There’s more than one way to become a filmmaker.
Table of Contents
One of the most famous 21st-century filmmakers, Casey Neistat, has never made a feature for the big screen. He’s an online video content creator, i.e. filmmaker who has made thousands of short films. He’s also made a TV show for HBO. But it’s his short online films that have made him a household name in the US.
When we think of the word filmmaker, the image of a man running a large crew (probably wearing a baseball hat) often pops into our heads.
Because, yes, there is a gender assumption too.
This imaginary filmmaker is huddled with his DP (Director of Photography) and AD (Assistant Director) knuckling out the next shot while a busy crew buzzes around him like a horde of technical bumble bees.
Let’s expand the definition of filmmaker to include people from all backgrounds and genders who create stand-alone story-based moving pictures.
Whether you make short films, brand videos, wedding videos, music videos, feature films, micro docs, PSAs, or art films, you are a filmmaker.
Heck, if you make television, we could probably still call you a filmmaker.
A filmmaker is someone who gets films (i.e. moving pictures) made. This means that not all film directors can actually be called filmmakers. If a studio comes to you with the script, producer, and stars, and you direct the film, are you really a filmmaker? I’d say…mmm, I dunno. But maybe I’m just a blue-collar elitist.
If you find the script or write it yourself, co-produce, and direct the film, then yes, you’re a filmmaker. And probably a damn good one.
A filmmaker is someone who gets films made.
They don’t sit around in their pyjamas and wait for the scripts to roll through their door like a dim sum cart at Sunday brunch.
Not all filmmakers have the exact same skillset. Some filmmakers may not even know how to use a camera or light a shot. While other filmmakers may be cinematographers in their own right. If you’re a solo filmmaker, you know how to do every damn thing on set. You’re a filmmaker, sound recordist, grip, gaffer, DP, AD, and director.
With this broader modern definition of a filmmaker in play, let’s discuss how you become one.
But first, why should you listen to me?
I’ve been making micro films since 2013.
I’m an almost totally self-taught solo filmmaker. I say self-taught, but in reality, everybody (even a DIY-er) learns from others. I first got to learn filmmaking for free in high school as part of a two-year film production program that was both an incredible experience and a total farce. More stories about that another day.
Then I did nothing with filmmaking for 10 years. In fact, I became an actor and later an ESL teacher.
When I was 28, I finally bought a DSLR and got down to the messy task of learning solo filmmaking.
Thanks to reading an armful of books and watching thousands of tutorials and then getting out there, I learned how to make complex micro films. I launched my business, and I started working professionally.
In the past seven years, I’ve made hundreds of micro films, met people from both sides of the industry (solo filmmakers and crew-based filmmakers), and taught students the art of solo filmmaking. Still with me?
Let’s break down the practical and tactical steps you need to take to become a filmmaker.
10 Steps to Becoming a Filmmaker
Step 1: Decide what kind of filmmaker you want to be.
You’re not going to specialize in every single genre of filmmaking.
So what’s your jam? Do you want to become a big-budget feature filmmaker, an indie filmmaker who focuses on dramas, a documentary or wildlife filmmaker? Know your genre and zone of filmmaking and become an expert at that.
If you want to become a narrative feature filmmaker, what genre are you in love with? Action, adventure, comedy, rom-com, heist, buddy comedy? Watch all the best films in that genre and get to know the expectations your audience will have. Watch the flops and figure out why they flopped.
Getting started, you need to pick your genre. It doesn’t mean you’ll only stick to that genre your whole career. But the only way to get good at storytelling is to start by understanding one genre.
Personal Documentary v.s. Narrative Feature Bio Pic
Step 2: Decide if you want to go the traditional route or not.
Do you really need to go to film school to pursue this passion?
Filmmaking isn’t like surgery. You don’t need a traditional degree to become successful. Later in this post, you’ll read some success stories from big-name directors who never went to film school. You’ll also hear some failure stories from those who did go to film school. There are many success and failure stories from people in both the film school and the no-film school camp. Neither route is a guaranteed path to success. Yet, somehow many people believe that film school automatically gives you a free pass into the director’s chair. There’s no bigger myth in the world of high-ticket education.
The critical decision around film school comes down to this one main question: would you rather spend your money on gear or an extensive multi-year education program?
With film school, you’ll meet people. With gear, you’ll make things. You decide. For the gear-route to work, you need to be a self-starter. You’ve got to be cool with making your own rules and structure.
Of course, you make shorts in film school, but the truth is you make a lot less because you’re learning theory and working with a crew. You also don’t usually own your work when you make it at film school — despite your hefty tuition fees, the school often owns all works created by students
Neither Ava DuVernay nor Christopher Nolan went to film school.
Other luminaries who didn’t go to film school include Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Tarantino, the Wachowskis, Ethan Coen (but Joel did go to film school), Robert Rodriguez, Kathryn Bigelow (she studied painting), Hertzog, Pedro Almodóvar, and Steve McQueen (he dropped out of film school because, “they wouldn’t let you throw the camera up in the air.”
Some top directors who did go to film school include Richard Linklater, Patty Jenkins, Jane Campion, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese.
Obviously there are thousands more directors. This is just to show that there’s no one right path to become a filmmaker.
Step 3: Consider the non-traditional route: DIY or Online Filmmaking Courses.
There are hundreds of online filmmaking courses.
Most of them are not comprehensive. They’re are a lot of lecture-style courses and tutorial-style courses on various areas of filmmaking. You’ll need to pick up a little here and a little there. But with those courses, some YouTube videos, and some books, you can cobble together an education. Then comes the most important part: making work.
You become a filmmaker by making films.
Step 4: Start building a body of work as a filmmaker.
Everyone starts from nothing.
You don’t go from aspirant to master in a day. You won’t even know your style when you’re starting out. You’ll probably make stuff that’s reminiscent of your favourite director. But over time, as you create more short films and micro films, you’ll develop a style. Your body of work will drive others to work with you. You’ll gain confidence. And you’ll get to do what you love: make films!
Step 5: Challenge yourself constantly.
Always be stretching and growing.
The difference between the people who stay in it and stick with it and keep creating is that they’re always challenging themselves. Werner Herzog has made at least 60 films. He’s not sitting back on his laurels. He challenges himself with each film, approaching new subject matter and refining his storytelling with every project. If your daily aim is to get 1% better in all areas of filmmaking, your work will eventually be outstanding.
For you nerdy-types, this is called the aggregation of marginal gains, and it’s one of the best ways to become a master of anything. Slow microscopic gains over time are how you win.
Step 6: Know where you want to go, i.e. have a big vision for yourself and create a simple roadmap.
Where do you want to go?
What’s the big vision? In 20 years, where do you want to be, and what do you want to be making? Have a vision for yourself that you care about, and that sustains you. And know why this vision matters. From that big vision, decide on your simple roadmap.
Will you go be a Production Assistant (PA) and work your way up? Will you go to film school and then be an all-star networker? Will you build a body of work and then go after government funding? Will you become an online media creator and do short films for the online space?
What are the basic stepping stones that’ll give you the SKILLSET to do what your big vision dictates?
Step 7: Connect with other artists, filmmakers, technicians, directors, writers, and actors.
Even if you’re going the DIY route, you need to start exposing yourself to the work and ideas of other filmmakers who are at a similar place to you.
There might be a film society in your town or a filmmaking contest, or you could simply start engaging in Vimeo Weekend Challenges. Even if your aim is to be a professional solo filmmaker, you’ll want to collaborate. Collaboration generates growth.
Step 8: Be amazing to work with.
This applies to everything in life, but all too often, we think our talents and skills are enough.
They aren’t. You have to be amazing to work with. Filmmaking can have long days and long project timelines. Nobody wants to work with someone who is a complainer or a lay-about.
Step 9: Don’t give up.
You need patience, persistence, and to be playing the long game.
You’re more likely to succeed if you’re in it for life. If you say to yourself, this is my vocation, and I’ll do what it takes, then you’ll slowly get there. You won’t be disappointed if it takes you some time. What is time anyway? (A mental construct) What’s the rush? (Your ego) Get started now, and keep going.
Only 3% of low-budget feature filmmakers went on to make a second feature film. Being a filmmaker requires more than one stroke of luck. It requires persistence. If that’s the case, what are you waiting for?
Don’t wait to get started — you won’t be more qualified in 10 years. You’ll have the same skill set and limitations. Pick up a camera and get started today.
Step 10: Balance passion projects with money projects.
Filmmakers take a lot of hits for doing big money projects, but real talk: that’s how you finance the passion projects.
I love making brand videos for small companies. If it’s a brand video or educational video centred around people, then I enjoy making it. The pay is good (because I run my own business) and the clients are fun to work with.
This is a great way to make money while improving my skillset. I’ve also worked on unpaid short film projects, unpaid micro docs, done stop-motion animation for a big-name brand, and made a ton of educational videos.
With every project, I learn something new. You can too! Don’t discount the freelance/contractor path as a way to learn, do what you love, and make money at the same time.
Bonus Step: Get obsessed with good storytelling.
The only reason to make films is to tell stories.
That’s it. Ain’t nothing else you’re trying to do here. Yes, you want to tell the stories visually (because that’s movie magic!), but at the end of the day, it’s the story that matters more than the visuals. Story is everything. EVERYTHING.
Get started by reading the following essential books on storytelling/screenwriting:
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
Story by Robert McKee
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Adventures in the Screentrade by William Goldman (this book is written by one of the world’s greatest screenwriters and it’s a heck of a good read!)
Tiny Tips for Aspiring Filmmakers
On Getting Paid to Make Films
There are a lot of grants out there.
You might realize how much free government money is floating around to support your work. Sometimes there’s even corporate money floating around. There are usually stipulations for getting that money that are annoying. But if it’s that or nothing, go for the grants. At least check them out and see what’s possible. Something on offer might appeal to you. If you haven’t checked grants in your country, state, province and city, make that a priority.
On Making Friends with a Producer
If you find someone willing to help you produce your work, take them up on the offer!
This won’t come around too many times. I offered to help produce someone’s short film one. They didn’t take the offer. Three years later, they still haven’t made the film. Would I have gotten it done? Yes. People always have ulterior motives, but their agenda probably lines up with yours.
On Becoming a Good Editor
As soon as you know how to edit on a professional system, you can start making money while improving your skills.
Do this by finding gigs on Upwork and similar freelance sites. You’ll want to take your work off those sites eventually as you grow your portfolio. But it’s a great way to practice editing with a hard deadline. Editing requires a lot of practice before you get really good at it. But it’s not complicated to learn the basics.
On Starting a Biz
Start your own biz to get experience.
You can start out charging a tiny sum for a video. Maybe you just charge $500 for a film. But you knock it out of the park. Keep raising your rates with each film you make and keep improving your production values. Eventually, you’ll be charging $5,000+ for your work. The way to get the most experience is to work on multi-video projects.
On Working for Free
Work for free to start out!
If you spend too much time on forums with crusty old film veterans, you might think you deserve to get paid right out of the gates. You don’t. If you’re totally green, work for free.
It’s okay to work for free to gain experience and confidence. And it’s also okay to work for free when you’re later in your career because you’re looking to grow credits and portfolio on bigger projects. It’s just a chess game. You make moves that take you towards an “end goal” that you find interesting. (Really, there is no end goal because you’ll get there and invent a new goal…but anyway…)
On Working for Cheap
It’s also okay to work for cheap too.
You’ll stop doing free projects because you’ll realize your work provides great results. Then eventually, your work will become much more professional and the cost to your clients will reflect that. That’s the path. As long as you know, there are three stages, you won’t get ahead of yourself.
On Having a Portfolio and Website
As soon as you have a portfolio, get a website with your name as the domain i.e. be searchable!
How many times have I seen the name of a technician on the credit crawl of a short film project and then tried to find them by googling their name? Hundreds of times. HUNDREDS. This makes me mental.
If you can’t be found, you won’t get hired, and your portfolio is going to waste.
Because I am easy to find online, I’ve gotten tons of opportunities. I’ve had clients find me randomly after 3 years because they googled my name. They didn’t know I had a website. They didn’t know my email address. They knew my NAME. I gotta say that again. They remembered my name and they GOOGLED it.
Friend, you’ve got to have a website that’s centred around your name.
It has to have info about you, show your work, and make it possible to contact you. This will pay off. Promise. Don’t think it’ll pay off right away. Squarespace advertisements will make you think you’re going to be profesh the second you have a website.
But over the coming years, having your own site that allows people to find you by name and contact you will pay off big time.
I’ve booked over $100,000 in work because people could find my name online.
One last tip: buy a domain name that correlates with your name (Ex: www.colettenichol.com) and slowly build a website as you build your portfolio.
Should you follow your dream?
In this video Spielberg will tell you the secret to knowing exactly what to do in your career and life. Should you go to film school? Should you dedicate your life to this? He’s got the answer all wrapped up in a perfectly told story.
“Dreams are whispers…”
Film School Stories
How hard is it to become a filmmaker?
I’m not going to use real names of the people whose stories these are because this isn’t about knocking anyone or telling you to follow someone else path.
I also do not have anyone’s permission to share their stories. But they’re not exactly dark cloak and dagger stories. I’m sure they won’t mind.
Read these stories and see if you relate to any of them.
Everyone has their own best path. There is no right or wrong way to pursue your dreams.
I’m sharing these stories because I want to debunk the myth that going to film school = becoming a filmmaker.
Instead, you become a filmmaker by making moving pictures. That’s it.
Weinstein and Beyond
Julia went to a prestigious film school in London, England.
She was passionate about filmmaking. She specialized in editing and wanted to become an editor. Then she went and worked at the Weinstein company and began to hate the industry. She’s since changed careers. She never made her own films. But she has a great life doing something else that she loves.
The Film Writer
Maggie is a blogger.
She spent 5 years in film school, getting a formal degree. She wrote a bunch of scripts and then went to work for a big online filmmaking blog, and years later has never made a film. But, she’s still got the dream.
The Long Road in South America
Jose went to film school for 2 years in his home country of Ecuador.
He got a scholarship but still had to put money towards his education. His family helped him. They paid for most of his tuition. They bought him a computer. Now he’s graduated and is doing small gigs working for businesses, but he doesn’t have high-end gear. He’s turning jobs down because he can’t afford the gear needed to deliver the quality required by potential clients.
He’s going to need more investment money from his family to get the gear he needs to work on pro client gigs. Or he’ll need to work in a low-level industry position and work his way up while saving every cent for gear. But Jose is already a filmmaker because he makes his own solo films constantly. He practices his art while working towards growing his career. He’s in it for the long haul.
Mark went to film school in Australia and became a camera operator.
He then moved to England and become a film editor for a company that made corporate videos. After that he moved to Canada and started working in restaurants and doing photography. He tried to get back into being a camera operator, but we have too many restrictions here and he didn’t want to start his career all over. He’s focusing his creative career on photography and runs his own business. While he dreams of shooting films, that’s a dream that’s still in progress.
Never Went to Film School – Made 5 Films
John, James, and Andrea decided to make a feature film.
They self-funded the film and got it made. They didn’t know what they were doing. They’d never been to film school, and they got friends and family to pitch in to get their film made. Then they made another film, and another. They’ve made more than 5 feature films now. At this point, they all work in the industry. Andrea directs TV. John is an AD. Aaaaand…I’m not sure what James does.
Entrepreneurship, Art, and the Long Game
Noam Kroll (real name – google his website) became an actor.
Soon after working professionally as an actor he started writing scripts, learned how to use a camera, taught himself colour grading, and now runs a colour grading studio, teachers colour grading, makes micro low-budget features films, and directs commercials.
From Acting to Solo Filmmaking
In high school, I had the good luck of being in a two-year filmmaking class.
I learned crew-based filmmaking and got hooked by the editing process. Then after graduating, I began training professionally as an actor. I soon got sick of the industry in Canada and moved to South America. I taught English, created two touring solo theatre shows, moved back to Canada, taught myself solo filmmaking, started a production company, and have been making micro films since 2013.
In 2017, I started developing a solo filmmaking course based on my learning process. Why? Because I believe solo filmmaking is one of the most important art forms of our time.
So what do you think is the right path for you?
Inspiring Advice from Stanley Kubrick
“The best education in film is to make one. I would advise any neophyte director to try to make a film by himself.
A three-minute short will teach him a lot. I know that all the things I did at the beginning were, in microcosm, the things I’m doing now as a director and producer.
There are a lot of noncreative aspects to filmmaking which have to be overcome, and you will experience them all when you make even the simplest film: business, organization, taxes, etc., etc.
It is rare to be able to have an uncluttered artistic environment when you make a film, and being able to accept this is essential.
The point to stress is that anyone seriously interested in making a film should go out and do it.”
—This quote clearly reflects its time as Kubrick refers to a filmmaker or direct as “he.” But even now the overwhelming majority of directors are male. So if you’re female (like me, the author of this blog) then for now, we must write ourselves into this narrative as this advice from Kubrick holds true, no matter who we are or where we came from.
Online Filmmaking Programs:
I’ve created the Story Envelope Academy’s 12-week Online Filmmaking Program called The Epic Journey, which runs twice per year. You’ll become a solo filmmaker and gain a comprehensive filmmaking skillset. You can get on the filmmaking program waitlist here.
There are two other comprehensive online filmmaking programs that I’m aware of online: one from Lights Filmmaking School and one from Fulltime Filmmaker. To my knowledge, these are the only three comprehensive programs available online. I haven’t seen inside the other two programs, but based on curriculum it appears that the Lights Program is for crew-based aspiring filmmakers while Fulltime Filmmaker is more if you want to learn run-and-gun and corporate video or become a wedding videographer.
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—ABOUT THE AUTHOR—Hey, I’m Colette Nichol, a story strategist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur based out of rainy Vancouver. Obsessed with storytelling and marketing, you can often find me attempting to read ten books at the same time. Through this website, I help aspiring filmmakers follow their dreams and purpose-driven creatives make more money doing what they love. Join the inbox party: take my free mini course and start building your filmmaking skillset—take your starter filmmaking gear and make the most of it.