So, you want to make a film? You’ve watched countless movies and have been mesmerized at the story, the actors and the effects and now want to make a film of your own. As someone who work in media and runs a film festival, I watch hundreds of films every year, including many made by students and new filmmakers, and it’s really easy to spot when someone is really new to the game. Here’s how to change that.
Don’t start by thinking you can make Moonlight or Fast and Furious off the bat. These movies were created with a staff of thousands of experienced professionals. If this is your first time making a film, you won’t have that experience and your final product will show. Practice your craft by starting small. Start by making short, one-minute films. Work your way up to three minutes, then five, then ten. Each length will vary in how story beats are developed, giving you experience with both storytelling and the craft of filmmaking itself.
Actually Tell a Story
Unless you’re specifically making an experimental film, there should always be a compelling story with a beginning, middle and end. Films that are concept-driven don’t engage your audience as well as story-driven ones do. At best, they feel like a commercial. At worst, they feel incomplete.
The Written Page vs the Spoken Word
Harrison Ford once said to George Lucas when making Star Wars, “George, you can type this sh*t, but you can’t say it!” That is a comment directed at Lucas’ deficiencies in writing dialogue, as seen in this clip, for example. Characters need to sound authentic, with their own speaking tendencies and personality. A good way to ensure dialogue is authentic is to imagine your character actually saying it. If it sounds awkward, then it needs revision. Another good piece of advice is to use swear words sparingly. Adding unnecessary swear words will not make a scene more edgy nor characters more likeable.
There are two mantras that every filmmaker should follow. The first is that film is a visual medium, and the second being show, don’t tell. Audiences are there to watch a film, to see something come to life visually yet so many films feature overly heavy scripts with an excess of dialogue. Sometimes, less is more.
The Practicalities of Filmmaking
One of the biggest mistakes I see new filmmakers do is write something that they are inexperienced in executing. If you’re just starting out, chances are you don’t have the budget. You might not even have enough friends to help shoot, or be able to access a fancy location you have in mind. Having scenes with CGI is ill-advised if you don’t have a professional CGI artist working for you as well. Keep your plans within a reasonable scope.
On the other hand, when all your films are set around a table inside your house, it becomes repetitive and less interesting to watch. There are many ways to get affordable or free locations in which you can shoot. Don’t be afraid to look for a place that’s more visually interesting than just a chair behind a table in front of a generic wall.
A film does not simply make itself. It takes much preparation and forethought to ensure you get the best result possible. Visit the locations you plan to shoot beforehand, even if you’ve been there before. Take pictures so you can see the difference between what the lens sees and what you see. Conduct table reads and rehearsals to get your actors in shape. Storyboard your shots so you know what you need to shoot.
Don’t Cast Your Friends
Unless your friends are trained actors with actual acting experience, I would avoid casting family and friends in your films. Being on set can be stressful, especially if you have a deadline and it’s really hard to be objective when evaluating your friends and family’s performance without potentially breaking relationships. Here’s a casting tip – just because you find your friend funny, doesn’t mean audiences will find them funny. Have a second, non-objective opinion when casting.
I’ve watched countless films by new filmmakers using cliches:: hit men with guns, slow-motion drug or alcohol use or people watching themselves die. Unless you have a personal experience with these themes and can relate them to an audience in a fresh manner, it is best to avoid them.
Written by Henry Wong for Toronto Youth Shorts.