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Case Studies

Case Studies
The best way to learn how to write, film, produce, direct and/or edit a blockbuster film is to study blockbusters. The following case studies and movie clips are here so you can learn special techniques and model the successful box office smash movies.





Basic Rules of Character  Development

When developing your characters, remember to keep in mind the following steps:

  1. Choose your protagonist and flesh out all their attributes, good and bad.  Identify their motivation, their object of desire and their tragic flaw(s), meaning the weaknesses in their character that could stand in the way of their object of desire and contribute to their downfall.

  2. Pit your protagonist/hero against the antagonist or villain.  Remember that evil characters are often intelligent, brilliant, seductive, strong, and even likable on some level.  Identify their tragic flaw(s) and the elements of their backstory that contribute to them thwarting your hero in his or her journey. Is there a way to reconcile the motivations of your hero and villain and if so, how can you weave that into your story line?

  3. Give your protagonist a side-kick. The side-kick can be a mentor, a friend, a partner, etc.

  4. Use supporting characters.

  5. Don’t use superfluous characters (other than extras on set).  Every character should contribute to moving the plot and story line along.


Rules of Thumb

  1. Avoid creating cliche characters as you breathe life into them.  Even if you have a stereotypical character, choose a few attributes of that character and change them - turn them on their head - something the audience would not expect - so they really come alive as something new and exciting.

  2. Weave the depth of human experience into your characters and reflect that in their behavior, mannerisms, dress, dialogue and voice intonation.

  3. Write from what you know and then do additional research to flesh out your characters and add a new dimension of reality and/or fantasy to them, depending on your genre.

  4. Write, re-write and re-write again, each time eliminating the attributes that make your characters cliche until you have created original characters that we can love or hate.

Yoda in Star Wars
The character of Yoda in Star Wars is a great case study of original character development.  Rather than using a cliche´ old wise man, the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, chose to use an unlikely character to deliver ancient philosophies and wisdom, namely a green alien elf-like mystic named Yoda.


The character Yoda is anything but cliche.  Yoda is a Jedi Master who is aligned with the positive side of the force.  His voice and animated movements add to the mysticism surrounding his character. Normally, you would not expect so much power and wisdom to come from such a small character. 


In choosing to use a small animated puppet to deliver a giant message, George Lucas effectively changed an entire generation’s pattern of thinking and empowered visionaries into action. Yoda’s wisdom has weaved itself into the minds and hearts of Western pop culture. 


As you watch the videos to the right, notice how masterfully George Lucas tells the story of a mentor’s decision to take on a new apprentice.  Also notice how the audience is slowly drawn into the world of Yoda and comes to expect only the best from this small alien creature, even when he is facing giant evil forces.


In the first Star Wars video, Luke Skywalker meets Yoda but is unaware that he has met the mystic master he is seeking. The powerful Jedi doesn’t initially identify himself to Luke but rather provokes and tests his patience by disguising himself as a comical creature.  In doing so, he uncovers character flaws in Luke, namely anger and recklessness, which could interfere with his Jedi training. 





In the next video, Yoda continues to try Luke’s patience in his tiny cave-like hut.  Disappointed with the potential apprentice, Yoda drops the charade and takes both Luke and the audience by surprise as his true identity is revealed.  It is brilliant story telling, character development and foreshadowing of the hero’s tragic flaws which could lead him to the dark










In the next video, Yoda’s true power and wisdom are revealed as he teaches Luke. The audience is forever drawn into the ancient wisdom of this small but masterful Jedi. Notice how the director chose to convey the immense power of this character using an animated puppet.  Yoda’s voice and movements as well as the music make this scene very powerful.









In the next video, the audience is fully aligned with Yoda’s power and the force he yields, irrespective of his size or the power from anyone tapped into the dark force. We naturally expect him to defeat the villain.


Happy Endings Speak to the Heart and Soul

Blockbuster movies  follow a proven formula, taking you step by step to a story climax - the point of irreversible change where the final conflict is resolved.  If filmed correctly, it will speak directly to the heart and soul of the audience and will draw them into the world of the characters so much so that they will leave with the same visceral feeling the characters experience.  In the happy ending, viewers walk out of the movie feeling so good that they can’t stop talking about it and go back to see the movie over and over again.


Why the Movie Dirty Dancing Works

Dirty Dancing was a box office smash.  It combined several different winning plot lines, including:

  1. forbidden love;

  2. maturation or coming of age;

  3. rescue; and

  4. transformation.


The climax of the story, where Johnny returns to rescue Baby and dance with her on stage, resolves many conflicts that leave the audience feeling hopeful.  Why? Because not only does boy rescue and win the girl in one of the best romantic moments on film, but good triumphs over evil on several levels: 

  1. ethical behavior is rewarded and unethical behavior is punished;

  2. truth prevails over false allegations and ego-based lies;

  3. the underdogs are given their shining moments on stage; and

  4. forbidden love is finally free to express itself. 

Notice how you feel when you watch the end of the Dirty Dancing movie.  Not only does the story work but also the music.


Bottom line, Dirty Dancing ignites in you that same romantic spark and passionate fire that the characters experience. That is why it works.

This is the final scene of Dirty Dancing where Johnny rescues Baby and gives her “The Time of Her Life” - the perfect choice of music score for the final scene.

On screen chemistry is everything in a romantic film. A good director can capture very passionate moments by focusing the camera on the characters’ subtle movements and facial expressions . When done right, it creates powerful emotions in the audience that linger long after the film has ended.


As you watch the video clip, notice how many times they change the camera angles and shots to keep your mind, heart and soul riveted to the screen.

Above is the movie trailer for the blockbuster movie Hangover, which is replete with examples of set up and payoff. Notice how they use dialog for the set-up and close the gap with situational comedy.  The entire film is predicated on the set-up when they toast to “a night to remember” and in the scenes that follow, they can’t remember anything.  Notice how quickly the set up and pay-off happen and how they use this repeatedly throughout the movie trailer, filling the gap with more and more absurd topsy turvy situations that play off their amnesia so that the viewer is totally hooked and compelled to go see the film to find out what happened that night. 


The next two videos are from A Fish Called Wanda, where Otto asks Archie to apologize for calling him stupid.  This is a classic form of situational comedy. The set-up comes from taking a prim and proper British Barrister who doesn’t show any emotion and placing him at the mercy of a crazy American.  What makes the second scene so funny in the movie is the way the director chose to convey the apology with the camera angle.


Timing the Set-up and Pay-off
Timing is everything in comedy.  You accomplish this by using set-ups and pay-offs. They are characterized by a gap between initial information and final information, where the viewer hears something which is only part of the story, perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come or an invitation to learn or experience something more. 


Clearly something is missing which instantly prompts the viewer to ask questions or make their own guesses as to what’s coming next.  The pay-off closes the gap in the viewer’s mind. 


In comedy,  the gap can be filled with funny dialog and/or unexpected comical situations. Good comedy is fast-paced so the set-ups and pay-offs happen very quickly.   


How to Create Powerful Set-ups and Pay-offs

Here are some ways to create powerful set-ups and pay-offs:

  1. 1. Connect topsy-turvy ideas or situations that go together.

  2. 2. Connect ideas or situations that are completely diametrically opposed so that the gap takes the audience completely by surprise.

  3. 3. Put your character in funny situations that heighten the comedy, such as taking a person who is very orderly, neat and scared of anything that causes chaos and plunging him into chaotic situations that are completely beyond his control so that he can’t handle it.

  4. 4. Play out the absurd situation or funny statement repeatedly in the gap to capitalize on the comedy.  Slapstick comedy uses this technique quite a bit, especially where a klutzy person is constantly falling or bumping into things.


Case Study of the Set-ups and Pay-offs in the Blockbuster Hangover


The blockbuster film Hangover makes great use of all of these.  The entire film is a set-up and pay-off.  They toast to “a night to remember” and in the very next scene, they can’t remember anything -  a diametrically opposed situation.  In the gap period, they play on the amnesia repeatedly and connect similar topsy turvy situations as the characters try to find their friend.


A good part of the comedy also derives from the fact that they place a goody-two shoes character afraid of his own shadow in outrageous situations that are completely beyond his control and have him do things he would normally never do.  First, he finds himself in a destroyed hotel suite which he reluctantly placed on his credit card. If that’s not bad enough, next he discovers that overnight he got married to a call girl with a baby. How could things get worse? He gets arrested by the police for stealing a cop car.  Things go down hill from there.


The final pay-offs come when they learn why they can’t remember anything and why the mattress was dangling off the top of the sky-scraper hotel.


To the right are several examples of blockbuster comedies and how they use set-ups and pay-offs.  Notice how fast the set-ups and pay-offs come in each of the clips.

The next video is the famous fake orgasm scene from Harry Met Sally. The set-up comes from the dialog between the characters and the pay-off comes when Sally sets out to prove him wrong.  With his male egotistic comments, Harry actually sets himself up for what follows.  A little piece of movie trivia, the last line in the scene was not a scripted line.  It was improved on set.

In the next video from Austin Powers, the set-up and pay-off comes in the form of funny dialog.  The viewer wonders how Dr. Evil will kill Austin Powers in a shark pit where there are no sharks.  The pay-off comes in the absurdity of what they actually have in the shark-pit to kill them.



Here are some tips on how to cut video transactions for action scenes. 


  1. Cutting on the Action to Maintain Continuity
    Action scenes maintain continuity of action by cutting on the action.  This means you cut the clip on the action before you move to a different angle so that you get a seamless sequence of events. For example, you have a two shot of  your hero punching the villain.  You could cut the clip somewhere on him throwing the punch. The next clip could be a close-up of the villain getting smacked in the face with a loud sound effect or him reacting to the punch in slow motion, depending on where you chose to cut the initial punch.

  2. Maintain Screen Direction
    This means when you cut from clip to clip, the subject must always move in the same direction.

  3. Parallel Editing
    Parallel editing is a powerful technique. You cut back and forth between different story lines or actions so it appears that multiple events are happening simultaneously. It is a useful technique to create suspense, anticipation and anxiety, especially where the characters in the intense action packed scenes are fighting to protect the character from harm in the parallel scene and/or the villain is getting closer to the unsuspecting character in the other scene.  It is often used in horror films, suspense thrillers, and action films.

  4. Thematic Editing
    Thematic editing uses rapid impressionistic sequence of shots and/or a montage of images to convey an emotion in a very short period of time.

This video is from The Fifth Element: the Diva Dance Scene.  Notice how it makes use of the parallel editing technique to convey the simultaneous happening of two events and create suspense.


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    1. Most fight scenes and/or karate scenes are choreographed by experts in the field.  These include police officers, karate experts, fighters, boxers, etc.  You will want to hire someone to help with these scenes so they have an authentic feel unless you are an expert yourself.

  2. 2.There is constant movement of images and characters.

  3. 3. There is a mix between speeds of clips: normal, slow motion and fast motion.

  4. 4. They cut on the action and maintain scene direction which means the subject always moves on screen in the same direction.

  5. 5. They often use rapid impressionistic sequences and/or a montage of images to convey an emotion or tell a story.

  6. 6. They are intense and fast moving.

  7. 7. The sound effects are loud, sharp and accompanied by blockbuster music scores.

  8. 8. m They use many different special effects such as lights, smoke, fire, green screen backdrops, etc.

Scripting Your Action Scenes
When you write your screenplay, don’t get consumed by putting in all the different shots. You might want to highlight certain actions with slow motion headings or inserts for emphasis and to convey a certain emotion or feeling. 


The general rule is to write the action so it is exciting to read because a shot by shot description will distract the reader. Separate your paragraphs so the action is only a few lines of sentences at a time.  Your shooting script and story board however will contain much more detail of the shots.


When you film and edit your action scenes, you will want to get creative with the different shots. Study blockbuster action scenes to see what works and then model them.  But always add your own creative flare to the mix.

Notice how all the elements of action movie scenes are used in these different blockbuster movies. 


The mixing of normal speed, slow motion and fast motion within one continuous clip is a powerful editing technique.


Notice the mixing of types of clips: long shots, establishing shots, close-ups, inserts, obtuse angles, birds-eye view, worm’s eye view, etc.


Notice how quickly they move from clip to clip to maintain the pacing of the film. 


Blockbuster action movies compress time on screen. They give us a few intense and very exciting moments and take out the slower elements that slow the pacing of the film. The result is a compelling and emotional story conveyed within a short period of time.  To select a few moments in time and still give us the entire story is the mark of a master.


  2. Movie Trailers
    A movie trailer (also known as a sizzle piece or teaser) is a coming attraction or a preview of a film. A successful movie trailer will captivate the audience in the first 3 seconds and hook them into seeing the full film.


  4. Core Elements of a Successful Movie Trailer

  5. 1. A good movie trailer contains a dynamic initial sound effect that immediately grabs your attention, such as a drum hit or crescendo notes. It can either be part of the trailer music score or separate from it.

  6. 2. It contains a blockbuster music score that plays to the human emotions in the genre of the film.  If the story is about the triumph of the human spirit, the music will be dynamic and uplifting.

  7. 3. Trailer music is characterized by dynamic music accents that match the movie clips.

  8. 4. It contains the most exciting and/or compelling clips from the movie to prompt viewers to see the film.

  9. 5. The movie trailer moves quickly from clip to clip. Sometimes the clips are less than a second long. Some are two to three seconds.

  10. 6. It includes clips of famous stars, whether they are leading roles or just cameo appearances because celebrities draw fans to see the film.

  11. 7. It contains moving images that play on human emotions, such as love, sadness, excitement, hope, desperation, inspiration, fear, etc.

  12. 8. It contains subtitles over moving images or in between clips that weave together the plot without giving away the story.

  13. 9. The subtitles include the names of celebrities in the film as well as famous producers, writers and/or directors associated with the film. If someone has won or been nominated for an Oscar or Golden Globe Award, it may contain such accolades in the trailer.

  14. 10. It contains movie ratings at the beginning (PG, R, etc).

  15. 11. It contains the name of the production company.

  16. 12. It contains an image with the credits at the end.

  17. 13. It contains the premiere date of the film (date may include the day, month or year of the film, depending on the stage of production).


  19. Movie Trailer Editing Tips

  20. A good movie trailer will be somewhere between 50 seconds to 2 1/2 minutes.  Great movie trailers are cut from scratch.  You can find royalty free blockbuster and film score music and stock footage at  and


  22. Movie Trailer Template in iMovie

  23. If you need a quick movie trailer and you do not have the funds or time to produce one from scratch, there are several movie trailer templates in iMovie if you have an apple computer.  The program comes with drag and drop editing and places to put the titles so that the images from your movie and titles are perfectly timed with music accents.

James Cameron’s Avatar movie trailer promised viewers an entertaining film experience where they would be drawn into an exciting new fantasy world. The movie delivered on its promise. Notice how the trailer music and accents match the images and how quickly it moves from clip to clip.

The trailer for the James Cameron film, Titanic, promised viewers a dynamic love story couched in one of history’s greatest tragic moments at sea - the sinking of the Titanic. Notice how the trailer plays on human emotions and draws you into the epic drama.


Notice the difference in the movie trailer when Titanic returned to movie theaters again in 3D.  It contained the award winning song by Celine Dion and the high-lights from the film that captivated the audiences first time around.

The movie trailer for The Kings Speech promised an emotionally charged yet entertaining and comical movie about a true story of a stuttering king.  Notice the choice and placement of the clips with the music and how it inspires and compels you to go see the film in theaters.


  2. Green screening is a great tool in movie making because you can create fantasy worlds and make it appear as if your characters are on a different set location than you really are.


  4. Set Up and Filming

  5. The first step is to set up your green screen. If you have ordered a kit or you plan on ordering one, watch these videos first so you know exactly how to set up the screen, where to place the lights and where your subject should stand. Even though you will be adding the background later, your character actors need to be reacting as if the background is there so that the special effect appears real.


  7. Editing Out the Green Background

  8. Once you’re done with the green screening, you will need to edit your video in a movie editing software.  I recommend Final Cut Pro X and I’ve included a detailed video on how to edit your green screen for a professional look and feel. It includes chroma keying, masking, color correction and troubleshooting.


  10. Actor on a Stage Editing Analogy

  11. When you start editing your clips, view the timeline where you place your video clips as a stage.  Think of your green screen clip with the subject as an actor on a stage with a set behind him or her.  If you keep this in mind, you will always remember to put your green screen clip above your background set design clip when editing.

  12. Flying Effect with a Green Screen

  13. Just for fun, I’ve included a video tutorial on how to film and edit yourself or another person flying through the air.  You can get creative with camera angles and shots once you get the basics down. You can also do this even if you don't have a green screen by using the masking tool. These are more advanced editing techniques and you can Google tutorials on this. Have fun with it!

  1. Virtual News Set with a Green Screen

  2. I've included a quick Final Cut Pro X Green Screen Tutorial on Virtual News Sets. Notice the Set up of the green screen and the green desk. You can get virtual sets online if you subscribe to a stock footage site like You can also Google free virtual sets.


  4. Please also review Learning Module 4 “Green Screen Do’s and Don’ts”  and your Bonus Visual Guide on “How to Use Your Personal Green Screen Clip with the Special Effects Video Clips” for more information.

This video shows you step by step how to set up your green screen indoors and outdoors, including how to eliminate wrinkles, how to position the lighting (3 point and 5 point lighting), and where to place the camera and subject being filmed so you avoid editing issues. It also covers how to apply green screen paint on the floor and how to use a green screen suit for an actor. I recommend Final Cut Pro X for Movie Green Screen Editing (see below).

This video shows you step by step how to edit your green screen video in Final Cut Pro X, including troubleshooting and matching lighting and color with your background clip. You can download it off the Mac App store.

This video shows you how to film and edit a green screen clip of someone flying including different angles and shots. You can get the effect of hair blowing in the wind with a fan.

This video shows you how to film and edit a green screen clip of you sitting at a desk in with a virtual set behind you.


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