WHY YOUR VIDEO SUCKS AND MINE LOOKS GREAT -OR- ALL THAT EXPERIENCE FINALLY PAYS OFF
I hear it fairly often - "You guys do such good work", or "Your stuff always looks good". It's always nice to hear, but to a certain extent, I think, "Well of course it looks good - we're professionals. This is what we do."
But you can't usually say that unless you're talking to an old friend that you pull no punches on. Most times you say 'thanks' and move on.
But seriously, why does our video usually look good, or at least not bad? I mean, I say 'professional', but what does that mean?
There is a theory out there that you need to put about 10,000 hours into a craft in order to master that craft. I don't know about the exact amount of hours, but yes, you need to put in the hours. Hard time on set, spent lighting and shooting and doing all that encompasses production is a good thing. But it's not enough to just do it, you have to really ask yourself WHY you're doing it, what the effects are, and how it can be better.
Like many filmmakers, I started out making films of the things I liked - Star Wars, Close Encounters, stop-motion animation, and so on. But I found very quickly that my model X-wing flown across my garage on a wire with a firecracker was a far cry from ILM's amazing work. I had to stop and think - often - and ask myself why my stuff didn't look as good, why it looked like CRAP. There were a hundred reasons, but mainly it had to do with execution, and in turn, lack of experience.
The 80's brought an excursion into cable television, college, and a growing education: The art of cinematography, 3-point lighting, standard single-camera coverage, editing in several forms, and experience on professional sets. On those sets I was able to watch the monitor and see the image come to life, then look and see what technique was being used to emphasize the elements within that image, create that effect, and so on. Then when I could, I would apply those techniques on my own projects.
I also spent a lot of time watching how various crew members worked, from grips and gaffers up to assistant directors and directors themselves. On the "How Not To Do It" side, I saw arrogance, annoyance, ambivalence, and actual hostility. On the "Now This Is How You Do It" side, I saw patience, calm, and preparedness. I also saw flexibility and and open-mindedness that made dealing with emergencies much easier. Some people will say, "THIS is THE ONLY WAY to do this", but for me, it's often a combination of techniques pulled from different sources, with your own ideas and concepts thrown in.
I do not believe in re-inventing the wheel. Half of my success has come from learning how it's done by the big studios, then figuring out how to do the same thing with less. Simple, end of story. Good, strong, simple technique and craft never go out of style. All of the best films prove this time and time again.
An absolutely formative experience came for me when I was doing miniature effects work on a feature and had to match the main unit cinematography. I was armed with an edit of the movie, a camera, and most of the cinematographer's gear. I spent hours reviewing the main unit footage, leaning where all the lights were placed and what tricks were played so I could match the look, and it opened my eyes wide. My work took a quantum leap forward, and I have been open and fluid in most production situations since, always having a plan but always being prepared to roll with the punches and the inspiration, my experience in my back pocket, ready to pull me out of a fix.
Beyond the practical hands-on experience, probably the MOST important thing of all is this: You have to be your own worst critic. You have to call yourself on your own crap, tell yourself when it isn't working, push yourself to do a job better when you know you can. I claim to be a professional, but in all honesty, I think it's important to always acknowledge people with more experience and learn from them. There is no downside - your work comes out better, and it looks better for everyone involved.
That said, it's no surprise or secret that there are as many ways of doing something on set as there are people, and there are some very unpleasant people who also happen to be very successful. An aggressive asshole isn't really going to be any nicer on set, so don't be surprised when he's hard to work with. That's when you have to decide if you want a job that you know won't be fun versus taking a job where you seem to get along with everyone. Depends on how thin your wallet is at that moment.
But before you claim any standing, amateur or professional, be honest and ask yourself if you know how to get what's in your head out of there and in front of the camera. Can you draw it? Can you explain it clearly to others? Can you write it down? Are you telling a coherent, well-structured story? Do you know what tools it will take to accomplish the shots you're describing? Do you know what it will cost? Can you find actors and tell them what they should be feeling, guide them through the scene to your own satisfaction? Will you know when you 'have the shot' versus when you don't? Do you know how you want it put together in editing? Do you have any idea what it sounds like?!?
How will it reach an audience? How will it be viewed? Are you ready for what the general public will say? Will you listen?
Overwhelmed? Don't be - just put in some more time, and stick to it. You learn by doing, just don't get too cocky when you're first starting out. Do, assess, learn, do again, do better. People are often shocked when I tell them to do at least 20 or 30 short films of various lengths, subjects, and styles before they attempt a feature film. There's a reason why.
And eventually, when people tell you your stuff looks good, say "Thank you!"