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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Q. Should I buy this $400 set of DVD's about filmmaking?
No. I don't think so.

First of all, there are umpteen books on how to make short films, and you can get many of them from your library. Without sitting through the DVDs I can't be sure, but I don't feel confident that DVD's are going to teach you more than books.

But more importantly, neither books nor DVDs are going to teach you how to make short films. Not really.

What teaches you to make short films is making short films.

Here's my filmmaking course: read one (and no more than one) book on short film making. Then shoot a short film. Then read another. And shoot another. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I learned shockingly little about making films from my classes in film school. I learned a great deal more from working in the industry. I've learned a great deal more than that from making my own short films (whether at university or film school or recently privately) and working on other people's films.

$400 buys you a cheap video camera. You can edit on your computer (e.g. using Final Cut on a Mac).

Don't worry about fancy lighting until you've seen what ordinary lighting does for you. Then read a book that has a chapter on film lighting.

Don't worry about fancy editing until you've tried to edit by instinct. Then read a book that has a chapter on basic editing. Hey, they're probably the same book.

I feel that there are WAY too many courses and books and seminars and schools and chat rooms out there. It is wonderful that there are so many ways to learn how to be a better filmmaker. But after the first book, reading becomes an obstacle to actually going out and doing it.

How many books would you want to read about horse riding before you got on a horse? What would those books mean to you until you actually got on a horse?

There are many, many details that you can and must learn about filmmaking. But it is very hard to absorb them -- and even harder to know which you need to absorb and which you don't -- until you've actually got up on the horse.

(By the same token, if you can get someone who's made a short to coach you through making your short, that's an entirely different story. I wouldn't recommend you get up on a horse without a riding instructor. But then, it's harder to fall off of a short film, and it hurts less, too.)

Don't worry about making a bad short film. Tell yourself that your first ten short films are training exercises, not meant to be shown to anyone except the people working on them with you. Go out and make five video shorts under ten minutes.

You can step up to a $2000 prosumer video camera whenever you feel that the cheapie consumer video camera is limiting you, but honestly, it's not about how good your film looks. It's about learning to tell stories with moving pictures. I made three terribly amateurish video shorts before I went to film school. I wish I'd made six. By the time you're in film school, you're already thinking about getting an agent, which tends to limit how many risks you take with your filmmaking. Experiment when the stakes are still low.

Reading books can teach you more about filmmaking than reading books can teach you about screenwriting, but not much. There is no substitute for actually doing it.

Q. But this course will show me how a film production works, what the production manager does, etc. Won't that help me be a better writer?
I don't think so. Not really. I don't think being a p.a. on the set helped me with my writing at all, and I was actually seeing films being produced.

Acting training helps. Writing lots helps lots. Directing and editing a short film helps. Seeing your material directed, or directing it yourself, helps a lot.

Knowing the details of how you get things on the screen on a professional production -- mneh. That teaches you how to be a producer.

UPDATE: Elver writes in the comments
But if sight and sound is the medium you want to learn in, then buy the collector's edition / director's cut versions of your ten all-time favorite films. Watch all the "making of" features and listen to all the commentaries.
Or get them at Netflix or Zip. Much DVD commentary is purely anecdotal but some directors give up a bit of craft here and there. Joss Whedon's commentary on his TV shows is full of insight, too. You really shouldn't have to spend $400.

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It amazes me how there are so many classic books on filmmaking, but no classic DVDs on filmmaking. It's like the only good novel writing howtos being available in the form of interpretive dance.

But if sight and sound is the medium you want to learn in, then buy the collector's edition / director's cut versions of your ten all-time favorite films. Watch all the "making of" features and listen to all the commentaries. Then hit the books and practice.

By Blogger Elver, at 2:32 AM  

For the $400 you can buy the Flip Video Camera ($140) and AA batteries, a microphone (to plug into your laptop for ADR) and make some other doodads you may need - a "steadicam rig" ($14), lights, props, etc...

You can edit your footage on your laptop using edit software you can get online for free (www.metacafe.com under "resources") along with music, graphics, etc...

The best way to learn to make movies is to make movies - a lot of them - and rethink the process for yourself. Spend money where it's going to feed YOUR moviemaking and not feed someone else's.

By Blogger Cunningham, at 3:19 PM  

There might be a column to be had about which DVD commentary tracks are truly useful for aspiring filmmakers.

Generally speaking, any track by Robert Rodriguez is likely to be useful--he seems very mindful of the fact that anybody listening to his commentary is likely to be an aspiring filmmaker. I especially recommend the El Mariachi/Desperado double edition, which includes his "10 Minute Film School" as an extra feature.

Similarly, the commentary track for Christopher Nolan's zero-budget debut film FOLLOWING offers some good insight into the zero-budget filmmaking process.

On a higher budget, John Frankenheimer tended to offer a little more nuts-and-bolts stuff than the average director commentary. I don't think it was as helpful as Rodriguez's tracks, but I seem to remember that Frankenheimer's commentary on RONIN was worth listening to.

By Blogger Jacob, at 8:37 AM  

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