Simple Ways To Become A Better Student Filmmaker

Needless to say, I am no filmmaking maestro. Mozart was hailed a genius at the age of three, but I am certainly not one despite studying Film and History for three years at university. However I can share some top tips now that I wish someone had told me before I commenced my student filmmaking journey.

This is not to say that my lasting legacy as a student is comprised entirely of endless microwave meals and a bar tab Elon Musk would quiver at. My degree involved studying films. To make films, I had to find these opportunities myself. 

This article supplements my discussion about filmmaking with Penny Locke on 4 Legs Radio. We spoke about our own creative backgrounds, current issues in the UK Film and Television Industries, and covered the different resources and opportunities available to aspiring filmmakers today. Have a listen to this here.

Think Small To Make Big

This is not meant to sound discouraging. Quite the opposite. In higher education and at film school, you operate within a secure bubble where you are privileged with being able to exploit every creative opportunity and make mistakes carefree. And so you should!

Yet, one classic blunder every amateur filmmaker commits, myself included, is thinking beyond their means. The temptation to become obsessed with complex narratives, huge casts and high production values is strong. This doesn’t guarantee a high-quality film, however. Ask someone to create a one minute, no-budget short using one location and one actor. They will quickly realise that in many ways this is far more challenging.

Be creative, but don’t forget that you are a student with limited experience and resources at your disposal. Setting yourself impractical and unachievable goals will lead to disappointment. Restrictions inspire innovation, and once you appreciate this, you’ll be smiling! Thinking as a Producer as well as a Writer and Director is an invaluable skill. Something to consider when you are shooting with little to no budget, your main set is your university campus and your cast and crew are toiling for you on the promise of beer and pizza. Someday, you will possess the skills and funds to bring your bigger projects to life, and by this point, you’ll be able to do them justice. Be patient.

No Shortcuts To Success

Adhering to proper filmmaking procedure and onset etiquette sounds painfully obvious, but I assure you that once you become fully immersed in the blissful chaos of a student production and countless different variables are wreaking havoc on your sanity, the filmmaking handbook goes out the window!

Perhaps your lead actor has dropped out of production the night before shooting. Or maybe someone forgot to bring the spare SD cards and batteries to set. Whatever the issue, such circumstances will tempt you to stray to the dark side and cut corners. Please don’t. Doing so might alleviate certain stresses in the short term, but will unnecessarily complicate your life later.

If you don’t have a clapper board handy or are trying to save precious time, click your fingers to mark a shot’s sync point at the very least. Your editor will thank you, (even if that’s you). The cavalier ‘fix it in post’ philosophy is a big, fat myth. If you are unsure about the continuity of an upcoming setup, devote the extra 10-15 minutes to consult your crew and examine the previous shots to resolve any concerns before they materialise. Ideally, on a student production, everybody will be paying attention to maintaining continuity.

Learn and respect the rules before you break them.

Onset of my first student film, 'The Rat', circa 2018.

Be Openminded And Collaborate

Still from 'Life of the Party' by Miroslav Films.

Something every film student encounters is the sheer diversity of characters within their creative circles. A useful thing to consider is that the loudest aren’t always the wisest. Most students can readily conjure a mental image of that one coursemate who legitimately considers themselves the bastard son of Jean-Luc Godard. But whilst they stand there sounding off all the pretentious reasons why you should be shooting on 16mm film, you know better than to get sucked into their delusions.

That said, filmmaking is not a solo venture; it is collaborative by its very nature. You will meet people from various backgrounds and walks of life who will shape and impact your career in different ways. Student filmmaking is the perfect context to cultivate lasting business relationships and friendships. 

It’s as they say, treat people well on the way up and they will treat you well on your way down. You never know, the person stacking chairs with you onset may end up being your First Assistant Director in the industry one day. Be openminded, experiment in different areas, even if you have a clear idea of what you already want to be. Learn to record sound, explore the many nuances of being a clapper loader, learn to edit, experiment with different lighting techniques and what lights are used to achieve them. Then you will discover why we don’t use redhead lamps for extended periods of time. (Think of being trapped in a lift situated on the sun).

Watch Short Films

Still from 'The Big Shave' (1967), directed by Martin Scorsese.

Unless you are among the lucky individuals whose ‘dying great-aunt’ clogging up their email junk box actually turns out to be a millionaire, you will only be capable of financing short films for the foreseeable future. So, it only makes sense then that you should be watching short films as well, right? Watching films will help you develop your visual literacy. As pretentious as that may sound, hear me out.

Pay close attention to how each of the various elements works in a film and how they congregate and complement one another to form the finished product. Over time, you will develop a detailed understanding of the overall filmmaking process, learn skills to enhance your own storytelling and fashion yourself as a mature and more rounded filmmaker.

YouTube is an obvious source of creative output. Omeleto showcases an abundance of high quality and award-winning short films. Also, professional roundtables hosted by The Hollywood Reporter, interviews with actors and creatives online, as well as the bonus features and behind the scenes content available on DVDs. All of these constitute their own film school, and won’t set you back £15,000!

Another avenue worth exploring is whether professional filmmakers you admire have ever produced a short film. Shorts are how many successful creatives start out. One of my personal favourites is The Big Shave, the short film debut of Martin Scorsese he made while attending New York University in 1967. It starts as a glorified Gillette advert before resembling the prom scene from CarrieIt’s a gruesome and captivating short that doubles as a subliminal critique of the horrors surrounding the Vietnam War, but this isn’t why I enjoy it. 

It’s the film’s simplicity that is most effective. The entire narrative plays out within a small, neon-white bathroom and stars one actor (Peter Bernuth), our nameless protagonist. Despite featuring close to eighty cuts, it only contains probably half as many shots, most of which are quick inserts and cutaways. Although nothing spectacular in the grand scheme of things, this early short stands as proof that it’s possible to transform even the most mundane act (in this case, shaving) into a visceral and memorable narrative. It drives home my first point that ‘doing a lot with a little’ is often more rewarding than feeling tempted or pressured into relying on grandiose narrative structures laden with witty dialogue and high production value.

Learn Through Practice

The visible relief of finishing one of my most challenging films to date!

Make Films! Duh, right? One of the most highly sought after and competitive roles in the Film and Television Industries is a Director. Although, this should not be perceived as a job, but instead as a craft. You can invest years in climbing the ranks from being a Runner to becoming a First AD. This is perfectly fine. But this does not guarantee you will become a Director. Just as a carpenter must practice to perfect their skills, the same is so for a Director. 

The single most valuable piece of wisdom any filmmaker can offer is to pick up a camera and shoot something! Or if you want to write, then write. Keep proactively building your portfolio and developing your craft, even if you’re convinced that what you’re making is awful and you repulse the mere sight of it forever. Trust me, I know this feeling well. It’s natural to be self-critical. You’d be mad or foolish if you weren’t. But no filmmaker should be ashamed of their early work. We all have to start somewhere, even Martin Scorsese. It might sound like a cliché, but this is easy to forget when you are starting out in what is a very intimidating industry. Stay focused. Be the healthy kind of crazy. Accept that you will not make your masterpiece at university, and continue trying and failing until you finally do.

That’s all from me.

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