Spotlight on Digital Filmmaking - Tools of the Trade

Everyone has his or her own story to tell, and actors have a lot of them, notes Patrick DiRenna, co-owner of Digital Film Academy. "Actors are surprising resources of good stories," he says. "They've got life stories, acting stories, experiences they've been through. Actors who are finding that they're not working or feel that things are stagnating should really be encouraged to produce their own work."

Now that digital technology is making the tools of filmmaking that much more accessible to budding auteurs of all stripes, the time has never been better to tell those stories. The equipment involved in digital filmmaking—handheld cameras, computer editing programs—is affordable and accessible to the masses, making it easier and less intimidating for aspiring filmmakers to produce their own movies. "[Digital filmmaking is] putting everything in your hands," says DiRenna. "It is making it do-able for people who have the talent to make their own work. It's accessible, it's here for people who want to make films. There's really no reason not to be making them."

That said, the process of getting your project off the ground is still a daunting one. What good is a digital camera or a fancy editing program if you don't know what to do with it? But thanks to rapidly increasing interest in digital filmmaking, there are a variety of classes out there for all levels of aspiring filmmakers—from intensive step-by-step courses to workshops that focus on a single element of the process to seminars for film school grads looking for a boost into the professional world.

At the most basic level, there are plenty of quick workshops available for folks looking to pick up a new skill or learn a new program. Because one of the chief allures of digital filmmaking is the relative ease with which one can edit footage, some of the most popular short courses are devoted to editing programs, such as Avid Xpress DV and Apple's Final Cut Pro. Benjamin Hershleder, an Avid certified instructor who has taught at the Hollywood-based Moviola Digital Education Center (323-467-1116 or and Video Symphony in Burbank (800-871-2843 or, says there's a lot of information packed into, say, a three-day introductory course on one of these systems.

Still, don't expect to be an expert at the end of the weekend. "You're not going to get a job instantaneously from taking a class," he cautions. "But you're going to get an incredible amount of information that just reduces the amount of time it's going take you to get to know the system. Essentially what I tell people is that you're learning a language. Think of it as learning how to speak French or Italian. You don't walk into a class and instantaneously know all the verbs and how to speak it fluently. You have to practice." To contact Hershleder, visit www.contactben .com.

Within Range

Short-term classes such as these provide budding filmmakers with the knowledge of an essential tool—but for the most part, don't expect to get into much beyond that. "The class isn't going to talk about aesthetics, really," says Hershleder. "It's going to say, 'Here's the tool, here's how you use this tool, here are the possibilities.' "

If you're looking to take things a step further but still don't want to commit to a long-term course, consider this: Some facilities offer a series of short workshops that forms a more complete picture of the digital filmmaking process. The Ojai-based DV Camps has several two- or three-day workshops that cover camera, lighting, sound, and editing. The workshops bring all these elements together by having students shoot and edit a two-minute dramatic scene. "It's really something targeted to get people up and running quickly, and give them the best knowledge that we can that will get them going on their projects," says co-founder Geoff Zimmerman. "We'll give them a filmmaking primer, basically. It's principally a hands-on, get-out-and-do-it type of thing." Classes range from $300 to $500 per workshop (800-525-5854 or

Another example is IFP/LA's Digital Seminar, a series of workshops, equipment demonstrations, and visits to post-production facilities that started earlier this month and runs through July 8. Upcoming events include sessions on editing, digital effects, and animation and titles. Member prices are $250 for a series pass and $35 for a single sessions; $350 and $50 for the general public (310-432-1222 for reservations, or

For the budding digital filmmaker who wants to experience making a film from start to finish, there are a variety of step-by-step courses designed to take you through that process and sometimes beyond. Most of these courses take students through several stages of digital filmmaking in an accelerated period. These stages might include screenwriting, production, and editing. New York Film Academy, for example, has a full-time digital course that runs for five weeks; a part-time, three-month version is also available. In this period, students complete three projects. "The program runs at at least double speed, so it's close to a semester of full-time work, doing it in five weeks," says Michael Young, provost of NYFA. "It's very intensive. If they're not in class or shooting, that means they're writing, casting, finding locations, editing the films they just finished." However, the class is not cheap; it costs $3,500 (212-674-4300, 800-611-3456 or

In some of these courses, the focus is not just on getting your first film made but also on getting your career started. Students of DFA's 14-week digital filmmaking program—a full-time, eight-week version is also available—leave with a DVD they've authored themselves, which is a tangible product of their time spent in the course. "You leave not just with training," says DiRenna. "If you go out into the world and you try to work for people, they're going to say, 'Show me something.' So you have something to show."

While learning how to operate the camera and figuring out your story beats are key steps in the process, some of these step-by-step digital filmmaking courses take things to another level, focusing on creating an atmosphere of support for the students and a community that will benefit them in the industry. "We help people get work—people we feel are qualified, who are doing a good job, who are putting the time in and learning," says DiRenna. Part of this support includes unlimited lab time and a $5,000 production grant awarded to one member of each graduating class. Frederic Colier, who took the course last summer, says this type of community is what sets the DFA program apart from other film classes he's taken. "[There] is an open-door policy here. You can drop in anytime you want; there are no restrictions," he says. The short that Colier made during the course, Of Wanderlust, recently took home the Bronze Award for Best Short Drama at the WorldFest Houston Film Festival. The DFA course is $3,995 (212-333-4013 or

Corey Blake, one of the founders of the upcoming yearlong 1421/E9K Film Lab Intensive, says he and his lab partners are also looking to create a spirit of community while assisting students in producing their own short films. Blake, who is also an actor, wants to create an environment that is creatively rewarding, particularly for actors looking to branch out into filmmaking. "As actors in Hollywood, until you come to celebrity status, you're on the low end of the totem pole," he says. "If you participate in a television show or a commercial, when you get on-set it's not an emotionally rewarding experience, for the most part, until you start getting bigger roles. The way to create a more emotionally rewarding journey as participants in the entertainment industry is to take charge and to be a part of something that is more dynamic."

A Bridge to the Industry

Blake also wants participants in the lab to be aware of the films they're making in a greater context. To that end, the lab will include sections on topics like public relations, fundraising, festivals, and distribution. "Once you make the decision that you're going to make a film and there's no turning back, once you have that attitude, people jump on and people get excited, so handling public relations and making sure that people are continually aware of the project helps create a momentum and an energy around it," he says. The L.A.–based 1421/E9K Film Lab Intensive will begin on June 19; applications are due June 9. Blake and his partners also plan to launch a lab in New York in October; applications for that are due Oct. 13. Tuition is $1,200 for the L.A. Lab and $1,500 for the New York version; payment plans are available (213-716-3563 or

Daniele J. Suissa, founder of The Academy of Converging Arts, also believes in a comprehensive approach to the process. By the time students graduate from her Jump Short Your Career course, they have a short film, a marketing package, and an idea of where to take their product. In addition Suissa tries to make the environment as industry-like as possible. "The process [students] will use to make the [short] film is completely carbon copied to the process of making a feature film in the industry," she says. "They have the same preparation, the same meetings with all their departments."

Don't expect to enter this course as a novice, however. It is designed, says Suissa, to serve as a bridge between film school and the industry. Students are expected to arrive with a script and are heavily mentored by industry professionals. "It's not a teaching process; it's a completely mentoring process," says Suissa. The course can either be taken in two parts or as one 10-week class. The cost for the 10-week course is $6,995; the two shorter courses cost $2,450 for four weeks and $4,925 for six weeks (818-509-1182 or

No matter what kind of course you decide on, there are at least two key things that instructors want you to remember. First, practice makes perfect, and it's especially important to keep that in mind as you become accustomed to new technology. "I tell people, 'You need to shoot your film three times,'" says DiRenna. "The first time is just to do it and go, 'Oh, my God, what a mess!' Do it again so you fix everything you did, and now, when you set up these lights, it's no longer the first time that you're setting up the lights. These first dozen times that you do something, you're going to change leaps and bounds every time."

And just because you're saving money by shooting on digital, don't think that gives you more leeway to slack off. "I think there is a tendency or a problem with shooting on video that people may basically just hit 'on' and point the camera for a while, look for a shot, and eventually turn it off," says Young. "[At NYFA], we're asking people—even though it doesn't cost a lot for videotape—to really justify their shot choices, to find the right shot, the right angle, the right lens choice for every shot. Some people approach video as a recording device rather than as a storytelling device."

Adds Blake, "The story is the thing. The wonderful thing about digital filmmaking is, the medium doesn't matter if the material is fantastic, if the acting is great, if the directing is appropriate."

In the end, you have to believe in the story you're telling. As DiRenna pointed out, it's probably a great one. And he's not the only one who believes in actors making films. "I love when actors go to the other side [of the camera]," says Suissa. "They have so much to bring." BSW