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Steps (can't afford film school?)

by Peter John Ross


STEPS (can’t afford film school?)

By Peter John Ross

I couldn’t afford film school. That costs money. In some cases, USC, UCLA, and NYU – a LOT of money. There is a lot to be learned in film school. There is also a lot to be learned on your own. Going to film school does not guarantee you a job, but the networking, relationships, equipment, and the creative environment has a value that can’t be measured.

So what about us wannabe’s with no way in? Are we doomed? People like Kevin Smith (dropout), and Quentin Tarantino exist on the mythology of their not liking film schools. There is the famous quote of James Cameron’s (later ripped off in the movie Good Will Hunting) where he was quoted as saying “I got a $150,000 film school education for a $1.50 in late fees at the public library. “

Okay, that’s great but what about us that don’t do so good with the book reading. Well, as was once told to me by the great Richard Linklater – “buy a camcorder and make a movie.” Today’s digital video and computers allow for a pretty amazing amount of learning to be had for very little money.

Wanna be a feature film director? Even without film school, you’ve got to learn your craft.

What often happens to overly ambitious people on their first projects is they overshoot their abilities. They try to make a movie that they don’t have the skills for (yet). When the final product is a disappointment, they quit, or get discouraged. Filmmaking is an art, not unlike being a musician. When someone sets out to make their first movie & expect to be Mozart the first time out, it probably AIN’T gonna happen (but could, anything is possible). Practice. Here’s a cheap set of things to try, to make your own self imposed Film School… it’s just a set of options, not an absolute.

A. NEWBIES – Never made a movie before? Start small. Come up with an idea something short. Now when I say short, I don’t mean 30 minutes, or even 10 minutes, but more like 1-2 minutes. Learn how to effectively tell a short story, much like verbally telling a joke if it’s a comedy, or just a moment in time. Even a dramatic “scene” that’s brief.

Shoot on video. Save $$$. Edit on whatever software you have either for free or very cheap. You probably don’t want to shoot on film your first time out. Film is expensive and you will definitely make mistakes, so why make them expensive mistakes? As was said to me by Richard Linklater – which is more important to you – owning film stock or telling a story?

Finish the short. It can’t possibly be too much work to finish a 1-3 minute short (that’s why you start this small).

There’s something to be said about accomplishing something, no matter how small. It’s positive re-enforcement. Get used to finishing your projects. It’s a good habit to get into, as it will be the difference between those that make a career of it and those that dream about it and do nothing to make it happen.

Show your first piece to a lot of people. Get feedback. Get it from film people, non-film people, but make sure to expand beyond your family and friends. They may have an opinion they withhold because of your feelings. You’ll never learn anything that way. You can always put your movie online for people to see and get brutal, yet honest feedback. Not everyone will like your movie, get used to it as early as possible.

Since digital video is cheap, make several of these. Think of them as exercises. Set goals for each movie and try to achieve them. Learn by doing. Tape is cheap. Waste as much as you need to, but learn as much as you can.

B. SOPHMORE MOVIE - Get bigger. Challenge yourself on the next project. Make this one longer. Maybe try moving the camera more, or make the scenes more complicated. Work with more experienced actors. For myself, I won’t do a project unless I can learn something new and there’s ALWAYS something to learn. Whether it be how to edit on a moving dolly shot, learning a new aspect of framing and why, finding out what an ASA rating is, or anything I don’t know.

So maybe a 3-10 minute long movie with several scenes, multiple characters. If you want to step up to film, an option is Super 8mm film. It’s pretty inexpensive, but still exponentially more pricey than $4 for a 63 minute tape. You can start learning the process of synching separately recorded audio, the basics of film developing, telecine transfer, and simple film stock/lighting choices.

Start working with more people. Bring in a separate cameraperson. Work with a separate editor, even if it’s someone with less experience than yourself. Delegating is what will happen on bigger productions, so it’s better to start learning how to do this, regardless of what Robert Rodrieguz says. RR is very inspirational, but it’s very hard to pull off what he has in the studio system (but not impossible).

C. THE LONGER SHORT FORM – feel pretty good about the movies you’ve already made? Mastered the basic of scenes and simple storytelling? Now try something a lot more complex. Try keeping the attention of an audience for 20-45 minutes.

Creating compelling characters, shooting and editing them in such a way that an audience cares about what your plot does to them – this is what we’re all trying to do. If you skipped the first two parts, how exactly are you expecting to do this? Well – some people CAN. Some of you have a gift and can exert it. I can give several examples of first time filmmakers that came out of the gate with amazing filmmaking skills (Steven Spielberg, Robert Rodrieguz, Sam Mendes, Joel/Ethan Coen, and many more).

Shooting on film can be expensive. If you’ve practiced enough on video, you may have picked up a bad habit of shooting a lot more than you need. When shooting on film, you have to be conscious of the budget, so your shooting ratio will be much lower than video. A good thing to learn early on is how to shoot what you need, without compromising your options. Shooting on video often means shooting a lot more coverage than you will ever use. Do you really need a close up of every single extra in a scene? On video, it’s a few minutes of shooting, and 1/3rd of a $.01 worth of tape. On film, it’s extra lighting setups, $.30 a foot for film & processing, and $50 for the 15 minutes of telecine time to look at it and decide you’re never gonna use it. Learning to be conservative with film & coverage on a short will be less expensive than running out of money on your first feature.

At this stage, there’s a whole other can of worms to consider. Film Festivals, promotion, and marketing. Things relating to the “business” half of “Movie Business” become important when you want to be a professional. Getting your work seen and building relationships that will further your filmmaking career aren’t going to happen by themselves. A limo won’t be en route to your front door just because you made a movie. It actually has to get seen by the right people at the right place at the right time.

Learn by doing. These are just options that just about anyone can try. There are plenty of great books out there, but it’s all theory until you actually get off the couch and do it for yourself. Not being able to afford Film School is a cop out. Go make your movies.


About award winning filmmaker Peter John Ross & Sonnyboo Productions – Founded in 1999, Sonnyboo short films have played on 3 continents and at over 50 film festivals world wide. Projects directed by Peter John Ross have appeared on Tech TV, National Lampoon Networks, Movieola the short film channel, The “U” Network, and Vegas Indies TV. Sonnyboo films have been noted in such publications as RES Magazine, Ain’t It Cool News, Camcorder & Computer Video magazine, Film & Video Magazine, LA Weekly, Film Threat, the Village Voice, & Internet Video Magazine.


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