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5 Essential Projects To Get You Started as a Weekend Filmmaker

This post is part of a series called Video Jumpstart Guide.
How To Find and Choose a Documentary Subject
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

You've heard the advice many times: stop making excuses, just go out and shoot! It's the only way to learn!

Sounds great! You have a camera that records video, you have this weekend free, and you want to teach yourself how to shoot like a pro. But what to shoot? Please, don't say vampires or zombies!

Every budding filmmaker is drawn to vampire films

1. Short Narrative Movies (a.k.a. Vampire Films)

The first step to figuring out what to make is to think about what kind of video you like to watch. And for many of us, that's movies: scripted, acted, entertaining drama, comedy, and thrillers dominate our television screens. That's what most of us think of when we think of filmmaking.

Many budding filmmakers desire to one day end up shooting, directing, or editing these kinds of narrative - or fiction - films. It can be fun to imagine your own film ideas from scratch (staring you and your friends, perhaps). There are a million less barriers to creating your own film today, thanks to the amazing (and affordable) DSLR cameras that can make your kitchen look like a cinematic set.

There are still barriers, though, most of which do not depend on your camera or shooting skills. To execute even a short 5-minute fiction film, you would need to consider: 

  • A script, storyboard, or at least a story premise
  • Actors and production crew, and their valuable time
  • Lighting, specialized audio for dialogue, camera movement
  • Locations, filming permissions or even permits
  • Planning the production, from transportation, to timing, to shooting multiple takes and camera angles, to feeding your crew, to things going very, very wrong (which is both inevitable and possibly disastrous)
Green screen studio

Essentially, it's way more complicated than just "go shoot." And while it's fun to dabble in narrative filmmaking, without hiring real actors these kinds of short films will most likely never be appreciated by anyone outside your immediate friends and family circle.

Simply put, there are better ways to spend this weekend shooting and learning filmmaking while making something that is more productive and slightly less embarrassing to watch.

2. Music Videos

Music videos are the most accessible thing you can make while learning. A simple music video is a complete project that you can be proud of, and it's basically as simple as cutting together a bunch of random shots and placing some good music underneath.

band on stage

You can film almost anything and music will make it irresistibly fun to watch. Chances are you've spent a good part of your life watching videos of family travels, kids' graduations, and silly cats. A music track can take these camcorder videos from terribly boring to not-so-bad. But we're talking filmmaking here, not following your pets around with a smartphone.

Try this: shoot some hand-held sequences of somebody preparing dinner. Make a few simple shots of people in the kitchen. Add some some close-up, shallow depth-of-field shots of tacos (or pancakes, or just about anything), layer with some mariachi music and a long title sequence, and boom: your friends will forever know you as "the filmmaker."

Music videos are a forgiving thing to make. They are a great way to experiment with new techniques and practice. Soon you'll start to add graceful camera movement, sliders and dollies, slow motion, time lapses, or any number of new tools to your tool belt. 

Eventually someone in your circle will ask you to make a music video for their friend's band. Have the musicians perform and lip sync to a stereo playing their song while you film them in leafy forests or in abandoned warehouses. Edit it together with some generic shots of sunsets or waves breaking or both and your video will get thousands of views. It will be broadcast on a local TV program, the band will love you, and your weekend hobby will be pretty darn satisfying.

Don't forget that shot of a hand running through the tips of tall grass!

Hand running through tall grass
Photo by Jay Bergesen - https://www.flickr.com/photos/jaybergesen/

3. Highlights Videos for Weddings and Events

Once you master the art of music videos you can apply those same skills to making 3-5 minute highlight videos celebrating an occasion.

Maybe there's a local event and they ask you to come film it - because hey, you're now the "camera guy/gal" - or maybe someone you know is getting married, and they wonder if you could maybe shoot a video of it? Gulp What do you do?

There's certainly a time and a place for videography: simply documenting an event in full, maybe with 2-3 cameras edited together, and providing a low-resolution DVD of a ceremony, lecture, student performance, or similar. Before DSLR filmmaking was a thing, this is what you would probably do a lot of as a weekend video producer, or even as a professional videographer.

wedding ceremony

But now that you can make cinematic-looking film, you can skip the videography services and offer a highlights film, which is basically a music video without the band. You take a lot of great shots from various angles, cut together 5-second clips of all the goings-ons, add a Fleet Foxes track and you'll be the hero. Even the hands over tall grass shots will work here!

wedding reception

Most importantly, if you record and include some of the natural audio over the backing music track - the wedding vows, parts of the lecture or performance, or an introduction speech - congratulations, you can now legitimately charge for your professional filmmaking services. Available weekends only.

4. Short Documentary

By now you have mastered the beauty shots, you've cut together a few fun videos, maybe purchased some lights, audio equipment, or tools for camera movement. Now you're ready to make a film this weekend that has the power to impact people at a deeper level.

A short documentary film - or nonfiction film, if you prefer - is as simple as your basic music video that you've already mastered, but interspersed with someone telling a story, or a "talking head." So now you interview the wedding couple in advance, and you cut together them talking about how much they love each other into a 3-minute story, and lay down your highlight video over it. Add the natural sound of their vows, in between their interview audio, and some of the reception speeches, and you've got an amazing video the couple will cherish forever. And possibly pay big bucks for.

5. A New Career?

Short documentaries are more than just glorified music videos. In fact they are the heart of all nonfiction videos out there. From Youtube, to PBS documentaries, to news videos. In some form or another, these videos feature a story being told verbally, either with interviews or a narrator, along with cutaway shots of some relevant action or B-roll, with a sprinkling of some music to build momentum. And the best part is, you can now make these kinds of videos.

Think of all the people and organizations close to you who could use a video like this for a crowd-fund campaign on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, or a video that shows and tells what a local business is all about, to share on the web and social media. Or maybe there's a really inspirational story of a couple who is hand-cycling thousands of miles, and you want to make a video about it, to share their story. There are so many stories to be told, and the demand for qualified filmmakers to tell them is only increasing. Before you know it, your weekend hobby can quickly become a serious career.

Or you could continue making vampire films.




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