Help – My first short film was a huge failure!

– Posted in: Directing Films and Videos

I recently received an email from one of my subscribers asking for help. A filmmaker in distress and thinking about quitting.  I’ve been there more times than I can count, so I’m pretty confident I can help him re-frame and get things into perspective.

I think his problem and the problem most of us in this situation have is that our preparation is not in balance with our expectations.  Read his request and my response, and you’ll see what I mean:

Hi John,

I have gone through your last mail about feelings doubts, it was really helpful. I have a question in my mind.

As I am going to start my first project within a few days. I had made my first short film as a cameraman and it was a huge failure for me and my friends. I had decided not to make any films in the future. But then I realized that everyone fails at the beginning. I have never made a film as a director.
I want you to help me and give me some tips, as a beginner.

Thank you,


Hi Keith,

I’m sorry to hear that you had a huge failure. I hope it helps to know you are not alone. Actually, most of us start off failing.

This is mostly due to not matching expectations with preparation. For me to better help you I need to know a few things:

1. How long have you been actively working at filmmaking as a craft?

2. Are you disciplined in they way you approach a new project or are you kind of making it up as you go?

3. Are you creating a shooting plan before you start shooting?

I’ve come to learn that good things take time and energy.

My next set of questions have to do with expectations. 

[bctt tweet=”Most new filmmakers measure themselves against what they see in their fave movies. This is a big mistake!”]

Very few of us can create what we see on the big screen. This will change as you learn and continue to make movies. If you are brand new to filmmaking, you should shoot “exercises” that explore filmmaking techniques instead of “movies”.

I suggest you keep these exercises short and easy to accomplish in the beginning. Maybe explore “creating camera coverage” and get two actors (friends) and have them move to three different locations in a room. Look at a few movies and learn how they “create camera coverage” for similar moves and copy what they did.

Or, explore different camera setups by plotting setups on paper as an overhead diagram or as a shortlist. Shoot more coverage than you think you need. Try to motivate where you put the camera, the height of the lens and the focal length of the lens with an emotion. Then go into the edit room and try different ways of cutting the movement. Don’t do it just one way. Shoot enough angles so you can edit it four different ways.

By doing exercises, you’re setting yourself up for success instead of failure.

[bctt tweet=”If you explore you’ll learn, and if you learn you’ll succeed.”]

Here’s another tip for you.

“Directing is not about designing cool shots and documenting dialogue” 

“Directing is motivating a shooting plan with subtext and point of view” 

The problem is in the way we’ve learned the language of cinema. 

Seventy percent of the new filmmakers I surveyed learn to make films by mimicking the shots they’ve seen in movies. They either see an opportunity to copy a cool shot or they use a version of the basic triangle coverage pattern. They’ve practiced on television and made for TV movies.

We’ve learned how to make movies by consuming movies. Which is similar to thinking we can be chefs by eating a lot of food. That’s not an effective way to learn. It’s certainly not a fast way to learn. It’s a fast way to get discouraged. Most people can boil an egg or form ground beef into a patty and throw it on a grill. But until you’ve learned and mastered the basics, you’re not a chef and you can’t create consistent art.

Successfully documenting “properly exposed,” “well framed” actors might resemble directing, but it lacks the ingredients that make the scene authentic. If you want to be a top notch director you need to take it beyond “consuming films” and begin studying films.

Not just the DVD extras but actually break down the scenes we love and ask ourselves.

– How many separate camera setups did the director use?

– Why did he choose each?

– What lens did he use and what effect does it have?

– What “point-of-view” does the scene favor, where does this change?

The breakdown process is simple, the “reasons why” are complex. In the beginning it’s enough to break it down, ask the questions and have an opinion.

[bctt tweet=”Don’t worry about being right, this is about trusting yourself to think differently.”]

It’s about shifting from seeing the movie with the eyes of the maker, instead of with the eyes of the consumer.

Years of watching movies and television has trained us  to “not see” and that’s the way it must be for consumers. The movies edits and it’s infrastructure are supposed to be invisible to the consumer. But the director must make the invisible visible, like scaffolding used to build the films structure.

We’ve learned to see movies with “audience eyes”  But, we need to learn to see films with director, producer and cinematographer eyes.

Just because someone is a huge film fan doesn’t mean they can command a film set or leverage the powerful film proaction infrastructure without paying their dues.

– Are you paying your dues?

– Are you reading and breaking down scenes?

Please let me know what kind of film study you’ve been doing. If you actually write it down and send it to me, it will help you evaluate your own “expectation to preparation” balance. There’s something about sending it to another human being that makes the writing process more powerful, so I encourage you to send me a list of what you’ve studied and how you study film. Invest in yourself.

Remember happiness and success is about balance!

Keep you head up!