May 26, 2021

First Time Directing a Movie — Top Five Mistakes

Like all things, good filmmaking comes from practice. Many writers and directors feel discouraged or embarrassed about their first time directing, because the work doesn’t live up to their standards. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a successful modern-day filmmaker who finds it easy to watch their first short film. At the end of the day, no one is great at anything the first time they do it.

If it’s your first time directing a movie, be sure to cut yourself some slack. In all likelihood, it won’t turn out the way you envision. Some scenes may have poor pacing or lighting, the acting might be less-than-professional, and perhaps it won’t even crack a hundred views on YouTube. But luckily, you can prepare yourself and set your film up for success: here are some tips to make sure your first film is as good as you can make it.

Aiming Too High

Too many first time directors approach their movie as their magnum opus. They envision a high-budget, three-hour sci-fi epic with deep lore and dazzling special effects. Or they endeavor to shoot a very serious drama revolving around a controversial or heavy topic. When you set out to create your first film, keep in mind the limitations you have as a novice. If your script calls for elaborate costumes and set pieces, you might not have the budget or crew necessary to pull it off. Likewise, making a film about a sensitive subject requires a great deal of expertise from the actors and director to truly make it gel with an audience. If you feel like your film needs to be “important”, rest assured: it’s your first time directing, and you have many more stories to tell.

If it's your first time directing a movie, the set and crew will likely be small.

Mishandling the Budget

When you’re directing your first movie, funds will likely be tight – in fact, you might not have any at all. Between paying your cast and crew, securing locations, bagging costumes and props, and allocating some money for post-production, the production process can add up to a small fortune. This is why it can be useful to limit the scope of your project to stories that take place in one location, with just a handful of characters. Simplifying your shots can mean reducing your crew to a manageable cost. You might even learn to wear multiple hats, working as a directing, cinematographer, and editor! These are several ways to cut down on extraneous costs and keep your overhead low.

Under-Planning the Shoot

You can never be too prepared for your first day on set. The pre-production process is crucial in making sure your shoot goes smoothly! Before you even consider picking up the camera, you should go through your script with a pen, outlining all the characters, locations, and props that the screenplay calls for. You may also consider drawing some storyboards, which are drawings that illustrate the sequence of camera angles you plan to capture when shooting. You should also check the availability of locations and the weather report on your scheduled shoot days. There are always complications when shooting a movie; pre-production helps you prepare for all the difficulties you’ll face along the way.

Not Being Collaborative

Filmmaking is a team sport. If you could do it all yourself, you’d probably make a boring movie! All your actors and crew will have input and suggestions for the project, and it’s a good idea to keep yourself open to their ideas. As a first time director, you’ll have the final say over creative decisions… but if you are overly controlling and turn down every bit of advice you receive, you may find yourself without a crew on your next production. Networking is one of the single most important things you can do as a budding filmmaker. Treating your collaborators well goes a long way in making a fun and productive on-set environment.

Consider renting or borrowing equipment from a friend if it's your first time directing.

Not Making the Film at All

Many beginners get caught on the idea that their first film will fail to live up to their expectations. They hold off on directing their first movie because they’re afraid it won’t turn out well. But at the end of the day, making a bad film is better than never making one at all. Your first movie will go awry, but it will be a learning experience that you can use in the future to make progressively better stories. Don’t dream your movies out of existence!

If you’re interested in learning more about filmmaking, consider looking into F.I.R.S.T. Institute’s Digital Filmmaking & Video Production program, a fast-paced and hands-on that prepares students for the film industry in just 11 months.