One of the most frustrating things about being an aspiring filmmaker is having to rely on other people to make your vision come alive. Filmmaking is inherently collaborative, but if you’re a student or you’re living outside of a major metro area, finding collaborators can be difficult. If you’re looking to turn your friends into your collaborators, check out this article, but if none of your friends are interested in filmmaking at all, stick around. We’re going to talk about 5 things you can do, all on your own, to level up your filmmaking skills so you can get started right away.
1. Make a documentary project
Documentaries are a great place to start if you want to learn how to shoot, edit, and pace a film. You don’t need to cast actors or hire a writer, you just need to find an interesting story in the real world and film as much of it as you can before editing it into a coherent arc. The interesting story could be about your roommate, your sibling, your parent, your friend, or a local business owner you know- it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re making something simple to improve your craft and build your portfolio.
Since we’re assuming you’re a crew of one, try to film near natural light sources for the best lighting- interior lighting almost always looks weird and will cause strife in the edit. If you’re filming outside, try to film in the shade or on a cloudy day for the best look. For audio, either buy a simple camera-mounted mic and make sure your interview subjects are always close, or record audio separately with an iPhone tucked in a shirt pocket or lying just out of frame, making sure to sync the sound with a clap at the beginning of a take.
Shot on a cloudy day, no post-production color correcting required
2. Play multiple parts yourself
I’m not sure if this is still a thing, but back in 2008 or so, a big trend for YouTubers was solo sketches, where a single person would make a sketch playing all the parts. The queen of this style was CommunityChannel (Natalie Tran), and if you haven’t watched her videos, I recommend you put aside a few hours because they’re absurdly addictive and a great demonstration of making high-quality content completely by yourself.
This style lends itself most obviously to comedy sketches, but if you’re more interested in drama or horror, perhaps the conceit is clones, or perhaps you wear a costume or disguise for one character so it’s not distinguishable you’re playing both parts.
Even if you don’t consider yourself an actor, you can use this as an opportunity to experiment with writing that doesn’t require a ton of dialog. Focus on cinematography and storytelling and it’ll be worth your time. Or just make it super funny- whatever floats your boat.
3. Try found footage
Found footage is a filmmaking style that makes the camera part of the story- think The Blair Witch Project or almost every single literary-inspired web series. It’s a much cheaper style of filmmaking because you rarely need more than one angle of coverage, and it’s easier to do yourself due to it largely being a stationary tripod medium.
Found footage also presents a unique writing challenge, because the characters are aware they’re being filmed and thus that invasion of privacy has to factor into the plot and choices. This type of project is going to look different from anything else you’ll make, showing range while still keeping costs and crew needs down.
You also might not need actors at all- if the only character is the one holding the camera, you can just ADR all the lines later without having to worry about scheduling people to be on set with you.
4. Write constantly and broadly
Perhaps you’re not so much interested in the technical parts of filmmaking but you still want to be productive while waiting to meet your dream [production] team. Then the next step is simple… write, write constantly, and write broadly. Don’t just focus on one genre or format- write a comedy web series and then a dramatic feature and then a sci-fi short film and maybe even a musical stage play. The more options you have of completed work, the more you’ll trust your own voice and the more options you’ll have to choose from when you do eventually meet the people necessary to fully produce something. It also shows range, which is super important for a portfolio. If you only ever do one thing, you’re inherently limiting your options and your resume.
Start getting comfortable sharing your writing with others as well, whether they’re a trusted teacher or friend or a just person whose taste and opinion you respect. Learning to receive and incorporate feedback is extremely important, and it’ll help you nip bad habits in the bud before they’re too difficult to shake.
I know it’s tedious advice, but you really can’t get better at something without doing it over and over again. If you want to be a writer, even if you aren’t doing anything with your final products yet, you better be writing. Plus, you could be submitting to writing contests which will either lead to a prize of cash to jumpstart a production OR just lead to people’s interest in helping you produce an award-winning script. Either way, win-win!
5. Volunteer on other sets
Whether you know the producers or not, try to get on as many sets as possible, be they student films, indie films, local commercials, and more. You can find out about productions on media websites and by calling around to local colleges and companies- just offer to help out in any capacity and make sure to emphasize you’re looking for on-set experience. You might not get paid on these at first, but if the goal is to learn as much as possible, consider it an internship. And who knows, maybe you’ll make connections with people who will hire you for real in the future!
It can be frustrating to read articles and interviews where filmmakers offer the advice of “don’t wait for permission, make your project!” when you lack the network and resources required to do so. You likely won’t be able to make something long form by entirely yourself, and maybe not even something festival-ready, at least not at first. But everyone has to start somewhere, and having a foundation of filmmaking experience, knowledge, and completed projects under your belt with have you leagues ahead when you finally get to a place (geographical, financial, or otherwise) where you’re ready to mount a full production.
For more solo filmmaking tips, check out this D4Darious video about it: