I am often asked what people have to do to learn filmmaking.
In a way that’s a tough question to answer, because this whole website deals with that topic! However, there is a lot of content on this website and I accept that it can be daunting.
Therefore the purpose of this page is to answer the question “how can I learn filmmaking?” on a single page, and simultaneously supply you with what amounts to a site map or directory of this whole website — and more generally a road map for those who want to learn filmmaking from scratch.
Aspiring filmmakers need to attain competence in several different art forms in order to direct films that actually work narratively and cinematically. What I will do here is describe the various skills that filmmakers need to learn, and what practical steps you need to take to ensure that you achieve proficiency in those skills. I will recommend exercises, activities and books to read for serious aspiring filmmakers who are willing to invest the substantial amount of time it will take to become competent and employable.
Learn the art of camerawork
In my opinion a filmmaker is first and foremost someone who has learned to see the world through the camera lens — or, more specifically, through the considerable variety of lenses that can be used, and the different looks they produce.
There are two key elements to this: focal length and composition.
I have written about focal length more technically elsewhere in this website, but to put it very crudely — and perhaps more usefully for beginning filmmakers — it is useful to think of focal length as how “zoomed in” the lens is.
The significance of focal length is that it radically modifies the perspective and consequently the feel of a shot. To learn more about the effects of focal length and how you can familiarise with how to use it in your filmmaking, read this post.
When you zoom in, you are increasing the focal length; when you zoom out, you are reducing the focal length. You will need to bear this in mind for my future Filmmaking Tips.
* Lens with long focal length = “long lens” = equivalent to long end of zoom = narrower field of view
* Lens with short focal length = “wide lens” = equivalent to short end of zoom = wider field of view
Zooming in or out is about a lot more than simply changing the framing — the perspective and the compression of the visual planes also change. Focal length makes a huge difference to the look of the shot.
You can make an object look exactly the same size in the frame with a wide or long lens, simply by changing the distance between the camera and the object, but the two shots will have a different feel. You need to become thoroughly acquainted with this difference and how you can use it in your storytelling (more about this below).
Long focal length vs. Short focal length: comparing two shots from my first film
These are two frames from my first film — one filmed with the zoom on the wide setting, the other with the zoom on a significantly longer setting:
Note that while the second shot has a tighter framing in addition to the longer focal length, this does not compromise the comparison at all, because the perspective of a shot only depends on focal length and camera-subject distance.
– In the short focal length shot, the actor’s hand in the foreground looks as big as his head, whereas in the long focal length shot the same hand looks smaller than the head.
– In the short focal length shot, a lot more background is visible, and it is quite sharp, whereas in the long focal length shot the background is blurred, and less of it is visible (this would be true even if the framing matched the other shot).
Learning about focal length by practising with your camcorder
Focal length is a crucial part of the language of cinema, and just as with any language, the only way to master it is to practise. By experimenting with my camcorder on a regular basis, I became fully conversant with focal length. This is like learning to ride a bicycle — once it clicks, you cannot lose it.
My camcorder had a flip-out LCD screen that really gave me an idea of the different looks I was achieving in my experiments. It was like a screening in real time! When experimenting with my camcorder, I got friends to stand in as actors, I used puppets, I used random objects — I used whatever I could get hold of to practice setting up shots and seeing which focal length produced the results I wanted. There is absolutely no substitute for this practical training, and apart from the cost of a camcorder, it is completely free! No film school will ever teach you this much, no matter what they tell you, and it won’t cost you $100,000.
I cannot overemphasize that a camcorder with a flip-out LCD screen and a good 10x zoom is by far the most important investment for a budding filmmaker — keep it with you as much as you can and experiment with it whenever you feel inspired. The more time you spend practicing with it, the better you will get.
By using this method your technical abilities as a filmmaker will go through the roof, and will eventually exceed the skills of even most so-called “professional” film directors. A really experienced TV commercial director once complimented me on how much I knew about lenses and camerawork when I started out. Well, I owe these skills to my trusty camcorder and the many hours I spent experimenting and practising. Sometimes I recorded my practice sessions, and watching those early videos brings back sweet memories!
Learn the art of movie editing
If you haven’t done so already, you should check out my post on film editing techniques, which uses animated images to illustrate some editing techniques that you should be familiar with if you are an ambitious filmmaker.
Here are additional techniques worth having in your repertoire:
1. Vertical entry
The following example is taken from my first film (this GIF was made directly from the DVD and I m not impressed with its quality, but it does illustrate the technique):
2. Horizontal entry
The following example is from Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002; DP J. Kaminski):
The most important advice I can give on how to learn filmmaking
To be a top-notch filmmaker, you need to develop superior film editing skills.
My first film makes me cringe now. That is a healthy sign that I have made a lot of progress since then, but the one thing I still like about it is the editing, which I did myself. It is also the one thing that everyone always compliments about the film.
How did I learn editing? The answer is simple: I read the book Grammar of the Film Language, I watched my favorite films while bearing in mind the concepts I learned from that book, then went back to the book, then I studied my favorite films again, and so forth. quot;Grammar of the Film Language is an extremely substantial and content-rich book and is only appropriate for those who are serious about becoming highly skilled filmmakers. It is my opinion that anybody with serious filmmaking ambitions needs to absorb the concepts in that book thoroughly.
This back-and-forth iterative process results in extraordinary learning, because the things you learn in the book make you learn more from the films you watch, and the things you learn from the films you watch enable you to learn more from the book. It is an extremely powerful positive-feedback learning process that can produce amazing results. When I personally edited my first film, it worked beautifully because I shot it with the edit in mind, and by editing myself, I learned even more about the process. To learn editing, you need to do some editing yourself.
You must practise
The way to consolidate and develop your learning is to practice, practice, practice. This can be as simple as shooting a quick sequence with friends and a camcorder; there is no need to worry about lighting or locations because it is just a training piece and no one will ever see it. It is just like practicing on an instrument as opposed to making the actual recording. The key here is to visualise the cut sequence in your head and then shoot the sequence accordingly, so you do have to pre-visualise the sequence in great detail. If, for example, there is a cut in the sequence that relies on an actor walking out of shot and revealing something in the background, you need to bear this in mind when you direct the shot.
Do all of the above regularly and your skills will go through the roof, but that’s the problem with long-term practice: most people cannot muster the motivation to keep it up.
I wrote that to be a superior filmmaker you need to acquire superior editing skills — but why is this, given that films are usually cut by an editor? The answer is very simple: if you do not understand editing, you will not design shots and direct actors in a way that is conducive to assembling smooth sequences. If you do not have a basic grasp of the language of film editing, when you deliver the footage to the film editor, he/she will struggle to deliver a good cut as a result of the errors and weaknesses in your directing.
Learning basic editing concepts will help you avoid difficulties in the editing room; going further and learning advanced editing skills will enrich your filmmaking in ways that I cannot adequately describe in writing. A director with sharp editing skills is absolutely lethal!
The two cuts shown above were possible because they were planned before the scene was shot. I still remember when I planned that cut in my first film and made a note in the shot list to direct the actors accordingly — a sweet memory!
Additionally, as a director, how can you see the film completely in your head if you do not understand editing? If you do not see the cut sequence in your head, you really have no business directing anything. You need to see the completed sequence in your head, and therefore you need to understand the nuances of the film editing language. Again, this advice is only for those who aspire to be outstanding filmmakers.
If you follow the path described in this Filmmaking Tip, people will be amazed at just how creative and efficient you are when you are directing a project, and whether you edit it yourself or hire a film editor, the results will be smooth and impressive, and people will be telling you things like “I really like the way you cut it…it simply works!”
Ultimately it is about building a vision for the film in your head and ensuring that the finished project is consistent with that vision.
As a filmmaker who also has a high-level understanding of editing, you will be truly formidable and people will not fail to recognize it.