6 Signs of a Great Filmmaker in the Making

The democratization of both the production and distribution process has opened the floodgates for independent filmmakers to see their dreams of producing a feature film become a reality.

Independent feature films such as Medicine for Melancholy and Ballast are just two examples of micro-budget features that have gone on to win numerous filmmaking awards. Ballast, for example, won awards for both Best Director and Best Cinematography at Sundance Film Festival in 2008.

With audiences, festivals, distributors and studios accepting the new indie film aesthetic, filmmakers are flooding the market with their films in the hopes that they too will be able to create a worthwhile film that will garner media attention and win awards.

Unfortunately, many of the independent feature films being produced today lack a certain technical and creative care that is required for a film to be successful in today’s increasingly competitive independent film market. When film was expensive to shoot, a great amount of planning and attention to detail was required. However, due to the fact that video technology is accessible and fast, the motto of “pay attention to detail” has deteriorated into “get it done… this weekend”.

Remember, if your audience thinks to themselves “I could have made this myself”, the chances of them watching your film are not great. Audiences may not be able to articulate exactly what it is about an indie film they don’t like, but they know it when they see it (or hear it).

In our online film program we ask our students to work their way through a series of technical modules that help them identify the technical and aesthetic problems of independent film. We then ask them to complete small video projects in the hopes that these projects will help them avoid these common mistakes in their future productions.

From the second our students enroll in our online film course they are writing scripts and creating short films with an acute awareness of the common mistakes that new filmmakers make.

In our screenwriting module for example, our students are asked to enroll in live online “lab Chats” where they learn about the rules of Western Dramatic Structure. They learn about character arc, story arc, protagonist development, catalysts, plot points, pivotal characters, scene pacing, denouements and all of the other structural elements that go into creating a story. There is a science to story telling and it’s important to study it. Essentially, if you’re going to break the rules, it’s important to know what the rules are first.

While these rules may seem overly technical, academic or clinical, I doubt there is a successful filmmaker today who doesn’t know how to use these rules in the development of their stories.



Message by:  Lights Film School

The same goes for cinematography. It’s simply not enough to know how to press the record button on your video camera. That is simply not enough skill to qualify yourself as a cinematographer or director. You need to know how staging, lighting, editing, movement and dramatic beats work together to punctuate a scene. Movement requires motivation and lighting helps you create a mood. There are right and wrong ways to approach these things. These are subjects that require technical study. To guess, or even worse, ignore these topics, is quite simply filmmaker suicide.

That is why it’s imperative that serious filmmakers take the time to educate themselves. Whether it’s through our online film course, other film schools, books, weekend crash courses, websites, professional mentors or workshops you need to have a strong theoretical and technical background before your films will be worth watching.

So what makes a great filmmaker? The answer to this question would require more time than this blog post would allow for, so let’s instead focus on 6 identifying points that allow us to gauge if a filmmaker is on the right track.

1. Understand Lighting
One of the biggest stylistic differences between a small budget and a big budget production is the use of lighting. Filmmakers need to study lighting to be able to help support the mood of their story. They will need to know how to light a set using either artificial or natural light. Independent films don’t require cube vans and huge lighting kits but that doesn’t mean that filmmakers can ignore lighting altogether. Sure you won’t be able to properly light an entire city block at night, but you should be able to light your protagonist’s bedroom. In order to do this properly you need to study lighting.

2. Understand Design
Another stylistic issue which turns a lot of audience’s off, is the lack of design in a film. All large budget productions will hire a production designer to conceptualize the look of a film. Essentially, a film’s designer is the film’s architect. They work with the director, stylists and set decorators to help design a color palette, incorporate texture and find outfits and props that fit into the overall design of a film.

Independent filmmakers often shoot in natural environments. This helps indie filmmakers save money and use the locations they have available to them. However, it’s important to understand that most natural environments have neutral design elements. For example, most homes and apartments have white walls. However, most audiences will find white walls infinitely boring and from a filmmaking standpoint white walls won’t often support the emotional tone of a scene. It’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to adapt these natural environments in creative and low cost ways to support the tone of their film. What about putting up wallpaper with double sided tape? What about shooting against a patterned curtain? The design potential is limitless. The idea however, is to keep your costs low and your design high.

3. Script Analysis
As discussed above, a filmmaker needs to be able to identify a good story. A good director will always be able to go through a script and look for the dramatic peaks and valleys. They should also be able to identify issues with relationships, character arcs, scene wants, acting beats, story beats and so on. Filmmakers need to study how to analyze and deconstruct a story if they plan on keeping an audience interested for 90 minutes. This is not an easy task but there are methods and strategies you can study to help increase your chances of success.

Indie films also have a tendency to have strong dogmatic undertones. They often come across as preachy and in some cases even condescending in their film’s message. If your film has a message, try to embed it in a compelling story and make sure you challenge your own message as well. Audience’s don’t like being talked down to. If they know you’re trying to prove them wrong about life, they likely won’t show up to watch your film in the first place. It’s a double edged sword: You’ll often want some sort of commentary embedded in your story, but you need to be careful not to alienate your audience with any hints of pretentiousness.

4. Ability to Work with Actors
If you’re a documentary filmmaker you need to know how to work with your subjects and if you’re a fiction filmmaker you need to know how to work with actors. Filmmakers need to learn and understand the communicative tools used to help shape your story. This means understanding character back-story, knowing how to communicate using active verbs, being able to identify scene wants and so on. You’ll also need to focus your attention on details such as scene beats and how to properly punctuate your scenes. A filmmaker’s responsibility isn’t just to say “action”. You need to know what “action” you’re looking for. This requires intimate and detailed work with your actors.

I’ve found the process of taking (and auditing) acting classes a valuable resource in my quest to better understand how to communicate effectively with actors.

5. Focus on the Microscopic Details & Don’t Ignore Sound
I can’t stress the importance of this point enough: Great filmmakers need to be detail oriented. You need to know how to recognize the differences in camera movement between hand-held footage and steadycam footage. You need to be able to recognize bumps or movement inconsistencies in your tracking shots. These small details can make or break your film.

As a filmmaker you also need to study and understand the different parts that go into the final film product. One of the technical things many inexperienced filmmakers neglect (or only think of as an afterthought) is sound design. The emotional impact of sound is huge in the final film product. Audiences are unforgiving about bad sound. They will pick up on it immediately and immediately flag your film as a low budget film. Remember, first impressions count for a lot. Don’t give your audience a reason to dislike your film before you even get a chance to get into your story.

Spending your time finding a great crew to work with will make your job much easier. Finding a good sound designer, boom operator, first AD, producer, writer, director and designer will help you start your film off on the right foot. Working with a great crew is essential if you’re trying to make a great film.

6. Don’t Overstep Your Special Effects Boundaries
With low budget filmmaking comes limitations.  This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just about knowing what you’re working with and doing the best job you can within those limitations. Having the urge to overstep boundaries established by your own skill level or budget will likely stand to do more harm than good. Unless you have access to talented animators or special effects artists willing to work for free or at a discount you should probably avoid elaborate shootout scenes, rotoscoping, CGI and any other visual effects.

While not a comprehensive list, the 6 points mentioned above are great identifiers for great filmmakers or at least filmmakers that are on the right track.

Do you have a film to share that takes into consideration 1 or more of the points discussed above? Do you have other points you’d like to add to the list? We’d love to hear about it.


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