Grade School Failure to Award Winning Filmmaker in Twenty Short Years

– Posted in: Growing Professionally and Staying Creatively Inspired Producing Film / Video Productions

John Holser 10 YEARS_300My mom kept me back in the second grade. She said my classmates were bad influences on me.

That was when my dad started calling me Dumb-Dumb.

Seriously he did, and it wasn’t just for a few days, it was for most of a year. He had nicknames for all six of his children and now Dumb-Dumb was mine because I failed second grade.

Now, I’m not going to get into the psychological implications of this event except to say he didn’t give me the nickname to be mean. He did it because he thought he could embarrass me into doing better and working harder.

It didn’t work, at least not in the short term. I think the reasons I was having trouble in the second grade and then later in life were many. They were likely festering somewhere in between my mom wanting to blame it on others and my dad’s interpretation – whatever it was.

But this post is not about psychology; it’s about inspiring you to realize your filmmaking goals. Hmmm…. I guess in a way it is about psychology then, isn’t it?

Let me start by telling you who I’m not.

I’m not a Hollywood director.

I didn’t go to film school. Hell, I didn’t even finish community college.

I left school one business course shy of an associate’s degree to start my own video production business.

I’m an entrepreneur/filmmaker.  John Holser - BETA BEACH-300

Warning: this is a combination that does not promote stability, not at first anyway.

But one thing I can truly say about being an entrepreneur/filmmaker is I’ve never been short of ideas. However, I have been short of money. My wife will attest to that!

Thankfully, things have changed for the better. In this post, I’m going to outline my journey and highlight the things that I think were most important to the success I’ve had.

Yes, I still have way too many ideas but my money situation has improved largely because I’ve learned to focus my efforts on important leverage points.

As of this moment, I’m in my fifties and have been making films for more than twenty-five years.


Thankfully, I feel like I’m in my creative prime.

I’ve done everything from weddings and corporate productions to a sketch comedy show with Jimmy Fallon. I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with blind climbers while shooting a PBS documentary and spent almost two years shooting a documentary about eight independent filmmakers. I’ll tell you more about some of the great insights I learned during that process later.

I first fell in love with the idea of making fiction films while taking an acting class.

I was taking acting classes with a guy named Keith Eagle. Keith was up from New York City and was a student of renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner.

If you don’t know who Sanford Meisner is, look him up. He’s a genius and one of the big three acting teachers of all time. His students are many, but two of my favorites are award-winning directors Sydney Pollock and David Mamet. I didn’t realize how lucky I was until years later.

So, here I was a small town boy in upstate New York, studying hardcore Meisner method acting. Pretty cool, right? It gets better.

After a few months of study, Keith asked if I’d like to provide video support for an on-camera acting class he wanted to start.

John Holser 28_VHS_300I had the camera equipment and he had the knowledge and students. 

No brainer – my answer was an immediate yes!

I would never be the same.

It started slowly, but eventually I began to direct performance and give actors feedback. Within the Meisner structure, I’d ask the actors about scene objectives and “before this scene” backstory questions. I’d then translate my ideas for performance changes into “as-if” statements. These, along with other Meisner techniques, became part of my director’s toolbox. Knowing that I was using the same methods that Sydney Pollack and David Mamet were using helped me feel confident in the wish-washy world of performance directing.

I can tell you for certain that learning and practicing Meisner acting skills has changed my professional directing life.

At this point, I was inspired by the abundance of actors in my area, and being the entrepreneurial sort, I teamed up with a photographer friend to start a casting company. We would cast actors for television commercials and corporate productions. We had a few national gigs. We operated the company for about two years with moderate financial success. But while it didn’t make me rich, it did increase my opportunities to direct and practice my newfound skills tremendously.

I was now using the skills used by Sydney Pollock and David Mamet in every casting session and on every production. I was giving every actor a workout and they loved it.

I was directing fifty to a hundred actors every month. 

I was bit by the directing bug, and from that moment, I knew I had to be a director.

That was until I began sharing a studio space with two photographers and befriended a third. Photographers now surrounded me. I was in my late twenties and sucking up every bit of knowledge I could from these guys.

I was studying:JH-nikon

  • Composition
  • Lighting
  • Exposure latitude
  • Contrast
  • Color
  • Lens Perspective, Compression and more.  

Creating a wonderful photo was like magic. I was especially passionate about lighting. These guys had lights and they knew how to blend them with natural light.

I was a video guy. If there was enough light, I would shoot.

The photographers hijacked my eyes!

I not only studied with my friends, but I took numerous workshops with ASC cinematographers Sol Negrin and Rob Draper.

In these workshops, I learned about lighting instruments and about hard and soft light qualities. I also learned how to light with a meter and design a lighting plan. I spent a lot of money attending workshops but I was hungry and couldn’t get enough of a good thing.

To date, I’ve spent just over ten thousand dollars on directing and cinematography workshops.

I know it sounds like a lot but it wasn’t all at once. This has turned out to be some of the best money I’ve ever spent. If I looked at this from a business point of view, the “return on investment” has been fantastic. In hindsight, the cost was minimal.

Learning to light from a meter may not have changed my career as much as learning Meisner’s acting, but it offered me immediate cash flow opportunities.

JohnGaffer-250Look Mom, I’m a Gaffer!

With my new skills, I went to work for the grip and electric departments on reasonably budgeted indie films. Eventually I became a gaffer and then a cinematographer. I learned a ton about sculpting light and about moving through an 18 – 31 day feature production.

But maybe the most important thing I learned is you don’t want the first assistant director to ever say “waiting on G&E (grip and electric)”.  Ouch!

Why are these words so terrible?

If all the other departments are ready for the camera to roll on the next setup and you are not, the entire production is waiting on and watching you. Not only is it hard to rig lights and nets while the entire crew is watching you – THE ENTIRE CREW IS WATCHING YOU!

If they’re watching you, they’re not shooting. And as you’ll soon realize, keeping the camera rolling is the most difficult and most important goal the producer has. As you’ve probably guessed, the first assistant director is the onset voice of the producer.

So during this time, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to be.

I was working as:

  • A freelance cameraman
  • A freelance lighting technician
  • Part-time camera operator at a television station
  • Producing and directing my own jobs

Don’t worry; you don’t need to follow my path. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it.

If you stick around, you’ll see that I’d advise anyone to take a different path. However, my experiences have put me in a unique position, and while I took the long route to achieve some of my goals, I got there. And I’m still moving forward. This blog is a step along my path. The route I’d recommend for you involves learning and leveraging proven systems.

Most people aspire to become a director or a cinematographer.

What they don’t fully realize yet is that they need to become a producer first or they need to find one. This isn’t needed for early backyard filmmaking. However, the moment their expectations involve selling high-quality films and videos, they’ll need a plan, crew members and a producer before they can grow beyond basic backyard filmmaking.

If this is you, pay close attention to the upcoming section.

CrewOnTruckWorking with a team to turn scripts into a production machine.

I’m not saying your short film needs twenty crew members, but I’m also not saying it doesn’t. That depends on what your expectations are, how many locations you have and how ambitious your script is.

It’s fairly easy to predict how successful a shoot is going to be. Think about that for a minute. You might think I’m talking crap. I’m not. If you think of “film production” as “manufacturing”, you’ll recognize that they both include repeatable tasks that can be systemized and measured. This process involves numbers, and numbers are easy to add, subtract, divide and multiply. Once you know what the numbers mean, you can pretty much predict the outcome.

This is the part of my consulting work that sometimes blows people’s minds. It not rocket science, but it is the foundation to a successful film or video shoot.

Making production systems pay off. 

I first learned about systems when I took a full-time job for a corporate production company. The company specialized in corporate communication, advertising and video training. Up to this point, I had produced some television commercials and two Telly award-winning TV shows.  While working in various film crew positions, I’d also watched how producers and first assistant directors moved a production crew through numerous locations and hundreds of camera setups per week.

These producers worked with systems, but the key to their successful implementation was based on communication through departmental hierarchy.

This discovery would prove instrumental to improving systems within my upcoming full-time job.

When I took the new job, I thought I would be directing. However, I was mostly given the less than desirable task of production coordinator/assistant director. I was the low man on the totem pole and that meant I’d be producing.

Little did I know; this producing gig would end up being a great move for my financial future.

John Holser - 01Large-scale video training projects share the same infrastructure needs of a feature film.

If you can’t bring projects in on-time and on-budget in the corporate video world, you don’t work.  It’s that simple.

The company I was now working for created a lot of video training for a big publishing company. The publishing company specialized in textbooks for community colleges and vocational training, including HVAC technicians, Nursing, Firefighting, Cosmetology, Barbering and more. They often wanted to turn portions of their textbooks into video training seminars and that’s where we stepped in.

Our job was to:
1. Turn chapters from a textbook into an audio/video script.
2. Find and secure on-camera talent capable of performing the skilled actions described in the script.
3. Find and secure locations needed for the script. At times, this resulted in over ten main locations and numerous sub-locations.
4. Find and secure props needed for the script. Now remember, this is training so the props had to be specific, working and approved.
5. Create a master accounting script in the form of a spreadsheet that had all of the above-mentioned moving parts accounted for.
6. Create a series of breakout documents, including shooting schedule, master props list, talent call sheets, art department designs and more.
7. Efficiently move this equipment, crew, the subject matter expert and the clients through multiple locations and numerous (out-of-script-order) camera setups during a ten-day video shoot. Keep in mind, our shooting was supervised by a subject matter expert who had never shot “out-of-script-order” and often had great difficulty comprehending where we were in relation to the script and how the shot would work when edited into the final movie.

I said “movie” on purpose because from a production point of view, we were absolutely making a movie.  We had individual departments skilled at what they do and we had a hierarchy to those departments.

Ok, are you finding this information helpful? If not, let me know in the comment section. Really, I’d love to know if you see the connections and how you might use this info in your productions. Also feel free to ask a follow-up question. I’d love to hear from you.

If you look at the infrastructure I’ve outlined above, you’ll see it’s very similar to how the Hollywood studio system works, and we all know Hollywood knows how to manufacture movies.

DSC_0496Producing is a balancing act!

If you want to create a sustainable filmmaker lifestyle, you need to blend manufacturing and the creative process together.

I can’t tell you the specific blend ratio because it’s based on the needs of the project and the day. But what I can tell you is this; you won’t survive in this business without it.

Don’t worry creatives, you don’t need to do it all.

If you stick with me, I’ll show you how to attract producers and crew members with nothing more than your good looks – I mean, good work 🙂

I’m not kidding.

Tip of the Day!

Art Needs Structure

An individual artist may be willing to starve for the art, but film crews, video editors and set builders want to eat. 

If we want to make good films that will sustain us and our crews, we must incorporate systems and we must marry those systems with our art. This is leverage.

These days, I’m focusing more on becoming a better director and collaborating with cinematographers and producers who are better than I am.

Keep in mind, sometimes better can mean “as good” but they are better because they are focusing exclusively on one task. A reasonably good producer or cinematographer can easily be better than you would be, if you were also directing. This is common sense.

[bctt tweet=”Be so good at something you can’t be ignored.”]

This quote is most commonly attributed to comedian Steve Martin. What it means to us is that if you become really good at directing, including all the pre-production design and paperwork, you’ll attract good producers, actors and a good cinematographer. Everybody wants to work with people who are PREPARED and really good at what they do.

Be a powerful magnet!

If your thing is directing, you need to get so good at directing that you can attract a really good producer.

[bctt tweet=”If your thing is cinematography, get so good that you can attract a really good director.”]

We can, and should, begin our filmmaking careers in our backyards and by exploring all the filmmaking departments. It’s important to have fun and work through the process. This is the part of learning where for the first time we make visible those things we don’t know that we don’t know. How could we know about them if we’ve never been through the process before? Again, common sense.

But once we’ve made a few backyard films and we begin to have bigger expectations, it’s time to work with systems and leverage.

We need to create a team.

You need to ask yourself, “What do I want this film or video project to do for me?”

Once you identify that, you can use the systems I described above to set yourself up for success.


The Future of Filmmaking 

I’ve often considered moving to L.A. with hopes of making a name for myself. I never went for it. I can truly say I don’t know if it’s been fear or comfort that kept me from going. I suspect it’s been a combination of both. Overall, I don’t regret it. I love where I live.

With that said, I did stretch beyond my comfort zone on numerous occasions, so I won’t beat myself up too badly for not being a big Hollywood director.

I’ve spent months on the road getting an intimate view of indie filmmaking while shooting a documentary and researching the possibilities of being a sustainable filmmaker.  And until now, the outlook discouraged me.

I say until now, because the investigation left me feeling like the odds were so heavily stacked against me.

Until now, indie filmmaking has been tough to leverage into a sustainably successful business model. As you can probably see by now, I like leverage.

Things are changing though and it’s not just in cheaper equipment. The business model is changing and I’m excited by it.

So, I’m back at filmmaking – that’s my future.

I’m cutting back on working for corporate productions and ad agencies. Instead, I’m laying the foundation for making my own special interest videos, shorts, documentaries and maybe even a feature or two.

Sustainable filmmaking has finally become sustainably doable and I’m hoping you’ll join me on the journey. This blog is part of this transition and over the coming months, I’ll show you how I’m going to fulfill my lifelong dream.

I’ll make a promise.

I’m promising to share what I know, the people I know, the resources I use, and all I ask for in return is your honest engagement.

If the sharing I do helps you, then please help others. If you like my stuff, share it. If you don’t like it, please give me the courtesy of telling me why.

I hope you’re as excited about these new possibilities as I am. If you are, be sure you’re on my email list. This is where the journey will unfold.

Please stay in touch and please – Be really good at whatever you do!