Written by Chris Cavallari
Mistakes help us to grow. What’s true in our personal development is also true in the development of our films. Making mistakes allows us to see what we did wrong and forces us to come up with creative ways to fix the problems. And, because of the fluid nature of filmmaking, mistakes can often lead to what we lovingly refer to as “happy accidents.” Mistakes aren’t always bad. It just depends on how you handle the situation when it presents itself. The following “mistakes” are in no particular order or category, and the list is by no means exhaustive.
Mistake #1: Don’t Plan… Ever.
Go ahead, do it at least once in your life. Go into one of your productions without the slightest idea of how you’ll get from point A to point B. I’m serious. This will give you a two-fold learning experience.
First, running headfirst into a project can sometimes free your mind from external distractions and allow your creative ideas to spill out onto the page. In a sense, it’s free association, where your mind is free to wander without self-imposed restrictions that can hinder the creative process. Aristotle wrote about the tabula rasa, or blank slate, where people are born with no innate mental content, and so are affected by the world around them. People fill in what is necessary as they go along, learning. This premise can be applied to filmmaking, whereby you start with nothing and fill in the blanks as you go along. Don’t put anything down on paper or on the computer before you start shooting. Go out and shoot, bring back what you have, and cut it together. Your ability to tell a story naturally will guide you.
On the other hand, not having some sort of outline will show you how much more difficult making a film is without at least knowing something about how you’re going to get things done. One of my early short films was a disaster. I brought in high school friends (who had no experience making movies) as crew, and worried more about Craft Services than about what I was going to shoot. I didn’t have a finished script, I didn’t rehearse, I didn’t have a storyboard. I didn’t even have a shot list. While there is a time and a place for wing-and-a-prayer filmmaking, this wasn’t one of them, and the final product shows it. It’s an orange mess (I did a bad white balance) with nervous first-time actors. It is now locked away in the confines of my apartment, and no one – not even the actors and crew members – is allowed to see it. To this day that film serves as a constant reminder that concentrating on the inconsequential, while ignoring the important, will only hurt the production in the end.
Mistake #2: Pick Up a Filmmaking Book… and Be Done with This “Reading” Thing.
This is a doozy. There are hundreds of filmmaking books out there, many of them really well-written and very interesting. Great ideas from the masters of filmmaking are just waiting for you to grace them with your presence. Do not, however, limit yourself to just film related books. Read fictional novels. Read sci-fi, romance, comedy, and teen novels. Read lots of non-fiction. Some of the best fiction comes from real life. And don’t just read books; watch as many fiction and non-fiction films and television programs as you can as well. Go to art and science museums. Read the newspaper and scour the Internet. Sit in a nearby park or mall and people-watch (just don’t be creepy about it). Try to absorb as much of the world around you that you can, and take notes on what you’ve read and seen. I don’t think that there are any truly “new” ideas; instead, I believe there are original and unique versions of ideas, seen from your singular life perspective. So absorb as much information as you can, and let it synthesize in your mind. What comes out may surprise you.
Mistake #3: Grab a Hot Light
No matter who you are or what position you hold on a film, if you’re on a set, you’re likely to grab, graze, or bump into a hot light at some point in your career. Hopefully, it will only be once. What can you learn from this? There are potentially hundreds of things on a movie set that can jump up and bite you. This is not to say that all movie sets are death traps waiting to devour you the moment you let your guard down. The point is to be alert and know your surroundings at all times. Your superiors will appreciate that. So will the guy you save from the teetering C-Stand of Doom.
Mistake #4: Run Your Mouth Off
In all walks of life, etiquette is a hot topic. For some reason, filmmakers can be tetchy people. Great people, but tetchy. Maybe it’s because of the high level of stress inherent in most film jobs. Perhaps it’s the insane amounts of caffeine consumed by cast and crew alike. Whatever the case, at some point in you’re career, you’re likely to step on someone’s toes who will make it known what a dolt you are for even thinking about opening your mouth.
I once worked as a grip on a production where a recent film school grad was hired as a Production Assistant. Obviously not knowing his place in the grand scheme of things, he began second guessing the Director of Photography. The DP held his tongue for most of the shoot, occasionally shooting looks of utter frustration at me and the other grip. At one point, the PA was bold enough to walk right up to the DP and start arguing with him about the camera setup! It was then that my grip buddy and I discreetly exited the set. Needless to say, I never saw that PA again.
This is really about a few things. Most importantly, by not running your mouth, you’re more likely to be paying attention to everything that’s happening around you, and Keys (heads of the department) appreciate that. It means you care. It means you’re interested. It means you’re in the moment. Of course there’s some ego stroking going on, but it’s also about respect. Not just the basic respect people should be giving each other, but the respect that is earned after paying your dues. And of course, by shutting up and paying attention, you’re infinitely less likely to ruin a take because you just had to critique the DP’s choice of lighting.
Mistake #5: Yank That Chain (Rope/Cable/Cord/Tail)
This will also likely happen to you at least once in your career. You see a rogue cable lying on the ground, seemingly in a bad place. You take it upon yourself to move said cable, but it’s stuck on something. So you pull a bit harder. Still it won’t budge. Ok, a little harder still. Finally the cable frees itself from its dank confines, and you dutifully coil it and stow it safely away, all the while oblivious to the fact that you’ve just pulled the power for the entire video village during the middle of a key scene. Oops.
Aside from the fact that on most big budget films, you’d likely be breaking some union’s rules, it just seems silly to yank on anything you can’t see the end of. You’ll end up embarrassed, and more than likely some piece of expensive equipment will have just been smashed into a hundred twinkling pieces. Don’t be that guy.
Mistake #6: Leave the Camera Running (or Vice Versa)
Oh, we’ve all done this one, haven’t we? You think you’ve tapped that little red record button of death, and you walk away for your much needed cup of joe, only to find during dailies that you left the camera running for 10 minutes. Now you have a blurry shot of the set as crew members move in and out of frame. It’s an abstract artists dream, but your nightmare. Just be thankful you didn’t ruin any shots. I mean, just think what would have happened if you had stopped down on recording when you thought you were starting? Whew!
Mistake #7: Forget to Write It Down
I know you will. We all do. If you make this mistake once, hopefully it won’t happen again for your sake. But in a business where time is money, forgetting even what seems to be a menial task can cost big money. Just because you don’t think it’s important doesn’t mean it’s not. All you need to do is carry a small, cheap notebook and a pen with you in your pocket. Quickly write down all the tasks you have to do, and cross them off as you get them done. You’re not writing a book, just jotting down notes on everything from how much petty cash was in the box when you left, to what f-stop the lens was set to in the previous shot. You will be perpetually on the ball and constantly admired by your peers.
Mistake #8: “We’ll Fix It In Post”
Let’s face it, film sets are complicated, intimidating, somewhat mystical places. A multitude of operations occur nearly simultaneously all day, every day. Most times, the best laid plans are so intricate and complex that they can – and will – fall behind, or even fail. As a result, certain parts of the production tend to take a hit. As a producer, cameraman, and editor, I know that it takes a lot of work to get a show from pre-production to post. Time and again, however – especially on student films and non-professional productions – I’ve heard the phrase I dread the most: “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post.” Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.
Seriously. I wear it all the time.
“We’ll fix it in post,” is probably the biggest cop out in filmmaking today. It not only insults the crew during shooting, but also the people who work in post-production. It’s a poisonous attitude that belies a bigger problem in production: Lack of planning, discipline, vision, creativity, and skill. “Fix it in post” means someone wasn’t prepared. It’s passing the buck.
There are countless more mistakes everyone will make at least once in their career – and many of us will indeed make them. Each one can be a learning opportunity that will make you a better filmmaker, if only you pay attention when it happens. You shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to make a mistake. It’s not really about the fact that you made the mistake, but that you weren’t prepared to be in the situation you were in. You also should not be afraid to try new things, take advantage of new opportunities, or experiment with new techniques. The missteps you make in each situation will likely move you forward. By paying attention, being prepared, listening instead of talking, and using a little common sense, you’ll be able to take advantage of the situation when it presents itself. After all, where would we be if some pharmacist hadn’t accidentally mixed carbonated water with a syrup made from kola nuts and the leaves of the coca plant?
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