Film Challenge Tips & Tricks: Q&A with the Creative Team

“It’s not just about a beautiful building. It’s about how that building has affected a community.”

Final submissions for the 3rd annual I Look Up Film Challenge are due 8/13. But what makes a really strong submission, and how do I get there? We hosted a Q&A with our creative team to address those questions.

Q: My topic has nothing to do with inner city projects. Is that okay?

Lots have people have been wondering about this, and the answer is a big YES! The theme, Blueprint for Better, is all about trying to find projects that demonstrate that architects can serve as agents of positive social change. That can be found anywhere and can take lots and lots of different forms.

The example we used in our seed film happened to be in a city neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. What we loved about this story was that there was some powerful change demonstrated there, not only by the architects, but also by the community. These stories can be found in so many different places: rural, urban, or anywhere really!

The goal of producing the seed film isn’t to look for clones of the story we’ve already told. We’ve told that story. Now we want to hear your stories. And we want those stories to be authentic to you as architects and filmmakers, and authentic to the voices of those that are telling the stories.


Q: Does the film have to be about a specific firm or a specific project?

It certainly doesn’t have to be about a specific firm. The goal is not to create an ad for a firm. What is really important is making sure that there’s a specific narrative. The two main questions you should ask yourself are, does my film deliver on the theme of architects making an impact in some way, and am I compelled by this story? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then you’ll be in great shape.

Part of what makes a compelling film is that it’s a little bit surprising! So we hesitate to tell you that there’s one way to create it. If you want it to be about a firm, that’s great. If it’s bigger than that, then that’s great too!

Q: Where to find interesting architecture stories?

We did a lot of research. We connected to architects that we know through our affiliation with the AIA, and we did a lot of research into topics that we were interested in.

We ultimately came across the Midtown story though a friend of Ben, our Art Director, who was an architect. Your network is a great place to start.

Before choosing, though, we had to throw a much wider net. We were looking on Architizer for story ideas, and had calls with 3 different architecture firms, to narrow down. Then we ultimately chose based on who had a compelling story, and who were the most compelling characters.

Q: Can you elaborate on what you considered compelling?

When we were vetting stories, our goals were to A) map out potential story lines that could make for a compelling narrative for a film, and B) find characters who could compellingly tell the story. We went in with wide knowledge about the firm, and a specific idea of a potential storyline.

In the case of Midtown, we found that Roy Decker was a very strong character who could act as a great narrator for the story, because he just had a great storytelling way about him. Then we had Ann Marie Decker, who has great training as an architect, but was a bit more soulful. We knew that her character could really add depth. Then, different people in the community that lived in the housing that they had created, and community organizers, added other elements. Different people we met played different roles.


We planned an imagined narrative. Documentary will never follow that to the letter, but first we sketched out an outline: What are the issues? What had been tried and failed?

Our story was not “Architect as hero,” coming in and saving a community. Our story was about a group of architects partnering with a community and playing a role. But also the community itself played a huge role. So that’s something to think about too. Yes, the architect’s impact is central, but who else plays a role?

It’s not just about a beautiful building. It’s about how that building has affected a community.

Q: What are good things to think about in terms of what to ask in interviews and what images to shoot, to really illustrate what you just talked about?

Know the general story arc after conducting pre-interviews. In the case of Midtown it was a neighborhood that wasn’t doing too great, things that had failed, how people were working on new solutions, and where it was going in the future.

Once you have an idea of that you can be prepared with the types of questions you’ll need to ask to let that story come to life.

You want to make sure people’s voices come through. But you also want to make sure it’s very tight. So, ask the same questions in a few different ways. Something you notice when you do that is people get more comfortable, so they get a bit more succinct.

To get emotion, it’s good to get people outside of the tight setup of the interview. Maybe you get them walking around outside of where they work, or maybe you stop people at the building and ask them how they feel.
When editing, start out long. Put everything in there. But then edit ruthlessly. Make sure everything that’s in there is adding to your story. You’re going to be invested in the story and want to include everything, but you have to decide what people can digest in a short period of time.


‘Q: How much does the impact on the neighborhood matter when compared with cinematic quality and professional production?

Ultimately, a film should be judged first and foremost on its subject matter. Story is everything. That said, you want to use all your tools to tell it in the most effective way possible.

First and foremost, find a compelling and meaningful story, and then use the tools that you have in your disposal to tell it in the best way possible.

Q: What do you recommend for making a film in a short timeline?

Have a plan and a backup plan. Make a production schedule and print out a calendar. Deadlines you need to complete. Tell as many people as possible. Be persistent. You can’t always wait for people to call back.

Also, think about what you can offer in return. Could that be photographs from the shoot? A documentary that shows how important their work is?

Final tip: Shooting at dusk is great for lighting and good timing for people to get off of work. A beautiful sunset is free!
For more tips on technicalities of filmmaking, read this Q&A with our filmmaker, The Art of Architecture Films.