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How to break into filmmaking

4 minute read

Shutterstock / RedShark NewsModel graphic by shutterstock.com

How do you become a good filmmaker? How do you make movies that people actually watch and earn a living from it at the same time. Don Starnes has some advice.

Recent stories in RedShark describe filming the desolate reactor in Chernobyl, shooting a live Coldplay concert in Paris and making the epic 600fps slowmo opening sequence for a mountain bike film in New Zealand. Looks fun, doesn't it?

People who do this sort of thing for movies and videos (whom I'll call filmmakers) often travel to interesting places, meet amazing people and work with cool gear. Almost anyone can buy the equipment and learn the software; indeed, it seems like almost everyone has. But how do you become a good filmmaker? How do you make movies that people actually watch? And get paid for it?

Learning the craft

Fillmmaking has been fully developed for about 100 years. It has been transformed by video, still photography and the digital revolution, yet the best practices remain consistent. There is a seemingly infinite amount to learn about it.

In the 20th Century, it was common to train for years before attempting to produce, direct or photograph films. The culture and the equipment pretty much required this sort of dedication. These days, it is common to learn a few things, grab some equipment and dive in. Everyone is familiar with movies and videos; the gear is cheap and capable. Often, these people immediately have amazing results. Nice! However, I've noticed that people who use this method often hit a wall: they can't get beyond acceptable filmmaking and they can't create new things. It's an unenviable place to be.

Filmmaking is an art, a craft, a trade and a business. It is tough to learn from YouTube videos. Equipment manufacturers are unreliable sources of training. Working on a student film isn't much help: most students are just beginning, like you. The best way to learn filmmaking is mano a mano, from experienced, professional filmmakers.

How can you get on a movie set to learn about filmmaking and become valuable if you aren't yet valuable enough to get on a set?

Some good possibilities:

be an intern
go to a school that apprentices you with professionals
join a union (they have formal training programs)
work as a background actor or stand-in
volunteer to do PR on a low budget movie

Once you get on a set:

  1. Show up early.
  2. Pay attention.

It's tough to learn with your mouth open. Step to the front, listen and watch carefully. Keep your phone in your pocket. Do a very good job. You will quickly distinguish yourself, become valuable and be asked back.

Of course, you must study art as well, cinematic and otherwise.

Getting into the business

Realize that there is nothing in it that is about you – it is best to surrender almost completely to the story that you are telling and the huge, complex process that tells it. When someone asks you to do something, your answer should always be "yes" (within reason)...

  1. Never do anything that is stupid or unsafe-- there is no reason to. Filmmaking is entirely illusion and stage craft – there is always a smart and safe way to do something. When someone asks you to do something that is impossible, dangerous or dumb, simply say "yes, we can do that this way..." and create a better solution (this is where your training comes in) or ask someone who knows how to do it right. If they insist that you do something dangerous, simply quit the job courteously and walk away. There is no opportunity there.
  2. Be valuable (see Learning the craft).
  3. Make sure that everyone knows that you are valuable. When you finish a job, contact everyone and thank them for the good experience. Publicize your experience on social media. Ask people who are impressed with you to recommend you to others.
  4. Be excellent. Always deliver. Exceed expectations. This is job one. Don't assume that less will do. Ever.
  5. Charge a lot of money. People judge your worth by how much you charge. Find out what a premium rate is and be worth it. If you must work for less (and I often have; it happens), offer a discount – but don't change the rate. If you lose a job because you asked a reasonable, premium rate, examine why. Are you not worth it? Did you not communicate your worth? Fix that.
  6. Circulate and meet people.
  7. Pay attention to advertising, customer service, billing and every other aspect of good business.
  8. Sleuth out upcoming work at equipment rental houses, trade publications, documentary grantors (to see who has gotten funding) and so on.

The camera

It used to be possible to not own gear. I didn't own a camera for the first 20 years of my career. These days, however, producers, directors and their clients are obsessed with equipment. I think that a newcomer should own a camera. Which camera you buy depends on your business plan: what is your expected return on investment?

Lots of people start out using DSLRs or mirrorless cameras, of which Sony's $3,000 A7s II 4K camera is a good choice. DSLRs are cheap and make pretty pictures; their popularity is responsible for that trendy student film look in movies. However, DSLRs can be very difficult to use for the novice. They could make your learning curve so steep that you may never get to many of the most important elements of filmmaking (hence, the student film look).

Another entry level camera is the $4,700 Panasonic AG-DVX200. Because it has a good fixed lens, professional audio inputs and other great features, it performs much better, produces sharper pictures and is more versatile than any other 4K camera in its price range, in my opinion. It is also much, much easier to use than a DSLR.

You'll need to develop something about you, your point of view, aesthetic or purpose, that makes you especially valuable to others and guides you when making movies. Look at the RedShark articles I mentioned above. You'll find that each filmmaker had some reason to make those movies.

Guest writer Don Starnes directs and photographs movies and videos of all kinds and is based in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. According to Don, he learns something every day that he works.


Graphic by Shutterstock

Tags: Business