This post is for everyone who’s told me, “I’ve always wanted to make movies too! How do I start?”
Short answer – if you want to make movies, you start making movies.
It doesn’t have to be more complex than that.
Longer answer – make short films with whatever camera you have to learn the process, read & watch everything you can, and crew on other people’s films.
Let’s break those down.
Make Short Films
Too many people who tell me they want to make a film think the first step is to raise money.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
No one should give money to someone who has never made a film before and expect to get their money back. The good news is you don’t need tons of money to start making films now. Saying you need money is a way to avoid the hard work of doing. You can actually make a film with what you have already.
You have in your pocket a nicer camera that I had most of my high school film career. It’s called a iPhone. Take your iPhone – or whatever the nicest camera you have access to is – and shoot a five minute short with some friends to learn the process. This will take one weekend, and will be worth more than a year of theorizing about what kind of film you’re “gonna” make.
Use whatever resources you have. Keep it small. Something you could make without having to go out and buy anything crazy. If you want to make a documentary, film a single event or interview subject. If you want to do a narrative film, make something with one to two actor friends in a single location. Heck, shoot a vlog. A vlog is a documentary about what you did that day.
The first film the Duplass brothers got into Sudance with was one actor trying to leave a message for his voice answering machine. It was shot on mini-dv tape in someone’s kitchen. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
If you heart is really set on that feature idea, do a short film version of it. One scene.
For example, one guy I met told me he wanted to do a documentary on alternative healing methods. I suggested he film one session with one healer. Interview the patient beforeheand. Find out what he hopes to gain. Interview the practioner, find out what he plans to do. Film the session. Do an exit interview with each. Edit it into a five minute short. (I don’t think he ever did, and I still haven’t seen his movie. Those two are related.)
If you have a good short version, then when you go to investors, you’ll have something you can show and say “this is what it’ll be like.” And if you don’t think it’s good enough to show to them, then you learned those lessons for free, rather then on thousands of investor dollars. The guy who made District 9 is making short films to pitch his next project. A short film can become your crowdfunding video.
(P.S. If you decide to spend money, don’t worry about the camera. Spend it on sound. Don’t worry, if you don’t know this already, your first short film will teach it to you.)
That’s it. Your first film will teach you a lot. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s good. The point of this short film is not to “break in” or become a big success, it’s just to learn how to make a film. To start creating the system you use for filmmaking.
You don’t even have to show it to anyone. If you can handle feedback, do it, but if you don’t think you could handle negative comments, don’t worry about it. Again, the point of these short films isn’t to get others approval, it’s to build your craft.
Learn Everything You Can
Wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others. The best ways to learn about filmmaking, other than making films, is to –
- Watch as many movies as possible
- Read everything you can about filmmaking and film theory
I’m amazed at the number of people who want to be filmmakers who don’t watch non-Hollywood cinema. Watch films that aren’t from your decade or culture. If you see something you like in a movie, find out what influences the director had, and go back to those films.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start, try the AFI 100 Greatest Films list. You might dispute their order, but you really can’t go wrong with those films. I’ve movie recommendations on this site, and you can subscribe for more from me here.
Also – now you don’t have to just rely on old filmmaking books from Amazon like I did growing up (though you should still read those). You have YouTube. It is absurd how many filmmaking how-to videos and film essays there are on there. Watch as many as you can. Again, if you’re motivated, there is no excuse.
Crew On Other People’s Films
In addition to making your own films, work on other people’s movies.
This will teach several things. First, you’ll meet other filmmakers. The people you meet on set are often more important than the project. I know one director who works as an extra on other people’s films, just so that when the crew starts complaining about how bad the director is he invite the crew to come work for a better director – him. If you want to make films, you’ll eventually need crew, and this is a good way to meet them.
Second, it’ll give you a skill you can make money at. If you learn to grip, edit, run sound, PA, etc. then you can get work. If you get good at it, then you’ll meet lots of people, and see reason one.
Third, you’ll learn a lot. If wisdom is learning from others failures, it’s also learning from others film sets. You might chose to run yours different, but it helps to know why and how others do what they do. Also, if you plan to work in film, there are certain terms you’ll pick up on a film set that if you don’t know will out you as an amatuer.
Even in post-production, I’ve learned a lot going through the dailies of other people’s footage, taking films apart and putting them back together. Any job you can get will be a great education.
Also, you might discover that you really only love one aspect of filmmaking. If you love the camera, but don’t love actors, become a cinematographer, not a director. If you love visual effects, just do that. “Filmmaker” is a blanket term, and the more specific you can get about what you want to do, the better. But you might only discover that through experience.
Be The Filmmaker You’d Invest In
Coming back to our earlier example – who would you rather invest it – a filmmaker who is applying for grants and fundraising money from investors, but has never made a film before – OR – a filmmaker who has been making short films, can show you a few good ones, reads and watches everything they can, and even has a few credits crewing on other people’s films?
Seems obvious right?
Become the kind of person you’d invest in.
And nowadays, you should add an extra skill on top of filmmaker, which is to become good at audience building and social media. That’s a separate article, but before you start seeking an audience or crowdfunding – which is really just lots of people investing small amounts of time and money in your project – you should make sure you’re bringing value by being really good at what you do.
I can’t guarentee the above will get you there, but it’ll certainly put you ahead of everyone who says they’re “gonna” make a film someday.
Again – how do you become a filmmaker? Start making films.
Read More: The Sundance Tell: How To Spot Amatuer Filmmakers