Fujita’s 10% Rule for Filmmaking

Over the weekend I was thinking about this Vulture article on the current state of the documentary film business. Essentially production companies are deciding to take a puppy mill approach to creating new “stuff” (I wouldn’t call them documentaries or films but that’s just semantics I suppose) to meet the market demands of streaming platforms and “get while the getting is good”. 

On Sunday, I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi (which you can now watch free on YouTube which is amazing in itself) for probably the hundredth time and thought about the article and would this film be made today and would it have the cultural impact that it did? Also, thinking about Jiro’s lifelong dedication to his craft and singular focus which is the antithesis to the process of filmmaking outlined in the article with production templates designed to elicit an emotional response at certain timestamps, etc. 

One of my favorite moments from the film is when Jiro visits the Tsukiji fish market to meet his tuna trader Fujita who you can tell he deeply respects. Fujta describes himself as “anti-establishment” in the subtitles and reveals his process of only selecting the best fish in the market each day, usually one out of ten. If the fish isn’t up to scratch that morning there won’t be maguro nigiri at Jiro’s counter that day, I assume.   

The 10% rule, as presented by Fujita the tuna trader, is an idea that has been simmering in my mind for some time now. It posits that only 10% of an artist’s labor should be dedicated to the finished product, with the other 90% being consumed by the messy, grueling work of development research and editing. And, I must say, this notion can be quite illuminating when it comes to the art of documentary filmmaking.

To start, let’s consider pre-production. Before the cameras start rolling, the filmmaker and their team should spend nearly all their time (90%, if you will) delving into their subject matter, conducting interviews, and figuring out the narrative they want to convey. This isn’t just busywork; it’s crucial to the final product. After all, you can’t make a good film if you don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Fujita doesn’t just pick the best fish at random, he has to closely examine them all, slice them, taste the fat composition, etc. There’s also his accumulated years of tacit knowledge of knowing what is going to taste superb, like a great filmmaker knowing when a story is going to sing to the audience. 

Next, let’s turn to the editing room. Once filming is done, the real work begins. A filmmaker and their editor must sift through hours and hours of footage, carefully curating what stays and what goes. And, by the dictum of the 10% rule, only a fraction of that footage should actually make the final cut (10%, to be exact). The rest is just chaff, detracting from the film’s overall impact. The 90% of unused footage isn’t wasted money, it can serve as a source of inspiration and experimentation for future projects. 

Now we know that nobody is going to pay for all of this development work and days of shooting that doesn’t end up in the final cut but it does spark the notion that if we spent more time in development and in the editing room honing the idea and the story the output would be so much stronger.

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