My Advice To A Young Filmmaker

Last week, one of my teaching assistant’s at USC told me he wanted to be a film director and that he was working to get into the Film School. I asked him: “What do you want to learn in film school?” “How to use the gear,” he replied.

Now, USC has a justifiably famous film school, but, I told him that film school is not necessary for success as a film maker. Watching films, analyzing films, deconstructing what makes a camera shot or scene work are all essential steps to becoming a successful director; and that process can be learned in film school – but it can also be learned in your spare time. Film school is great at getting experience creating films and, more importantly, building a network of friends and contacts that with stay with you during your career.

But there is more than one way to get experience creating films. And college, in general, is a great place to find friends.

“Think for a moment,” I asked him, “which is more important to a director: how to use the gear or how to work with a cast and crew to create your vision and tell your story?”

“Directing,” I suggested, “has far more to do with people skills than technical skills.” This doesn’t mean that tech isn’t important, but that all too often, we think tech is the answer, when it is merely a tool. Even high-budget films have fallen into this trap. Directing is about clearly explaining your vision to others who will help you execute that vision.

He’s putting his career on hold for the wrong reason. I told him that he already has an outstanding camera in his pocket. It’s his SmartPhone. “If you want to learn the challenges of directing,” I told him, “shoot a short film every weekend – not more than 2 – 4 pages.”

Put yourself on a tight deadline so you have to think and work quickly. See how framing and camera position affect your story. Discover how to motivate a crew. Learn how to work with actors – especially student actors – to help them find the emotional heart of a scene. Develop your communication and people skills. Analyze your shots. Practice your editing. And constantly critique your work – then do it again – and again.

If you get into film school, great. You’ll learn a lot. If not, also great – because the things you most need to know to create a great film are learned on the job, not in the classroom.

As you will discover, knowing how to use great tools is one thing. Having a great story that you use those tools to tell is far more important. Great story-telling, not tools, is at the heart of great directing.

As always, let me know your thoughts.


4 Responses to My Advice To A Young Filmmaker

  1. Mark Hirst says:

    Great advice Larry – you are spot on …… people skills are far more important than any technical skills – no matter how good your film making skills are, if you can’t get people to act in a particular way for fiction work or conversely get them to relax and act normal in a documentary situation, you have no future – no matter how good your techie skills are!

    And actually that goes the same for most jobs, not just in the film industry!

  2. Great Article !

    I actually have been thinking about this subject and now I am going to take the opportunity to ask if you would consider expanding your horizon and offer training
    programs in lighting, camera techniques, interviews and so on.
    If you can not due it maybe recommend the best sources for us to learn.
    Can we call it expanding the horizon for the Larry Jordan new web program with
    pratical assignment?

    Best Regards

    Dirk

    • Larry says:

      Dirk:

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I actually built a TV studio in 2015 specifically to create this sort of training. But revenues were not sufficient for me to keep it open so I closed it in April of 2016. I’m currently thinking about ways we can provide this sort of training in the future.

      Larry

  3. John and Janet Foster says:

    Hi Larry

    You gave good advice to aspiring film directors.

    As a husband and wife team we would like to add some thoughts based on our own long experience as natural science film makers and story tellers.

    We believe that every producer or director should recognize that they are story tellers first, and every decision they make about content or camera angles should add to the story. Flashy or distracting cinematography can seem clever and technically satisfying but runs the risk of distracting from the story. Yes, you can learn a lot about technique and gear in film school but learning to speak directly and clearly to your audience, and building a compelling storyline with careful shooting is a critically important first step.

    First some background. We we were lucky. Over a period of 10 years, while working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. we established a satisfying reputation with Canadian audiences through our nature and wildlife documentaries — all paid for by CBC and a sponsor. We had great cameramen, editors, and others who taught us essential skills. There was no financial risk for us, and plenty of artistic freedom. Those were the days.

    Then came the shock of layoffs and budget crunches and eventually we left CBC. So we came into the freelance world with the advantage of a decent track record and good ratings, and this would open doors to the private sector.

    All we had now was that track record and a desire to keep shooting stories. Soon we were working as freelancers with TVOntario, a provincial broadcaster, and their partner, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Our role was helping to shoot, direct, and edit some half hour nature documentaries, with real deadlines. We shot some of them while Japanese crews shot the rest. Budgets (and our fees) were modest. It was another good learning experience, especially having to meet deadlines.

    Then, as budget crunches reached those broadcasters, along came our new Discovery Channel in the form of Discovery Canada, with many women in senior positions, including the president. They invited us to make one hour documentaries, but also expected us to raise the necessary funding.

    We are not fund raisers. The whole process appalls us. We want to be in the field shooting, not running around with absolutely no skills in how to raise money. Eventually, with professional help, we did accumulate enough money to shoot a one hour documentary in the wild grasslands of an Alberta ranch. But the endless form filling, and making the right applications to funding agencies and distributors, was a long and dreary process, and we knew with certainty that promising a return on investments to anyone was a dead end in a field that, for us, was also an alien world.

    Frustrated by our own inability or reluctance to embrace the world of fund raising and film distribution we made a proposal to Discovery. We said, “you fund the programs, pay us for our services, and you can own and distribute the programs.” We pointed out that, as a married couple, our field expenses would be more than reasonable – e.g. one rental car, one motel room, two airfares and no film crew. Our services would be a complete package – research, cinematography, writing, directing, producing, hosting, and supervising the editing at Discovery’s facilities. It would be one stop shopping for Discovery at less than half the usual cost of hiring a full film crew, with producers, directors, editors, writers etc. And we added one more inducement – Discovery would control the budget, let us know if we were overspending, and, of course, have final cut approval. When we wanted some extra money for a helicopter at the end of a long shoot in the arctic we phoned in and checked with the Program Director. Mostly, we came in under budget.

    This formula worked for everyone. Discovery acquired prime time programs at a reasonable, known cost, and we had a lot of creative fun and satisfaction, while marveling at the opportunity to be paid to do what we loved most – exploring wilderness country with cameras in our hands.

    Sometimes, while on location, we would take a morning to shoot a shorter item that could be offered later to magazine format programs. Most of these came in around 10-12 minutes, and we shot 30 of them. For example, while shooting an arctic iceberg documentary on board a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker we also produced a short item on the last radio operator still transmitting in Morse code. That would become an item within Discovery’s daily science show. Those short documentaries for Discovery would have their own scary deadlines – we had just 7 hours for editing raw camera footage down to a 12 minute fine cut in an offline suite, creating the need for very precise edit outlines and all tapes cued up and ready to go. Having to meet tight deadlines and craft precise cutting outlines and shot lists was a terrific learning experience, with disciplines that would spill over into other projects. It taught us to go into an edit suite thoroughly prepared from day one. Editors appreciate that.

    Eventually, after eight years, this too came to an end. Discovery Canada was sold to a national commercial broadcaster that immediately dumbed down the channel and replaced beautiful Canadian and international documentaries with off-the-shelf junk. Several projects in production were cancelled, including one of ours. Good people left the channel. A former program director described the new owners as being “dedicated to mediocrity.” Now this once inspirational channel declared its target audience would be 18-34 year old males, (no mention of women) with a new program director telling a stunned meeting of independent producers like us to “think of what an eight year old would want to watch.” One of the new channel’s editors explained, “they like to see things blow up.” We were looking at the future, and it wasn’t for us.

    Maybe the days we enjoyed so much are long gone. We don’t know if what succeeded for us for so long is even possible these days. But we do know that our formula at that time worked for broadcasters: “we’ll make the programs with your money — you can own them.”

    Our advice to aspiring directors is to try to get work within a production company, and take the opportunity to learn and watch — to acquire the extraordinary skills of everyone around you, whether it’s editors or camera operators, sound recordists, mixers, writers, producers – the whole team. We had that opportunity during our time with CBC. When you have confidence in your own skills offer your program ideas to established production companies. Show them your enthusiasm.

    This is where tough decisions may begin for a young film maker. The money available probably won’t be enough. Do you accept that and proceed with the project? Our advice would be yes, at first, if for no other reason than beginning to create your own track record and building good contacts within the industry. And, now that we all have amazing and inexpensive cameras, shoot your own footage. This may take a longer learning curve. Not everyone develops camera and editing skills. But good, steady shooting that reinforces the story is an essential part of the package being offered to any broadcaster.

    Always, the story comes first. Every element of shooting, every frame of the edit, and every word of the final narration script should support that story. Even the music should never fight the picture or bury the words. Many times we have been deep into a soundmix and we’ll say “let’s just try that sequence without the music.” On one occasion Janet stopped her narration and said “I can’t talk over this sequence – the music and picture are so strong together”. So we let it play without words. Much better. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

    An old friend teaches film at a community college. We asked him what his students expect on graduation. He said, “they all want to be directors.”

    Regards

    John and Janet Foster

    R.R.5 Madoc

    Ontario, Canada, K0K 2K0

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