Seven years ago, I transitioned to making a living purely as a director of photography on drama. I’ve since added writing and making an online course to my repertoire, but drama is still paying most of the bills. If you’re doing bits of what you love around a day job in an office, or freelance corporate videos, being able to leave those things behind you and pay the rent with stuff you enjoy doing can seem like the Holy Grail. So below I’m going to list the three things which I think, in combination, allowed me to make that transition.
1. Quantity of experience: putting in the hard graft
When I stopped doing corporates in 2014, I had been in the industry for a decade and a half. I had made two no-budget features off my own back, and photographed half a dozen other no-budget features and countless shorts, as well as the rent-paying work on participatory films, training videos and web video content. (Whether this kind of stuff really counts as being in “the industry” is debatable, but that’s a subject for another post.)
When I apply for a job I always start by introducing myself as a DP with x years of experience, because I think it speaks volumes about my passion and commitment, and proves that I must have talent and be pleasant to work with, if I’ve been able to keep doing it for so long.
The number of IMDb credits I had is also important. I had almost 50 at the time I made the jump, over half of those as a cinematographer.
How many years of experience and how many IMDb credits you need before you can make the jump could be more or fewer than I needed, depending on the other two factors on this list and the quality of the contacts you make. (I haven’t included contacts as a separate item on this list because it comes naturally out of the jobs you do. Artificially generating contacts, for example by attending networking events, does not lead to jobs or career progression, at least not in my experience.)
2. Quality of experience: getting that killer production on your reel
What was it about these two projects which enabled them to do for my career what fifteen years’ worth of other no-budget projects couldn’t? Production value. Simple as that. They looked like “real” TV or film, and not in the way that your friends and family will look at anything you shot and go, “Wow, that looks like a real film!” They looked – even to people in the industry – like productions that had serious money behind them. And people are lazy when they’re looking at showreels. If they’re hiring for a job that has serious money behind it, they want to see material on your showreel that appears to have serious money behind it.
Most scripts that you will read for shorts or no-budget features will be written to make them achievable with little or no money. Often they will be set mainly in one house (the director’s, or a bland-looking Airbnb) in the present day, with no production design and only three or four characters. If the script is well written, and you’re an actor, then working on such a project could be great for your career. For most crew members, it’s a waste of time.
For DPs in particular, quality production design is incredibly important on your showreel. Most people who watch your reel won’t really be able to separate the cinematography from the overall look of the piece – the art, the costumes, the make-up, the locations – so getting showreel material that is visually stunning from all departments is the only way to kick your career up to the next level.
3. The Fear: making a living at it because you have to
Before I stopped doing corporates, I thought I was making every effort to get work as a drama DP. But I was wrong. As soon as I gave up the safety net of corporates, my whole attitude to drama work changed. Suddenly I had to do it, and I had to get paid reasonably well for it, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. It made me drive a harder bargain when negotiating my fee, it made me turn down unpaid projects and as a consequence it changed the way producers and directors saw me, and the kinds of projects they would consider me for.
Do not underestimate the value of The Fear. It’s not a magic wand, and you do need to have the experience and the killer production(s) on your reel before you make the jump, but The Fear will give you wings and help you get to the other side.
Robert Rodriguez famously said that all you need to do to be a filmmaker is get some business cards printed claiming that you are. Of course there’s more to it than that, so if you’ve just graduated from university or are otherwise starting out in the business, what can you do to get things going?
START MAKING FILMS. Almost everyone now owns a device that can record moving images. Use it. Your first films will be terrible but you’ll learn loads with each one you do.
OBSERVE OTHER FILMMAKERS. This is a crucial one that many people overlook. There’s only so much you can self-teach. You must get onto other people’s sets and see how they do it. The bigger the production the better. You want to learn from the people who are doing it properly, to the high standards of quality and discipline that the top end of the industry demands. In practice this means moving to London or a TV-making hub like Manchester or Cardiff and knocking on lots of doors.
MAKE SOME CORPORATE VIDEOS. Even if you have no interest in these, they bring some money in, help you hone your skills and most importantly the process of dealing with a client’s feedback and requirements will prepare you for producer/studio notes on proper films.
NETWORK. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, so get to know as many people as you can. Go to events like the London Screenwriters Festival, Cannes, the BAFTA Filmmakers Market, Raindance evening classes. Stick around after the event proper is over and go for a drink with your fellow attendees. Shake lots of hands and give out lots of business cards. Follow up after the event (but don’t pester). Eventually you’ll strike gold when you contact someone at just the moment they have a position to fill.
BUILD A WEBSITE. This is very easy these days with the likes of Wix and WordPress. An online presence will make people take you more seriously, will make you easier to look up online, and can showcase your talents.
WORK SOCIAL MEDIA. The digital equivalent of point 5. When I’m looking for crew these days I’m more likely to do a Facebook shout-out than post on one of the official filmmaking networks. That said, you should still….
JOIN ONLINE FILMMAKING NETWORKS. Shooting People is £30 a year but Mandy and Talent Circle are free. Every day there are several new jobs posted on each one, so get applying.
CUT A GREAT SHOWREEL. Keep it short (3-5 minutes) and punchy. Link to it whenever you apply for a job and keep it on your mobile devices so you can show it at networking events to anyone who displays the slightest interest in you. A great showreel will stick in their mind much better than an eager face.
FIND AN AUDIENCE. This is the tricky one. Once you’ve reached a point where your films are good enough to show the big, wide world, you need to start getting them in front of eyeballs. This means either getting them into festivals, which is largely beyond your control, but still remains the most prestigious route, or posting them online and driving a huge amount of traffic to them (see 6 and 7 above). If you can connect with a significant audience base then congratulations, you’ve made it! Please write in and tell me how to do it.
I recently served as DP and postproduction supervisor on Fled, writer-director-producer Brendan O’Neill’s 2013 entry to the SciFi London 48hr Film Challenge. I asked him to share what he’s learnt from this and other film challenges he’s entered.
Brendan, this is not your first 48 hour film challenge. How many have you done before and what are the biggest things you learnt from them that you applied to this latest one?
I’ve done several now, 3 straight 48’s and 2 London Sci-Fi Society 48’s plus a time limited music video competition. My first ever film Black Widow was made for a local Birmingham competition called Film Dash in 2008. My second film What Goes Up Must Come Down was shot over a weekend for a non time limited competition run by Filmaka in the USA. I did a lot of ringing around and pre-production for this one as I wanted to really push the number of locations I could fit in. I found that by getting through to the right people, explaining who you are and what you want help with in a structured way can be very successful.
I made another 48 hour film Seconds Out for the same Film Dash competition in 2009 which placed 3rd out of 24 entries. I achieved some good production value by piggy backing a real event – a boxing contest held in a Birmingham hotel – with the help of the promoter who is also a local filmmaker.
The first really big production I put together was for Internalised – our first attempt at the London Sci-Fi Society’s 48 hour filmmaking competition in 2011. I spent 6 weeks pre-producing, location scouting, auditioning etc. and assembled a cast and crew of 50 to help us make the film. I also fed them all via an in-kind deal with local vegetarian catering company ChangeKitchen.
I suppose the first lesson I learnt on that was to not try to do it all on your own. The second being to be very careful who you take on board to help you and define clear roles and responsibilities for those involved. It can be difficult when you are working with volunteers but if you can convey the ambition and vision of what you are trying to do and have some previous track record then you can build feature size crews to help.
The shoot went very well but we were let down in post-production by not getting all the VFX/CGI we wanted into the competition version. You need to have your VFX/CGI team in the same place as your editors as it’s asking too much to render and then transmit the large files involved from remote locations when time is at a premium.
Our second attempt at the London Sci-Fi society 48 hour competition in 2012 was a World War II themed film called Around Again. We were looking for unusual locations with built-in production value and had identified a Midlands WWII era tunnel complex as a good location. We then found out that the person who controlled access to the tunnels also owned an extensive WWII costume wardrobe that had been used on Atonement and Band of Brothers so we dropped the tunnels location idea and went for battle/bunker scenes. The production value that all the great uniforms and replica / decommissioned firearms gave us was superb.
We were also very fortunate that our friend with the costume wardrobe Craig Leonard and his pyrotechnics colleague Matt Harley of Trinity VFX knew lots of German army / SS re-enactors who were more than happy to appear in the film. It shows the value of networking and being pro-active as that one contact expanded in all sorts of interesting ways to help us make a great looking film. I’m still reaping the benefits as Matt supplied the SWAT team outfits and arms for Fled as well as the GCHQ-esque second main location.
We were very surprised that the film didn’t shortlist but I think as producer if we’d had more clearly defined sci-fi elements in it then that would have helped.
Moving on to Fled, how much work had you put into writing and producing it before the challenge began on 10am on Saturday?
I spent about 6 weeks in pre-production. I hadn’t directed for a while so the first thing I did was do a smaller 48 hour competition which was running as part of the Stoke Your Fires festival.
[The next thing] I did was launch a crowd funding campaign via Indiegogo. I raised about £850 after fees so it helped a lot but it was a very labour intensive way of doing it with limited results. I didn’t have any donors who weren’t already linked to me in some way – mostly through Facebook.
Fortunately an established writer who I’d met twice at the Screenwriters Festival helped me a lot with an early and substantial individual donation. I think he likes my DIY attitude to getting films made. The previous year I also received a substantial donation via a Twitter relationship I had developed so it demonstrates that both traditional and social media based networking can’t be ignored.
Once the Indiegogo campaign was out of the way I worked on getting everything together. I had hoped for some substantial co-producer support but this didn’t really happen and the fact that I had to produce it nearly all myself definitely affected the amount of time I was able to spend on developing the script with my pal Dominic Carver as script editor. That said certain people such as Ella Carman, Matt Harley and stand in make-up artist Kerris Charles helped restore my battered faith in people.
I was surprised at how large the crew was (around 20). Do many hands make light work on a time-pressured project like this? Was there a degree of over-crewing in case some people didn’t turn up?
I’ve been on shoots where I haven’t had enough production assistants and runner/drivers so I tend to have some over-capacity just in case. The nature of the competition also means that it’s better to have more people to help in case the criteria you are given by the organisers are particularly difficult to handle. You are given a title, a line of dialogue and a prop/action by the organizers on the morning of the competition.
Although I did have some crew drop out prior to the competition I was able to replace them. My regular sound person dropped out with a foot injury so it was fortunate that Nicola Dale who was going to be post sound runner assisting Matt Katz and Joe Harper on the Sunday was able to step up to the mark and deliver great production sound with the help of Chantal Feliu Gurri on boom. Fortunately I’d met Nicola at a networking event a few weeks earlier and offered her the chance to come and work with some more experienced talent.
I do wish I had had some actor back-up however as someone dropped out on the Sunday morning pleading illness. It’s difficult to ask actors to turn up unpaid for what might only be extra type roles in a 5 minute film but it’s also VERY damaging when those who say they’ll do it drop out at short notice. It was especially galling as I’d written a role especially for this young man.
The consequence was that I had to bump someone who was only meant to be an extra into a role with lines which in my opinion definitely affected the quality of the film. For me Quality is King – with so many people having access to great technology you really have to try to ensure production values are as high as possible across the board in order to make your film stand out.
How did you approach integrating the challenge criteria (line of dialogue, prop and optional theme) into the film?
I try to build mechanisms into the script to deal with those things i.e. the wireless in the bunker scene in Around Again. That was there to help us field any difficult lines of dialogue we were given. Unfortunately last year we were given a very modern day line about the SEIS investment scheme so it was a bit clunky which is ironic given that it is a scheme that can help filmmakers raise finance!
We were lucky in that the criteria [this year] were very easy to integrate into the script.
Prop: A key. A single key is put on a key ring with three near identical keys.
The initial idea was that [the entity] was an alien civilization that had had to flee some dying star millennia ago and had lain dormant on Mars until the first manned landings. This fitted the FLED title well. The key scene in the church echoes this when you can just make out the ethereal voices saying, “We can’t go back, we can’t go back.”
I was able to fit in the compulsory dialogue line as part of the NASA controllers trying to contact the Mars Explorer. The key on to keyring action/prop was easy and was the same one we got last year!
What was the schedule for the 48 hours in terms of when you started and finished filming, when the edit was locked, etc.?
At 10.00am DoP Neil Oseman and his gaffer Colin Smith went to the church location to pre-light and set up ready for filming whilst I awaited the criteria from the organisers. That way we could hit the ground running once we had a script finalized. The criteria arrived by text at about 11.15.
Fortunately the criteria given were very easy to integrate into my script so I arrived on set around 12.30 – 13.00 having picked up the VFX team at their hotel on the way. We needed to shoot the scenes they needed first in order to give them as much time as possible to work their magic.
I had planned to try and finish by 8pm so that the crew would be reasonably fresh for an early start the next day. I think we finished at around 21.15 and had a quick drink together before heading home. The next day we were all on set for 8.00am and set up for the first scenes quickly. I intended for us to finish around 2pm but there was a bit of creep to 3pm even though we trimmed and dropped some non essential scenes on the way. At both locations Neil and his regular gaffer Colin Smith, who was well assisted by Jay Somerville, did a brilliant job with the lighting.
Any plans to take part in future 48 hour challenges?
No. I don’t think so. I think I’ve done enough of them now. I want to either do some really high quality, well planned and developed festival oriented shorts or hopefully a first feature. I think 48 hour contests are a good discipline for young or emerging filmmakers as it gives you a focus and stress tests some of the relationships you might be developing. All a bit frantic but I’ve learnt a lot from them and come out a stronger and hopefully better filmmaker.
I think for this year’s contest just doing one high production value location per day and insisting that the VFX team were at the same post-production site as the edit team really made a difference. I was really fortunate to have really strong post-production edit and sound team and a great composer in Hans Hess who was at the ready to do the score. Hopefully people can see the difference those elements made in the quality of the competition version of the film.
Lastly I couldn’t have done it without Neil Oseman and a great international team of volunteer cast and crew. I hope that I’ll be able to work with them all again at some point. I’d particularly like to thank “King of the Indies” actor Michael Parle who came all the way from Ireland.
Next week we record the music for Stop/Eject at Worcester College of Technology with players from the Film Orchestra. I think it’s a shame that many low budget filmmakers are content to let the composer create the music in their home studio, often without using any real instruments at all. It’s true that it takes a little more organisation to record a score with live players, but the richness and authenticity of the sound you get is well worth the effort.
Let me explain how I was able to arrange this recording session, because it demonstrates the importance of building your contacts.
Once the score was written, I started with a simple shout-out on Facebook for musicians. This was seen by Simon Munn, who is part of my social media network because I gave a talk at the Worcestershire Film Festival, which he organises, last year. There are many benefits of giving talks, paid or otherwise (which I touched on in a previous post) and making contacts is one.
Simon put me in touch with Jane Whittle at the Film Orchestra, a group of amateur musicians based in Worcester. Several of their members expressed an interest in performing the music, so I knew that I needed to find a recording studio in Worcester to make it as convenient as possible for them.
Years ago I hung out with some friends while they were recording a demo for their band (King Monkey) at Worcester College of Technology, so I knew there was a studio there. I contacted Paul Bellamy and David Staiger, both Worcester-based musicians who were involved in the recording of Soul Searcher’s score back in 2005. I figured one of them probably had some link to the college and I was right; Paul works there. He put me in touch with the Head of Performing Arts and Music Technology, who was very enthusiastic about the whole idea, and from there it was just a case of working out the details. In return I offered to give a free guest lecture at the college, citing my prior experience at Hereford College of Art, the SAE Institute, etc.
There are two morals to this story. One is the value of networking, making new contacts and maintaining those contacts (which Facebook makes it really easy to do now). The second is, if you’re a young filmmaker struggling to get stuff made, remember that collaboration not only benefits your current project; you could be sowing seeds which will help your future projects too.
The first event was a Herefordshire Media Network social. This was held in the back bar of a pub and involved myself and two other people giving little presentations and then general mingling/networking. As usual at these events there were a surprising number of people I didn’t know. Hereford is so small that I tend to assume that I must know everyone here who works in the media, but more people always seem to crop up.
The other speakers were Marc de Jersey, filmmaker and international broadcast journalist, and Nick Fogg, a filmmaker whose 90 second documentary Wake recently won the main award at Encounters International Film Festival. Both showed some of their work, which was really interesting in very different ways. I felt pretty shameless plugging my crowd-funding campaign, which – let’s face it – is essentially begging, but people responded well. After the presentations I talked to as many people as I could and handed out plenty of business cards.
The second event was The Neighbourhood Watch at Vivid in Birmingham. It’s been a very long time since I was last at Vivid, but I thought it would be worthwhile showing my face and trying to make some regional contacts. The event was an “open mic” film night, meaning that anyone could submit a film to be screened and none would be rejected, time permitting. I screened The Picnic, to the end of which I had added a caption telling everyone to visit my Crowdfunder page and sponsor Stop/Eject. I also mentioned the campaign when I introduced the film. Sadly there wasn’t much opportunity for networking, particularly since I had to leave early to get the last train back, but it did get my mind whirring on the possibilities of holding talks and screenings and using them to raise funds… of which more another time.
The third event, happening tonight, is a local meeting about community TV, which apparently is something the government is pushing at the moment. I don’t know much about it, but I’m going along to see what opportunities there may be to get involved – and don’t think I won’t plug my crowd-funding campaign while I’m there.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed so far, and to everyone who has helped spread the word by email, Facebook, Twitter and – shock! horror! – physical face-to-face communication with mouths and ears and vibrating air molecules.