This is a question I get asked a lot. Over the past few years I’ve taught classes on filmmaking to high school and college students, and I was also in charge of hiring interns for different action sports production companies. Many want to know what I did to get into filmmaking, and what they can do to break in.
There’s no single best way.
Is film school worth the money?
Of course it is! No, it’s a total waste; spend your tuition money making your own movie! Kevin Smith famously skipped the second half of his film school term, took his remaining tuition and a few maxed out credit cards, and made Clerks.
Are internships worth the time?
No, why the hell would want to spend all day getting coffee and sending faxes? Definitely, you learn some really valuable skills and get to work on productions and with people who you normally wouldn’t get access to.
What camera should I buy?
Oh, not that stupid question again.
Considering that there’s no one way to get into filmmaking, I’ve decided to write about how I got in, and the experiences of a few people I’ve been lucky enough to work with.
In grade school and through high school, I would make movies and TV shows with my friends. I would take my parent’s camcorder and record us riding bikes and wakeboarding; we would make stupid movies with no plot, and we did horrible Wayne’s World-style TV shows in my basement. I’ve screened some of them since and they’re just painful to watch now. But we had a blast. I always knew I was going to make movies. Around the age of 12, I bought a Laserdisc player because a local movie and video game store rented Laserdiscs. I could watch movies in widescreen (whoa, Cinemascope at 250 pixels high!) and listen to commentary tracks by the filmmakers. This was many years before DVDs and the concept of the DVD Extra. At a young age, this did more for me as a budding filmmaker than anything else. I spent many Friday nights in my basement watching movies (I’m still socially awkward as a result).
I went to the University of Wisconsin – Madison, which had a film program. One thing that always dogged me was a need to have a backup plan. It had been drilled into me early on that making movies was fun, and therefore not a way to have a successful career. Jobs and careers are work and are not supposed to be fun. The guidance counselor assigned to me in high school was this way. She said I was wasting my time and should just go to an engineering school because that’s what my strengths were in their standardized tests.
Classic “The Simpsons” moment: Mrs. Krabappel is administering the Career Aptitude Normalizing Test (CANT).
First Question. If I could be any animal, I would be:
a) a carpenter ant
b) a nurse shark
c) a lawyer bird
She said if I tried to go into filmmaking I would fail, without actually saying it. I had friends and family who questioned my decision – saying things like, “Communication Arts is a football degree” (at UW, the film and TV program was part of Comm Arts). So I spent half of my time in college searching for my backup degree. At first, this was engineering. Then it was business. And finally, economics. Senior year, I was simultaneously finishing my short film, and touring banks in Chicago with the Econ Club. I was a bit lost in what to do. Or maybe it was the cute girls in the Econ Club. The exception though, was my parents. They bought me my first camcorder (a Fisher Price PXL2000) in third grade. As parents, they were of course worried about me and my future. But they always encouraged me and knew I would make it.
Come on, I had a 15″ subwoofer and would watch Jurassic Park at 3am for the thousandth time. They were awesome! I remember a few times my dad would make me play the T-Rex scene for guests so they could see their drinks on the table shake like in the movie. Every kid did something funny that their dad would make them do at parties. That was mine.
I took a few internships in college. I would say these were just as valuable, if not more so, than my classes. I joined the community TV station in Madison, the type that Wayne’s World was on. I did things like run the live switcher for 3 camera-style shows, mix for live bands, and did office work. I got involved with a student-run show called “Madison This Week”. I was both a technical producer and an on-air reporter. Because almost all of this was live, I got a lot of experience in dealing with NOW, NOW, NOW and extremely tight deadlines. Some people talk about working in live TV as giving them a high. I couldn’t agree more.
I also interned at the local ABC/Fox affiliate. This was super valuable for me because I learned that I never want to work in TV again. It was an OK place and everyone was nice, but because we were market number 120 or something, no one really wanted to be there. The younger talent, usually fresh out of school, would spend most of their days surfing TVJobs.com. The turnover rate was so high that the three people who hired me when I got there were gone by the time my internship was done, along with at least half of the reporters. I spent most of my time hanging out with the photogs talking tech, or learning from the engineers in the control room. And I didn’t get to fly in the heli once!
After graduation, I flew out to LA to interview for jobs. I got bummed out super quickly. I thought I had a lot of experience, and had a pretty good reel. But the places that did offer me anything, just offered go-for jobs. I exhausted my limited connections quickly. I had been talking to the owners of Teton Gravity Research – an action sports production company in Jackson Hole, WY – about working there. I was the Director of the Ski School at UW and had met them the previous year on a ski trip out there. But they only offered unpaid internships. After graduating from college, the last thing I was interested in was something unpaid.
After bumming on LA, I jumped on a plane to Jackson Hole.
I took the unpaid internship with TGR, and it turned into a job that lasted five great years. I really enjoyed it because a lot of what I learned previously in regards to cameras, editing, tech stuff, applied directly to TGR – ARRI 16mm cameras, Final Cut Pro, documentary-style storytelling, etc. I also learned a great deal. I felt like I hit the ground running, working on great projects, whereas in LA it would have taken me a long time to work my way up.
The entire time I was at TGR, I kept learning and took advantage of what I had around me. I learned how to use DVD Studio Pro and After Effects, because they needed someone who knew those apps. We got a huge TV show that required a multi-seat Xsan system, so I learned everything I could about that and helped install it. I messed around with color correction a bit in Final Cut and when Color was released, I jumped in with both feet. When we took delivery of an early RED One, I grabbed it and shot as much as I could. I never stopped learning. This should be the goal of any good internship, or any job for that matter.
Later on, I went freelance and got to work with some great producers and companies. I started this blog to write about those experiences.
Would I do anything differently?
Thats a tough one. In retrospect, I really lucked out by going to the film program at the University of Wisconsin. It was geared toward one-man-band and documentary-style production. I prefer this to narrative-style production and I think it’s more relevant (ironically) for people who want to make their own movies. There are other film programs that train you on becoming specialized in certain on-set disciplines, such as gaffer (lighting) or AC (assistant cameraman) for example. Not to take anything away from gaffers or ACs. I’ve worked with some of the best in the business and their talent and love for their craft blows me away. I just was never interested in this instructional approach because I wanted to know and do everything. Working on the small productions vs. the really big sets with 100+ people. Really, to get a better film education than what I got at my state school, I would have had to spend many times more on NYU, USC or the like. But I will say, those film schools allow you to create incredible networks with people who are going into the film industry. At my school, not too many of the people I graduated with ended up working in this industry. I’ve kept up with and worked with a few UW grads, but I know my network would have been stronger at a higher-level school. Other than that, I really think the differences between the schools to be minor. I really believe that you create your own experience. You don’t need to take many production classes to graduate with a Comm Arts – Radio, Television, Film degree, but I took as many as I could.
“I attended film school at Montana State University (class of 1998). It was a hands-on film course that concentrated mostly on how to make a film versus how to talk about film. The ability to be creative was there if you took the opportunity. Alongside school, many production companies were producing feature films in Montana and would ask the university for volunteers. It was working on the “hollywood set” if you will, where I learned the dynamics of how a film makes it to the silver screen. After graduating I moved to Los Angeles and continued to work on small, independent features, that is until I realized that working my way up the ladder would never get me into the position I wanted. With that realization, I quickly moved back to the Rockies and began making my own films with a colleague, Arden Oksanen. We produced 3 whitewater kayaking films in connection with Teton Gravity Research before switching over to producing action sports and travel content for HD Television networks. In taking that leap away from the LA scene to create films and hours upon hours of HDTV content, I have learned to direct, produce, edit, create motion graphics, and distribute my works. It was in doing those things, that i learned the most about filmmaking and what it takes to work in this visual medium.” – Trask McFarland – Producer, ARRIS Entertainment, Jackson Hole WY
“Well I applied for an internship out of college with LA Digital Post. My contact there went on a long vacation without confirming with my internship supervisor. When the deadline came around, my contact was still unresponsive. So to graduate on time I had to take whatever the internship supervisor could find for me at the time. That was a Quality Assurance position with Boris FX/Media 100. After a few years, I got sick of working in the software side and wanted to get into production/post and got the internship with TGR. I have 2 pieces of advice. One, save every sticking dime you can while you are young because interning for free or your base newb pay is hardly financially viable. Number 2 is to never let an opportunity pass. Moving across the country to Wyoming with only the promise of a 6 month unpaid internship after leaving a decently paying job was something I was torn about. Sure I was going to the mountains and working for a badass company, but it felt like a step back. However, if I didn’t take that chance, I probably wouldn’t be in the industry anymore because I was burned out what I was doing and had no “in” locally. That step back, that long-shot opportunity is the main reason I am where I am now.”– Scott Fisher – shooter, editor and VFX, White Room Post, Boston MA
“I keep coming back to TWO very different ways to end up in the action sports industry. The key to achieving you goals in the Action sports production world is finishing this statement:I want to be in action sports production because, I’m…A) a person that loves filming and production.B) a person that loves participating in action sports.It’s important to realize that the question is in fact two very different questions with two separate roads.If you like production, learn as much as you can about it whether it be college, internships, tutorials, etc. The action sports world will always benefit from someone that is capable of bringing something new and different to the table.If you love action sports, learn as much about you sport as possible and figure out if the production side of it is your thing. You might realize that filming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But that’s ok, there’s plenty of other jobs in action sports that might fit you better.If you want to be a “filmmaker,” don’t limit yourself by putting the words “action sports” in front of it.If you want to be in the Action sports industry, be a marketing manager or creative director or something. They get better benefits go home at 5pm and have weekends, holidays, and paid vacation.If you want the QUICKEST way into the action sports production world. Take out a loan, buy a 7D, go sit in the terrain park at Mammoth, scout out a young ripper, create a website and spit out youtube clips until someone gives a shit.” – Tate MacDowell – shooter and editor, Death Cookie Entertainment, Cardiff CA
OK, here’s the end all be all: I don’t know. Maybe a third of the people I work with went to film school. Some who didn’t came to the film industry through other means, while still more worked in the industry and got experience instead of a formal education. Whether you went to film school or not has almost no bearing on how far you can go. When looking for jobs or clients, no one has ever asked me what school I went to, or even if I had a degree.
You’re only as good as your last job.
People just care about your previous work and want to see your reel. There are exceptions though. If you know almost zilch about making a movie, or even using a camera, a formal school can help. There are also a lot of free or low cost online resources that you can check out too. Vimeo has started a Video School series. Some like the free videos available online, while others prefer a more formal environment for their learning. The prices (and value) run the gamut.
Four Year College or a more targeted program? For some people, they just want to learn what they need to, and get out and start making movies (and making money). You can find these schools advertised in production magazines. For others – me included – I wanted a more classical education that included things like humanities, arts and music, sciences like economics, cheering for a kick ass football team, etc. I don’t need this knowledge to make movies, but I feel like it makes me a more informed individual, which definitely impacts my work. Neither approach is right or wrong.
For me, the most important thing is to have a mentor that can help you and from whom you can learn. Film school can introduce you to many people who can be mentors, whether it’s professors or other students. In many film schools, your teachers either are or were working professionals. The old adage, “Those who can’t, teach” is definitely not true here. The guy teaching you ProTools has probably mixed hundreds or even thousands of movies. Your editing instructor might have an Emmy or two. Filmmakers will visit the schools and give talks and have Q and As. Probably the best one I’ve ever been to was by Jim Abrahams, part of the Jerry Zucker/David Zucker/Jim Abrahams comedy team responsible for films like Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. He talked about his 15 Rules of (parody) Comedy. I went to talks given by numerous people involved in all levels of production. You can spend hundreds of hours wandering around online watching videos and tweeting with other filmmakers, but nothing comes close to working and learning from these people directly. Find a mentor. I’m always on the lookout. Some of my mentors don’t even know they’re my mentors.
- Shoot, shoot, shoot. Nothing counts as much as experience. The only way to build a reel, if you have no experience or job, is to shoot your own stuff. Buy a camera, find some friends and jump in.
- YouTube, Vimeo and the like have changed how we learn and distribute our works. Post up your vids to get comments (Vimeo is better for this than YouTube). Watch others’ vids. Contact and collaborate.
- Absorb as much as you can: Watch DVD Extras, listen to commentaries, watch movies you wouldn’t normally watch. You’ll be surprised by what you learn.
- Learn as many different aspects to production as you can. I didn’t know how much I would enjoy color correction until I gave it a shot. Get into a ProTools session and track some guitars.
- Shoot a wedding. It sounds weird, but a wedding includes every element of production that you need to know. Planning and budgeting. Basic scripting or outlining. Wide shots, close ups, interviews, sound, lighting. Getting strangers to be comfortable enough to talk to you on camera. Editing it well enough so people don’t fall asleep. Making DVDs, posting online. And it’s live, there are no retakes. Then shoot one on film!
- Network. Network like crazy. Use the comment section on Vimeo to contact your favorite filmmakers. Leverage Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Get to the trade shows. Some people balk at the expense of something like NAB and believe it to be a time waster. I believe the contacts you can make there are huge. I finally just made it there last year, and it was a big deal for me professionally. Contact your favorite filmmakers through their websites or email. Whats the worst that could happen?
- Get an internship
- Find a mentor
- Never stop learning. I worked on a 3D commercial shoot a few months ago. I spoke with the stereographer at length about how he got into 3D. I would say that he’s in his late 50s/early 60s. In the late 90s he was working with the new breed of 24p HD cameras, like the Panavised F900 used on Star Wars Episode 2. He said he saw the writing on the wall and if he wanted to be relevant in the future, he would need to embrace new technology. A few years later, this meant a full abandonment of 35mm film for the uncharted waters of 3D. He never looked back and is one of the most highly regarded 3D producers in the world.
- If you’re already working in the industry, my biggest piece of advice is to occasionally take breaks to work on something fun or crazy. Last year I worked on Go West Happy Cow with some friends from high school and college. It was super low budget so none of us got paid. I had an absolute blast, learned some new things, met some new friends and made some great contacts. Oh, and we also made a movie! Sometimes you forget that you’re making movies, and doing projects like this can help reignite your passion.
OK, but how do I make money?
Oh, was that your original question? I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. That’s a whole nother topic, I’m afraid. Stay tuned for a follow up article.
Philip Bloom has also posted on this topic, and it’s an interesting read. He went the work route instead of the film school route. Since everyone has a different experience, it’s important to read and talk to as many industry vets as you can: How do I get into this filming lark and make money from it? Part 1
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