Nine Tips for Amateur Filmmakers

Don’t shoot in a plain white room

[2009 NOTE: Ever since I wrote this in 2003, consumer cameras have been improving by leaps and bounds. I have updated this list to be more relevant to those reading it today.]

What is an "amateur" filmmaker? In times past, it was your dad, shooting home movies with his super 8 camera and then editing them in the garage with scissors and tape. But now that everybody owns a video camera, and most "independent" filmmakers need access to expensive resources (famous actors, promotional dollars) to get their films out to the world, maybe it's time we redefined the term "amateur" - that is, to reclaim its original definition as one who does something purely for the love of it. Still, even if your budget is under a hundred bucks, filmmaking is a time-consuming process and you don't want to look amateurish. Here are some tips:

  1. Create, don't steal. The vast majority of short films on the Internet are parodies or mash-ups. Only a tiny fraction of these are clever, but the real problem I have with them is that filmmakers are wasting time and talent on derivative works, leeching off of someone else's ideas (even when making fun of them). If this keeps up, there won't be any original material left to spoof! Dare to rise above and make something wholly your own. An added benefit is that you will own your own intellectual property, so you can copyright it and maybe even profit from it. You can't do that by making another Star Wars parody.
  2. Audition, don't just cast friends. You may find that only your close buddies are willing to humor your director fantasies. This is fine if you're just horsing around. But if you've written a neat little story that you'd like to shoot seriously, audition everybody. See if they can do the job first. I don't care if you live in Podunk, Iowa; you'll be surprised at how many local non-professionals can act well, or at least look interesting in front of a camera. Just try not to work only with friends. That can wind up giving you more headaches than you ever expected, as a) they might be terrible actors and b) you might piss each other off as you struggle to get good performances out of them.
  3. Interiors: Don't shoot in a plain white room. Most amateur filmmakers are twentysomethings with empty-looking apartments that have undecorated white walls, beige carpeting, and cottage cheese ceilings. With maybe a couch from IKEA and a torchiere lamp from Target. For God's sake, don't shoot your movie in such an apartment! At the very least, spend $40 on a couple cans of paint and add some color to those walls. Or find a friend with a nicely-decorated pad and shoot there. There's a reason everybody's house in the movies looks like a million bucks, and that's because ordinary homes aren't photogenic. I don't care what "statement" you're trying to make. Movies are like operas: they are meant to elevate mundane reality. Your movie will look cheap unless you add some color and texture to your scenery.
  4. Exteriors: Shoot anywhere cool-looking. The movies are all about taking the audience somewhere they don't normally go. You may not be able to make it out to the Great Wall of China, but if there's anywhere in your town with a great view, a strange building, a historic site, or a beautiful natural setting, shoot a scene or two there, even if you have to sneak in to do it. Eye-catching scenery always helps make a movie special.
  5. Get good sound! Everybody suggests this, yet nobody listens. Seriously. Don't use the little microphone in your camera to record sound. Rent a real mic and a boom to get closer to the actors' mouths. Don't shoot in rooms that have pronounced echoes. Always record "room tone" and "atmosphere" (a minute of silence at each filming location) to lay in under your various shots while editing, so that the background white noise doesn't noticeably change from shot to shot. Crappy audio makes a movie look more amateurish than even the grainiest, jerkiest video.
  6. Bring your camera close to the action. Many people put their camera on one side of the room and have their actors delivering their lines on the other side. Great way to call attention to that boring white wall. Be bold and go right for the close-ups. Notice how many movies and TV shows aren't afraid to fill the screen with a person's face? Try it. It will be especially handy when, if you're like most amateurs, your film will only be available for viewing in a tiny window on YouTube. Of course, it helps if the face you're shooting is an interesting one, which brings us back to the auditioning process. And while you're at it, try to entice someone to be your make-up artist. A little make-up makes a world of difference.
  7. Never say "We'll fix it in post." This plagues filmmakers working with $200 million budgets as much as it does those with $200 budgets. I know you'll get stressed out by how quickly you are losing time. The sun's about to set, your star has to leave for her day job, the cops are coming. You have to get the shot now. Well, there's a difference between "It's not perfect, but we can live with it" and "This won't work at all as it is, but we'll fix the audio, or improve the lighting, or digitally erase those power lines in the shot, later on in post production." You should always try to fix the problem on set first. Even if it takes you a couple of hours to get it right, that's still less time than it will take to clean it up on your computer afterwards. And it won't have that phony look to it either.
  8. Don't flatter yourself with "behind the scenes" material. This applies if you're spending weeks animating a credit sequence that has higher production values than your movie, or if you've hired a friend to shoot the "making of" while you direct your film, or if you add some interviews with yourself and your no-name cast and crew for your DVD. You're not Orson Welles, and this ain't Citizen Kane. Nobody besides your mother will be interested in this self-aggrandizing nonsense. Put all your creative energies into the movie itself. Spare the world your narcissistic "why I chose this camera angle" monologues.
  9. Solve all your problems by making a silent movie. Look at it this way: You won't have to worry about bad sound, or your amateur cast's inability to remember their lines, or your own dialogue (which might be clunky anyway). Plus, you will learn the true essence of filmmaking when you force yourself to tell your story only through visuals! If nothing else, it's a great way to practice. I wish you the best of luck in any event.