Tips For Young Filmmakers

by Peter D Marshall

These 9 “Tips for Young Filmmakers” were written in 2001 by Cody Agenten, a young a teenager from Northern Wisconsin. He was planning on going to the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee) and then to USC School of Cinema. He contacted me and asked if he could share his filmmaking journey with others. I asked him a few questions and he then wrote this series of nine articles for The Director’s Chair called “Tips for Young Filmmakers” between May 2001 and July 2002. Cody’s email is: cody.agenten@gmail.com

“My name is Cody Agenten, and I am a young filmmaker from Northern Wisconsin. I have been interested in all aspects of filmmaking from as early as I can remember. I have made numerous short films, and plan on continuing to do so throughout my film career. My genre interests range from horror and sci-fi, to comedy and surreal. The one thing that I would like to pass on to all the young and budding filmmakers out there is to never lose your passion. Filmmaking explains us as a civilization, and must never be lost. So never put that lens cap on, and never lose your dream.”

1. Tips From a Young Filmmaker
2. Picking the Right Film School
3. Shaping Your Own Style
4. Hollywood vs Non-Hollywood Film Schools
5. Dealing with Difficult Professors
6. Working With a Non-Union Film Crew
7. It’s Not What You Know, But Who You Know. Truth?
8. Is This (Directing. For Me?
9. I’m Here. Now What?

(1) Tips from a Young Filmmaker

1. Where do you find the resources? (camera, editing, talent)

Quite often when I shoot a film, I do A LOT of borrowing. My school owns a Panasonic VHS Broadcast camera that is usually used for shooting school performances, etc. It’s the same for the editing equipment. My school just has some VERY simple Avid editing stations that they bought on a whim, so I use those. As for talent, it really boils down to whoever I can find. Friends, teachers, etc. The problem here is that these people usually have busy schedule’s, so you end up working on their time. When it comes to things like this, never get discouraged if something doesn’t work out in the way of equipment, talent, etc. If you don’t have the money to buy the equipment, find someone who has what you need and see if their willing to loan or rent it to you. Get it anyway you can, (legally of course..

2. How do you pick locations?

When it comes to locations and sets for films, the same technique as above applies. BORROW, BORROW, BORROW. First check if your living area is good for a shoot, or you or your family owns something that will work. That is the easiest. If you don’t have a location that will work, ask your neighbors, friends, etc. If they don’t, drive around and look for the right place. If you end up finding it, and you don’t know the people who own it, ask them for permission to use the area. More than likely they will with little or no money value attached. If you need a soundstage, you may want to ask the local music venue or performing arts theatre. These places are great, as they come with equipment too. The only problem is that they USUALLY won’t let you use it unless you rent it. And the costs for renting stages is not cheap. But it may be your only choice.

3. How to divide up the crew? (director, cameraman, AD.

This is an easy area for one main reason; you as the film artist will end up doing most or all of everything. On a shoot, you may only have two or three people who actually know what’s going on. The other people are actors, etc. This means that you need to be aware of what’s going on at all times. YOU need to be the lighting engineer, YOU need to be the cameraman, YOU need to be the director. Build up your skills in every aspect of the art.

4. Where do you find actors?

As stated before, use people you know. At this point, don’t worry about acting abilities. Teach your actors on the spot, show them what you know. Just keep going over and over the script if they can’t act out a certain part. They should get it eventually.

5. How much does it cost to produce a 5 or 10 minute video?

Cost all depends on what you want to do. First, check out what you have, and then look at what you need. My philosophy is that if you’re shooting a 5-10 minute video, your expenses should NOT go over $50. Use what you have. If you don’t have it, get creative. Remember, it just needs to look good on camera, it doesn’t matter what it looks like in real life. This applies to everything from wardrobe to props. BORROW, BORROW, BORROW!!

6. Where do you get the money to make your videos?

All the money you use should be out of pocket. Don’t take out a bank loan or anything like that. Like before, GET CREATIVE! Every so often, you may want to find a sponsor if you’re doing a BIG film. Somebody who will pay YOU for displaying or using their product. This may come in very handy, but sponsor contracts often have a lot strings attached. Just don’t spend more money than what you have to.

7. Where can you show your film/video?

Once you are done with your film/video, you want people to see it! This can be done in a few ways. The first and easiest idea is to show a bunch of your friends, and have them spread the word about it. Before you know it, more and more people will be wanting to see your piece of art. Another way to have it shown to the world is to enter it in a traditional media art exhibit, (like paintings, drawings, etc.. You may need to pull a few strings to get it in, but people love to see non-traditional media art mixed in with traditional. And this way, your art get exposed to a whole new range of people.

Another way to get your name out there is the internet. Capture your film on a computer and hand it out all over. Atomfilms.com is a great place to start. They are very stringent on their choices for films, but if you can get in there, you’re going to be exposed twice as fast. If your short film is REALLY good, you may want to look into getting the film on the Sci-Fi channel’s show, Exposure, (http://www.scifi.com/exposure/.. This is VERY hard to get into, but if you do, your phone will be ringing off the hook with new contacts.

Remember, NEVER turn off that camera!

(2) Picking the Right Film School

If you are reading this article and you’re a budding filmmaker, chances are you want to go to school for it, if you’re not already there. If you’re not there yet, but want to get a great film education, there are a lot of choices to choose from, some better than others. I will give you my insight into what I found when searching for a Film School.

First and foremost, you must decide what realm of film you want to work in. If you’re a die-hard artist and want to work in the independent film scene, or just as a film artist, there are a lot of choices for you. In this situation, I’d start by looking in New York. They have the most developed art scene for film, and great schools to boot. Do some research into the schools, and see how they are rated against others in the field you’re looking at. Chicago and Milwaukee are also good choices if money is a large factor in your decision. But remember: a good film education will cost you, it’s just a fact of life.

Now, if you’re like me and want to direct your skills towards Hollywood, there’s really only one place to go if you really want to make it: Hollywood. Los Angeles and surrounding cities have hundreds of two-year film schools for you to take on. They don’t cost a lot, and you can get lots of hands on training and project work. However, usually you won’t get too far with a two year education, you often need a 4+ year education.

The two best schools that I know of in LA for this kind of in-depth film degree are offered at USC School of Cinema – Television, and Art Center College of Design, (of which I’m attending starting in fall 2002.. USC is easier to get into, but you don’t even get to touch a camera until your junior year,
while Art Center is VERY hard to get into, but you start film work right away. There is really only one problem with these schools too: they cost an arm and a leg. But they also have numerous contacts with LA based studios to help you get a job right out of school.

I hope this article gave you a little insight into choosing the right film school for you. Picking a film school can be a very hard decision, and since filmmaking is often very expensive, not a cheap decision either. If you have any further questions, you can e-mail me at mailto:phorsaken@mailvision.net.

Keep those cameras rolling!

(3) Shaping Your Own Style

All filmmakers, whether it be Hollywood, Indie, or Art, all have a distinct feature that makes them different from every other film artist. Take, for example, the director Tim Burton. Anybody with eyes notices instantly that his style is different than anybody else’s. All directors and filmmakers have their own style, though some are harder to see. To be a successful filmmaker, you need to develop your own style and flairs. If not, you’ll be stuck copying other people’s ideas for the rest of your career.

When I first started off in film, I made a huge mistake. I KNEW the kind of style I wanted, and tried to go for it. The films I made were good, but I didn’t feel a connection with them. Finally, after a series of “failed” films, I decided to try something different: I just let myself “flow” behind the camera. I was amazed by the result. Not only had I made a film that I was truly happy with, but I felt a connection with this one. This is how I started to develop my STYLE.

And this is what you need to do. You, as the budding filmmaker, need to stop trying to copy all the styles that you see. When you’re behind the camera, just let your feelings flow. Know your scene, let it come from your gut, and shoot it. You’ll be amazed. I know that even after a good four years of trying to do this, I still haven’t cemented my style, but am well on my way. This process will take time, but it’s worth it’s weight in gold. When your audience says, “I’ve never seen anything like that before!” You’ll know you’ve got it.

(4) Hollywood VS. Non-Hollywood Film Schools

Some of you out there who are considering making the move to a larger or more well-known film school have already noticed that there are generally two kinds of schools: Hollywood and non-Hollywood. By definition, Hollywood schools are usually located in or around Hollywood itself, and usually train you for working in the Industry. Non-Hollywood schools are usually scattered across the US, with the best ones’ in New York. These schools usually teach you film as an art form, and are considered a medium for art rather than purely entertainment.

I’ve found many differences when it comes to these different kinds of schools, both in thought and in practice. A non-Hollywood school is usually cheaper and is stationed in a state university. They often don’t have the equipment resources at hand that a Hollywood school would, mostly because you’re not paying them enough. I’ve also found that these schools are very “clicky”, (people very “stuck on” themselves., and are just a pain to deal with. But there are also a lot of smart people who are willing to help you too.

Then there are the Hollywood films schools. These schools get you battle-hardened and ready for a life in the Industry. More often than not, these schools will cost a lot to attend. But with this cost, you’ll often get A+ equipment and A+ instructors. However, most schools only offer a two year program, but the better ones’ will offer a 4+ year degree. They teach you in much the same way that a non-Hollywood school would, but the course load is usually more rigorous and hard. These schools can be very “clicky” as well, but more often than not, people as a whole will be easier to deal with.

Keep those cameras rolling.

(5) Dealing with Difficult Film Professors

If you have ever attended a film school before, I’m sure you have noticed that, more often than not, the teaching staff are difficult to deal with. Either they grade to hard, aren’t personable, or are stuck in their own styles and modes of producing film. This can often be disheartening for young filmmakers as it brutally shows them what some aspects of filmmaking are like. I know I’ve had to deal with some difficult ones in the past, and I would like to share what I have learned about these dictators.

One thing that many people have had to deal with in film school is the fact that you as the filmmaker has one style, but your teacher wants another or even hates your own style. This can be hard because you may spend a lot of time on a film that you absolutely love, but your professor fails you. Trust me, it happens.

Here’s what I have found when it comes to this. I know it sounds odd, but conform to your teacher, don’t try and rebel because it’ll get you nowhere in most cases. Make what your teacher wants, but also inject your own flares and styles into it, making it stand out and still keeping your GPA high. Many teachers have many tastes, it’s best to learn how to mold your work to a specific teacher.

I have a professor this semester that I hope no one has to deal with in the future. He’s a great filmmaker, but he hates everybody else’s attempts at filmmaking. He doesn’t even offer constructive criticism, it’s just pure criticism. I got so mad at him once that after I screened a film, and he tore it apart, I threw the actual film at him. I don’t suggest that, but I felt better. When it comes to people like this, only listen half-heartedly to them and move on. Filter what they have to say, only taking the good chunks, then move on. And always remember, talk back! Some people like to have provoke confrontations with others, so play their game, fight back. This will, (often., lead to more respect giving to you than before.

I hope this helps at least a little.

(6) Working With a Non-Film Crew

If you’re a budding filmmaker, you’ve probably encountered the problem of finding people to help you with your new form of self-expression. Some people are lucky and have a sibling or a willing parent to help them on their quest. But for others, resorting to your friends and school-mates may be the best solution.

The problem here is that most people you ‘hire’ won’t feel the same way about film that you do. Surprisingly, many people love watching films, but very few want to put out the effort to create them, (I know I have this problem sometimes.. Because of this, motivating your new crew may be very difficult. Here’s what I suggest for getting your helpers in high gear and wanting to shoot.

First, if you can’t afford to pay them for their work, use their stomachs. I know it sounds a little odd, but food is the best way to keep people on your side throughout a shoot. Spend about fifteen bucks to get soda, chips, dip, and small treats for them to snack on during shooting. Why do you think Hollywood spends millions on craft services during a shoot?

Second, let them have a voice. Ask them what they think would work in a particular scene. Ask them how the scene looks visually. Ask them about the story, characters, plot, and setting. If they think that they’re contributing to the final product, they’ll want to do all they can to help.

Third, don’t be a slave driver. People hate being bossed around, especially when you’re not paying them. Treat them like humans, and become their equal. You may be the Director, but without your crew, you’re nothing. The best Directors are only a member of the crew, not an all-knowing presence on the set.

I hope this will help you out in your quest for finding help on your films. Filmmaking is a social art, there’s not way around it. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people work on Hollywood films. When you have as much creative energy flowing through a set, you can’t help but create a great film.

(7) It’s Not What You Know, But Who You Know. Truth?

I was once told by an entertainment artist that if you want to make it in Hollywood, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. For many, many years, I held this motto close to my heart, and tried to make it a reality by making contacts with many well-known people in the Industry. Because I made all these contacts, I felt assure that I would get where I wanted to be in Hollywood.

Well, I got an e-mail the other day from writer/director Kevin Smith, (Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma, etc…., and he set me on the right path, and I want to set all you reading this on the right path as well. Mr. Smith told me that this philosophy of mine was completely backwards in thought. Many very successful people in Hollywood didn’t know a single person when they entered this Land of Unreality, but they knew their stuff and what they wanted from the industry. They had a fresh idea to bring to Tinsel Town, and they were noticed because of this.

What’s the moral to the story? Well, just because you know somebody who can get you in the door at your Hollywood dream job, don’t slack in the other, more important areas. Don’t just assume that they’ll help you or that they’ll get you a job. Work on your art and make it the best you can, then get it out there and see what happens. Persistence pays off in the long run. Work hard and keep at it. You won’t be successful all the time, because if you were, there would be nothing to succeed at. Period.

If he is reading this, thanks to Kevin for putting me on the right path.

(8) Is This (Directing. For Me?

Every filmmaker during his or her career has always asked themselves this question. And if they haven’t, something’s very wrong. No matter what dream we may have, we are always asking ourselves whether or not this is truly what we want to do with our lives. I know that for myself, I have always been asking myself this question, and here are some things that I have found.

One: Don’t corner yourself. Don’t be saying, “All I wanna do is direct.” There is nothing worse than doing this. No one can tell your future, all you can do is live your life one moment at a time and make the best decisions based on what knowledge you have. Let your life be like a river; ever-flowing in a forward direction.

Two: Don’t train yourself for one specific job or career. If you do this, you’re doing the same thing as above: Cornering yourself. Learn EVERYTHING you can, whether it has to deal with filmmaking or not. I myself learned this early in life, but I was one of the lucky ones. Most people get so solidified in their day to day passings, that they don’t learn anything new or gain any new skills. Don’t be one of these people. You won’t be a good filmmaker if you do.

And Finally: Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you make a film, and the audience hates it, don’t sweat it, learn from it. Ask people WHY the film was bad, and gain a general consensus on how it could be made better. Filmmaking is an evolutionary art form. You have to crawl before you can walk, plain and simple. And learning to walk, you’re going to make mistakes along the way. But once you learn to walk, the sky’s the limit.

Remember, YOU are the only person who can change your destiny. NEVER let anyone tell you otherwise. Life is a journey, not a destination.

(9) I’m Here. Now What?

If you’re anything like me, you want to make the Film Industry a large part of your life, both in work and lifestyle. Many young filmmakers start this progression by actually moving out to LA, and if not going to a film school, just start looking for jobs to get their foots in the door. But, a lot of them don’t know what to do when they get out here. They don’t know where to go, who to see, and how to start their career. I thought I might give some tips on how to start looking, and finding, your niche in a very competitive field.

First and foremost, you need to decide what area of filmmaking you want to specialize in. Don’t decide on something narrow, like SOLELY acting, but instead, be broad in you desicion. You can narrow it down later. You’ve made a huge step just by deciding this. But allow it to be fluid and allow it to change if you need to. If not, you could get stuck somewhere you hate.

Next, get a resume and pitch video together, (if appilcable.. The resume is NEEDED to show a studio what you can speicalize in, how well you work, and how much worth you’ll be to the filmmaking process. A pitch video is also VERY good to have, depending on what you want to go into. If you want to get into directing, for example, you NEED to have a portfolio of your work that you can show a perspective studio before they even think about hiring you. This will show them originality and passion for your work. Remember, people get paid a lot of money to deduce what they see from filmwork, so they know what they’re doing.

Once you have these things together, make some phone calls! Find the phone numbers of the studios you want to submit to, (numbers you need to find are for the PR or hiring centers of the studio.. Get an appointment with a hiring expert or just set up a time you can come in and pitch/drop off your resume/video. If you’re lucky, you may just get the job!

Now, what I’ve outlined here is a VERY simple path for finding your niche in Hollywood. There are many different ways to go about this, and many different paths to take. And the main rule is this: Don’t get discouraged. One studio may hate your work. They’d much rather have their eyes dug out with red-hot pokers than hire you. But another studio may LOVE your work and sign you on the spot. Hey, it’s happened before.

Remember, this is your dream. Live it.

Copyright (c) 2000-2013 Peter D. Marshall / All Rights Reserved

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