If I’m learning anything, it’s that getting into filmmaking is tough.
I think very few people know everything there is to know about making films, it’s a difficult medium. Without much of a budget and with only a few people in your crew, you have to have such a varied skill set. There is no filmmaker hat. If there was it would be a magic hat, capable of transforming into other types of hats, giving you the power to do various jobs in various fields of work. You see the thing about hats is…
Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, hats.
How can you make films with all these limitations? Limited resources? Non-existent budgets?
Before I carry on, I want to say that I’m just as clueless as they come. As I mentioned before it’s been a while since I produced any of my own films. I’m very much just starting out, but what I have got going for me is a bit of experience and a good amount of information. Like anyone else I’m good at some areas of the process and lacking in others. This post is only representative of what I’ve learned (and what I’m currently learning) myself from research and my experiences. What I write is just my opinion of what I’m discovering from the process, and it shouldn’t be taken as fact.
Anyway, it isn’t easy, nothing’s simple, and there’s a reason people study film for years. In my opinion, here’s all the hats you’re expected to wear these days.
The Technical Expert
Alright so lets make some movies! Easy enough… Cameras are just fancy boxes with sensors that capture light that transforms into digital pictures. Video is just lots of pictures recorded at 25 frames per second… but sometimes 30 frames per second… also sometimes 24 frames per second. You’ll have to decide on that. Also what resolution do you want? Full HD? 1080? 720? 4k? You’ll also have to figure out aspect ratio, 16:9? But you can get wider ratios which makes a picture look more cinematic or whatever. Like 1.85:1, 2.35:1. Where did these formats even come from I hear you ask? Oh, from the days when people used actual film, but everything’s digital now, well not always, you can still use film but it costs more… but anyway… you can emulate wider aspect ratios in post by cropping or having your sequence export out at a wider aspect ratio. Post? Oh yeah, what’s your preferred NLE? Premiere? Final Cut? Avid? What software you grading in? Sound? Oh yeah sound, how are you recording sound? Using a separate recorder? You’ll have to sync up after, make sure you’re using a clapperboard… What’s your ISO set to?… Do you have any ND filter?… How wide’s the aperture?… Focal length?… Depth of field?…
Hey where are you going?
Filmmaking is a medium that uses science and technology, and while many would agree it’s important not to get obsessed with it, it’s still a very important part of the process. It’s daunting to say the least, there’s no one book, website or forum which will give you everything you need to know. On top of that, as soon as you’ve got your head around a particular aspect of one thing, everybody’s already moving on to the next thing. I very vaguely remember thinking back in uni that they (whoever they were) were deliberately over complicating things, that wouldn’t it be easier if a camera was invented that just produced good images and that’s that. But the point is that professional cameras and other filmmaking technology is designed to give you maximum control to create fantastic looking films and if you want the best picture, you need to learn how these different technical functions work. If you want easy, just use a smartphone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s all you have, the tech can sometimes get in the way and if you give a good filmmaker a smartphone I’m sure they could create a great movie from it.
Films need a story. Preferably a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily. If you’re making fiction, you’re going to need someone to write the script and that someone might be you. If you’re making documentary you’ll still need a narrative. The good docs are the ones with a story to tell. Writing is an art and a science in itself and it doesn’t need me to tell you that it’s difficult. I have a lot to learn on this subject but I feel that even though I don’t know a large amount about the theories and the science that goes into writing a good story, I like to think you need to have a natural affinity towards it. I think it’s an important point that the key to good storytelling is instinctual and ingrained within all of us. Some more than others pick up on that and are able to write their own good stories. Think about it, why do some blockbusters do better than others? Is it the action set pieces? The witty dialogue? Or is it that the audience can detect subconsciously whether a story fundamentally works or doesn’t work? Most people can detect a good story, that’s why we watch films. Some people can just use this subconscious storytelling gene that humans seem to have to craft their own work.
Although I’m not saying it’s something that can’t be taught. It’s like drawing, some people are annoyingly good, they can just put pencil to paper and produce a work of art. Most people spend hours trying to create something it would take these wizards seconds to create, it just takes more time, more effort.
You need a guy who calls action right? Well yeah… but also that person has to do lots of other things. The director is the people manager as well as the one with the artistic vision. A director needs to do just that, direct. I’ve found that people don’t want to work with somebody who is constantly apoligising for existing, a term my producer friend once chose to say that I think is amusingly on point. Mainly this is because I empathise with that mindset. During uni I would try to rush around as much as possible on set because I was afraid the people around me, the actors and crew, who had given their precious time to help me with my film, were getting bored or tired or both. So I would rush, have an attitude of that’ll do, and the film would suffer for it. What I should have told myself at the time was that the people who decide to give their time to assist with a film are doing so of their own free will. Nobody was forcing them to be there. They were happy to let me direct them, especially the actors who were there to gain experience and material for showreels. Just the same as me, they wanted the film to be good, and wouldn’t have wanted me constantly worrying if I thought I was wasting their time. Basically it’s a confidence issue, and occasionally I still feel that apologising for existing mentality seeping in.
By the way, this should by no means be an excuse to treat people badly. While a director should be confident and know what they want, at the very top of the list of priorities should be the welfare of cast and crew. It goes without saying but you should absolutely be kind and a nice person to people who give up their time to help you.
The producer. The organiser and the business manager. The one who figures out all the logistics. The one who makes all the schedules. The one who sorts out the food. You need a plan, you need to know how you’re going to pay for things, you need to know filming dates, you need to know where to find actors. Making films won’t happen unless at least one person starts getting things organised. In the film industry this person is known as the producer. I’ve personally always struggled with this one, and I’m having to work on it. It’s an essential mindset that someone has to have and if someone who has it isn’t elected as the official organiser of the project then it can be very difficult to get anything moving forward. If the director of the project is the heart of the project, then the producer is the brain.
I’m aware of the fact that there are specific roles in filmmaking: The director, the producer, the DOP, the boom operator, the runners, and so on. My point is that when you’re just starting out, as I am, you seem to have to be all of these things mentioned above and probably a few others that I haven’t discovered yet. They seem to be more than just roles. They’re mindsets that you have to become. If you’re lucky you can share a few of these out if you have other people on your team but if you’re on your own well then you should probably invest in a sturdy hatrack.