Filmmaking Tips and Advice for Ambitious Filmmakers

“A free online film school summary for aspiring filmmakers”

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1. Write or obtain an awesome screenplay

Without a dazzlingly awesome screenplay you are dead in the water. Beautiful lighting, creative camerawork and smooth editing are pointless if the story isn’t compelling.

The first and most important concept you need to take on board is the three-act structure:

Three-act screenplay structure diagram

Why you would be mad to ignore the three-act structure in screenplays

Character arc in screenplays: cool examples from famous films

“Capturing hearts and selling tickets”: 10 elements of screenplays that captured hearts and made serious money.

2. Film lighting

Film lighting example: fill, backlight, dark shadow and smoke

The way you light your film significantly affects how your audience perceives it. Using moody lighting with dark shadows in a teen comedy is not advisable; by the same token, your film noir is unlikely to work if there are bright colors and flat lighting. Imaginative and tonally appropriate lighting is crucial to successful filmmaking. Read more about film lighting.

3. Good camerawork

Good framing techniques will work wonders for your film. I am convinced – and there is evidence of this in every film – that imaginative camerawork will increase the connection between the audience and your story. There is so much mediocre camerawork around that you may as well err on the side of unusual angles – just make sure that your choices are motivated by the characters and the scene, not by a self-defeating lust for wacky camera angles.

Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds prescribes the placement of significant vertical and horizontal elements along the horizontal and vertical thirds, as shown in the illustration below:

Rule of Thirds in Filmmaking

It must be emphasised that the rule of thirds is only a guideline, and following it indiscriminately may result in an unbalanced and ugly composition.

Shooting close-ups

The illustration below shows my philosophy in the framing of close-ups.  Anyone can shoot a close-up, but framing a balanced and visually pleasing one takes a little bit of judgement and practice.  I strongly recommend you read my detailed post on how to shoot close-ups.

Shooting close-ups in Filmmaking

Shooting over-the-shoulder shots

Over-the-shoulder shots are peculiar to the art of filmmaking and are much maligned by some filmmakers for being time-consuming to shoot correctly, but in my opinion every ambitious filmmaker would be well advised to master not only the visual elements that go into a pleasing over-that-shoulder shot, but also how to communicate with the cast and crew to achieve the correct framing.  The illustration below shows my over-the-shoulder shot framing philosophy:

Shooting over the shoulder shots in filmmaking

I strongly recommend you read my detailed guide on how to shoot over-the-shoulder shots.

Focusing

Always focus on your subject’s eyes, unless you specifically want something else to be in focus. You may not notice it in the viewfinder, but if the eyes are soft and the background is sharp it will be obvious on a TV screen and your audience will hate it.

Whatever it is that you want to be in focus, use this technique: zoom in all the way on the subject, pull focus and zoom back to get the framing you want. In this way your subject will be pin-sharp. You should do this as a matter of course on every single setup, and indeed on every take, especially if the subject moved after the last take.

The reason for zooming in before focusing is that the longest focal length has the smallest depth of field – if something is in focus at the longest end of the zoom, it will be in focus at every other focal length too.

Neutral-density filters

When shooting outside, lighting conditions are likely to be bright, but you can still use a wide aperture if you use a neutral-density filter. Neutral-density filters are essentially color-neutral (grey) filters which reduce the brightness of the light reaching the film or CCDs. The point is that you reduce the intensity of the light by using a neutral-density filter and then compensate for it by using a wider aperture. Professional camcorders sometimes have one or two inbuilt neutral-density filters, which you can engage with a toggle switch. They can reduce the intensity of the light by several stops.

Foreground objects

Foreground objects add texture and increase the illusion of depth. Foreground objects, which can be anything from an actor’s shoulder to a tree branch, are known as dingle in the film business. It is imperative that the foreground element should be out of focus; if it is sharp, it will distract from the main subject and will lose its textural effect. A fine example of the use of dingle is the battle scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr Strangelove”: almost every shot of soldiers assaulting the building have plants and branches, out of focus, in the foreground. He was so keen on foreground branches that he occasionally used light stands to hold cut branches in the correct position. It was worth the effort: the way he shot that scene gives the viewer a strong feeling of being there, crawling behind the soldiers.

Another dramatic example comes from Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet”:

Foreground objects in a film still from Zeffirelli's 'Romeo and Juliet'

4. Camera movement: equipment, techniques and best practices

This is closely related to the camerawork issue and is in fact a part of it. As with imaginative camera angles, camera movement should be used to draw the audience into the story. This means that camera movement should be motivated by the action and by the characters, not simply by whether the actors are moving or not.

Camera movement is one of the aspects that distinguishes movie making from still photography.

In camera movement the feeling of motion is generated by the fact that objects that are close to the camera appear to move more quickly in the frame than objects that are more distant. This is what creates the illusion of three-dimensional motion on a two-dimensional screen.

Specifically:

When the camera moves towards an object, its size grows faster in the frame than that of objects behind it. (Compare this to zooming, which magnifies everything equally and therefore does not create a feeling of motion.)

When the camera moves sideways (tracking), objects that are closer to the camera appear to move faster across the frame than objects that are more distant. This effect is known as parallax, and is what makes tracking shots such an effective film technique.

Types of camera movement:

1. Tracking sideways

In this camera movement the camera moves in a direction that is approximately perpendicular to its visual axis. In other words, it moves sideways. Sideways tracking is one of the most common camera movements, but Steven Spielberg is the best at getting the most of this type of shot.

2. Camera moving towards an object: the track-in shot

In a track-in shot the camera moves towards an object, more or less head-on. The direction of camera movement is the same as the camera’s visual axis. This kind of camera movement is best executed with a camera on a solid dolly, only resorting to the Steadicam when it is impossible to use a dolly.

For more details, read my post on shooting the perfect track-in shot.

3. Vertical camera movement: craning / booming

Vertical camera movement produces a feeling of motion for exactly the same reason as horizontal camera movement: a multi-layered 3D effect is created because objects that are closer to the camera move across the frame faster than those that are more distant.

Film equipment to use in camera movement

Dollies

For both sideways and track-in shots the best camera support to use is a good solid dolly. Avoid using “prosumer” lightweight dollies: they make it much more difficult to achieve truly smooth and professional results. Go for the PeeWee dolly or something even heavier, and hire a really good dolly grip – they are worth every penny!

Camera cranes

For vertical camera movement you can use a jib or crane. Camera cranes come in many different sizes and which one you choose will depend on what camera you are using and what kind of crane shot you want to shoot. The Cobra Crane II is an awesome crane for camcorders up to 25 pounds – I used it with great success on my first film and it worked like a charm. It is designed to be operated by a single person. Bigger cranes should be operated by professional operators, not least because they can be very dangerous!

The Steadicam®

The Steadicam® is a very clever camera stabilization device that isolates the camera from the camera operator’s body, allowing very smooth shots that are not constrained by tracks like the dolly. In my view the Steadicam® is a fantastic tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox, but ONLY in cases when it is truly the best way to get the shot and a dolly would NOT do a better job. If you are following an actor running on rough ground, the Steadicam® is the perfect solution for the shot. If you are shooting a sideways tracking shot on a smooth floor, nothing beats a dolly and there is absolutely no excuse for using the Steadicam®, unless you are behind schedule and do not have time to lay dolly tracks and set up a proper tracking shot.

Camera movement best practices

1. Using wide lenses enhances parallax, which is the effect in which objects closer to the camera move across the field of view faster.

2. Long lenses also work well with camera movement, but this produces a very different look because the visual planes are compressed. You should familiarise with the look produced by lenses of different focal lengths.

3. Sideways tracking shots are dramatically more effective when there are objects in the foreground (close to the camera), because this enhances the feeling of parallax. Steven Spielberg is the best at shooting this type of tracking shot. Foreground objects will enhance parallax regardless of focal length, but different focal lengths will produce different looks.

4. All of the above also applies to crane shots (vertical camera movement).

5. Tracking shots should begin as smoothly as possible. To shoot real tracking shots you need a real dolly grip with real skill.

6. Track-in shots – in which the camera tracks into a subject, going from a wide shot to a tighter shot – are a valuable film technique in every filmmaker’s arsenal but very few know how to make it work. It is all about tweaking the speed, framing and focal length for the specific mood you want.

7. The Steadicam® is not a dolly and should ONLY be used when it is truly the best option for the shot. Few things in filmmaking look cheaper than a tracking shot executed with a Steadicam® when a dolly would have produced better results.

8. Zooming can be combined with sideways camera movement. Ridley Scott uses this technique a lot.

9. If you zoom out while tracking in, the result is the vertigo effect, first used by Hitchcock and overused by thousands of indie filmmakers ever since. Handle with care!

10. The way to develop a real sense of camera movement is to practice constantly with a camcorder.

Camera movement is a very effective cinematographic technique and is worth mastering, because it can add a lot of value to film projects.

5. Using zoom lenses

film-techniques-zoom-shot

(Zoom Shot example taken from my first film.)

Zooming has been much maligned in recent years, but in my opinion this is an over-reaction to its excessive or incorrect use. There is still plenty of use for zoom shots in filmmaking and they are far from obsolete, as demonstrated by the masterful zoom shots of Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, among others.

Beginning filmmakers are usually told to avoid zoom shots, but the truth is that zoom shots can be extremely cool if done properly. Two outstanding movies with plenty of good zoom shots are Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” and Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (this was a significant departure for Spielberg, who never uses zoom shots).

There is a fine line between a zoom shot that is tacky and one that is visually compelling. The difference lies in the execution and in the context. Combining the zoom with translational motion (tracking) can work very well.

Ridley Scott’s Zoom + Tilt technique

Ridley Scott has come up with a wonderful technique that he sometimes uses: he sometimes zooms in as a subject approaches the camera, and simultaneously tilts up, since the camera is quite low down. It is quite striking because the zoom, which has the effect of magnifying the subject, is combined with the subject walking towards the camera, which also has the effect of enlarging it in the frame. There is one such shot in “Gladiator,” in the scene in which Commodus demands loyalty from his sister after the conspiracy against him is foiled:

ridley-scott-zoom-gladiator

This zoom technique is powerful and it is not a coincidence that he reserves it for powerful characters in extraordinary situations.

Very slow zooms can work extremely well. James Cameron occasionally uses zoom shots, but they are so slow and smooth that most people are not consciously aware of them. An excellent example of a James Cameron zoom shot is in “Terminator 2” – as Dyson is dying and holding a piece of junk above the detonator, the camera zooms very slowly on him. The zoom then stops, Dyson exhales his last breath, drops the piece of junk onto the detonator, and the Cyberdine building blows up.

6. Record uncompromisingly high-quality location sound

Poor sound is a major weakness – maybe the major weakness – of independent films. Some professionals claim that audiences can put up with poor image quality if the story is good, but they will never put up with poor sound. I am inclined to agree with this. Accordingly, you should take the sound recording issue seriously. Read more about recording good production sound.

7. Casting

Casting is another issue you cannot afford to get wrong. Casting can be a royal pain, but it is worth the effort as the actors are supposed to breathe life into your characters and miscasting your film can irremediably compromise its success.

With so many competent actors keen to build a reel these days, there is no excuse for not using proper actors in your project. After the story, the actors are probably the next worst thing to cut corners with. As Craig Schlattman puts it in his Filmmaking 101, “…do not proceed with the film under any circumstances unless you’re thrilled with your cast, you’ll only wish you had when you see it in the editing room.” Enough said.

Casting directors are professionals whose job is to sift through scores of potential actors for every part and audition them, only bringing the strongest candidates to the director’s attention. They take a huge burden off the director, who simply does not have the time to trawl through hundreds of headshots and resumes. The director chooses from the candidates that have been pre-selected by the casting director.

Of course, many independent films cannot afford the services of a casting director, but bear in mind that there is such a thing and that if you can secure the services of one – through a favor, a mutual friend or simply by cutting them a check – your film will be properly cast, probably with talent that you would not have otherwise been able to attach to your project.

8. Continuity

Continuity refers to static elements (such as an actor’s clothes in a given scene) or dynamic elements (such as a cigarette becoming progressively shorter during a scene). Continuity supervisors ensure that these elements are controlled in such a way that they are consistent with the story when the film is edited – this can be a major issue if the film is not shot in chronological order.

Most films are shot out of sequence and continuity is an issue to be taken seriously.

You should have someone (the continuity supervisor) who takes Polaroid snaps of actors, locations, etc. to ensure the continuity of makeup, costumes, arrangement of props and set pieces, the level of water in a glass, and many other things.

There is also the issue of continuity in acting – instruct your actors to be consistent with sipping drinks, smoking a cigarette and other actions. In other words, if an actor is doing a smoke-and-talk scene, instruct her to take puffs at specific points during the dialog, and to repeat the timing for every take.

This may seem excessive, but I guarantee you will be glad you made the effort when you edit the movie. If the actress takes sips from her glass at random times during the scene, cutting from one shot to another with no continuity errors may prove very tricky indeed. She could be drinking in one shot and when you cut to a different angle, she could be taking the glass away from her mouth – an obvious continuity error. You’ve been warned.

9. Production design

The world of your film must be conceptualized in advance, right down to the color scheme, props, furniture and costumes. You don’t turn up to a location and put up with whatever’s there – you must decide in advance what color everything should be, what style the furniture should be in, and so on, right down to the finest detail – that’s real filmmaking. The reason for this is that the appearance of everything in your movie will affect the viewer’s perception of it, and tells the world about how you see things as a film director.

One of the things that really set professional work apart from home videos is control of the color scheme. The color scheme is simply the collection of colors in the film or video: the clothes, the backgrounds, the props, the makeup, the locations, etc.

Deciding on a color palette before you shoot and sticking to it in production will work wonders for the production value of your project.

Don’t film your actors against a white wall, especially if you’re shooting on video. If you really must have a white wall as a background, make sure it is not lit flatly: dappled light will make it look a lot better.

Make sure the costumes work well with the background (set or location) and with the people wearing them.

If color schemes are not your thing, an art director and/or production designer will do the trick (for most projects you should have them anyway). A talented production designer can add a lot of value to your project; a few well-placed props of the right color, a fresh coat of paint or some well-designed set-pieces can make the difference between a terrible location and one that looks like a million bucks. Production design is one of the aspects of filmmaking that are most neglected by independent filmmakers; you have a lot to gain by enlisting the services of a talented production designer.

The use of color is very important to the overall look of a project; like most other things, although the viewer may not be discussing the color palette after watching your work, you can rest assured that the color scheme – or lack thereof – most certainly affected their perception of it. In big-budget Hollywood movies a lot of attention is given to the color of even the finest detail, and with good reason!

10. Film editing

Editing – the assembly of different shots aimed at creating a coherent sequence – is an artform that is unique to filmmaking. As a film director you should be totally on top of how film editing works, because if you’re not, the film will be a nightmare to edit and will be full of inconsistencies, jump cuts and other distracting mistakes. If you don’t understand film editing, the way you shoot scenes and move your actors is bound to cause major difficulties in the editing room.

The first and most important thing to learn in film editing is that, for the smoothest results, you should cut on action, especially if you are cutting from a wide shot to a tighter shot along the same visual axis. The following example is taken from a film I directed and edited:
Film editing techniques: cutting on action

There are more examples and tips in my post on movie editing techniques.

11. Role of the 1st assistant director

The First Assistant Director (1st AD) has a fascinating and critically important role in filmmaking.  A 1st AD has two principal blocks of duties: scheduling the shoot on a shot-by-shot basis during pre-production and the direct management of the film crew on the shoot itself, ensuring that the shoot sticks to the schedule. The 1st AD is also heavily involved in directing the background artists.

If we conceptualize the Director as the Commanding Officer, the 1st AD is the sergeant. This analogy describes the relationship between the Director and the 1st AD very well, in my experience.

Scheduling the shoot

Once the director has produced the shot list and the tech scout has been held with the 1st AD, the Cinematographer, the Production Manager and the Production Designer, the 1st AD’s next big job is to produce a schedule for the shoot.

The schedule breaks down the film shoot on a shot-by-shot basis, so that every day has its own schedule with time slots allotted to each and every setup.  It’s a pretty technical job and requires real experience.  If a shot looks deceptively simple but actually entails hidden complications that will make it very time-consuming, an experienced 1st AD will spot this immediately and allow enough time for it in the schedule.

A good 1st AD will also warn the director and the other heads of department about any potential problems he foresees on the tech scout.  For instance, he might warn that the air-conditioning system in a location is likely to cause difficulties with sound recording.  You cannot go to school for this sort of thing — 1st ADs become brilliant exclusively through experience.

Managing the film crew on the shoot

The 1st AD manages and communicates directly with crew members on the film shoot so that the director can concentrate on the actors and on the heads of department (mainly the cinematographer and production designer).

The first AD ensures that the film shoot sticks to the schedule right down to the minute, which entails an awful lot of communication with all crew members. The 1st AD pushes the film crew to maintain momentum and deploy all production resources with maximum efficiency.

It is an incredibly demanding and exhausting job, and many people don’t realize just how senior the position of the 1st AD really is.  It really does not have much to do with film direction — it is a profession onto itself.

I absolutely love 1st ADs — I admire them, I enjoy working with them and, as an independent filmmaker, I wish I had started using them sooner. They are truly one of the director’s greatest allies, especially on time-critical projects, such as TV spots.

It is not uncommon for a 1st AD to be older and more experienced than the director, even on big-budget productions.  It goes without saying that the very best 1st ADs are absolutely focused on their career as 1st ADs and have no interest in becoming directors.

Even if you’re a complete rookie and are preparing your first shoot, I strongly recommend that you draft the services of the most experienced 1st AD who is willing to work with you.  Your 1st AD will add so much value to your film shoot it’s not even funny — trust me on this.

12. Technical directing tips

Eyeline/180° rule

The Eyeline/180° rule is probably the most basic rule in filmmaking. When two actors are talking to each other, there is an imaginary line between them variously known as the eyeline, line of action, line of continuity or line of interest.

Whatever you like to call it, the camera must not cross that line when you film the other actor (unless, of course, the camera is actually moving). If you cross the eyeline, when you edit the scene both actors will be looking in the same direction (e.g. from left to right), and it will look as if they are both talking to a third party when, in fact, they are talking to each other. In the heat of production, sometimes even A-list directors make this mistake, which is ugly and potentially very confusing for the audience.

Conversely, if you shoot all of your setups on one side of the eyeline, one actor will be looking from left to right and the other will be looking from right to left, and the scene will make sense.

It is possible to cross the eyeline correctly, by using a third actor (or an object) as a pivot. Suppose you have three actors: A, B and C, and suppose that for some reason you want to cross the eyeline between A and B. To cut from a shot of A to a shot of B taken from the other side of the eyeline would be incorrect.

What you can do is cut from a shot of A to a shot of C and then to a shot of B taken from the other side of the A-B eyeline. When you set up the shot of C, you cross the A-B eyeline without crossing the A-C eyeline. This bridges the gap and ensures that the eyelines are correct at all times. Those with some shooting experience can probably work out what I’m talking about here, if they don’t already know; for everyone else, I hope to add a diagram (or a real example from my work) to this section at some point in the future.

Let your actors walk in and out of shot

Regardless of whether you actually want to use the entries and exits in your final cut, this will allow you to avoid jump cuts if the edits you had in mind don’t quite work they way you expected.

Direct using subtext

Direct your actors using subtext, which essentially means telling them what the character is really feeling and trying to achieve, over and above the words actually spoken. In a high-quality screenplay there is often a significant difference between what a character says and what the character actually means.  The true unspoken meaning is known as subtext, and all serious filmmakers and screenwriters need to understand this simple but vitally important concept, because it makes a huge difference to the actors’ performances.

Brief your actors in advance

Take care to brief actors on your work methods, particularly if there is anything particularly idiosyncratic to your directing style.

For example, if you like to shoot a lot of takes, you really should warn your actors in advance and explain that this is how you work.  If you do not brief them in advance, some actors might get very upset on the shoot when they realize that you are going to do 30 takes of every set up.

Setting up over-the-shoulder shots

If you are shooting an over-the-shoulder shot, the way to increase or reduce the amount of shoulder in the frame is to ask the actor to shift his/her weight on the left or right foot.  This works very well.

Make your crew feel valued

The better you get at making everyone in your film crew feel valued, right down to the rookie trainee grip, the more you will find that they will be willing to go to the ends of the Earth for you. Building loyalty in your crew will really pay off when everyone starts to get tired on a protracted shoot, which is almost always the case in independent feature films.

5 ways to improve your filmmaking without spending a penny

In this section I will describe five ways to add a lot of value to your film projects without adding a single penny to your budget.

1. Use the same lens / focal length in complementary shots

It is a generally good practice to use exactly the same focal length in shot/reverse shot pairs. Suppose you are shooting a scene in which two actors talk face to face, and that you are going to use three setups:

1. a shot of actor A over the shoulder of actor B;

2. a shot of actor B over the shoulder of actor A;

3. a wide shot of the two actors.

Shots 1 and 2 should use exactly the same focal length. It may also be advisable to use the same focal length for Shot 3, but this is not as critical and depends on the circumstances.

The reason for the importance of using the same focal length for complementary shots is that different focal lengths have different perspectives and therefore produce different looks.

If the two complementary shots are filmed with lenses of different focal length, the looks will not match: the shot with the longer focal length will have a more blurry background and a more compressed look than the shot filmed with the wider lens. This makes the sequence look inconsistent and sloppy, and believe me when I tell you that the audience notices this, even if they are not consciously aware of the technical reasons behind it.

(There is a noteworthy exception to this “rule:” you can mix focal lengths in a scene to make one character dominate over the other.)

The significance of this for those who use cameras that only have a single zoom lens is that the zoom lens has an infinite number of focal lengths between its maximum and minimum settings. The ease with which you can zoom in or out to get the framing you want means that you are quite likely to use a different focal length for every shot you film. This is sloppy and can make your work look visually inconsistent, particularly if you use larger format cameras, in which the difference between the depth of field characteristics and perspectives of different focal lengths are amplified.

I strongly recommend that you use a good set of prime lenses, for two reasons:

a) prime lenses produce the best images, partly because they have fewer elements (less glass) than large zoom lenses;

b) it will force you to give careful thought to focal length, and it will make it very easy to achieve consistency in focal length between complementary shots, because you are either using the right lens or you are not: there is no zoom-lens sliding scale.

(A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length, as opposed to zoom lenses.)

Using discrete lenses does make it slightly more difficult to set up shots, because you cannot correct the framing by zooming in or out: you must move either the camera or the actors. The superior results are more than worth it, however.

If you are unable to use prime lenses and have to use a zoom lens, you can still use discipline and visual consistency in your filmmaking by taking care to use the same focal length in complementary shots. This is easy to do if the zoom lens is marked with focal lengths: decide that on this project you will only use certain focal lengths (14mm, 25mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm and 200mm, for example), and then stick to them. If the zoom lens does not have focal length marks, you can simply use some tape to mark the lens in discrete steps, and only use those zoom settings.

The content in this section may sound very technical and arcane, but if you follow the suggestions in my post on learning camerwaork, it will make perfect sense to you. Anyone can master this stuff, provided you practise on a regular basis. Remember that the camera is to a filmmaker what a violin is to a violinist: you must practise, practise, practise! 🙂

2. Practise the trickiest shots in advance with a camcorder and your actors or stand-ins

Most projects have at least one shot that can fairly be described as technically demanding. It might be due to an unusual camera movement, stringent framing requirements, or a complex mixture of the actors and camera moving in concert. Or perhaps you know what you want the shot to look like, but are unsure of precisely how to achieve it. To make sure you really get what you want when you shoot the project, it is worth having a quick meeting with your actors and practise the shot with a camcorder. There is no need to have the actual dolly or tripod there – you can simply hold the camcorder with your hands. The purpose of this is to identify any difficulties that may arise on the shoot. It is always worth recording the sessions so that you can review the footage at home. I guarantee that even if no particular problems arose during this practice session, it might give you some brilliant ideas for the improvement of the shot.

If, like me, you are hopelessly in love with filmmaking, this also gives you the opportunity to spend more of your time with actors and cameras instead of sitting at home thinking about it 🙂

3. Brief the actors in advance on how you like to work

One of the mistakes I made on my very first film was that I did not warn the actors in advance that I like to do lots of takes – as many takes as I need to get precisely what I want. They told me after the shoot that they sometimes found this disconcerting, because they became paranoid that their performance was somehow unsatisfactory and that I wasn’t telling them why.

If there is something specific about an actor’s performance that is making multiple takes necessary, obviously it is a very good idea to communicate it clearly and politely, as I explained in my post on how to direct.

But sometimes I like to keep shooting takes because I instinctively know that we can all do better, even though what I am looking for is not immediately obvious. In this case it is a good idea to reassure the actors that they are not doing anything wrong, and that I am simply doing more takes for experimental or exploratory purposes. In my experience these extra takes are usually worth it, because amazing things can happen once actors become truly comfortable with the scene and start to loosen up.

I should also warn you, however, that doing many takes can also sometimes result in a large number of virtually indistinguishable takes, which can make it an excruciating agony to choose one in the editing room, particularly if, like me, you have perfectionist tendencies.

Just as in life in general, you need to pick your battles: some set-ups deserve many takes even if the first one is perfectly good, while other set-ups are best wrapped up as soon as you get a good take so that you can dedicate more time and energy to more complicated shots. The right approach is very much a personal matter that you must hone with experience.

4. Different actors peak at different times: talk to them about it and plan your shoot accordingly

Some actors deliver their absolute best performance on the first or second take, and then their performance slowly and irreversibly declines as you do more takes, no matter how much direction you give them. Other actors get better and better with each take, even after 30 takes.

This has practical implications for the way you plan your shoot. For example, if you are shooting a scene with two characters, you should start with the actor who peaks in the early takes, and then film the shot of the other character. In this way you will capture the best performance of each actor. If they both peak at similar times obviously this is not ideal, but it is always worth asking your actors in advance about when they peak, so that you can plan accordingly. If you are using professional actors – and you always should, regardless of budget – they will be able to tell you when they peak. Ask them before you plan the shoot: it is a simple question with an equally simple answer.

5. Edit the sequence in your mind while you shoot

This is my number one filmmaking tip and I will never get tired of writing about it:

What really separates top-notch filmmakers from everyone else is their ability to see the finished sequence in their mind before they actually shoot it.

Visualise the cut sequence first and then work backwards and start thinking about the shots individually. It is perfectly natural and indeed inevitable to think of specific shots when you first plan a scene, but always mentally insert those shots into the sequence to see if they work as a whole.

All of this means that when you are rehearsing a shot, shooting it and then reviewing it on the video monitor, never think of the shot in isolation – always consider it in the context of a fully assembled sequence. Will it cut smoothly with the shots that precede and follow it in the sequence? If you don’t know which shots will come before and after the shots that you are filming at any one time, you have a potentially serious blind spot that can cause difficulties in the editing room later, potentially compromising your project. If you know in advance that a particular shot’s inclusion in the sequence poses specific editing issues, make sure that you describe those issues in the shot list so that you can really direct the shot properly. This is one of the “secrets” to producing really impressive work, but it’s not really a secret, because the best filmmakers are aware of it, and I also tell my readers about this repeatedly, so the cat (one of them) is very much out of the bag 🙂

I hope you find these tips useful. None of them will add a single penny to your budget, but they will add a lot of value to your finished product and to your filmmaking career as a whole.

Filmmaking Resources

Directors Guild of America

Directors Guild of Great Britain

Australian Directors Guild

Directors Guild of Canada

Craigslist — Look in the “Creative gigs” and “Crew gigs” sections of your city — interesting opportunities for filmmakers are sometimes posted there.  Do not expect to get paid particularly well, but you may end up adding some interesting material to your reel.

Mandy — A large web site with global job opportunities for film jobs of all types.

Grammar of the Film Language — the most useful filmmaking book I have ever read — an absolute must read for any ambitious filmmaker who wants to develop high-level technical skills.

***

I hope you found this introduction useful! 🙂

38 thoughts on “Filmmaking Tips and Advice for Ambitious Filmmakers

  1. manisha tomar says:

    I like your filmmaking tips.

  2. Mars Årgo says:

    Great advice for aspiring filmmakers. Thanks!

  3. Thank you so much.

  4. Good post to get people started. In my experience one of the things beginner indie filmmakers overlook a lot of times is SOUND. The audience will tolerate bad picture, but WILL NOT tolerate bad sound. I found this out the hard way while shooting a feature film “Laundromat”. Sound has to be done right!

  5. Thanks everyone! 🙂

  6. Ubaid Seth says:

    This is my favorite summarized post on filmmaking in general. Thank you for sharing!! It’s presented and organized very well.

  7. A very good website.

  8. Having been in the trenches for a while now, it’s awesome to come across articles like this and learn something new. I really liked the Ridley Scott/Zoom while a character approaches trick. Thanks for sharing!

    We’ve got some of our own filmmaking tips here (though nothing near as detailed as what you’re writing): http://MacedoniaFilms.com/category/filmmaking

  9. rakesh singh chadel says:

    Your tips are outstanding. Thank you.

  10. amit srivastava says:

    This website is really excellent for the tips on film making techniques.,
    I liked it a lot., it is really helpful to those aspiring film makers who’s not having experiences and want to start up with movie making.

  11. jude chukwuka says:

    great! really, for a rookie film maker…just the right starter pack!

  12. Thank you very much for all your tips LAvideofilmmaker.[:)]

  13. Really fascinating articles, all around. You are able to describe technical details without losing the art of it.

    Thanks! 🙂

  14. geshin salvador says:

    I cudnt afford a film school bt nw I find mysef wt d almost perfect teacher.You ar d bomb,ur post is worth fortunes.
    I luk 4ward 2 ur movie!

  15. God bless you, you are a blessing to aspiring filmmakers like me!

  16. Nice work. . . thoughtful and insightful. You are helping a lot of folks who may not be able to afford formal film-school training. Simply put, your blog is empowering dreamers. Keep up the good work and God bless.

  17. yogi arvind says:

    I got really excellent tips on film making techniques.,
    I liked it a lot., it is really helpful to me. I am not having experiences but want to start up with movie making.

  18. Rodrigo García says:

    Thanks for your writing, really easy to understand and learn while reading.
    Also inspiring and encouraging on launch proyects and make them como to life.
    Thanks again.

  19. thank you sir

  20. hardly read anyone as detailed as you ..

  21. THANKS

  22. Excellent points, truly useful tips. Thank you So much!!!

  23. As a first year film student, directing my very first short, these tips are incredibly valuable and helpful, as I’m sure they are to the more seasoned filmmakers as well. Thanks so much!

  24. Marianna Karlsen says:

    Thank you.

  25. Thank you so much forproviding such a great infomation about film making as a free…. thank u so much for your hard work. I love reading your article and learned a lot from you.

  26. Hello, I love this website and this article very much. But, can you just describe to me how to create parallax. I know what it is basically but can you just tell me some techniques to use to create it.
    Thanks very much.

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