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General Filmmaking

How to be a Filmmaker. The Definitive Guide.

This article helps you get on the road to be a filmmaker, and what you can expect on the way.

This article will explain everything I know about how to be a filmmaker.

If you have no clue where to start, or what it means to be a filmmaker, this article will help you. If you are in a small town or a part of the world where making movies is a distant dream, this article is for you!

This article covers what you will need to get started, how you can use what you have, and what it takes (both physically and mentally) to make you first movie.

Let’s go.

Let’s try a different approach

If you wanted to be a lawyer or doctor there’s a clear path to your career. College, specialization, certification and off you go. Filmmaking has no such career path.

You could be an assistant, or go to film school, or make movies yourself – none of these paths guarantee success.

So instead of pretending to have a to-do list I’m going to give you questions you should ask yourself. The answers will help you find your own way.

The questions are designed to ‘expand your horizons’. Be honest with yourself, and the road to your filmmaking journey will become clearer. I’m not saying it’ll be smooth sailing, but you’ll know.

When you know, you’ll have a fighting chance.

It’s going to feel like an interrogation. I hope you’re ready.

What is a filmmaker?

First let’s define our terms. In the movie business we have many roles or job descriptions. Three important ones are:

  • Writer
  • Producer
  • Director

These are three different skill-sets. It’s very rare (rarer than winning five Oscars in a row) for any one human being to be brilliant in all three. That’s why these roles are separate.

However, many directors feel they should be the ‘author’ of their work. Many such directors also tend to write their own scripts. And, many such directors also have to run around hunting for money, so become producers as well.

If you’re not sure what filmmaking entails, read this definitive guide on filmmaking, and come back to this article.

Sometimes, you are lucky to have collaborators, but if you’re a beginner, you’re more likely to wear many hats. These hats aren’t restricted to the above three roles. E.g., on The Impossible Murder, I wore the following hats:

  • Writer
  • Producer
  • Director
  • Production Manager
  • Editor
  • Visual Effects Artist
  • Colorist
  • Post Production Supervisor
  • Sound Editor
  • Distributor

A filmmaker is one who is forced to wear many hats. You are either forced by circumstances, or by your own nature, or both.

The term ‘filmmaker’ must include the role of director. Usually it also includes producer. The most common variation is the producer-director hyphenate. From here on, when I say filmmaker, I mean producer-director as a bare minimum.

It falls on the filmmaker to get the project out the door, get funding, collect man and machine, deal with logistics, shoot the feature within the stipulated budget, complete post production, market, find distribution and finally collect money. If you are successful, you will need to keep collecting money for years. If you fail, you might have to pay up for years!

It’s not only a responsibility, it’s a lifestyle.

What’s the difference between a filmmaker and ‘anyone-with-a-camera-and-a-computer’?

The difference between a filmmaker and everyone else is as follows:

  • Vision. You have a complete vision from script to distribution. An idea is not a vision. Wishful thinking isn’t a vision.
  • Responsibility. Since your project involves many individuals, the responsibility to see it through is tremendous.
  • Liability. The penalty for failure is immense. Not only are you losing time and money, but also the opportunity to advance your career.
  • Time. A typical movie, from script to screen, takes three years. Three years!!?? Don’t believe me? Try it. If you have everything in place, you might be able to do it in two. But who has?

When you make ten or twenty short projects a year (corporate videos, ad films, documentaries, whatever) you can fail on two or three, and you won’t be hurt so bad. A feature film, on the other hand, is the only project you’ll be working on for two years.

Even marriage is an easier commitment!

To be a filmmaker, you’ll need superpowers. Thankfully, these superpowers can be homegrown.

The 10 superpowers of filmmaking

To become a successful film-maker you’ll need 10 solid superpowers. Here they are:

  • Know thyself
  • Know your circumstances
  • Know your tools
  • Take your decisions
  • Gather facts and opinions
  • Make friends
  • Make time
  • Make money
  • Be the shepherd
  • Be the Phoenix

Each and every one of these superpowers is mandatory. They’re not optional.

Unless you have attained nirvana, you are unlikely to have all of these superpowers. Study your favorite filmmakers, the most successful ones, and you’ll see these superpowers in action.

There is a catch, though. These superpowers aren’t permanent. Ever watched a movie where your favorite superhero loses some or all of his or her powers briefly? This could happen for many reasons, but it must and will happen.

Even when you’ve tasted success, you have to start from scratch on your next project, and you have no clue how it’s going to turn out.

The way to go about is to recharge your superpowers after every movie, and get going again…and again, and again – until you decide to hang up your boots.

Let’s get to it.

Superpower #1: Know Thyself

Or, what you should do when you know that you know nothing.

What gear you need to get started: A mirror.

The costs involved: The cost of a full-length mirror.

How to use this gear: Look at it every day.

Time this will take: Forever.

Mirror

Questions to ask yourself:

Who are you?

What have you observed about life that you want to share? Do you really have strong feelings about something? If you do, what do you want from the recipient of your message?

What makes you laugh, cry, get angry or sad, or scared? Can you make somebody else laugh, cry, get angry, sad or scared? Should you make somebody laugh, cry, get angry or sad or scared?

Do you have stories to tell? About whom? About which time or place? Why should you be the one telling this story? Can you see a more capable person doing a better job articulating your vision? What makes you so sure you are a storyteller?

Can you lead a group of people? When was the last time you actually did it, and came out successful? Do people understand you? If not, why not? Is there anything you can do to make your ideas come out more clearly?

But first, are your ideas clear to you? What makes you so sure?

Why do you want to be filmmaker? Do you want fame, riches and a big house? If this is why you’re getting into filmmaking, why not try: Banking, Sports, Business, Sales, Engineering, Medicine, Technology, or Politics? Are you looking to get into filmmaking for all the wrong reasons?

Where do you come from? Where do you want to end up? What’s your story?

Who are you?

Superpower #2: Know your circumstances

What gear you need to get started: Your eyes and ears.

Costs: None.

How to use this gear: Look and listen every day.

Time this will take: Forever.

Questions to ask yourself:

Who are your friends and family? What do they mean to you? Are you a loner or a star?

What has life taught you so far? What do people think of you? Do you need to ask to know? What is your relationship with humans in general? Do you prefer solitude? How do you deal with the opposite (and same) sex?

Where do you live? Is the land, culture, people and economy capable of supporting films? Do you need to move? What do you hope to find after you have moved?

Can you list the barriers you see in your own home town or country? Do you know anyone who has successfully overcome these barriers? How did they do it? Where are they today?

Will this disrupt the lives of those around you, especially your loved ones?

How much money do you have? What would you do right now if you were given a million dollars? Would you buy all the cool things you dream about, or would you risk everything on a movie?

Is money just a means to an end, or is it more important? What is your relationship with money? Can you live without it? How much of it will make you happy? Once you have this amount, can you guarantee yourself happiness? What has all this to do with the story you want to tell?

Will money make you a better storyteller? Will it give you better ideas? Will it help you to know yourself better?

Still here? Let’s continue the barrage.

Superpower #3: Know your Tools

Gear you’ll need: This site, wolfcrow.com.

What it costs: The price of broadband or mobile data?

How to use this gear: Search, read, find newer keywords, search, read…

Time this will take: A year, or four.

I’m sure there used to be an age where tools were few, and you could spend a lifetime perfecting your craft with just one tool.

That age is gone.

Today, tools come and go on a monthly basis. Look at the speed with which mobiles and apps are coming and going. Technology is cool, but don’t trust it.

Questions to ask yourself:

Do you want to spend most of your time with tools and technology, or your art and craft? How much time can you realistically spend before you’re spending too much time learning? How do you learn, and how good a learner are you?

Are you ready to read about new technology on a monthly basis? Can you handle jargon, charts and math? Do you want to?

Why should you tell your story through the medium of cinema or video? Why not pencil drawings, music, dance, sculpture, paintings, poetry, literature, rap music, plays, oratory, politics, charity, journalism, gaming, software, business or just living it?

What makes moving images so powerful? Is it too powerful for the stories you want to tell? Ever wondered why paintings and computer games are more profitable than films? How do you know you are right?

Is art the activity of articulating thoughts and feelings in a way that can be communicated between humans? What is art? What has it got to do with you? Can you project your thoughts, jokes, fears, horrors, optimism, cynicism, love, joy, pain, anger, sadness, logic, or feelings through images and sound? How will you juggle so many things while juggling your own life?

How well do you use the one tool that you already have: Yourself?

Can you wake up on time? Are you punctual for appointments? Are you a person with integrity? Can you hold your ground in a stampede? How do you know?

Do you know what you need to get started? Do you know the difference between the tools you really need, and the ones that are just holes in your bank account? Can you afford these tools? Maybe you can pay for them, but can you afford them?

Did you know you can rent tools, and still have the satisfaction of using them? Did you know you can produce an entire movie with nothing but a laptop?

If you’re absolutely new to all this, then read everything on this blog. It is a goldmine of filmmaking info. If you feel up to it, you might also end up buying one of our amazing filmmaking and camera guides.

Superpower #4: Take a Decision

There are no small decisions in film-making – Sidney Lumet

The first decision – one of millions you’ll take in your career – is the decision of whether or not you’re a filmmaker.

You are. No matter what you own or don’t own. Pick up a camera, shoot a few scenes and edit them together on a computer. You’re a filmmaker.

Now all you have to do is do it tens of thousands of times more.

You are a filmmaker. You don’t need a degree or a certification. It’s nobody’s decision but yours. Say it is so, and thy will be done.

Gear you’ll need: Resolve (No, not Davinci Resolve!).

What it costs: This one’s on the house.

How to use this gear: Build confidence. This is your license to go forth and conquer!

Time this will take: Go ahead, look in that mirror and tell yourself you’re a filmmaker. Let’s get it over with right now!

Questions to ask yourself:

Did you know filmmaking is a series of decisions, each leading to the next? Did you know a decision is a commitment? Once you’ve decided, but later want to backtrack, did you know the world doesn’t play fair?

Are you a strong decision-taker, or do you look for assistance whenever you’re asked a direct question? Are you feeling comfortable with the questions in this article? Are you having trouble finding the answers?

Did you know on a film set everyone else assumes you know the answers? Do you?

How responsible are you? Can you stand by your decisions, or do you prefer to blame someone else for life’s vagaries? Do you expect the world to kneel and bow to your command? Will you break down and cry when you discover your expectation is ludicrous?

Do you know you have to finalize a script before anything can commence? Do you realize that mere words on paper have the power to bring your cherished vision crumbling down? Do you realize a small decision today can impact what happens two years from now?

Do you agree there are no small decisions in film-making?

Superpower #5: Gather Facts and Opinions

Gear you’ll need: This site!

What it costs: You’ve already paid for this.

How to use this gear: Search, read, find newer keywords, ask, read…

Time this will take: A year, or five.

Questions to ask yourself:

You realize this section is about questions to ask yourself, and not others; don’t you?

Do you know why opinions are important? What will you do if you receive many conflicting opinions? Do you see now that if you know your boundaries, likes and limitations, it is much harder for others to sell you stuff that you don’t need?

Do you see how learning is a commitment, and you should learn systematically? Do you see how laziness will only harm you down the line? Do you see how failure to ask a question or discover as much information as possible will come back to haunt you later?

Do you have enough knowledge to take an informed decision about anything related to filmmaking? How do you know when you have enough knowledge?

Do you know how to sort fact and opinion in order of importance? Will you be able to find the right path from this mess? Have you trained yourself to ensure this? Have you looked in the mirror so hard that your instincts are in tune with your dreams?

Do you trust your instinct? Why, or why not? What can you do to correct it?

How do you form a advisory committee that has your best interests in mind? Do you know such people? If not, how long will it take you to form such a circle? What value do you expect from them, and what value can you provide in return?

Are you the parasite, or the giver of your group?

Superpower #6: Make Friends

Gear you’ll need: A smile.

What it costs: Friendship.

How to use this gear: Ask, receive, provide and share.

Time this will take: Your life.

friends

Questions to ask yourself:

Does it matter that somebody else is a filmmaker for ‘so and so’ reason? Would you follow ‘so and so’s’ advice on food, fashion, real estate or your love life?

When was the last time you met a person who was too good to be true? When was the last time you met a person who is always right? When was the last time you looked into the mirror?

Do you realize that filmmaking is only one-thirds storytelling, and two-thirds hustling, managing and running a business? Do you realize you’ll spend more time in meetings than on perfecting your craft?

Do you realize your goals, vision and love can be obliterated by a single fool you chose to be part of your team? Do you realize you could be that fool?

Can you network and find friends? What will you offer as friendship? Are you reliable? Are you dependable? Are you likable?

Can you multi-task? Can you concentrate? Can you at least commit to getting better at what you lack? Are you capable of improving? Are you capable of believing? Are you capable of changing? Are you capable of moving others?

Are you capable of doing?

Superpower #7: Make time

Gear you’ll need: A calendar and a clock.

What it costs: A mobile phone.

How to use this gear: Never leave home without it, always refer to it, and keep a backup.

Time this will take: Lifetime.

Questions to ask yourself:

Do you know that with every passing day your life on earth reduces? Do you know that, depending on how you decide to pass your days, the ones close to you will also have to make adjustments? Do you realize that their adjustments will affect your life in turn, and there’s no way to extricate yourself from this circle?

What is the value of your time? How much will you wait for anything or anyone? Why should you wait? Is patience your virtue? Is it a virtue at all? Do you know the difference between when a person deserves extra time as opposed to when they are willfully wasting yours?

Do you keep track of time? Are you punctual? Can you control your sleep cycles?

Do you show up on time? Do your friends, family, colleagues or partners show up on time? If you make a time-bound commitment do you honor it? Are you capable of honoring a time-bound commitment? How much value do you put on being punctual?

Do you record your meetings in a calendar? Do you prioritize your life based on your calendar? Are you good at estimating the time it takes to complete tasks? Where can you find information on how much time a task takes?

Do you know a movie takes years to write, fund, shoot, finish and distribute? Do you have that kind of time? Do you know that if you can manage a career making 30 movies in today’s age you are considered prolific?

How much time do you need to write a script? How many times will you rewrite it? How much time will that take?

How will you prioritize your projects? Can you control this cycle? When will your projects ‘go on the floor’? When will they be released to the public?

Superpower #8: Make money

Gear you’ll need: A bank account and a business (No credit cards, please).

What it costs: Whatever it takes to set up a bank account and a business.

How to use this gear: Keep it honest and straightforward.

Time this will take: Lifetime.

Money

Questions to ask yourself:

What is money? How much money do you need? Why? What will you do if you can’t get it? What will you do if you get more than you bargained for?

How much does it cost to complete each task associated with filmmaking? Why does it cost this much? Can you find a way to reduce costs without compromising? At what point should you compromise? Can you live with it?

How much money do you have right now? How much money can you borrow from friends and family? When can you return it, assuming your project flopped? What will you lose, if you can’t return your money? Are the personal loans worth it?

Do you know any investors in your area who might be interested in funding your enterprise? If yes, do you know the legal way to approach them? Do you know what to say and how to say it? Do you have enough experience in marketing yourself to guarantee a positive outcome? What terms are you willing to settle for? Why?

Do you have a fan following? Is it big enough to test on crowdfunding platforms? Is a crowdfunding platform available in your area? Is it legal? How are you going to manage these funds, if any?

What are you going to do once you have the funds in place? How are you going to keep in touch with your backers? What value will you offer them? Why should they put their money on you, and not another project?

Have you looked through and studied the thousands of filmmaking projects on crowdfunding platforms? How and why have they succeeded or failed? How thorough was your research?

Do you know a good accountant and lawyer? Did you know that a good accountant and lawyer can open ‘doors’ for you? Do you think the charges they levy are worth the investment? Can they provide sufficient value, other than pushing paper?

Do you know any professionals in your immediate family or circle who might help you free of charge or for a reduced price? Why should they, and what value do you provide to them?

Do you know enough accounting to manage your money during the chaos of a project? Do you know the difference between an invoice and a receipt?

Do you know spreadsheets or accounting software? If not, how are you going to overcome your deficit in accounting knowledge? You do realize that filmmaking involves money, and without money skills you’ll go kaput?

How are you going to earn from your projects? What is the value of your project? How much is it worth to the audience?

How much have you ear-marked for yourself? Have you considered taxes and commitments? Can you live with what you make? Can you run a family and fulfill your lifestyle needs? Can you buy a house? If not, should you re-evaluate your goals and financial situation?

Are you in debt? Do you know how you are going to get yourself out of debt?

Do you know how to put together a film budget? Have you estimated the costs of marketing your movie?

Have you looked into the costs of submitting your project to various festivals? Can you afford it? Are you sure your movie is worth the effort?

Do you have the money to four-wall a theater? Can you fill it on show-night? How will you go about it? What guarantee do you have of its success? If you can’t succeed with a four-wall in your city, what chances do you have of succeeding country-wide or worldwide?

If there is no access to money at all are you willing to work to earn it? How many months or years are you willing to spend to earn the budget of your project? Do you know you can spend that time writing and prepping for your project?

What jobs can you do? Are you educated? Where can you place yourself to learn new skills and earn at the same time? How can you leverage the contacts you’ve made to help further your career?

How can you use yourself to earn money?

Superpower #9: Be the Shepherd

Gear you’ll need: Your voice.

What it costs: Nothing, except throat lozenges, maybe, for talking too much?

How to use this gear: Talk with passion.

Time this will take: Lifetime.

Questions to ask yourself:

Are you a leader? Why? Why do you want to lead? Can you delegate? Can you defer to professional opinion and expertise? Do you have an authority problem? Do you have an unhealthy ego?

Do you listen? Not hear, but really listen?

Can you care for your cast and crew? How will you display this? How will they know? How do you want them to respond? Are you going to maintain these relationships after your project is complete? If individuals aren’t important enough for friendship, do you really want them to be in charge of your cherished project?

Can you accept the responsibilities that leadership brings? What will you do if they need you?

What if there is an accident? What if there is an emergency? What if there is a total melt-down on set? Can you handle it? What is your pillar of support?

Will your crew be proud of the project, and in awe of you? Can you make that happen? Do you know the kind of sacrifices you’ll have to make to maintain this aura? Do you want it to be an illusion, or do you want to be a real leader? Are you planning on faking it?

When was the last time you led a group successfully to the benefit of all? Will your crew trust you with their careers and money? Why should they? What have you demonstrated to prove this is so?

When things go bad whom will you blame? Are you willing to take the blame for everything, no matter whose fault it is? Can you handle this stress and responsibility? Why do you want to handle it? What do you hope to get out of it?

Do you realize being a filmmaker means stepping into the spotlight? Can you handle the attention? Can you handle the nay-sayers? Can you handle the cynics? Can you handle the envious? Can you handle the critics? Can you handle those who try to stop you?

To what lengths will you go to complete your project? How much is it worth?

Are you aware that being a leader means always bringing your A-game? Do you realize that you can’t let yourself slack or appear to fail? You are human, but do you realize how by being a leader you are expected to take control of situations others can’t handle?

Can you handle press? Can you handle journalists and photographers? Can you collaborate with YouTubers or bloggers or social media influencers?

Are you capable of putting together a winning team? What can you say or do to bring this team together, and keep them together? Can you motivate, guide and lead by example?

If you are compromising on many things, is it fair that you expect your team to be perfect? Are you perfect? Where do you draw the line?

Superpower #10: Rinse and Repeat

Gear you’ll need: The will to stand up after a fall.

What it costs: Nothing that others can see.

How to use this gear: It must be ready whenever you need it.

Time this will take: Lifetime.

Questions to ask yourself:

You know you will fail at some point, right?

You also know that there is life past every failure, right?

In between these two events there is the art of getting up from a fall, did you know that? Can you get up after having fallen? When was the last time you got up, all by yourself?

Do you realize that filmmaking is basically the same thing over and over again, with the only difference between each project being the actual movie? Is your movie so important that you’re willing to spend two-thirds of your time on it on issues that don’t directly relate to it?

Do you have perspective? Can you maintain your perspective even through the chaos of a project? What about through several projects spanning many years?

Does your integrity come with an expiry date. Are you steadfast, or a push-around?

How strong is your resolve? Can you motivate yourself? Are you willing to try again? Are you willing to face failure before you have begun? Are you afraid of failure? Can you overcome this fear?

Can you face success? Very few have faced success, but what if it’s you? How will that affect your choices, and your resolve? What will happen when you fail after a string of successes? Will you be able to keep your feet on the ground? Do you realize this is a marathon, not a sprint?

What is your art? What kind of legacy do you want to leave? Why? What good will your string of movies do? Will they entertain? Will they move? Will they empower? Why are these things important to you?

Do you see now, that without knowing yourself, your circumstances, your gear, your decisions, your friends, your facts, your opinions, your time, your finances and your leadership skills you can’t hope to stand up after a fall?

And, do you see, that without every one of these superpowers, a filmmaking endeavor is doomed to fail?

Will you give up?

Summary

I know this article was tough to read.

Question after question: who can take such a barrage? But this is exactly what filmmaking feels like. You are expected to know the answers. Even when you don’t, you are expected to answer.

If you don’t do it, who will?

If you’re not the real deal, someone else will step up to the plate. Get over your fears. Be strong.

One thing I haven’t talked about is gear. Let me explain why I haven’t.

Let’s say I’ve set up a shot, and it has many elements: actors, costumes, lighting, makeup, sets, audio, etc. It is the combined effect of all these elements that make the shot. If I value my art, I am not willing to compromise on any of these effects. Having decided so, I know the makeup brush is as important as a camera and lens, even though the latter costs a whole lot more. I also know that the people using the tools are more important than the tools themselves.

If your brush fails during a shot, you can still continue shooting. If your camera stops working, you can shoot your movie on a smartphone.

That’s unacceptable, you might say. If that’s so, isn’t the loss of a brush unacceptable to the makeup artist?

If I’m okay with the makeup being out of place, why bother going to all that trouble. Is the compromising of my artistic vision acceptable or not? At what point does each artist draw the line?

I have my own boundaries – you must make up your own minds as to what your priorities are.

These are they questions that keep me awake at night – not the camera or all the razzmatazz. Those things might seem important, but it’s only because they are shiny.

The reality of filmmaking is different.

Filmmaking is tough. If you can face the music, you are a filmmaker. It’s the price of admission into the dance floor. Once you’re dancing, you can dance the night away.