A Good Director Never Stops Learning

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When I decided to make Play It Safe back in early 2011, I knew that I had a great challenge ahead of me. Even though I finished my first festival short back in 2005, the fact that I had never attended a proper film school weighed heavily on my mind. I've worked on many different projects over the last few years, but for the most part the production processes were nothing like what might occur on a Hollywood film set. How would I handle the progression from small, relatively DIY productions to a narrative feature film?

As Jack and I started work on the script, I made a commitment to myself. In 2011 I was going to put myself through what I thought of as a masterclass in filmmaking - primarily focusing on directing & writing, but touching on other areas like cinematography as well. What this means in practical terms is that I made it a priority to learn as much as possible about my craft every single day.

Now that it's 2012 and I can look back at last year with some perspective, I think that it was the best choice that I could have possibly made. In a lot of ways it feels like I learned more useful skills and information last year than any other year of my life. I now feel far more confident in my abilities as a director, writer, camera operator, & filmmaker in general. When you have long stretches between projects (which is often the case with indie film), it can sometimes be difficult to maintain your identity and say "I am a director" with confidence. Learning more about my craft everyday was a great remedy for this, and I have never felt more connected with my craft and career choice.

I plan to continue my regime of constant learning into the future, and it's something that I would recommend to anyone who is serious about filmmaking (and I'm sure the same principles can apply to pretty much any vocation). Following are a few practices that I found especially useful last year.

WATCH MORE MOVIES

In 2009 and 2010 I was primarily focused on making music videos. In those 2 years I watched a hell of a lot of music videos. I'd check websites like videos.antville.org and yourmusictoday.com pretty much everyday.

In 2011 I knew I had to step up my game, and I prioritised watching feature films. In the end, I watched more than 180 films last year (that's roughly 3 every week). I started with a focus on films in the same genre as Play It Safe, but as the year progressed I broadened the scope to all types of films. Coming from an academic background that typically eschewed mainstream and genre cinema, I hadn't actually seen that many Hollywood films over the last few years. Last year, I watched a boatload of them from all different genres. I've said it before, but I truly believe that the adage “you have to know the rules before you break them" is completely true. Last year I came to grips with my prejudices and just focused on learning as much as I could from the filmmakers that had come before me - regardless of what genre they were working in.

By watching so many films I not only learnt a lot (including about different genres and narrative structures, visual language and different ways to cover a scene, different types of performances and the effects they can have, etc), I also had a lot of fun, which is critical if you want to last in the often harsh world of filmmaking.

READ ABOUT YOUR CRAFT

Over the last few years, I'd already made a habit of occasionally reading great film blogs like nofilmschool.com, Hope for Film, The Black & Blue, and Cinema 5D. In 2011 I increased the number of blogs I visited and started checking them on a daily basis. Smart phones are very useful for this as it easy to have a quick read of a blog or e-book while waiting for a train or during other periods that would otherwise be dead time.

In addition to my regular Internet-based reading, I also read a number of books on screenwriting, directing, and other aspects of filmmaking. Cinema is over 100 years old. So many great filmmakers have produced work during that period. I'm definitely in favour of innovation and experimentation, but when it comes to the fundamentals, why reinvent the wheel? I found that reading about the experiences of other, more experienced filmmakers was tremendously useful and gave me a new perspective on many areas of moviemaking.

This year, I will continue to regularly read blogs and books, and I have also subscribed to American cinematographer magazine.

LEARN MORE ABOUT OTHER CREW POSITIONS

As I've mentioned in other articles, I didn't have access to a lot of of good equipment while I was at university and I was never really taught technical skills like lighting, camera operation, and sound recording. In 2011 I made it my secret mission to become a better cameraman. I tackled this aim in a couple of different ways. First off, I plagued my cinematographer Jaque Fisher with questions whenever we were working together. (Jaque, sorry for annoying you all year!) I followed this up with a concerted effort to get more hands on experience behind the camera, and I actually ended up shooting some footage for a KKP documentary that should be coming out in the next few months.

Now, I should mention that working as the DP or camera operator is not an ambition of mine. I didn't do this so I can go out and operate as a director/cinematographer. Nicholas Winding Refn, the director of "Drive", recently stated:

"A director cannot, and should not know everything. But a director should know a little bit about everything. You should know a little of everything to a certain degree, and then work with other people to harmonize it and help you, whether it's music, sound, acting, or camera."

I agree with him. As a director, a broad knowledge of the filmmaking process can help you to better communicate with other crew members, and ultimately realise a better final product. The same can apply to other crew roles as well. Very few films are made by one person alone. The entire cast and crew needs to work together, and this will be a lot easier if we can better understand and appreciate the roles of other crew members.

CONCLUSION

I really believe that nothing beats hands-on experience . I've learnt so much making short films and music videos over the last few years. However, if I limited my learning to only when I was actively working on a project, I think that it would take me a very very long time to progress as a filmmaker. Complementing your practical experience with other types of ongoing learning (such as the ones I've mentioned) can be invaluable.

What types of learning practices do you partake in? If you have some thoughts or tips I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Chris Pahlow

Chris Pahlow is an independent writer/director currently in post-production on his debut feature film PLAY IT SAFE. Chris has been fascinated with storytelling since he first earned his pen license and he’s spent the last ten years bringing stories to life through music videos, documentaries, and short films.