It’s common knowledge that to master a craft you have to practice it every day. As Twyla Tharp says in her classic book The Creative Habit, “I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns… The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.” But what does that mean for filmmakers whose craft is so macroscopic? A film takes years. It includes writing, casting, financing, producing, editing. So how, exactly, do you practice filmmaking?
Here are five suggestions for things you can do every day to improve your craft as a filmmaker.
1. Carry Around a Real Camera
You can’t finish a film per day (unless you’re Casey Neistat), but you can take a picture. You can look for a story in a frame. You can tap into an emotion. Keeping your storytelling eye sharp is a practiced skill. You can lose it if you’re not careful. Taking a picture every day is the obvious way to maintain it. But even though we’re carrying high-powered cameras everywhere we go, it’s easy to forget to do it. That’s why it’s a good idea to carry around an actual, honest-to-god camera. A real clunker. Something with knobs and dials that you want to fidget with. Something that demands you use it.
2. Write a Scene a Day
There are few better ways to hone your storytelling ability than by writing every day. It’s free. It requires zero pre-production. Zero crew. And it can be done at any time of the night or day. It doesn’t even require electricity. Sharpen your understanding of tension and drama by forcing yourself to write one scene every day. Not only will this give you a more intuitive understanding of what makes stories work, but it will also give you plenty of material to draw from when it comes time to make your film.
3. Carve Out Alone Time
One of the most important creative habits seems, on its surface, not particularly creative at all: being alone. Not just away from people, but away from social media, away from television, away from music, books, podcasts… everything. Like any good relationship, you and your thoughts need to spend time alone. You’ll be amazed by how quickly it gets awkward. But after the awkwardness comes the real gold: your subconscious — where great ideas have been swimming around all along, just too quietly for you to hear them.
4. Read About Your Craft
Filmmaking is something you mostly learn on your own. But sometimes you can learn a little something from someone else. Getting in the habit of reading about filmmaking will help keep your head in the game — even during those days when actually creating a film seems far off. Here are a few titles we love:
Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed by Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin — A treasure-trove of guerilla filmmaking techniques and inspiration from one of the great storytellers of our time.
Notes on the Cinematograph by Robert Bresson — You’ll read this super-slim volume of notes in an afternoon, and continue rereading it for the rest of your career.
Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work by J. J. Murphy — It’s a book for those who’ve never believed Hollywood screenplay formulas are essential and want to be proven right.
5. Watch, Watch, Watch
It’s easier than ever to watch films these days. But if you’re like me, it’s way too easy to slip into lazy viewing habits and watch nothing but the newest releases and hottest TV shows, not taking advantage of the fact that we have access to nearly every movie ever created. Make a point of being more intentional with your viewing habits. Push yourself. Watch older films. Weirder films. Foreign films. Become a daily student of the form. What you put in is what you’ll get out. Diet is everything.
Whatever habits you decide to adopt, remember that becoming a better filmmaker is something you can pursue every day through small rituals and practices. Don’t worry, they’ll add up faster than you think.