Don’t worry, your first film will probably suck

Guest blogger: David Cairns

Sometimes, I think about Orson Welles.

In 1940, at the age of twenty-five, he directed his first feature film called Citizen Kane, which to this day is considered by many to be the greatest English-speaking film ever made.

On his first real attempt at making a movie, he had made a cinematic masterpiece which would define the medium of film forever, all before he was thirty. I can’t imagine what that does to a person’s ego (Welles famously had a fairly big ego, even before making Kane).

But let’s be honest, this isn’t going to be most of our experiences, making a masterpiece on the first go. The real truth is (wait for it!) your first film will probably suck. And that is nothing to be ashamed of. Welles aside, pretty much everyone’s does.  Mine did! My first film is a long, drawn out, overly wordy, intellectually snobbish, cultural sermon (so what’s changed, people familiar with my work may ask!).

But it’s important that you make your first film, and your second, and your third. And it’s important that an audience sees your work so you can get a sense of how an audience takes to your film voice. That’s how you grow as a filmmaker.

So in the spirit of growth, I want to share with you a few quick tips on how to understand why your first film sucks and how to always be growing.

Learn what you like

It is vitally important, as a filmmaker, that you begin to fully understand what you like in films.

When you see a film you really enjoyed and/or that really spoke to you, spend some time asking yourself what you liked about it. Was it the way it was shot? The way the characters were portrayed? The way the story came together in the edit? And if you find that there’s a particular director that keeps making films you like, try to find the common techniques in their movies that make up their style.

Then, when you’re making your film, don’t try to just copy them, but understand how their style is influencing yours.

Appreciate why it didn’t come out the way you wanted

Everyone making a film has a vision in their head. They want it to look a certain way, move and feel in a certain way. And then, usually, you’ll get to the end and it doesn’t look like what you envisioned at all.

But vision has no budget. Your imagination has no restrictions on time, talent or resources. So, of course, your film won’t look like a million dollars. But a lack of funds and resources doesn’t need to be a problem.

I once heard a director say, ‘Art thrives on restrictions.’ Take some time to research how you can make great looking films on no budget. There are heaps of channels on YouTube that can give you tips and tricks to filming simply (Film Riot is a personal favourite) and develop an appreciation that just because it’s not exactly what was in your head, doesn’t make it bad.

Develop the skill of self-reflection

A few years ago, I poured my heart and soul into a short film (you can check it out here).

It came up really well and it’s a piece I’m really proud of. But we entered it into dozens of festivals and only got accepted by one. The temptation is to say that all the judges are stupid and I am a genius, but that’s not how you grow.

So, I had to look seriously at the film and say, ‘what are its faults? What can I improve for next time?’

These questions require a lot of brutal honesty and the difficult discipline of putting yourself in the audience’s shoes. A good place to start is to develop those skills of reflection we use on other films and try applying them to your own work.

But only by asking, ‘why does this suck?’ are we able to make it suck a bit less next time.

Learn how to process criticism

Criticism is an inevitable part of life as a filmmaker. If an audience of ten people watches your film, there’ll probably be fifteen opinions.

As a filmmaker, you need to learn how to take in a process criticism, to sift the good, helpful criticism from the bad, and learn how to apply it to your next film.

When it comes to sifting the good criticism from the bad, I always say it’s important to learn the difference between technique and taste (a bit more about that below). But the key to taking in criticism is fight the emotional reaction it causes. Most of the time, no one is trying to hurt you personally with their criticism, and if they are, they’re not worth your time.

Try to look beyond your emotional reaction and think reflectively about what they’ve said. I find time helps with this. Don’t try to form an opinion on the criticism in the moment. Park it for a while and then go back and reflect on it, again asking, ‘how can I take this and apply it next time?’

Understand the difference between technique and taste

Sometimes, people don’t like something in a film because of poor technique; the sound was poor, it was too dark, the characters were uninteresting, etc. And other times people don’t like a film because it’s not their taste; they don’t like horror, prefer comedy, etc.

For example, I’m probably the only filmmaker on earth who doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino films. I’ve seen almost all of them at this point and I just don’t enjoy them. I don’t think they’re bad, they’re just not my taste.

So, always understand that there will be a percentage of people who see your work and just don’t like, i.e. it’s not their taste. Don’t take that personally, you really can’t please everyone.



About the Author

Dave Cairns is a Melbourne-based filmmaker who made his first short film with a group of work friends in 2000. In the time since, he had been involved with the production of a large number of short films and other media content, and now works as the Media Producer for Salvo Studios, The Salvation Army’s media production unit.


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