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.

Sincere Creation

What’s the motivation behind your project? Capital gain? Attention? A greater noble effort? What do you have to prove? And to whom?

I know from my experiences in Hollywood that projects produced through a climate of unrestrained and unadulterated love for the material have a far better chance at sweeping audiences. With pure and simple love of filmmaking at the helm, a movie’s voice can be authentic, formalistic craft more cohesive, and overall execution more successful than, say, a franchise picture riddled by ambitions for ancillary market spin-offs and merchandising. Too many cooks in the kitchen, too many goals, and too many interests can shred a project into a million pieces.

How do you create great products? Simple. Make things because you love making things, not because you love the idea of making things.

Most people hear an idea and let their minds run wild. Before long, the fantasy overshadows the outstanding work that needs to be done. If you are busy thinking about the idea, rather than feeling or experiencing the idea, you’re on the wrong track.

Success will come when affection for your project is sincere.

Do not love your work. Love doing your work.

Production Sucks [Film Friday]

After five long shooting days, only 16 total hours of sleep, editorial madness, 1.9 terabytes of footage, and three dozen script pages, we’ve finally wrapped the sixth original series I’ve produced in little over a year. Absolute madness.

I haven’t slept in 38 hours. Before I say something about filmmaking I might regret, it’s time for bed.

How to Tell a Great Story

Character first, plot second. People do not connect with events; they connect with real human beings. Make sure you know your story’s character first before putting him or her through the ropes. Where does he come from? What does she fear? Who does he idealize? Why does she dress a certain way? When does he prefer to go to bed? How does she tie her shoes?

Take some time and ask a lot questions. Pretend like you are dating him or her. Learn everything you want to know about the person. Know him or her so well that you’d accurately guess how he or she would react to random situations. Before long, your character will tell the story for you.

Is New Media For You? [Film Friday]

This is my fifth and final post in my series, “Understanding New Media.”

Last week, I resolved a “New Media” definition that I am happy with: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on active viewership platforms that autonomously drive traffic or revenue online.” The key here is the distinction between passive and active viewership.

It is important to contemplate the best way to tell your story. Ask yourself: how long should the story be? How many people should watch it together? How involved should your audience be? As I have said before, we need to knock down the silos of Hollywood. They have no worldly business dictating our storytelling needs anymore. We should choose the format that best suits our characters.

Many people are distracted by the pizzazz of the Internet. Do not get carried away. Before you produce video for the web, ask yourself why. Is your story better told at an audience’s fingertips? Think hard about what role your story can play on the web. Does it belong there? Or does it really belong on a bigger screen?

Man of Many Hats and Hours

After an extremely dense 21 hour work day, I am finally publishing my daily blog post and passing out. Today, I did many things. Among them: assembled marketing materials, mitigated technical footage issues, juggled digital assets for a foreign deal, supervised a large film production, scheduled editorial for promotional spots, edited music tracks, directed a second unit film crew, filtered accounting paperwork, coordinated promo videographer crews, supervised visual effects on multiple large shot setups, caught up with an old friend, and ate three meals. All while running on three hours of sleep. I produce, supervise post production, coordinate marketing, and manage all foreign show deals for my company. Too many hats, too many long hours.

Don’t mess with me. Good night.

Want Your Art to Be Timeless?

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a romant...

Then avoid referencing contemporary pop culture in your work. Lady Gaga. Transformers. Charlie Sheen. Rickrolling. Twilight. Chewbacca. Bieber. Game of Thrones. Clay Aiken. Metal Gear Solid. Parachute Pants. Stop! Just don’t. I’m sorry, did I distract you from my post?

If possible, avoid referentiality altogether. References divert audience attention away from you and toward the things you reference. Heaven forbid the viewer is not familiar with your reference, or he or she will be alienated further. Drawing attention to anything outside your movie, book, painting, game, etc. does little (or absolutely nothing) to help you connect with audiences and tell your own story.

Want to be timeless? Stay within the world of your story. Do not risk incorporating or drawing attention to a pop culture trend that may fade tomorrow. The teenies of today do not remember musical group Hanson – and that was hardly a decade ago. Do you? If you need to draw attention to something beyond the immediate world of your story, then mention something that has matured and continues to survive public memory. Timepieces like war films are at an advantage in that they can reference authentic trends that continue to stand the public awareness test of time. Steven Spielberg can get away with a James Bond reference in Catch Me If You Can through a scene set in 1963 because three generations now have connected with the character and the 007 phenomenon exists in the world of the character’s story. No inside jokes, just straight history.

Do not let your jokes, characters, or narrative depend on other works that future generations may not understand.