97 SXSW Filmmakers Give You Advice on Making Better Movies

We have tons of inspiration and tips from the filmmakers of SXSW 2021!

When it comes to staying creative, we could all use a little inspiration to get us moving. The filmmakers at this year's SXSW festival worked hard, often shooting and cutting their movies during the pandemic. They faced additional problems on top of the normal challenges of making movies. How do you shoot on a limited budget? How do you stay inspired? How do you pick your team? And in 2020, how do you do it all safely?

Many filmmakers have shared their advice to get you motivated. Dive in below!

The Return, Life after ISIS - ​Alba Sotorra Clua

Making the first film is one of the most challenging things you will ever face. To start with, you need to be passionate. Then you need a lot of stubbornness to continue. But the hardest part is knowing when to finish your film. Perfection does not exist, and it is very normal to not be happy with the result. Then, be brave: finish your film and present it to the world. Once you have done that, you are a filmmaker!

The Other Morgan - Alison Rich

Roll with it. Indie filmmaking is a lot of putting out fires. Expect things to go wrong, breathe, and then start problem-solving. 

Not Going Quietly - Amanda Roddy

Go with your gut. If you feel moved by a story or a particular person, the odds are great that many others will be too, and that it is a story worth telling.

'Joe Buffalo'Credit: Liam Mitchell

Joe Buffalo - Amar Chebib

Don't judge your own work based on what other people are doing or saying. There is so much work out there of people imitating others, and you can feel how hollow it is. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to learn from others, but find your own voice and believe in that. Also, don't wait for opportunities to come to you. Do what you gotta do to pay the bills and then go out and make work you are passionate about with other collaborators that share in your vision... take (calculated) risks! This all sounds cliche, and that's because it's true.

Marvin's Never Had Coffee Before - Andrew Carter

Trust your instincts, and be brutally honest with yourself. If you feel in your gut that something isn't quite there or up to your standards (whether you've filmed the thing or not), that's okay. Just be honest with yourself about it.

The same goes for if you feel something is really great; that's okay too. Confidence does not always equal arrogance, it's just about how you express it. But the more honest with yourself you are about your work, the more freely you'll be able to move from project to project and be as prolific as you want to be—and the more work you create, the better you'll get.

The Girlfriend Experience, Season 3 - Anja Marquardt

I'd like to believe that these are extraordinary times for storytellers. Extraordinary times for dialogue to be had.

'When Claude Got Shot'Credit: 371 Productions

When Claude Got Shot - Brad Lichtenstein

Over the years, I've discovered that no matter what stage of your career you are in, most of the game is determination and perseverance. This is both external—the hustle for money and support, and internal, the concentration of your energy on a story, and the discipline to question your direction and improve all the time but never lose track of your vision.

Our Father - Bradley Grant Smith

Getting a film made is impossible, and if you let that discourage you, you'll never get a film made, so forget about that and push forward, even as everyone tells you, "No." 

Alone Together - Bradley & Pablo

We had fantasized about the experience of moving into feature film as some grand, extravagant experience with shitloads of budget, time, and resources. And while this might be true for some, our experience definitely wasn't that. The pandemic gave us the opportunity to create a film that would have never been there otherwise. It felt like suddenly the rules had changed, the lack of resources available to everybody made filmmaking feel more accessible. Most aspiring filmmakers have probably heard, "Just pick up a camera and be resourceful and hust start shooting!"

'Joanne Is Dead'

Joanne Is Dead - Brian Sacca

I started making shorts when I was a kid in the 80s. Before we started shooting our videos, my brother and I would plan them out to the second. Why "to the second"? Because the device to edit VHS tapes was, like, a gazillion dollars. So, we had to edit in-camera as we shot. Not only that—when you stopped recording, the VHS camera would rewind a second and a half of tape. So, when we finished a take, we would freeze, holding for a beat. It was crazy, but it worked! 

I'm saying this all because you don't have to do any of that now! In your hand, you hold a camera, an editing bay, a sound mixer, and a colorist. The only thing stopping you from making a short film is you. Just shoot it. My last piece of advice—read as much as you can on No Film School. I was literally reading the newest article about Cathy Yan when I got the interview request. No joke! 

My last piece of advice—read as much as you can on No Film School.

The Expected - Carolina Sandvik

If you can handle it, make animation! It's a good excuse to isolate yourself for months or years, and you don't have to worry about actors or people in general. You get to play with dolls and control every movement they make. You even get to decide what they will look like and when to take their clothes off. You can tie them up for hours, and they never complain. 

The Mohel - Charles Wahl

Get out there and immerse yourself in the film community. Regardless of where you live, if there is some form of film culture, get out there, meet as many people as you can, and get a sense of how things work.

While doing that, start figuring out how to make your own projects, and once you start... don't stop! Things will get better, and you'll get more confident in what works and what doesn't work as you go. The best thing to do is to keep going and always create.

'Plant Heist'Credit: District Attorney Office in Monterey County

Plant Heist - Chelsi and Gabriel de Cuba

Chesi: Use the resources you have and just start the project. Getting past the first hurdle is the hardest, but once you begin to follow the threads of the creative process, the belief in what you are doing gets stronger and the opportunities to learn are at every corner. If you can get excited about learning nothing can be a wasted effort. 

Gabriel: First, read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, then use any and all resources at your disposal to create something that inspires you. Constantly break down your favorite films, watch them over and over. Turn the sound off even, and observe the light and the cuts without distraction. Turn the sound back on and pay attention to the layered sound design or orchestral score. Be a constant student of the craft. Learn what each department does on a film set. Trust that no one has your unique point of view.

The Good Wife's Guide - Chloe Merriman

My advice would be to take risks and go with your gut.

Play It Safe - Chris Toumazou

Lots, but as this is short: Don't let anyone stop you. Distinguish your own unique voice before you begin production. Otherwise, you'll end up shooting a film with someone else's lens. Know what makes you, you. I remember someone a long time ago said that the film industry is made up of people that haven't given up yet. 

'Trade Center'Credit: Daniel Lam

Trade Center - Daniel Lam

It's important to surround yourself with great collaborators, and Adam Baran is one of those people. He guided me into what the story he was trying to tell, but he also trusted me to find those images that go beyond the words.

Disintegration Loops - David Wexler

Don't wait.  Make your movie!

The Oxy Kingpins - Drea Bernardi

You don't need to wait for funding, film school, or the perfect gear. If you have an idea, get out there and make it on an iPhone. Story is king. 

Fruits of Labor - Emily Cohen Ibañez

Ask yourself what stories do you think you can tell, and then look inside yourself and find what stories you need to tell. For me, as a Latin woman filmmaker, I grew up in this country often being made to feel like an outsider; I often felt lonely trying to find my way. I identified with Ashley's own struggle of coming of age; I love how beautifully imperfect and complex she is as a young woman. 

Writing is a place where I can best find myself and the story. I felt it was important to incorporate Ashley into the writing process. Writing helps people heal from trauma and find their voice. In this film, I believe Ashley and I mutually found our voices together.

Going back to your first question about cameras and lenses—our camera and lens setup was relatively simple. The heart of good storytelling and filmmaking is the relationships you build between filmmakers and the people in front of the lens. The documentary form is not wholly different from fiction films in that you build trust within your team and with the folks in front of the camera to get to the heart of what needs to be told. 

'Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America'Credit: Emily Kunstler

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America - Emily Kunstler

My advice to aspiring independent filmmakers is to make sure you choose a project you are passionate about and to not give up when it gets hard, because it will get hard. This may sound obvious, but it's crucial. Making a movie is committing multiple years of your life to a project. There will be what feel like disasters, moments of self-doubt, you'll run out of money again and again, your family/friends will have to expect less of your time, and at times you'll want to quit. But this is all part of the process, so expect it and don't be deterred. It's pushing through those challenges that makes the magic happen. And when you're done, you'll look back and think, how the hell did we pull this one off? And if you're anything like me, you'll say you'll never make another movie again, and then inevitably one day, you'll get the bug again and say, what the hell, why not?

Ayar - Floyd Russ

I've been wanting to make a feature since I  was in high school, but it took me a long time to do so.  No one is going to come along and give you the money you need for your film, you have to go out and make it happen any way you know how. Just make sure you and the story are really ready for it. 

(Hi)Story of a PaintingGaëlle Mourre

Surround yourself with collaborators and friends who will lift you up. There are a lot of negative nancies in the world, so do your best to avoid working with them! And when you do work with them, just take it as a learning [experience] and then move on. Storytelling/filmmaking is a collaborative effort, it's not something you can achieve alone, so find your people, lift each other up and get making. Don't be shy to make mistakes and fail—it's all part of the process and it's the best learning experience! And finish what you start, doesn't matter if you think it's bad (the next project will be better) but always finish what you start.

'In Time'Credit: Gaelila McKaughan

In Time - Gaelila McKaughan

Create a daily practice of picking up the camera, whether it's your phone or a legit one. I struggle to motivate myself to keep to a film schedule when I'm working mostly alone. But by making a habit of filming something every day, I not only found new inspiration, but it also made it easier for me to work on my existing projects. 

Spring Valley - Garrett Zevgetis

Never doubt the potential for a first idea to evolve into a game-changing one. 

The Last Cruise - Hannah Olson

Seek out mentors, ask for help, finish your film. 

Fucking with Nobody - Hannaleena Hauru

At the same time, while setting my personal goals for each project and going towards my own passion as a director, I want to offer my crew the chance to grow professionally as well. In the beginning of any project, I ask for their aspirations, cinematic fantasies, or just even some technical stuff they've been wanting to try out. And even while directing the most strictly formatted productions, I will steal at least 5% of the shooting day for a chance for experimenting and/or going out of my comfort zone. This is what I encourage my crew to do as well. I can push only my personal borders, but I can invite my crew to push theirs. A bit lame workout metaphor can be used here: you won't grow muscle unless you push your boundaries. And if you push too hard too early, you will break yourself.

'Sound of Violence'Credit: You Know Films/No Office Films

Sound of Violence - Hannu Aukia

There's so much to tell and so much to say. I started with music videos, "graduated" into no-budget film with my debut, Someone, Somewhere, and now pushed Sound of Violence out into the world. The main advice, which is always something you need to relearn, is to do the movie you can do best with the resources you have. That's the hardest thing to keep in mind, especially if you suddenly have a budget you always dreamed about.

The End of Us - Henry Loevner, Steven Kanter

This is hardly original advice, but when you're starting out, you just need to make as much of your own stuff as possible. And to do that, you need to learn the tools. Teach yourself how to shoot, light, record sound, and edit. The technology is cheap. You can learn anything on YouTube. Hopefully, you won't always have to be a one-person band. But it will make you a better filmmaker. 

BIOLUM - Igal Kohen

Watch the next step, not the full mountain.

The Nipple Whisperer - Jan Van Dyck

Believe in your gut feeling, stay true to yourself. Don't give up.

'Soy Cubana'Credit: Ivaylo Getov & Ezequiel Casares

Soy Cubana - Jeremy Ungar and Ivyaylo Getov

It always feels funny to give advice to aspiring filmmakers, because in some ways, we feel like we're at the dawn of our own careers. But for what it's worth, here are a few ideas that proved helpful throughout our process. Focus on the short, remain open, find collaborators you trust (and like to be around). In the end, for us, ease was the key. The less hard we tried to make a movie that mattered, the easier it became to make a film we saw as impactful. Last of all, get a damn good editor. On a documentary, they may well become your co-writer.

Lily Topples the World - Jeremy Workman

Don't take no for an answer. Don't listen to opinions so much. Everyone is going to tell you that you can't do it or it's impossible or it's not going to work or it won't be good. Just put your blinders on and put your head down and stick to your guns. Don't listen to everyone else so much!

SISTERS - Jess Brunetto 

The main advice I would give to aspiring filmmakers is to remember to look at problems on set not as obstacles, but as opportunities to elevate your movie. 

Flex - Josefin Malmen, David Strindberg

Shoot, shoot, shoot. Spend your money on film and learn to enjoy canned food!

SasquatchJoshua Rofé

Make a decision to be unstoppable. You don't need permission to make your movie.

'For the Record'

For the Record - Julian De Zotti

Make sure you save some money or call in favours for your launch, promotion after your work is done. We always put all our money on screen, but never have any left for getting your film/series seen!

Don't Peek - Julian Terry

When you have a short that you feel nervous about releasing don't let it die on a hard drive. Let it go and be experienced! These short films can easily become personal to us. I call them movie babies. It's important to know when to cut the umbilical cord and let your baby free.

Your Own Bullshit - Justyna Rucinska

Take your time. Explore, think and speak your own voice. Like the Cassetteman, after awakening, hopefully. Look for your own unique voice.

Marvin's Never Had Coffee Before - Kahlil Maskati

Know the best thing to make for the current stage of your career. What's your goal? How much experience do you have? How much money do you have? The mistake I see most often is people who overshoot what they should be doing. Why make a feature when you can make a short? Why write an expensive script when you have an apartment you can shoot in? Be practical and not precious. This is your career. Find another way you can fulfill your ego.

'Ten Leaves Dilated'Credit: Kate E. Hinshaw

Ten Leaves Dilated - Kate E. Hinshaw

Make what you want. Don't worry about the "correct" way to make a film. Do it the wrong way. 

Metamorphism - Kate Saltel

Go out and do it. It may seem intimidating especially if you don't have a crew or experience, but practice makes perfect with filmmaking. Experimenting and bending the rules of film is also a great way to learn about what types of films you want to create. Film Freeway is also an amazing resource to get your films seen by others. There are tons of free film festivals to submit your work to. It is also important to submit to a few goal festivals because you never know!

Learning Tagalog with Kayla - Kayla Abuda Galang

Learn about, respect, and perhaps do a little bit of every role on set across your filmmaking journey! And dream every which way! Make playlists, record voice memos, build a collage, whatever nurtures your idea. It keeps the process fun, fresh, and tactile.

'Parked in America'Credit: San Yvin

Parked in America - Kayla Yumi Lewis

If there's anything I've learned from this experience, it's to make sure that there's real heart in your story. You don't need fancy locations, props, or a huge budget to make a good movie, you just need a good, relatable story that will move people. Find what moves you and pour all of that emotion into the script. Mine that emotion from your actors. And most importantly, be kind, understanding, open, and respectful to everyone on your crew. You can't make a film all on your own.

Dear Mr. Brody - Keith Maitland

Paraphrasing Fellini, "All art is Autobiography." Find the most personal part of your storytelling and focus your themes around that. You have to be vulnerable if you expect your doc subjects, or your actors, to be vulnerable too... ultimately you want your audience's trust, so they can be vulnerable to the emotional connection onscreen. That starts with you—where are you being vulnerable as you go?

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror - Kier-La Janisse

Since this was my first film, I made a lot of mistakes. I wish I could have handled my stress better and been more pleasant to the people I was working closest with. I wish I had known more about the gear everyone had and the ability to navigate that to ensure a more consistent look in the interviews. If doing interviews remotely, being able to give very clear instructions about how you want an interview shot is important! Also, that obscure folk song you want to use in your film that used to be on a tiny label probably ended up in a catalog that was bought up by a major label at some point and you will never be able to afford it, and they don't care how unknown the song is, or how much you beg them or tell them your life story, they are not giving you that song. So don't get too attached to it.

'Nuevo Rico'Credit: Marcus Russell Price

Nuevo Rico - Kristian Mercado Figueroa

Tell a story only you can tell. For me Nuevo Rico is pretty singular because it's just something that speaks to who I am, where I'm from, and what I love. Telling the story you know best will create a singular vision that people haven't seen before.

Águilas/Eagles - Kristy Guevara-Flanagan

Make it. Now. It doesn't need to be perfect.

Best Summer Ever - Lauren Smitelli

Choosing to make an independent movie is knowingly climbing an unscalable mountain. Own that journey and turn perceived limitations into your superpower. Most of the time I've noticed that the better choice is the one I wouldn't have seen if I had all the time and money in the world. (Also, be kind!) 

The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson - Leah Purcell

Go for it! 

PUSS - Leah Shore

Just keep making things. They don't have to be perfect, but try to keep making things, even if they're small and in your apartment starring your kitten Boy George. 

'Witch Profit'Credit: Michael Distefano

Witch Prophet, "Tesfay" - Leah Vlemmiks

For me, a good story trumps anything else. As independent filmmakers, we're often working with micro budgets with limited access to resources, so I really try to focus on story above all else. If your story is there, everything else falls into place, and you can get away with a less robust production in other areas.

Women Is Losers - Lissette Feliciano

Please only make a "one-room" movie if that's the story in your heart. If you are making a "one-room" movie to fit a budget, chances are someone has asked you to play small. This is especially important for the women reading this. Nobody believed I could make an on-location period piece as my first film, but that's what I did with Women Is Losers. Create a mechanism in your film that embraces your budgetary constrictions and complements your story and then tell the story you want to tell—no matter how "big." Audiences are smart. They'll go with you if you're entertaining and honest with them. 

Parked in America - Luke Salin

I think having fun is an underrated, key component to running a good set. Obviously, there is a seriousness to being on set, to staying on schedule, and sometimes to the scene. But the more joy your crew and cast have on set or in post, the more everyone gets out of it. People want to work harder and the energy keeps up on long days, which is especially important when you can't pay anyone. On top of having talent and/or a great story, being able to keep your collaborators happy earns you a very high level of respect which is invaluable to moving forward and making great work.

'Our Bed Is Green'Credit: Maggie Brennan

Our Bed Is Green - Maggie Brennan

I have personally struggled with the misguided belief that I need to reach certain goals by a certain age. I used to feel resentful of people who appeared to be pursuing their creative dreams full-time from a young age while I worked a day job. This is a really icky perspective to have, especially when the truth is 99% of people have to work. I have come to really appreciate the various jobs and experiences I have had that outwardly appear unrelated to filmmaking; they've bled into my visual style and approach to storytelling in significant ways.

So, my advice is: don't feel like you can't accomplish creative pursuits over longer stretches of time while working a job and living life. If anything, those experiences will make your projects richer. 

See You Then - Mari Walker

Be kind and work hard. Know that as a producer or director on a film, you will always be the one working the hardest, and you must lead by example. What I've learned from transitioning is that if I was able to keep myself hidden for so many years without others knowing, everyone must be struggling with something in their life that may be hidden from view. Always check in with your cast and crew, show up on set at the crew call time, and let the people around you know how much they are valued.

Islands - Martin Edralin

Exercise and eat your vegetables.

'Reeducated'

Reeducated - Matt Huynh

I would encourage filmmakers to resist measuring your project's success against your initial intention and being open to your project's change and growth. It may not be the easiest thing to do with a vision so personal and consuming, but will allow you to overcome intimidating obstacles that may deter you had you known from the outset, and will help you to have an ongoing relationship with the work as both your film and you change.

Dale's House - Matt Kirsch

Stay true to your vision and your voice. Don't try to make something for anyone but yourselves, and it will almost always come out better. 

Inbetween Girl - Mei Makino

Follow your own interests and create! 

Comeuppance - Meredith Smith

Ask as many questions as you can and listen to any and all advice offered. Seek out constructive criticism, as that's how you fix your mistakes and get better. 

'A Puff Before Dying'Credit: Ava Benjamin Shorr

A Puff Before Dying - Michael Pinkney

Acting classes really helped me learn how to write dialogue. It helps to learn different aspects of production besides your job. Working as an editor, production designer, actor, and writer helps you understand the big picture—pun intended. 

Sales Per Hour - Michelle Uranowitz

When they say a film takes a village, it's true. Find the village of people you want to build something with—and don't just spend time making movies with them! Community is one of the most essential elements in filmmaking (and life!), so make it your goal to just keep expanding your sense of community. 

Bruiser - Miles Warren

My only piece of advice is save up as much as you possibly can, and then invest that money into your art as much as you can. Finding inventive ways to invest in yourself is really the only way you will be able to get your passion projects off the ground as an aspiring filmmaker.

'Malignant'Credit: Taylor Camarot

Malignant - Morgan Bond

I'm sure everyone's path is different, but what's worked for us is to spend most of our time making commercials. Then when it came time to shoot this short, we pulled in tons of favors from the years we spent earning them. The industry is incredibly collaborative, and everyone wants their peers to succeed, which is why we are able to lean on our friends and peers.

The Spine of Night - Morgan Galen King

If you find yourself with a really ambitious idea and are nowhere close to the resources required to make it in a contemporary, photorealistic manner, I'd highly suggest looking outside of the mainstream and searching for stylized approaches that complement what you're trying to achieve—vintage experimental film, print and graphic design, underground comics, still photography, radio dramas and spoken word, etc. Use your limitations to be aesthetically adventurous—you'll push yourself creatively, and the end result will be, at a minimum, something distinctive. 

Doretha's Blues - Neil Creque Williams, Jeff Walker

Find ways to be efficient. It benefits the film more than you realize. By virtually eliminating location moves we spent more time in prep discussing creative choices as opposed to logistical speed bumps. During production, this gave us room to work and elevate the story by giving our team precious time on set to be creative instead of worrying about location moves and dwindling time. 

Waze & Odyssey, George Michael, Mary J. Blige & Tommy Theo

Waze & Odyssey, George Michael, Mary J. Blige & Tommy Theo, "Always" - Nelson de Castro

Get on set as much as possible and be a sponge.  Even if you're PAing, it's an opportunity to be a fly on the wall. Lots of ideas simply come from discovering what tools are at your disposal. If you like somebody's work, it never hurts to reach out and connect with them. And lastly, work hard and be nice to people. 

Not Going Quietly - Nicholas Bruckman

Your relationship with the people in front of the camera is the most important aspect of documentary storytelling (it's more than just "access"). You always want your camera on, even or especially in the most difficult moments, because your film will shine a light on people with similar experiences, or because that intimacy will help humanize and further the cause they believe in. So it's critical to think about all the ways in which you can reciprocate them letting you into their lives, giving you their time, being vulnerable, and how you can protect them in sharing what are often the most difficult parts of their lives with you (and the world).

Paul Dood's Deadly Lunch Break - Nick Gillespie

Remain true to yourself, be patient, and learn to understand where you are at in your career, choose the people you work with carefully. Also and most importantly—enjoy the work and always stop to admire the view along the way. 

'Bob Moses'Credit: Owen Brown & Benjámin Kalász

Bob Moses x ZHU, "Desire" - Owen Brown

Spend as much time as you can finding your concept before you start developing a concept. Go through dozens of ideas. Talk to people about the ones you like the most. Develop them further. Scrap them. Start over. Find the one you know is the one. And then start to bring it to life. It's important to put in that time first because creating something isn't easy. No matter who you are, getting a film or music video from start to finish is difficult. It takes months, sometimes years. So before you begin moving forward with a concept, make sure it's the right one. 

Luchadoras - Paola Calvo & Patrick Jasim

We think that the most important thing to make films is to have perseverance. Long projects take a couple of years, at least, until they can come out. As a director and producer, you have to have the ability to raise the money, make the film, and then try to get it in front of an audience. Not everyone is going to support you the first time, and many people will tell you they don't believe in the project. As long as you fight and believe, you will get it in the end.

Reklaw - Polaris Banks

Make cheap movie after cheap movie nonstop until you're actually really proud of one of them. That's the sign that it's time to stop practicing and make something incredible with the skills you've learned. Pick a story to devote everything you've got to, and don't hold anything back, even if it takes years. The only regrets I've ever had as a filmmaker were when I cynically tried less on a movie that I knew I could've made better. I often end up not even finishing them.

Focus on quality over quantity. One amazing film will open more doors for you and be more creatively satisfying than a portfolio of dozens of fine work samples.

'Are You Still There?'

Are You Still There? - Rayka Zehtabchi

Tell stories that are close to home. Are You Still There? is very personal, and it depicts a mother-daughter relationship that came easy because it was modeled after my relationship with my mom.

Pretend Partners - Ron Najor & Kristin Erickson

Ron: The best piece of advice I could give is to make something. Don't talk about making films. Actually go out there and make a movie, even if it doesn't come out how you imagined. I've seen more success for people who take the risk and face failure. It's hard, but you got to go for it.

 Kristin: Without sounding too redundant to what Ron said, keep making films because that's how you get better. P.S. I never went to film school.

Rendang of Death - Ryan Jackson

We're not really in a position to be giving other people advice. Do they have any advice for us? Help. 

'The Unlikely Fan'Credit: Andrew Ryan Shepard

The Unlikely Fan - Sai Selvarjan

Failure is underrated.

Wiggle Room - Sam Guest & Julia Baylis 

Value your work enough to surround yourself with collaborators who support you and make you better. You are only as good as the people you choose to make your films with.

Femme - Sam H. Freeman & Ng Choon Ping

Watch lots of films!

The Criminals - Serhat Karaaslan

Keep making movies. 

'United States vs. Reality Winner'Credit: Torsten Lapp

United States vs. Reality Winner - Sonia Kennebeck

My first advice is to reduce your expenses. Independent documentary filmmaking is costly and mostly unsustainable, so you have to approach a career in this field with caution—and with a backup plan. Film is a beautiful, multilayered art form, so I'm not trying to discourage anyone to become a filmmaker, but I want to provide realistic insight into the industry and its problems.

Other than that, I encourage aspiring filmmakers to build a trusted team and hone their craft. As someone who has never been to film school, finding talented collaborators is what enabled me to create cinematic films and fulfill my artistic vision.

The Thing That Ate the Birds - Sophie Mair & Dan Gitsham

Don't wait. Just do it. If you haven't got a budget, make films within your limitations, whether in your home, a location you can get, an actor you know, use what's around you. Hopefully, each film teaches you something new and will lead to new opportunities in the future. We've been rejected more times than we can remember, and, yes, it can be soul-destroying, but like all good masochists, we can't help but keep putting ourselves through it again. 

Here Before - Stacey Gregg

I didn't go directly into film, and it's important to know that you don't always have to. There are plenty of experiences and skills you can bring from other fields and specialisms that can enrich your approach or inform your perspective in a way that is singular. The main thing for me was creative relationships, seeking out like-minded collaborators. If you're in it for the long haul you need to know why you're doing it, and a creative community will keep that part of you nourished.

'Recovery'Credit: Brenna Empey

Recovery - Stephen Meek, Mallory Everton, Whitney Meek

Stephen: Flexibility is key. Love the process over the result. Find a team you trust. Every single one of these elements have made every project I've approached possible, especially when a lot of problems congregate at once.

Mallory: Don't be too precious with your first film. I'm not saying to phone it in, definitely give it everything you've got, but try and look at it as the first of many. If you put too much pressure on it, your desire to get it perfect the first time can paralyze you. The bottom line is if you do a good job and treat people with kindness, more work will come your way. 

Whitney: Just do it! I've been wanting to make a movie for years, and have always been held up by money. When my co-writer and I decided just to fund it ourselves, we saw the gears shift: we secured an investor, got into SXSW, have a sales team, etc. None of this would have happened if we'd sat at home with a script, bemoaning the fact that we didn't have enough funds to make our film! Do it, and then people will trust you to keep doing it.

Gaia - Jaco Bouwer

I'm a big believer in collaboration and teamwork. Perhaps it's from my theatre background but it should always be about the work, what the work needs and not ego.

Stuffed - Theo Rhys

Just jump in and make something for whatever you have. You might make some really bad films—but that's important, because you'll learn so much from each one you do. Also go shoot where you grew up, because you can get away with anything. People are really keen to help you if you say you grew up around here and I need some help with a film. Film is exciting, especially if you're not used to it—so use that to your advantage to get people involved. Use local forums on Facebook—they're so great for locations, props, or production help. Be cheeky and ask for the world, because people will give it to you!

'Swan Song'Credit: Chris Stephens

Swan Song - Todd Stephens

"Take your broken heart and make it into art"—Carrie Fisher.

A Tale Best Forgotten - Tomas Stark

Keep making films that are interesting for you. Be bold, take chances. And don't wait for big budgets, just do things.

Jakob's Wife - Travis Stevens

Choose your collaborators carefully.

'The Lost Sons'Credit: Giulio Biccari

The Lost Sons - Ursula Macfarlane

Don't let anyone tell you you can't do it. You can.  Although, you can't go it alone, so find your team (always work with the best people you can) and nurture them.  Be passionate and curious and remember that your voice is unique to you, and deserves to be heard.

Potato Dreams of America - Wes Hurley

There are no rules.  Create your own way of doing things that suits your circumstances.  

The Beauty President - Whitney Skauge

Learn to be your own advocate. You have to believe more than anyone else that you can do this. 

Ninjababy - Yngvild Sve Flikke

Be true to what you set out to do, it is easy to fool yourself to believe you want what other people say. However, you also have to open up and listen to other opinions, you can't make a movie on your own. This is one of the challenges a director needs to handle.      

For more, read our ongoing coverage of the 2021 SXSW Festival.

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