10 Ways to Think Like a Professional Filmmaker

One secret of a craft like making video, or painting, is to learn all the rules so well that they burn into your brain and you don’t need to think about them while planning your shots; your subconscious makes decisions about the best light placement so that you can spend your time arguing with the caterers about when the gaffers get fed.

Amateurs spend a lot of time mired in the details of how to operate the camera, set the white balance, the exposure, focus and audio levels. Professionals worry about how the framing of a shot affects the mood, what a certain depth of field will suggest.

Technical aspects of videography are of a nature that’s relatively easily learned – there are magazines such as this one, there are Youtube videos, there are instruction manuals that come with the camera and it’s easy to become distracted by the things that are easy to do and become confused that they’re actually the difficult things to do. The world is filled with extremely boring, but technically perfect videography; perfectly-lit talking heads promoting products, smiling brides standing at attention, their words captured flawlessly by exquisitely placed microphones and directors who imagine that they have filled all the requirements for a great video.

Conversely, pros view each element of videography as one piece in the larger puzzle of “telling a story.”


Understand that Problems and Technical Issues are Part of Video Production

Things go wrong, expect that they will and plan accordingly. People will show up late, one of your cables will introduce a weird buzzing noise into the soundtrack, it may rain on a day you’d planned for sun. Much of successful videography is in the pre-planning. Pros in big budget movies sometimes spend years figuring out details before they start shooting – you don’t need to do that, but you should always be thinking, “What if THIS cable stops working? How will I get audio? What if THIS camera malfunctions? Is there a backup? What if THIS lens is stolen, can I get the coverage with another? What if it rains today? Is there another scene that I can shoot?” 

Don’t be Shy About Calling Attention to Issues

Photo of director showing director of photography something on a clipboard.
Part of a director’s job is to call attention to any issues that arise, then decide how to resolve them smoothly and quickly to stay on schedule.

If your actors aren’t doing something the way you’d like, let them know. If a piece of costuming is too bright under a particular lighting setup, say something. A director’s job is to take the producer’s money and make the best product possible. Often times directors wear multiple hats, and it’s entirely possible you’ll end up being the director, the camera operator and the sound person, but all of these roles are subordinate to that of creating the best product possible with the finances available. When you don’t mention a poor wardrobe choice, you hurt the final product. Your crew is looking to you for direction, but also compassion – saying, “This is a terrible costume choice,” is different from saying, “Hold on a sec, looking at this right now in this light, I’m noticing this pattern is a bit too distracting, do we have something else we could change the talent into?” Once you’ve identified a problem, deal with it head on. Be firm, it’s your show, but don’t be mean.     

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

Photo of happy Director talking to actor.
Professional videographers and directors are able to focus on the tasks that really impact a production.

I had a producer once who I complained to about a particular aspect of a project – the executive producers weren’t paying attention to something and I thought they ought to be. He listened to me and asked, “Is this the hill you want to die on? Because if it is, I’ll bring it up to them and we’ll fight it, but if it’s not, let it go and we’ll save that fight for something else.” It was sage wisdom that has lived with me ever since. It’s easy to get lost in the details and forget that it’s hurting the larger project. 

Continue to Manage the Crew and Talent

When you’re in the room, you’re the boss. A good director knows how tight a rein they need to keep and on whom. Invariably, there will be members of your cast and crew that you know you can trust to follow directions and create a quality product, actors who you know will show up on set with their lines memorized, camera operators who can safely be sent to a second location to come back with great footage and you’ll also learn who needs more of your management time, who gets distracted, who spends too much time worrying about details that don’t matter, who’s going to be late if you don’t have someone call and wake them up.

A good director knows how tight a rein they need to keep and on whom.

Professionals worry about how the framing of a shot affects the mood, what a certain depth of field will suggest.

Keep a Level Head

You need to be the calm in the storm. When something goes wrong, your cast and your crew will immediately look to you to solve the problems. While your first impulse may be to break down and shout or cry, remember that not only doesn’t this solve the problem, it erodes the faith that your people have in you. 

Don’t be Afraid to Admit When You’re Wrong and Give Credit Where Credit is Due

Sometime in the course of your career, you’ll be adamant about something and some member of your crew will insist the opposite is true. You may argue that a scene should never be backlit, or that you’re positive you left the footage with the assistant camera operator, or that you told everybody to be on the set at nine instead of 10, and some of these times you will discover that you were wrong: the backlit shot is beautiful, you have the drive with yesterday’s footage in your gym bag, your email says 10 and not nine.

Photo of director watching director of photography shoot video.
Don’t be afraid to admit if you’ve made a mistake. Cast and crew will respect transparency.

When this happens say, “Woah, I was wrong, sorry everybody,” and the camera operator you praise in front of the crew for coming up with a great shot you thought was going to be a failure is a camera operator who will continue to do their best to help your video get made.

There are famous movie directors that some actors say they will never work with again. After you’ve won an Oscar, you can decide whether or not you want to be a jerk on the set of your next movie, but until then, a reputation as a difficult person to work with won’t get you anything good. 

Keep a Positive Attitude (Especially if There are Clients Involved)

Nobody wants to hear that the shoot they’re financing is a disaster, but sometimes it’s news you have to bring.

A newbie director may say, “This actor is terrible, they’re ruining this sock commercial,” while a pro will look at the same problem in a different light: “This actor isn’t working out, we have other resumes and we’re going to replace this person to make sure we get the best performance we can.”

Always explain to your clients what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and why it’s a good thing, because if you can’t explain those things, you probably shouldn’t be doing whatever it is you’re doing. Don’t be afraid that admitting you made a mistake will make you look bad, doggedly pretending that you were right when everybody knows you weren’t is worse. 

You’re Paying Your Cast and Crew for a Reason: Don’t be Afraid to Make Them Work

Dumped in the woods with a 32-page synopsis of the story and some tents the cast of 1999’s “Blair Witch Project” also had a note from co-directors and editors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, which stated, “Your safety is our concern. Your comfort is not.” They endured cold weather, damp conditions and being terrified at night by the filmmakers running around their campsite making spooky noises. Your cast and crew are there to make a movie, don’t be afraid to make them work. Your time should be spent solving problems, not carrying gear. 

Understand That Retaking Shots is a Routine Business

Not everybody gets it right the first time. It’s not uncommon for directors in major Hollywood films to have to go back and reshoot things. Days, (or weeks, depending on who’s telling the story) into the shooting of 1976’s “Apocalypse Now” by Francis Ford Coopla, the director fired leading man Harvy Kitel, replaced him with Martin Sheen, and reshot every scene Kitel had been in. Actors aren’t the only reason that you might need to reshoot. In 1962, Director John Frankenheimer was horrified to discover that the focus was off in a shot of Frank Sinatra from The Manchurian Candidate” so he re-shot the scene, but Sinatra’s performance wasn’t as good. Eventually, he used the out-of-focus shot and chalked it up to experience. 


Sidebar: Know When to Fix it in Post

“I’ll fix it in post,” is often thought to be the battle-cry of a sloppy movie maker. It brings to mind a harrowed director on a tight deadline who just doesn’t care. The microphone’s not working? We’ll loop the audio later in the studio. The white balance isn’t set? We’ll apply a filter during the editing process. Leading man is wearing a different shirt than he was in the last shot? We’ll zoom in on the footage and crop it tight.

Fixing things in post does a few things, notably it usually makes a lot of work for one person later and less work for whoever is on the set at the time. On a big set where you’re paying 20 or 50 people, it’s amazing how fast your money burns up and every minute spent replacing a broken cufflink can be costing you dozens or hundreds of dollars — making the decision to pay an editor to work for two hours to fix something may make sense, but very often it doesn’t.

Also, don’t get overwhelmed when things go wrong, before asking yourself if it can be fixed in post, ask yourself, “Can I just skip this thing?” Too often, movie makers get distracted fixing small problems at the expense of time, when the most expedient way to resolve the issue might just be to skip over the thing that’s not working. Camera crew showing up in a cast member’s sunglasses? Rather than spend half an hour having a grip come up with dulling spray or moving the cameras to cut down on reflections, consider just removing the sunglasses.

Before you start shooting, spend time thinking of ways to avoid situations where things that go wrong will create disasters. Inconveniences are unavoidable, and careful planning will keep them from blossoming into crushing defeats. If, for example, there’s a prop that you can’t possibly work without, make sure you have a backup in the event that one breaks. If you’re planning on shooting outside on a particular day, have a plan for what you’ll do in the event of rain.

While you’re on the set, weigh the amount of time you’d spend to fix something while everybody is there, compared to how long it will take to fix later. You may not always get this right and find you’ve wasted days and thousands of dollars on something that would have taken 20 minutes on the set, but the more you learn about the job, the better you’ll be at making these critical decisions.

Kyle Cassidy lives with his wife, Trillian, three cats and a lot of memory cards. He writes frequently about technology and has famously worked for free on occasion.

Kyle Cassidy
Kyle Cassidyhttp://www.kylecassidy.com
Kyle Cassidy is a professional filmmaker, photographer and writer.

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