Lights, Camera, Action: How to Start Making Your Own Movies

One of our most common encounters with the arts in America is through film and television. And yet, the practices behind media-making remain elusive to many of us.

As a filmmaker myself, I was not able to encounter the technologies, skills, or artistry of making a movie until I was in college.

Nowadays, digital technology has made this expensive and collaborative art form more accessible. Here are some tips to help develop your own filmmaking mind.

Learning Skills

The two key elements of filmmaking are production and post-production. Production is about what movie-magic can happen on set, in real-time. Post-production is about taking the footage that you do have and telling a great story, frame by frame.

Production

One way to learn the basic skills of filmmaking is to enroll in a filmmaking program. There are all kinds of summer offerings and workshops that young people can participate in to find out if the film-school life is right for them. Some well-known summer programs for students are Cherubs at Northwestern University, NY Film Academy, and Digital Media Academy.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the formality of film school, there are many free online resources about hacking a film set. One great one (which covers both production and post-production) is No Film School. Here, you can read articles and watch clips about lighting, camera techniques, and the like.

It’s important to get creative, especially in the early stages of filmmaking, with how to approach life on set. For example, a dolly shot can be very expensive, but the Internet will show you many ways to use what you may already have around to replicate this technique. From skateboards, to shopping carts, to standing on the pegs of a friend’s bike, nothing in your possession should be overlooked.

This is also an important idea to consider when thinking about lighting. Having well-lit characters can be the difference between making a short film and making a student film. But lights are expensive. There are all kinds of household items, fabrics, and paper that can be used to bounce the light that is present into different corners of your set. Experiment with what’s around you, and you’ll be surprised at what you can create.

Post-Production

There are all kinds of programs for film editing. Final Cut Pro is the industry standard. For beginners, though, starting with iMovie or whatever software may come with your computer is a good idea. A clever way to learn the basics of editing is to make a music video. You can drop the song into the audio part, and worry solely about filling that amount of time with image cutting.

A great resource to learn all kinds of film-editing skills is Lynda. With over 20,000 video tutorials in film alone, you can learn everything from setting up a camera to the nuances of special effects. For more free post-production help, it’s very easy to do a simple YouTube search of “how to edit my film” or “how to do a jump-cut” and more. Many free tutorials made by young filmmakers will be right at your fingertips.

Acquiring Materials

Acquiring the materials to make a film can be the most time-consuming and costly part of the process. With rapid advancements in digital technology, however, things are getting easier and more accessible by the week. For example, if you can’t afford a camera, you can use something as commonplace as your cellphone to put together a music video or a short film. Don’t have a boom swing? Even the recording device on your phone can be used for the most basic sound-captures and mixes these days. Here are some resources that can help you get started with creating and producing your film.

Crowdfunding

There are a lot of costly elements that can go into making a movie. From the camera, to lighting equipment, to locations and actors, the list of things you may need to pull off the shots of your dreams can become extensive. That said, raising funds for this undertaking has become easier and easier these days. If you have a clear vision, creating a campaign with Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or another crowdsourcing site is simple, free, and easy to distribute amongst friends and the general public.

Grants

All kinds of grants exist for emerging filmmakers. Given the current state of identity-politics, there are small funds popping up all the time to engender new voices in film.

One place to begin searching is through large studio names. Each year, HBO, ABC, Warner Brothers, and the like give out a few scholarships (often in various genres) to young high school and college students to get into the biz. This financial support tends to be focused on writing or producing tracks, as these are the fortes of these large machines.

For production funding, looking at independent production houses and their comrades is a good place to find small grants for cameras or other equipment. The largest name for a bigger project would be Sundance, but there are smaller niche grants, too. Applying for these formal grants is a great way for young filmmakers to gain an understanding of what independent creatives go through on a day-to-day, project-to-project basis.

For instance, I’m a lover of the Bolex camera. This manufacturer recently came out with a digital camera and now funds grants for female cinematographers explicitly. That’s how impassioned some of these smaller places are. I also know a teacher who does documentary work with her English students outside of Portland, Maine. Over the years, she’s worked with the local documentary gallery, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, to get donations of cameras as well as gallery space to show student work.

So, from the most specific and local spaces to the big-name, broad foundations, if you ask good questions and make contact, others will be excited to help and contribute whatever materials or finances they can.

Friends and Family

Though we all wish for the lights and glamour of Hollywood, it’s important to remember that the best filmmakers of our time began without these privileges and finances. Wes Anderson started making small films in Austin, Texas with his college pals, whom we now know today as his great muses — Owen and Luke Wilson. Martin Scorsese was an NYU film student looking at a pile of butchered film when he met a new film-school friend, three-time Oscar winner for best editing, Thelma Schoonmaker — who has worked with him ever since.

So, the first things you have available to you are your family and friends. Find other creative people in your circle and exchange skills and time on each other’s projects.

Your Environment

The first film I made for film school used three of my friends and the house I grew up in. I didn’t have any fancy light kits, props, or set design. But I did have beautiful outdoor space. I rewrote a lot of the script to use the space that I had.

It’s also important to be creative on the fly. I rewrote a scene with one of the actors hiding in a closet and overhearing a conversation so I could get a shot of the other actor’s feet as the conversation was unfolding. It’s important to let what you have at your fingertips influence the beauty you can bring into each frame and scene.

In the absence of actors and space, animation and stop-motion films are a great, free experimental place for movie-magic. If you have a few toys and a camera or camera phone, you won’t need much else to tell a lively story. Frameographer is one of my favorite phone apps that can stop-motion shots and edit them together in one fell swoop. You can also draw/write and take a picture of each image instead of using 3-D objects. The ideas are infinite!

Distributing Your Artwork

With the Internet at your fingertips, distributing digital work has never been easier or cheaper! Here are some places to begin getting work out into the world.

YouTube and Vimeo

YouTube and Vimeo are household names these days. Though Vimeo tends to be preferred by filmmakers, its free offer only covers a specific limited amount of space. It’s also very easy to upload your work and create a channel for multiple pieces. And, of course, it’s simple to take the links of your uploaded work and distribute them to friends and family, as well as to the masses. With the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, too, your work can be out in the world broadly and quickly.

A Portfolio or Artist Site

For a more professional appeal, you can create your own online portfolio of work, or even a website at no cost. It’s good to embed your reel, films, and so on from Vimeo or YouTube onto the site page so that the work (and your name) is optimized by search engines. Some popular, easy-to-use, and free (or almost free) web-making sites are Weebly, Wix, Squarespace, WordPress, and Tumblr.

Film Competitions

For the old souls out there, the crass, free, over-clogged world that is cyberspace may not be the preferred medium to distribute their art. For the emerging filmmaker, film competitions can be the best way to get your work seen by people in the field of filmmaking, as well as lead you to other artists to work with and admire as you become more enmeshed in the world of filmmaking. Many cities host film festivals, which often have calls for long-form and short-form work. Another great online resource for young filmmakers is Withoutabox, which hosts a calendar of open submissions for all kinds of films.

Independent Film Houses

Another way to get real films seen is to approach independent film houses. When I graduated film school, I hosted a screening of my work for my family and friends at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston. This movie house (like other independent ones) hosts different kinds of screenings, and is open to collaborating with local filmmakers. Another thing you may find at such places is that they screen short films before feature-length films — a great opportunity to have your work seen on the big screen, indeed.

Final Thoughts

These are just a few ideas on how you can get started as a fillmmaker. For teenagers and college students especially, finding a gig as a production assistant or an intern is the best way to get on a set and see how the skills of the artists and technicians come together to make the miracle that is a film happen. Even if you can only find a film-school student who needs a production assistant (PA) on their student film, you’ll learn so much so quickly. And these connections are, of course, great to have as you continue pursuing your own work down the line.

Looking to pursue film in college? Use our customizable college search to find a university with cinematography and film production programs to match your interests.