Hello! I decided to write a short guide on my experience on the journey to becoming a filmmaker. I had the honor to meet and hear from many filmmakers on this path and this article compiles many wise lessons and suggestions.
Everyone’s journey is different and everyone has different levels of privilege. Although this guide starts in the high school years, the concepts and suggestions can be adapted to your own process.
At this stage, consider joining art/filmmaking camps, groups, and workshops. You can begin to develop your skills and portfolio before college/high school graduation.
There are many youth filmmaking workshops in town as well as camps and other opportunities. If you can go to an arts high school, that is awesome and will give you a foundation for the next steps on your journey as an artist/filmmaker.
Make films! It can be with your phone or a camcorder or any kind of camera. This will help you understand so many things. I specially recommend watching tutorials on the internet for filmmaking. There are tons of knowledge and ideas- pretty much everything I ever learned so far as a filmmaker can be found somewhere on Youtube.
Remember that it takes many tries to make a masterpiece but every piece leading to the masterpiece is just as valuable. They are a part of the process. Remember to be kind to yourself- you are learning, you are growing one step at a time.
College is not necessary if you want to be an artist or a filmmaker. A filmmaker and artist usually is hired/commissioned by their portfolio and what they can make- even jobs require a diploma, most times they are willing to consider people who have an amazing portfolio. So building a portfolio and relationships is far more important than getting a degree.
College is great for building relationships and creating a body of work as well as having time to experiment and try new things in a safe environment. There will be structured critiques of your work which are sometimes helpful and will teach you to navigate criticism. In some colleges, there are great mentors and they are invaluable. If you find a filmmaking mentor outside of college, great! But if you go to college, you will find many mentors who are paid to be your mentor and most of the ones I met were passionate about it. We stay in touch even now after many years.
If you do not plan to go to school, I recommend you continue to go to workshops and camps as well as film festivals (there you will find free film panels, moderately priced films, and film festival social events with many eccentric filmmakers). Filmmaking is often a collaborative process and you need to find collaborators who go along with your vision and values. You also need to read books and continue to develop yourself as a person. That means academic and history but also interpersonal and emotional knowledge. Learn how to solve conflict and the language of emotions. FILMMAKING IS AN EMOTIONAL CRAFT. If you understand trauma, healing, love, pain, and all the complexities of the human heart, you will make amazing films. I recommend you go to healing workshops and places where you can connect with your emotional self and learn the craft of emotions. Before you tell someone else’s story, understand your own story.
If you do not plan to go to college, consider working as a production assistant for small productions around town, opportunities can be found on social media and craigslists. Being on set helps understand the mechanics and roles of a film project. Most times, productions are looking for low pay production assistants to help out on set. There are many creative projects that would love to have another set of hands to help out in whatever way necessary. Do not harm yourself or drain your energy on projects that you do not have a connection to because it can be dangerous. Do not let anyone ever bully you on set or make you feel like less because you are starting- if you are being mistreated on set, just leave or find someone who can advocate for you. Filmmaking sets can have toxic energies and there are many that do not, so choose wisely who to work for and how long to work for them. Learning to say NO is just as valuable as learning to say YES to opportunities. “Your NO creates the boundaries for your YES to be authentic” - Adrienne Maree Brown
If you plan to attend college, you will very likely need a filmmaking portfolio. Some schools do not require it as a part of their admissions process but it is important. If you already know you want to be a filmmaker, I recommend you go to community college for two years and then a filmmaking college for 2 years. There is no reason in my mind to spend tons of money on the first two years of college specially since most of it are basic foundation classes.
In college, learn, learn, learn! Knowledge is empowering to you and your craft. One day, you may feel passionate about learning and going to classes and doing work at school. If today is not that day, then do not go to college because you will waste most of it. Go to college if you feel passionate about it and if you don’t, then save money and wait a couple years- there is nothing wrong with waiting to go to school.
I recommend going to a school that has a strong film program. Some schools have a film program but they do not invest into it enough and it tends to lack resources. Schools in cities that have a strong filmmaking culture are usually better equipped and resource-abundant such as schools in NYC and California.
College is great because of the faculty and relationships you will build there and it provides innumerable resources such as expensive equipment and facilities such as studios and CINEMA cameras. Quick tip: When you are in school, take the classes that give you access to the high end equipment as soon as possible. Most schools have one or two classes that once you have taken them, you have unlimited access to the most professional equipment. So if you sign up for those classes early in your college career, you will have access to that equipment for much longer than if you take those classes the last semester of school.
As mentioned, resources are incredibly abundant in college if you look for them. This reemphasizes that you should only go to school if you feel passionate about it. If you are going to school to just party and not take advantage of what you are paying for, it will be a waste of your life and time. If you want to party and let loose, go to Berlin.
If you feel passionate about school, take advantage of internships, programs, equipment, and all the resources that will be available during school.
After you are out of school, YOU WILL NOT HAVE ACCESS TO IT. You will not have access to CINEMA CAMERAS, STUDIOS, FACULTY, and any other resource that is lost upon graduation. Every second in life is incredibly valuable and precious- be intentional.
Hopefully, by the time you graduate, you will have an awesome portfolio. Hopefully, you already have your films presented at a few festivals included but not limited to student film festivals which are a great way to screen your film in a less competitive space.
After college, you will find yourself free from school and academics!
Whatever you choose to do now, continue making your own personal films or working on collaborative films with people. You are still growing and have so much to learn about the filmmaking world and craft. Do not be hard on yourself if you are not where you want to be- graduating college is just the beginning if it does not feel like it. It will when you are older.
From here, there are many paths towards where you want to be and it is important that you continue asking yourself who and what you want to be as a filmmaker. If you already know, great! If not, that is okay. There is a whole lifetime ahead of you. Once you discover who you want to be, hold it dearly and keep visualizing it. Visualizing that goal is super valuable and will guide you in that direction.
So you are out of school and have made a couple films? Submit them to film festivals! Get your name out there as much as possible. Films take lots of energy to make so make sure that once you finish one, you give the distribution as much attention as possible. Distribution is a celebration of how far you have gone and invite others to celebrate with you.
Start applying for grants. Your portfolio will help with that. Start applying for film labs such as a the Tribeca Film Lab, Sundance Film Lab, and etc. Film labs are intense camps where you will grow as an artist accompanied with the most experienced mentors and talented colleagues. How did Rachel Morrison (DP of Fruitvale Station and Black Panther) meet Ryan Coogler (Director of Black Panther, Fruitvale Station, Creed, etc)? Through a connection they made at a film lab.
I once heard from a great mentor that these labs are CATAPULTS into getting your films into the well known film festivals. For example, a film you develop at a Sundance Film Lab will likely get your film in Sundance Film Festival. Once a well known film festival accepts your film, you will start to receive recognition and opportunities.
So film labs are definitely a path to your dreams but in order to get into them, you will need a portfolio and solid descriptions of who you are and where you want to go as a filmmaker.
Another pathway to receive recognition for your work and opportunities to come your way is to make an amazing film that gets into film festivals without the help of labs. If the film is a feature length film, it might be purchased by a broadcaster/online platform. If that happens, you will make lots of money (FINALLY!) and likely, receive on-going opportunities to make work. This pathway has been true for many filmmakers in the past including Berry Jenkins.
There are many pathways depending on your desired role (director, DP, producer). What is important are relationships and that everyday is a step in the direction of your dreams. Learn, grow, question, and explore! And never ever forget to play-
I hope this was helpful and thought provoking- if you have any suggestions or recommendations on what to add/remove, feel free to let me know!
Von voyage, filmmaker!