The Definition of the Art
By Anonymous Author
Zen Filmmaking is a unique style of film creation that was designed, developed, and propagated by Scott Shaw, with assistance from Donald G. Jackson, beginning in 1991. Aside from Shaw and Jackson, since its inception numerous filmmakers have come to embrace this spiritually inspired and free flowing style of filmmaking, including such notable directors as Sofia Coppola, Gus Van Sant, and Steven Soderberg.
Defining Zen Filmmaking
Zen Filmmaking is a formalized style of filmmaking that was developed in 1991 by Scott Shaw in association with Donald G. Jackson. The primary premise behind Zen Filmmaking is that no screenplay should be used in the creation of a film.
According to Scott Shaw, "In Zen Filmmaking, the spontaneous creative energy of the filmmaker is the only defining factor. This allows for a spiritually pure source of immediate inspiration to be the only guide in the filmmaking process." Donald G. Jackson stated, "The basis of Zen Filmmaking is Spontaneous Creativity. We don't use scripts because this would limit the instantaneous nature of Zen Filmmaking. This does not mean that Zen Filmmaking is chaotic improve. It is not! What occurs is that Dr. Shaw and I study our cast and location like an empty canvas which we want to create a painting upon. We sense the energy and then move forward guiding the actors to say the right things and do the right actions — which ultimately construct a form of cinematic art."
In his book on the subject, Shaw details there are six tenets that lay the foundation for Zen Filmmaking.
The Six Tenets of Zen Filmmaking:
1. Make all unpredicted situations work to your advantage.
2. Don't waste time, money, and energy attempting to create your sets when you don't have to. Instead, travel to them and allow their natural aesthetics to become a part of your film.
3. Just do it. 99% of the time you can get away with it.
4. Never let your storyline dominate your artistic vision. Too many would be filmmakers attempt to write what they believe is a "Good" script and then try to film it. Without an unlimited budget it is virtually impossible to get what is on the page upon the stage.
5. Zen Filmmaking is a spontaneous process. Just as the Zen understanding of enlightenment teaches that though you may meditate for years it is not until the moment when you step beyond your thinking mind and realize that you are already enlightened that you achieve Satori. Thus, if you acutely plan your productions, with screenplays, storyboards, and locations, there is no room for the instantaneousness of filmmaking enlightenment to occur and you will always be lost between the way your mind desired the scene to be and the way it actually turns out.
6. Ultimately, in Zen Filmmaking nothing is desired and, thus, all outcomes are perfect.
A unique element of Zen Filmmaking, which helps to define a particular film as a, Zen Film, can be witnessed in its onscreen labeling. Whereas a traditional film most commonly begins with the statement, "A Film By," a film made in the style of Zen Filmmaking begins with the words, "A Zen Film By." There is also a unique closing associated with Zen Filmmaking. The final credit for most traditional films reads, "The End." In Zen Filmmaking, however, the final credit is, "The Zen."
Comparison and Contrast
Zen Filmmaking is often compared to Direct Cinema or Cinéma Vérité. This comparison is primarily based upon the fact that all of these styles of filmmaking employ the use of improvisational acting and are filmed with techniques similar to those used in the creation of a documentary film. Similar to both Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité, Zen Filmmaking relies heavily upon the edit of the film to create the final product. This is because as there are no screenplays used in the creation of these films, the edit is what is ultimately used to define the story and present what the audience will view. Shaw states, however, "Many people have written, and I am told that it is taught in a few university courses on filmmaking, that Zen Filmmaking is the next step in the evolution of Cinéma Vérité and Direct Cinema. This is not the case, however. When Donald G. Jackson and I made the first Zen Films we did not base our ideologies upon any previously defined style of filmmaking. It was a completely organic process."
The first film created in this style of filmmaking was the 1991 feature The Roller Blade Seven. In this film, such well known actors as two time Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee Karen Black appear, as do Clint Eastwood co-stars Don Stroud and William Smith.
Since its initial inception, Shaw has gone on to create numerous features in this style of filmmaking, as did Jackson until his passing from Leukemia in 2003. In addition, a number of other filmmakers have come to embrace Zen Filmmaking and created their own Zen Films due to its ease of cinematic creation. Filmmakers in the United States, India, Finland, Austria, and Indonesia have each embraced Zen Filmmaking.
Whereas some filmmakers have chosen to employee Zen Filmmaking as a filmmaking technique, other have used it as a source for parody. In 2007 filmmakers at Grand Valley State University in Michigan created an extended mockumentary on Scott Shaw and the making of a Zen Film.
There are two noticeable subdivisions within Zen Filmmaking. The first is the Zen Speed Flick. A Zen Speed Flick is defined as, "A feature length film that has been cut down to its most essential elements, leaving only the most interesting and fast pasted moments." Shaw has re-cut several of his Zen Films, including: Max Hell Frog Warrior, Guns of El Chupacabra, and Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, thereby creating Zen Speed Flicks from their original content.
The second noticeable subdivision is the, Zen Documentary. This style of film is based on the same spontaneous creation precepts as Zen Filmmaking, but instead of presenting a fictional storyline, this style of Zen Film presents a documentary based presentation. Examples of Zen Documentaries are: Dinner and Drinks, Frogtown News, Interview, and Imelda.
Books and Articles
Scott Shaw has written a number of articles on the subject of Zen Filmmaking. He states that these articles are designed to help filmmakers remove as many obstacles as possible from the filmmaking process. Shaw has also written a book on the subject entitled, Zen Filmmaking.
Prior to his passing, Donald G. Jackson also wrote on the subject of Zen Filmmaking via his website. In addition, both filmmakers have been interviewed extensively on the subject. Articles about the filmmakers and Zen Filmmaking have appeared in magazines across the globe. Most recently articles and interviews on Scott Shaw and his Zen Filmmaking process have appeared in the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, and Azerbaijan.
To date, there have been over three hundred feature films and documentaries based in the Zen Filmmaking style of creation.