A still from a Top Screen 2017 film
Stories & Ideas

Mon 08 May 2017

Nine tips every aspiring filmmaker needs to know

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Your museum of screen culture

Past Top Screen filmmakers pass on their best advice for young directors and content creators

Pop culture tells us that filmmaking is a glamorous industry filled with opportunities and fame – if you’re bold enough to chase after it. But if you look beyond the surface, you’ll find that successful filmmakers are hardworking professionals who are passionate about bringing stories to life. They come from all walks of life with different goals and aspirations, but the same drive and determination to get the job done.

If you're keen to live the dream behind the camera, there are heaps of opportunities you can explore before you leave high school, starting with choosing Media as an elective or VCE/VET subject.

Another great way to get started is to check out Top Screen. Part of the annual VCE Season of Excellence, the Top Screen film festival showcases the best VCE media films, including creative and original narratives, music clips and animations.

On 19 May you could also check out Beyond Top Screen, a special panel discussion with past Top Screen participants. Top Screen alumni Shing Hei Ho, Josh O’Keefe and Mary McGillivray will be discussing their careers and achievements since finishing VCE.

We recently caught up with these three filmmakers to chat about their filmmaking practice and ask their top tips for success.

Top Screen winner Shing Hei Ho

Shing Hei Ho

Life since Top Screen

After Top Screen I continued to make short films with school friends in our spare time. We had fun making these films, and often entered local council competitions for a chance to see them on the big screen. This continued throughout my time studying architecture, where I discovered how similar the spatial design process was to filmmaking. Since then, I’ve experimented with video installations and have made films documenting buildings for architects.

I’m in my final year of a documentary filmmaking degree at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). I’m currently working on a 20-minute film looking at the people and depots of a public bus company in Melbourne.

My typical day

A day at the VCA might begin with a screening of a documentary or two followed by a group discussion. The afternoon could be spent in a technical workshop to familiarise ourselves with equipment and techniques, or in a lecture exploring a particular category of doco films each week. If I’m not working on my project treatment in the evening or doing research for it, I’m most likely watching more films!

Top 3 tips for aspiring filmmakers

  1. Technique over technology
    Don’t get caught up in trying to find the best equipment possible; learn about framing and lighting—things you can use when working with any camera. I’ve been able to get used to complicated equipment quickly by having explored what the settings on smaller cameras do.
  2. Be resilient
    Be ready for rejection and don’t take it personally. For my Top Screen film, I approached seven fish and chip shops before finding one that would let us film inside.
  3. Be curious and engage your creativity
    Have interests outside of filmmaking and be curious about what’s happening around you. Your interests can often spark ideas for new films or offer different ways of thinking about stories. Also, making a film about something you’re interested in is the perfect excuse to learn more about it!
Top Screen winner Josh O'Keefe

Josh O'Keefe

Life since Top Screen

I studied Animation and Interactive Media at RMIT but then changed gears and completed a Bachelor of Film and Television at Swinburne. After finishing my degree I set myself up as a freelance artist, now working from a studio in Northcote with a talented bunch of lunatics. I’ve worked on music videos, animated TV shows, album art, skate video design, animated logos, film trailers, event visuals, cinema screen content and other conceptual work for exhibitions.

My typical work day

It really depends what I’m working on, but I usually arrive at the studio, respond to a few emails, doodle in my sketchbook and then write a list of everything I want to finish that day. Then I get stuck into my projects.

Top 3 tips for aspiring filmmakers

  1. Be strategic with your work self
    As a freelancer you need to create strategies to help you be as productive as possible – there’s no one breathing down your neck telling you to work faster. Plan your projects and stick to deadlines. When I’m passionate about a project I can get addicted to the creative process, and usually end up working late into the night.
  2. Collaborate
    Collaboration is key – one plus one equals three! There’s a big creative surge happening in Melbourne right now. There are a lot of local creators charging ahead on the world stage – we should all feel very blessed to be a part of it and not be afraid to work together. There’s no way I’d be able to do my work without the friends I’ve collaborated with along the way and their support.
  3. Play while you study
    After high school, I joined a band of mercenaries at an Animation studio called Oh Yeah Wow. We worked on a whole bunch of projects utilising traditional animation, stop-motion and other experimental techniques while I was studying at university. This was great creative fuel for my studies and helped expand upon what I was learning at uni.
Top Screen winner Mary McGillivray

Mary McGillivray

Life since Top Screen

I am studying an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne while working on many (paid and unpaid) film and video productions. I have been trying my hand at everything from cooking videos to documentaries, and have recently found a passion for animation and music videos. Creating visuals for music is particularly exciting to me, and I’m lucky enough to know a wide variety of musicians. I have had the chance to work with bands, classical pianists and experimental synth artists.

My typical work day

I spend mornings in my studio working on projects - editing, animating, printmaking, or inspiring my creativity with reading. In the afternoons I attend classes at the University of Melbourne studying Art History.

Top 3 tips for aspiring filmmakers

  1. Build a network
    Reach out to people who share similar interests and form a community around you. It’s easy to feel like you have to do it all alone, and sometimes it’s hard to break into an area of the film industry you want to work in. Building your own communities is the best way to make a place for yourself where you can thrive, and allows you to network with other creative individuals.
  2. You can do great things on small budgets
    Don’t worry about having the “best” or most expensive cameras and film equipment. Amazing films can be made on anything, even a phone camera, if you know how to use it well. Know your equipment back to front and get the most out of a small budget. You can get cheaper lights and stands at hardware shops, use cardboard or foam core from your local art shop as make-shift bounce boards, and curtain backing fabric as blacks. The only thing you should never skimp on is gaffer tape.
  3. Story is key
    In any film or animation project, always prioritise your story/idea. It easy to get carried away with camera techniques, art direction and special effects, and forget why you’re really there: to tell a story, showcase a piece of music, or make people laugh.