Defining your filmmaking style and actively developing it, each and every time you shoot, is one of the best things you can do for your future. Here is how to get started.
There are two questions I always try to ask each of the filmmakers we come across.
I’ve been fortunate to talk to literally thousands of filmmakers across the globe and ask them these same two questions. How they answer them, and what they say, can be incredibly illuminating. I’ve started to notice some patterns.
And here is the really interesting thing: The answer to both questions is the exact same thing.
Okay, so what are the questions?
The first one—Why do you make films?
It’s a question that’s always intrigued me. The answer you provide offers so much insight into where you should focus, the types of stories you should be looking to tell, and the people you would want to attract.
The second one—What is your biggest challenge?
As a studio we have devoted so much of our time to deconstructing the art of storytelling and trying to share it with all of you in a tangible, actionable, and accessible way.
Knowing what it is you struggle with only helps us know what to focus on. It’s pushed us to tell better stories in order to help you do the same, and move through those challenges.
Let’s move toward what inspires you and away from what is holding you back.
When asked Why do you make films?, here are some of the most common replies:
Because of the emotional impact on the audience.
To express myself and grow creatively.
To tell stories that inspire me, stories that I feel need to be told.
To provide for my family while running my own business.
When asked What is your biggest challenge?, here are some of the most common replies:
Clients are always telling me what to do—they’re holding me back from making films how I want to make films.
How to find and tell a real story, the way I can imagine it in my mind.
I want to make MORE films like X, and LESS films like the ones I am making right now (which typically means: more commercial work, and less wedding work—OR making more wedding films with couples I really connect with, and less with couples I don’t).
I need to be able to charge more for the gear / lifestyle / creative control I want.
Here’s the really fascinating part:
Both questions, and their answers, all point to the same thing. Knowing this one thing, and working on it every single day, is the biggest thing you can do for yourself.
Let me share a short story about my journey into filmmaking, the stages I went through, and how that led me to this “one thing”.
I started getting into video in University as a Psychology student. It was a way to express and explore some of the things we were learning in class. Our first camera, the glorious Canon GL2, was a very large investment at the time.
Armed with nothing but the GL2 and a cheap Best Buy tripod, I was off to make videos. I was a videographer and I’d get hired to show up with my camera and tripod, and cover things.
Over the next couple years, as I and the rest of Stillmotion learned more about all of the technical aspects of making videos—how to work with light, move the camera, and make beautiful shots—the title of videographer suddenly became offensive.
I then became a self-proclaimed cinematographer. I didn’t simply show up to cover things, I deeply considered the light, lens choice, composition, and they way I moved the camera when filming.
For years we really identified with that label. When brides would come in looking for a videographer, we’d explain that they’d find no one like that here at Stillmotion. Nope, we only had cinematographers.
Over the next few years we started doing less weddings and got into some pretty exciting commercial work.
Then something changed.
No longer would the label cinematographer suffice. It became less about how we used our tools and the elements to add to the video, and more about what we were choosing to cover, the unique way we saw it, and what we wanted it to say.
Now, we were storytellers.
As a videographer we’d show up to weddings and cover everything. Everything. We’d get shot lists from the bride. We might even be told what soundtracks to use.
As a cinematographer, we’d cover a little bit less, but we sure knew how to make it look good. Give us a shitty hotel room with a window and we’d transform it into a magical and mysterious palace of preparations.
But as a storyteller, suddenly we started covering much less, and everything we did was meant to say something.
Look at it this way:
The videographer sees everything in full, end to end. The cinematographer sees how to make it beautiful. The storyteller sees only fragments of the larger whole, pieces that together say so much more.
And here’s the truth:
None of us got into this to be a tripod—to be told where to stand and what to film. We want to say something, we want our work to make an impact, we want to tell stories.
But how do you move from tripod to storyteller?
Stop standing around and covering everything. Make decisions. Say something. Harness the power of your irreplaceable voice.
You may have heard that before. In practice it isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. We all wonder: How do I find my voice? What do I do once I’ve found it? How to I strengthen it, make it clearer?
With that, here is the first step we suggest every filmmaker should take to help define his or her voice as a storyteller.
Five years ago, I entered into the filmmaking arena a minority, an underdog. I didn’t go to film school, I’m just over 5’ tall, I’m young…. and I’m female. If you were able to place bets on me at a casino the odds would be something like 341:1.
That’s not too far from where a lot of other women feel like they are at in their filmmaking careers, but here’s the secret:
On paper, you may be the underdog. But don’t for one second let yourself believe it.
I went from working at 3M in an engineering lab to all-access on the sidelines of the Superbowl in just 19 short months. From there, I went on to take a major role in the production of A Game of Honor and, over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege to work on a number of different productions, large and small.
As I look back, I’ve discovered a lot about what it takes to succeed as a female filmmaker and I want to share five powerful ideas I’ve learned with you.
This is a tough industry. It’s a harsh landscape for any filmmaker, but it’s especially challenging for women who have dreams to succeed in this space. Make no mistake, women are still the minority, but we don’t have to be the underdog.
It’s important to point out that with immense challenges also come opportunities to succeed.
Some may say that being DP of a feature-length doc and winning some Emmys in just five short years are significant triumphs, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I also feel that is something that’s within everyone’s reach.
You just have to want it enough to go for it, regardless of age, race, or gender.
So how do we handle being repeatedly marginalized, dealing with inappropriate comments on set and making the most out of fighting an uphill battle? Ladies, this one is for you.
Here are 5 things I’ve learned about how to succeed as a female filmmaker.
What would you say if you could share one thing with the world?
We had the amazing opportunity to speak at the Social Innovation Summit hosted at the United Nations in New York.
I had 10 minutes to talk to an amazing group of people, but what did I want to say?
In ten minutes you really want to get to one big idea. So what was it? Our one big idea that we wanted to share with people. I knew that if I tried to say too much I’d end up saying nothing at all.
One big idea to give to a room full of people: CEOs or heads of social corporate responsibility for companies like JetBlue, Chobani, Google, and Microsoft and a few hundred more.
As we thought about what we wanted to share, we realized that there is one storytelling secret that we think everyone should know.
Heidi McKye and I put our heads together to co-author what exactly we might say on behalf of Stillmotion.
This is what we came up with. Our one thing, as shared with everybody at the Summit.
Hiya, I’m Dom, and I’m a Connector at Story & Heart.
Story & Heart is one part film licensing platform and one big part filmmaking community—a place for storytellers to learn, encourage, and collaborate.
In that sense, we foster a passionate group of like-minded filmmakers drawn together to focus on one thing: helping you tell amazing stories. Because we believe that what we grow together will be something so much greater than anything we could have nurtured alone.
So, in the spirit of collaboration, Stillmotion asked me to write a bit about the idea of collaboration.
Imagine, for a moment, a storyteller. Do you picture writers laboring, lonely, behind a stack of paper in a dusty study? Or animators alone poring over the same drawing, over and over, changing it slightly every time to capture the precise pose, or the right mannerism, to convey that perfect purpose?
Now, for one more moment, imagine a freelancer—the storyteller who is bound to work alone, for whatever reason, be it financial or physical.
Because the truth is so much simpler: Storytelling requires collaboration.
That book that writer behind the lonely typewriter is creating? It’s so much bigger than the bounds of that study. It needs an editor—or a team of them—if it has any chance at reaching a greater audience. And that writer, beyond just her editors, also needs an agent, a publisher, a publicist, and countless others to hold her hands throughout the process of publishing, before the book can end up in your hands.
The same, of course, applies to film. When the credits roll, you aren’t bombarded with hundreds of names because of some elaborate joke.
Yet, as filmmakers, we can probably all remember a time when we’ve had a strange relationship with the idea of collaboration. Maybe for you, that time is now, and at the moment you’re staring at this screen hoping we’ll convince you that teamwork isn’t as frustrating or difficult to manage as it’s seemed so often in your career.
In just about any filmmakers career, they’ll spend a good deal of time as the support. Call it a second shooter, production assistant, or 1st AC – there are a bunch of roles that don’t have the prestige of Director or DP.
The fatal mistake of the second shooter is to think that there is any less opportunity in one role over another. It’s all relative. There is always a chance to make a difference, both for yourself and for the larger picture.
Here’s a short story of a shoot we did for CBS last year that really drives that point home.
Last year, Joyce and I spent a great deal of time in New Orleans working on a one hour Superbowl special. As it came close to Superbowl Sunday, things started to get really busy for CBS. As the broadcast network of the game, they had a bunch of specials to put together and many of them would come together in the days leading up to Superbowl Sunday.
One of the biggest pieces they were putting together was the Superbowl Open – a short piece that would air right before kick-off. Together – CBS, Superbowl, the Open – it all meant that there would be some pretty awesome resources put into bringing this piece to life.
We got a call the day before the shoot seeing if we’d be interested in tagging along. Pete Radovich, director of A Game of Honor, was directing the piece. Think Lombardi Trophy, an awesome NOLA stage, a 50 piece kids orchestra, some unreal lighting design, a grand piano, and Helmut Vonlichten (formerly of E.S. Posthumus).
They already had a DP plus a 20′ jib as a second camera. That means we’d be last in line – a third camera. Remember, we were in New Orleans for an entirely different shoot, one that had very long days, so it would be an easy excuse if we wanted to pass.
Do I wish I was asked to DP a spot as special as this? Absolutely. But they had an excellent DP in place and that wasn’t how we could help on this one.
Never one to turn down an opportunity, we rigged the Epic up on the Steadicam and Joyce and I joined the shoot, me as the Steadicam Op and her as my 1st AC.
We showed up with every intention of being the best third camera CBS had ever seen. Ever chance we got, we pushed ourselves just a little further than we thought we could go. And in between our chances, we schemed on how we could do even more the next time our name was called.