The screenplay is written, the roles are cast, the budget is set, and you’re ready to roll – or are you? Many first-time filmmakers feel a little overwhelmed before the first day on set of their big-screen debut. Doing anything for the first time can feel a little scary, especially something as complicated as making a short film. Luckily, it’s easy to do some research before you get started: just flip on the TV and you can learn from the best. Here’s five movies to watch (and what you can take away from them) before directing your first piece of cinema.
1) Back to the Future
A great movie starts with an incredible script. No matter how good your film looks or sounds, audiences crave a story more than anything else. Interesting characters, a deep and coherent plot, and good pacing are the keys to penning a stellar screenplay, and there are few examples stronger than Back to the Future.
Screenwriters point to BTTF as one of the best movies to watch and learn from because it is flawless in its execution. It has a strong and unique concept: a teen boy must travel back in time to keep himself from blinking out of existence. It has memorable characters in Marty McFly and Doc Brown, a slacker teen and mad scientist combo with an interesting relationship dynamic. And finally, the plot is perfect in that it never drags, and has satisfying setups and payoffs that bring the story full circle.
After watching, considering reading the screenplay for the film and brushing up on story structure and character development!
2) The Blair Witch Project
If you’re directing your first movie, chances are you’re working with a shoestring budget. You may not have the money for realistic props, complicated stunts, or the latest cinema camera. You may feel limited in the types of stories you can tell (good luck making a Victorian-era period piece without some major financial backing!)
The Blair Witch Project is a great movie to watch because it’s a masterclass in low-budget filmmaking. Filmed over eight days and with just $60,000, the film became a cultural phenomenon and raked in over 240 million dollars at the box office. The filmmakers kept costs low by hiring lesser-known actors and keeping the big scares off-screen, choosing to frighten by suggestion instead. This movie is also unique in that it is a “found footage” film, justifying its shoddy cinematography and poor camera quality.
When you watch The Blair Witch Project, you can take inspiration in how it tells a captivating and terrifying story without needing complex camera tricks and special effects.
3) Man with a Movie Camera
You knew this was coming – every list about movies features an old silent film that you probably don’t want to watch. But wait! This may be the most important one on the list.
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera came out in 1929, but it is just as relevant in film studies today. This film is a collage of important camera and editing techniques that form the basis of cinematic language. You’ll see many of today’s cinematic devices used for the very first time: slow motion, fast motion, splitscreens, match cuts and jump cuts, montage, and more!
It’s important to understand the fundamentals of how movies communicate to an audience and watching Man with a Movie Camera will give you a great basis to build upon.
Things rarely go according to plan on a film set. Murphy’s Law applies: if anything can go wrong, it will! Being able to adjust and roll with the punches is an invaluable skill to have as a filmmaker.
Steven Spielberg is one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood, so there are countless things you can learn from his masterpiece Jaws. Perhaps the most interesting is how the movie adapted to challenges during production. What many viewers don’t know is that the giant shark animatronic Steven and his team had built broke part of the way through filming. As a result, the shark isn’t visible for much of the film, contradicting the crew’s original plans. Nevertheless, Spielberg was able to fill the runtime with tension and create one of cinema’s most important works.
Watching Jaws with this context in mind and reading about the making of the film will give you a deeper appreciation of the nuances of film production. Plus, it’s just a great movie to watch!
5) 2001: A Space Odyssey
After you learn the rules, you learn how to break them. Great films have a lot in common: complex plots, deep characters, great dialogue, and a brisk pace. But some films achieve greatness by being so unique and groundbreaking that they may not satisfy the traditional moviegoer.
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey often tops lists of the greatest films of all time because it is so singular in its vision. For a casual viewer, this three-hour epic may seem too slow or abstract. The plot does not present itself in a typical structure and the characters are stiff and distant. But the film will forever be cemented in the public consciousness because of the story’s ambition and execution.
There are few filmmakers capable of making films like Stanley Kubrick, and for good reason. You must truly master your craft in order to make a movie that breaks all the rules. For now, you might stick to the fundamentals by making satisfying and entertaining films. But who knows: one day you might direct your very own masterpiece!
Now that you know the best movies to watch to prepare you for your first film, you may want to learn more about the film production process. Check out the Film & Video Production program at F.I.R.S.T. Institute, where students learn to make films in just 11 months!