Starting Out in Film-Making

April 8, 2022
6 minute read

The term ‘filmmaker’ is such a broad term these days. It can mean someone who produces vlogs for YouTube, someone who makes TikTok videos on a phone and it can mean a cinematographer producing AAA rated titles in Hollywood. 

Now I’ll start by saying that I’m not the latter. I’ve done a bit of vlogging and even made a few TikTok videos but my main specialism around making films is commercial promotional films and over the years I have gained a significant amount of experience in filming events, interviews, people at work, working dogs, equine competitions and a whole load more and having the skills to turn those video clips into promotional films. 

I’ve worked for businesses of all sizes from start-ups to multi-national corporations. I’ve filmed people making cocktails in a trendy new bar and I’ve filmed medieval knights jousting and everything in between!

So how did I get started? Well, quite a few years ago I was asked by a good friend if I’d be interested in making a product review of a new infra-red hunting light. The actual product doesn’t really matter, but the fact this was my first time doing any kind of filming is the important bit here. I jumped at the chance and made probably the worst video I’ve ever made and was over the moon with it!

I dug my old camcorder out and set it up on my grandad’s old tripod in my back garden and filmed this thing. By today’s standards, it was terrible, but it was my starting point and do you know what - it’s still had 25,000 views on YouTube!

The most important part of all of that experience was I’d got my first client. They were also my only client for quite some time, but at least I had one! 

Fast forward couple of years and I was making product reviews fairly regularly and had got the bug to start investing in equipment. Some might call it GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) which is a real thing and I do think I had an element of that, but I would call it buying cheap and buying twice - something to be avoided - more on that later) - and I had a fairly decent camera at this stage when my client asked if I’d be able to make them a promo film of a new clothing brand they’d taken on. This was to feature a military type operation at a disused airfield. 

This was my first ‘proper’ promo job and it was great fun to shoot and work with a team of people to create something amazing, but it was daunting at the same time. I learnt so much over those couple of days though especially around what kit I actually needed vs what I had!

Fast forward again to now and we have around £20k worth of camera equipment and there is still stuff on our Wishlist but we have everything we need to do 99% of what our clients want - and if there’s anything else, we can hire it in so we’re all good.

Typical hotel room scene after a day's shooting 😁

So anyway, thats a whistle-stop of our journey, but what I wanted to do was cover some of the lessons I learned along the way so if you’re looking to start out in the media content creation industry there might just be something of use (or not!)

Kit and Equipment

This is the big one. What kit do you want? What do you need? 

There are so many considerations here around brand, budget, specs etc. So the most important thing here is to understand what you’re requirements are now and consider what they’re going to be for the next 4-5 years. In my experience, you’ll probably want to upgrade your cameras after that time depending on how business is going so bear that in mind. 

So what kit do you need/want? If you want to make cinematic films, then you’re going to be far better off starting with a DSLR/Mirrorless camera or proper cinema camera over a camcorder. Camcorders are great for events and news gathering but a nice cinematic film is going to be difficult to put together - plus a decent camcorder can be very expensive.

If you want to take photos as well and do it all on one camera, I highly recommend a DSLR or mirrorless camera. The industry is rapidly shifting over to mirrorless for everything but beware, you need to consider which system you’ll go with and make sure it fulfils all your needs. 

I’m a Canon user, but I haven’t always been. I started out with Nikon DSLRs for stills and Canon video equipment. How crazy is that? Two lots of lenses for everything? Don’t do that, definitely don’t do that! 

I now own three Canon cameras, an EOS R5, EOS R and a EOS C70 (cinema camera) and I have a great set up. My next upgrade will be another R5 or the R3 potentially but I’ll almost certainly be keeping all the current cameras too. 

All the lenses are interchangeable between them all and they’re great. If I’m just taking one camera, it’ll be the R5 as it does everything really well (but file sizes are huge and it overheats if you don’t manage how you’re filming).

Anyway, I digress - work out what you need, pick your brand and be prepared to stick with it. Sony are making some great cameras at the moment but if you’re on a limited budget I strongly suggest going with a Canon EOS R. Its a great stills camera and the 4K video is lovely. 

If you have a bit more money to spend then maybe look at Sony but also consider the Canon EOS R6 or R5. If money is no object, the Canon EOS R3 or Sony Alpha A1 are fantastic options. 

If you are just starting out and your budget is tight, definitely check out and look at their selection of used DSLR cameras, you can pick up some real bargains and their grading system is usually really accurate.

Nikon is great for stills photography but I have never been a fan of them for video work.

When budgeting for cameras, remember the ancillaries you’ll need too - extra batteries are a must and are not cheap (don’t buy the cheap ones of Amazon), you might want a battery grip for extra battery life, tripod plates, remote releases, cages, the list is endless! You will definitely need memory cards, and depending on the camera and type of footage you’re getting, they may end up quite expensive too so do your research.

A slider can help with getting more dynamic shots

Other equipment

There are other things you are going to want to invest in as a filmmaker early on. One essential bit of kit is a tripod - it needs to be heavy duty enough to hold the kit you’re using. Don’t buy the cheap flimsy ones, go for a decent brand if you can - I have a Manfrotto FAST carbon tripod which is awesome and very expensive but there are some fantastic lightweight tripods out there now for reasonable money. 

If you’re going to be filming moving objects, you’ll need a fluid head with pan and tilt functionality. I’ve seen some weird and wonderful ways of trying to get around the need for a proper video head by individuals who consider themselves videographers using things like gimbal heads on tripods which are designed for still photos, but you just can’t get away from needing the right kit for the job and these people struggle to get stable footage and wonder why.

Other things you might need might include a Gimbal if you’re going to be filming a lot of moving scenes. A camera with good IBIS (in body image stabilisation) is a good alternative but will never be as good. BUT - beware, if you get a Gimbal, get a good one. Zhyiun and DJI make the best with DJI being the better of the two, but make sure you get one you can handle, (ie its not too heavy etc) and it can take the weight of your camera and lens set up.

If you need a gimbal, buy a decent one!

The key thing with a gimbal is practice practice practice. Learn to do the ‘ninja walk’ (google that!) and learn the basic gimbal moves to be a gimbal guru. Again someone I used to freelance for decided that they could buy a cheap gimbal and do a fine job with it with no practice or knowledge and their footage frankly sucks. They now tend to use the gimbal as a tripod for static video (which is kind of weird!)

If you’re going to be making product videos, you’ll probably want a slider at some point too. These are great, and they also make great dynamic options for a B-Cam when filming interviews but good ones are expensive and there is always a way to work around not having one. 

The importance of sound

Professional sound and lighting set up in the studio

This was a big lesson for me in the early days - your footage may be the best you’ve ever made but if your sound isn’t up to scratch, the whole video will look amateurish. If you’re recording speech, get a microphone. Don’t skimp, get a decent one. Rode make some fantastic on camera mics, we have two of the Rode Videomic Pro + mics as well as Rode’s Wireless Go 2 wireless microphones. 

We also have a couple of shotgun mics, one of which is in a ‘blimp’ that we use for interviews when set ups allow. You won’t need all these options when you’re starting out, but depending on what you’re making will depend on the kit you need. 

Education Education Education

As with anything, there is no point in having any of this stuff if you don’t know how to use it, and I’m talking from a technical point of view here so make sure you read the manual, watch YouTube videos on how to use your kit and practice practice practice. Make sure you’re not learning how to change a function on the camera in the middle of job - I’ve had messages from supposed professionals asking how to switch off slow motion on their camera whilst they’re out working - there’s nothing professional about that and clients do notice this stuff.

There’s a few things we’ve not covered yet such as the creative process, editing and the business side of media content creation which we’ll look at in a future blogs, but hopefully that has given you some food for thought about getting started in producing promotional videos. The beauty of this industry is its all about creativity and ultimately if you’re being paid, its about what your client likes. Deliver on that and you’ll get the repeat custom you want.

We’re always happy to answer questions and give advice on this stuff, so drop us a line on social media or the website if you have any questions at all.

Keep creating!

Black Grouse Media