Professional Development and Self-Improvement for Filmmakers

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.

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!

18 Replies to “Professional Development and Self-Improvement for Filmmakers”

  1. hey lavideofilmmaker, I dont really get the use and effectiveness between the different types of lenses. Is it used to emphasis certain elements in your story or just to add an aesthetically pleasing touch to the cinematography. I just use a Canon DLSR to practice atm, and want to mess around with different lenses. Thank you.

    1. Lenses come in different f-stops (how much light is let in), and focal lengths (how much the image is magnified).
      A lens that lets in a lot of light is useful for shooting in dark areas – Primary example: Stanley Kubrick modified special lenses from NASA with an f-stop of around 0.075 that he used to film dark indoor scenes lit only by candle light. To put that in perspective, a “standard” f-stop is around 2.0.
      There are two extremes of focal length. A Wide Angle lens, usually anywhere from 30mm-60mm, will capitalize on depth and distance, because the image is not magnified or compressed. Some wide angle lenses are so wide that the image even becomes distorted. As LAVideoFilmmaker has pointed out in a previous post, Steven Spielberg is very skilled in the cinematic use of a wide angle lens.
      On the other extreme is a long lens, sometimes up to 500mm or higher (telephoto). This will greatly magnify the image, but as a result, the image will appear to be ‘compressed’ – Meaning the characters face will appear flatter, and the background behind them will appear to be close, enlarged, and usually out of focus. Akira Kurosawa was great with long lenses – Look to “Seven Samurai” (1954).

  2. OK! I have finally finished the first project and had a lady look at it who has experience in a number of different areas that allow her to intelligentally critique it – not jut say which bits “feel” wrong but why and how to fix it. It boils down to limitations of equipment at the time (esp. audio), and performances by largely non-professional actors. There are other things she pointed out that I only picked up faster having just cracked open the book on cinematography you recommended (thanks!) – the last I read before I began this last summer was actually by a lighting designer, not a cinematographer… (my lighting and colour correction is just great!) The question is – do I just hand out copies to the volunteers as a a thank-you and let it quietly disappear as a learning project or do I add it to the infamous “reel”? Do you consider your first project as part of your “reel” – did you list it on IMDB and stick it on youtube?! Or do you quietly let people know it exists if they ask, but keep it under wraps so its particular weaknesses won’t put off future professionals from working with you? OR, does the very fact you saw a project through to completion speak volumes?

    1. Hi Pia,

      Congratulations on completing your first project!

      A director’s reel is not a static entity; at any one time, the reel is a snapshot of the director’s best work to date. That snapshot changes as the director shoots new projects. The goal is to build a reel in which all projects are of a uniformly outstanding quality.

      Therefore your current reel should include your latest project, and that project will eventually be bumped off as you shoot projects of increasing quality. Always put your BEST work on your reel — for now that means your only project, but that will change soon, I hope 😉

      Good luck and keep me posted!


  3. I make short films and documentaries on a serious hobby basis and have taken up this after retirement. I use Panasonic Camcorder HDC HS 60. Its editing software allows me to do simple cutting and rearranging of clips. However I need something more which can help me use different types of cuts, do simple sound editing etc. Can you suggest me simple self learning editing software for my requirement. Thanks

    1. You can’t go wrong with the well-known editing packages — do some research and pick the one you like best.

      If you’re looking for free editing packages, I am not familiar with them so I am unable to comment.

    1. Thanks, David!

      Some quick ideas, shooting from the hip:

      – ask your social and professional circles if they know anyone in the film business who might be willing to give you a quick hearing;

      – send query letters to movie agents — some will be willing to meet you if your query sounds convincing;

      – attend as many film-related networking events as you can. I have a strong dislike for these, because they are inevitably attended by hordes of hungry, unemployed filmmakers who will all hammer the hotshots with their pitches, but you DO get to meet some pretty successful execs, producers and agents at these functions, so it’s worth a shot.

      That said, as I wrote in the past, the most powerful way in which a new director can get a big break is by writing or obtaining a red-hot script and holding it hostage.

      This is how “holding the script hostage” works:

      Write a red-hot feature film script –> query literary agents in Hollywood –> they read the script –> they represent you and send the script to the best production companies –> several will be desperate to buy the script and make the movie –> you say that you will only sell the script if they hire YOU to direct it –> at least one agrees –> you direct your first real feature.

      James Cameron did this with “The Terminator,” as did Len Wiseman with “Underworld.” It works — if your script is HOT and you have some sort of reel.

      Keep me posted!


  4. Sir,

    Each & every words you say seems really clear & convincing which make people sit and read the whole article at one go..

    Extremely useful for beginners like me..

    Sincere thanks..

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