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Advice for New Filmmakers

I have started to receive emails or messages with some frequency asking for advice on pursuing a career in filmmaking. It’s a strange position to be put in, because I see my work as only just beginning. That said, I do sometimes think about what I wish I knew when I started making films ten years ago, and what important things I’ve learned in the interim. A while back, I taught a directing workshop and prepared a handout on some general tips for young filmmakers, that handout is what I’m making available here as some wide-ranging thoughts on how to begin and think about developing your path as an independent filmmaker. Hopefully this proves helpful on your own journey.

1. Focus on exploring simple ideas in powerful ways in your short films. Some of the most effective short films use only a few actors and one basic location. These films rely on the strength of the subtext and use their simplicity as a means of making a significant emotional impact. A short film like David Lowery’s "Pioneer" manages to sustain an audience's interest solely through the complexity of it's emotional inertia.  This film uses restraint and simplicity of design to keep us in a cinematic place throughout its fifteen-minute duration. Too often, it becomes easy to be absorbed in seeking greater production value and scale, while sacrificing subtlety and simplicity. Students of cinema are better served by making their short films function as a microscopic dramatization of the complexity of life.

2. Pay attention to what is happening in independent cinema outside the hallowed walls of the film school. I know that when I left school, I felt I had little awareness of the revolutionary developments happening in the way that films are made, distributed, and build community in the digital age. The landscape is evolving rapidly, and must be studied intensely in order to be comprehensible. It is increasingly clear that the convergence of the digital frontier with modern independent cinema holds enormous promise for emerging storytellers willing to innovate in how they tell their stories.

3. Drink deeply and often from the well of great cinema. I was shocked at how little time I had in film school to actually watch great films. Find lists of great films and absorb these images and storytelling styles, study the movements and history from which they arise. Actively read about the films you are watching, from scholars and critics. Cinema is a language and it demands your fluency. You will be amazed how intensely absorbing great cinema helps you discover your own voice as a visual storyteller.

4. Surround yourself with people who inspire you. Work with them because you love their voice and want to participate in their journey as a creative human person - not because of how you think they can help you achieve your own goals.

5. Diversify your knowledge. Intensify your experience. Try to learn about many things other than the cinema. Study literature, art history, economics, philosophy. Or none of those things. The great filmmaker Werner Herzog said that if he could train anyone to become a great filmmaker he would have them walk on foot from Madrid, Spain to Vienna, Austria. Over the course of the journey they would learn more spiritual truth and live more honestly than most men could achieve in ten lifetimes. Find your truth, your bliss, and your passion and bring this into your filmmaking (and your humanity).

6.  Approach every story you tell from a clear and focused perspective.  What is the theme or subtext of the action of your story?  What is your point of view on the subject and how can you make every decision grounded in your emotional perspective of the subject matter?  Tools like shot design, color, sound design, music, performance, structure, editorial rhythm, character perspective, and subtext are instruments that should be targeted towards the goal of articulating your core basic point of view as a director.  In order to express something interesting your work you have to take a position on what the work is “about.”

7.  Progress only comes from making things.  If it needs to be short simple documentaries or essays, that is fine.  Make things, make them as good as you can and as frequently as you can and you will be surprised how quickly you improve.  Improvement will not translate to success, not at first, but eventually if you remain persistent, I believe people will take notice.

8. There are so many people, places, and communities that are not having their stories told.  Try not to tell stories from only your experience or perspective, try to seek out interesting places and communities and use your storytelling craft to elevate or explore those emotional spaces.  Cinema is a young medium, and the world is full of deep pockets of alienation and quiet unseen realities.  This is the strength of our medium: to make visible the invisible and reveal a world our audiences have never seen - thus expanding our capacity for empathy - our ability to imagine the inner lives of others.

9.  The future of independent cinema will be shaped not by the films we make but by the communities we organize and the infrastructure we build.  Sundance forever changed the American film landscape, but so did Kickstarter, and so did Vimeo.  Put your effort not only into making films and telling stories but into exhibiting other people’s films, in bringing people together around cinema, in trying to build businesses or infrastructures (websites, zines, screening series, etc.) that help transform your corner of this medium and make it a better place for new, bolder, more powerful expressions in moving images.  We as filmmakers must be leaders in that effort, we cannot simply wait for others to build it for us.

In addition to these big picture questions of advice, here are some resources for you to absorb in the coming months and years, if you so choose. Those influences can help shape your thinking and voice as a storyteller.

“The Story of Film”

This television series on the history of cinema is an excellent resource to learn the history of cinema in ten or twelve short episodes. You should watch this. It isn’t a complete history of cinema, and it is filled with the opinions of the critic who made it, but it will introduce you to many filmmakers and movements. You will learn a lot about the tradition you are working in.

“They Shoot Pictures Don’t They” List / 1001 Films to See Before You Die / Sight & Sound 250 Top Films List / AFI 100 Film List

These lists of 1000+ films are a great resource of films you should watch. Whenever you are hungry for a new film, pick one at random off the list. Read a few essays about it afterwards so that you understand the context of the film.

Short of the Week / Vimeo Staff Picks / Nowness

The best collection of short-form work from emerging filmmakers. I try to watch these sites every day or at least check in with new works on these platforms a few times a week.

-Travis Lee Ratcliff

Travis Ratcliff