Should I go to film school? I am 16 and want to be a DP, how much can I charge people with my T2i kit? I am a staff news cameraman and want to go freelance, what should I buy? I want to quit my insurance job and make a movie, how do I do it?… Just a small selection of some of the questions I have been asked many times. I hope to address some of these questions in this epic blog post. Sit down, get a nice cup of coffee and I hope I don’t waffle on too much!
This is part one and deals with what to do if you are a teenager and don’t know which way to turn…Part 2 in the next day or so…
Everyone from 12 year old kids to guys in their 50s looking for a change of career. Of course with gear now more affordable than ever there is of course a lot more people asking this question and because of this competition is increasing, for better of worse…So what is the answer? Well there is no simple solution. I think it makes sense to first explain my own history to see how I did it and how things have changed in the 21+ years since I started. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe looking at me that I can possibly have been doing this as long as that but it’s true. I just moisturise frequently!
I bought my first video camera at the age of 16 with money I earned from my part time job at the supermarket Tesco. I bought it with credit as the damn thing cost over £2000 (a huge amount of money back then!) for a basic Sony Video 8 camcorder. But I had fun with it and it was by far the cheapest option for me.
At the age of 18 I had three options. I wanted to be a cameraman but couldn’t afford gear but I also needed to have a career and make money at some point and this could mean something totally unrelated. I hoped if I couldn’t do what I wanted to do straight away I would a find a way at some point…
The three options in England were this:
1: Attend Art school, I painted a lot and was the “Art prefect” at my school (google it!). Back then, when you attend art school you do a foundation course for a year which covers all sorts of art including photography you can then specialise. At this point I would go to a Film and TV school like Beaconsfield. This was the only way I could get to use proper gear.
2: Get a job in TV doing anything just to get my foot in the door. Once in I would work my way up.That would be the plan…
3: Take the job Tesco offered me in management training and put my filming dream to the side and keep it as a hobby. But without affordable gear I doubt I would have gone anywhere with it until probably now! Can you imagine? I could be an area manager for Tescos like one of my friends is now. Depressing as I really don’t like Supermarkets!
I wrote to every TV company under the sun back in 1989. Then it was around 18 regional and national broadcasters. That has dropped a lot since then. One company offered me an interview. The newly formed satellite TV station Sky TV. They wanted to offer me a starter job but because they were offering £5000 a year and I lived 2 hours away they knew all my salary would be spent on commuting and didn’t want to give me the job. I said it’s fine…I just wanted to get my foot in the door.
For me it worked a treat. I bugged the hell out of everyone. I learnt how to do everything there. From transmission, to vision mixing. I even did about 20 odd sports reports for Sky News (if i can find them I may upload one someday!) I was keen, happy to do anything and it paid off. It was an incredible opportunity and I stayed challenged creatively for the 17 years that I was there until I left to go freelance.
JUMPING SHIP AND GOING FREELANCE
It’s tough leaving a comfortable staff job with a nice salary, great benefits and 6 weeks leave a year but I always said when it got to the point where I needed to challenge myself more it was time to leave. I reached that point 4 and a half years ago. It was a scary decision and despite jumping into a short TV series after leaving I then had almost 3 months of very little work. A very worrying time.
I had been looking at going freelance for many years but the cost of the standard freelance camera, a Digi Beta with a good lens was around £50k. You had to work out a 3 year plan to pay it all off via a large loan. I really didn’t want this. A few years later I still ended up getting a sizeable loan to buy a DSR 450 and kit but a fair bit cheaper than the digi. Today things are even more different. Buying a camera, a big expensive camera makes little sense. Sure buy gear to help. A tripod, lights, sound gear, editing but a big expensive camera. I would say no. BUT there are so many really affordable cameras out there as I am sure you know that…
I’m still at School and don’t know what to do…
What would I do right now if I was 16-18 today? That’s a really tough question. I wouldn’t exchange the training and experience I had from my 17 years in news for anything. I learnt to shoot fast from some of the best cameraman I have ever come across. I learnt to light, record sound, edit and with very tight schedules. This really was the best training ground that I could have asked for. Of course that kind of opportunity is a rare beast these days. Few news outlets care about the quality anymore and those that do the whole be a sound recordist and work you way up route is pretty much long gone.
So…hypothetically. I am 18 years old…Here are the current options and this is where it gets complicated.
I go and buy some gear. A T2i, a couple of old lenses, some 2nd hand lights, a tripod, bit of sound gear. £3000 spent. I want to make £500+ a day as a cameraman…forget it. With no experience nobody will hire me for that much money. So what if i undercut other people and charge £200 a day? Well yes, I could but how good am I? I am 18 years old. No experience, maybe some cocky confidence but that’s it. Everyone I contacted to get work when I was charging £500+ a day now are interested as I am “whoring” myself out for a pittance and undercutting everyone. So, a company hires me to make a video for them for £200. Great. I made some money. But am I any good? If not, then I won’t be hired again. As a freelancer I am only as good as my last job! If I do a crappy job they won’t hire me again. No problem. Plenty of fish in the sea. Right?
Theoretically this approach could work. But it’s not good for the industry that’s for sure as I would be undercutting everyone and if lots of people do the same everyone suffers. But let’s say I am a selfish bastard and don’t care about anyone else. Sure, but don’t forget it’s a small industry! What sort of work would I be getting? Who cares, as long as they pay I get experience, credits and money…right?
The problem is nobody would hire me unless I could show them some work I had done. Hang on. I am 18 and not done any proper work yet…no credits no jobs and of course I cant get credits without being hired. Chicken and egg.
The other problem is are you learning? I guarantee you at 18 I was utterly shit! I look back at my first camerawork at 19 and I cringe. I learnt so much by shadowing much better people than me. By skipping the learning stage you miss out on much. Now learning isn’t as black and white as it used to be. The internet has changed everything. There are so many great learning resources online. Load of great mentors who can watch your work and critique it. I would just be incredibly wary about selling myself without really being any good! Of course there are loads of 18 year old people online making some great stuff. That’s because so much has changed. Gear is affordable meaning you can practice in your free time and get better that way.
But to be honest if there is any way you can get a job as an intern or an assistant to an experienced cameraman you will you benefit SO much. I promise you! It’s just hard to find those opportunities. I don’t have them for example as I travel far too much to hire an intern. But others might…
Getting a job in TV could work but there is no guarantee the training will be there or be any good. The days of broadcasters training up people are almost gone.
What you could do is get a job for a local organisation. Work for not much money on staff and work your arse off. Learning as you go. Again, not ideal as nobody to shadow. Unless there is someone with more experience there.
Another option is go to work for a local wedding videography company. Wedding filming is the hardest work I ever did and there are some simply stellar people working in this field (mostly in the US) and this would be a great training ground for you…almost like the news training I had. Work fast but make it good. Only one take…
You see it’s just not black and white. Things were a lot simpler back when I stared with the option of get a job in TV or go to film school…
So film school….good option? Yes and no…Of course it will cost you and you may end up after 3 years being in crazy debt and have no job at the end of it. BUT you could have three years of fantastic knowledge and hands on with all sorts of cameras…just make sure you go with a progressive film school. One that uses DSLRS and doesn’t turn their noses up at them in favour of shooting on film. Sure, shooting on film is great but just how much of that will you do in the real world with tiny budgets and affordable cameras everywhere?
Do I wish I went to film school? Yes and no. I would have LOVED the experience I am sure. It would have been a ball but I would not be where I am today if I had gone that route. I was lucky and got a job and worked my way up.
Does that help you? There are no simple answers to this one…I truly believe the revolution is with this generation.
One guy who I find inspiring is Josh Gooden. I met Josh when he was around 18. He saw one of my videos. A little promo film I made for a friend’s restaurant and took the concept and ran with it. I believe he was 17 when he made the below spot for his local Panera Bread. Today 2 years later he is making more of the same and filming lots of weddings beautifully. He is 19 and has a successful business going. But he has a natural talent. He has a feel, an eye, the pace. A gifted filmmaker. We are not all like that. But if you want to look up to someone, then look at what Josh is doing.
This is another option, approach your local business. Make spec web commercials for them or free web commercials to give you the experience. Do this in your free time. If you screw up, it’s fine. Nobody is paying you. Honestly the best way I learnt was by cocking up constantly. Different things each time. Cocked up. Didn’t make that mistake again. You learn from your mistakes and that’s why it really is best to practice and practice and practice before you take that plunge and sell yourself!
One thing I can say for certain. If you have that narrative taste and that is what you want to do then making money from it is WAAYYY harder. I know some very talented narrative filmmakers and they mostly just do corporates and they need to pay the bills! So don’t think making short narrative films is going to help you make money, one day maybe. But it won’t appeal to clients who you are trying to get bread and butter work from. Make them for yourself and then who knows!
Short film made for my friend’s restaurant in Balham.
Shot on XDCAM F350
This is the promotional film I wrote, shot, and edited for the Blue Ridge franchise of Panera Bread located throughout Virginia. The store we shot at is located in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Winner of Zacuto’s Z-Kudos Award:
Shot on a Sony PMW-EX1 with a Letus Elite. I used a 28mm 2.8 (Wide), 50mm 1.4 (Primary Lens), 105mm 2.8 Macro, and a 180mm 2.8. Then a Zacuto kit to keep it all together.