My siblings and I were notorious in our youth for being glued to the screen while everyone was playing outside. As immigrant kids, movies and TV played a critical role in our cultural education (and assimilation), for good or bad.
But I didn’t think to create that kind of art was something just anybody could do.
Back then, I thought the only way to get into the movie biz was through acting, and I had enough experiences freezing up in front of classmates to know my social anxiety was gonna get in the way of a career in performance art. Plus, I was weird enough without the social suicide of drama club membership.
In high school, I made the cut for a coveted job at the local movie theater. All I did was sell tickets and sweep up popcorn, but I felt one step closer to the filmmaking process watching the platters spin celluloid past a light bulb in the upstairs projection booth. It’s a job I romanticized a bit too much when I was promoted to the dirty job of barback/projectionist at a cinema pub in college.
Then one day, I was given the assignment to cover a local indie film for a writing gig. It was the first time I’d ever met filmmakers, and I was surprised to learn they were kids my age, dealing with the same insecurities, wanting to figure themselves out and connect to others through their storytelling – just like me. “The great thing about a film is that it’s a way of knowing, in a really overdramatic way, that you’re not alone,” said actor Ashly Burch to me that day. The late David Fetzer wrapped up our interview with a call-to-action that never quite left my brain: “I hope that this film will inspire local filmmakers, in particular, to be serious about filmmaking… When one person says ‘I’m just gonna do this’ and they do it, it creates a chain effect.”
It took three seasons of covering indie flicks at Sundance for me to break out of the mindset that filmmaking was only for the Hollywood elite to tell cookie-cutter, white-guy-driven narratives. But Sundance is still not the answer ‘cause at this point, it’s just two weeks of Hollywood glitz wrapped in fur on a mountain slope in Utah.
In this sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying digital world we’ve created, making a movie – and getting people to watch it – doesn’t require an indie film fest distribution deal, big crew, expensive equipment, or even film school. The barrier of entry into the world of art has been lowered by the internet, and the puritans will tell you that’s a bad thing, but they’re just freaked out that people like you and me can tell our stories through any medium without pouring over art history in overpriced graduate programs.
Though, I gotta tell you that getting paid for creative digital work with or without institutional backing requires some radical entrepreneurship – but trust me when I say street smarts > a liberal arts degree.
I figured this out almost two years ago when I pitched a short documentary about my immigration story as the wrap-up project for an internship. I didn’t have a camera or any idea how to use one. I didn’t know anything about audio and lighting equipment, or how to edit the damn thing together, and I didn’t have money to purchase gear or classes. But I had an iPhone and my neighbors had a couple point-and-shoots they were willing to lend me.
Then I found out my library card gave me free access to the Lynda.com online learning database and searched plenty of YouTube videos on the topic. After downloading a free, 30-day trial of Final Cut Pro on my shitty laptop, I taught myself to edit and shoot.
Unfortunately, there were no tutorials on how to tell my immigrant story.
So after 6 months of way too much crying, I had a 15-minute documentary on my hands, graciously soundtracked by Andrew Shaw (who had lent his musical talents to the Utah filmmakers who had initially inspired me!), to be released on a $15 Tumblr page full of extra content (including the list below of free tools and do-it-yourself filmmaking advice).
Except – I hated the film. It lies unseen behind a password-protected link that I’ve only been able to stomach watching once since I finished it.
Despite the failure of my first film, the journey made this experience worthwhile. Along the way, I created opportunities to practice the skills I was developing, offering free videography to friends documenting life events, volunteering to make videos for organizations I believed in, doing off-the-clock work to help activists with their campaigns, and even making my own wedding video!
Sometimes I scroll through my Vimeo profile and pinch myself.
I’m still an amateur with no money for the gear I want, and I still lack a whole lot of technical skills to pull off the big visions I have for the stories I want to tell – but I’m figuring out that as long as you have heart, creativity, a little bit of digital savvy, and an entrepreneurial attitude, none of that really matters.
So, here are some filmmaking shortcuts I wish someone had curated into this neat ‘lil list for me when I set out to make the shittiest short doc ever, so that you, my friend, can go straight to the raw storytelling.
*Note that I’m an unwitting member of the Apple cult, so most of this info is tailored for Mac/iPhone users.*
IF YOU JUST WANNA PLUG N’ PLAY
I get it, you don’t have time or money. Join the fucking club, and sign up for a free Adobe ID while you’re at it. The Adobe Creative Cloud will cost you a month’s rent (though they do have a monthly subscription service, and significant student/educator discounts), and it usually requires some training to use apps like Photoshop and Premiere. Fortunately, they have some pretty awesome free apps that are perfect for amateurs, and my favorite is the Adobe Spark Video. It’s as easy as choosing the structure of the story you wanna tell, picking a theme and music, then uploading your content into the timeline.
The downside is that it’s lacking a function to upload actual video footage, so what you’re creating is more of a fancy slideshow. The video is also automatically branded with Adobe Spark and no white-label upgrade – it’s free after all. But you can always download what you make in this app and upload into a more advanced (but simple) video editor like the ones below to make it more dynamic!
This video editor comes pre-installed on every MacBook Pro, costs $5 as an app on your iPad, and it’s free to download on your iPhone. The desktop version is a little bit more complicated (lots of YouTube tutorials to lead you through it!), but the iPhone app is cake. You can take video files straight from your photo library and drop them into a timeline, choose a theme, or start from scratch. The app allows you to cut clips, add your own music, pick different transitions, insert a title card, and add filters to the “film” with a few finger taps. I’ve edited videos together on iMovie during my train ride home from work, it’s so quick and easy.
If you don’t have a Gmail account yet, WTF? Get one, then download the Google Photos app. Not only is it an amazing way to organize your photos and free up space on your phone, but the video part of it is also like a hybrid Adobe Spark/iMovie. Just like in Spark, you can pick a theme/filter and music from the library, but this time you can add in video footage. It will even create videos for you out of clips you upload to get you started.
Yeah, that’s right – you can make movies on Snapchat, duh! Especially now that it’s added the Memories feature allowing you to keep snaps, edit them, and reinsert them into your story feed, there’s a lot of creative potentials. Again, you’re limited in function, but if you think outside the box on this one, Snapchat’s positioned to launch a whole new genre of filmmaking – can you imagine a Cloverfield-inspired short horror film that’s watched as a Snap story? That’s a free idea for ya, you can reach out to me for consultation if you want more.
IF YOU WANNA BE THE REAL DEAL
1. Cameras, audio, lighting, and accessories
You’re probably reading this on the tool that’s completely revolutionized and democratized filmmaking: Your cell phone! Video cameras can cost anything from a couple hundred bucks, to over a hundred thousand dollars, so using the expensive-ass equipment you already have clutched in your hand just makes economic sense. My iPhone 6s Plus has an incredible camera with built-in optical image stabilization to reduce shaky shots. I decided to invest in a Canon 70D last year, and it’s kind of annoying how much more I use my iPhone – though that’s partly because I’m still not confident with all the manual DSLR settings.
What I do love is my monopod with legs, which I use for both my DSLR and my iPhone with a tripod mount. It’s great when I’m shooting in the field because it doesn’t require a lot of set-up, is super mobile, and also gives me extra support if I have to do an impromptu interview or still shot.
Audio is tricky, and definitely not my strong suit. It’s really easy to fuck up during production, and unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how creative and beautiful your shots are – if your audio sucks, it’s going to ruin everything.
From mics and boom poles to preamps and recorders, audio equipment is hard to find cheap unless you’re renting for a day every once in a while. It’s also a good idea to have an extra set of hands to monitor the audio, which means you’ll have to find someone willing to learn and get bossed around by you.
This is why I always have more fun making music videos. But don’t dismay!
When I was making my doc, I had to record a lot of dialogue and interviews, so I needed crisp clean audio. I cut up an old pair of earbuds to make a lavalier mic, bobby pinned it to my subject, connected it to my phone (I was using my neighbors’ cameras to shoot), pressed record on a free app I’d downloaded, and stuck it in my subject’s pocket.
The only downside: You can’t monitor the sound, so if the mic moves and starts rubbing on their shirt and you don’t notice, it’s all for naught.
Lighting is also a weakness for me – I try to stick to shooting in natural light or well-lit indoor spots because the lighting is both an art I’ve yet to master, and a complicated, expensive undertaking. But you can easily maximize the lighting you have without a fancy LED-light kit by buying a cheap reflective bounce board or making your own with reflective paper and something sturdy to stick it to. Again, once you start adding these extra elements, your production value will go up, but you probably need at least a 2-person film crew – this is why there are 15 minutes of credits after every Hollywood film.
2. Editing Software
When I started making videos, I thought that doing it right meant using professional tools and software.
This isn’t the case at all, but if you’re trying to get a legitimate job as a videographer, plan to add effects and have a vision that requires high-level production value, or like me, you really enjoy the video editing process and want to learn more about what’s possible – go ahead and invest in Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere Pro. Both have free 30-day trials so you can test out which you like best before dropping $300+.
I went with Final Cut Pro X, but I did extensive research on both programs before making a decision, and honestly, they’re comparable – FCP is a little easier to use. I think I might learn Adobe Premiere in the future, though, because it integrates really well with Photoshop and After Effects, since they’re all part of the Creative Suite – and that lets you play with graphics and animation!
3. Community Courses & Online Tutorials
The downside is that these programs, though pretty intuitive for someone with digital savvy, do have a learning curve. If you have money and time to attend classes, awesome! I traded some work for a week-long production course at a local nonprofit in New York called Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), and not only did I get some awesome hands-on experience, I get a discount on rental equipment for a year, and I met an awesome group of people who were interested in filmmaking and at a similar level of learning that I am.
We keep in contact, sharing tips, getting feedback on work, and I know I could hit them up if I need an extra hand at a shoot – my teacher even hooked me up with a couple of freelance gigs!
If you don’t have a community center or something like DCTV where you live, just do a quick Google search for filmmaking classes near you. You’ll be surprised where you’ll find people teaching this stuff: electronics stores, local TV stations, photography studios, public libraries…
Speaking of libraries, if you’re not aware, your local Biblioteca is more than a book lender and homeless shelter, visit your library’s website. Guaranteed you’ll find all sorts of free digital resources unlocked by that magical library card number. My hometown library is awesome enough to provide access to Lynda.com, a website full of quality online courses on almost anything where I learned the basics of editing in Final Cut Pro. Another great resource for filmmaking tutorials, inspiration, community, and even purchasing music licensing, is Vimeo. You can also use it to upload your own films, though I think YouTube might be a better place for that as it’s a better set-up for sharing, and has a larger audience. No Film School is also a pretty good resource and has a forum where you can ask questions and learn from other folks.
Of course, YouTube is always a great resource, though it’s a little more time-consuming because you have to wade through a bunch of shit.
Lastly, go watch every episode of The Story of Film by Mark Cousins for inspiration and education. I was hooked the moment he opens with “the history of film is racist by omission.”
If you’re making videos just for fun, there’s certainly benefits to finding a community of other filmmakers: Inspiration, friends with common interests, further development and exploration of a creative hobby. But if you’re trying to make a career of it, networking is absolutely critical because it’s how you’re going to get real experience.
When I decided filmmaking was a serious interest, I wanted to figure out if that life was right for me, so I hit up a local filmmaker and volunteered to help out at his next shoot. He happened to be doing a series for Fantasy Con set in a castle, with drone cameras, special effects, costumes, and a full crew to pull it off. I spent a weekend as a production assistant (PA), working long hours doing everything from getting coffee, setting up props, fixing costumes, helping with the lighting, and even acting as an extra. It was really hard work, but I had the time of my life, and got my first film credit!
Then I moved to New York in 2014 and was looking for a place to watch the premiere of Jose Antonio Vargas’ Documented. I googled and ended up at a free screening FWD.us organized with a preceding panel of filmmakers doing immigration work. That’s where I met Mikaela Shwer, the filmmaker behind Peabody Award-winning No Le Digas a Nadie, a powerful doc about immigration activist Angy Paola Rivera.
I’m shy as all hell but forced myself to say hi, express my interest, and volunteer.
Not only did she hook me up with an internship helping produce history docs at her day job, she also connected me to more folks who gave me paid PA work, and generously compensated me with a check (that paid for a big chunk of my Green Card application) and associate producer credit for helping with the doc.
I have an IMDB page now, you guys!!!
I could go on and on with stories of how forcing myself to be an extrovert for a night led me to incredible people; how following up with them resulted in interesting opportunities; how much I learned by watching them work; and how my hard work for them paid off with more introductions to talented folks and opportunities to continue developing my skills.
So no more excuses – go out and make movies, y’all!