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The lessons I learnt from filmmaking at University
Needless to say, I am no filmmaking maestro. Mozart was hailed a genius at the age of three, however I am certainly not one despite completing three years’ Bachelor’s study in Film and History at university.
This is not to say however that my lasting student legacy consists entirely of endless microwave meals and a student bar tab Elon Musk would quiver at.
As my degree concentrated on theoretical study, in order to become involved on or to make my own films I had to scout for the opportunities to do so myself.
Through this endeavour I came to procure what I consider the most valuable pieces of advice for prospective student filmmakers to truly learn and excel, tips I can only wish I had been told before commencing my own filmmaking journey.
Think Small To Make Big
This is not intended to sound discouraging or prohibitive. Rather the contrary.
While attending university or film school you exist within a secure, localised bubble wherein you are privileged with being able to exploit every opportunity to be creative and make mistakes carefree, and so you should as there are realistically fewer opportunities to do so once you graduate and ‘real life’ sets in.
However, one classic blunder every amateur filmmaker should avoid committing is thinking beyond their means, something I am irrefutably guilty of.
In many ways it is more straightforward to produce a feature length film shooting across multiple locations and boasting a twenty-something cast than it is to create a one minute, no-budget short all shot on one location.
While every filmmaker strives to be the best they can be, while working at a lower tier you are presented with little choice other than to act as your own producer alongside anything else.
It is certainly not easy thinking both logistically and creatively, but this is a skill you are required to practice especially when you have little to no budget, your main setting is your university campus and your cast and crew are comprised of friends assisting you on the promise of beer and pizza.
However, once you recognise that restrictions breed innovation, you’ll be smiling! But avoid setting yourself impractical and unachievable goals, for this will only lead to disappointment and you harshly doubting your abilities as a filmmaker.
Someday you will possess the skills and funds to invest in making those bigger scripts, but for now there is no shame in storing these safely away in your filing cabinet until such a day comes. Bide your time and be patient!
No Shortcuts To Success
This may sound painfully obvious, but I can assure you that once you are fully immersed in the blissful chaos of shooting on a student filmset with countless variables all wreaking havoc on your sanity, appropriate onset protocol can swiftly exit the room.
Perhaps you have had a lead actor dropout of production the night before shooting, or maybe someone forgot to bring the spare SD cards and batteries to set (it happens).
Either way, such factors can cause you to stray to the dark side by encouraging you to cut corners. Doing so may alleviate certain stresses in the short term, but this will inevitably complicate your life later.
If you do not have a clapper board available, click your fingers at the bare minimum to mark a shot’s sync point.
If you are unsure about the continuity of an upcoming setup, devote the extra ten to fifteen minutes to consult your DP and examine the previous shoot’s dailies to resolve any concerns immediately. Ideally, on a student production everybody will be attuned to ensuring continuity is carried out correctly.
The caviller ‘we’ll fix it in post’ philosophy is a blatant myth. Postproduction is realistically only capable of enhancing and applying basic corrections, not of performing miracles on aspects that ought to have warranted greater consideration during production.
Learn and respect the rules before you ever consider breaking them.
‘ If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well ’ — Leni Riefenstahl
Be Openminded And Collaborate
Something every film student is quickly exposed to is the sheer diversity of different characters they will encounter throughout the course of their studies.
Every student can readily conjure a mental image of that one classmate who legitimately believes they are the protégé of Jean-Luc Godard. But while they stand there sounding off all the pretentious reasons why you should be shooting on 16mm, you know better than to get sucked into their delusions.
The fact is, none of this really matters. Ultimately, filmmaking is not a solo venture and so all creatives should openly embrace working with all types of people from various backgrounds, views and levels of experience.
University is irrefutably the perfect environment to accomplish this level of collaboration.
As a student you are able to connect with people whom you may otherwise never have interacted with and this can lead to hugely enjoyable and rewarding experiences. Furthermore, you will have forged friendships that will inevitably prove beneficial for you in the future.
Learn Through Practice
Recalling the analogy of university representing a safe, close-knit setting for artistic cultivation, another positive about this is that you can expand beyond your own specialism by experimenting with other roles involved in the production process.
Learn to record sound; explore the many nuances of being a clapper loader; learn to edit; study the techniques that different lights are capable of and while you’re at it, discover why we don’t use redhead lamps for extended periods of time.
(Think of being trapped in an elevator if the elevator in question was situated on the sun).
Learning through practice in this way will mould you into a more skilled and versatile filmmaker, as well as being an invaluable asset on other peoples’ productions and your own.
Watch Short Films
Unless you are one of the lucky individuals whose ‘dying great-aunt’ clogging up their email junk box legitimately turns out to be a millionaire, the likelihood is that you will only be able to finance short films for the foreseeable future.
So it only makes sense then that you ought to be watching short films as well, right?
By actively viewing as many short films as you can, you will gradually develop your visual literacy.
Through closely observing how the various elements that constitute a film collaborate together to form the finished product, overtime you will learn how to incorporate these techniques to inform and develop your own storytelling.
YouTube is an obvious source of creative output. One channel in particular called Omeleto showcases an abundance of high quality and award-winning short films, originating from various skillsets.
Also readily available to view are the professional filmmaker roundtables hosted by The Hollywood Reporter, interviews with actors and creatives online, as well as the bonus features and BTS content available on DVDs.
All of these things collectively form their own kind of film school, one which you won’t have to contribute a further £15,000 towards.
Another avenue worth researching is whether your favourite professional filmmakers have ever produced a short film during their early careers. One of my popular choices is The Big Shave (1967), Martin Scorsese’s five minute short film debut he made while attending New York University.
TBS is a captivating and subliminal piece that essentially begins as a Gillette advert and ends by resembling the infamous prom scene from Carrie (1976). For the purposes of this article, it is especially relevant.
The entire narrative unfolds within one confined setting (a neon-white bathroom), shooting on a low budget and stars just one actor (Peter Bernuth) who plays the nameless protagonist.
Despite featuring close to eighty cuts, TBS probably contains half as many shots, of which are primarily formed of inserts and cutaways. With this in mind, Scorsese echoes our first heading.
He demonstrates that it’s possible to take the even most simple premise, in this case a mundane everyday act, and transform it into a memorable and meaningful spectacle that continues to unanimously intrigue filmmakers and encourage amateur recreations.
All of this was accomplished by Scorsese not feeling tempted or pressured into relying on larger narrative structures laden with witty dialogue and immense production value, alternatively giving weight to the phrase: ‘you can do a lot with a little’.
Make A Film
Something a 1st AD once remarked on a short course I attended that has resonated with me ever since, was that highly competitive roles in the film industry such as directing should not be perceived as a job, but as a craft akin to any other form of artistry.
Basically, what he was saying is that investing years of energy into working as a runner, then a 3rd AD, then a second AD and so on, does not automatically guarantee you will become a director.
The point he was alluding to is probably the single most valuable advice any filmmaker can offer, which is to go and shoot something. If you want to write, write. If you want to direct, pick up a camera and shoot something.
Continuously work on building your portfolio and perfecting your craft, even if you are convinced that what you’re making is awful and you cannot help repulsing at the mere sight of it forever afterwards.
It’s perfectly natural to be self-critical and to doubt your abilities in this way. You’d be mad or foolish if you didn’t. But the one thing no filmmaker should do is be ashamed of their early work.
We all have to start somewhere, even Martin Scorsese. Although this sounds like a cliché it is also extremely easy to neglect when you’re a beginner struggling to break into what is definitely a very intimidating industry.
There is no rush to be successful and you most certainly won’t make your masterpiece at university.
But if you are focused and the healthy kind of crazy, you will continue learning from your mistakes and trying and failing until you eventually do so.
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