13 Choices Amateur Filmmakers Make

The sequel to the 12 Choices Amateur Screenwriters Make, here are 13 choices that amateur filmmakers make.

1) All the writing choices I already mentioned 

2) Stupid camera shit, like:

  • Dolly zooms

Awful. awful, awful. Never use this. Yeah, it was amazing in Vertigo, Jaws, Goodfellas, Lord of the Rings, whatever. Check out those filmmakers’ filmographies and see what percentage of their films use this effect. Something like less than 10%. Now check out amateur films and see how many use this effect. All of them.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the fact that Hitchcock, Spielberg, Scorcese, and Jackson work with the best and most experienced camera operators and dolly grips in the world. And while your crew is great, they aren’t as good as the big leagues, and so even if you have the perfect place for a dolly zoom in your film, when you do it, it looks terrible.

  • Rack focus

First there was film, and only filmmakers could make films. Then there was DV and everyone could make films, but everything had to be in focus. Then the 5D came out and nothing had to be in focus, nothing except what you wanted, just like film, but for everyone! The result? Racking everywhere, from here to there and everything in between.

Now don’t get me wrong, shallow depth of field is great, and racking can be too, but so can the opposite (if you don’t recognize this still you shouldn’t be making films). It’s all about what’s best for your film, not what’s fun to do.

Particularly heinous example: racking from a pointed gun to the shooter’s face. Don’t do it!

  • Handheld

It’s interesting, when you put your camera on a tripod (and especially when you lock it off) that means you have to know what you want and sign off on it. When you’re handheld, you don’t. Guess which process results in better (and less nauseating) films.

  • Dutch angles

If your shot is boring with your camera positioned normally, it’ll also be boring when your camera is canted awkwardly, turned sideways, flipped upside down, or whatever else you’re thinking of doing. Also, you know the shot where the the actor runs straight at and under the camera, and the camera tilts a full 180 degrees to keep the actor in frame, eventually looking at the character upside down? Yeah, don’t do that.

  • Slow Motion

There are many good reasons to use slow motion. The following are not good reasons: because it is cool, because it is awesome, because oh-my-God look at that shot, because other directors do it and you want to be like them, because you want to show how wonderful something is (this last one is especially true for the last shot of your film).

  • Zooms

Zooms get a bad rap. When used properly, they can actually be pretty powerful. But they are not a substitute for a dolly. When used for this purpose, they look like shit.

3) Stupid editing shit, like:

  • Long takes

Yes, these are super impressive. And yes, you’re trying to impress people. But you’re trying to impress them with your ability to tell a story, which you’re not doing because you’re boring them with a five minute shot, four and a half minutes of which should be cut. You’re not Emmanuel Lubezki, so cut it out.

  • Too many fades

Fades are great for organization, and they can be very powerful, but they are also boring! Fades reset your pacing, so think about how many times you want to do that in your film. If it’s a short, I’d say no more than once, ideally zero.

Similarly, don’t use wipes or any of those other fancy-shmancy Apple transitions. Unless your film is for five year olds.

  • Random shots of nothing

The director got inspired and wasted time on set shooting a train or some flowers or something floating in the wind. Whoop-de-do, cut it from your film.

While we’re at it, cut all (or at least 90%) of your inserts. They aren’t necessary.

  • Walking into the camera

Why do people do this? Remind your audience there’s a camera and you take them out of the film. Plus it looks terrible. I don’t get it. (incidentally, this is one of Michael Bay’s favorite moments in the history of film)

4) Master, over the shoulder over the shoulder, close up close up

Actors facing each other, never moving, shot five times from these five angles. Perfect if you want super boring and conventional scenes. If you want something interesting, however, you should move your actors (blocking is your job as director) and also find interesting cuts and angles that complement, not merely record, your scene.

5) White shirts and walls 

White looks terrible; it does not belong in film. Unless it’s a plot point, your character should never wear white. White walls should be painted or covered up. Not only does white look terrible, but it also tells your audience: I didn’t have a costume designer/production designer. And what is more amateur than that?

There are a few exceptions. They are: science fiction, dentist offices, wedding dresses (to make the bride look pure and innocent and virginal), and porn (to make the girl look pure and innocent and virginal). That is all.

6) Reflections 

It’s great when you use a reflection to get into a character, or say something about a moment, or strengthen a beat in a scene. What’s not great is showing up to a location, seeing a mirror and saying “Oh my God! Let’s shoot into it!”

7) “In My Apartment” films 

It doesn’t matter how good your film is, if it’s set entirely in your apartment, or your parent’s house, or your boring suburban neighborhood, you’re not impressing anyone (at least not as much as you should be).

8) Bad Acting

  • Face acting

If you don’t know the difference between theater and film acting, you’re definitely an amateur. Briefly, film acting is subtle, the camera can see everything. So knock off that shit you’re doing with your face, your eyebrows and mouth in particular.

  • Just saying your lines

Here are some mantras: acting is reacting, acting is listening, acting is being. What’s not a mantra is: acting is talking. If all you’re is doing is saying the lines you’ve memorized, you’re not acting.

  • Casting looks

The wrong way to cast: I have an image of the character and I just need to find the actor who matches that image. The correct way to cast: I’m looking for the best actor who is right for the part.

Great actors make the role their own, so unless their look violates a plot point or is just completely wrong, cast the best actor you can and let them own it.

  • Not going SAG

Do it. It’s worth it.

9) Everyone in their 20s 

What age should your characters be? The correct answer: whatever age results in the most powerful story. An incorrect answer: whatever age my friend who’s playing the role is.

If your film is better with a 30 or 40 or 50 year old, don’t cast your buddy just because you want to work together. Especially don’t cast him because you’re afraid of people older than you.

Also, it’s probably helpful to have some adults in your crew. Something to make it feel like it’s not a student shoot.

10) Having sex with your underwear on

No one does this! If you can’t get your actors to take their clothes off, consider 1) paying them more, 2) casting different actors, 3) cheating the scene, 4) re-writing the scene, or 5) don’t do a sex scene. If you choose #3, don’t mess up, your entire audience will be watching.

Oh, and I should also mention, gratuitous nudity is amateur too.

11) Using the Inception score

You know which one I’m talking about. It doesn’t make your film feel epic, it just makes you a thief (and an unoriginal one, too). Same goes for the Requiem for a Dream score and any other music you don’t have the rights to.

What about all the free music that is available online (like incompetech)? Still pretty amateur, but at least you’re an honest one. Better to use classical music (if appropriate) or better yet, hire a film composer.

12) No budget for color correction or sound

Your budget is a list of priorities. Here’re your priorities: 1) an awesome camera 2) huge lights 3) a Fischer dolly 4) tons of grip equipment 5) sound 6) color correction 7) art department 8) crafty. Here’s what your priorities should be: 1) a camera 2) great sound 3) art department 4) crafty 5) lights 6) color correction 7) grip equipment 8) a better camera 9) more lights 10) a dolly. Also, you should pay your cast and crew.

13) Bad credits

In addition to poor formatting, bad credits include any of the following: individual title cards for actors we’ve never heard of, credits that are too long compared to the length of the film, thanking your entire family tree, crediting yourself more than three times.

While we’re at it, cheap production logos are terrible. Is there a worse first impression you can give your audience? Also, font-wise, stay away from Arial, Times New Roman, and Comic Sans; the first two are super boring and the latter is the most hated font in the world.

About Gabriel Bruskoff
I make movies! See gabrielbruskoff.com for more information.

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