Columns / Discourse / September 19, 2012

Check the Reel: Making it as an amateur filmmaker

A beginning fiction writer can buy a $2 composition notebook, scribble “It was a dark and stormy night,” and call herself active. A student filmmaker buys a $50-800 camera, decent editing program ($200), and a “Guerilla Filmmaking in 10 Days” DVD ($44.99, satisfaction guaranteed or money back) before realizing none of her friends have time to act and her 50-page magnum-opus screenplay cannot, in fact, film itself.


At colleges like Knox without a filmmaking program, Kubrick wannabes struggle to translate their dreams into physical video. They either lack the resources or don’t know where to start. They imagine feature-length films without the restraint of budget and casts bigger than their school’s drama department. “Art’s only boundary is the imagination.” Tell that to a filmmaker; hear them laugh.


I have fought this battle the last two years and I know classmates who face the same crisis: how to strike the balance between ambition and economy. You can have all the Oscar-winning ideas you want but when it comes time to hold the camera, how much will you say? That’s up to you, ultimately; I can only offer some tips after working on projects over the summer, what I learned from the trial-and-error, when I transcended my amateur trappings and connected intimately to my footage — because at this point that’s what matters: your own satisfaction. Although everyone’s process is different, I hope these suggestions might guide you in pursuing your love of film beyond hobby and into the semi-professional realm.


— Be modest. The moment your mind drifts and you think: “Man, I could make an awesome action movie. All my friends would be in it, there’d be explosions, kick-ass fight scenes; I can do it all in one summer—!” slap yourself. Say, “With $20,000,000 that might be a good idea. With the $20 I have out of my pocket, I can come up with ten ideas just as great, and with each I’d only need one friend and my camera.” Everybody wants to fly at the sun, but you’re only human. Take baby steps; push yourself, but gently; challenge your imagination to conceive powerful, creative stories set in your dorm room. You’ll love the results more than the sci-fi extravaganza you keep dreaming of, if only you could afford that two-way trip to Mars.


— Be humble. It’s an impulse of film students, who often handle all parts of production from writing to camerawork to editing, to assume total creative control of their product. We can name many auteurs in the field — Spielberg, Scorsese, Nolan — but even the violently independent Welles couldn’t make “Citizen Kane” without further work by DP Gregg Toland, composer Bernard Herrmann and editor Robert Wise, all essential to its success. Often I will go to film shoots with a very precise, rigid notion of what I expect. By the time I yell “action,” a very different scene plays out before the lens, based on input from actors, friends and circumstance. Permit yourself moments of serendipity and collaboration. If film were meant to be the work of one person, why would blockbusters need ten minutes of credits?


— Start with a music video. If you’re shuffling through your screenplay rough drafts wondering what’s feasible, consider setting your work down and seeing if any musician friends have tracks they want visualized. Some filmmakers balk at music videos as “selling out” and sacrificing their integrity. I say it’s the most logical first step. Not only do music videos eliminate questions of sound (no dialogue, just a song synced with mute footage) and allow you to focus on the strictly visual, it forces you to interpret a work that’s not your own with a product that fuses your vision with that of other artists — an extension of the “Be humble” clause. You’re not only translating the thoughts in your head but also reconciling them with the image a musician or band wants to express. David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry got their start in this unique medium. Why shouldn’t you?


— Make what you want to, not what others expect of you. You’re not in Hollywood yet with executives breathing down your neck. You don’t have to make a horror film because that’s what the studios like. Spend your bright, expansive college years honing a voice and pursuing your interests, no matter how far removed from the norm. That may seem to contradict the “be humble/collaborate” tips but even when working with others, never forget your own voice. It’s what you’ll have to represent yourself when it comes time to hit the big time and it’s a terrible thing to lose just to please others.

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Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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