November 16, 2018

How To Become a Director Professionally by Making $0 Short Films

How To Become a Director Professionally By Making $0 Short Films
It's not ALL about the money.

I didn’t go to a respected film school. I didn’t make an amazing thesis project. I’ve never screened at a good festival. Those are all amazing things, and can have amazing results for a filmmaking career. But they just weren’t my path. My path was a Sony VX2000 camera, a PC barely capable of editing, some friends, and a lot of bad ideas.

Now, I’ve directed ads for the biggest brands in the world, 50+ episodes for TV and digital, a feature, and have been nominated for and won some awards. I feel very fortunate to make my living as a director.

But the question is how did I get to this point?

For me, it all started with making as many $0 shorts as I could.

Learn Your Lessons and Bury The Bodies

Whether you’re spending $0 or $10,000 on a short, you’re going to bone yourself hard in the beginning. Make your shorts, and learn your lessons when the stakes are low. 

I made so many mistakes and cringe-worthy short films in the beginning, that now I’m able to tap into a deep well of shame and knowledge. I can course correct a mediocre line, a cliche story beat, or an eye-roll performance. Why?

Because I did it ALL to myself before. 

Making these horrible mistakes changes your DNA as a filmmaker.

Now, when I’m directing a spot for Amazon or an episode of a Nickelodeon sitcom, I can see problems coming and have a quick solution. Not because I’m an amazing filmmaker... but because I was bad one.

Learn why two shots don’t edit together. Learn why you actually needed that wide. Learn why that line you thought was so clever on the page fell flat in the edit.

And once you’ve learned those lessons, and maybe shared them online... delete the bad ones.

Those shorts were for you, you don’t need someone from an agency stumbling onto your eleven-year-old sketch about a man with butterknife hands. Because they will, and then you get to talk to a creative director who has reservations about hiring you because of your eleven-year-old sketch about a man with butterknife hands. 

Find Your People

If you don’t have a camera, or need help with some VFX, or want to build your lighting skills, there’s a great $0 way to do it:

Your fellow filmmakers!

The most important thing you can do is to build a community or become a part of one. 

I didn’t know anyone when I moved to LA. But I found out about this monthly comedy video night at a Hollywood bar and I started hanging around and meeting people.

Eventually, through our mutual love of weird comedy and making things, I made some great friendships. 

My community is called Channel 101. It’s a monthly festival/contest created by Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty, Community) and Rob Schrab (The Sarah Silverman Program). There, filmmakers create five-minute “pilots” that compete in front of a live audience. If the audience votes for your short, you then have 30 days to write, shoot, and edit another episode. If they don’t vote for you, it feels terrible and then you have 30 days to write, shoot, and edit a new show.

My friends and I made fun things every month, very cheaply or for $0. Maybe we bought a couple of costumes from the store or some cheap props. But the rest was us just running headlong into an idea with cheap boom mics, miniDV tapes, and a lot of energy. 

I got to see stuff I made play on the big screen and get laughs and cheers. And other stuff I made was met with confusion and silence. It was my boot camp.

It was my film school. 

I’ve met so many talented and amazing people there. And that has been the biggest boon to my career. I can trace almost all of my shows and jobs back to referrals from friends at Channel 101. 

Find your community, or make one. Get together once a month and show off something you all made. Exchange notes and ideas. Help each other and inspire each other. And then when you’re all huge successes, hire each other.

This can cost $0 and is the most important thing you can do.

Hold A Boom For Your Friend

Quid pro quo isn’t gross when done right, and is a considerable factor in filmmaking. 

Sure, you could write, shoot, direct, produce, put lav mics on everyone, run your own audio, edit, color, and make some VFX for every single project you ever make.

But that kind of sucks.

It’s much better when you have a group of talented filmmakers helping you out. 

Even if your goal is to direct, volunteer to help your DP friend by offloading footage for him on a shoot. Edit a spec commercial your writer friend is putting together. Hold the boom for your roommate’s documentary.

You’ll want their help when it’s time to make a short. And when you need a group of people to help out on your $0 project, they are much more willing if you’ve done the same for them. 

Say Yes To Everything, Make Money However You Can

My goal was to eke out a living in Los Angeles and not take a day job no matter what. I wanted to be available to say yes to whatever good job that came my way. So, I ended up taking lots of weird and not so great paying gigs during those first few years.

It was hard.

On Monday, I might have been shooting red carpet interviews for a shady charity event. On Wednesday, could be making the end credits crawl for a low budget horror movie. On the weekends I was out in the desert wearing a full face mask, dodging paintballs, and directing action sports videos for professional paintballers. 

These weren’t jobs I was excited about. And some I even considered turning down. But a strange thing happened…I ended up meeting truly great people. 

People who, like me, wanted to do bigger and cooler things. People I actually really liked and worked well with, and years later I would hire for “real” projects.

Some of my biggest jobs and longest friendships have started with a weird low budget shoot in the middle of nowhere.

The small amount of money might have been driving me, but the real value was the people I met.

The lesson?

Say yes to ALL the weird (but reasonable) jobs that come your way.

Say yes to something pays $0 once in a while. 

The worst that can happen is you'll have a bad time and get to add another name to your secret list of horrible producers you never want to work for again (we all have one).

(Editors note: I might be on a few of those lists. We all start somewhere.)

Over time, I met people who liked working with me and they trusted me on bigger projects.

My reel improved, and my resume improved, and that helped me to get better jobs. But I think one thing that didn’t change was always trying to have a good attitude, even when the project is difficult, and giving each project my all.

I still approach a $100,000 project the same way I approached a $0 project: with a lot of energy and a lot of ideas (the ideas just aren’t quite as bad these days).

The bottom line is this is a hard career to get into, no matter what.

I read lots of books and articles about getting into filmmaking and then ended up ignoring most of their advice.

So, if you read this and end up ignoring all of this advice: welcome to the club, I’ll see you around town!     

Ben Pluimer is an Emmy nominated director and writer in Los Angeles. 

He was born and raised in South Dakota where he cut his teeth shooting everything he could on his family's beat up VHS camcorder. More recently he's been working as a director in TV and commercials. 

He has directed projects for Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, ABC, Fox, A&E, TruTV, SyFy, VH1, Fullscreen, Red Hour Films, WWE NEtwork, Ford, Funny or Die, Mattel, and more. 

 

Twitter.com/Pluimer

Benpluimer.com

 

 

Your Comment

14 Comments

'Sure, you could write, shoot, direct, produce, put lav mics on everyone, run your own audio, edit, color, and make some VFX for every single project you ever make.

But that kind of sucks.'

I just did that, and you know, it's kind of awesome. Empowering. Invigorating. Enjoyed every bit of the process so much I can't imagine handing that stuff off to someone else. It would be like marrying a woman and then paying someone else to screw her for you.

November 16, 2018 at 9:15AM

18
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Batutta
167

@Batutta

I should have put: It kind of sucks doing it ALL the time, every time.

It's so important to learn every part of the filmmaking process. Everyone should write their own stuff, operate their own camera, build their own props, edit & do their own VFX. Because having even a small amount of knowledge *is* hugely empowering.

Eventually, you're going to want other professionals who have dedicated their lives and careers to VFX, audio, color, cinematography to bring their own ideas and craftsmanship to your project. It will make your project better.

November 16, 2018 at 10:41AM, Edited November 16, 10:46AM

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Ben Pluimer
Director
52

I know this is going to sound wrong but I kind of don't care if it makes my project better. I have been editing and doing sound and color correction on my own for other people for about 15 years, so I'd be hard pressed to find someone to do as good a job as me unless I get into much higher budgets. The other aspects I'm having too much fun learning how to do, and I'm only improving with each project. Just finished a feature I'm fairly pleased with and provided I stay healthy I can see myself doing it again. Was it grueling? Yes, but also hugely rewarding. I guess I'm just greedy and don't want to share the fun.

November 16, 2018 at 11:14AM, Edited November 16, 11:14AM

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Batutta
167

The main question is more:
can you jump the queue by following the classic way.?

Go to school get skills and meet easly people with same passion to build your crew and get all basic knowledge by people who teach them to you.
Learning by mistake is harder and longer.

I value your experience but as a director myself hiring crew, I can see people who have dedicated them to learn and these who think they know because they did plenty of 0 dollars paid features.

Most of the people who are making big money went to film school. Learning with the talented one. Luck is possible, but many will fail dreaming.

You can still doing it the way you describe, but the road is super long and painful.

November 16, 2018 at 9:23AM

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visionrouge.com
DoP freelance cameraman 4K HK & Shanghai.
219

@visionrouge

Many of my fellow directors, producers & DPs went to highly regarded film schools. At times I really envied their network and education. But at least in my network, people working professionally in LA, it's about 50/50 between people who went to a good film school and people who didn't.

After graduation, everyone still gets dumped into the same holding pen and needs to fight their way out. I know directors who went to USC who have never worked for a major network or brand, and I know directors who went to some public university out in the midwest who are now making the biggest TV shows.

Just because they didn't get "that" degree doesn't mean they weren't dedicated to learning.

Both ways are hard, neither has any real shortcuts or jumping queues. Barring an amazing thesis that gets into Sundance and starts a career right out of film school, everyone has to slug it out.

November 16, 2018 at 10:41AM, Edited November 16, 10:45AM

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Ben Pluimer
Director
52

Maybe this is very limited to LA only, where tons of possible experience can be gained all around.
Cause in Europe or Asia as I'm based here, this is more 90/10.

The fact that there is less team and so job makes competition way harder and free time is not spend on helping creating. You need to survive and any day spend on 0 could be seen as a loss.
I just wanted to warn potential reader thinking; "Look, he did it, so can I"
This is not so easy. You are super lucky to get a way to survive with 0 income and also, surely have skills that other don't have. This is clearly not for everyone.
Yes, it pays at the end for you. I can see hundreds of failure around me after destroying the market the are sitting on; hoping to get in the train of success by selling themselves with super low price.
After 2 or 3 years doing all for free... they are just packing their luggage and leaving the country.
Client are also starting to be aware that creativity is not everything and you also need to have basic knowledge coming from school.

On the opposite side, (my side), these clients start to question a bit your team background before hiring you. After 3 horror movies, one teaser for shoes, 3 fashion show... Do you think you will convince a bank to get they APAC manager on screen?

Happy for you, I clearly don't see this as a norm for the rest of the world.

November 16, 2018 at 9:03PM

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visionrouge.com
DoP freelance cameraman 4K HK & Shanghai.
219

I wanted to chime in here because I'm in the middle of "slugging it out" like Ben says above. I attended a university in the rocky mountains that had a good "media arts" program compared to most universities in the US, but it was NOT a film school like people usually think of (USC, AFI, Chapman, etc.)

I've been doing freelance work full time for over 5 years, and I've been in LA for over 3. I came up as a camera assistant and an editor, and this past year I've been fortunate enough to make most of my money operating and doing cinematography. In fact, I'm in the middle of shooting a feature for the first time, and crazy enough the budget is $1Million. Still low-budget, but not as low as many people I've seen on their first feature.

There has been a huge amount of luck on my end so far, but I've also worked insanely hard. And I’ve done plenty of low-pay or $0 jobs just trying to keep busy and meet new people. I always try to be the most responsive, driven, positive, attentive person on the project, and people usually notice that. On the other hand I've NEVER been asked by a producer, director, client, etc. where I went to school before they hired me. In fact, I've never seen anyone get hired because of where they went to school.

It's definitely true that school creates a built-in community that can really benefit you. But Ben is just proposing another way to build a community. And here's a news flash: school doesn't teach you everything you need to know to be good at your craft. In fact in my experience—and looking at a lot of my colleagues who went to real film schools—you STILL do most of your learning on the job AFTER you've graduated. I would say that film school might give you a 6 month headstart in terms of learning vs someone who just gets themselves onto film sets without knowing anything first. After a year or two, there won't be much difference between the two people in terms of knowledge or technical ability.

I can see how in other countries where the community is so much smaller and perceptions are different, your school credentials might mean more, but in the US your resume is worthless. All people care about is how well you can do the job, how hard you work, and how cool you are to work with. It's easy to hold yourself back or blame a lack of success on not going to film school or on people who didn't go and are bringing the market down with their cheap rates and sloppy work. I'm just here to tell you and everyone else reading this that ingenuity, hard work, and a good attitude will take you further than a diploma. Even if you had that diploma, you'd still need to find your own way.

Also a final note: the people who build a community by doing occasional $0 jobs have the benefit of living debt free--as opposed to my friends who walk out of USC with a $180K loan...

November 19, 2018 at 12:43AM

3
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Kenneth Merrill
Director
1125

Yes is the short answer. There is always the "Pay more for VIP access" ... be it amusement parks, boarding an plane, or yes, making it in the film business. There is no doubt that if you go to USC/NYU you will have access to the top 10% of makers out there, giving you a serious advantage. I guess the point is that it's not the only way, and for 90% of aspiring filmmakers it's not even possible. So this is a great roadmap to one of the possible ways to get to do what you love for money and that, is a dream for most people. This story resinated with me, as I came up much the same way, and had the exact same experience. So Yeah, you can skip the line, but the line sometimes is the most important part of your career.

November 19, 2018 at 8:22AM

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Roberto Serrini
Director • Editor
599

(Moved to reply to Batutta)

November 16, 2018 at 10:32AM, Edited November 16, 10:42AM

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Ben Pluimer
Director
52

Were you always based in LA? How did you build your network to get the bigger and bigger gigs?

November 16, 2018 at 11:37AM

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Jason Finch
Filmmaker and photographer
13

Yeah I moved to LA right after college. Most of my networking was the old fashioned kind: meeting people at bars and events, offering to work with them, word of mouth referrals. I’ve *never* had anyone hire me by finding my website online and cold calling me. All of my work has come from referrals, good word of mouth, friends of friends.

Eventually I got agents and managers to help expand my network and get me out there to new producers and production companies.

November 16, 2018 at 11:59AM

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Ben Pluimer
Director
52

Step 1: Move to Los Angeles. Oh, okay, right.

November 16, 2018 at 4:21PM

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D. M. Lowe
DP / DoP
96

Most cities have small film communities. The same principles can apply on a smaller scale. Though I will be the first to admit that LA offers more opportunities than any other city in the world.

November 19, 2018 at 12:45AM

0
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Kenneth Merrill
Director
1125

interesting article. but how much will it all work in reality -_-

November 28, 2018 at 4:09AM

0
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Cody Sartony
Writer
21