No Excuses, Just Shoot – Advice for First Time Filmmakers

No Excuses

Updated April 2014

So you want to make a film but for whatever reason something is stopping you, or maybe you’re about to embark on your first film and looking for some moral support, or maybe you’ve made films but gotten ‘the fear’, lost your way and now you need someone to speak to you and get you back into it?

Well, since August 2011 I’ve been interviewing independent filmmakers about the films they’ve made, how they made them and why they do it. The final question of all these interviews has always been; what advice would you give to first time filmmakers? 

Looking back over all the interviews I noticed that there was a real wealth of knowledge and support given by each filmmaker and I thought it would be helpful and worthwhile collating a bunch of them into one post for the ultimate first time filmmaker advice source.

So, the time has come. I first posted this in December 2012 and have started updating it annually.

Maybe this is the year you shoot that film you’ve been talking or thinking about for a long time and maybe, just maybe, what the filmmakers have to say below will be the catalyst you need to get out there and do it.

No Excuses, Just Shoot.

J Blakeson – Writer/Director

Work hard. Keep learning. Don’t give up. Think about the audience and respect how smart they are. Always use the best idea, no matter who comes up with it. Don’t make decisions based on what you think people might want, make decisions based on what you think is right.

Brady Hood – Director

Throughout your process, don’t be so arrogant as to try and stick to the script constantly; a filmmaker makes a film three times. Once in pre production, once in production and once in post, each time you alter the variables so use the tools you have at your disposal to get the job done to the best of your ability.

Take Samuel Beckett’s words as gospel “try, fail, fail again, fail better”

Mainly though; write or shoot something for a second per day, go on go!

Anthony Melton – Director/Editor

Just get out there and do it. Most devices, Phones, iPads etc.. All have camera’s on them… so start small and practice your craft. Filmmaking isn’t about 10 million views on youtube and a 10 picture deal with Sony.. it’s about the doing, the collaboration and the fun of creating something… It’s telling stories, something we human’s are pretty good at, we’ve been doing it for long enough, I still have poor grammar though.

Catriona McInnes – Writer/Director

Take risks, and if you’re a writer/director, take your time developing characters and teasing out your idea. Watch loads of different kinds of films and don’t try and follow a formula for success. Probably don’t get into filmmaking if you want to make any money…or at least not if that’s your main reason.

Mark J Blackman – Writer/Director

Lots of ‘don’ts’. Don’t doubt, don’t panic, don’t get angry, don’t get sad. And certainly don’t not do it.

John McPhail – Writer/Director

I’m no expert, but I’d keep it simple, if you are writing then keep the dialogue down to a minimum. Keep your cast down to only a few characters. If you are directing listen to what people have to say you might not agree with their ideas but I guarantee if they are giving you ideas they are invested in you and your project and just want to help. When directing actors don’t treat them like props “walk here, turn there, smile that way etc” you wont get the best out of them that way. Do your blocking with just you and them, play the scene out, let them do what feels natural to them and it will come across less wooden on screen, they are artists after all its what they have or have been training to do. OH and have fun!

Jordan Hayes – Writer/Director/Actor

Shoot as much as you can! Don’t get caught up in the idea that you need a lot of money. Be creative and resourceful and you’ll come up with something special. If you want to tell stories, then tell stories.  Every time you shoot is a learning experience, so shoot as much as you can!

Kelly McCormack – Writer/Actor/Producer

Don’t wait. You are more worthy and interesting than you think. Get that story out of your head and on paper and stop talking about it. Send emails efficiently, show up on time and find a female producer who can flirt for free shit.

Grant McPhee – Director/Cinematographer/DIT

Surround yourself with the best support you can. Don’t get carried away and try and do everything yourself. Everyone needs help, and if your film is going to be better as a result take as much help as you can get. A great way to get strong support is using professional crew who want to gain credits to step up to a higher grade. A boom operator with lots of set experience might be willing to work for free or low pay to work as a sound recordist, a 2nd AC might want experience working as a 1st AC. Much better than getting your friends to do it (unless they are experienced film crew). Time is your enemy and having crew with professional experience really saves time.

Try and pay people a percentage of your budget. It doesn’t matter if your budget is £10, £100, or £1000s. Paying people makes your cast and crew feel valued and more likely to do a better job. It also gives your cast and crew a level of responsibility to your film..

Don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel. Some things have been done a certain way for a long time for a reason.

Have a proper excel budget and schedule and stick to it. Have call sheets, unit lists, insurance documents and try and stick to 11 hour days. It’s all good and well shooting 20 hour days on occasional weekends but funders want to know that their money is in safe hands. Along with your great film, presenting evidence to funders that you can work to accepted industry methods will go a very long way.

Don’t go with your first idea, go with your next.

If you ask someone to do something for you try to be occasionally vague. Their interpretation might be more interesting than what you originally wanted. They might not always like it but you can sometimes get more interesting results when your collaborators get the opportunity to think for themselves.

Roxanne Holman – Producer

My best piece of advice is probably to be confident in yourself but also be realistic – there’ll always be a shitload you don’t know, and accept that you’ll always be learning and making mistakes. Don’t lie about what you’ve achieved or what experience you’ve got – there’s absolutely no reason for it and you’ll always get found out, especially in an industry as intensive as film.

On the flip side, avoid being a ‘Jack of all trades’ – collaboration is key so get those relationships started early on, and decide what role in film you really want to do. Aside from being beneficial to your projects, it’s more impressive if you’re able to demonstrate high-level skills and experience in one area than doing everything yourself.

For aspiring/first-time Producers, specifically – brace yourself, it generally takes a long time to get projects off the ground. And be aware of how long a project lifetime is for a Producer, from the beginning to the end. This is not something that’s always considered – I don’t think I did at the start – but especially once you get into the realms of distribution you will, and should be, attached to your films for years to come. And that’s nice.

Matt Willis-Jones – Writer/Director

Make the best thing you can, but don‘t be too precious about it. Learn to move on and learn from your mistakes. And don‘t stop making films, your filmmaking muscles need regular exercise!

Martin Smith – Writer/Director

Learn from your own mistakes. Always complete your project – never leave it before you have edited it – even projects that seem like a disaster may have something you can learn from. Take all advice with a pinch of salt. Take what works for you, chuck out what doesn’t and trust your instincts.

James Webber – Writer/Director

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from those mistakes and use that experience to make your next project even better.

Ben Franklin – Producer/Filmmaker

If you want to make films, just get out there and do it. Learn how to operate a simple camera, how to frame a shot, and how to assemble it in an edit. Even if it’s on an iPhone and in Windows Movie Maker. Most of us have been making films of some sort for years, yet every time we’re on-set its a whole new learning experience for us.

Basically, don’t procrastinate; get out there and make movies with whatever you have available to you. And you’ll find too that indie filmmakers are often very generous with their time, so you might be able to blag some free equipment from them, even if it means acting as a runner on one of their shoots (which is a good thing to do anyway, in order to learn the basics of set etiquette, roles and expectations).

I believe that a lot of your destiny can be dictated by sheer hard work, and a passion for what you do. So it’s in your hands; put in the hard work and it surely will pay off.

Jeffrey P Nesker – Writer/Director/Editor

Just do it.  Stop deliberating.  Stop second-guessing yourself and your material.  It’s better to try and fail than not try at all.  The proliferation of cheap cameras and editing software has made the art form accessible to the masses in ways it’s never been before.  Trust that you have a voice and people want to listen.

Graham Fitzpatrick – Writer/Director

Get as much experience as you can, work with as many good people as you can, and practice as much as you can. To learn and progress, it does take years, you have to learn your craft, whatever role you aim to end up in, that means running, assisting, building a reputation and above all, you have to be someone people like working with.

But before all those stages, get yourself a good education from college to undergraduate to post graduate level, it does all help, I benefitted greatly from years of on the job experience, but also by attending Screen Academy Scotland, a place where you learn invaluable industrial training from those with real world experience.

Oh, and whilst most people who’ve trained in media, video and film don’t actually make a real living from their skills learnt, a harsh but true reality, never give up trying, and don’t forget to just enjoy being creative and expressing yourself, it’s art after all and should be in your heart.

Andy Mark Simpson – Writer/Director

Experiment a lot and watch a massive variety of films. Make short films before jumping head first into a feature (like I did) then make sure your first feature has the potential to really stand out. It’s not for the feint-hearted so throw out any notions of glamour or having fun. Make sure you have something to communicate with your work and if you believe filmmaking is the best way to do that then don’t let anyone stop you.

Mark Lacey – Assistant Director

I think learning from people who have been doing it a while is really key. A lot of people think they know it all after uni (I know I did) and really you don’t know much. Also deciding what role you want and to focus on it. I wish I had decided that I wanted to be an AD much earlier, because it takes a while to get known for what you do and to move up. Just hang in there, learn as much as you can and keep the faith.

Frazer Churchill – Filmmaker/Visual Effects Supervisor

Be afraid. Don’t give up. Have faith in your choices, the minute you start doubting yourself you’re lost. Collaborate, let other people in, they’ll make your film better and take it to places you didn’t imagine, and it doesn’t matter that you didn’t imagine it, you inspired someone else to.

Katie Crook – Producer

Make stuff you believe in and keep going, even if you don’t get recognised by schemes and/or government funds it doesn’t mean your work’s no good.

Tom Chick – Writer/Director

Um…work really hard – and judge yourself harshly because I think at the end of the day you’re often the only one that really knows what you’re capable of.

Stuart Condy – Producer/Filmmaker

I’m not really one for quotations but Steve Jobs, during his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, told the students there to “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. I think that applies wonderfully to first time filmmakers. Be hungry, love the medium, push it as far as you can with experimentation and don’t be scared to be goofy and make mistakes whilst learning your craft. Be inventive with your stories, and even more inventive with your camera.

Nash Edgerton – Writer/Director/Stuntman

Make what you want to see not what you think other people want to see.

Craig- James Moncur – Filmmaker

Only do this if you love it. Be prepared for a frustrating experience to start with and don’t be put off by making mistakes. I honestly believe this is the best way to learn. I have found that my mistakes have been my most valuable lessons in this industry. Don’t give up and keep on knocking on doors. Learn as much as you can about the different roles in this industry as you never know where your skill and passion may end up being executed best. And finally, and in my opinion most importantly, be prepared to meet bull shi**er’s! Just stay focused and the good people will eventually find you.

Simon Ellis – Writer/Director

Film festivals have been my film school. You will learn more from watching your work with an audience than you will from any books by ‘gurus’ or their expensive courses. Be cautious not to pay too much attention to those of us who might advise how to make films until you’ve tried for yourself and started to find your feet, then read on and decide what advice is useful to you and what isn’t. Learning to listen is important, but not as important as learning when not to.

David Lumsden – Director/Editor

I think the best advice I was given is to just go and make films or collaborate with someone and get involved, I went through a few years of not making films and just talking about it. That’s just unproductive, you can become bitter and you see other people making films and you become the ‘I could do that’ guy. You should just say screw it, I am going to just go and do it. You can get stuck with having no cash to make films but there are ways to do it. I used indiegogo a crowd funding website for Boat, that was good motivation to get something made. Just find an idea or a story you are passionate about and do it.

Robin Schmidt – Filmmaker

Take your time. It takes time to develop that keen understanding of human nature that you need as a really good filmmaker. If it takes ten years to learn your craft then that’s ten years of invaluable experience. If you haven’t made your first feature by 21 then you really aren’t a failure. Ridley made his first one at 39. There’s plenty of time.

Brett Harvey – Writer/Director

  1. Try and screen your film in front of an unbiased audience and if you can bear it sit in with them, listen to their reactions and their feedback.

  2. Remember mistakes are a good thing, make them and learn from them.

  3. Always challenge yourself, be it in the writing process, the shooting or the editing.

  4. Cast actors, not just your mates!

  5. When you’ve written a script get a room full of people to sit round a table and read it out loud. If you curl up in a ball of embarrassment the script isn’t working.

  6. Don’t let time, budget, weather, mistakes or equipment be your excuse for not making the film you wanted to make, find a way and stand by your decisions.

  7. Watch films, plays, short films, music videos and read books, graphic novels and screenplays constantly.

  8. If you want to direct be directed, see how it feels to be an actor or a member of crew on someone else’s set.

  9. Never give up! We live in a digital age where anyone can shoot and edit a film at home but not everyone will stick with it. If you make a film and it doesn’t turn out how you wanted it to don’t give up, learn from your mistakes and make the next film.

  10. Take all advice with a pinch of salt.

Lewis Carmichael – Editor

It depends on if you know what you want to do. If you want to write/direct, be the auteur then just do it. Go wild. You won’t know what kind of a filmmaker you are until you’ve made a few short films. It’s as much a learning experience as it is an exploration of yourself. If you want to go into camera or editing or production design, etc, then start studying those roles, get involved with student productions, build experience and contacts, look out for work placements and be prepared to work hard for very little money until you catch a break. It’s a hugely competitive industry but there are opportunities out there.

Simon Vickery – Director of Photography

Apart from get out now! (just kidding…..kinda) stick at it and there is no substitute for practical experience. Don’t pretend to know stuff you don’t, learn to appreciate and make the most of your collaborators, finish your films and get them to an audience! Work hard and play nice. Good luck.

Greg Hall – Writer/Director/Editor

Don’t listen to me. Listen to yourself. Deep down you have all the answers to your problems. Take what you want from what others tell you, heed their tales of success and failure but ultimately do what you want to do. The film industry, in the widest possible sense, as in not everyone working within it but all the hangers on, all the chancers that sniff around like circling vultures – and let me tell you there are a lot, probably 90% of the people you will meet within the media – they are pre-dominantly full of bullshit. It’s an industry built on bullshit, facades, false promises and egos. So don’t even bother. Don’t bother with all those scams that charge you a ridiculous amount to learn how to make a film. Use your money wisely and invest in yourself. Go out and make your film.

But like I said don’t listen to me. The real filmmakers will already know that. They will already be out there making their films right now, they didn’t have to take my advice, they did it on their merits not waiting for me to tell them to. And if you do find yourself being one of those people that say’s “I’ve always wanted to make a film” then just give up now. Stop talking about it and just get out there and do it. By any means necessary. Every lesson you will learn will be invaluable for your craft and probably for you as a person. So stop reading what I think, turn off the computer and go out there and make your film. Trust me it will be worth it.

Ruth Paxton – Writer/Director

Keep it simple.

Explore a moment, an exchange or a very basic idea. Limit your characters, your locations and your scene count.

Although, it’s not like I’ve actually practised what I preach – this advice comes from learning the hard way!

In terms of short projects, recently I’ve found that my (and my Cinematographer, David Liddell’s) starting point has often been a location. We’ve found ourselves in affecting spaces, which inspire me to think about what stories could be played out there, what stories have played out there. If you can start with a location that you know you can access I think this is a cool way to work forwards.

I also recall director Daniel Elliot – who wrote and directed the brilliant Cinema Extreme short, JADE (2009) – talking about securing the caravan site where his story was set and sitting in the caravans to write, then shot-list, and get as much of a feel for the environment as possible – ahead of filming. Most low budget productions won’t allow for this luxury, but I think it’s worth striving for where possible.

Ben Coccio – Writer/Director

Make movies however you can. Try and be prolific – don’t linger too much on any one project. Show your work to people. If at all possible, screen your work in a movie theater with a lot of people and sit amongst them anonymously. Just absorb the reactions. Learn from that. Work more.

Daz Spencer Lovesey – Filmmaker

Firstly define what you want to be. The earlier the better. There are many, many crew jobs in the film making world, and you will need to be flexible and live out of a sleeping bag at times, but they are fun and rewarding and go get ‘em. Though if you want to be a director, a writer/director; the PRIMARY story-teller, it is a more difficult situation. No-one is going to come to you, no one is gonna say ‘This guy is so good, lets give him a million quid to direct his next movie’ you make your own luck, you make your own movies. Commit, or go home.

General points.

Don’t dally, don’t spend years on idea’s, do something, move on, time is not waiting for you at this stage in your career, if you’re Kubrick fine, wait ten years, perfect it, the budget will be there. Right now it’s not, it’s you, so get shooting. Out pace those around you. There is nothing to quantify you but the work you do, no matter how much time you spend in coffee shops.

Don’t be afraid of failure, you will fail, it happens. If it sucks do another one.

You need the ability to inspire and be inspired by those around you, surround yourself with people who are proactive, who are reflective and aren’t just there for the ride. Though also understand everyone has a motive for working on your project, there has to be incentive. Overlook that at your peril.

Lastly, be prepared to do everything, if you’re not, why should anyone else be. Its YOUR movie…. Right?

Philip Curran – Composer

  1. Beg, borrow and steal from your friends and family to get the equipment that you need to start out.

  2. Unless you are already well off, you will probably need another job to support yourself as it may take a while before you earn enough money to pay all the bills.

  3. Get writing the music to short films made by students and other upcoming film makers. This will help build your portfolio and future contacts. Remember, a lot of people work on films; directors, editors, writers, DOP’s etc. These are all great contacts to have.

  4. Get your music online so that directors, producers and other industry types can hear your work.

  5. Go to film festivals, hand out business cards with your contact details on it and links to your music online. I found this better than handing out CD’s as they are a pain for anyone to keep a hold of during a film festival.

  6. Get on the phone and call up production companies. It’s a pain and you will speak to a lot of people who can’t be bothered to give you the time of day (they are probably far too busy sending emails) but there may just be a job waiting for you down one of the lines. Find it!

  7. It’s ok to be friends with other composers! Sure, it’s an oversaturated market and we are all fighting for the same gigs but it is possible to help each other out without stepping on each other’s toes. If you are stuck on something, be it technical, financial or you need a favour, ask for help. I do.

  8. Be a good collaborator and listen to the director. They (usually) know the film inside out. If you do a good job and work well together, they will hire you again.

  9. Serve the film, not your ego. You can write an amazing piece of music but if it doesn’t work in the film, it has to go.

  10. Keep your head up when you get a rejection. We all get them from time to time and it can be heartbreaking but they will toughen your skin and make you more the wiser.

  11. Never give up.

Rob Savage – Writer/Director

While building up a level of technical competence is important, the only advice I would ever be confident in extending to new filmmakers is: try something hugely ambitious that you will later consider insane, just because you don’t know yet that it is utterly impossible (not enough money, crew etc.) – chances are you’ll manage to do it anyway based solely on blissful ignorance.

Steven Abercromby-Cook – Director of Photography

Don’t wait around for reasons not to make a film to go away, or you’ll never make any! Just get out there and do it, even if it means using your phone to film it. Surround yourself with other people who have similar dreams, and don’t listen to haters who say you can’t do it or what you are doing isn’t good enough. Fuck them. Concentrate on the core message of your film, how you are portraying it. If the audience doesn’t get this, they won’t get your film as a whole.

Tom Wilton – Filmmaker

Advice is usually free for a reason… But, if I had to say anything about starting out, I’d say be braver than you’ve ever been before. You have to be so hungry to stay the course that you’ll put in the hours that nobody else will. You’ll have to work day-jobs, and eat humble pie on a regular basis, all whilst keeping that passion burning, scrapping hard to carve out your own route. But if you have the engine in your heart, do it. Just approach every aspect of ‘the game’ (and sometimes, it really is a game) with foolish ambition and learn to let the bad stuff wash over you.

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2 thoughts on “No Excuses, Just Shoot – Advice for First Time Filmmakers”

  1. A good script is a director’s best friend. When breaking down the script, try to isolate the beats and turns of every scene. Chose an aesthetic or filming approach that you can actually pull off with the time you have.The most important work is assembling the right cast and crew.

    Jason@VanEman

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