October 22, 2014 at 12:34AM
How I went from a Canon Rebel T1i to directing a $1M project
Hey NoFilmSchoolers! I’ve been coming here for years now and was stoked to see the site turn into more of an open community.
I have been looking through the discussion boards from time to time and noticed several threads popping up about, “Advice for newbies!” or “Things you would tell someone just getting started.” So I thought I’d share my own experience. This is how I got started with just a Canon Rebel T1i all the way to how I landed my top job of choice directing video for a multi-million dollar project. But even if you’re already a pretty well established video/filmmaker be sure to skip down to #4 for something I’m deciding to give away for everyone, I think you’ll find it really helpful.
So I’m no Christopher Nolan by any stretch of the imagination, but I have had some pretty great experiences that hopefully you will find helpful.
1.) Getting Started
You want to get started, but don’t know how to get in? You’ve probably heard this one before because this is the one I heard all the time too. Get a camera and then make stuff. When I got started all I could afford was a Canon Rebel t1i with an 18-35mm kit lens. I think it cost about $500 and had no manual exposure controls. It couldn’t even shoot usable frame rates at 1080 resolution. But it didn’t matter, I owned it and was able to use it to learn and experiment. One of the films I’m most proud of (and now most embarrassed of) was a film I shot on my Rebel t1i. Check it out! (But don’t judge me too hard! That was over 5 years ago!) Either way, I do think it goes to show that even with an entry level camera you can make some good stuff happen. Don’t be too embarrassed to start. The kind of gear that is available now is a million times better than what was around just 5 years ago.
2.) Push yourself
It wasn’t too long after finishing “Who is Jacob Stills” that I discovered Poptent.net. These crowdsourcing video sites are pretty popular now, and there are a lot of them. (Tongal, Zoopa, MoFilm etc) The idea is that the sites set up sponsored video contests by big name brands. Anyone can enter and read the assignment’s creative brief, and then produce a commercial to compete against other creators for a grand prize. I kind of have a love-hate relationship with spec work like this because it always ends up in somebody who made a good video not making any money. But when I was first getting started this was an AWESOME opportunity. Just think of it as insanely good practice. You can accept any assignment for free and see the REAL creative brief for that brand’s assignment. The fact that you can get that kind of insight into the agency world for FREE is just crazy to me. This gave me free opportunities to practice being a commercial director. My first commercial I shot on my Rebel was competing for a $10K prize! I was so close to winning, but in the end I got 2nd place and was beat out by a guy with a RED ONE out there somewhere :(
Here’s the commercial:
It was a little frustrating to make what I thought was a good video, get so close, but then in the end lose and receive nothing. But again, even though I didn’t win any money, I knew I would gain some really good experience which I could then use to try to improve my next project.
I kept competing and on my third or fourth try I won a contest for Dish Network. I shot it in a day on my Rebel t1i and it made me $5,000!
Here’s the commercial: (Don’t judge!)
Pretty embarrassing right? I bet you could make something MUCH better, but you can’t argue with $5K! After putting yourself to work for a little while you’ll start to see the fruits of your efforts. It will only get better, especially if you can understand and apply this next principle.
3.) Iteration and Evolution
Iteration and evolution is a principle that shows up in the success of all things everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Think about how the theory of evolution applies in the animal kingdom. Somewhere out there millions of years ago a rodent critter emerged from a hole somewhere and decided it was a good idea to eat some ants. It spent its life eating ants and competing against other critters who ate ants as well. The offspring from that rodent that had features that allowed them to eat ants just a ‘little’ better than other critters went on to pass those traits to their offspring. On and on through multiple ‘iterations’ and over the course of millions of years each of those iterations eventually lead to the evolution of what we now know today as an anteater. Just take a second and look at this picture of an anteater.
These guys are just ridiculously good at eating ants. Everything from the length of their tongue, to their ant-mound crushing claws. Even their saliva has developed to have a sticky consistency making it easier to snatch up all the little ant people from outta their beds. You pit any other critter out there in a competition to eat ants these days, and an anteater will absolutely pummel it. It’s gotten so good at eating ants in fact that its effin name is ANTEATER! That’s a pretty powerful evolution.
Effective iterations are what power evolution. You want to evolve from where you are now, to a state where you pummel your competition and get what you want! The faster you can effectively iterate, the quicker you will evolve into something that will just DOMINATE. Here is how you effectively iterate.
Act - Observe - Iterate - Repeat
ACT – This means make stuff. Find projects to work on and then do work son. Watching YouTube tutorials is good, but making something after you watch those videos is 1000x better. Complete a project doing the best you know how, and then get it delivered.
OBSERVE – After the dust has settled on your project and you’ve seen its results. Take a close look at it. Be objective about it. What did you do poorly? What went well? Looking at it now how could you have done it better?
ITERATE – Decide specifically what you WILL do better next time. Do you need to learn a new technique in After Effects? Go learn it. Did someone beat you because they understood advertising theory better then you? Go learn it! Did you get too crammed in the final hours of your project? Learn some project management yo! By making small but significant advances in your abilities you complete the iteration cycle and are ready for the next run.
REPEAT – Find another project, and go at it again! After all, you are constantly becoming more qualified to absolutely crush it!
After I had one success in Poptent, I hit the iteration cycles super hard. I would constantly be looking for projects to work on. Anytime a project showed up on my radar I would take it on, submit my best work, learn from it, and repeat. This led to several more successes. In 4 days I made 45 seconds of video that won me $15,000. That was awesome. Two months before I was wanting to buy a car, but instead I found a video contest by Dairy Queen where they were giving away 6 Mini Cooper Countrymans. I analyzed the brief, created a strategy, developed a 30 second video that I shot in 3 days and won myself a car!
The better you can get at quickly and effectively iterating, the faster you will overcome your competition and become a dominant force in your industry of choice. If this iterations stuff sounds interesting you should check out ‘The Lean Start-up’ By Eric Reis.
Here’s another important point to remember about iteration and evolution. As you develop through your evolution phases, take particular care to look for opportunities to ‘jump markets.’ If you’re a small fish out in the ocean and you want to eat big tuna, you get there by starting with eating shrimp, and then incrementally increasing the size of fish you can swallow whole until you are eating BIG fish like tuna. If you’ve ever played Hungry Shark on your phone then you definitely know what I’m talking about.
When I had video successes I would take money I earned from contests and clients and reinvest it somehow into increasing my abilities. I would upgrade my gear or buy something that allowed me to serve other clients I didn’t have access to before. I bought a wide angle lens so I could serve local real estate companies making housing videos. My car had cool drop down seats which let me toss all my gear in and easily serve clients further away. I bought the Adobe Creative Suite and learned After Effects which let me experiment with motion graphics, this in particular landed me a gig with a software company in California doing motion graphic work remotely etc. By reinvesting in my abilities I was able to ‘jump into markets’ that I previously didn’t have access to. This gave me the ability to land bigger gigs and make more money which gave me access to better opportunities.
From there it was just a continuation of the iteration process. While I was at school I had the opportunity to re-boot the student advertising agency. This gave me experience running a start-up and managing multiple accounts as a Creative Director. Tons of iterations in there! By the time I was graduating I had three job offers. One from an Agency in Salt Lake City as a Creative Director, one from Lockheed Martin doing corporate training videos (yuck) and one really unique offer to run the video team for a start-up-within-a-company from a Software Company in Seattle called Construx. The Construx offer was definitely the best offer and my top choice. The work I’m doing is a little corporate-video-esque, but the biggest reason I took the job is because of the experience its giving me access too. I work directly with the CEO and see firsthand what kinds of logic, decisions and management principles go into a launching a multi-million dollar project. This is the biggest iteration opportunity I’ve had so far, and I’m excited to complete my best work and launch it out to millions of people! Yikes!
So I may not be exactly where you want to be, but I think the principles of iteration and evolution apply to anyone regardless of where you want to be. Once you identify where exactly that is, take the time to identify the milestones you’d need to hit along the way, and then work in iteration cycles until you get there!
4.) The Video Production Industry needs to Iterate
The video production industry is going through some really interesting phases right now. The democratization of film has made video production more accessible than ever before, and this is both an opportunity and a danger for everyone involved. One trend in particular that I’ve been observing, is that the roles between the people who are making the videos, and the people who are running the strategy behind the videos are being combined into the same person. In the past, being a successful filmmaker or videographer meant being able to technically execute a video. You knew how to operate a camera, frame and light a scene, run good audio etc. But today it’s becoming increasingly more important to also know the WHY behind the video, especially the kinds of videos that we have clients paying us to make. These days a videographer also needs to understand marketing and business principles, you need to know how to identify and target a market. How to get inside their heads and communicate to them. How to produce a video that you know will actually get results. In short it’s not only important to know how to make the video right (proper techniques, equipment, cinematography etc) but even more important to learn how to make the RIGHT video. The video that will get results!
So with these thoughts in mind, for the last year I’ve been developing a course that effectively teaches those principles. It’s called the “Make The Right Video Process.” Up until now I was selling it at full price ($500) and have had some great success among agencies and production houses around the world. (Over 1,000 students!) But now that I’ve funded my next project with it I’m deciding to essentially give it away to the people who are trying to teach themselves. (Ok, so I’m still charging $2 to help keep the lights on over there. But what’s $2 these days for something that used to cost $500 bones amirite?)
All the principles are distilled down to a very simple and effective way to be learned, making this course a quick study, but an extremely powerful one.
Here’s the explainer video that I would run when I was more serious about trying to make sales.
And one of the most recent comments from one of my students:
“You weren't kidding in your introduction and statement that you have condensed whats needed to Make The RIGHT Video. Any student of this course that really applies and masters what you teach here will certainly go onto incredible success. You have condensed the most important processes that many experts WISH they could teach into simple to understand steps that are actionable, repeatable and scale-able. Nice work Logan. You've certainly demonstrated what happens when you make every word count.”
Is this sounding spammy? What I’m trying to say is it’s a great resource! One that I used to charge a lot of money for but for you guys it’s practically free! If you’re serious about making videos professionally please take advantage of that discount and learn yerself some education!
Was any of this helpful? I’d love to keep this conversation going and talk more about the implications of the democratization of film and how anyone can get started in the industry. What do you think is next for the video production industry? What other principles did you find vital in your process?