Filmmakers, eh? They’re everywhere now. Own a smartphone? Congratulations, you’re a filmmaker. DSLR, pah, I’ve got an FS100, no wait, I’ve got an EPIC, yeah, I’m a filmmaker and I love it. But who’s making anything good, regularly, doing more than pointing a camera and shooting pretty pictures? We’re drowning in mediocre filmmaking and the DSLR revolution has given it a voice and community to pamper itself in.

Don’t get me wrong here, DSLRs are fantastic. Just when I think I’m over it I have the chance to shoot for a protracted period and get all inspired again. My 5D was stolen in Vegas and I’ve yet to replace it. While I’ve been mulling over the FS100, which has all the makings of a properly great little camera, I can’t help feeling I’ll be losing so much by shifting over to the trad video format. But while I’ve gained massively from owning and loving my DSLR kit, so much of what I get sent to watch repeatedly falls down, not because it’s bad, but because it’s unimaginative.

DSLRs flatter us. If I were running a DSLR workshop, the first thing I would do is press a PD150 into people’s hands and ask them to shoot a one minute piece. Getting the most out of a tiny sensor is hard and it would really set the cat among the pigeons. Strap on a 50mm 1.2 and most things look pretty good. It’s not really enough for stuff to look good though is it? The field has broadened considerably now and there are so many more of us, posting on Vimeo, showing fleeting glimpses of talent, but never really quite enough. I didn’t go to film school myself so I can’t really vouch for how inspirational or otherwise that kind of environment is. I do know that, the longer you work in this industry, the more refined your sensibilities become and the more sensitive you are to how much better some people’s work is than your own. Early on people tend to copy the work of the people they like, and the hope is that, by analysing what they do, you can divine the formula and apply it to your own work. And this is why all hip-hop videos look the same. Vimeo is awash with me-too films, heavy on DOF but so light on substance. People constantly harp on about ‘story’ as if it’s the magic ingredient that renders all shit into gold. It just isn’t. The secret, and it really shouldn’t be a secret because it’s bloody obvious, is that craft is what separates good from bad. Craft requires time, craft requires patience, and craft requires perseverance. DSLRs gave us a shortcut to a world in which craftsmen traditionally worked their way up through apprenticeships. I have no problem with that, but it’s one of the reasons why there’s so little craft on display in much of what I see.

Now, it’s utterly pointless me lambasting everyone for being a bit average without offering some possible ways not to be. So here’s my top 5 tips for being better.

1. Don’t watch other people’s videos.

Stay away from video. Most of us know how video works, and you learn so much more by shooting things yourself, analysing your own work, suffering the masochistic shame of knowing you’re not good enough and improving. Instead, go to the theatre, watch dance, watch how things are created on the stage. The imagination present in the theatre blows my mind and I despair when I see so little of it in videos.

2. Don’t copy.

Me too. Me too. Here’s a time-lapse. Here’s a bunch of shots of a river. Fine. Great to practise, whatever. Replicating what everyone else does gets you nowhere. Turn off the wi-fi, sit with an idea, do the hard work, frighten yourself with creator’s block. Then get out and make it happen. Ideas thrive when they come from the unexpected. I find my best work happens when I’m cycling to work, away from my computer, free to associate with whatever comes into view.

3. Do your homework.

Research is the fuel of creativity. Yes, sometimes this will mean watching videos which would contradict point 1 but if you’re making a film about vampires don’t watch a bunch of films about vampires. Watch films about immortality, or doomed love, or bats. I highly recommend reading text books as you’re developing projects. Reading them before you begin doesn’t really work for me. I like to have a project in my head which can be influenced by what I’m reading. Then I really take it in because I’m processing it on a much higher level.

4. Collaborate.

Never underestimate the power of other people to influence your work and shape your thinking. This doesn’t mean losing control. Far from it. As a filmmaker you’re in control of a stampede of ideas, all of which need taming. Finding the right way to do that can be daunting, but bringing other talents in to help in localised areas makes such a big difference. You’re still the one calling the shots but you have other talents to call upon to make you look better.

5. Go see a shrink.

Filmmaking requires deep and profound honesty from filmmakers. I’ve said this before but I firmly believe directors should bare their souls as deeply as actors do. In order to do that you need to have a pretty clear idea about who you are and what you like. This is really the root problem of why so much work feels derivative. People are scared of presenting themselves and borrow masks from other filmmakers to hide behind. You don’t have to really go see a shrink, but I would suggest learning a little bit about psychology. Not only will it help you understand more about the talent you put in front of the camera but it will also help you make sense of your own sensibilities and what you value.

And that’s it. Good luck. No-one said it would be easy!


Jared Abrams is a cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional camera assistant he switched over to still photography. About two years ago a new Canon camera changed the way the world sees both motion and still photography. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • UrosZ

    You could se exactly the same posts when DSLR’s came out and everybody became “photographer” and doing sunset photos and long exposures,… :)

  • Goforjared

    Great post as always Robin. Keep up the good fight!

  • nigel

    Always love a bit of honesty of where we’re at with this so called revolution :-)

  • Jon Blake

    I agree pretty much, would add one very important point that I’ve never read throughout billions of discussions on the net. 

    It’s NOT a story/substance that makes a good film.  It’s not a FORM either.  in Art, HOW is WHAT and one cannot exist without the other.

    That’s it.  If you don’t know what it means, you better start from the scratch whatever you’re doing or keep gleefully eating popcorn.

  • Jared

    Really appreciate this, thanks

  • berad studio

    Another great & insightful post. Mahalo!

  • Rigi

    We should all know by now that 90% of everything is shit. When something becomes affordable 95% of everything made with it is shit. But the beauty is in that 5% that will be something unique, something gorgeous that would have never seen the light of day before.

    One thing I disagree with you is craft being the difference. It isn’t. Someone who masters their craft deserves the utmost of respect from me. But they don’t necessarily make good films. Or books. Or houses. Mastering your craft means years of mediocrity. And during those years so many people loose their drive, their vision and the courage and settle for that mediocrity (and the semi-steady paycheck).

    I’m a long way from Hollywood, almost on the other side of the world in Finland. Our film business is small and filmmakers are always starving. In the 80’s and 90’s we had craftsmen, people who had years of experience in their field making films. And they were shit. It took the digital revolution and abandonment of the old way of becoming a filmmaker to get new voices on screen. They did not have to go trough the blender, work unsatisfying projects for ten years and forget what it was that they wanted to do. One of the best youth films to be made in this country in the last 10 years (What Become of Us – if anyone wants to look it up) was made by a bunch of 20-year-olds who bought a camera and just made a film – without pay, without a budget.

    I just wish the digital rebels will also re-ignite the fire inside the craftsmen to do what they love, not just what’s good enough.