Advice for a High School Filmmaker

An eighth-grader approached me for advice on making movies and getting started at his age. Here’s what I shared with him:

The first and most important thing to do is get started. Pick up a camera, any camera, and practice. An iPhone is way better than the first camera I started with, so use whatever you can and never be ashamed. It’s about storytelling more than the lights or gear you use, so focus on telling great stories. Pick editing software you are comfortable with and learn (I started with Adobe Premiere and use it to this day). There are many helpful tutorials online. The more movies you edit, the better you will understand the software.

Find friends you like hanging out with, can rely on and who like making movies. Beyond the core group with whom I always made movies, filmmaking helped me become friends with hot girls, nerds who knew how to animate 3D models, shady stoner kids who owned fake realistic looking weapons that looked great on camera, class clowns, incredible artists and everyone in between. It was amazing who I was able to connect with by just asking, “Hey, do you want to be in my movie?” It helped high school be a great experience for me.

Start simple with your first movie, then make it more complicated as you go. My first film ever was 1 minute long in my backyard. By the time I graduated high school, I was making 30 minute films with action and visual effects. You’re capable of this and so much more, especially with the tools available these days. But again, start small. It’s incredibly motivating to see your finished work – and then want to do better the next time.

It also helped a lot to find teachers who supported my interest. I made sure to get into every media, theater or film class I could and made friends with those teachers. Sometimes, I got away with making movies for classes instead of writing papers – it can never hurt to ask! To this day, I still hang out with some of my teachers who supported me ten years ago. It may not be cool in high school to be a “teacher’s pet,” but you’ll be laughing at your peers later when you get farther in the world than they did. For example, I got a job right out of college working for one of my professors who enjoyed having me in class. You never know!

Most importantly, have fun with it. You will make a ton of mistakes and learn a lot. None of your films in high school will go to film festivals (no offense, but it’s true), so don’t stress about any of it. Keep your head on your shoulders, keep an open mind. The more fun you have, the more you will learn and the better your movies will be.

Oh, and needless to say, watch a lot of movies. Television is cool these days, too. I spent an entire summer watching all the best picture academy award winners and many more. I wish I had Netflix back then – take advantage of it! I also took notes on what I liked or didn’t like about each movie, which helped inform choices I made when I made movies.

Long story short, go out today and make a movie! Good luck.

Invent More, Edit Less

We are so afraid to put ourselves out into the world that we erect barriers of revision, drafts, filters, editing, testing and censorship to prevent us from making mistakes in the public eye. If we spent less time chopping our own balls off and more time giving back to the world without reservation, we could all live rich and accomplished lives.

We are afraid. Afraid to reveal our flaws. Afraid to show our true colors. Afraid to give ourselves to the public for fear that the world might reject us. Fear mutates to the point that we are afraid to invent at all. We do nothing. Live dispassionate, passive and apathetic lives. All because we do not want to be caught with a misspelled word or bad picture edit.

I do not mean to discredit editing or the role of editors. Of all the creative and technical mediums, I cannot think of a single one that accurately channels the human soul. Mistakes happen and products come to life in ways we do not intend. We need to edit and revise to connect the dots so that things make sense. If we ignore editing completely, our message will misinform or fall on deaf ears.

But we alone cannot judge whether our creations connect with others. We cannot separate ourselves from the material. The faster we create things, the more necessary it is to get a second opinion. Put yourself out there to user groups, testers and editors to give you feedback. Some of my most beloved and respected friends are editors. Editors keep people like me from making perilous or silly mistakes. They make sure my thoughts track across the medium and translate clearly. Editors volunteer to help others focus on inventing and offer the confidence to do so. Editors are noble people with a selfless and patient purpose.

Whether you share with an editor, friends, random testers or publish immediately, you need to put your creation out there as quickly as possible. The longer it stays on your table, the harder it will be for you to let go. You will despair in all the flaws, possible misrepresentations and disconnects you come to know. You will revise and remodel your work into oblivion.

Stop it. Stop editing. Get it off the table and into someone else’s hands. Let go. Let your child have a life of its own. Only time will tell how the world reacts to your work. You are not an authority on that subject and should give up trying. Focus more on inventing and less on how people see you. Be yourself. Create from within. Fear nothing.

12 Tips for a Successful Film Reel

We’re hiring right now and I’ve spent more than half my life watching film reels. Mildly put, I’ve seen a lot of donkey crap. For those of you looking to solicit work in the film or media industry, here are 12 tips to consider when editing your reel:

1. Make it short. Like one to two minutes short. I don’t have 8 minutes in my day for a hundred different people I don’t know. Convince me in less than two minutes to beg you for more. A reel 15 minutes or longer is borderline insulting.

2. Cut everything together. I will only watch one video per person (unless you impress me). A list of separate clips does not count as a reel. If you are interviewing as a director or editor, I will specifically request longer clips to see how you structure scenes.

3. Use your own voice. Do not imitate or parody movie trailers or other popular videos. No matter how flashy or technically proficient the reel may be, a ripoff reel proves only one thing to me: you are a ripoff.

4. Focus the viewer. Title your reel with the skill you wish to highlight (e.g. “camera operating,” “hair styling,” “lighting,” “visual effects,” etc.). I may enjoy qualities of the production you had nothing to do with – a recipe for awkwardness in interviews. Tell me what to pay attention to in advance.

5. No repetition. Don’t show me the same shot over and over. Don’t even show it to me twice. I will start thinking that’s all you’ve done.

6. Not overly dramatic. You don’t have time to be taken seriously in two minutes. Watching a grown man cry or woman getting raped while I drink tea and check my morning office email is simply uncomfortable.

7. Keep it current. If your reel is from a VHS transfer, unlit basement production or freehand miniDV, I will assume you failed film school or predate colored television. Show me only the latest and greatest. Your sentimental first film means nothing to me.

8. No movie scores. I don’t care how obscure you think the piece of music is. I am a film score connoisseur by trade (and so are most producers in the business); misusing a recognizable piece of music may distract or offend me. If I hear Clint Mansell in a reel one more time, I will adopt heroin and blame you.

9. No popular songs. Unless you worked with Led Zeppelin or Coldplay personally, your reel does not deserve to be tracked with their music. If you try to get away with it, viewers may stop paying attention when your music selection brings them back to high school slumber parties or the junior prom.

10. Easily accessible. Broken links are dead ends. Always make your reel available and never make me ask for it (“upon request” is not considerate, it’s lazy). Make sure your link is easy to find in your email and at the top of your résumé.

11. Stream it. Do not ask me to download a file. That will add at least two unnecessary steps and pollute my hard drive.

12. Vimeo. A poorly designed personal website will distract me and hurt you. Unless your site is a work of art, let Vimeo or YouTube make the first impression. If you feel compelled to host your work on your own site, enable the compression setting “fast start” or “compressed header” so I do not have to wait for the entire clip to buffer before playing (this is one of my biggest and most repairable pet peeves).

Film Friday: How to Enhance Jokes in the Editing Room

It’s time I start a weekly blog series – lessons from my experiences in the film industry. We can call it “Film Fridays.”

I’ve been in and out of the cutting room for the last five weeks on our latest web series, Talent.  Every time I oversee editorial on a new project, I learn a lot.

Lately, we spent a big chunk of time tweaking scenes for comedy. Now, I have never been a funny man. I guess I missed the comedy gene my brother inherited. After weeks of shifting edits here and trimming shots there, I have a much better understanding of the temporal mechanics of comedy – at least in the motion picture form.

Want your joke to play better on screen?  Try letting it breathe.

Comedians pause after they deliver a funny line. They don’t pause to wait for the audience to stop laughing; they pause to illicit laughter in the first place.  Watch Australian comic Steve Hughes.

The same tactic works on screen. After a punchline, leave some air – make sure there’s a moment without dialogue, without busy sound effects, and without domineering score notes. Your viewers need time to process and react. If you cut to the next line of dialogue immediately, your audience might not have time enough to think the joke is funny. A loud sound effect or music cue following the punchline will compete with laughter, or worse, deny laughter altogether.

It is frustrating when an audience’s laughter drowns out the dialogue that follows. Information is lost and you feel like you missed something. But I can’t blame the audience for being loud; I usually blame the filmmaker for not understanding the moment he or she created.

Air is not a magical cure-all for comedy – the joke still needs to be funny. But air can help you preserve a joke. And if you’re lucky, enough air can create an awkward silence that twists a lame beat into a funny one. You have to try it to find out.

I suspect the air trick works in other forms of comedy as well.