Professional Development and Self-Improvement for Filmmakers

Tuesday, 22 October 2013 0 comments

This article deals with professional development for filmmakers: activities that will add value to your employability and effectiveness as a director.

Find a good 1st AD, build a solid working relationship and learn as much as you can

Low-budget independent filmmaking is famously tiring and stressful, but it wouldn’t be so ridiculously exhausting if filmmakers hired an experienced 1st Assistant Director. Some do, but many don’t, especially if it is the director’s first project. (On my early projects I didn’t have a 1st AD and consequently the shoots were vastly more tiring than they had to be.)

Put simply, the 1st AD takes responsibility for a number of non-creative, mentally and physically exhausting, absolutely essential tasks before and during a shoot. These tasks include scheduling the shoot on the basis of the director’s shot list and handling the minute-by-minute direction of crew members during the shoot so that the director can focus on purely creative responsibilities.

Hence the director focuses on realizing the vision developed in pre-production and the 1st AD ensures that the schedule is followed and that the inevitable difficulties are resolved in the best possible manner.

The 1st ADs I have known were also very creative and formidably intelligent people, truly worth their weight in gold. I truly love and admire 1st ADs – can you tell? :-)

Relevance to professional development: you should befriend an experienced and sought-after 1st AD and learn as much as you can by watching him or her work on a set.

You get to know one in the first place by putting out a call for 1st ADs for a project you are preparing; you then work together on that first project and the working relationship begins.

The better you communicate and the more impressive your reel is, the more 1st ADs will want to work with you and the more choice you will have.

What’s in it for them? It’s simple: on many paid gigs the director gets to choose the 1st AD, so having a good working relationship with directors is important for 1st ADs who want to keep working. This is why they are so willing to help young directors who show potential: they are investing for the future, because the directors with whom they are currently working won’t all last forever. Many directors suddenly stop being in demand, even after long and successful careers, but if you were after job security, you probably wouldn’t be reading this website ;-)

After that first project is in the can, keep observing the 1st AD on as many projects as possible. Observe them, learn what they do and develop your way of working with them in the most effective way.

If you don’t have much experience this might all sound arcane, but trust me: a good 1st AD will make a huge, huge difference. Every general needs a solid chief of staff.

Production design: sharpen your taste

You will hire a talented Production Designer, I hope, but you need to learn how to communicate with one – how to explain what you want and, just as importantly, how to know what you want in the first place.

The only way to achieve this is to look at a lot of art and interior design and figure out what you like and what you don’t. You will become more discerning the more art your browse, and your design-related vocabulary will also grow.

You will notice that I am not prescribing a specific aesthetic school here. The point is to look at a lot of art and develop your own taste, whatever form it takes. A strong visual signature is one of the ways in which a filmmaker can build a brand and stand out from the crowd – a skill that is all the more important for TV commercial directors.

The is a great start; I found that website during one of my research sessions and it will train your eye pretty well (but do check out as many different design resources as you can).

Sharpening your design acumen is fun and productive – probably the most relaxing activity in developing as a filmmaker. Enjoy.

Working with music composers

When the time comes to score your project, the music composer – if you are working with a pro – will ask you where you want each cue to start and end. A “cue” is simply a piece of music, and in films it usually overlaps with dialogue and action. You will be asked this question a lot, so prepare yourself mentally and do your homework.

For best results you should also be able to ask for specific instruments, occasionally. You might say something like “I think this part needs a darker color – can we replace the oboe with the flute?”

Professional composers won’t mind – it is film music they are composing, after all, and they expect to be directed. I think I love composers as much as I love 1st ADs! ;-)

The point here is that to make the most of your composer, you need to have a clear idea of what you want and plenty of music listening experience – you don’t have to be an instrumentalist, but you should know the options available (as in the example above – the flute sounding darker than the oboe, which is bright and smooth).

As with production design, this comes down to developing good taste, and only constant exposure and thought will get you there.

Stop reading camera reviews so obsessively

I know that many aspiring filmmakers have a camera review addiction that is totally out of control, and the more new gear is released by the manufacturers, the worse it gets. If cameras and gadgetry are a separate hobby for you, fine, but don’t rationalize that you are doing legitimate filmmaking-related research: you are not. By obsessing over all the shiny new toys you are simply indulging your gear lust and getting a cheap shot of dopamine while your more strategic peers are making real progress in their skills.

Let me tell you this: human motivation and patience are finite. Some have more than others, but eventually everyone runs out of steam if the desired goal is delayed long enough. Your goal is to get to where you want to be before you run out of steam. Therefore turn your back on the camera reviews, practise hard, learn valuable skills, build that reel and make your dreams come true before you run out of mental and emotional fuel. I say these things out of love. The strategically minded among you – the wily foxes – will see this.

“But doesn’t a filmmaker need to know what the best cameras are?” you might ask.

No, not in between projects – you have better things to do!

In between projects you work hard on your skills; when the time comes to shoot your next project, you have a conversation with your trusted DP that goes something like this:

DIRECTOR: Time to choose a camera. What’s good these days? I haven’t been following because, you know, I was busy improving my skills.

DP: Very wise! Camera X produces a lovely texture but underperforms at night. Camera Y has a huge dynamic range but isn’t as velvety. Camera Z has lovely colors but is more difficult to work with.

DIRECTOR: Ok, can I see some samples?

DP: Sure. I shot this spot with camera X, this feature with camera Y and this music video with camera Z. You should also check out the comparative tests I shot.

DIRECTOR: I like the look of the camera X footage. That’s the one.

DP: Cool.

End of conversation.

It’s usually even simpler than that: there is usually one clear winner among serious movie cameras at any one time, and it only takes a few minutes to identify it when the time comes (hint: not a year in advance).

Learn to pitch: elevator pitch for feature films and conference call for TV commercials

Can you describe and sell your film idea persuasively in 20 seconds? The more a person is able to help your career, the less time they have to listen to you, so your pitch has to be as slick and convincing as a TV commercial.

If you’re going to go down this route, obviously you will need to practice; it’s like a performance.

20 seconds is actually a very long time for a high-powered heavyweight to listen to an unknown filmmaker, so if your pitch is weak, you will see their eyes wander. When they glance at their cell phone, you know you’re toast.

Conference calls for TV commercials are a lot more fun, especially if you are an extroverted type who loves to communicate – and if you are not, you will have to work hard to improve in this area – professional development!

Very briefly, during the conference call a short-listed TV commercial director tells the ad agency creative at the other end how he/she will direct the spot – it’s a pitch, but quite a detailed one, and far more dignified for the director than a 20-second pitch directed at a bored exec. In fact, it’s more like an interview, really. The ad agency then chooses one of the 3-5 directors who were offered conference calls.

As with everything else in life, the more your practise pitching, the better you will get.

Find your favorite shots and figure out how they were done

If you’re a serious filmmaker, you can’t watch your favorite films and passively enjoy the most impressive shots in an awed stupor, in total ignorance of how they were set up. When you see a shot you love, you need to figure out how it was executed: the focal length, the lighting, the camera movement, the framing – everything you need to replicate it.

If you can’t figure it out, post a question with a link to the shot (with timecode, please) and I will help you, as long as it is about lenses, camera movement, framing, lighting and editing – I don’t know how they made that CGI dinosaur do a backflip and have no desire to find out.

After frequent practice with your camcorder and shooting a number of projects with proper movie lenses, your understanding of cinematic visuals will sharpen and you will get better at inferring the focal length used in a shot just by looking at it, which in turn will accelerate the rate at which you learn new techniques from the films you watch.

I hope you found this useful. As always, keep me posted on your progress!

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