Teach Yourself Filmmaking: 3 Lessons From Self-Taught Pros
Teach Yourself Filmmaking: 3 Lessons From Self-Taught Pros
By Story and Heart / vimeo.com

To be a great filmmaker, you don’t need to go to film school, have access to the latest gear, or have been born a creative genius. The most important ingredients for mastering the craft are time and dedication. To set yourself up for success then, the trick is to focus on the learning process itself.

We chatted with four Vimeo and Story & Heart filmmakers that share a lot in common: they are all amazingly talented full-time filmmakers (and they have a knack for Vimeo Staff Picks, with over 25 between the four of them), and they all learned filmmaking the same way — by teaching it to themselves. Dan and Dana of Gnarly BayMatty Brown, and Joe Simon of The Delivery Men have shared with us their top tips for learning the craft of filmmaking independently.

Tip 1: Film your friends… a lot.

The reality is this: you’re going to fail. Whether it’s setting your shutter speed too high for the blur you’re after, forgetting to think about transitions while you’re filming, or simply not paying enough attention to your composition as you wrestle with camera stabilizers, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes.

But, that’s good, because through those failures you’ll also learn a lot. You might discover what shutter speed works for certain motion (and emotion), learn that transitions can be found in the field as well as in post, or that a static shot with a perfect composition is far better than a moving shot with a loose composition.

Make sure you’re putting yourself in situations where it’s okay to make mistakes and fail. And filming your friends is the best scenario for making those mistakes. Which is exactly how Dan Riordan and Dana Saint of Gnarly Bay, a duo from Rhode Island, taught themselves filmmaking.

From the very beginning, our friends and family have been our subjects and unsolicited collaborators. They’ve offered their laughter, smiles, and much more to be the test subjects in our quest to capture our surroundings the best way we know how. The liberating thing about filming without a deadline or a deliverable is that there is no threat of failure lurking around the corner.

What started out as a couple of kids making a horror film in the 8th grade turned into a lifelong friendship between Dan and Dana. The duo grew from making random video skits as kids to traveling around the world telling inspiring video stories via Gnarly Bay, and their tried and true method of learning filmmaking through filming friends works.

And they didn’t just film friends from around their hometown, but also the friends they’d meet on their travels.

When we started traveling, we realized that having a camera to try to capture these adventures was a perfect combination. It inspired us to travel with a purpose. Find cool stuff to film… and without knowing it… we developed some skills that we can forever use to express ourselves in a unique way. So, when we found ourselves with friends in cool locations, we were able to stay in the moment to capture more authenticity instead of worrying about camera settings.

The other benefit of filming friends is the raw, human emotion you get to capture — the stuff that actors get paid big bucks to shell out on command. Only with your friends, there is no need to yell “action,” and you get to keep your money in your gear fund. So go find some friends to film and bring along a camera. In the wise words of Gnarly Bay, “You’re going to capture magic,” even if you’re just getting started.

Tip 2: Use whatever gear you have access to.

Filmmaking does require a bit of gear (mainly a camera with a lens). But you don’t need the latest and fanciest tech out there. An amazing film isn’t amazing because of the gear it was created with. It’s amazing because of the story it tells, the characters, the emotion, the journey, and the resolution.

Which brings us to our second trick for learning filmmaking: Use whatever gear you have, even your cell phone! Matty Brown, Vimeo Staff Pick All Star, is a testament to this trick.

His leap into filmmaking, like Gnarly Bay’s, started at an early age, after his mom told him that the only way he could experience the earthquake that had just occurred again would be in the movies. Matty, who was once just a curious kid, changed immediately into a curious kid that wanted to tell visual stories. And like Gnarly Bay, gear didn’t hold Matty back in learning the craft.

I was always very imaginative and being able to show the world through my eyes in film was such a beautiful concept to me, and I fell in love with it even though I was not and am not a technical person. I would play with my aunt’s camera every now and then and think to myself, ‘Hey, it can’t be that hard. It’s just a bunch of buttons.’

Matty is spot on: A camera is just a bunch of buttons. It’s the person behind the camera — and how they use the camera — that matters most.

Growing up very poor, I was intimidated by how everyone else had these amazing high-end cameras with huge lenses, rigs, gadgets, and whatnot. I was using a $200 camera that a soccer mom would use back in 1998, so it was quite the challenge to find ways to make my work stand out. Because of my lack of quality equipment I was forced to get very creative on how to use what I had to make my work stand out and show that it’s about how you use your tools rather than relying on them. It’s all internal really, so I experimented with my little camera and developed some unique techniques along the way.

15 Vimeo Staff Picks and millions of views later, when you watch any of Matty’s films, you don’t see fancy gear shine through. You see Matty, his infectious love of life, and his heart. Here’s one of his films from 2 years ago, shot on gear that even back then wasn’t anything special. Today it still carries the same weight and gravity that it did when it was first released.

Tip 3: Merge your passions.

Just because you’re diving further into this hobby (which will undoubtedly become a passion, as filmmaking is infectious) doesn’t mean you should give up your old ones. Instead, film them!

In the late 90s, and largely still to this day, Joe Simon of the The Delivery Men lived, breathed, and slept BMX. Joe, needing a camera to film himself and his friends to send footage to their sponsors, took a job at Best Buy to get a discount on a Digital8 camera. Shortly thereafter, one of his sponsors hired him for a full-length BMX film, which as he puts it, “...was eye opening, to say the least. There was no turning back.”

But instead of giving up his passion for BMX, he used it to fuel his learning of filmmaking.

I went on countless BMX filming road trips in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, which provided me with a plethora of learning opportunities. One of the most beneficial aspects was having to set up and break down my gear as quickly as possible while at the same time searching out the best angles and lighting. 90% of the time we were filming at locations where you would potentially get kicked out or arrested — there was no time to for mistakes or to miss a shot. Learning how to be quick and get the right shots was huge.

Whether you draw, paint, read, run, travel, or hang out with your pets, pick up a camera and start filming your existing passions. The best part is you’re already familiar with the story and the important details.

When you get started, look for the challenges that you come up against as opportunities to push yourself. In Joe’s case, the sport of BMX is one that moves quickly and, because of that, the camera had to move along with it.

I was a big Glidecam shooter—using it while riding skateboards, filming out of cars, on hoods of cars, etc. All these types of shots look as if we had a Steadicam or a rig mounted to a chase car. BMX enabled me to think outside the box and take calculated risks that I was comfortable with because I knew I could get a better shot.

Like Matty, Joe used constraints to push himself. They both utilized what they had access to as an opportunity to find new ways to bring shots and stories to life, despite the challenges they had to overcome. Which brings us to the heart of this post, which Joe sums up so perfectly.

Filmmaking is a never-ending learning journey; you can always push yourself to the next level. There’s nothing better than creating the perfect shot and the perfect story — it allows you to bring any idea to life.

Whether you’re a self-taught filmmaker or just starting to immerse your toes in the filmmaking waters, Vimeo Video School has a bunch more advice and technical pro-tips. And be sure to visit Academy of Storytellers for more in-depth filmmaking education from Gnarly BayMatty Brown,Joe Simon, and many more talented filmmakers

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Teach Yourself Filmmaking: 3 Lessons From Self-Taught Pros