5 Biggest Filmmaking Mistakes

documentary filmmaking

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When I first picked up my parents Handycam, over 20 years ago, I was overflowing with filmmaking enthusiasm, but I had very little talent or skill. I just filmed anything and everything that I found interesting or exciting. Since then I’ve I’ve had the opportunity to make commercials for brands such as Google and Canon and create documentaries that have gone on to win awards and have screened around the world. But because I had no mentor when I first started out, I made a lot of mistakes and it took me a long time to get to where I am today.

It can be hard admitting that you’ve made a mistake, especially if you’re an experienced professional, but we all make mistakes as we’re all human and as long as we acknowledge our mistakes, apologise to anyone that it might have affected negatively and learn from them - it’s the most effective way to improve and grow. Even today, 20 years after I first picked up a camera, I’m still making mistakes and trying to work out how I can improve and get better

I’m now going to run through the 5 biggest filmmaking mistakes I made when I was first starting out as a filmmaker and the lessons I learned from them.

1) Not creating a shot list


When I first started making films I didn’t realise that I needed to spend time planning out a shoot. Instead, when I had an idea I would just pick up a camera and start filming, without a plan or much thought into how it would look and feel. This was exciting and gratifying.

But then I would get to the edit and I’d feel overwhelmed because there was so much footage and because I hadn’t spent any time planning the shoot - it wasn’t very good! It was just a jumbled mess and instead of making something I was really proud of, I would just give up on editing the film and start filming the next project, again, without much planning or preparation. 

I would get stuck in this constant loop and because I didn’t finish any of the projects I filmed, I just felt like a failure.

Then I started creating a shot list before I did a shoot and it changed everything. I began to visualise how I wanted the film to look. The kind of angles I wanted to use and how this would all fit together in the final edit. This one simple task completely changed my relationship to filmmaking and because I put in more time thinking about the different shots I wanted to film, my shots were a lot better, filming didn’t take as long and the shots I did film were a lot more focused so editing was also much faster!

So when you get to planning your next shoot make sure you write a list of all the angles you want to film for each scene or setup and think about how these angles and perspectives will help you tell your story. 

2) Focusing on techniques rather than story


I remember making one of my first films, a short film called Lost on Motuhaku, I had big ambitions for this movie! I wanted it to win awards and be shown all around the world! I put everything I had into this film, but I lacked the key ingredient. Story! 

I spent about a week writing the script and 3 or 4 months making the film and as I quickly learned, the story should always come first! But I was 15 and all I was thinking about was copying my favourite movies with epic helicopter shots and exciting action sequences! So I was in for a rough ride! When it came to the premiere and awards night for the film I felt like I was a huge failure as the film didn’t win any awards and it wasn’t very well received! I’d put all this time and effort into making the film and I’d failed in what I’d set out to do. But that was because I didn’t know anything about character arcs and three-act structure which are important elements to help make an engaging film that keeps audiences on tenterhooks, wanting to know what’s going to happen next. As soon as I started learning about the hero's journey and different ways to structure my documentary it changed everything! Audiences no longer looked bored when they were watching my films, instead they would lean forward, completely enthralled in the film. And this simply came down to knowing what my character wanted, identify the obstacles they had to go through to get to this want. This suddenly made my films more exciting!

You need to look for your character’s wants, needs, obstacles, and stakes:

  • A want is a goal – something that drives the character to act.
  • A need is what your character has to do or learn in order to succeed or grow.
  • An obstacle is something standing between your character and what they want, either external or internal.
  • And a stake is what is at risk if the character fails to achieve their goal, or the consequences of their choices. External stakes are physical (e.g. life or death), internal stakes are emotional (e.g. love vs. a broken heart), and philosophical stakes are values (e.g. good vs. evil).

3) Not using the rule of thirds



When I started making films I would just capture whatever was in front of me without thinking about my composition and the effect that was going to have on the audience. And when I discovered and understood the principles of the8 rule of thirds this all changed. 

The rule of thirds is one of the most useful composition techniques in cinematography. It involves mentally dividing up the width and height of your frame into thirds using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. You then position your subject or the important elements in your scene along those lines, or at the points where they meet. In fact, you may have noticed how the iPhone Camera app even does this for you automatically when you go to crop a photo.

The reason to use the rule of thirds is that more often than not an off-centre composition is more interesting to look at and looks more natural than one where the subject is placed in the center of the frame. 

So, when filming and framing up your shot, imagine two horizontal lines and two vertical lines that divide each plane into three sections, like this. Think about what the focus of the scene is whether that’s your main character, an object or a landscape, and try to position it on or near the lines and intersections of the grid. They don't have to be perfectly lined up, as long as they're close.

When using the rule of thirds, two good questions to ask are: 

  • What is the main subject of this frame? Is it a landscape, character or object?
  • And where will I be placing the subject within the frame?

For example, when filming a landscape shot that could be used to establish a scene or show the character’s surroundings, it's common for beginner filmmakers to position the horizon along the centre of the frame, but this can give the shot a "split in two" feel, which doesn’t do the image justice. Instead, by using the rule of thirds grid and placing the horizon along one of the horizontal lines you can achieve a more balanced and aesthetically pleasing look to your image.

When you’re filming people it’s a good idea to position them at one of the intersections on the rule of thirds grid to give the shot a clear focal point.

For example, in this shot I’ve framed the subject on the left hand horizontal lines which means he’s considerably off center which creates an additional point of interest. Whereas, if I’d placed him in the center of the frame it could have resulted in an awkward-feeling shot.

When filming moving subjects, position them as you usually would, but also pay attention to the direction they're moving in. It’s a good idea to leave more space in front of them than behind, to show where they're going.

For example, when I was filming this scene of the subject walking towards the river, I made sure to keep plenty of space in front of the subject to show they were heading forwards towards the edge of the river.

The rule of thirds doesn't apply in every situation, and sometimes breaking it can result in a much more interesting and eye-catching shot. So I encourage you to experiment and test out different compositions even if they go against any of the rules you've learned. 

But, make sure you learn to use the rule of thirds effectively first - that way you can be sure you're breaking the rules intentionally for storytelling purposes, rather than just by accident.

For example, usually I would align an interview subject to the left or right, but in my short film The Camera Man when I was filming the main character, Richard, I decided to break the rule of thirds and use central framing at the start of the film as I felt it emphasised his quirky and creative personality.

4) Not making time for passions outside of filmmaking


When I first discovered filmmaking, I was obsessed, all I would think about day and night was making films and how I could become a better filmmaker. 

But as a result, I didn’t make any time for my other passions such as the outdoors and nature. This meant I had nothing to make films about because I hadn’t really lived in the real world so all I ended up doing was making films about other filmmakers. It wasn’t until I spent less time making films and more time living, doing other things that I’m really passionate about that I had ideas and things I wanted to make films about. It’s important to focus on filmmaking and get better at your craft but it’s also really important to make time for your other passions and this will feed into your filmmaking work.

5) Said yes to everything!


When I was nineteen and I first moved to London from New Zealand, I would say yes to every filmmaking job that came my way whether it was making teas for the crew, camera assisting, or filming behind the scenes. 

I wanted as much work experience as I could get and wanted to meet as many filmmakers as I possibly could - I didn’t think it mattered that I wasn’t getting paid much or that it wasn’t a role that I enjoyed. I just thought as long as I worked hard and said yes to every job, new opportunities would come and I’d eventually get the opportunity to be paid to make films for brands and production companies. 

How wrong I was! Instead, I just kept being offered the same roles over and over again. Because I was saying yes to every job, I ended up working 90 hours a week, and sometimes I’d have so many jobs that I’d skip a night or two of sleep and end up burning out and not being able to get out of bed for a few days, as I was so unwell. It wasn’t until a few years of doing this and burning out over and over again and feeling incredibly frustrated that I wasn’t getting any closer to being paid to make films for brands and production companies, that I came across the 80/20 rule.

So I decided to apply this rule to myself and focused on my highest value activities, which for me, at that time, was developing my portfolio. I then began saying no to the low-paying jobs, and yes to the high-paying jobs. I focused as much time as I could on developing my portfolio by making my own short films and branded content, to show production companies and brands my filmmaking style and capabilities. 

Sure, it felt pretty risky saying no to jobs at first, but the rewards were tenfold. Before long it resulted in me getting a commercials agent and working with a number of big-name brands as they loved my portfolio and wanted me to create films for them in my style for their brand. By continuing to follow the 80/20 rule I’m now able to focus on making documentaries and this YouTube channel and I’m not working such crazy hours which was unproductive and unhealthy. Instead, I worked smarter, not harder.


Making a film is such an exciting and intense process, it can also be really hard and that's why I’ve created this channel, to help you on your journey and to help you overcome the common roadblocks that stop filmmakers from starting or completing their films. And remember if you have an idea for a documentary I encourage you to get started and not be afraid to fail.

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