There are a lot of mistakes a new filmmaker can make. In this post, I’m going to point out some of the biggest and most common mistakes, so you can avoid them and make your film way better.
I’m Grayson Taylor, and these are ten filmmaking mistakes you must avoid making if you want to craft a film successfully. I have committed all of these mistakes at some point, but I’m here to show you how to steer clear of them.
Before we get into the mistakes, I think it’s important to make one thing clear. You are going to make a lot of mistakes. It’s inevitable that you’re going to make mistakes on your first films, and even your later ones. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes. I’ve learned a whole lot from making mistakes time and time again on my films. After all, once you make a mistake once, you’re a lot less likely to make it again.
So definitely don’t be afraid of making mistakes. The last thing I want you to do is be so petrified and concerned about making mistakes that you never make a film at all.
That said, here are ten mistakes I’ve made that you should avoid in your films.
#1: No Script
Having a screenplay for your film is essential to having a good story structure and clear arcs. Otherwise, you don’t really know where you’re going. And, while you can make your films up on the go, it generally won’t have as satisfying of an arc, and there might be plot holes or other mistakes.
The best way to ensure your film has a good story is to do all that work beforehand. Write out an entire script and go over it until it works. Revise and edit that script with input from others until it’s a satisfying, entertaining, and cohesive story.
I have made several films without a complete script to begin with. Often what I’ve done for films like Enigma Island and Dark Waters is to have an outline of the plot before, and even perhaps write out the character arc that I want the characters to undergo. However, that’s just not really detailed enough. You can make up lines while you’re shooting, but they won’t be as intelligent and effective as a line that you’ve written out beforehand and had time to think over.
When filming Enigma Island, I wrote and drew an outline of the film in a notebook just a few days before we shot it. This kind of rough outlining is fine for the preproduction phase, but this isn’t something you should be doing just a few days before you shoot your film. So plan out your film. Write a script and stick to it. Trust me, it’ll help.
#2: Too Ambitious
The second mistake is being too ambitious. If you’re like me, you don’t have millions of dollars to spend on your film. Be honest with yourself when you’re thinking about your film’s story. If you’re planning to make your film about a war in a sci-fi dystopian future, you should consider scaling back your idea. If you shoot for too ambitious of a concept, the result isn’t going to be that good.
I should say, ambitious filmmaking isn’t necessarily bad. After all, you need to take risks and, like I said before, make mistakes when you’re making your films. But there does come a point when you’re just trying to do too much.
So keep in mind your limitations. When you’re first making films, try to make them on a relatively small scale. You probably can’t enlist tons of actors for your project, so keep it down to a small cast. And you probably can’t make it a globe-trotting adventure, so try to set it in a relatively contained location that you have access to. And ideally, your film shouldn’t rely on special effects. We’ll get to that a little later.
You might try to cast kids, perhaps your friends, in roles that adults would be better suited for, but that only comes across as amateur. Look at what you have, and base your film off of that. Don’t look at a blockbuster film and try to make your own. Instead, start smaller and see what you can do within those limitations. It might seem quite limiting, but you’ll be surprised what you can come up with.
#3: Too Long
The third mistake is making your film too long or unfocused. You might attempt to make a feature film before you’re ready. Trust me, that’s a lot of work, and it’s something I’ve never even tried to do, for good reason. Making a film that long is a massive project, and it requires a lot of dedication and work. Besides, I think, at least when you’re getting started out, a better way to hone your skills is to make shorter projects.
Also, even if your film isn’t two hours long, it could still be too long. You could be including unnecessary details or shots. You need to make sure, especially in a short film, that you’re being as concise as possible. You don’t want to waste the viewer’s time.
Another consequence of not being concise enough is that you might damage your story’s structure. Having a proper story structure and narrative arc is very important. If you clutter up your film with all sorts of tangential subplots and characters, you’re just going to muddy down the story that you’re trying to tell. You want your film to convey emotion and meaning, but it can’t do that effectively if it’s too long or meandering.
Make sure you know what the focus of your film is. Not just in terms of plot or character, but also in terms of its message or theme.
The fourth major mistake you have to avoid is going too serious. Being melodramatic in your film is only going to damage it. You might want to make a really dramatic film, but be careful that you’re not sliding too far in that direction. If all your characters are crying every other scene, that’s probably a bad sign. Yes, it is important to have emotion in your film, and for some films, even a lot of it. But you don’t want to overwhelm your viewers.
You can try to counteract this by including humor in your films. Make sure there’s a good balance of emotion throughout the film, and that you’re not going too dark; because, if you try to go dark and fail, it’s going to look really bad.
#5: Bad Camerawork
Bad camerawork can entail anything from shakiness to poor composition to boring images. Film is a visual medium, and you want your film to look good. Part of the solution to this mistake is having the right equipment. A tripod will fix shakiness, obviously. But you don’t need fancy equipment to avoid bad camerawork.
You don’t have to have a really expensive camera to make good shots. When it comes to the composition of shots, which is basically how the shot is laid out, it doesn’t really matter what camera you’re using. One way to avoid bad composition is to storyboard your films. Storyboarding is when you draw out what the shots will look like before you film them. This allows you to be really intentional with where you’re placing the camera and the subjects.
Also, in terms of bad camerawork, I would avoid zooming. If you have a lot of zooms in your shot, that can achieve a sort of disorienting effect, and it can be good in some circumstances, but for the most part, I would avoid it.
Boring images are also something you should avoid. You should almost never shoot a subject against a blank wall, especially straight on. If you have two people talking too each other just standing still in the middle of an undecorated room, that’s going to look pretty boring. In some circumstances, that can be a stylistic choice, but for the most part, make sure that the camera is moving and your environment is interesting and that even the actors are moving.
#6: Telling, Not Showing
This is a problem that can be identified in your script. This often means that characters are discussing their emotions without actually displaying them. They might even say outright what the message of the story is, without you having communicated that visually.
It can also mean an excessive use of voiceovers to explain what’s going on. Exposition can be necessary in some cases, but since this is a visual medium, you should try to communicate everything with the camera alone, and only resort to dialogue to explain things when necessary. If you find your characters are telling the audience what they’re feeling, that’s probably not a good sign.
Of course, it's harder to communicate things visually instead of through dialogue. This is why it’s important to go through your script a number of times and edit it and revise it as much as possible until there is as little telling as possible and as much showing as possible.
Instead of having your characters state what they're feeling, try to communicate that through their actions and mannerisms and dispositions.
#7: Excessive Special Effects
Number seven is using excessive greenscreen and special effects. This is a mistake I made a lot with my earlier films, mostly because I was being too ambitious.
You should always try to shoot on location, instead of in front of a greenscreen. Especially if you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot of experience with using greenscreen and special effects, it’s always better to shoot on a real location. Using greenscreen just isn’t going to look that good. And besides, there’s a lot more you can do with an actual physical environment than with a digital background.
Once again, this is a problem that can be identified when you’re looking over your script. If you find that your script has a lot of explosions in it or flying people or spaceships or other crazy locations, try to see if you can remove those and still keep the story intact. If you can’t, then you’re probably being too ambitious. So go back to the drawing board and see if you can scale it down a bit.
Now, in one of my films like The Nature of Reality, special effects are kind of central to its core idea. I sort of got away with this because the special effects in their very nature are supposed to be sort of digital, but still, it is best to avoid effects whenever possible. You can sprinkle in a few effects here or there just to liven up your film, but again, be sparing with them, and make sure they look good. For example, in Last Words, there wasn’t actually a small fire in a field we shot in, so I had to add one in post.
#8: Terrible Editing
The eighth mistake to avoid is terrible editing. Often, this means that you’re cutting too much, leading to a choppy viewing experience, or you’re cutting too little, leading to a long and boring series of shots.
Be intentional with every cut and make sure it has a meaning. You don’t need to have a shot for every single step a person takes. On the other end of the spectrum, you might not be cutting enough. You might just let one shot drag on for way too long. You can cut out a lot of movements and dead space. It’ll really tighten up your film and make it a smoother experience.
Another way this mistake can manifest itself is in unnecessary shots. For example, you might have filmed a lot of great shots of a location, but even if they look good, don’t leave them all in. A lot of the editing process should be taking out anything that’s not essential to the story you’re trying to tell. I’ve made this mistake in films like Enigma Island, where, in the original version, I included way too many shots of the locations that didn’t contribute anything meaningful.
There are way more editing mistakes that I could get into. For example, using tacky transitions, having unnecessary credits, having bad title design, making a 24 frames-per-second video slow-motion. But that’s a topic for another time. For now, just keep in mind that your editing should be balanced. Not too many cuts, not too few.
#9: Bad Lighting
Bad lighting is a major noticeable mistake.
On the one hand, your shots might be overexposed. If you’re shooting on a really sunny day and haven’t adjusted your camera accordingly, everything might get blown out and you’ll lose a lot of detail. Everything will end up glowing and look way too bright.
On the other hand, if you’re shooting at night, things might look really grainy and dark, and you might not even be able to make out important details. This is an issue I’ve run into whenever I’m shooting at night. Because I’m not shooting in a studio, I don’t have big lights that can provide proper illumination. For that reason, I would avoid shooting at night unless you really have to.
Lighting can make your shot look beautiful, or atrocious. Don’t just trust your eyes; check the camera to make sure you’re getting enough detail. And make sure to familiarize yourself with your environment, and use any lights that are available wisely.
Lighting can also evoke a certain mood. A different temperature of light, different direction, or different contrast can create an entirely different atmosphere for your scene. If you’re shooting a scene of a regular family eating breakfast, don’t have harsh, cold lights. Make sure that your lighting is not only adequate, but also fits the situation that you’re filming. Color and light can be very evocative, so use them wisely.
#10: Bad Music and Sound Design
Using the wrong music or sound effects can absolutely ruin a good scene. Sound is half of an audio-visual experience.
If your sound effects or music don’t match what’s going on onscreen, it’s going to create a lot of dissonance in the viewer’s mind, and really disrupt the feel of a scene. If someone drops their keys, and you hear a deep metal boom, that’s not the right sound. If you’re playing dance music over a death scene, you should probably reconsider your choice, unless that’s the style you’re going for.
And also make sure that the music you’re using isn’t too dramatic for what’s going on. One way I get around this is by composing the music for my own films. I haven’t done this for all of my films, but for The Nature of Reality and Last Words, and for several of my films in the future, I’ve written the scores myself. That really allows the soundtrack to be very customized to the film. (You can listen to my music here.)
You don’t have to write the soundtrack for your film. If you have a friend who makes music, you could contact them and see if they would be willing to do it. But writing a film score isn’t necessarily as hard as you might think it is. Well, writing a good film score… that’s harder.
But I don’t have much musical composition training, and I just use Garageband, a free app, to create my scores. Whether it’s good music, you can judge for yourself, but at least it fits the film.
So those are my top ten beginner filmmaker mistakes. I hope you’ve learned some things to look out for in your own films, and maybe enjoyed looking back with me at some of the mistakes I’ve made.
Once again, you are going to make mistakes. It’s inevitable. And that’s fine! But you can take steps, like avoiding the mistakes I’ve mentioned here, to make your films better.
Tell me in the comments below which mistakes you've made, or which you'd like to avoid. If you want to watch the video versions of these blog posts, head over to my YouTube channel here, and subscribe for videos on writing and publishing.
– Grayson Taylor