10 Things I Learned While Making My Thesis Films

My senior year of college (which feels like forever ago, despite the fact that it's only been a little over a year since I graduated) was a hectic, and stressful time. This was my own doing, as I decided -- alongside my studies, and all of the other activities, jobs, and clubs I was involved with -- I was going to make two thesis films: one in my Fall semester, and one in my Spring semester. These two films were Stalker, a short, experimental horror film, and Departure, a feature length romantic drama.

I learned a lot of really important things about myself in that year, both as a filmmaker, and as a person. I wanted to share with you the ten most important things I learned while working on these thesis films.

10. Pre-Production is vital to your success

I don't want you to get the impression that I'm not proud of my thesis films, including Stalker -- quite the opposite, in fact. Stalker was a semi-finalist in the 2016 Student Academy Awards, and has been screened internationally at film festivals from Poland to San Antonio, TX. Departure has been screened at a couple of festivals in the United States. I am very proud of what my team and I put together with these films. However, I think it is important to shine a light on the mistakes I made, so you can get a better idea about how to succeed with your films, thesis related or otherwise.

With that said, one of my biggest mistakes with my first thesis film, Stalker, was not doing enough pre-production.

All throughout film school we are taught that pre-production is the most vital aspect of the filmmaking process -- more so than production, even. And yet, during this first film, I didn't do much before I picked up a camera. No storyboard, no shot list, no location scouting, nothing. I just got some people together, wrote a 9-page script, and went for it.

This lack of preperation can be seen in parts of the film.

Lighting was a big issue in Stalker. The majority of the film was shot at night, and because of this there are a lot of really noisy, unnattractive shots, along with some out of focus frames, and some poorly lit scenes.

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 It did give the film this kind of grungy aesthetic, which worked in the context of the narrative I constructed, but it also made it difficult to watch in places. 

The other issue here is that there were scenes that were well lit, well framed, and crisp.

Because of this discrepancy in my visual imagery, the film felt off in places. Watching it now, the editing almost feels harsher because I would cut from a crisp, clean image to a rather ugly image.

A healthy amount of pre-production would have fixed these issues. If I had taken the time to block out each scene, to think about all of the lighting scenarios I wanted, to either storyboard the film, or create a shot list, I would have been more successful with Stalker's visual aesthetic.

9. Think about editing during pre-production and shooting

The editing process can either be a smooth experience, or your worst nightmare. It is entirely dependent on how well you set yourself up for success. How well did you capture your sound? How much footage did you get? How many takes of each scene did you ask for? All of these things can directly affect the quality of your film, and the time it takes for you to finish a final cut of your film.

With Stalker I did not think about the editing process during pre-production. I did keep it in the back of my head during shooting (Hitchcock famously shot only what was necessary to edit with, and I think that's an efficient method when doing a thesis film, especially if you're in a time crunch), but when I got to the edit room I realized that I hadn't prepared myself well enough. I had to choose some out of focus shots because I had never gotten safety takes. I had to deal with poor audio in spots, or had to artificially boost pieces of dialogue, because I didn't capture them well enough.

All of these things are important to keep in the back of your head when you are doing pre-production, and when you are shooting. Editing can be a ton of fun, but it can also be your worst nightmare. Set yourself up for success and it will be the former. Neglect to do so, and it will be the latter.

8. Your story should not overstay its welcome

So let's switch over to Departure -- I've ragged on Stalker enough for the time being. With Departure, I wanted to make a feature. I didn't really care about the stress, the time commitment, or the financial difficulties that would come with that endeavor; I pushed myself harder than I ever have before, and I told myself I was going to do a feature.

It was a terrifying, exhausting, and exhilarating experience. Your first feature is like nothing you have ever done before, and it sticks with you (no matter the quality of the film itself). I wrote a 60 page script in about two weeks, shot the film in roughly 12 days, and edited it in about a month-and-a-half. 

The issue with Departure is that it overstays its welcome. It's not a feature-length story. At best it was a 45 minute story. Because I was so determined to make a feature, I lost sight of the fact that my pacing was erratic, and that my story felt repetitive, and overstretched.

All filmmakers make this mistake at times (just look at Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy), but when you are doing your thesis film it is important to really think about how long your story can sustain itself. What is the natural runtime your film needs to tell its story? This can be the difference between a great film, and a decently ambitious one.

7. Always have a team you can trust

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but surround yourself with people you trust, and never let them go. Loyal crew members, and talent, are hard to come by nowadays. If you can find a crew that will work hard for you, complement your vision, and enjoy the time they're on set, your film will be enhanced.

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This was my crew on Departure, all of whom worked long days, gave up their weekends consistently for the film, and helped carry the story to completion. They are the reason the film succeeded, not me. 

My point here is that having a team behind you who you can always trust to help you, to help your film, and to complement your vision, is a team you should always have by your side. Your films will come out better, and you will enjoy yourself more.

6. Make sure you have the capital to make your film

You won't be able to pay many people, especially not at the rate that they should be paid. However, if you promise to pay someone, always make sure you can afford that promise. Even if it takes you a little bit to come up with the money, always make sure that you remain in contact with them, and continually let them know that they will be paid for their hard work, and their dedication to your project.

Films take money to make -- this is the nature of the business. I was fortunate enough that my cast and crew on both of my thesis films worked for no pay. However, I covered, travel, food, gas, and other expenditures. Not doing this can hurt your film, and -- more importantly -- important friendships with crew members and talent. You don't want to do that, especially in this business.

5. Be prepared for the stress

Okay, let's get real for a minute. Making films is stressful. I wasn't lying when I said that making Departure was the most stressful experience of my filmmaking career thus far. You need to be prepared for that stress, though, especially if you are the writer/director.

Some of that stress I put on myself. I acted as writer, director, producer, DOP, editor, and actor on Departure. That's a lot of hats to wear all at once. On top of that, I got sick at the end of production, meaning that I was particularly worn down. 

Making films isn't easy. It's emotionally, physically, and -- for some -- spiritually taxing. Make sure you take all of the necessary precautions to ensure you don't exceed your capacity for dealing with stress, and always be sure to do something relaxing at the end of a shoot day.

4. Get professional actors, and trust them

One of the best decisions I made when I was making Departure was to cast Diana Sanchez. Diana is a Boston based actress who played Beth in the film. She came up to Vermont on a Thursday, slept on a couch, shot all of her scenes in two days, and went back to Boston on Saturday night. Again, we worked long days (8-12 hours regularly) while shooting Departure. Not only was Diana pleasant, funny, and lovely to have on set, she also gave a lot of serious thought to her character, asked good questions, and always made sure to clarify her character's intentions in a particular scene before we rolled. Oh, and she agreed to work for free. 

Diana Sanchez and Joshua Cobb on the set of Departure.

Diana Sanchez and Joshua Cobb on the set of Departure.

Casting the right people can be difficult sometimes, and finding someone who will embody the character you've written is nerve-wracking. However, I implore you to search out professional actors. If you can pay them -- wonderful! If you can't -- ask them if they're willing to work for free if you cover travel, food, and lodging. Do what you can to cast professional people in your film, and your film's quality will dramatically increase. The places I have had the most success with casting are on IMDB Pro, and NewEnglandFilm.com.

More importantly, though, trust your actors when they have an idea. In the script for Departure, many of the fight scenes begin in the middle of the argument. Diana had the idea to improvise some dialogue before that moment so we can see what leads up to the fight in question. This helped her, because then she (as Beth) could gain context for the fight, and I had more footage to play with in the edit room. I let her and Josh, who played the lead role of Sam, improvise a lot of the scenes they were in, which led to more comfortable, relaxed (or more intense, passionate) scenes.

So, in short, trust your actors to do the right thing -- they know what they're doing.

3. Make the film as though you're going to submit it to Sundance

Your thesis film is your final college filmmaking statement before you entire the real world. Because of this, they are your best marketing tool. If you make a damn good thesis film, you can submit it to festivals, show it to possible employers, use it on your reel, or even show it to investors as proof that you can work within specific parameters and still create a great end product.

Therefore, whenever you make a film (but especially your thesis film) you should always aspire to create something as though you're going to send it to Sundance, or Cannes, or the film festival that you really admire. Set your sights for a specific level of quality you hope to attain, and keep that in mind all throughout the creation of your film.

Film festivals are the best way for young filmmakers to get their art out into the world. Create something that you are proud to market.

2. Be prepared for disappointment

In addition to my previous point, be prepared for things not to go the way you planned. Murphy's Law is the reigning truth in filmmaking -- what can go wrong, will go wrong.

In both of my thesis films there were a thousand things that went wrong during shooting and editing. Some things were avoidable (like sound, lighting, and focusing issues). Others were not (locations, casting, time constraints, etc.). Some things happened after the film was completed (rejections from film festivals, poor reviews, etc.)

Don't get discouraged, though, by any of this. Film is a unique art that requires consistent education, and rewards growth. 

Of the roughly 40 film festivals I have submitted my work to, I've had 37 rejections. 37 times I have submitted to film festivals, often spending my own money, only to receive the rejection email a few months later. It sucks -- I'm not going to lie to you. Every rejection you receive feels like a kick in the gut, especially when you come so close to succeeding. Stalker was one of roughly 90 films, selected from a pool of 1,749 submissions, that advanced to the semi-finals of the Student Academy awards, and it ended up being rejected. Departure was submitted to a film festival in Burlington, where I knew many of the judges. It ended up getting rejected. As of right now, Departure has received a 2-star review, a 2.5 star review, and a 4-star review. Stalker has received a 2-star review, two 3-star reviews, and one 4-star review. These reviews will hurt.

A review of Departure.

A review of Departure.

A review of Departure.

A review of Departure.

A review of my sophomore year short film, Void.

A review of my sophomore year short film, Void.

A review of my freshman year short film, The Lonely.

A review of my freshman year short film, The Lonely.

A small selection of rejections I've received from festivals.

A small selection of rejections I've received from festivals.

My point is that you are going to put in a lot of effort into your film, and not everyone is going to love it. Not every festival is going to clamor to get your film into their venue. But don't let that stop you. You're going to get kicked down, but if you keep getting back up you will be surprised at what you are capable of.

1. Your ambition is your greatest asset, and your greatest weakness

If I learned anything about myself while I was filming my thesis projects, it was that I am an ambitious dude. I wrote, directed, shot, and edited a 20-minute experimental short film in a matter of weeks. I wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, and acted in a feature film that was completed in about 6 months (from conception to completion). I have a lot of ambition when it comes to my projects.

Sometimes that's a good thing. I was, and still am, actively trying to find new ways to tell stories. I push myself hard to complete what I want, and I work myself to the bone to complete a project. I never allow myself to feel bad for too long when a film of mine gets a bad review, or when a festival rejects me. I push myself hard to succeed, and that has been why I've been able to accomplish a lot of what I've done so far.

This is also my greatest weakness, though. Making Departure a feature was one of the reasons why it's received poor reviews. Shooting a feature in 12 days added a lot of stress into my life (and was probably one of the reasons I got sick at the end of shooting). There are always pros and cons when it comes to making a film, and every professional in the business will tell you such. 

Don't let your ambition stifle you, but don't stifle your ambition. You have limited resources, limited time, and a lot of responsibilities in addition to your thesis film. Don't bite off more than you can chew; just make sure what you do bite off is savory.