Updated: Jan 10
So you want to be a filmmaker, huh? Well let me be the first to warn you: get out while you still can. You are about to attempt one of the most draining, frustrating, and addicting things on planet earth.
If you are anything like me, it will only take one project before you can’t get enough. You’ll find yourself spending thousands of dollars and hours on projects, equipment, and education. Your family and friends will be bewildered by this all-consuming passion but you won’t care. You will be too busy making that next movie so you can tell people, “I made that.”
If you refuse to heed my warning and start chasing this high, welcome to the club. I do want to give you some advice, though.
Don’t buy too much gear and use your cell phone.
Not only is it more than good enough to get started, but I think it’s the best tool for new filmmakers. Here's why:
You don’t know that you like filmmaking yet
When I was teaching percussion through my church, a lot of people would start classes but leave after 1-2 lessons. Everyone wanted to be a drummer but no one wanted to learn to play the drums. Turns out, the idea of being a drummer is a lot sexier than spending hundreds of hours working on rolls.
Just because you like the idea of being a filmmaker does not mean you will like making films.
For this reason, it just doesn’t make sense to make a large investment in the craft. You can find out whether or not you like filmmaking with stuff you already have and if you like doing the work, there’s always time to upgrade.
If you make the mistake of investing hundreds or thousands of dollars in gear before you’ve understood the challenges and frustrations involved in the filmmaking process, you might find that all of that money went to waste. Take a breath, try making some things with your phone, and if you love the process: by all means, buy a camera.
Filmmaking with a phone requires the same equipment as with a camera
It is easy to watch YouTube and believe that you can’t make a great film without a gimbal, a camera that shoots 10-bit raw, and lenses that cost thousands of dollars. This is simply not true. In fact, I make money from filmmaking and I have none of those.
The only required gear to meet the standard for production value is a tripod(preferably with a fluid head), a run-and-gun stabilizer like a monopod or a shoulder rig, and a solid audio solution. I also recommend a 5-in-1 reflector if you can spend the extra 20 bucks, but you can make due with available light if you have to.
You can buy all of these things for a little more than $100 and get yourself started. When you are ready to start shooting more serious work, like paid opportunities, the only thing you will need to buy is the camera. You will have made a lot of really bad content before you get to that point, but you will have at least kept your investment low while you got there. Besides, it’s a lot easier to justify spending money on equipment when you’re good enough to make money with it.
Filmmaking with a phone is hard
Starting with a phone by yourself is a real trial-by-fire way of learning to make videos. I know because that’s how I did it. At this point in my career, though, I can say that spending a year using only a phone made me a much better filmmaker.
When I bought my first mirrorless camera, I couldn’t believe how much easier filmmaking got. I was astonished by the fact that I could shoot at night with lamps to light my videos and regular household bulbs. It made me so mad afterward to hear other filmmakers talking about low-light performance when their cameras can shoot a perfectly usable image at 1600 ISO.
spending a year using only a phone made me a much better filmmaker.
Do you know what a cell phone video that’s shot at 1600 ISO looks like? Neither do I, I can’t see it through all of the grain.
In addition, you can’t get a depth of field on a cell phone video. While this seems like a bad thing, I think it’s valuable for learning. By having your background in focus, you are forced to think more critically about your background learn how to create depth through contrast, lighting, and distance. Understanding how to create depth without depth of field will put your films over the top when you have it.
The point is, cell phones are not the ideal tool for making videos which makes them the ideal tool for learning. It would be like practicing tennis with a spoon as your racquet. Sure, it’s maddening right now but it will make regular tennis seem much easier.
The Fundamentals Never Change
The skills required to make great films with a phone are the same skills required to make great films with a camera. If you watch your videos and are dissatisfied with the quality, it’s probably not the gear you are using; it’s you. This might seem particularly harsh, but if you want to make great movies it’s better to come to terms with this now.
By sticking with a cell phone as your primary content-creation tool, you can focus on the things that really improve your work and ignore all of the great new camera fads.
Some of the best filmmakers I know rarely upgrade cameras because they are comfortable making great images with what they have. Even Christopher Nolan doesn’t care about RED cameras or fancy trends. Every movie you’ve ever seen from him was shot on celluloid film. No IBIS, gimbals, or auto-focus.
. . . Truly great work is the result of attention to detail, compelling characters, and good old fashioned storytelling. That’s it.
What Christopher Nolan understands that most don’t is that truly great work is the result of attention to detail, compelling characters, and good old fashioned storytelling. That’s it. And sure, the multi-million dollar budgets and practical effects he uses help, but Christopher Nolan could still make an amazing short with a tripod and a cell phone. I’d bet every piece of gear I own on it.
If you are determined to pursue this filmmaking thing, I encourage you to start small, invest less money, and spend more time developing skills. By the time you’ve accumulated the basic gear, learned the fundamentals of storytelling, and gotten at least 5 completed projects under your belt; you will know that filmmaking is for you and can justify spending more money.