Thursday, 11 May 2017

Words of advice for a young (female) film maker

Through my day job I met a couple who became aware of my film making endeavours and mentioned that their teenage daughter was wanting to become a film maker. They asked if I had any advice for her.

Obvious answer was "DON'T" or "LEARN A PROPER SKILL" but you can't stop the enthusiasm of youth...

In retrospect I think actually her parents were hoping I had contacts to help her get some actual work experience as part of her school module, when obviously I don't move in such circles (can someone get ME some proper work experience? :) )

However, I wrote the below for her...which harkened back to a period several years ago when an acquaintance was head of media at a secondary school and we were always planning on me going in to chat to them, so a lot of what I have to say below is what I think I would have said...or still would say if I was in that situation.

(I never did hear anything back apart from a brief thanks from the parents, so lord knows what their daughter thought of it...)


So, you want to make films?




Because a) you have youth on your side, you wee whippersnapper. But also b) it is SO much easier to get making films than ever before (obviously there is a downside to this, which is c) More people are making films, so you just have to work that bit harder or have more determination to stay the course when others give up!)

You probably hold in your hand a piece of technology which completely pisses over pretty much the first 20 years of me making films.

Look at what you can do on your phone - you can use a free web based scriptwriting piece of software (such as Celtx) to write your script in the industry formatted manner, write collaboratively if you want then once finished you can instantly distribute this script to people.

You can probably get some free art package, use a stylus and draw storyboards on your phone, which you can also distribute, save down or even collate together to create an animatic of the film you want to make.

You can cast your film, looking at actor profiles on line, watch their showreels, contact cast and crew instantaneously and at the same time via email and messaging services.

If you require extras, you could create an event on social media and help people spread the word. If you're looking for props or other things, again you can use social media to get the message out for free.

You can shoot the film on your phone, in HD, in some cases in 4K, with cheaply available app software which also allows you to colour tint and grade the footage afterwards. You can also get lens adaptors for some smart phones opening up the look even further.

There are CG SFX apps which can add some basic templates of effects, but which could be used creatively to look less obviously generic.

There is probably some very basic editing software that you can then edit this footage on.

No doubt there is also some basic sound design software to at least add some simple sound effects and overlay some music.

Once you've got something finished, you can upload to Youtube or Vimeo and distribute it freely and instantly to the whole world, then share and promote your film on social media. You can enter film festivals via your phone.

Quite frankly, this is absolutely remarkable.

Here's my comparison.

Typing scripts out on a type writer and going to the newsagents on the 5p photocopier copying the script, which you then have to arrange to meet people to distribute. Putting adverts up around town in the hope of finding some cast. Spending a night phoning people - some people are home, some people you leave messages on answer machines - after which you're no closer to having a shooting date. Shooting on clunky video tape...your phone probably shoots as high end, if not higher, than my Canon DSLR which I'm currently using. Editing on two video machines, losing quality with each copy...posting heavy video tapes to places to show them....

Oh, I could go on, but basically you have so much in your hands.

So with this, what should you do?

Shoot something.

Shoot anything.

Make something.

Make anything.

And afterwards...

Do the same again.

And keep doing it.

Really, the only way to get better is to keep doing it. I'm probably up to around 20 films now (I'm a bit slow, not because I'm a perfectionist) for over 20 years of making films and I'm still learning.

Have some friends act in something, Write something for them to recite, or if you can't think of anything to write, ask a friend. Think of something that appeals to you, or that your friends would want to be involved in and watch. What speaks to your generation?

Keep it short - asking anyone to watch something longer than 5 minutes is a big ask. Doesn't sound it, but believe me, unless it's 30 seconds of a cat playing a Theremin (search it on Youtube, it's amazing) people don't really want to give much time for your films (sadly speaking from experience) so getting them to watch a 20 minute epic is going to be a hard sell. At this stage, the shorter it is, the quicker it's finished, the quicker you can move on to the next film.

Make each film different - try doing a silent film. Try doing a dance routine. Try doing a chase. A fight. A one take film. A film that goes backwards. A film that skips in time. A documentary. A music video of a band at school/ college. An animation - do it with Playdoh. Then mix all these up - do a Playdoh dance routine music video. Keep trying different things while you have time on your side.

Don't get hung up on one film. Really. I spent 14 years making one film. REALLY. Was it worth it? Perhaps if it had been finished when originally it was planned to be, I may have got some attention for an ambitious no budget drama. Ironically, I got a tiny bit of attention due to the stupid amount of time it took. But the majority of that 14 years was spent waiting on other people to deliver something (sound design, grade) which never happened and with each passing year it was harder to get someone involved in a feature length film shot on dv tape in 1999 with frankly abysmally recorded sound. By the time you're editing you're probably learnt what you can from that film to some degree, so get it finished off and get on with the next idea.

Which kinda leads me to - SOUND. The eye will forgive a lot and watch something on crappy CCTV if it's compelling. But if the sound is bad, it ruins everything. You can get a pretty good Rode mic for about £150 and a Tascam digital recorder for £100 - that's my set up - I don't want my own sound equipment, but unfortunately sound designers are a rarity and much in demand to fix broken films, so I can't rely on getting one every time. If you record bad sound, have a go at dubbing the whole thing (another regret from my feature film.)

CAMERA - you will come across people who can bamboozle you with 4K Magic Red Eye Sony ASLR lowlight blahblahblah horseshit. Yes, a nice camera is great. But basically if you shoot a load of rubbish on a great camera, you just have nice looking rubbish (and I've sat through one from a similar obsessed techwhore.) Your phone is good enough - if the story is good, the direction is good, the sound is consistent (SEE ABOVE) that will be a better, more memorable film that Mr I've upgraded to a new £5000 camera while still paying off my previous £4000 camera which does anyone want to buy? `Most of these people are also male, which probably means they're compensating for something :)

Unfortunately MEN seem to be obsessed with technology and all this stuff - don't let them intimidate you. Brush up on enough basics of technical aspects, but you don't need to know everything, nor are you an idiot for not knowing everything - when you get to the point of having a camera operator they need to know their bit, same with the sound designer, lighting etc - as long as you can convey what you want clearly. Loads of tutorials online - hell, I'm still struggling to get my head around lenses and things like that, but there are some brilliant videos online that explain the difference that the width of a lens makes to a location, creating space or claustrophobia. That's a good one to know.

STORYBOARD - don't worry if you can't draw. STILL STORYBOARD. My style has not come on for 20 years. Look up Scorsese's storyboards for Taxi Driver - they're laughable, but who cares - it's a guide for you to remember what you want to shoot. Put the storyboards together in an animatic - it's very easy now and seeing the flow of shots can suddenly make you realise something important you MUST get on the shoot. But as always, don't be precious - something looks better on the day, go with that...remain fluid, but have your storyboard as a back up plan as well as a roadmap for what you're doing next. (On a shoot people want to know what's next, so know the order you're doing things in and what comes next rather than erring and arring - arring only allowed if you're wearing an eye patch and have a wooden leg.)

PREP PREP PREP - write down a list of everything that you'll need, from crew, actors, clothing, props, where you're shooting, how to get there, what you'll do if you can film there due to weather or pushy security guards who didn't get the memo that you have permission to shoot there but didn't print the email out as proof. Make notes on your script, all over your script - no one has to decipher what CAN FLS GEL HR except you.

ACTORS - don't be intimidated again. I've worked with some much older actors, paranoid that I'm being a complete youthful (well, back then) numpty, but they're there - they believe in the script, want to be part of it and want to make it work. I've worked with younger actors who have been a pain in the arse and delivered terrible performances. Don't be afraid to punch above your weight - if you have access to some older/ mature actors (maybe local drama group) and there are roles for them then I'm sure they'd love to be involved in a film made by a young person. There's a good book called Directing Actors (authoress escapes me) which talks about words which can be used to direct (as opposed to George Lucas' "faster, more intense" piss poor direction on Star Wars) If the actor has a suggestion, let them have their go - it may work. If not, ask them to do it your way too. Democracy and negotiation and appeasement skills required by a director!

SHOOT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE - you're not paying for tape anymore and you never know when the gold dust is hidden between the takes. Case in point on one of my films - at one point we used footage of the actor waiting for us to shout action, as it was better than his actual performance when we did say action :)

DON'T BE PRECIOUS - made this point above, but if the dialogue ends up sounding bad when spoke out loud, find a way to snip it back there and then. You'll be surprised how much can be conveyed by a look, or gesture...or equally a lack of a look or lack of gesture! I'm guilty of overwriting at the script stage, perhaps wanting to make sure the actors fully get the emotion they're going through, but on camera this can be compressed down to something far more effective. Again, above point - my actor was so bad and delivered the dialogue SO badly that my editor and I took the painful decision to cut as much of his dialogue as possible. As a result we created a far more mysterious, sullen character...and which audiences responded to far better than if I'd left in his frankly laughable delivery.

On the over writing stage - I wrote some howlers in the past, but was so determined that my "VISION" had to be seen through. If you start getting obsessed about vision, prod yourself in the eyes. That vision has made some of the most painful viewing of my humble filmic career because I couldn't imagine the film without them. Again, if it sounds bad on "set", or in the edit, find a way to get rid of it or slim it down.

STORY - many ways to tell a story...tone poems are one arty way, but I'm not a fan. For you at this stage, story needs to be very clearly defined and we need to get it asap. Where possible avoid twist endings - it's all a dream is not acceptable these days. If you think your twist is clever, most people see it coming way off. For the Future Shock stories in the comic 2000ad they used to say show the twist first and how that affects the story and world, as that's far more effective to see the twist this puts on the familiar. Watch a lot of short films - search "Best short films" online - there's a cracking one called Black Hole...also Lights Out got a lot of attention in recent years, even though I think it doesn't make much sense, but it's effective (and kinda pisses over my similar film Creak which came out beforehand and takes twice as long to tell a similar story not as well...)

YOUTH - darn you and your youth. But mega advantage - there are so many schemes/ competitions etc aimed at 16-21 or 16-25 or 18-21 etc that you can participate in. Enter EVERYTHING. Deadline is tomorrow night? Quickly come up with an idea. If it gets rejected, you may find that idea is actually a pretty smart idea that you want to pursue even without the support of the competition. Deadlines can sharpen the skills and mind (yes, sensei) There are quite a few schemes aimed to encourage female film makers too, so look for them - that's a double advantage and there's a big drive to see more female directors telling stories.

TUTORIALS - as above, so many tutorials online. Try and have a basic knowledge of everything, just to have some grounding. Key thing right now - some degree of awareness of After Effects/ digital imaging software - most people who seem to break through now are people doing effects ridden showreel shorts from their bedrooms (look at the Spanish guy who did - I think it was called Panico - and got to direct the remake of Evil Dead) Not suggesting you should do the same, but at this stage when you're most likely going to be doing the majority of things yourself then good to be able to add some polish by yourself.

Though this leads to COLLABORATORS - use the talent pool of your friends, colleagues, family, education establishment to find people to fill roles and give them an incentive for how it will benefit them. Find some fabulous writer on an English class or Drama class that can write a script, find actors in drama groups, find people on fashion courses and ask them to create off the shelf/ charity shop/ freecycled costumes for you, find a music student who will write a soundtrack, or may do your sound recording or sound design, look for artists who may be able to create interesting props or specific elements for you, an illustrator to make you a great poster image that you can share on social media. Help promote them and their own work to help promote your own - things like costumes (just some thought about colour schemes, maybe a quirky hat or something) can add some additional value to a short film, as opposed to some mates wearing their own clothes. You're probably surrounded by a bunch of creative talented people, so use your films as a glue to pull everything together and showcase everyone.

There's probably so much more I could say, but really, the best advice is to get on with it and start making films, There are loads of books you could read, classes you could take, expensive intensive film making courses you could pay an extortionate amount to do...but the best teacher is yourself, doing it, learning to problem solve on a shoot when it all goes wrong (personal case study - previously used actor fails to turn up as down the pub and decides tough luck to me, previous shoot with him included a fantasy element of girl imaging said actor as a Liam Gallagher geezer we recast him as the for no particular reason this group of male friends have a friend who is a puppet, which turned out quite memorable), dealing with the public, dealing with people who don't turn up, people will look to you for direction - decide what's next.

Also, don't be afraid to show your work. I think this is really important. It's REALLY nerve wracking showing your films in a room that you're in. I still get the quickening heartbeat and shakes even now. But it's so rewarding to watch it with people and get a feel for the genuine response. (I have very fond memories of showing my horror short Creak at an event and seeing a girl in the seat in front of me jump at one of the shock moments...very satisfying!) It's far far too easy to stick something up on the internet and hide away from it. Films need to be shown, they need to be seen. There are lots of film nights, amateur film nights in pubs, colleges etc. Get involved, don't be intimidated by your film not being shot on XXXXX and with funding from XXXXX - everyone has to start somewhere. I used to run a film night and it would frustrate me when I'd meet people who said they made films, but when I asked if I could show any of them they'd be like "Aw no, they're not as good as the stuff you've shown tonight" not realising I was bloody desperate as rarely had enough films to show :)

I've got very extensive makings of from some of my films on my blog, ironically which all take much longer to read than watching the damn films, but I think they could give you a good insight into the madness, horror, frustrations but (some) joy of no budget film making....though my experiences are very different, trying to fit it in around work, family etc and the same for many of my other collaborators. But you maybe able to garner some additional advice from them (hopefully)

Some books I'd recommend...

Robert Rodriguez's Rebel Without A Crew - bit out of date in the digital dslr age, but he's still inspiring and encourages you to write and create at a no budget level around things you have access to (like, say a record shop :) )

Judith Weston - Directing Actors - wish I could follow this more, but did find it really good.

Writer's Block - some daft little book but if you're stuck for inspiration at the writing stage have a look at this

Lloyd Kaufman - Make Your Own Damn Movie - ridiculous fun, but again low budget inspiration

Also have a look at websites like Raindance and Shooting People - they're usually trying to flog you membership or a course but at this stage worth following. Plenty of Facebook pages of film making groups (UK Film Network and Filmmakers...Generation Next spring to mind), just do a search for film and movie and see what pops up.

Good luck with it all and don't forget to thank me in your Oscar speech :)


  1. Brilliant advice Luth - love it! xx

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