Lessons I Learned the Hard Way at FMMC…

It’s my last semester here at Middlebury and looking back on it all, I’ve had a lot of fun. I learned a lot in the FMMC department, but much of it I learned by failing spectacularly. I’m talking corrupted files, lost locations, getting threatened with trespassing for using other locations, actors who didn’t show, etc. Each time one of these tragedies befalls me, I learn my lesson and never repeat myself. Some of these lessons I needed to experience firsthand to internalize and others I really just wish I had been told. So this is me telling you the things I’ve learned after four years of making student films.

Put More Time into Preproduction

I swear, 90% of the truly disastrous mistakes you can make on a set could be prevented if more time and care was out into preproduction. I skimped on preproduction for maybe the first year I made films. After deciding to put more time into it than an hour-long brain storming session, I immediately saw the quality of my films go up. It is time consuming for sure, but do the storyboards, do the table-reads, make the schedules, and practice your camera movements. I promise you, you will see the difference. It’s also really a good idea to familiarize yourself with equipment inside and out. At the bare minimum, make sure you are confident that you can use your equipment to do everything you want to do on set. If you have more time learn how to use it in varying conditions or in more complex ways that you might want to experiment with later on. Also if you think “you’ve got an alright handle on it” go back and use that equipment more anyways. You may be able to do a crazy camera move using a friend as a stand-in in your dorm, but you need to be able to repeat that movement when you are tired, on a deadline, and under pressure from all the other cast and crew on set.

Charge Your Batteries and Make Space on Your SD Cards

This one is short, but it deserves its own bullet point. These two mistakes have ruined so many shoots. Even if you got the equipment straight from the gear room, check the batteries and storage. Bring more than you need of both if possible.

Give Yourself More Time Than You Need

We’re all awful judges of how much time shots take because we don’t like to admit to ourselves that we might have to spend hours getting a handful of shots. If you are planning a shoot, especially if you need to change locations midday, always a lot more time than you think. You will probably use that time and more in the end. Also if you can, get yourself an assistant director to manage the schedule and be a hardo about time. You and most of your crew will want to stay on a shot until it’s perfect, but you need someone to be the voice of reason. It’s not a glamorous job, but the good news is that the skills required aren’t necessarily film related so you can recruit just about any friend. I recommend getting someone you have a good rapport with and who is not afraid to say “you’re wrong” to your face.

Work in Certainties

There may be an actor who says should be able to get there by 4:00pm as long as their class wraps up on time. You may think you can shoot there without permit or permission from the owner. There’s like a 95% chance that I can borrow that piece of equipment from another FMMC major. Stop it, don’t do it. Go the extra mile, confirm everything, and adjust to be safe if you have to.

Call Actors Long Before You Need Them

Since I am still (barely) a college student, I can say without judgement that we are not the most reliable people. Even when you have an actors who loves the script and is dedicated to the project, they’re still often liable to show up 15 minutes late. They’ve got a full course load too and sadly your film might not be their top priority. So always make sure to leave wiggle room in the schedule to allow for this. Your crew will generally be better since they have also been in your position before, but never plan to start at the exact call time. Things come up, people underestimate how long it takes to walk places, and sometimes mistakes are made. Just be aware of it and be ready. Also make sure to set dates for shoots with your cast and crew long in advance so you can plan accordingly if someone bails.

Sound is More Important Than You Think

I often find myself getting obsessed with my film’s visuals and devoting a fraction of my time to sound. I’ve found that this is pretty commonplace among student films, which means that you can stand out by taking that extra step. Always have a dedicated sound-person who is listening to the recorder on set. It’s tempting to just set up a boom on a C-Stand and use what limited crew you have elsewhere, but that has gotten me in trouble more times than I care to mention. Some easy ways to increase your sound quality include asking people to be quiet if you’re shooting in public, unplugging refrigerators or other appliances with a motor, pointing the mic away from a major road, and always getting room tone at the time of the shoot.

Check the Weather if Shooting Outside

Have a rain-date too. That’s it, it’s another short one.

Get a Camera Operator Who Isn’t Yourself and a Monitor

I wouldn’t recommend this for newer filmmakers, but if you are doing Filmmaking II, senior work, or any other advanced production course, then this is for you. You may be tempted to work behind the camera and grab your production by the horns, but you probably are trying to do too much. You need to work with actors, double check everyone else’s work, help implement a vision, and give loads of directions. Adding camera operation on top of that is tough. Having someone who is solely focusing on the shot composition and movement is a great way to enhance your film. It is uncomfortable surrendering that direct control, but if you trust your DP/camera operator’s abilities, then it’s the best course of action. Also get yourself an external monitor so you can watch the shot in real time and in detail. I have often missed mistakes while shooting and looking at the tiny FS5 screen. It’s tough: you’re focusing on keeping people in frame, where to put your feet if there’s movement, maintaining good composition, etc. Let the camera operator do the physical work so you can impartially observe.

Make Everyone on Camera Sign a Release Form

Your work is probably going on the internet and if it happens to gain some traction, you want to make sure the original cut stays in tact. If you don’t get someone to sign a release, then you legally have to obey their wishes about where the film appears. People’s attitudes can change so it is always good to get a signature at the time of the shoot. This is especially important if you are making a documentary. People might get cold feet because they don’t like the way you decide to portray them or they are afraid of saying something publicly. When someone agrees to be in your film, get their signature right then and there.

Now sadly, there is a downside to all of these tips. All of them require more effort, forethought, and time. You can make a film without obeying any of these rules, but I promise you, your films will be worse if you don’t. I also won’t lie and tell you that I haven’t strategically broken these rules when under a time crunch. Life here at Middlebury is busy. You might not be able to all these things for your film, but it is important to know how you can do better and keep trying to do more.