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The Responsibility of Being a Filmmaker

Filmmakers

 

Recently, I was looking back through films to recut my demo reel and stumbled upon Drumline, a favorite from all of the films that I have lensed. It was an incredible experience for me as a young cinematographer being inspired by an amazing director, Charles Stone III, and an incredible group of talented musicians. I came across a scene in the film that sparked something in me that I have wanted to write about for a while. In this clip, you, the filmmaker, will play the drummer, the musician. Please assume the Role.

Devon Miles is moved out of his status on the drumline from a P1 drummer, which is the best, to a P4, which doesn’t even suit up, because he cannot read music. He came to college on a full ride scholarship to play drums and now has to go back to school while in college. He needs to be able to read music so that that he can understand the WHY and not just keep doing the HOW, drumming by ear. I will circle around back to this.
 

 

“The Red One Starts a Filmmaking Revolution”

 
Red One Camera
 
The Red One camera started a filmmaking revolution back in the mid-2000s. Anyone who could afford this camera was now all of a sudden a filmmaker. People who never had a voice before were energized, a creative revolution so to speak. Canon with its release of the 5D MK II in 2008 pushed it over the top. It all became possible to complete a movie in your garage. With big players like Apple and Adobe paving the way to edit it, CGI it, sound design it, you name it, they had an application to do it and at a low price point. The democratization of filmmaking began!
 

“NO SHORT CUTS to Education and Inspiration”

 
HOV lane
 
However, this Revolution comes with a huge responsibility. Just because you can buy it, doesn’t mean you have the right to use it. When film was the main medium to create and produce movies, the process to get to the point of making a film was a long road. There was no HOV lane; you could not circumnavigate the traffic (aka the education coupled with the experience) to get to your creation goal. The process of shooting a feature on film was so expensive and time consuming to complete, it had better be something you felt proud to put your name on.
 

“In Film School, All I Wanted to Do Was Get My Hands on That Gear”

 

Emerson gear room

Emerson gear room

 
When I went to Emerson College, I was banging the equipment room doors down to get my hands on those cameras, those lights, the tools, thirsting for the HOW and to get out there and make movies. My professors quickly snapped me out of this trance with one bit of advice and this is where I circle back to the Drumline scene. If you do not have the honor and discipline to learn your craft, then you have no business working in it. PERIOD! Creating without the education or understanding of the fundamentals is just NOISE. We have plenty of this noise. Transporting an audience to a place where they laugh, cry, are on the edge of their seat, evoking emotions, comes from the WHY, not the HOW. If you feel like I am beating a drum, I am.

My suggestion to all of you is to continue to educate yourself. Apply to a film school or film extension program or a high value course. State schools tend to be less expensive. If school is not an option, then turn to the groups or resources for education. It starts with studying, watching classics from the filmmakers who have paved the way for you and have given you this opportunity. They deserve your time and respect: Ingmar Bergman, John Ford, Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Sidney Lumet, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Wong Kar Wai, to name just a few.

Don’t play the young filmmaker card and say that your style is new, unconventional and the masters never will understand. Don’t be arrogant and believe that there is nothing from the classics that could help you. Don’t you think Stanley Kubrick had that same WILL when he was a budding young director who created A Clockwork Orange or The Shining? He chose to study the masters before him because it gave him the brick and mortar. To build your career and your house, you need a foundation. To say you are going to wing it means you are building your foundation out of sand. NOT so GOOD!
 

“Dig in Deep”

 
a hole
 
You have to dig to find the intention or the WHY. It is the Key to the Castle. The HOW you can find everywhere because it sells cameras, support, etc. Take the time to study and research the filmmakers that you respond to, who have your same aesthetic. Watch interviews because they tend to reveal the WHY. It is time consuming and you may have to surf through hours, but there are diamonds in there.
 

Live it, own it, breath it, sleep it.

 
Find a burning desire inside you to have the honor and discipline to be a creator of content that you want to put your name on and be proud of the final product.
 


 
Additional interviews:
http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/cop0int-1
Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and more
 

“Starting All Over Again”

 
If film schools, blogs, books and filmmaking courses do not see huge enrollments and sign ups after this post, then I will be disappointed. This huge responsibility that has been put on you has also been left to a very few educators who see all of this, recognize it and take the time out of their schedules to make it a priority. The members of the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) are relentless with their dedication to this process. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a wonderful educational outreach program. The Directors Guild of America offers many as well. These are places to find out WHY. Remember, the HOW is 15% of the filmmaking process.

To be honest, I have been caught up with the HOW before. We are all human and I am not on a high horse here. Because I continue to push the trailblazing, pioneering bleeding edge of technology, part of the time has to be focused on the HOW to do it because no one has done it before. It takes courage as there is no roadmap.

With all of the technological advances now and in the future, do not lose your way. I keep reminding myself what former President Clinton’s lead strategist, James Carville, told Clinton when he was campaigning to ground him and not get distracted. “It’s the economy, stupid.” For me, I remind myself every day, “It’s the story, stupid.”
 

 
I look forward to helping you in your mission to become a responsible filmmaker who will take the time to understand WHY!!! Because this is what it is all about.
 

Author: Shane

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22 Comments

  1. Mr. Hurlbut,

    Thank you so much for your words of wisdom. Every time I read your blog i leave with a new understanding and appreciation for the craft of filmmaking.

    My dream job right now would be to apprentice under an accomplished filmmaker like yourself. The problem I face is that most internship opportunities are with creative agencies and their sole focus is not on filmmaking. Any advice for a 24 year old filmmaker who is working full time freelance in the industry but wants to further his education?

    Post a Reply
    • Aaron Almquist, you are very welcome and thank you for the kind words. Please reach out to anne@hurlbutvisuals.com. We offer internships to individuals that fit the requirements. It is a 2 year program though so you have to be invested.

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  2. Thanks again for sharing another great post, Shane! Your energy and commitment to giving back is astounding to me. A real beacon of light on a stormy horizon of noise and clutter.

    I completely agree with you on your thoughts on WHY we make films. I feel that cinema is starting to become the tech industry: a lot of commentators on the sidelines and not enough creators in the forefront. People get caught up in the tools and what the tools can and can’t do instead of focusing on what THEY can do with the wealth of tools we have today.

    That said, let me pitch to you a few things from the perspective of a younger guy starting out today.

    I’m a late 20 something. I’ve recently graduated from a great engineering school with a masters degree. I work for a major tech company. All of this has been part of the master plan I created for myself when I was 15: to become a full-time film director. Here’s why.

    It sounds silly to approach filmmaking from the seemingly opposite direction, but the problem is that there is no direct path to becoming a full-time film director. To become a doctor, a dentist, an engineer, or a lawyer, the path is long and arduous, but there is a known path that can be followed. When it was that time in my life to start looking at life beyond high school (many years ago), I looked at film school. Times have changed since then, but at the time, film school was incredibly expensive, did not guarantee that you would get to produce your own student film, nor did it guarantee the goal of directing movies full-time. There wasn’t a strong enough correlation between going to film school and earning at least a living wage as a film director. At the time, I felt like film school was so focused on the HOW, that I would never learn the WHY.

    In order to try to figure out the WHY, I decided to learn about engineering, design, human factors, and science while making the same mistakes with my early films as any film school student would make during their early years. Here is an example of my early work I cut together as a way of drawing a line in the sand of what I had to improve upon: https://vimeo.com/60988355. The early work was an exercise in HOW, but the process I was learning in school was helping me with the WHY. I thought that if I could learn how to build things that people love to use, maybe I could make films that people love to watch.

    And I’m not alone. There are a lot of young women and men starting to make films who have their own personal stories that would resemble mine. All of this is to say that I don’t think the next generation is too lazy to take the journey. We just don’t know which direction to start.

    It’s tough knowing where to go first or what projects are worthwhile to work on. Now is the best time in the history of the medium to be a filmmaker, and it’s still difficult. In my own work, I feel that there are things that took me a year to learn that a professional would be able to teach me in a day. (Shane, you and others alike are a true testament to what it means to find your path. It was even more difficult when you started.) This is not a complaint. I’m just a proposing that even though the world is more connected, there are more stories out there to tell, and that there are large audiences for these stories, the path to becoming a full-time film director hasn’t changed significantly with the start of the digital revolution.

    I would love to take classes from a professional in the industry that could point out how I could better tell my story with image. I think there are a lot of others like me who have the same passion and work ethic, but who feel a little lost as to how to put together a great master plan going forward. I just think it’s hard to find good mentors that are knowledgeable and take an interest in students. I know you’ve talked about this for a while, but we need a Shane School!

    Your giveback is a huge help in this confusing world we call filmmaking, and I appreciate every minute of your time.

    Post a Reply
    • Jared Caldwell, these are the reason I take the time that I do. Thank you for your time and your wonderful comment. There is not a rule book to this. You have to find your own way as an artist. My path will not be another’s. I love your passion, own it, breathe it, live it. You will succeed.

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  3. Very inspiring. I was thinking, what my videos are missing. They look good, but they lack the WHY.
    A fragment from film about drummer really some how resonated. I am seriosly thinking about enroling to a cinematography course.

    Have no idea how to thank You. I send you love and happiness!

    Best wishes,
    Raimondas

    Post a Reply
    • Raimondas, I accept all of your love and happiness. Thank you so much for all of this. Yes, that drummer sequence really did it for me as well, jarred my memory and inspired me to write this.

      Post a Reply
  4. Great post as always, Shane. This is something I’ve been proactively working on in the past couple years. My fellow filmmaking buddy of mine and I were just discussing this the other day when talking about new projects we’re getting ready to work on. It was a great conversation about how each of us can further evolve our skillsets & improve ourselves. This stuff is great reinforcement and (as always) very inspiring.

    Post a Reply
    • James, thank you for the kind words and I am so glad that I could inspire. So many think this, but nobody has the balls to say it.

      Post a Reply
  5. Mr. Hurlbut,

    Thank you – I went back to school myself to study cinematography, and I recently have been doubting my decision to walk that path. It’s great to have a reminder that going back to school is never a waste of time, especially considering all that I’ve learned along the way.

    Michael

    Post a Reply
    • Michael H.,It is great to hear this and I applaud you. It is so important

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  6. Shane,

    While I appreciate what I believe to be the underlying argument you’ve made (if you want to undermine the rules, you first have to know the rules), I couldn’t disagree with your stated point more strongly. To flip it into the world of music, that’d be like saying one shouldn’t be allowed to record an album without having learned to formally write and arrange music first. Think of all the great music that would never have been captured if that were a requirement.

    Creating art without knowledge or understanding of the fundamentals can be (and often is) noise, but at the end of the day it is still creating, still an opportunity for talented people to hear themselves making noise they find interesting, and encouragement to keep at it.

    Post a Reply
    • Sean Birdsell, Well said. I understand that noise is part of the creation process. Trust me I have made my share. But also having the honor and discipline to educate, broaden your horizons is what I was trying to give people a kick in the ass about. Stop focusing on the HOW and the tools but Why I should make this choice.

      Post a Reply
  7. Shane, writing to you from Emerson College right now. I’m here studying cinematography and just the other day i sat in History of Media Arts and wondered why I was here. Thanks for enlightening me as I continue on my educational journey. Hope to see you here sometime soon.

    -Brendan

    Post a Reply
    • Brendan, ha ha. That’s right, learn the WHY before you can do the HOW. Great to here from you. I hope you are doing well and settling in.

      Post a Reply
  8. Dear Shane,

    I cannot tell you how perfectly this post applies to myself, or how invigorating it is… a real stoking of the fire as it were.

    Hearing that someone truly at the top of their game, and a master in the same chosen field I aspire to, struggles with the same issues of HOW and WHY truly makes me feel like I’m on the right path.

    I’ve definitely been caught up in the HOW lately, what with camera manufacturers releasing new stuff by the minute, it’s easy to get caught up in gear envy. In the low-budget freelance world where I play producers often hire based on what you have rather than what you’ve done with what you’ve got, and it can definitely make you loose sight of the long term goal.

    Lately I’ve been focusing on education, whether it’s pouring through the ASC manual or following cinema blogs, just truly trying to learn everything I can about the nature of the craft. Your blog post hammered home that pouring through tons info for a few golden nuggets is worth it, and that there is a balance to be reached with how and why. I really could not have said it better.

    I’ll definitely be searching out more educational opportunities after this. Looking through the comments as well, seeing that you offer an internship opportunity, Anne will probably be hearing from me as well…

    Thank you so much! Please keep doing what you’re doing, everyone who reads your blog and watches your films cannot tell you what it means to us!

    Tim

    Post a Reply
    • Timothy Moder, these are the comments that keep me writing and giving freely to all of the filmmaking community this resource. Thank you for all of this and thank you for all the kind words and support. When I wrote this I knew I was giving everyone a little kick in the butt, but I do not shy away from these things. These pearls of wisdom are what I have learned and need to be shared.

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  9. This is a beautiful article and to be honest, it wasn’t until maybe a year-and-some-change ago that I began understanding the WHY more than the HOW. To me it makes all the difference with a real Cinematographer, and someone w/ the “DP” moniker who won’t even bother understanding the basics of a light meter.

    It’s all an eternal learning process for sure. Maybe it’s the instant gratification and major self entitlement outlook of today’s thinking that skews this so much.

    Digital and film are mostly similar in disciplinary approaches to me. I wish more people understood this and more Producers put the faith back into the knowledge of the DP and not into what a camera manufacturer pitches to them.

    Post a Reply
    • KahL, I could not agree more. Thank you for your kind words and your comments my friend. I am hear to challenge all of you as filmmakers, not to review movies and sling gear. You come here for quality education. PERIOD!!!!

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  10. This makes me feel like I haven’t been wasting my time these past past several years. Because I have not been making films since I left film school over 10 years ago (God time flies!) I haven’t had my hands on any equipment so I’ve been all all about the Why. Sometimes I feel like I’m completely wasting my life because im not out there shooting and cutting (when I’m not at my 9 to 5) but I spend so much time watching all kinds of movies and watching, reading, and listening to all things film related.
    But those things are indeed valuable. I do need to get on to the How though.

    Post a Reply
    • David, yes you do, you have done the WHY now get out there and tear the How a new one. HA HA

      Post a Reply
  11. Thank you so much Shane for the words of inspiration. As a seasoned (meaning, not getting any younger) cinematographer, I have tried to never underestimate the value of continuing education. I see so many you eager filmmakers graduating from accelerated film programs, wanting to get right on set and make movies. The desire to make it big sometimes outweighs the desire to make a quality product. Finding the WHY has become the inescapable destination I seek.

    Taking the time to wander around a museum and view paintings of master artists. Learning how they saw light and form. Studying sculpture and how the artist formed their mark on each cut and scrape. Watching all of the special features on each DVD to gain insight in to the filmmaker’s vision. Spending hours on sets, watching the masters at work lighting, composing and shooting each frame.

    As the old saying goes, “The more I learn, the less I know”. Thank you again for the challenge of continuing to learn. We are always in the student seat.

    Post a Reply
    • Chris Fallin, you are very welcome and thank you for sharing

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