their new book, The Art of Lean Filmmaking: An Unconventional Guide to Creating Feature Films. Welcome, Kylie.
Kylie Eddy: Hi, Amber. It's great to be here.
AG: To provide background for our audience; are you able to speak about your personal path as a filmmaker and how it has led you to become an agitator within the film industry?
KE: I mean, I really had a very traditional start in the film industry. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies, I did a post-grad in screenwriting, and for many years I worked in distribution. On the side of that, I was also constantly trying to make my filmmaking career happen as well, as a writer, director and producer. So I made a bunch of short films and a couple were quite successful, which led me to embark on my first, and to date sadly, only, independent feature film. It was micro-budget. It was super independent. It was released in 2007. A lot has changed in the industry since then, but that experience of making a feature film, (experiencing) just how challenging it is and after 15 years of professional experience and really working towards this goal and then achieving it, (before) realising that it's maybe not all it's cracked up to be. It's super hard to have a sustainable career.
It also really made me question why we make films this way. It was a bit of an existential crisis. This was around the same time that my brother, David, was working as an agile software developer. He had this great idea. He's like; "the way software used to be developed, called the waterfall method, is very similar to how films are made. We should try applying this agile process to filmmaking." I just thought that sounded ridiculous, but because he's my brother and I couldn't escape him, he just kept chipping away. In the end, he convinced me to try a very small experiment to see if we could start understanding how this might work for films. And suddenly, I started seeing results that were impossible to ignore. We've spent the last decade refining, experimenting, really creating an entirely new process for making films, reimagining how independent feature films in particular, but all types of content can be made.
AG: For people listening in who haven't heard about lean filmmaking, can you describe the method for us?
KE: Well, I can give you an overview because it does reimagine the production, distribution, and development of, specifically indie, feature films. What we've done is take advantage of surprising and often counterintuitive strategies to dramatically improve the filmmaking process. This includes things like collaborating in non-hierarchical cross-functional squads, working in ongoing iterative make-show adjust cycles, and validating assumptions with early fan feedback. What this means is that filmmakers can save time, energy, and money. But it's not just for low-budget or cheap ideas. It celebrates experimentation and inventiveness while also forging a sustainable artistic practice.
AG: What are the traditional filmmaking methods you feel need to be challenged?
KE: I mean, the whole thing. There's a lot. We're not challenging craft skills. Rather, we're challenging the process of how the work is done. This is really about fundamentally how we work as creative collaborators and the structure that work gets done in, which fundamentally hasn't really changed for the last 100 years since we've been making films. But of course, the world has changed. We have this amazing thing called the internet. It's an incredible time for creators where we can directly access audiences through essentially free or very low-cost platforms. Really, the gatekeepers are no longer controlling what films are made or how many films are made. So the power is back with us, but that does mean there's an opportunity to really look at how we do the work.
AG: What makes your book an unconventional guide at its core?
KE: Maybe if we take an example of what people might traditionally understand as production, which is when you shoot the film. In a traditional filmmaking method, normally the production shooting phase is very intense and could run for weeks or months. Often, it's six-day working weeks, 12-hour days are pretty standard, more likely it's more. And all of the work for shooting the film is done then. In our method, we don't have a traditional shoot like that anymore because rather than having a linear process it's actually an iterative process. When you deconstruct something as fundamental to filmmaking as a shoot, like: "what is a shoot?", everything seems to change. The reason why we do that is so that we can collaborate with a small squad. We are doing pre-production, production, and post-production simultaneously, which means that you no longer have to have those all-inclusive shoots in that kind of way.
Some of the things that the film industry has really come under fire for recently - but has been the case for a long time - is the working conditions are not great. They exclude a lot of people because not everyone can work 12-hour days and there's this myth; "we're so creative and that's what the shoot is for." But actually, with those kinds of working conditions, you are just trying to make the shoot before the light runs out, before the money runs out, and before the cast and crew walk out. By that time, all the creativity has actually happened in pre-production and development, rather than on the shoot. On the shoot and production: you're executing. Sure, you can make minor changes, but it's really about execution. This is just one of the many things that we (Lean Filmmaking) look at changing.
AG: I think it would be helpful actually, to talk about a squad or what a four-person squad would look like.
KE: The first step is really forming a cross-functional, non-hierarchical squad. We've tried to create some new language to indicate (that) this is something different. What is different about a squad is that because it's collaborative and cross-functional, this means (that) it's formed with all of the key skills required to make a film and they (the squad) work on it for the entirety of the project. This means that actors are on the squad, an editor is on the squad, cinematographers are on the squad, directors are on the squad, and writers are on the squad. Now to keep the squad small so (that) they can move very quickly and be agile, some of those roles might be (adopted by) a single person doing several of them. So you might be a multi-hyphenate talent. For example, you might be a writer and a director or an actor and a producer.
So all of those skills are on it from the very beginning and they form a squad and they work on the film in iterative cycles, which means that there are incredible opportunities for learning, creativity, and reducing a lot of waste because there are essentially no handoffs. You're all completing the work together. So this is quite revolutionary. If we go back to the shoot; when you're shooting in traditional films, you are making assumptions about what's going to work in the edit. That means that you do something called coverage, where you shoot a lot of different angles and you have a lot of different takes because you're not quite sure necessarily what's going to work in the edit, which could be months down the track. Whereas with lean filmmaking, you are actually doing it in cycles so you do get to see the edit straight after you've shot it and then you can iterate and do it all again.
AG: Can you describe how iterative cycles become part of the lean filmmaking process?
KE: If we take it way back to where I mentioned that traditional filmmaking is a linear process; what that means is that traditional filmmaking normally has five stages. There's development, pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution; and you can't complete the next stage until you finished the previous stage. It (filmmaking) has to happen in a very linear way and it takes a really long time. With lean filmmaking; what we do is an iterative process, which means it's no longer linear. It happens in cycles. We call them: Make-Show-Adjust Cycles. How that works, is that you do all of those five stages all at once. So essentially in the 'Make' part of the cycle; you are making a lo-fi (film) in the first instance - you gradually add fidelity as you move through the cycles. So you make a lo-fi version of the film and that includes everything from writing, directing, shooting, editing, the whole thing, a whole lo-fi version. Then in the show phase, you get feedback from potential audience members - we call them fans - and then in the adjust phase, you analyse that feedback and you also analyse as a squad what you've learned from working together, and then you do the whole thing again. So you're gradually adding. Really; the goal is to try and find that fit between the story and the fans before you over-invest in production values, which can come at the end once you've validated it.
The big advantage is you can start straight away. You don't need a script to start, you need a squad. You don't need a lot of money to start because you're not adding production values. It (lean filmmaking) does mean that you can test all of your assumptions before you over-capitalise, which makes it a really accessible way of filmmaking because it's really about the ideas and the squad working together versus a lot of money that can come way down the track once you've validated the idea.
AG: You spoke a little bit about non-hierarchical structures. How does your method promote that inclusive working environment?
KE: I think it's a really exciting way of working. These principles have been used in other industries and we've applied them to filmmaking. One of the great things is because it's non-hierarchical, it means that a squad makes decisions as a team. That doesn't mean that it's colour by numbers or that there are a whole lot of structures in place. It actually is a super transparent way of working that really requires a lot of rigour around your ideas and there's no hiding. But what it does mean is that you can make really incredible decisions in a way that everyone has the same level of access. So in traditional filmmaking, normally it's the producer and, probably on set, the director who are making the decisions and every decision has to be funnelled through them, which not only is quite wasteful but it also means... We like to think of filmmaking as a collaborative art, but actually, it's really promoted more as the director's vision and an auteur in the director, particularly in this country.
What lean filmmaking does is... the director is more like a coach. In agile terms, we call them a 'servant leader'. Their job is to support the squad, coach the squad, and ensure that the idea is being communicated and that the fans are connected, which is very different. Normally in traditional filmmaking, everyone's there to serve the director. Well, this is flipped. The director is there to serve everyone else in lean filmmaking. But what this means is once again, it opens up a whole different way of collaborating and communicating that is far more inclusive and diverse because you basically need to be ensuring that you can't just really go: "well, everyone's got to do this." No, everyone needs to agree on what they're going to do and why they're doing it. If you look at actors working on set, there are a whole lot of power structures and dynamics at play that often put actors at risk, whether that's around consent or safety. When actors are part of a squad in lean filmmaking, they have to give their consent and they're part of the discussion around that. Everyone can make more informed decisions. The knee-jerk reaction might be: "well, how will I get my ideas? And we won't be able to do what we want to do." It's like; "well, should you really be able to do what you want to do? Is that really a thing that we should be focusing on?" And also shouldn't we maybe be thinking; how can we push ourselves to be more creative? Can we tell different stories? Can we tell them in a different way? It (lean filmmaking) really forces you to think about things in a different way and not just rely on some traditional power structures.
AG: Have you shared the lean filmmaking method with production companies or funding bodies? And if so, what has been the feedback?
KE: Well, when you try to do something unconventional and disrupt the entire film industry: mixed results. I mean, I think that this is part of the challenge that we have with the film industry at the moment is - I think that we can agree - that we have pretty great craft skills in Australia, particularly. We are really well-trained and also the problem is not really production values. We can add production values. There's a much bigger challenge in that; how do you connect with an audience? How does your story connect with an audience? There is a fire hose of content. You're competing with so many others, so distribution is no longer the problem. Now it's about that connection with finding the audience for your film. That is a whole different way of really thinking about things, and trying to understand that and solve that first. This means that we think it's positive if you find out through working through the cycles that you actually can't do that. Well, that's good news - you've saved yourself a whole bunch of time and money on a project that at the moment you can't find a way to reach an audience for and you can move on to something else.
Unfortunately, just because we think it's (lean filmmaking) a success doesn't mean... that's a bit harder to demonstrate to the industry. And I guess just because this is quite a radical new way of thinking, even though these principles have been around for quite a long time now in other industries, it's still very unconventional. So we are just focused on; how can we find other trailblazers who want to do things differently, who are just prepared to get in and actually do the work and make their films and just prove the success (of lean filmmaking). In the book, we have a case study of two feature films where we coached squads through an accelerator program and what they were able to achieve was pretty outstanding. So we're just looking for more people who are really interested in trying something different and whoever wants to come along for the ride, we're here.
AG: Lean filmmaking is one alternative method that you have created to reimagine filmmaking. Are there other people, philosophies, or methods challenging conventional wisdom that have inspired you?
KE: There are definitely people who are looking at new technology or the way that things are done in individual areas. Maybe (they have) not deconstructed the entire thing as we just decided to do. But I mean, if you look at an organization; for example Pixar, Pixar does apply a lot of this, not so much with the audience base, but in terms of how they work because they started as a tech startup and it's animation. They very much use agile as a way of working. There's a really fantastic book called Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in The Way of True Inspiration by Edwin Catmull and Amy Wallace. Really, that looks at how Pixar started, some of the things that they use, and how they work differently. I've always found that book one of the few about creativity and working in the film industry that is really inspiring.
AG: Thanks so much, Kylie.
KE: It's been really great!
AG: Thanks for joining us on Inside ACMI X. If you want to find out more about ACMI X, learn more about Kylie, or read The Art of Lean Filmmaking; our website and Twitter are listed in the show notes, alongside information regarding our guests.