This week I decided to compile a list of some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about filmmaking over the years. They cover everything from producing and directing to camera and sound, with lots in between.
Much of what I’ve outlined below I wish I knew when I was first starting out, but some of it really could only have been learned from experience. Regardless, it’s all here for me to share with you… So wherever you are in your filmmaking career, I hope you can take something from this –
1. A feature film should never be made unless you love your concept so much, that you are willing to live with it for the next few years. The process will get very hard, but having a true passion for what you are creating will help you get through it.
2. No amount of money can buy you a good finished product. It always takes sweat equity.
3. Money on a film production buys conveniences. It makes it simpler to find a location or easier to book a crew. But most of that can be replicated on a DIY film with hard work. If you’re willing to outwork everyone else, money doesn’t need to hold you back.
4. Make your movie for the lowest budget possible. A micro-budget can actually be a huge advantage, both creatively and business-wise. You just need to see at as an opportunity, not a hindrance.
5. Despite what people say, you can make a living making independent films. You just need to keep you costs low enough and know how to sell your movie.
6. It will only get cheaper and easier to make films. Everyone can do it. It’s no longer enough just to make a movie – the story must be incredibly powerful, unique, and marketable, otherwise it will get lost in all the noise.
7. The rule of thumb for a micro-budget film is: 1 location, 2 characters, 5 crew, 8 shooting days.
8. It’s okay to break the rules sometimes, as long as you’re willing to deal with the consequences.
9. The closer you are to production, the easier it is to get actors and crew to commit to your project. When your project is still 6 months away, it’s not real.
10. Name actors commonly work on micro-budget films for SAG Ultra Low Budget minimum (about $125/day). Most will say no to you, but it just takes one yes.
11. Don’t ask anyone to work for free. If you can’t pay a proper day rate, offer equity in the film. Never expect cast or crew to work for nothing, unless you plan to do the same for them.
12. The lifeblood of any film set is the 1st AD. Even the smallest productions need to have someone in that role.
13. If you don’t have a production designer, do whatever you can to get locations that look perfect as is. Bad locations and sets are one of the biggest giveaways of a low budget.
14. Food is the most important asset on any film set. Always feed everyone well. No matter how tight your budget may be, food is not an area you can skimp out on.
15. Don’t rent an Alexa if it means you can’t feed your crew. Get your priorities straight.
16. The best thing about guerrilla shooting is that it’s free. The worst thing is that it takes your focus off of the work, at least to some degree. Know what you’re up against.
17. The less gear and crew you have on set, the faster you will move. There’s no use booking a larger crew just to feel more professional. Make sure everyone on set absolutely needs to be there.
18. You can get the footage you need without going into overtime. Plan beforehand, know what you want, and don’t waste time on set. Every second is costing you, so act like it.
19. It’s never too early to start marketing your film.
20. The better your film is, the less money you will have to spend marketing it. Word of mouth goes a very long way.
21. When it comes time for festival submissions, submit primarily to top tier festivals (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Tribeca, Berlin, etc.) Avoid wasting money on too many small regional festivals – most won’t help your film get any real exposure.
22. Distributors want to make money from your film. They primarily only make money if your film has a star in it, or won a major film festival.
23. Many indie films distributors are a cash grab. They offer no MG (Minimum Guarantee) for your movie, and ask you to sign your life away. Self distribution is almost always your best bet.
24. Produce the distribution of your film with the same intensity as the production itself. Too many filmmakers drop the ball at this stage, and fail to maintain the hustle they had while making the movie.
25. Assume everything will be harder than you imagine it to be, because it will be. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. As long as you know that, you’ll be okay.
26. Writing, camera, and editing are crucial for skills for any director to have, but come second to the ability to evoke emotion and convey meaning through story.
27. To understand directing, is to understand human psychology .
28. The best director’s are heavily invested in pre-production. The greats don’t just show up to set and call action, only amateurs do.
29. Know exactly what you want before you get on set, and only capture the shots you need. Over-shooting coverage is a huge waste of time and energy on set, and slows down the edit.
30. Cohesion between every department is almost always a result of great directing. That should always be your number #1 goal – making sure everyone is making the same movie.
31. Every director needs to find their voice, but it’s only ever found by doing the work. You can’t impose a style on yourself prematurely.
32. Casting is 90% of directing.
33. Actors should be guided, not coached. See what they do naturally first, and then augment their performance with simple notes. Don’t over direct, it can be confusing.
34. Don’t ever do a line reading for an actor. If you are micro-managing a performance, you cast the wrong person.
35. Always pull an actor aside for a performance critique. Never in front of everyone. It’s disrespectful and diminishes the morale on set.
36. Don’t let your relationship with an actor in real life cloud your judgement of their work. All that matters is what’s on the screen, so keep your eye on the prize.
37. Great performances usually = great directing. Know what each of your actors need, and work with them as individuals. Everyone takes direction differently.
38. Cast your crew as if they were your actors. Their spirit, talent, and abilities will show on the screen as much as your performers.
39. Only work with people that are positive and truly love filmmaking. If someone is only there for the paycheck, you don’t want them on your team.
40. Hire crew that are better than you at their job. Otherwise, do it yourself.
41. As the director, it is your crew and your team, and your job is to lead everyone toward a collective goal. Make sure they are all up for the task, and that you are too.
42. You are an artist, a technician, a salesperson, and a psychologist all rolled into one.
43. Every director should learn to write, and every writer should learn to edit.
44. Let everyone on the cast and crew contribute to the collective art you are making. You hired them for a reason.
45. It’s very hard to direct and DP at the same time, especially if you don’t have grips, gaffers, and PAs. It can be done, but proceed with caution – especially if you lack experience in either department.
46. Your attitude sets the tone for the entire crew. If you aren’t enthusiastic about your project and excited to be there every day, no one else will be.
47. A 2 camera setup is faster, but single camera is so much more precise.
48. Only shoot multi-cam if you have to shoot more than 10 pages per day.
49. The less coverage you have, the more pages per day you can shoot. Find ways to make minimal coverage look interesting and dynamic, and you will be well served when your back is up against the wall.
50. See your limitations as advantages, and look for ways to leverage them to make your film more unique in some way.
51. At some point you will probably fall our of love with your movie. That’s part of the process. Work through it and the passion will come back. Never abandon your work, or you will learn nothing from it.
52. Any story can be a good story. How it’s told is what matters.
53. The best story ideas usually come out of nowhere, and can’t be forced. Let them come to you.
54. If you really need inspiration – read local papers. They are filled with human stories that could work well as shorts or features, and may give you the spark you need.
55. The screenplay itself is a result of discipline and hard work. It’s about sitting down at the keyboard and committing to write on a schedule until you type “The End”. There is nothing glamorous about it. It’s a job.
56. A great script will make it easier to attach talent and craft a beautiful edit. Without a strong screenplay, everything is an uphill battle.
57. No two writers have the same process. Some outline extensively, others don’t. Experiment with different options and find the right fit your you. There is no exact formula and there never will be.
58. Even the best writers doubt their own work and get blocked from time to time. It’s no cause for concern. Try to ignore the voices in your head, and know that it’s normal.
59. If you have writers block, try imposing a limitation on yourself. Limit the story to one point of view, or make it a rule to show a flashback every 5 scenes. Arbitrary rules like this will force you to problem solve and in turn unleash your creativity.
60. It’s far easier to edit bullet points than a 120 page screenplay. Flesh out your idea first, and avoid writing FADE IN until you know with certainty where you want your story to go.
61. Make sure everything you write is shootable. A beautifully written scene description is useless if it can’t translate to the screen. Your idea should still work even without the flowery language.
62. Write every single day. It doesn’t matter what. Just the act of sitting down to write will make you a better writer.
63. For writing inspiration, watch lots of foreign films. Even those with high budgets are usually relatively limited in scope, and simple enough for even a micro-budget production.
64. Write the movie that you want to see. The one you would stand in line for on opening weekend.
65. Don’t get feedback on your first draft until you are 100% confident in it, and can’t see any other ways to make it stronger on your own.
66. Brilliant cinematography happens when the design of a shot, camera movement, and the tone of the scene are all in synchronicity.
67. Owning a better camera will not make you a better DP. Being fluent in the language of cinema however, will.
68. Camera choice should be tactical in nature – pick the best tool for the job. Never compromise your film to justify a certain camera.
69. Any camera can produce incredible images, so long as you work around it’s limitations.
70. No digital footage will ever look exactly like film – not even Alexa. But great lensing, lighting, and coloring can you get you close.
71. Vintage lenses are one of the easiest and most effective ways to add an analog feel to your work. Even the harshest digital cameras usually perform better with vintage cinema lenses.
72. Primes are not always better than zooms. They are usually faster, smaller, and cheaper. But an incredible zoom lens is worth it’s weight in gold, especially if you are shooting guerrilla style.
73. You can’t expect to achieve a nice color balance in post, if there is no color contrast in your raw footage. Always use lighting, props, or wardrobe to achieve color contrast on set.
74. Lighting-wise, less is usually more. When something looks ugly on set, you probably need to take away light somewhere.
75. Natural light is the most beautiful light, but also the most fleeting. You need twice as much prep work when working with it, and there is far less room for error. Don’t trick yourself into thinking it’s easier.
76. There is no better time to shoot a scene than golden hour. Blue hour comes in a close second…
77. Having a 1st AC is not optional if you are working under severe time constraints. Unless of course, none of your shots require pulls.
78. Focus on the technical aspects of camera during prep. Once you’re on set, follow your instincts and don’t feel tied down to the plan. You’re trying to capture lightning in a bottle.
EDITING & COLOR
79. Editing your picture requires the exact same muscle as writing your screenplay.
80. If you need to edit your own film, take time away from the material before jumping in. Two weeks should do it. You need to have objectivity in the editing room, and that can only exist once you distance yourself from the footage.
81. Put your assembly cut together as fast as possible. Don’t waste time on this phase as it’s inevitably going to change. It doesn’t need to be perfect yet, you just need to see what you’re working with.
82. Think of your edit as a puzzle, the shots are pieces. These shots were inspired by the script, but the edit shouldn’t be dictated by the writing. Do what’s best for the story, working with the pieces you have.
83. If a reaction shot works better than a spoken line, always use the reaction shot. Show, don’t tell.
84. You will hate the first cut of your movie. Most of it is the audio. Once your audio is presentable, it becomes easier to stomach.
85. You have to kill your darlings. Before your edit is finished, you will cut some of your favorite material. If you didn’t, you’re not done.
86. You’ll never know exactly when it’s time to lock picture. But once you do, commit to it. Don’t re-open the edit. Look for creative ways to use your finishing process to turn your film’s weaknesses into strengths.
87. Color and sound can completely transform your film. They aren’t just technical tasks, they are also creative opportunities to entirely change the mood of your film. Capitalize on that.
88. When coloring, a subtle palette is almost always best. Imagine you were color timing motion picture film. Just a few carefully planned tweaks can go a very long way.
89. Overly stylized grades are usually the result of amateur color grading.
90. If you want to experiment more heavily with your color, at the very least make sure your actors have natural skintones. That will give you more leeway to experiment in other areas.
91. It’s harder to nail a cool look than a warm one. Don’t be tempted to warm everything up just because it gets you there faster. Do what’s right for the scene.
92. Ensure all aspects of your finished product – color, sound, visual effects, and of course picture, compliment each other. Don’t look at every element in isolation, they need to work in harmony.
93. You will be judged on the font you use for your title and end credits. Poor font choice can knock down your production value as fast as anything else. When in doubt, white sans serif on a black background will work just fine.
94. Sound matters more than visuals with respect to audience perception of your work.
95. Nail your audio on set. It costs so much more to try to salvage it in the mix, or re-record at the studio once production has wrapped.
96. Like camera, great sound is all about technique. A skilled boom op/mixer with basic gear can achieve theatrical quality sound, provided they’ve honed their craft.
97. Record wild lines on set after every exterior scene with background noise issues. These takes will be your saving grace in the edit.
98. Learn the basics of audio editing, and place temp sound effects, sound design elements, and score into the edit yourself. It will help you find the right tone for your material, and communicate more effectively with your team.
99. During the offline edit, do your own rough mix to make the cut more presentable. Bad sound can throw off your editorial judgement, and cause you to make poor choices. Minor dialogue editing, crossfades, and background textures can go a long way.
100. Great sound design can set the emotional undercurrent for your entire film. Too many indie filmmakers neglect to take full advantage of their ability to add substance and production value to their film using sound. Don’t be one of them.
101. Be careful about falling in love with the temp music. Don’t get too attached to anything – especially high budget music. You may never be able to replicate it, so mange your expectations accordingly.
102. Work with a composer whenever possible. Library music will never replace an original score. Even if it’s not as well produced, a custom soundtrack composed just for your film will make your film stand out.
103. A great stereo mix is better than an average 5.1 mix. Your film will not succeed or fail based on whether it has surround sound. It will fail however, if it simply has poor sound.
104. The only way to learn how to make a film is to make a film.
105. The only way to improve at the craft is to keep making films.
106. The time to make your next movie is now. If you aren’t shooting or editing, you should be writing. That applies whether you’ve never made a film before, or you’ve already made 10.
107. Make a few shorts, but don’t wait too long to make your feature. You need a feature film under your belt before anyone with money will invest in your next project. It doesn’t matter how low budget or contained it is. Just show you can tell a story in 90 minutes.
108. If you have already made a film, you are a filmmaker. Stop calling yourself “aspiring”.
109. Never put too much pressure on any one film. It can lead to procrastination and overthought final product. Push yourself to make the best movie possible, but remember there’s always a chance to make another movie. Just keep going.
110. Everyone that has succeeded in film has failed many times before they broke through. This is a tough business. No one is a natural at it.
111. The hardest working filmmakers are the ones that get rewarded, not the ones that were “born with it”. No great filmmaker had their career handed to them. They all hustled, pushed themselves to be better filmmakers, and willed projects into existence.
112. Watching movies every day will make you a better storyteller. Reading scripts every week will make you a better filmmaker.
113. It’s critical for filmmakers today to build an audience for their work. Start now. You have an opportunity to sell your content directly to the public and don’t need to wait for permission. But you can only do it if you have an audience that’s hungry for your next project.
114. If anyone tells you to wait to make your movie so you can raise more money, ask them when their last film came out.
115. Succeeding in film is as much about business as it is about art. Every filmmaker today is by default an entrepreneur, and those who study business, management, sales, and marketing and more likely to succeed.
116. Your film is a product. Think of it that way. How do you create the best product for the least amount of money and reach the biggest audience?
117. If you have a day job, business, or side hustle – try to keep it related to filmmaking. The more time you spend honing your craft, the quicker you will reach your goals.
118. As a filmmaker, very few days are spent actually making a film. More are spent writing, prepping, fundraising, negotiating, or stuck between projects. Unless you work strictly a DP or in some other crew position, you won’t be on set all that much.
119. Don’t focus on getting an agent or manager. If you are seeking one out – you probably don’t need one right now. And when you do need one, they will find you.
120. Go to film festivals. Watching staff picks on Vimeo is great, but the films that do well online aren’t necessarily the same types that do well at festivals. If your goal is to be programmed at a major film festival, start by going to them.
121. Don’t set your filmmaking targets too far in the future. Set aggressive deadlines so you need to stay on top of things, and allow yourself to tap into your creative instincts along the way.
122. The longer you continue to work as a filmmaker, the more likely you are to succeed. You get better at what you do every day, make more connections, and understand the business more intuitively. It takes time, just hang in there.
123. You can live anywhere and make great movies. But if you’re set on moving to NY or LA – by all means try it. Big cities are no more competitive than anywhere else, sometimes it’s the opposite. Don’t let others discourage you.
124. Don’t worry about filmmaking trends. Focus on developing your style, and telling stories that only you can, regardless of what anyone else is doing. No one can do “you” better than yourself.
125. Be inspired by other filmmakers, but never imitate. That goes for career paths too. Everyone has their own path – You can’t replicate someone else’s, and you’ll never predict your own path to success. Just focus on doing the work.
126. And finally, remember the famous words of William Goldman: In this business “Nobody knows anything.”