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.

Inspiring Your Team to Do Well [Film Friday]

Leading a film is a lot like leading an army, except without the discipline. Hollywood is loaded with egos, agendas, and hard drugs. Everyone wants to make their rate, see his or her name in lights, eat well, and live the good life. It is extremely difficult to wrangle all the different personalities and angles. Getting everyone on board is very difficult most of the time, especially in low budget or strenuous circumstances. Even with genuine people, it is challenging to arrest their full attention.

There is one tried and true tactic for getting everyone on the same page. The same tactic will inspire people to work day and night to get the job done. The same tactic may even convince your team to cut, defer, or waive their rate entirely. Very straightforward: tell a great story.

If your team believes in the project, they will fight to the ends of the earth for it. A great story helps make a 20-hour day okay. A great story helps you accept the low pay or terrible catering. Of course, telling a great story is easier said than done. The best way to tell a story is to believe in it first. If you do not believe in it, no one else will. When you do, find a way to communicate to everyone why and convince them to believe in it, too. With enough love and passion, you can inspire others to help you bring the story to life. Perhaps they will fall in love with it, too.

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.

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.

Conquering the Augmented World

Have you ever wanted to tag public monuments with graffiti? Cockfight pet velociraptors? Bomb your neighbor’s house? Debate philosophy with a British rabbit? Experience hallucinations without psychotropic drugs? Or perhaps adventure with the Mario Brothers in your own backyard? Well, my friend, I bring great news: that future is near.

Recently, there have been exciting developments in the augmented reality space. Unlike virtual reality, which replaces the real world with a simulated one, augmented reality enhances your real-world environment by embellishing it with computer-generated graphics and sound through the lens of a mobile device (tablet computer, smartphone, etc.). As the processing and sensory input hardware of these devices improve, engineers and designers are able to render more and more compelling images to your live feed. Perhaps the most sophisticated demonstration I have seen to date was engineered by Sony:

The future of augmented reality knows no bounds.

There is room for AR in marketing and commerce – imagine discovering a Groupon discount or checking Yelp ratings while walking down the street with your camera.

There is room for AR in health – imagine researching the nutritional value of your meal by scanning it with your phone or charting physical therapy improvement automatically through mobile video recordings.

There is room for AR in games – imagine interacting with characters or battling friends in real space.

There is room for AR in education – imagine pulling encyclopedia articles on an object by scanning it or embarking on digital scavenger hunts in real environments.

There is room for AR in art – imagine tagging your surroundings with artwork or navigating a collage of photos captured in your present space.

And there is room for AR in social – imagine leaving messages for friends on physical walls or seeing through walls altogether to locate your friend on the other side.

Imagine several worlds layered on top of the real world, brand new reality spectra to explore and conquer. The opportunities to create and discover await. I encourage you to watch this sector carefully.