Student Films, and What Not To Do

This is a post that I’ve had tucked away for a while, constantly updating the pros and cons to the situation that is Student Films. There are a lot of things that constitute student films, why more often than not we receive the, “it looks good,” but realistically nothing more than a nice try but I see you’re still learning.

I am not going to beat around the bush on this topic since any justification would make the tips pointless.

Accept someone is going to be better than you

Harsh I know, especially for an opening argument, but I believe this is the best advice to give on all life skills. Everybody looks up to somebody – my idols have idols, that aren’t particularly my idols (if that makes sense). It is these people who make your aspiration better, and you better, but not necessarily what you should be doing.

Everybody is an individual player in the world, and especially in filmmaking you’re going to have an edge to make any mark in the industry. Copying someone else is a great way to get recognised for all the wrong reasons. You’ll find out soon enough that you’ll be referred as the “{blank} wannabe”. It’s not a title you want, you want to be recognised for your own work so do that.

Simplicity is the key

You begin writing, and you’re pretty keen on testing out a special effect you’ve learnt – yes, I’ve done this – so you revolve the entire story around this one effect. Soon enough you’re compensating the story to match the effect, and by the end of the script its simply a showreel, and not something an audience can be apart of.

Sometimes the greatest films are about the smallest, insignificant thought in the entire world. It relies more on believing and living with the character than observing and judging. How many times have you watched a short your friend made that was boring, or something on YouTube that simply is effect after effect? It’s not filmmaking. It’s not.

With this, I like to mention two microfilms Boy Friends (2012) by Hieu Chau, and Content (2012 – Unreleased) by Michael Bowen, Jonathan Demos, and myself. Both videos go for under two minutes, but have lot more impact and story than any longer production. That’s not saying the longer films are not good, but it’s evidence that shorter, and simpler films are better off.

Grade and stylise

What’s going to differentiate you from the crowd at a student level is the ability to grade. Don’t over do it, and make it extremely contrasted, as well as over saturating. But then again, don’t make it too artistic or else you’re just wanting to be singled out. The role of grading is to add some punch to the image, while making it so unobtrusive that it “just feels right”.

Before and after grading of Derby Wives

An example of subtle colour grading is a short documentary called Derby Wives (2012) by Matt Horne, that revolves around the notion of the grungy roller derby environment. As you can see, there’s a difference between the before and after. It’s not intruding on the image, or changes it beyond initial recognition but suits itself to the film adding edge to the story.

Before and after grading of Derby Wives
No movement

Taxi Driver moves away from Robert De Niro playing Travis Bickle
A quick one – try and move the camera. Make it steady, and smooth too. Far too many times you’ll see student films that are static shot after static shot and that can be really boring if there is no rhythm to the editing, or reasoning behind it. Just try moving the camera it makes life exciting.

Bad audio


If you’re confident that you’re visual aesthetic is down pat, or simply don’t care (suggestion: don’t make films), chances are that your audio is crap shit. It’s most likely, popping, hissing, too low, too loud, in a bathtub/hall or windy, and you think that post is just going to fix it. “But I can bump the gain up in post”, “I can dehum/declick/decrackle in post,” I hear you say. Sure these are great plugins and features included in software, but you must look at it realistically.

The volume, amplification, or gain feature will only work if you have clean audio to begin with. Isolate a section of your audio where no talking occurs, and crank the volume to 11. If you can hear a hum, click, crackle then when you amplify the vocals on that track, well the crap is going to be hear too.

And for a quick tip on audio, I have never heard an audience member or viewer of any performance come out and say, “they had clean audio,” but rather you’re more likely to hear, “that audio was crap.” Why? Because people can see faults easier than praises, and when it comes to audio people are more likely to turn off than endure.

Next, the plugins of dehum/declick/decrackle. These additions were added to my knowledge in the software ranging in the early 2000s, and were the prime use when people wanted to get their records and cassette tapes into MP3s. The formula the plugins use aren’t so you can film horrible audio, it’s so people can listen to music that they own and can restore.

Pro Tip: Always have headphones plugged into the camera and listen while recording. Preferably, use another microphone than the one inbuilt, as that will pick up EVERYTHING, compared to a unidirectional. If the image looks great but the audio is bad, record again. You can always mix and match the vision and audio, but can never fix bad audio.


Pretty simple. Don’t use it. There is no rule of less than 10, 20, or 30 seconds and its free. And you can’t get away with Fair Use, because well you’d most likely be making films for profit or broadcast. There are many new great places to get your music from under the Creative Commons library. Just make sure it’s for commercial use, and attribute the artist accordingly.

Pro tip:No more using Eye of the Tiger in fight scenes!

Some other tips from around the inter web

Vertigo Effect (Dolly-Zoom) – Frank Glencairn
No question. This is the most egregious, blatantly non-creative, non-cool, total student film red flag. Sure, Hitchcock used it in Vertigo, Spielberg used it Jaws, but enough is enough. It’s cliched, overused, goofy, and overall a bad idea.

I saw this in TropFest 2012 Australia, in the short film Lemonade Stand (around the 2:25 mark), and thought, “this is so cliché, oh why oh why!”

The Tortured Artist Film – Frank Glencairn
The story goes like this. A struggling artist (writer/painter/sculptor/musician — 90% of the time, it’s a writer) grapples with some sort of inner conflict, (a dead relative, writers deadline, religious confusion, etc). Our tormented soul encounters a muse (beautiful woman, endearing older character, magical artifact, etc) who helps the protagonist come to a sort of realization which ultimately opens the creative floodgates and allows the character to succeed (finish the novel, paint the painting, sculpt the likeness of the muse, or perform at the big recital). The Tortured Artist Film usually involves a so-called “man vs. himself” struggle which is guaranteed to put you to sleep in the first two minutes. Related to this is the “introspective shot” which usually features the main character staring into space for a good minute (usually smoking a cigarette). File this under “Pretentious as Shit.”

I’ve seen this too many times, and even wrote a couple of scripts along these lines. I was however, clever enough to see they were absolute shit.

Scene One: The protagonist wakes up – Frank Glencairn
There’s nothing INHERENTLY wrong with starting a film with the buzz of an alarm clock, a hand slapping the snooze button, eyes fluttering open, followed by a yawn or an “oh my god, I’m late!” – But why so much of this? We see it all the time. It’s as if the writer/director woke up one morning, looked around and said “Wow. This is cool!” Uh yeah. Better go back to sleep.

This is widely over used, so much so, that FreddieW even made a mock opening of this (below), and their behind the scenes even reinforcing the notion this is a bad idea.

Zooms – Frank Glencairn
There is nothing that screams more “hobby filmer” than zooming in or out. If your camera has a zoom – just disable and forget it.

I agree to this in the sense that the zoom function isn’t the same as tracking. You will not get the same light fall, angle, and picture if you zoom over tracking. Lesson: TRACK not zoom.

Stop saying your film is an “homage” – Christian Krauspe
Chances are, you’re probably making a Tarantino homage. An homage to a director who makes homages. In other words, a copy of a copy. Yes, it’s true we derive our creative impulses from other artists, but don’t use it as a crutch to avoid be creative yourself.

The Kalamazoo Film Festival is not the end-all, be-all of filmmaking society – Christian Krauspe
It’s okay. Calm down. Sure, you may miss the deadline this year. But there is literally another film festival every week somewhere in the world. All of them probably have more prestige than the film festival that takes place in the back of your local Applebees.

This I agree 100%. There is a hierarchy to film festivals, and that takes years of perfection on their account, but if your film is good enough it will eventually make it around the circuit – even if your first festival isn’t the best. On that note, check out the Calendar to see what is upcoming!