The expectations for young filmmakers have certainly evolved in the past ten years—probably faster than ever before.
There continue to arise new production and distribution options, weekly. Many of those resources are covered here on ShoHawk, and on a plethora of other wonderful filmmaking sites. But here, now, I’d like to cover some life lessons and filmmaking advice.
Life lessons are among the most important tools a starting filmmaker can acquire, and these are 17 I wish I’d known before leaving high school. Many of these came to me the hard way, over time. Some were things I’d heard, but ignored. All of them prove that hindsight is 20/20.
The old story: if I’d known then what I know now, the struggles along the way would have been far less dramatic, and the hurdles less intimidating.
I hope these 17 lessons will help filmmakers who are just beginning, and remind working filmmakers of some important things that inevitably get hazy.
1. KEEP PRODUCING
Whether you aim to create independent works or commercial entertainment, opportunities to do so will never be available if you have little or nothing to show. Practice early and often.
If you’ve just decided to enter this craft, know that it’s never too early to begin creating. You don’t need anything fancy and can start today on a smartphone or tablet, so commence experimentation as soon as possible.
Learn the grammar of movies: why certain shots don’t cut together, how changing sunlight effects a long shoot, and why audio quality is as important as image quality—if not more. Keep refining these techniques.
The beginning is all about putting together a toolbox, and developing a voice. Ideally, you’ll be doing that your whole career, but it’s particularly important early on.
2. MAKE THE BASICS SECOND NATURE
Whatever your decided career—director, DP, editor, composer—don’t jump into reinventing the wheel before you know, and can replicate the basics.
Mike and I made multiple short films in high school, wherein we tried to replicate the movies and directors we liked: Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Scorsese, etc. When college rolled around and we were making our first feature, I began experiencing a host of other filmmaking voices and disciplines. The inspiration to think outside the box hit like a ton of bricks.
It wasn’t until the film our film was completed that I realized I hadn’t mastered the basics yet, and, therefore was limited in my ability to make new ideas work. The reason cinematic innovators change the way we view movies is that they understand the fundamentals of keeping viewers engaged.
In cooking terms: you can’t riff on a brand new way of making tacos without knowing first how to make good, basic tacos. Without the basic knowledge, your riff may be interesting to you, but will likely cause others to say—at best: “These are good, but they aren’t tacos.”
Make the basics instinctive, and you’ll enhance your abilities to make new ideas work.
3. YOU’RE NEVER TOO EXPERIENCED
Never let yourself believe you’re ready to stop learning. Without new knowledge, experiences, challenges, and experiments, your interest will wane and your work will get stale.
There’s nothing sadder than watching a film or show that’s completely uninspired. I can’t help but think: a lot of time, money, and resources went to waste on something that challenged nothing and no one.
It’s arrogant to think your learning days are over and you’ve already achieved mastery, at any point in your career. Least of all when you’re young. If George Miller believed he’d mastered the art of filmmaking at 70, we would never have had the ground-breaking experience that is Mad Max: Fury Road.
4. GET TO KNOW YOUR PEERS
It’s easy to be an island. It’s easy to look at documentaries about the great filmmakers and see them as mavericks who needed no one else. Let’s be clear: this could not be further from the truth.
Even the most isolated and tunnel-visioned auteurs worked with others and—realistically—had to schmooze, at some point. I’m not suggesting you move to Los Angeles, or go to every networking event under the sun. I’m suggesting you get out there, find out who in your vicinity is on your same journey, and get to know them.
Collaboration is a cornerstone of filmmaking. You’ll almost always have to work with others, from camera operators and editors, to writers and marketing folks. You’ll need relationships.
When you refuse to create these relationships, you put a glass ceiling on how high you can climb. Early on, I hadn’t connected with peers, which set me up to be a jack of all trades, and definitely a master of none. Gigs that could have been major catalysts for upward movement suffered because I assumed I could just “figure everything out on my own”
If you meet the right peers, help is reciprocal. This concept didn’t click for me until many years in to my career. Your individual growth stimulates the collective.
5. STOP WATCHING AND START DOING
You’re sitting there, having watched six monumental films, and discussed them with your friends, and you find yourself saying: “When I make a film, it’ll be like ________.” So when will you make that film? What are you waiting for?
At some point, you’ll have to exit Netflix, and get behind a camera. Be aware of how much you’re a spectator versus a player.
I still have to check myself on this regularly—it’s hard to turn away from watching films, as that’s how we all fell in love with filmmaking from the start. But, you need to lower the overhead lights and focus. Few things can impede creativity like information overflow.
6. MAKE FOCUSED AND REALISTIC GOALS
In my earliest filmmaking years, I wasted a lot of time on vague milestones, like: “I want to make a feature film,” or “I want to direct a music video.” Well, that’s cool, but when, and how did I plan on making that happen?
Having goals makes your dreams tangible, and puts a roadmap in perspective. When you know what has to be done, there’s little room to flounder and waste.
When I graduated high school and, I knew I was going to become a filmmaker, but had little idea how. I spent a couple years in college on an unrelated degree, I worked a job that didn’t lead to what I wanted, and I never educated myself on getting to the next level of filmmaking.
I figured it would all just click one day. And It did, when I finally realized I needed to do everything I wasn’t doing: switch or drop my degree, find a way to get paid for doing what I love, and educate myself on what works.
Those were two years I could have spent creating a path and starting down it.
7. GET ORGANIZED
Don’t believe for one second that those piles of paper are signs of options and security. Don’t fall for the idea that “Artists are just disorganized people.”
That’s a generalization I believed for quite some time, until I looked hard at my own workflows and realized organization frees up more time than it absorbs. Whether you’re storing footage in an editing project, packing gear, archiving old writings, or managing the day-to-day, take a few extra minutes to thoroughly organize everything.
The time spent making your needs easily accessible will streamline productivity, make you more punctual, and reinforce your reliability. It will also clear your brain of added steps between getting the busy work done, and being creative.
Do this early and often, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I cover some specific organizational practices, here!
8. LEARN BUSINESS
If I could do it again, I would have gone to business school out of the gate. If you’re in a position where you really need or want a degree, get a degree in business or finance. You’re surrounded by movies: they’re cheap to access and abundant. You’re likely NOT surrounded by in-depth looks at functioning businesses or those who run them.
What’s the consequence for filming and editing a couple shots on your iPhone, if they end up looking bad? Nothing. What’s the consequence for buying $1,000 worth of merchandise and failing to sell it? $1,000!
Studying business is a low-risk way to learn important lessons about managing yourself, others, and money. These skills are crucial in filmmaking, and far harder to learn than camera placement or editing software.
A location’s lighting impacts your camera decision which affects equipment costs, how long you pay the cast and crew to wait, how much is completed on that shoot day, and what you’ll need to spend down the line to recoup footage you couldn’t get.
This thought process can easily get ahead of a person who is intimidated by money, and can become one more thing taken out of a filmmaker’s control.
Money and business are the primary areas I see filmmakers struggle with, and they subsequently get taken advantage of because of it. Knowing how commerce works, its relationship to filmmaking, and how to speak that language with other business people helps you protect your work and vision!
9. STAY INSPIRED
Inspiration comes from every angle. Sometimes it’s a picture posted on a friend’s Facebook wall, and sometimes it’s the film you never got around to watching, until now. Sometimes it’s an underground hip-hop record, and sometimes it’s a Top 40 pop track.
Pay close attention to the things that inspire you most and never close yourself off to new sources.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in your ideal standards for inspiration. Thoughts like, “_____ is generally the only thing that inspires me,” or, “I’m not going to pay attention to _____ because it’s sub-standard” are more destructive than helpful.
If you dislike a specific genre of film, expose yourself to it one once in a while. You’ll likely identify something specific you dislike, which can be as valuable as seeing a desirable new technique. You may even find one morsel that gets your gears turning.
10. MITIGATE EXPECTATIONS
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started/created something that I legitimately believed would be my golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory.
Balancing excitement over a project’s possibilities with reality can sometimes stifle productivity. But, it can also save you from massive block if that project isn’t received the way you’d hoped. When you experience heavy disappointment, it can be very hard to get back on the horse again.
I definitely don’t think it’s productive to talk yourself out of dreams. Often times those very dreams help you get through rough patches of production. Just find a way to avoid hanging your creative energy on those dreams, and avoid letting those dreams become expectations.
It’s much harder to recover from a let-down than it is to learn from a dream that fell a little short.
11. FAILURE ISN’T AS BAD AS NOT PAYING ATTENTION
“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it’s more important to heed the lessons of failure.”
Failure is inevitable. Not everything filmmakers do will resonate the way they’d hoped. If you pay attention though, these “failures” can become important lessons.
Every lesson you learn from not achieving your goals or measuring up to expectations comes with you to the next project. I would recommend training yourself to face failure often, prepare for the possibility of failing, and think—in advance—of what you stand to learn if things don’t work out as planned.
12. EVERYONE IS PROBABLY RIGHT
Everyone who tells you, “Filmmaking is difficult and there isn’t a lot of money to be made in the industry” is right. Partially, anyway.
The attrition rate from film production is massive and rapid; many people opt for stability after dipping their toes in and realizing how much hard work is required. There’s really no easy track to success.
Ignoring the warnings of others and jumping in to filmmaking, blindly believing it’ll work out in your favor is not a strategy. The people you know who warn you are likely concerned for your well-being. Don’t be angry or assume they’re trying to dissuade you. Instead, think about why they’re telling you what you may not want to hear, and how you can rise above.
13. EVERYONE IS PROBABLY WRONG
In as many ways as these warnings are right, they’re also wrong. A huge amount of people have sustaining careers in the film industry and live out happy lives doing what they love.
My trick for overcoming the potential negative results of these warnings comes down to one simple statement. Whenever someone has cautioned me to the hard path ahead, I either think or say aloud (depending on circumstance and who I’m talking with):
“Well, Martin Scorsese started out once too.”
This acknowledges that there is certainly work and time involved, but that achieving success is far from impossible. Everyone had a beginning, and those who landed in the right place had a journey. You’re another in a long line of dreamers, on your way to building a life and identity.
14. CHOOSE YOUR HEROES WISELY
As you learn and grow, you’ll have heroes and mentors who light your way. They can be bosses, peers, or filmmakers you idolize.
Be sure to choose your heroes carefully, and identify what you respect them for. We are all human and no one is impervious to flaws. Workaholism is rampant in the production industry, and with that comes severed romantic relationships, substance abuse, and early health concerns.
This is not exclusive to filmmaking by any means, and it certainly doesn’t account for every successful person in this industry. But, not every aspect of a person’s path is worth replicating. We’ve all experienced getting to know and respect someone, then subsequently feeling let down by a destructive tendency or character flaw of theirs.
People can be great at their jobs and bad with other things, and vice versa. Choose the things you respect about your heroes, model those traits or actions, and choose other heroes to model in other aspects of your life. Always aim to improve upon, not settle with.
15. COLLABORATE WISELY
Filmmaking is cool. It’s an idea a lot of people fall in love with, which is precisely why you’ll have plenty of offers for help. Many of those offers will go down the toilet once people see that it’s hard work.
Mike and I have had our fair share of people flaking out on us, and it’s a huge setback. It’s easy to feel like everyone will eventually jump ship, when in fact you simply haven’t met the people whose interests align with yours.
Instead of letting these flakes sour you on collaboration, realize that no one will do anything they don’t entirely want to do. If you’re struggling to make a film, you’re doing it out of passion and love for the process. Not everyone can be expected to share your passion to the same degree.
The onus is on you to choose collaborators carefully and ensure your project has value to them, both creatively, and as a product they can use to further their own strides.
16. STAY SMALL AS LONG AS YOU NEED TO
Be patient, everyone! This continues to be one of my biggest struggles.
When you’re young, you want the world and often don’t realize you couldn’t handle it if you had it. I’ve come down hard on myself for not achieving certain goals or reaching important conclusions earlier. It’s easy to get lost in this negative self-talk.
With experience and age comes perspective: I didn’t achieve certain things and certain junctures because I simply wasn’t ready. Keeping your goals high, while being patient with your trajectory is hard, but essential. Bad-mouthing your own progress can lead to quitting out of feeling inadequate or fearing the impossibility of success.
I have always coped by reminding myself of this:
“Things happen as they’re meant to happen, because they happened the way they did.”
I’m still accountable for my work and actions, but their outcomes have already occurred, and that means I am where I’m supposed to be. Don’t be afraid of taking your time through the journey. The time you take will grow you in ways you can’t buy or be taught.
17. KEEP A BALANCED LIFE
Not many filmmakers defeatedly say, “Well, my grandfather was a filmmaker, my mother and father were filmmakers, so I guess that’s what I have to be…” Let’s face it, this isn’t law or medicine.
If you’re looking for a lowkey life, doing something completely out of passion, coupled with the hard work it takes to find stability are a match made in hell. If you want something bad enough, you’ll pursue it with every waking hour. Naturally, other important aspects of life can easily slip into the background.
We all have a capacity for the amount of stress our bodies and minds can handle, and if passionately pursuing art as a career doesn’t teach you that, I don’t know what will.
I’ve had severe burnout countless times throughout young adulthood. This is not a brag: it’s a warning.
The older you get, the harder it is to spring back from burnout. It manifests in everything from anxiety, to physical illness, and a wide spectrum in between. Basically, the worst parts of your brain and body take the wheel.
Life is a battle with time; I’m a frequent user of the phrase, “There aren’t enough hours in the day.” Most of the time, I truly believe that, and I’m certainly not alone. Many people in this industry feel the same way, because we fall in love with the hustle as much as we once did the artform.
Hard work can rewire your brain. That’s why it’s crucial to fight just as hard for balance as you do for your career and goals. For many filmmakers, their hobby becomes their profession so the lines become blurry between work and play.
Find other healthy hobbies. Take up hiking or drawing. Work on cars or commit to reading a fiction book per week. Always spend time with those you care about.
Get away from the hustle and you’ll inevitably come back fresh, remembering what got you to this marvelous love affair with filmmaking in the first place.
Personally, I’m looking to take up fishing next!
Leave me a comment and tell me: what’s your best piece of advice for young filmmakers?