When you’re first starting out in filmmaking it can seem like another world, and a bit of guidance can really help you get started. Getting help from a screenwriting book, a beginners film school class or a screenwriting DVD can solidify your ideas. In particular, they often help with ideas about how to write which you already knew, but couldn’t put into words. Helpful hints about how to organize your ideas or order your plot are a good reminder, but the question which you must always ask yourself is do you really need this?
In my opinion there are a lot of dangers to be aware of when you’re looking at which training course would be right for you, and here I’ll outline some of the dangers which, I think, can ruin your film.
1. Making Excuses
Often people will do course after course on writing (or directing, producing or any other area of filmmaking which you care to mention) and will moan about how much there is to learn and how its so hard to write a film. What these people have forgotten is that no course will tell you how to write. The only way to learn how to write is to sit down and do it.
Education can give you the tools with which to learn but it can’t replace old fashioned practice. If you take classes without ever picking up a pen, or a camera, then your film will not get made no matter how many classes you take.
2. Searching for an answer
The most important question in filmmaking is one with no real answer. What makes a good story? Whether you are a director, a producer or a writer, the most important element of a film is the story. Storytelling is not something that can be taught. It is a very intuitive ability, and only practice will hone it. No teacher, however good, can teach you how to tell a story. They can show you elements which often occur in good stories, and they can guide you towards tools which they or their friends have found helpful. What they can’t do is show you the holy grail of storytelling which will give all the answers you need. No matter how much they promise it. Stories put together by people who believe they have found ‘the answer’ to what makes a good story tend to be formulaic and are often dull.
3. Looking for the Rules of Filmmaking
Another danger which is always lurking around the corner when you study filmmaking is that people try to teach you rules. Rules are dangerous. Rules stifle creativity. If you are told that certain ‘moments’ of a screenplay must happen on certain pages or at certain minutes, then you may toil away for hours to make sure this happens at the detriment of your story. In filmmaking there are no hard and fast rules. There are guidelines, which should be followed in most cases, but in filmmaking story is the most important thing. If you need to break a rule to serve your story then you should break that rule. It’s very easy to teach rules, but much harder to teach when to break them.
4. Picking Untrustworthy Organisations
If you’re going to pick a course, you need to know that it’s worth your money. It’s usually not too hard to spot the fakers in your mailbox. Anyone who makes unrealistic promises is probably not worth your while, particularly if their CV doesn’t show a large amount of filmmaking experience. You’ve got to be careful. There are a lot of companies out there just after people’s money. Personal recommendation is always the best way to find a film course, preferably from someone you trust. If you don’t, then you put yourself at risk of being taught by someone who can’t teach you anything or, worse, who will teach you badly.
5. Learning from Unqualified Tutors
If you don’t know anyone who has taken a film course, or if everyone you know has had bad experiences, then you should take a look at whether the tutor of the course you are looking at is qualified. Do they have the experience necessary to be able to teach you what you need to learn, or are they just professional teachers? Too many teachers are stuck in the realm of academic teaching without the real life experience to back it up. People with real life experiencing in filmmaking will know what they’re talking about and will be able to give you a practical view with advice that can actually help you. Getting advice on how the filmmaking process actually works is infinitely more useful than getting advice on how it should work.
6. Only Studying the Theory of Filmmaking
Practical advice, whether it is on how to get the best film possible under budget and time constraints or specific advice on your script/treatment/idea, will always be more useful than theoretical advice. Even better if it is from people who have done it themselves, who can help you to avoid the mistakes that they made. If you only study the theory of filmmaking, you will not learn any hints or tips which can improve your film.
7. Studying Topics which are too General.
The other time that film courses can be useful is when you’re looking at branching out into an area where specific understanding can be needed. Certain styles of writing, for example comedy writing, require a different arsenal of tools from others, for example writing thrillers. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to screenwriting and although general courses are useful when first starting out, you must remember to tailor your study to the areas in which you feel weakest.
The comments which I have made above can, in my opinion, be useful when looking at any film training organisation, and if you’re looking for a comprehensive list of training providers in Europe and US we’ve got some links in the Independent Fillmmaker’s Survival Guide 2010. For now though, I’d like to take a moment to mention Raindance’s training courses. If you’re looking at directing we offer courses which focus on the specific role of a director in terms of directing the actors performance (Directing Performance) as well as courses which give you advice on coming in on time and on budget (Hands on Directing). Our writing courses focus on the practical and include an opportunity to workshop your own project with other writers under the guidance of an award winning writer (TV Writers Lab) as well as courses that focus on specific aspects of writing (The Art of the Beat Sheet). On top of this all of our tutors have industry experience.
The most important thing, no matter who you choose to study with, is to make sure that they know what they’re talking about and that the course will help you to hone the storytelling tools available to you. Always ask yourself ‘Do I need to learn this?’