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.
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!