A new class of Sundance filmmakers gives us their best tips!
Besides being an amazing way to start the year with new and exciting films, Sundance Film Festival is always an amazing opportunity for filmmakers and creators to gather and share their love of the craft. And at No Film School, we want to learn from our colleagues about ways to break in, how to get inspired, how to overcome challenges, and any other behind-the-scenes secrets that could one day help other filmmakers make it to Sundance.
So we spoke with dozens of this year's filmmakers to get their best advice. Some of it is inspirational, some of it is philosophical, some is about collaboration—and some is just plain practical. Like, "Don't drink too much."
There is a ton of advice below, so enjoy! Let us know what you learn in the comments.
Danny Philippou, director, Talk to Me
"There's so many ways to express yourself. Even if you don't have a group of friends that you can do stuff with, you can still shoot stuff by yourself on your phone as we were able to do. And even if it's stop motion, or if it's writing something that people can get into and start expressing themselves. Learning is doing, instead of reading about it, I think the best way to do it is to just do it. And then you'll learn your own way of what does work and what doesn't work. So yeah, my advice is always just to do, do, do. Just get started. You have to."
Michael Philippou, director, Talk to Me
"You want to make that initial stuff and fail like that. And then that stuff, even stuff that we've done when we were before YouTube or whatever, or even during YouTube, that completely flopped and failed and it's cringey to look at, it's that stuff is a lesson that you take forward for the next thing. And that sort of helps mold you as a filmmaker. So the best advice, really, is to just start making stuff and then just start with whatever you've got, whatever you've got, just start making."
Roman Liubyi, writer/director, Iron Butterflies
"Maybe just one. It's something that I get from the experience of my debut. When you're just starting the project, you have a core idea. Maybe it's blurry or it can be almost transparent. But in the end, the final cut, for me, is the hardest part of any project. You always have to get back to this core, and the answer is always there.
"Also, everybody works as they see fit. I'm trying to care about my team. Our film stage is a perfect place to be all the time. I think it's very important to care about the team. This is it. It definitely will bring you results.
Jana Edelbaum, producer, Beyond Utopia
"You must have a passion for the stories you are telling ... these movies are not about chasing the sale ... they are about exposing worlds and people and stories which open minds and hearts... and so your own position as a filmmaker should be completely immersed in telling the story with the utmost integrity."
Jake Van Wagoner, director, Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out
"Keep your friends close. Do favors. Be cool. Help everyone on their films whenever you can. Put in the time and all those things will come back to you. And if you really want to be a filmmaker, you can be. There's nothing that can stop you, and I mean nothing. You have everything you need to do it."
Cary Lalonde, DP, Young. Wild. Free.
"Get out there and just shoot, use anything you can get your hands on."
Rashad Frett, writer/director/co-Editor, Ricky
"The name of the game is to be patient, be humble, never give up no matter what anyone tells you, build a team of like-minded filmmakers to work with so that you can build each other up together, keep learning techniques to apply to your filmmaking abilities, make mistakes because you will learn from them and get better with each project. Last but not least, network like crazy! The saying 'It's not what you know, but who you know' is accurate to an extent depending on how far you want to go in your filmmaking career."
Jarreau Carrillo, director/writer/editor, The Vacation
"Focus on the story, and then choose camera/lenses that enhance the content. If you have budget constraints then focus on making what you have access to work for your story."
C.J. "Fiery" Obasi, director, Mami Wata
"I like to say, figure out early on why you want to make films. Because ultimately, that reason will become an anchor all through your career. Filmmaking is a very tough and uncertain career with many ups and downs, especially in the beginning, so you need a strong anchor if you're going to do it for real. It's not enough to say, I loved that Scorsese or Tarantino flick."
Sterling Hampton, director/producer/editor/composer, Kylie
"Use what you have. Learn how to do everything. That way nothing and nobody can be an excuse to not create."
Andrew Fitzgerald, writer/director, The Family Circus
"Save your money then spend it on your work. Invest in yourself. Study movies."
Christopher Zalla, writer/director, Radical
"Don't drink too much."
Ben Brewer, director/DP, A Folded Ocean
"Buy your own camera—they are really good now and (relatively) inexpensive. I recommend the Sony FX series. Get a PC, not a Mac—PCs will give you much much more bang for your buck. Learn to edit, color, and do your own visual effects—you will never regret it. And remember: there are tons of filmmakers out there in the world, so figure out what it is that none of them are doing (or doing well) and do that."
Poharnok Gergely, DP, L'immensitá
"Shoot a lot and have fun!"
Ruben Impens, DP, The Eight Mountains
"Believe in your gut feeling, every time I ignore it, I'm fucked."
Thanasis Neofotistos, director, Airhostess-737
"Make it happen."
Ants Tammik, DP, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
"Don't think about success, listen to your stomach, brain, and heart, and go for it!"
Curren Sheldon, DP, King Coal
"Make sure to have intention for the way you shoot your films. For aspiring filmmakers, it seems so much attention is paid to making pretty images, but not only is that easier than ever before, it is meaningless without intention. For King Coal there are plenty of images I wouldn’t characterize as 'beautiful,' but they play their role in the over-arching story we were trying to tell. While at the same time, the film is about dreams and aspirations, and that is when beautiful images were necessary and helped fuel the narrative. When Elaine and I made our two Netflix original documentaries about the opioid crisis (Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys) the goal was always to capture the story and emotion first, and try to make it look nice second. But, as a cinematographer, what was so fun about King Coal was that some scenes had to be beautiful and visually arresting in order to relay what we were trying to communicate. And that was because we knew the intention of each scene and chose the lenses, tools, and technique best to communicate that intention. To summarize, have a point of view or a story you want to relay and then use images, in whatever form they take, to communicate that story—not the other way around."
Andrii Kotliar , DP/producer, Iron Butterflies
"Work with people you want to have coffee/tea/beer with after work."
Santiago, DP, Shortcomings
"The best advice I could give is just to stay humble but also focused on your goal. Be smart about possible opportunities and make sure that projects you do scare you. Make sure that you're out of your comfort zone because in the end, that means that you're growing, believe in yourself and what you do, and trust your instinct. Don't back down from opportunity even if you feel unprepared. Prepare as best as possible and give it your all."
Annemarie Lean-Vercoe, DP, Is There Anybody Out There
"Embrace each opportunity, each one is unique and will bring you knowledge and experience in different ways, sometimes that you won't even know until much later!
"Keep shooting as much as possible, everything is a learning project and each one offers something new and unexpected!"
Luke Lorentzen, director/producer/DP/editor, A Still Small Voice
"Whenever possible, I try to always be working on my own films (even when also working on others’ projects). It’s when I feel fully responsible for a project, that I learn the most and am pushed the hardest. This was the case in my very early days as a 15-year-old making skateboarding films, and it very much feels true with the documentaries I direct today."
Mike Donahue, director, Troy
"The best advice that was given to me, was that you'll write your movie three times: once on the page, once during filming, and a third time in editing. Go in knowing your story, structure, characters, the tone—but stay hungry and curious to break and re-make the narrative each of those times."
John Spoerer Benam and Emily Topper, DPs, Pretty Baby
"Don't wait for permission from the industry to follow a subject you're passionate about. Often close personal elements, in your own life, make the best docs. Be kind and always try and spend as much time as you can developing a respectful relationship with your subjects. This means taking time with them, both with the camera on, and with the camera off.
"The independence can be a burden, but it’s also something that allows you to be more free with your choices. In terms of documentary subject matter, there can be no better choice than a subject that is near and dear to you, or personal in a way that it expresses something deep and meaningful to you. Harness stories like that to create a genuine experience for viewers. And build a close collaborative network or people who you want to work with. You can support each other’s various projects down the road."
Derek Howard, DP, Plan C and The Tuba Thieves
"I would always ask yourself the deeper reasons for why you are developing a certain project. The classic checklist of why me, why now, why this topic, is a great way to understand your deeper motivations behind doing it. How will you tell your story in a way that is unique to your particular vision of the world? Watch as many films as you can and understand the body of work that came before you and the different techniques available to you, and then reinvent and break them."
Carolina Costa, AMC, Heroic and Fancy Dance
"Trust your instincts. That's all you got.
"Really do the homework. Prepping for independent films is essential. Study your script and characters. Shot list with your director at the locations. Use your limitations as a way to break out of your confort zone."
Jacqueline Castel, director, My Animal
"Hone your ability to problem solve with your team members under pressure—a calm sea doesn't make a good sailor. The more you sharpen this skill set, the more precisely you can navigate the often chaotic and unpredictable circumstances that are thrown at you during production. My Animal taught me that I could trust myself when everything went wrong, and that realization was not only extremely empowering, it reflected the narrative of the film itself. Failure is opportunity in disguise—and the more you face that fear, the more courageous you will become."
Andrew Durham, director, Fairyland
"Get used to hearing lots of no's. You will hear them every day. Don't let no's discourage you. Make sure you are in love with your project as it might take many years to get off the ground and you don't want to waste time on something that isn't important to you."
Andrew Bowser, director/producer/writer/editor/actor, Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls
"Follow your instincts. Your voice is what will make your project unique/stand out. But at the SAME TIME—find collaborators who challenge you without demeaning or depleting your instincts. It's a weird balance as a director, you have tunnel vision and be driven against all odds—BUT ALSO be open and listen to the trusted group around you. Keep an open mind!"
Robert Connolly, director, Blueback
"I always encourage emerging filmmakers to take large emotional risks with their work. Often the filmmaking itself can become an overwhelming focus, but audiences more than ever want cinema to touch the heart."
Dane Ray, writer/director, Walk of Shame
"I think karma is a strong force in the independent film world. If you ever have a chance to help someone make their film, do it. Could be sending a DM or pushing a dolly, but try to always say yes. You need those film friends as much as they need you."
Sara Kinney, DP, The Stroll
"Build and protect a vibrant community of filmmakers around you who will support and inspire. You only get smarter by playing a smarter opponent. Treat your crew like the gold that they are."
Patricia Ortega, director, MAMACRUZ
"If there’s something I’ve learnt in this emotional and hard journey is that in cinema, we need to learn to defend our point of view with an open mind. Your point of view and convictions mustn’t limit you to try new possibilities. Experimentation is the secret to keep improving our approaches. The more I dare to explore and play with idea, themes, and shapes that are different to what I’m used to, the more I find myself as a director."
Maximilien Van Aertryck & Axel Danielson, producers/directors/editors/DPs, Fantastic Machine
"As directors, we always start with the image in mind. We look at the role of the photographer almost like that of a hunter, capturing moments of life. In that regard, the most important thing is to know where the camera should be placed and when to press the button."
Lílis Soares, DP, Mami Wata
"Be attentive not only to mainstreaming but to artists, looks, produced outside the axis. Be patient and be open to new visions and ways of making cinema. Be responsible with the images you create. The world is changing and we have a great opportunity to positively transform reality."
Luis Fernando Puente, director, I Have No Tears, and I Must Cry
"Keep making films, and never stop wanting to grow as a filmmaker."
Charlotte Regan, writer/director, Scrapper
"I think I have stolen this advice from like a Vimeo article or something, but I remember seeing a quote like ... either tell a new story or tell an old story in a new way. I think about that a lot when I'm writing or making stuff. But at the same time, I'd re-make Harry Potter if someone let me (who wouldn't). Filmmaking is the best time and you get to meet the best people. Even when it's not going great it's a great time. Just do it (that is potentially a stolen Nike logo quote also)."
Sam Osborn & Alejandra Vasquez, directors, Going Varsity in Mariachi
"This is maybe a weird answer but the one thing I would tell the version of my past self that just graduated from film school with very little money and fewer prospects would be to 'stay out of debt.' The times when I came closest to giving up on making documentaries were when I owed more money than I was earning. It's just poison for the creative process. And obviously, debt is nothing to be ashamed of and sometimes unavoidable, particularly if you're in the U.S., but I wasn't able to really focus on the work I wanted to make until I made the commitment to stay away from debt as much as possible."
Frederic Van Zandycke, SBC, DP, When It Melts
"Shoot as much as you can, do tryouts, shoot tests, invest in experience. The more you shoot the more you find your own style and what you do and do not like. Explore techniques and find what works best for you."
Bobby Bukowski, DP, WIllie Nelson & Family
"To be bold with your methods. To understand the 'rules' and break them. To speak in your own cinematic voice and to respect an audience enough not to pander to them or spoonfeed the narrative to them. Often what is powerful is what you don't show and don't tell. Fashion your film in a way that there is room for the audience to inhabit it, not be asked to stand outside of it and be a passive observer."
Christopher Murray, director, Sorcery
"Have patience, make deep research, be permeable with the territories where you work, and enjoy the process."
Jeff Hutchens, DP, Murder in Big Horn
"Find collaborators you love working with—people who share a similar creative vision, who work hard, and you can enjoy being around for months on end during shoots. Always push yourself—learn something new on every project. Continue working a scene until you’re happy with it. Keep working it and working it and working it. Be flexible and responsive to what's appropriate for the situation, but don’t give up."
Noora Niasari, writer/director/producer, SHAYDA
"Stay true to yourself. Stay humble. Be an open collaborator. Be kind. Maintain self-care."
Cory Finley, director, Landscape with Invisible Hand
"The project that takes off is rarely the one you expect to take off: make lots of things, stick with them long enough to make them pretty good, but never get precious about The One."
Dan Adlerstein, DP, Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls
"Keep learning. The education should never stop. Whether it’s watching films, reading trade magazines, reading books, going to equipment demos or trade shows, taking tutorials, going to Q and A’s, inquiring about things you’re not familiar with that you see on set—don’t think that you’ve ever learned everything you need to know. So much of succeeding in independent filmmaking is about your level of passion for your craft. Keep that fire."
Liz Sargent, director/writer, Take Me Home
"I’ve started doing open mic stand-ups so that I can be fearless and bold. I just did one without a plan, just to see myself bomb and know I’d survive. It’s my mental training ground. My experience in this industry is that it can be a real rollercoaster—so much is in your control and also totally out of your control, so much is about pitching but not pitching. It’s a balancing act of performing your best authentic self—effortlessly. So lean into it and have fun with it. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself! :)"
Boaz Freund, DP, The Longest Goodbye
"I love the Banksy quote: 'It's NOT ART unless it has the potential to be a disaster.' I'll leave you with that."
Jerry Henry, DP, Food + Country
"I think that my advice would be to establish strong relationships with your colleagues and continue to support each other’s projects. There’s some directors I’ve worked with for over 20 years. We still continue to support each other and grow with each other as well. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort and it’s the trust that you build that makes your project stronger. Being able to rely on your teammates, makes it easier for you to concentrate on what your goal is. Also, watch as many different types of films as much as possible. It’s good to take a mental break sometimes when you’re working on your own projects because you can get stuck in your own world. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in our own things that we forget to see what other people are making. Sometimes it serves as a place for inspiration. I find that I get the most inspiration by going to the museum which I’ve been doing a lot lately. I never go on the weekends because it’s so busy. I’d like to go in the middle of the week when I pretty much have the place to myself."
PJ Lopez, SPC, DP, La Pecera (The Fishbowl)
"Concentrate and follow your instincts and always give your 100% effort."
Matthieu Rytz, director/producer/DP, Deep Rising
"Travel the world, challenge the mainstream narrative and if you want to study don’t spend a fortune on film school, go to a public university and learn anthropology. Oh and social media is not enough, read books."
Samm Hodges, director/writer, Tender
"Keep making things, make the thing you like even if you think others won't. No way in hell I thought this film would get into Sundance. It felt too personal, too dark, too weird, too open-ended. I loved it, it felt like 'me,' but I wasn't expecting any festival love. The acceptance was a shock and reminder to double down on your own taste."
Olan Collardy, DP, Rye Lane
"It's important to remember that as a cinematographer, you are not only responsible for capturing the images, but also for creating the visual style and mood of the film. To do this, you should be familiar with different film genres and visual styles, and have a good understanding of color theory, composition, and camera movement.
"Strive to remain adaptable and willing to try new things, as each film project will have its own set of unique challenges and will require different techniques to achieve the desired look and feel.
"Finally, practice your craft as much as possible, whether it be through short films, music videos, commercials, or assisting on other productions. The more experience you have on set, the more confident and capable you will become in your abilities."
Aaron Mclisky, DP, Talk To Me
"Filmmaking is hard at the best of times, but when you find a group of people with a shared vision and healthy level of respect for one another's ability and opinion it's worth sacrifice. Find your tribe, hold on to creative equals, it's a long road ahead and you want people around you who create the best space for being vulnerable and creative."
Sierra Urich, director/editor/DP/producer, Joonam
"There is no one way you're supposed to do anything. The entire time I was making this film I felt behind, or like there was some official way I should be going about things that I didn't have the experience to know or do correctly. It wasn't until I finished this film that I realized everyone has a different way of making a film or is just making it up as they go along. So follow your intuition! And my second piece of advice is to make a really compelling trailer right out of the gate. Even if you haven't shot anything yet, just cut something together with photos or found footage—but whatever it is make it amazing. The rest will fall into place if you have something to show people."
André Jäger, DP, The Persian Version
"Believe in yourself and what you're doing and never stop being inquisitive. Doubting things is part of the process but it should never overrule. Also being able to trust in one another and other talents is pretty important. The most important advice is probably, try to enjoy what you're doing (as easy as it might sound)."
Filip Drożdż, DP, Pianoforte
"Do projects which are challenging to you, get out from comfort zone. But work with good people."
Laurel Parmet, writer/director, The Starling Girl
"Be patient with yourself, because everyone has their own path and their own timeline in pursuing filmmaking. I was always annoyed when other people told me that, but it's very true. It took me some time to get The Starling Girl made, but I'm ultimately so glad I made the film when I did, because I was ready. Skill set-wise and experience-wise, as well as emotionally and mentally. If I had made it five years ago, maybe I wouldn't have been."
Glorimar Marrero-Sánchez, director/writer/producer, La Pecera (The Fishbowl)
"For those whose desire is to pursue a path as an independent filmmaker, I advise them to dedicate time and introspection to truly find the story you want to tell. Be aware that this is not an easy road so you have to really be connected to your story. I strongly recommend that you invest time and concentration in your development stage to work on the story, the cinematographic language that you want to work with, and to find resources to build your creative team that will help you create your film. You need to believe in your story in order to create a team that you can rely on. Also, allow yourself to make mistakes because it is a key for the learning process. Discipline, hard work, and concentration can take you to an amazing world of possibilities."
Anthony Chen, director/producer, Drift
"Be honest to the story you are telling, be honest to the characters, be honest to yourself."
Scott Miller, DP, A Little Prayer
"Find the other people and community that you like making things with, and hold on to them!"
Nate Hurtsellers, DP, Theater Camp
"Be nice and tell good stories."
Christian Vasquez, DP, OURIKA!
"The only difference between an amateur and a professional is that the professional gets paid. That doesn't mean the professional makes better films. So godspeed to anyone who wants to make films and pour their heart on the screen.
"If you'd like some more down-to-earth advice, I'd say: learn how to not listen to folks who want to steer you away from your path, and also: don't work for free unless it's for someone you love and know would take care of you if push comes to shove."
Rose Bush, DP, The Disappearance of Shere Hite
"For me, I see filmmaking as a tool for individual and communal growth; spiritually, emotionally, existentially, politically, historically, and socially. It is the actual ground of the path I walk and catalyzes meaning from intention for me. I recommend all people looking for a life as a filmmaker embracing their voice, to investigate their voice and the things they truly care about, or are obsessed with, or challenge them.
"Filmmaking for me is not about cameras, or lights, or editing suites but about finding horizons of exploration that imagine new possibilities, breakdown unhealthy status quos, and celebrating joyful courageous beauty, and doing so with dear colleagues with a shared passion. We use the tools of cinema to do this, but I would deeply recommend spending time in the pursuit of humanistic fields of study: anthropology, sociology, philosophy, history, politics, meditation, divinity, cultural studies, and geography to name a few. When I’m not engrossed in the process of making a film, I read and study and try to grow as a person in these disciplines. I believe this helps me become more of a human being, and eventually brings the films I imagine into being or helps the phone ring for possibilities to collaborate with artists I admire.
"The way we are doing is exactly how we are going to do what we do. Filmmaking requires grit and spiritual resources to use to help bring imagination and curiosity to life.
It also takes time to grow the garden of your vision, and so I would recommend embracing determination and staying in the saddle of your dreams. There have been countless times in my filmmaking career where I’ve doubled down on investing in myself and it’s truly taken that to help possibilities emerge. It’s okay to be exactly where we are as we walk our path, and so I also recommend enjoying the steps you are taking and loving yourself in all of those moments, be they challenging and monotonous or abundant with sun-shining wonder.
"Being present in the high school history class, film school lecture, side job to pay the bills, writing of your first film treatment, or re-editing your first film to get it right; all enable the next steps to come.
"I try to embrace the process with all of the intention I hope people will feel in the result, and focus my intention on the way in which I live and make film as an individual and with others."
Mickey Triest & Aaron Geva, directors, Chanshi
"We strongly believe in teamwork, letting everyone on set feel free to express themselves and pitch in. No egos on set (it’s not easy)."