Practice directing films the garage band way!

– Posted in: Directing Films and Videos Film School & Training

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How good a filmmaker do you want to become?

That is a question worth asking if you have any ambition at all.

Do you want to be:

  • a good camera operator?
  • reasonably good at lighting?
  • pretty good at directing actors?

The best question is – does “pretty good” sound like a recipe for success? The obvious answer is no. But, unfortunately, this is how many “wannabe directors” approach filmmaking, and that’s fine when it’s a hobby.

But, if you want to create a career in film that is worthy of attracting an appreciative audience, please ask yourself – will being a jack-of-all trades get you to where you want to be?

This approach is not impossible. It has worked for a few select filmmakers, with Robert Rodriguez being one. And please, if you’re following this path and can speak of the benefits, please leave a comment below so we can all learn from your insights.

Personally, I prefer a more specialized approach. I think if we want to gain competency and some level of mastery of a process this complex, we need to focus our efforts, time and energy on learning a craft.  Similar to the way a nozzle on a garden hose creates force by narrowing it’s broadcast, we can intensify our filmmaking efforts by narrowing the number of skills we need to be excellent at.

What are the benefits of being a one-person band?

  • You have more control over the entire process.
  • You don’t have to explain what you want or why you want something.
  • You can make small films very fast.
  • You can learn fast.
  • You can practice directing films.

Being a “one-person band” offers important knowledge of the process and perspective on each of the separate filmmaking departments. Learning about lighting, lenses and audio can go a long way when it comes time to plan, communicate and execute your vision to others.

This diverse training will help you see how the process works but is not a long-term strategy to directing films. The trap and downside of being a “one-person band” is it’s fun to hang with a few friends making small films you write, shoot, light and direct. With some actors and a sound guy, you’re all set. The problem only occurs when you want your films to play to a bigger audience. For this, you need focus.

If you really want to learn how to make bigger films, I highly recommend working as a production assistant (“PA”) on at least one, ideally three, short or feature-length films.

Ideally you would work:

  1. as a general PA.
  2. as a PA in the camera department.
  3. as a PA in the grip & electric, art or sound department.

What if you approached the process the same way serious musicians learn their craft?

In the rest of this post, I’m going to make my best argument for the importance of focusing on the crafts of either directing or cinematography. And I’m going to advise that you become really, really good at one before trying to become really, really good at the other. Notice I didn’t say “pretty good.” 😉

Life fact

[bctt tweet=”If you want to create art, stop being a handyman and instead focus on learning a specific craft. “]

I use the word art here to include any original video or film project that engages and entertains its target audience.

Many of you won’t narrow your focus right away and that’s okay, spending a little time learning “about” the process will serve you well. But make no mistake; if you want to get noticed, you’ll need to focus on the craft.

Think of it this way. Many pro-musicians can play numerous instruments, but the best musicians focus on mastering one. Can you name a musician whose become noteworthy because they’re “pretty good” playing multiple instruments? Probably not, but we all know plenty of lead guitar players, lead singers, piano players, violin, drummers, even banjo players that have delighted us with their mastery.

Filmmaking and music are both a collaborative art form that relies on skilled individuals working for the benefit of the creation. Being part of a team has tremendous benefits.

The garage band success formula is: 

  1. Find an original song.
  2. Find skilled musicians.
  3. Communicate the song through notes and chords.
  4. Try the music.
  5. Tweak the music.
  6. Practice alone.
  7. Practice together.
  8. Test your work by playing for an audience.

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Every individual musician knows his success is directly related to the entire band and the final creation.  The musician’s job is to show up prepared and that means learning and practicing. The wannabe guitar player practices chords, notes and finger agility. The new piano player signs up for private lessons and spends considerable money learning basic skills as well as advanced performance techniques.

Becoming part of a band is key to the success of many individual musicians. Being “chosen” brings built-in pressure to practice and collaborate. The individual must practice and then present their skills to the other band members. Together they create the music.

This is similar to each of the separate film departments bringing their individual skills together to make a film. We need to be at our best or we let our teammates down.

The point here is that before the “art” becomes great, the “artist” needs to practice.

Given two trumpet players, most of us could easily tell which trumpet player had practiced and which had “kind of” practiced. It’s painfully obvious!

The same is true with filmmakers.

Are you practicing the art of directing actors?

Do you know how to practice?

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Maybe Peter found a short cut to fame?

Peter loves listening to music, especially the piano. He loves listening to the piano so much he saved his money and bought one. With his keyboard next to his computer, he watches free YouTube piano lessons. Not happy with working on the fundamentals the free lessons advocate, Peter buys a book that promises to teach him how to play his favorite songs. This is exactly what he was looking for and he gets to work memorizing these songs.

It’s clear Peter wants more than anything to be a famous piano player.

A month goes by and with the help of the book; Peter learns to play five of his favorites. His mom and a few others think he’s destined for greatness. Peter agrees. His dream is so clear he books a recital hall and begins an aggressive promotional campaign for his debut performance. When speaking to others, Peter disguises the high expectations he has for this performance by down playing it. But secretly there’s no doubt Peter hopes this big event will jump-start his career.

Peter is putting a lot of energy into promoting the event. His efforts will likely pack the house.

  • Will Peter’s career be launched?
  • What do you think?
  • He can play great renditions of two Billy Joel songs, Elton John’s “Your Song”, Wilson Picket’s “Mustang Sally” and “Hey Jude” by The Beatles.

We can easily see the absurdity of this, right? We all know a musician can’t succeed by learning to mimic Billy Joel no matter how good they are at promoting events.

Peter may have talent, but he has no musical skills – not yet. He hasn’t studied the craft. He can memorize a song, but memorizing keys for five songs is not the same as learning how to play music. We all know this is absurd when we look at from the outside looking in. Unfortunately for Peter, statistics show that he will likely quit the piano and we will never know if he could have been a contender.

Do you feel sorry for him? I do.

I feel sad that Peter will never know the joy of learning a craft and of hearing the applause that comes from creating original art. I think Peter’s love for piano music could have enriched his life if only he had focused on the love of playing instead of rushing to perform and be famous. Peter wanted something that’s not attainable by taking short cuts.

That’s the way art works.

I hope the analogy is clear because this is also the story of too many new filmmakers. I know because it was my story, but luckily I didn’t quit. I met a photographer and an acting teacher who taught me how to love learning the craft and the process of making art.  

I meet a lot of “wannabe filmmakers” who only want to copy camera shots.  They mimic and believe that this is learning. They believe that being able to execute individual techniques makes a note-worthy filmmaker and launches a successful career. 

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Mimicking our heroes isn’t bad. It’s actually a fine place to start. 

The problem isn’t that we mimic our heroes; the problem is that we do this and expect to be professionally recognized for our work. Just like Peter, we secretly hope to defy the odds. I, for one, would rather stack the deck, do my homework and leverage the odds of success to work in my favor.

It’s easy for most of us to look at Peter’s situation and think it to be absurd. We’re aware of the difficulty of playing a musical instrument well. But, when it’s our time to make art and fulfill our dream of becoming a filmmaker, we somehow think we can take short cuts. I did and I paid the price. Today, I have to constantly remind myself to be patient and sometimes slow is fast. 

Most of us start our filmmaking journey by watching YouTube tutorials, buying inexpensive cameras and acquiring affordable computer editing software.  We then use these tools to mimic what we see on television and the big screen. It’s a good way to get our feet wet because it provides a sense of what filmmaking feels like.

As newbie-filmmakers:

  • We can build a DIY camera dolly and do “cool” camera moves.
  • We can even blow things up and achieve advanced special effects.

And we will most likely learn from these exercises. But unless we learn dramatic structure, understand how each shot works within question-answer sequence, and fail to move the story forward or engage the audience, there is no reason to care. 

If we want long-term success, we need to study and learn how to tell stories with a point of view. We need to learn how to motivate camera setups and camera moves by uncovering subtext through script analysis.

Like a garage band musician, we need to learn a craft and we need to know how to communicate our vision in a way that creates engaging, entertaining art.

That’s stacking the deck and leveraging your way to success!

“Become so good, you can’t be ignored” – Steve Martin