My experience as a filmmaker has been challenging to say the least, don’t get me wrong, it has also been fun, creative and rewarding and has definitely brought along its own dramas with enough twists and turns to rival an EastEnders storyline.
The leap into filmmaking began in my early 20’s when I started developing scripts and TV format ideas with a friend. At the time it was an exciting creative hobby and whilst we got loads of rejection letters, it also enabled us to meet with various production companies to discuss our ideas. It was a great introduction to the industry and also where I learned my first Golden Rule.
1. Ownership of your idea
As a filmmaker it is gut-wrenching to see a concept that you have come up with aired on TV, well that happened to us! We were devastated, not only was it aired; it was a series on a major terrestrial channel. My treatment, which clearly had the breakdown of the idea and the programme was virtually word for word the same, even the programme title was similar. Name and shame you say? Well, I can’t, I have no proof! Looking back, I can easily see how naive we were. When sending your ideas out you have to protect yourself, having proof of ownership of your work is essential. This is a massive grey area and I would advise all budding creatives to fully research this issue. At the time I was advised of what is known as the “Poor man’s copyright”, which entails mailing a copy of the script/synopsis to yourself in the post and using the date stamp as proof. Unfortunately, in this instance, we couldn’t find our original record so had no way of proving the idea was ours. Consequently, we started registering our works with a copyright service. I recommend exploring all options to see what works best for you.
Quickly becoming disillusioned by the idea of having of our concepts commissioned, we soon turned to developing our own ideas. Starting with a short we wrote, we got together a cast and crew to make it happen. It was low budget and could have been better but for a first attempt it was a good effort.
2. Taking the plunge
The most important thing was taking that plunge into the unknown to bring the project to life. The difference between a filmmaker and someone who wants to make films is action. It is too easy to get caught up with why something can’t get done, but if you believe in your project you will find a way to do it. Chances are, it will be hard, require a lot of work and cost you money. Not all filmmakers are born with silver spoons in their mouths, but they have the passion and the drive to bring their project to reality. The question is are you ready?
I soon started my next short, it was my first solo project that I wrote, it allowed me to prove to myself that I could do it alone and that I shouldn’t doubt my own levels of creativity. This time, I managed to call in favours with some contacts I had gained through my day job, which was also in production. They kindly agreed to handle the filming and post production and have assisted with other projects since.
3. The art of negotiation
Favours in this industry are very common and the way that most independent filmmakers get ahead. Learning to negotiate and get people to see the value in your work is very important, some may assist as a gesture of good will to you and others will because they believe in your project, so maintaining good relationships with people is essential.
In addition to people you know, platforms such as GoFundMe, Indiegogo and Kickstarter have opened up ways to reach international audiences to advise them of your idea or seek assistance, so now more than ever your potential for negotiation is even greater. Whichever option you decide is down to you as the filmmaker, to creatively find ways to complete your project with the resources available.
4. Jack of all trades
After my first few projects I decided that I wanted to become more self-reliant and purchased a camera. It was a used semi-professional camera and was a great learning aid in the filmmaking process. Initially I was nervous using it, but quickly became confident and enjoyed the liberated feeling of knowing that I could now be fully responsible for telling my own stories. At this point, I threw myself into the deep end by deciding to shoot my first documentary. By my second documentary, which began a couple of months later, I literally trained on the job to edit. It was a great experience, there is no time for excuses as you just get on with it and it is a fantastic way to learn.
There are many experienced, highly-skilled people in their respective fields and if you can afford to hire them great, but for filmmakers on a budget there is a lot to be said for developing your own skill-set. Having at least a good working knowledge of filming and editing is definitely a bonus. Especially in moments where you are required to step in last minute if one of your crew lets you down! Being as knowledgeable as you can in various areas within the creative process will help you greatly to achieve your goals.
5. Get things in writing
Golden Rule 5 speaks for itself; get things in writing! Interestingly enough, despite working on various corporate videos, shorts, charity films and documentaries for over 10 years it is only in the last couple of years that I have experienced what can happen if releases are not done officially. I can honestly say I don’t care if you are working with your friends or family for that matter, get any types of agreements in written form.
I know from personal experience that things can be verbally agreed at the time and all is well until you get to the finish line and then it all collapses. You do not want this to happen to you. So please ensure any releases, licences etc. are all written so you don’t end up in court and risk having your film shut being down before it had a chance to get off the ground.
6. Back Up Back Up Back Up
My last gem to add to the list of Golden Rules is to ensure that you back up your work. I cannot stress the importance of this and how big an issue it actually is.
This is one issue I’m experiencing this now. I have been working on a documentary project for the past 3 years and two weeks ago the external hard drive which it is stored on started playing up and shutting down whilst being used. I tried to repair the drive and that wouldn’t work so I needed to back up the contents, but the drive wouldn’t stay on long enough for me to do so!
Crashing and faulty drives are unfortunately a very common occurrence in the filmmaking world. Whilst all hardware has a limited shelf life, backing up your files on an external drive or cloud storage space are things you can do to ensure that you are protected should this happen to you. The last thing you want is for weeks, months or even years of your life to be lost due to not adequately backing up your work.
I case you are wondering, I’m happy to say that I successfully backed up my files last night! Phew.