My Three Secrets of Filmmaking
Here are my three secrets of filmmaking. They could be the three secrets of mastering any discipline. They’re called “secrets,” but they’re not particularly sexy. Over the years and ideally for the continuing future, these three aspects have helped me. I always push them on my students. Those successfully attracting work and jobs, whether paid or not, were already implementing these three secrets. The others made less effort to incorporate them into their work practices.
What are they? Well . . .
One is practical
One is academic
One is personal
THE FIRST SECRET IS TO FILM AS MUCH AS YOU CAN
Everything and anything. Weddings, short films, music videos, conferences, plays, promos, events . . . When I was younger, I used my family’s video camera to film my bedroom. Just pans around the room, close-ups on my books and videos, the cat, etc. No real reason, just practice. But I was learning the equipment inside-out. I was also practicing craft. How to pan smoothly, what a good frame looks like . . . I’ve mentioned my early shorts featuring my friends chasing me through the woods that usually ended in a big fight. Well, what we were inadvertently teaching ourselves was orientation, shots, feeling, light levels, etc. It’s amazing how many of today’s filmmakers haven’t done some version of this. So get out there this weekend and make a film. A home movie of your town, a music video, or just shots of your bedroom! Anything! Every discipline affects the others. Tattoo that behind your eyelids.
I could be on a job now and something will crop up on set that I know how to solve only because I messed it up 15 years ago on those experimental films.
THE SECOND SECRET IS TO READ AS MUCH AS YOU CAN
Self-education is critical!
We have the secrets and knowledge of film at our fingertips, yet not everyone reads. Don’t come up with any excuses about the cost of books; you afforded this one! Some of my students complain about £20 books then blow that amount on one weekend’s alcohol. Used books are also available through eBay, Amazon, and the library! I’ve read many books on lighting, directing, editing, producing. Make notes, then put them into practice. This is the golden key. I don’t know what your chosen speciality is, or even if you have one, but read everything. You want to be a director? Read up on directing . . . and editing. One helps the other . . . gobble up knowledge in all forms. Books, magazines, videos, articles, and blogs are all rife with helpful information.
THE THIRD SECRET IS TO "GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER"
What does this include? Everything that is YOU. When I get emails from students looking for work littered with spelling errors, grammar issues, and font changes, obviously having been cut and pasted from a template, their spelling and letter-writing deficiencies ensure a non-response. Or maybe it’s your appearance you need to rethink. How presentable are you? Your lack of experience didn’t cost you the job; it was your appearance and manners at the interview. Politics is 50% of this business. I and other colleagues know very talented people who haven’t been asked back for the next job. Why? Because they were difficult to work with or know-it-alls. You also need to be more self-aware on set. No phones, no loud laughing, no big opinions. People are watching; how do you come across?
You must take care of yourself. How can you survive 16-hour days shooting, driving, and concentrating if you don’t eat well, sleep well, and exercise well?
How’s your timekeeping? Why are you always late? If you’re late to set two days in a row, you won’t be invited back for a third. If there are two buses headed to set and one gets you there five minutes before you’re due, and the other 30 minutes beforehand, which bus will you take? I had one student do a dry run the day before a shoot so she knew where the location was and how long getting there took. Genius! You don’t want to be ringing the producer 15 minutes after call time on the first day of shooting asking for directions. Remember: 95% of the stress we have we brought on ourselves. We haven’t prepared; we didn’t do the homework; we left too late; we didn’t get round to making that important call. Small things make big differences.
What areas might you improve upon? Make a list and implement these changes. It will all add up. And it won’t just affect your film work, but the other areas of your life, too.
Go to everything; sign up for everything. Courses, seminars, shoots, meetings, networking events, screenings. Everything! Everyone who’s succeeded can trace it back to something. “I’m only on this big job because I worked on that other, smaller film with Steve, who recommended me to Claire from the BBC, who knows me ’cause I shot a free video for her sister after meeting her at a film screening . . .” You never know who you will meet and where . . .
Also, be prepared for personal cost and sacrifice. Travel expenses, gear rental, course fees . . . I spent a lot of my own money on early films and personal projects. However, what I learned in the process was absolutely priceless. Acting, camerawork, directing, editing, special effects, bookkeeping, grip rental, gear, camera filters, film formats, actor relations, poster design, sound, music, Foley, set building . . .
Another aspect of this secret is to adopt the “no excuses philosophy.” We all like to make excuses as to why we haven’t done something or forgot to do something. I’m as guilty of this as anyone! Identify the excuses you make and work to stop doing so. In most cases the number-one excuse is . . . time.
But time isn’t really the reason; it’s just that the thing you had to do wasn’t a big enough priority for you to go ahead and do it. Everyone in the world, from Richard Branson to Steven Spielberg to Hillary Clinton to the average person on the street, has the same amount of hours in a day. If every day you get up 30 minutes earlier and go to bed 30 minutes later, you have just bought yourself seven hours a week. That’s seven hours reading time, essay time, scriptwriting time, editing time, or even time to do housework so it doesn’t interfere with your film work.
When students proclaim: “I didn’t have time . . .” I respond, “So if a friend’s life depended on you completing your assignment, or if that finished essay or script were worth £15,000, then you couldn’t have done it? You would have lost the money and let your friend die?” If you had to make the time, where could you? Could you not watch Netflix all day Sunday? Could you not go out partying Friday and Saturday? Don’t try and find the time; make the time.
If you haven’t made the time, it’s not a priority. And if it’s not a priority, rethink what you really want. There are areas of the business that aren’t fun. Filming is great, but admin and invoicing are not. Editing that cool new promo is fun and reading three feature film scripts a day is not, but time has to be made to accommodate both activities.
Here are some excuses I’ve used . . .
I can’t afford to do it. I don’t know how that works. I’m too busy at the moment, really . . . Over the summer I might look into it. I am not good enough.
Or I’ve heard these . . .
I’m too busy being a mum to write any scripts now. I should be able to, but I’ll have to talk to my husband / wife.
I tried most things and none of them worked. It’s in planning but I haven’t quite got all the details worked out. I called the company but they never returned my calls. I’m so tired right now. I’ll do it when I’ll feel better. I don’t know the right people to talk to.
Everyone has something that stops them or in their minds gives them a “legitimate” reason why they can’t do something. Successful people do the work in spite of their reason. They work around their medical condition, their dyslexia, or their lack of resources to find a new way to do what has to be done, and so can you. How much is your excuse really stopping you, and how much is you hiding behind it? Are you using it as a “get out of jail free” card? Only you can answer that truthfully.
Excuses also don’t have any value in the real world. If a film festival or broadcaster wants the finished master copy of a film by a certain date, I can’t be delinquent and blame illness or over-scheduling. They simply won’t accept it.
So refuse to join the excuses club. Let others add to the list above while you get on and do what needs to be done.
I have worked with over 1,000 students, and I can now faithfully spot the signs of those who will go on to work in the industry and those who won’t. Some people are very good at being told what to do but lack internal drive or initiative. Some people take notes in class; others don’t. Some turn up on time; others don’t. Some students hand in their assignments on time; others offer excuses about printers running out of ink. Years later, students who applied themselves are now working on the new TV show; the ones that didn’t still work part-time supermarket jobs. Which one will you be?
Excerpt taken from my book "Shooting Better Movies: The Student Filmmakers' Guide" available on Amazon. BUY IT HERE.