Film School In Your Pocket

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?

Film School Lighting a Scene

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.

Go around shooting every type of lighting situation with your iPhone. That will teach you about lighting.

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.

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Jerry Kokich is producer and star of a multi-award winning web series. To date, Jerry has produced 26 episodes of “The Adventures of Superseven.” and has released “What, Doctor The Series”

Here’s What Film School Doesn’t Teach You

I’m a filmmaker. This is going on my 3rd year making films. I live in Long Beach, California which might as well be Siberia as far as film making is concerned. It definitely is not in the TMZ zone.

Before I made a movie, I had no filmmaking experience nor attended any film school classes. To date I have finished one 71 minute documentary called Dream Big At 77 about a a 77 year old man from Uruguay that competes with 10 other people in the world in the decathlon at age 75 and older. The film was shot in Uruguay, Finland and Sacramento over 3 years.

Additionally, I also finished an 82 minute scripted romantic drama between a Korean woman and a Greek man that was shot in Laguna Beach, California called My Earl Grey. I started My Earl Grey 2 years ago.

I have since attended various film making seminars at Film Independent in West Los Angeles, UCLA extension courses, and the Dov Simmons 2 Day Film School to see what I was missing in the filmmaking process by not going to school.


What Film School Doesn’t Teach You

After making these films with absolutely no previous experience and then listening to “professionals” in and around Hollywood teach about making films such as at the above mentioned institutions, I have heard very little useful information from the “professionals” about how to make a $20,000 and under film.

The film teachers I have listened to pretty much think a $500,000 film is cheap. I hate to say it but $500,000 in the real world is a lot of money.

I went to a 6 week course at Film Independent where the subject matter was “filming to the edit”. The conclusion of the 6 weeks was this: Don’t edit a film yourself. Leave it to the professional editor.

I asked the teacher how much she charged. She said $40,000 for a low budget film. I then asked her what to do if the whole budget to make a film is less then her fee. She said that I shouldn’t make the movie.

I disagree strongly. Make that film for $10,000 and learn by doing.

I then took the popular Dov Simmons 2 Day Filmmaking Seminar. I was curious to see what Dov had to say. It turns out Dov made one film in 1984 for $250,000. I would say if you know nothing about filmmaking you would be impressed with Dov. If you actually made a film through trail and error.

He basically concluded one should not make a film, but instead write a screenplay and shop that around or find a someone rich that can pony up $200,000 plus to make your 1st film. You will then lose that person’s money, have them pissed off at you, and then you will be done with making movies.

Tons Of Filmmaking Information Is Outdated

I am a lot older than the “young” filmmakers so I get pitched a lot for money. I love to listen to the pitches. I have heard half a dozen variations on the zombie/horror theme of 6 teenagers lost in a cabin in the woods and it can be made for only $300 to 600,000 plus. These young film makers have never made a film and they want how much? $300,000? Let me see, 6 unknown teenagers in the woods? Are you kidding me! Knowing what I know now, if that cost me over $20,000 shoot me.

There is a statistic out there somewhere (I’m not sure if it’s true, but it sounds right) that 93 percent of 1st time filmakers never make a 2nd film. Why do you think that is? I think they will never make another film because they raised a lot of money and lost all that money and now their friends or family or investors are done with backing that 1st time film maker.

I believe strongly one needs to make make a 1st time film for $10,000 or less. Then make the best poster you can. Then be sure to have a camera on set to take some stills. Then make the best press kit you can. Then make the best web site you can. Then make the best trailer you can. Then do the film festival circuit and then do the DIY thing with Jason.

Make The Movie You Can Make

Then don’t get discouraged. Then make another movie for $10,000 or less and do the same thing. By the end of the 2nd movie you will know more about film making then the best professor at the best film university in the country or the top graduates of any of these universities . Why? Because what you just did is up to date and current and you had to learn many skills to make the movie for $10,000 or less.

Most likely the professor’s information is at least 10 years old or that person is used to making large budget films. That is what I have heard from prestigious film school graduates. After you have made your 2nd film, you will have a decent resume that you can then ask for more money. Don’t be like my friend that went to the prestigious UCLA film school 25 years ago and has been trying to raise that million dollars for his 1st film. I hate to say it, but he will never make that film.

By the way, this same person begged me not to make my $40,000 films. He said I needed to go to film school first. Sorry, but I made the films. I am not going to tell you my films are the greatest, but if you can actually muster up the drive, passion, and energy to actually make a feature film you are already 80 percent above the rest the the people that want to make their living making films.

You Just Need To Make Your Movie

I am now finishing my 3rd film. It will be a feature film that will be completed in 4 days. It will have 10 different locations and it cost $5000. I could have done it for no money, but I wanted to pay people a reasonable amount. My suggestion to you is if you don’t have the money to pay people to help you make a film, find people that be a part of your film for free.

There are tons of people that want to be part of the movie making experience that will work for free. If you don’t live in SO CAL that is probably a advantage as people will work for free to be part of something if you treat them with RESPECT. I think one of the keys to making a low budget movie is to find people that at this point in their lives they REALLY want to be part of making a movie. They are excited and they want to do their best.

An inexperienced person can learn a awful lot on you tube about how to operate a camera, audio, and lighting. I believe another key to low budget film making is to be open with people trying new tasks. I think a goal of a 1st time film maker should that everyone on your set which includes talent and crew think your film was the best experience they ever had regardless of the quality of the movie.

From what I have heard there are a lot of filmmakers that don’t understand how to treat people. I have heard stories about how other filmmakers treat their cast and crew. The stories weren’t pretty. Also if your not going to pay them, man up and buy them or make them good food.

Write Your Own Movie

There a tons of stories everywhere. Reporters find stories in your hometown every day. By filming in your environment you will keep the location and talent costs down. I strongly believe starting out that you should write your own script using the following criteria:

  1. Keep your costs down by using the locations you can get for free.
  2. Keep the story in the present then you don’t have to find period costumes, antique cars or old stuff.
  3. I think the easiest thing to do is make a story about something in your hometown.

After I finish filming this 4 day movie in a few days then I want to complete it in a month. As a side note I think it is a must to learn the basics of a editing software such as Final Cut Pro or Adobe. If you do not take the time to learn this then I don’t think you should make films. There are about 20 commands to learn that will get you through the edit. And don’t be intimated by “film editors” that tell you there is some sort of magic in cutting a film.

If I had it to do over again, I think I would have made a few 10 minute films for practice. I wouldn’t belabor them to make them perfect. Just make them for practice and move on. Give yourself a month from 1st page on the script to finishing the 10 minute short. If you go any longer, you are procrastinating.

Here’s what film school doesn’t teach you: The best thing you can do to become a filmmaker is to grab a camera and film something.

– –
John Case has a long career in various businesses such as real estate, clothing, natural gas vehicles, and solar water. John also founded the non profit in Long Beach, California which promotes urban biking throughout the United States. John grew up in Southern California. He graduated from the University of Denver. He also attended the Univeridad de las Americas in Mexico City and then hitchhiked around the world in third world countries for two years. He then attended the Cordon Blue cooking school. John also lived in Montevideo, Uruguay for a year with his wife and son in 2004.

Jason Faller Makes Movies

I am always impressed by filmmakers who wake up, take action and get their movies made outside of Hollywood, without asking permission. Jason Faller is one such filmmaker.

With his company Arrowstorm Entertainment, he produces, markets and sells his own movies.

Jason Faller stopped by Filmmaking Stuff to share some tips on how to become a successful, entrepreneurial filmmaker.

Filmmaking Stuff
Hi Jason. You’ve been doing some interesting stuff. Can you tell our readers a little more about you?

Jason Faller
My name is Jason Faller, I’ve been producing feature films for about 10 years. I grew up in Eastern Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. That’s the capital of Canada. I went to film school in Utah, and put together a crew and ended up staying.

Filmmaking Stuff
So would you consider yourself more of a producer?

Jason Faller
I do a lot of screenwriting. But more particularly I am a producer. I do a lot more producing than I do writing.

Filmmaking Stuff
What is a history of your company?

Jason Faller
My current company is Arrowstorm Entertainment, which has exclusively produced “genre films”, all of them action films in one way or another.

Filmmaking Stuff
Like what? Horror? Zombies? Kung Fu?

Jason Faller
Fantasy is our most prolific genre, we have focused on fantasy themes for most of our films lately. Medieval fantasy, high fantasy, Earth-hybrid fantasy.

Filmmaking Stuff
How many movies have you made?

Jason Faller
In one way or another I have produced ten films in those ten years. Only two have had theatrical releases, but all except one have been profitable.

Filmmaking Stuff
That’s an amazing track record. What was your release schedule?

Jason Faller
I started out making about one every two years, but every since we started Arrowstorm, I’ve been much more productive. We made two in 2011 (principal photography, anyway), three in 2012, and I expect we’ll do five this year.

Filmmaking Stuff
What is your business model?

Jason Faller
We stick to a small crew, limited to 12-15 crew on set, but professional high quality department heads.

Filmmaking Stuff
You guys also use a lot of VFX too.

Jason Faller
Yeah. VFX is a big part of our success. All our films have VFX. Additionally, star power is good when we can afford it, but we also have found that sometimes star power is “Dragon”, rather than, let’s say, “Steve Zahn.”

Filmmaking Stuff
And how do you decided on which movies get made?

Jason Faller
We tell stories that we are excited about, but which are commercially driven. I like the movie “Pi” (about a mathematician on the verge of unraveling the mathematical essence of the universe, which is fairly unmarketable as a concept) but I also like The Empire Strikes Back.

Filmmaking Stuff
Does potential for return on investment play into this decision?

Jason Faller
I choose to make something inspired by Empire rather than Pi, because then I can make money. I don’t believe that filmmakers have to make commercial failures to be artists. They just need to think about the films they love that are commercially viable as concepts.

Filmmaking Stuff
How do you find investors for your project?

Jason Faller
We raised private equity from local business owners and film enthusiasts. We pay them dividends on their investment, but now all our capital comes from the revenue our past films have generated.

Filmmaking Stuff
This is what I mean about modern moviemaking. You guys really are a mini studio.

Jason Faller
As long as our films continue to be profitable, we can keep making more movies with the profits.

– – –
Here is an example of a Jason Faller Film

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Filmmaking Stuff
What are your distribution strategies?

Jason Faller
We sell to foreign territories through international sales agents at all the major film markets including Cannes, MIPCOM, MIPTV, AFM, and Berlin. Then we sell to the domestic market, mostly TV rights sales.

Filmmaking Stuff
Is there still a market for DVD?

Jason Faller
DVD used to be more than half of our revenue, but these days DVD is dropping off, and it’s more about TV rights. We talk with distributors and sales agents BEFORE greenlighting a concept. This provides us with insight about what they’d like to see us produce. This is based on what buyers are looking for for their channels.

Filmmaking Stuff
What marketing strategies have you used to sell your movies?

Jason Faller
Trailer and Key Art. That’s pretty much it. Our sales agents take it from there in terms of advertising at the markets. Buyers who are looking to license rights can usually make a decision based on the trailer and the key art.

Filmmaking Stuff
So oftentimes, it’s not necessary for them to even watch the movie?

Jason Faller
The actual film is less important in a sense. But having a great film to deliver in the end is what builds reputation, which is also crucial. Crowdfunding is great for raising extra capital for finishing funds in post production. We do some minor social network marketing for that.

Filmmaking Stuff
What about festivals? Is that part of your strategy?

Jason Faller
We don’t do film festivals, for the most part.

Filmmaking Stuff
How have changes in the movie industry affected your business?

Jason Faller
Because DVD is disappearing, hard R rated material isn’t as profitable now. TV doesn’t pay much for trashy horror films or smutty indies. In addition, the decline of DVD worldwide means that the Key Art is becoming less important, because TV buyers need a film that will hold an audience through commercial changes. Having a strong first half of the film is essential for TV, because if the audience makes it through the one-hour commercial break, they will likely finish the film, which is everything to TV…

Filmmaking Stuff
Any closing thoughts?

Jason Faller
Digital cameras, advances in VFX, and crowdfunding have made it a lot easier to make the stories we want to tell, and to make a quality product without huge budgets.

Filmmaking Stuff
Thank you for stopping by.

Jason Faller
Thank you for having me.

Funny Short Film Ideas

Many filmmakers waste months and years trying to make everything perfect. These same filmmakers fill their closets with valuable camera gear that collects dust and never gets used. If that’s you, stop it. I know making a movie is scary. Your first few short films will suck. This is part of the process… You must first get all the sucky short films out of your system.

With that said, one of the easiest things you can do is come up with funny short film ideas. For  virtually no money, you can get together with some friends and make your short. Once complete you can put it on YouTube.

My buddy Jared did this. In the following YouTube clip you’ll see how he captured the essence of vomit.

My point of sharing this isn’t to gross you out. (Although if you did get grossed out, you can blame it on the actor Andy Allen.)  The reason I wanted to show you this is to prove that it doesn’t take a lot to come up with funny short film ideas and practice your craft. If you made a plan to make 52 small videos like this, and upload each one to YouTube you would have the equivalent of a film school education.

But more than film school, you would actually be well on your way to engaging the target audience and creating a name for yourself. If you would like more filmmaking information check out these filmmaking tools.

Short Film Ideas


Filmmaking Without Film School

In this filmmaking question, a prospective film school student asks what he can do before going to film school.

I have not made any films but I am planning to attend film school in two years. In the meantime what are some things I can do to prepare myself? For example, I am watching and studying films. I usually watch one movie per day. Additionally, I am reading about filmmaking and writing every day. Is this beneficial or are there other things I can do also?

I would like to start filmmaking without film school.

As a budding filmmaker, there are dozens of activities you can carry out that will teach you the basics of how to make a movie. Reading about filmmaking and writing are essential. And before I provide some additional exercises, let me first address your desire to attend film school.

I have been in Hollywood for close to a decade. During this time, I have met countless film school graduates who carry thousands of dollars in student loan debt – many of whom have never actually made a movie. The reason for this is simple, debt kills dreams dead. And if you have a heavy debt burden, your focus will not be making movies… Your focus will be taking any job you can get to pay down your debt.

Unless someone else is paying for your education, my suggestion is to hold off on film school for just a little longer. Instead, I suggest you explore taking a week-long filmmaking workshop. From there, you will learn the basics of filmmaking have enough knowledge to get an entry level job as production assistant. And because you won’t have a ton of debt, you can afford to intern on a few projects.

Heck, even without experience, you can always intern on someone’s project. And this is my first tip. Find a local movie project and contact the production manager or production coordinator and ask to speak to the person in charge of interns.

Outside of participating in other people’s movie projects, you need to create your own. To do this, I suggest you grab a camera and start making 30 second, funny skits for YouTube. This will do two things – You will keep active and keep moving in the direction of your goals. And feedback from the YouTube audience will provide you with tips on how to improve your craft.

Your goal is to make 50 short skits for YouTube over the next year. When you accomplish this goal, you will have more practical experience than most film school graduates. And if you were successful in building an audience for your work, you will have a great starting point when it comes to crowdfunding your first movie.

The truth is, most would-be filmmakers waste countless years dreaming when they should be doing. I don’t believe in waiting for permission. Keep watching every movie you can. And likewise, start producing your own movies.

[Please note, I am a firm believer that all filmmakers should strive to live a debt free lifestyle. If you are having trouble getting out of debt, I encourage you to read The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey.]