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Start acting like an Amateur if you want to be a Professional one day

Aspiring Filmmaker - Professional Filmmaker.

I think we have a problem, a deeply flawed sense of what these two monikers mean. And in the digital age of the internet free-for-all, the problem is getting Worse.

This post may feel like a rant, but if you bare with me i promise to get to a positive and constructive point by the end.

Here goes…

Would all you multi-hyphenate, DSLR shooting, one-man-band, editor / director / screenwriter / colour-grader / filmmakers, with your ultra-shallow depth-of-field, Vimeo hosted music-video showreels - who have never actually had a paid professional gig in your life - please, for the love of God, SHUT THE FUCK UP…!

Please Stop blogging, please Stop tweeting, please Stop dispensing advice or setting up websites with your ‘pro’ techniques and commentary, please Stop propagating fallacy and ignorance, please Stop offering your opinions on what is or isn’t Cinematic, Please Stop signing your signature with a litany of job titles just because you own a fist-full of software plug-ins and a Mac. Please Stop Pretending…

Deep breath…

Ok, Allow me to qualify my consternation. 

There has been a distinct trend shift over the past decade in the way we discuss and use the term ‘professional’ particularly in relation to the screen media production. Once upon a time the term Professional had a very specific meaning - a doctor, priest or lawyer - specialized positions of trust. Later the term broadened and embodied a person who makes a living from a knowledge-based art or craft and is hence denoted as belonging to a ‘profession’. The word ‘profession’ derives from someone who ‘professes’  for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.

However the moniker of Professional seems now to be adopted not just by those who possess specialist knowledge and make a living from that knowledge, but also by those who simply claim to have a professional attitude, a professional mindset, a professional demeanor irrespective of whether they actually make a professional living from that knowledge or even whether they possess that knowledge or experience at all. In short, the notion of a screen media ‘professional’ has been watered down into a evaporating puddle of mediocrity and irrelevance.

Now certainly many praise the breakdown of such hierarchies and the, so called, democratization of creative screen production. And moreover, many companies have made a whole shit load of money selling stuff because of this breakdown (witness FCPX which will make 100x more money for Apple than FCP ever did) And I would be the first to champion the dynamism and vibrancy of a society as a whole when creative engagement is undertaken at a popular grass-roots level. To this I raise my glass in full and vocal support. 

However, there is a downside to this watering down that i feel compelled to point out.

Now, don’t get me wrong - acting ‘professionally’ is certainly an admirable quality and one certainly doesn’t need to be a working professional, to act ‘professionally’. (and arguably theres a lot of ‘professionals’ who rarely display ‘professionalism’) But acting professionally and having a professional attitude is Not the same as actually being a Professional. And to confuse the two is to do yourself a great disservice. Very often such delusion will deny or hinder opportunities to actually become a real professional.

Let us also not confuse Professional with Art. You, of course, do Not need to be a professional to make art. Indeed there is arguably no direct connection between the two at all. A Professional-Writer for example may occasionally write art - personally motivated creative expression - but more often a Professional-Writer will more likely be writing for a living - writing to commission, writing to a brief. In such acts of writing, ‘art’ is either incidental or a bonus rather than a requirement or goal. 

This again is the difference between the amateur and the professional. An aspiring filmmaker may spend a decade making art they love in an artform they are passionate about, even producing work of quality. And yet never actually be a ‘professional’ and make a living from it. Which is to say, they never need to have a daily rigor of discipline and deep knowledge-base to produce their art, but which would be crucial to day-to-day making a living from it.

So, having made these distinctions (not as a value judgement of worth but as tangible fact about what a ‘professional’ is) we can make a broad assumption about most Aspiring Filmmakers - that they actually do desire to make a living from it and build a professional reputation over a life-long career. Thus I come to my argument - that those calling themselves ‘Professional’ before they actually are, do their ambition no good.

My reasoning is very simple. The people best placed to be able to help them fulfill their ambition of becoming working professionals are those who already are working Professionals. They are the people who may hire you, give you work experience, introduce you to people, be your referee or recommend you for gigs. They may also mentor, teach, advise or guide you.

BUT, if you jump the gun and declare and pretend yourself a Professional, an expert, before you’ve earned it, then those Professionals will see right through your fraud and will likely Not have any interest in helping you. 

(I will refrain from naming names; needless to say a swathe of websites, bloggers and vocal ‘filmmaker’ online personalities and forums spring to mind that clearly fit the category of the fraud attempting to pose themselves as a professional; pretense at being a bastion of knowledge and experience when they have scant of either. I will leave these sites and individuals nameless for now in the hope that they will do some examination of self and realise their folly.)

Allow me to use myself as a case study. I call myself a professional for one simple reason; I’ve never worked in any other industries. I’ve never had a ‘day job’. Writing, shooting, editing and, in more recent years, teaching screen production is all I have ever done. Those skills and knowledge have in turn lead to opportunities in ancillary roles as critic, curator and commentator on screen production and even software development of tools for filmmakers. My profession has also taken me across mediums - from film, TV and radio, to online, live events and gallery spaces - fiction and documentary. This is how I make my living and along the way I’ve done many years of post-graduate formal training and study to continually make my profession viable as a living. It has taken nearly 20 years to get to a point where I now no longer have to hunt work, make a very comfortable living, and have some degree of flexibility to pick and choose projects that interest me creatively. My job is a working profession.

Now imagine what happens when the Wannabe fraud filmmaker described above - who calls themselves a professional but whose skills, knowledge and opinions are wafer thin - encounters someone like yours truly, who has taken decades to build a career and knowledge base in order to sustain their professiona as a living.

It’s not a fight that happens, or an argument or even angry words. or even some sort of snobbish exchange. What happens by and large, online and off, is…. Nothing. The Wannabe filmmaker armed with their DSLR’s, software plugins, blog website, Vimeo account, and a dangerous mix of ignorance and arrogance, is simply ignored; dismissed as irrelevant by the greater working professional industry.

The sad truth is that, despite the accessibility of both the tools of production and the means of distribution, the great champions of the successive DV, HDV and DSLR “revolutions” are generally NOT working professionals. They are NOT making a living from their craft. And whilst some may produce interesting creative works, their opinions and perspectives on ‘industry’ and ‘practice’, ‘aesthetics’ and ‘form’, rarely have any basis in real experience. 

Don’t get me wrong, Thats absolutly a-ok. They don’t Have to make a living to make art or contribute to the greater creative consciousness of the world. BUT, if they do wish to be a professional (in the purest sense of the word) then declaring their expertise in excess of their experience is NOT the way to achieve that goal. It doesnt help, it just makes them look stupid and arrogant to the people who could otherwise help them in their ambition.

The anti-film school wannabes seem to think that by avoiding, bypassing, ignoring or circumventing formal training they also bypass the label of ‘Aspiring’. The sense of entitlement the so-called digital revolution inspires, convinces them they can jump straight to being the ‘real thing’ simply by saying they are and avoiding a position where they would have to admit to not knowing. Which is what film school is, a place where you go to learn what you don’t know. Thus a student is invariably someone who admits that they don’t know and seeks to change that. 

On the flip side, this disease of the pseudo-professional filmmaker-fraud knows no bounds. I’m just as dismayed by the number of film school students who seem only to have enrolled in order to validate what they think they already are rather than learn what they don’t know. Film school is a waste of time for such people and teaching them is painful because they arent there to learn, they are there to prove.

Without doubt, the key to learning and success is being able to know what you don’t know and finding a path to remedy that situation. Inside or outside of film school there seem far too many who are blind to this truism. The broad rejection of learning and knowledge that prevails in western societies is surely the reaosn why, despite having so many cameras and so many screens and so many opportunities, we’re still making a lot of crap. 

But, I think the answer is really very simple. 

It’s time we reclaimed the word ASPIRING as a prestigious descriptor rather than a term to be circumvented or avoided. To say you are Aspiring is constructive. To say you are Aspiring is honest. Rare qualities in an online and interconnected world filled with fraudulent voices pretending to be something they have no claim yet to be and dispensing knowledge they don’t have the experience to understand.

In short, my message to those who may be guilty of these crimes (yes, you know who you are) is this - Start acting like an Aspiring Amateur rather than a Pretending Professional and I think you’ll find you get to your goal of making a living as a professional a lot quicker. Start acting like someone who wants to learn and knows they have much to learn openly and honestly, rather than slipping into the pit of self-delusion that will result in nothing but the perpetuation of ignorance. Be careful who you read, choose your sources carefully, check the ‘about’ page of the website to see if the author has credability. Cross-check opinions on technology and technique with writers who do know what they are talking about. I am a vivacious reader of websites and blogs about production technology but I can assure that 16 out of every 20 websites and blogs I encounter propogate nothing but fallacies, innacuracies and misunderstandings. To be an effective Learner you need to have good powers of critical-thinking to sift through the bullshit. Because there is a whole lot of Bullshit out there.

True Professionals are more likely to take you seriously and be inclined to help you if you dont try and pretend to be something you’re not. The honesty and openness of being Apsiring is much more productive than the close-minded arrogance of the fraud-professional. 

What is crucial to remember is that whilst anyone can make something, not everyone can or will be TRUSTED to make something with someone else’s money. This is the difference between the Fraud and the Professional. Professional screen production is ultimately a trust game. I was recently discussing this idea with Kris Wilde - arguably one of Australia’s most successful television writers and creator of outstanding crime drama series such as Wildside and EastWest 101. Kris commented that the idea that a great project, talent or script will ultimately win out is a myth. The only thing that matters is Trust. And Trust has to be built up over time. Trust has to be earned. This is true at every level; from a kick-starter indie project, to a major international production. Thus your ability to make a living from your knowledge and skills is based almost solely on how much people trust you and how well that trust is warranted.

And quite frankly the brigade of DSLR-wielding, Vimeo showreel hosting, film-tech blogging, aficionados spouting their multi-hyphenate job titles, have absolutely Zero Trust Value in the grand scheme of things.

So, Stop pretending - if you are an Aspiring Amateur then proudly say so - you’ll learn more and have people far more willing to help you and offer you opportunities. But if you persist with being a fraud, with pretending your merit exceeds your experience, if you insist on calling yourself a professional when you clearly are not making a living in the profession, then the only people who will buy into your trust value will be other frauds and non professionals. 

If you would like one day to make a living making screen media, then start acting like an Amateur. You’ll get there faster.

Heres a few websites that have the good-oil - written by folks who truly know what they are talking about…

And, Trawling the plethora of websites of online fraud-pros that embody the issues above, I have concluded the following golden rules which apparently equate to being a ‘Professional DSLR filmmaker’.

  • The shallower the Depth of Field, the more professional you are. 
  • Always shoot aperture wide open despite the fact that wide-open is where the lens is least sharp, least clear and least effective.
  • Always matte to 2.40:1 despite the fact that it throws away 1/3 of the screen real-estate when your entire audience will watch on a 16:9 TV.
  • The dirtier the image the better; Lens flare, grain and artifacts are what make you a Pro. If you cant shoot them, add them in post.
  • Use the word ‘industry standard’ a lot. It allows you to validate yourself by your tools when you cant validate yourself by experience.
  • Avoid ‘narrative’ and ‘meaning’ at all costs. The mark of the real Pro is dreamy showreels of clouds and sunsets scored by Sigur Ros Radiohead music tracks on Vimeo.
  • Colour Grading always begins with a Bleach-Bypass filter.
  • Always have actors walk into focus (preferably with a melancholy expression). It makes you and them look cool. It’s a win win.
  • Ignore sound, it doesn’t matter. They’ll be listening to your ripped Sigur Ross Radiohead tracks anyway.
  • Size matters. Always make your camera look as bulky as possible with as many handles, follow-focus knobs and cables hanging off it as you can.
  • Rack-Focus everything. Professionalism is directly proportional to how many focus moves you can squeeze into a shot. It also helps you justify the cost of the follow-focus rig.
  • No one will take you seriously unless you use Prime lenses for everything. 



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