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Movies are great, right? They’re the ideal marriage of technology and storytelling; they’re transportive, cathartic, galvanizing; they introduce us to new points of view and induce us to think differently about our own; they are as unique as speech patterns, adapting and adopting the voices of their creators; they stimulate our minds and feed our souls.
Naturally, you want to be a part of this world of luminous creation, a participant in this job that’s not a job. Now comes the hard part: getting started.
Unless you have the great fortune of being born into a filmmaking family, steeped in connections, already securely enveloped in the goodwill of the industry, then you’re just like the rest of us, an outsider with passion, bare-knuckle punching the stone gates refusing entry to the film world.
Film is a stubbornly isolated industry. Getting your foot in the door can be a difficult prospect, no matter the quality of the work you do or talent you display. This article will help you identify points of entry into the filmic world regardless of the role you’re interested in.
Find Your Crew
Not your film crew, but a group of like-minded individuals as passionate as you are. It’s important to have a group of collaborators that you can bounce ideas off of, that can put their heads together with yours to help you solve problems, that share in your success and commiserate in your failures.
This is crucial and will make your road forward much easier.
“But none of my friends care about filmmaking or want to help me…” Then you need to find some film friends. Join the film club at your school if it has one, or start it yourself.
If you’re not in school, find a film collective or group in your area. Google is your friend here. Most cities have collectives dedicated to film appreciation or production. Chances are good you’ll find people here willing to trade work for work—you work on their films, they work on yours.
Check the arts section of local newspapers and magazines for film-related events, or find Facebook groups that have regular meetups to plan projects or just gab about movies.
You can learn a lot from participating in groups dedicated to film, whether that’s a clustered sort of learning where you all gain knowledge together, or a mentor-mentee relationship.
There are many options, so don’t just give up at the disinterest of your current group of friends.
Get Out and Do It
Well, duh…but it’s true. The age of modern technology has made it possible for anyone to document stories, their lives, their surroundings in a way that just wasn’t possible even as recently as ten years ago.
You’ve already got the most necessary tool, and chances are you’re reading this article on it right now.
Look no further than your smartphone.
Think about this; a smartphone has more processing power than the entire computer system NASA used to send men to the moon. A power greater than the computational necessities of lunar travel, all in the palm of your hand, and with the added benefit of a built-in camera.
Smartphones today have image quality rivaling most DSLRs, and, with filters, can achieve the deceptively professional film style. All of this is at your fingertips with a few taps of the screen. You just have to use it.
So get some friends together, whip out your phones, and shoot something. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece (and it won’t be), don’t worry about making everything perfect. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
You don’t even have to plan. Have a script, or don’t. Talk out an outline for whatever your vision is and take the plunge. This is how creativity grows.
This trial by fire type of beginning is invaluable practice, especially if you’re considering some type of film school down the line. You’ll stumble over some beginner mistakes earlier rather than later, and with nothing at risk.
Messing something up in a low-stress, no-budget environment with your buddies is infinitely preferable to messing something up in film school on a deadline, or on your first real set experience where lost time is quite literally lost money.
Utilize Free Software
Now that you’ve been doing some shooting and directing, and you’ve got your footage “in the can” so to speak, you need to mold it into a coherent whole. It’s time for some editing.
Professional editing software, like most filmmaking tools, is expensive. You’ve offset the cost of on-set equipment for the time being by using your smartphone, but there’s no equivalent in the form of ubiquitous editing software, unfortunately.
Programs like Adobe Premiere Pro CC slowly bleed you dry at $21/month for a single app, or $53/month for the entire suite, while Final Cut Pro X clocks in at $300. If you’re serious about editing, you will most likely upgrade to these eventually, but until then, to get started, there are some decent free options.
Probably the most comprehensive free video editors out there are Lightworks and Hitfilm Express. The devs of both of these platforms aimed to provide the most professional editing suite possible at no cost to the user, and their software delivers a pretty solid set of features suitable for beginners to intermediate level editors.
These programs will be overwhelming at first, but there is plenty of help online in the form of informative articles and YouTube tutorials to help you orient yourself and start cutting your teeth with editing.
In this way, you can make sure you’ve got some solid experience and knowledge when the time comes to upgrade to one of the paid alternatives.
To School or Not to School
Many filmmakers who have “made it” are film school graduates. Many of them are not. Unlike some careers, a film degree isn’t necessary to land gigs and move up in the film world, but it can be considered the fast track of all the steps above, at the cost of tuition, of course.
Film school supplants your current surroundings with a giant community of film buffs like you. If you couldn’t find a film group before, you will now. Heck, places like Columbia College Chicago even emphasize this, dedicating a good chunk of time at orientation expounding on the importance of finding your creative posse.
Access to professional equipment and software is a given. Film cameras using all manner of film stock, cutting edge digital cameras (RED!), lenses for days, studio-level lighting equipment, sound stages, prop rooms, editing suites and recording studios with the latest and greatest software. Film school has it all.
And the use of these amenities isn’t just based on your coursework. You can rent equipment for your side projects, too. Just don’t shoot in your dorm room. No matter how you spruce it up, it will never look like an apartment, sorry.
Remember the adage, “If you can’t do, teach”? Well, that doesn’t apply here. Most professors are working professionals—which is an added benefit for you, as it’s possible, they’ll bring you onto their sets for the experience. So get in good with your professors.
Finally, film school is a great place to get your bad ideas out of the way, serving as a kind of repository for all your amateur work. Almost nobody creates greatness on their first go of it.
Realistically, it’ll take you two to three films to find your voice as a filmmaker and start making really good work. Better these be student films than your first couple of professional outings.
Sounds like an idyllic place, right? Well, it’s not free, and it definitely can’t be called affordable.
Art school, in general, is private and costs a pretty penny for tuition, so you have to decide whether you can make the most of the experiences and opportunities you will be given and whether that’s worth the bill you (or your parents) will be footing.
If it is, great, enjoy the ride of creativity! If not, that’s ok too, that’s what the above steps are for.
Work on Other People’s Sets
This is a big one. Making your stuff is good, and you should never stop if that’s what interests you, but always try to be learning something new, and the best way to do that is to work on other, hopefully, bigger, sets than yours.
Craigslist.com is usually full of production job offers, usually urgently needed ones, so your chance of landing them even with only minor experience can be pretty decent. Just be wary of scam offers. If the job sounds too good to be true, it is.
Nobody whose TV pilot is getting picked up by (insert TV station here) or whose short film is guaranteed a slot at Sundance is posting to Craigslist looking for crew. Don’t fall for it.
If Craigslist isn’t working out for you, Facebook hosts plenty of film groups that essentially function as job boards. These are big groups and a lot of the time; many jobs will be posted per day, over a range of locations.
Due to the sheer volume of members in these groups, a lot of your chances will be based on luck, unfortunately, as the first minute a post goes up, the poster is flooded with potential hires. If you see a post 20 minutes late, that job’s already gone.
So, keep your phone handy and your Facebook app open.
Starting with these type of jobs means that you’ll probably work for free for a while, volunteering your time as the set production assistant, or something better if you can swing it.
It also means that not every job is going to be the greatest, most profound piece of filmmaking. You’ll work some garbage movies starting, that’s just part of the process.
Experience is what counts. Take these jobs as the opportunity that they are. If you’re talented at what you do, you won’t be stuck there forever.
When on a good set, identify the jobs you want, and shadow the people working them if you can. Look at how they handle their responsibilities, look at what’s expected of them. Then talk to them during lunch break or set-up or break-down.
If you’re a wallflower, take an acting class to get over the social butterflies. You’ll find that chatting up a stranger doesn’t seem so bad once you’ve performed some new-age interpretation of Shakespeare at your community theater in front of a moderately-filled auditorium of philistines.
Make yourself known. If you’re helpful, friendly, and curious, chances are someone will offer you another gig down the road. Enough offers and you become a staple on people’s sets and a known commodity, and you start getting paid.
The added side-benefit of this is that you’re building a reputation. Apart from being called back over and over, it’s a good bet that the people requesting you are also talking you up to colleagues of theirs who may need a good grip/script sup/production designer, etc.
This is a good way to move up in the production part of the world and helps you expand your creative network of reliable people to call up to work on your sets.
So, you’ve followed the steps above and made a bit of a splash in the world of cinema, but your work isn’t done. In the age of media, when so many people are creating content, you need to keep yours at the forefront, and that means marketing yourself whenever you can.
Find film-related events and screenings going on around town to attend. In the independent world, these are going on all the time.
Loads and loads of hipster bars and clubs who fancy themselves tapped into the underground art world play host to various film screenings and indie filmmaker get-togethers. Sometimes there are Facebook groups for these that you can RSVP to, and other times your local artsy weekly paper will clue you in to the goings-on around town.
Building your network and pitching your films/stories is a full-time job, so hitting these events is paramount.
Some of these venues will put the word out that they’re looking for media to showcase for these film-oriented nights. Submit your film to them to get yourself a screening slot. This is even better than talking your film up to the attendees because now they’ll be seeing it.
Part of networking today is digital. We don’t just swap glossy business cards and call it a day. Nowadays filmmakers are on Twitter and Instagram, posting tantalizing set photos of their newest projects, building hype around themselves.
Lock down a domain and build yourself a personal website where people can go to view your work. Post about any press or accolades you receive upload your resume. Make sure your contact page works. Upload a lot of pictures of you looking professional and busy. Check that all your social media links to your site and vice versa.
You want to be certain you’ve got as much digital ground covered as possible. The goal is to get visitors to stop their hyperactive scrolling and reawaken their addled brains to devote more than 2.5 seconds of attention to what it is your promoting.
Getting into filmmaking is hard work. Standing at the precipice, it can seem like an impossible feat to go ahead and take that leap, but leap you must. As things start to happen for you and you find your footing, be careful to stay in the moment.
Like anyone driven by single-minded ambition, constantly reaching for the next rung in the filmic success ladder might cause your days to blur together. You keep your nose to the grindstone for too long, and when you look up again, you’re not sure where the last year went.
With that in mind, don’t forget to enjoy it all. This is a singular career path. There’s nothing quite like. Don’t get so caught up in where you want to be that you forget to enjoy where you are.
Even if it’s that garbage project pulled off of Craigslist at the beginning of your journey, remember, most everyone else is off in some dreary cubicle gradually disintegrating their lumbar spine in a stiff desk chair, typing away at some expense report whose only difference from the one they typed last week is the date on the file.
So be thankful for that garbage project, do what you came there to do, and find something better next week.
You’re making movies, and how many people can say they get to do that?
Like I said at the beginning of this article, films are beautiful things, and you embarked on a filmmaking journey because something about them spoke to you. No matter how far you go and how hard you work, don’t ever forget that magic.
Do you agree with these steps? Did you follow a different route into filmmaking? Leave a comment below!
About the author
Nikola Stojković is a writer and filmmaker based out of Chicago. His short films have screened at festivals across the USA. When not shooting, he enjoys writing film reviews and playing his accordion, Fortunata.