How to Learn Filmmaking without Pursuing a Degree

For many years, I considered pursing a degree in documentary production. With so many great master’s-level programs out there, from Wake Forest to Montana State, the temptation was quite strong. The desire to take on more debt, however, not so much.

Degree programs do offer several advantages:

  • Focused and compressed learning time
  • Access to the latest gear, including cameras and editing suites
  • Completion of several works under experienced mentorship
  • Developed skills related to production
  • Access to networking opportunities and possibly prestige, and
  • The degree (of course).

While some documentary filmmakers do possess shiny credentials from prestigious programs, others learn by picking up a camera and going for it. Though older, this IndieWire story poses the question, “Is film school necessary?” Several documentary makers polled, including Marshall Curry and Dawn Porter, pursued other degree paths before taking up a camera. Curry’s comment in that story has stuck with me: “But ultimately, whether you go to film school or not, there’s no substitute for going out and spending hundreds of hours trying to make a film.”

I am in the very, very beginning stages of learning how to create nonfiction media. My focus (which is perhaps not the right word) is on creating for multiple platforms, including linear video, ambisonic experiences, and interactive ones. What follows are some ways to consider pursing this learning outside the traditional college classroom.

1. Watch works that inspire you and bore you.

Go out of your way to watch far and wee. Choose titles that interest you, of course. But be open to discovery of titles you might not otherwise consider due to subject, style, or era. Watch the films for their arguments, their subjects, their conventions, and their overall engagement. Look for techniques that work, and look for techniques that can benefit from some improvement. Also look for techniques you might steal for your own work.

2. Watch works with others, if possible.

With shrinking screens and mass personalization, we now underestimate the value of the collective screening. But watching with others and talking afterward offers many benefits. In some ways, that discussion functions like an informal focus group, with everyone building on each other’s thoughts to arrive at depths of insights unavailable to the individual. Watching together also can be great fun.

Not sure where to start? Check out the reviews from Nonfics or the great selection from Ovid.

3. Take individual courses on skills that you want to learn.

Many options exist for taking courses in non-university settings. Film arts organizations, for example, often offer short courses that help with building skills. Docs in Progress focuses on nonfiction production near Washington, D.C. Real People Media helps with multimedia storytelling in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. I have taken more than half a dozen courses through Film North, which focuses on cinema and photography more generally.

Another option is online courses through sites such as Coursera and Udemy. Multiple sources offer courses on these sites, including major universities, corporations, and even individuals. Sometimes courses are free, such as MOOCs, but some also cost a small fee.

Read the reviews and descriptions carefully before taking a course as your mileage may vary. I have taken several through Coursera, with Google creating two of them and a major university creating the other. The university one was amazing, with great structure, interviews, instructional videos, and more. The Google ones felt like Google product ads sometimes, with one quiz question asking about how widespread the Android operating system was even though the question was not relevant to the course’s topic.

4. Check out online tutorials and resources for skills-based learning.

How-to videos are among the most popular on YouTube. You can learn everything from setting up a wireless lavalier mic to editing 360-degree video.

Multiple websites also are dedicated to filmmaking practice. Desktop Documentaries offers amazing insights into nonfiction storytelling, while Documentary Cameras gets into the gear side of things.

Podcasts delve further into the depths of filmmaking practice. A favorite of mine is The Documentary Life.

5. Read a book. Or two. But not too many.

Many, many books exist about documentary production, history, and theory. Some are quite amazing with their insights, guidance, and stories.

Check out these four as starting points:

Avoid the rabbit hole of reading and not getting out and doing, however.

6. Share your work on social media.

Admittedly, this option requires some bravery. Many established makers out there share their amazingly polished work, which can create some anxiety in beginners about the quality of their own work and its not measuring up.

But comparing those established makers’ middle or endpoints to your starting point is unfair. We all start somewhere, and we all have footage that causes some embarrassment. The point is to learn from it, laugh if you can, and move on.

A useful philosophy here is shoshin, from Zen Buddhism, which translates to “beginner’s mind.” Basically, one approaches learning without preconceptions, a clean slate open to the possibilities and free from judgments. Shoshin aligns with the idea of play as well.

I have seen this in interviewing documentary makers. Beginning documentary makers are great to talk with because they have so much energy and curiosity. They engage you in discussion and remain open to wherever the conversation leads. You want to see their films just because of their engagement with you and the production process.

More established documentary makers sometimes are less enamoured with talking about process. Due to time constraints or other reasons, they prefer to stick with the scripted questions and the expected answers.

But here’s the thing: If no one knows what you are working on, how can people connect with you and what you are doing? Short answer: They can’t. But putting even small things out there can invite conversation. Starting a YouTube channel and a SoundCloud brought me suggestions for content ideas. Posting a picture on Instagram brought an inquiry but also an offer for exchanging information on different production types. Sharing on Twitter about gear buying brought a similar offer and a great suggestion for interview preparation. Even Patreon offers the possibilities for these connections.

The going will be slow, but people will find you and engage as you grow.

7. Pick a project and do it.

Of all the options listed in this post, this one is the most important.

Coming back to this IndieWire story, multiple makers make this exact point: Just do it. Choose an idea, work on it, and be reflective about your process toward improving on a regular basis. You will learn more in the process of play, trial, and error than you will through any of the other options mentioned here.

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