If I were to teach a formal course in filmmaking, I would call it “Never Has So Much Been Done With So Little, By So Few.” In my film school, you wouldn’t have to buy course materials. On the first day of film school, I would give each student a legal pad, some pencils and a small sharpener. Those would serve as your writing tools. And instead of books, a smartphone and the iMovie app would be all you need. Although if you wanted to download it, a copy of Final Draft may make things easier.
Your smartphone would serve as your camera and sound system. And for your initial filmmaking assignment, I would make it so you could only use available lighting, like lamps or street lights, or the sun.
Your First Film School Assignment
Write a 5 page script, then shoot it on your smartphone. After that, edit your footage with iMovie. And then upload the footage to YouTube so we can all review it it. From there, we could spend the rest of the first class on they really basic stuff: Be careful of backlight. Avoid crossing the line.
Your movie would be due the next week.
Can you imagine the looks on the faces of these ersatz filmmakers, being told to actually go make a film? They probably thought they were going to spend six months on f-stops. When did those become T-stops? I don’t give a flying… I’ve had a camera in my hands since grade school; f-stops are good enough for me.
And before I show you how to put Film School In Your Pocket, I am going to get the shameless self-promotion out of the way. Check out my Doctor Who parody web series and The Adventures of Superseven. You’ll be happy you did.
My Background as a Film School Instructor
I was a professional ballet dancer for 14 years. I love to read about things. But there is only so much you can learn from a book. I took my first ballet class the week I graduated from high school. Less than five years later I was dancing for The Joffrey Ballet. I was not gifted, I just went out and did what had to be done. Those years of training taught me that doing it is your best training.
Most film schools don’t teach you how to make a film. They teach you what Hollywood does, which is waste of time.
Here is an example – I watched a “hat test” on the DVD for “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, 1935. Basil Rathbone must have tried on ten different hats. By different, I mean, squint your eyes and they all look the same. Similarly, when they were prepping “Green Lantern” a few years ago, they flew an actress from LA to the East coast, not once, but several times, to dye her hair the correct shade of brown!
Pick a hat! That brown is fine!
Make Your Movie
Okay, you don’t need to go to film school. Not even mine, although you’d really learn something and have a lot of fun. You have a film school in your pocket.
Look at the picture in this article. You know how long it took to light that?
That’s existing lighting. I looked at the hallway, saw a nice backlit situation that would provide a good silhouette, and discovered, as we shot it, that the overheads were very dramatic. That shot is a screen grab off the Canon HF 200 footage. It took us five minutes to shoot. I could tell it would work, because I have taught myself about practical lighting and learned a lot from Scott Rhodes, the creator of Superseven.
I know pretty much nothing about the technical aspects of lighting. I don’t know what technobabble to spout, and my eyes glaze over whenever a DP starts talking about color temperatures. If I look through the viewfinder, or at my iPad and I see something that doesn’t look right, I move the camera, turn off a light, turn on a light, move an actor and get on with it. One of my ballet teachers named Leon Danielian, said “You dancers actually teach yourselves”.
Teachers tell you what to do. The good ones even tell you how to do it, but you really do teach yourself.
Become a Smartphone DP
Get your smartphone, and teach yourself about lighting. Right now. Go. Shoot something right where you are. Look at it. How does the lighting look? If it is good, awesome! If not, why not? Figure it out. Is it backlit? Is that a bad thing? Is there a reflection you can use, or can you move and shoot from a different angle?
Books and articles can provide you with tips, like harsh light makes villains look more villainy, and direct overhead lighting will make every actress hate you… But if you’re shooting your test footage, you can learn that as you go! You’d better have actor friends if you want you be a filmmaker. Call them and say, “I want to shoot some test footage.”
They’ll be on your doorstep faster than you can say “Venti iced white chocolate mocha.”
Since digital footage is free, you can shoot as much as you want. Shoot your actor friends just talking. You don’t even need a script. Tell them it’s a lighting test. You don’t have to worry about what temperature the light is, right now, or if you need flags or anything. Look at the footage. Can you see your actors? That’s the basic purpose of lighting.
I know that sounds simplistic, but unless you’re trying for some esoteric 1930’s German look, exposing your scene is the paramount concern. If you can see the actors and whatever else is important (the detonator, the alien under the table, the gun) then your lighting is fine. If the only people who criticize the lighting are lighting designers who complain about temperature and flags, your lighting is fine.
Another use for your pocket film school is learning about angles. A smartphone is small. Duh. You can hold it at fascinating angles. Hell, you could put it face up on a table and shoot a bizarre angle of two people talking. Experiment. That’s what they’ll have you do in film school. Or maybe they won’t.
There was this guy in a film school, somewhere, a while ago, who wanted an interesting angle of one of his actors in a kitchen. He took off the back of a refrigerator, and shot the actor from the food’s POV. His teacher blew a gasket! “You can only put the camera where a human being could be!”
Film School. Right…
Pretty much the only problem you might run into using your pocket film school is sound. You really need to be fairly close for the sound to be good. But that limitation may be the best thing that could happen. Orson Welles said, “The absence of limitation is the enemy of creativity.” Maybe you’ll learn to tell your story visually. What a concept!
The Pocket Film School. You have everything you need to teach yourself filmmaking. Now, go make a film.