Defining your filmmaking voice and actively developing it, each and every time you shoot, is one of the best things you can do for your future. Here is how to get started.
There are two questions I always try to ask each of the filmmakers we come across.
I’ve been fortunate to talk to literally thousands of filmmakers across the globe and ask them these same two questions. How they answer them, and what they say, can be incredibly illuminating. I’ve started to notice some patterns. And here is the really interesting thing: The answer to both questions is the exact same thing.
Okay, so what are the questions?
The first one—Why do you make films?
It’s a question that’s always intrigued me. The answer you provide offers so much insight into where you should focus, the types of stories you should be looking to tell, and the people you would want to attract.
The second one—What is your biggest challenge?
As a studio we have devoted so much of our time to deconstructing the art of storytelling and trying to share it with all of you in a tangible, actionable, and accessible way.
Knowing what it is you struggle with only helps us know what to focus on. It’s pushed us to tell better stories in order to help you do the same, and move through those challenges.
Let’s move toward what inspires you and away from what is holding you back.
When asked Why do you make films?, here are some of the most common replies:
Because of the emotional impact on the audience.
To express myself and grow creatively.
To tell stories that inspire me, stories that I feel need to be told.
To provide for my family while running my own business.
When asked What is your biggest challenge?, here are some of the most common replies:
Clients are always telling me what to do—they’re holding me back from making films how I want to make films.
How to find and tell a real story, the way I can imagine it in my mind.
I want to make MORE films like X, and LESS films like the ones I am making right now (which typically means: more commercial work, and less wedding work—OR making more wedding films with couples I really connect with, and less with couples I don’t).
I need to be able to charge more for the gear / lifestyle / creative control I want.
Here’s the really fascinating part: Both questions, and their answers, all point to the same thing. Knowing this one thing, and working on it every single day, is the biggest thing you can do for yourself.
Let me share a short story about my journey into filmmaking, the stages I went through, and how that led me to this “one thing”. I started getting into video in University as a Psychology student. It was a way to express and explore some of the things we were learning in class. Our first camera, the glorious Canon GL2, was a very large investment at the time.
Armed with nothing but the GL2 and a cheap Best Buy tripod, I was off to make videos. I was a videographer and I’d get hired to show up with my camera and tripod, and cover things.
Over the next couple years, as I and the rest of Stillmotion learned more about all of the technical aspects of making videos—how to work with light, move the camera, and make beautiful shots—the title of videographer suddenly became offensive.
I then became a self-proclaimed cinematographer. I didn’t simply show up to cover things, I deeply considered the light, lens choice, composition, and they way I moved the camera when filming.
For years we really identified with that label. When brides would come in looking for a videographer, we’d explain that they’d find no one like that here at Stillmotion. Nope, we only had cinematographers. Over the next few years we started doing less weddings and got into some pretty exciting commercial work.
Then something changed.
No longer would the label cinematographer suffice. It became less about how we used our tools and the elements to add to the video, and more about what we were choosing to cover, the unique way we saw it, and what we wanted it to say.
Now, we were storytellers.
As a videographer we’d show up to weddings and cover everything. Everything. We’d get shot lists from the bride. We might even be told what soundtracks to use. As a cinematographer, we’d cover a little bit less, but we sure knew how to make it look good. Give us a shitty hotel room with a window and we’d transform it into a magical and mysterious palace of preparations. But as a storyteller, suddenly we started covering much less, and everything we did was meant to say something.
Look at it this way:
The videographer sees everything in full, end to end. The cinematographer sees how to make it beautiful. The storyteller sees only fragments of the larger whole, pieces that together say so much more.
And here’s the truth:
None of us got into this to be a tripod—to be told where to stand and what to film. We want to say something, we want our work to make an impact, we want to tell stories.
But how do you move from tripod to storyteller?
Stop standing around and covering everything. Make decisions. Say something. Harness the power of your irreplaceable voice.
You may have heard that before. In practice it isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. We all wonder: How do I find my voice? What do I do once I’ve found it? How to I strengthen it, make it clearer?
With that, here is the first step we suggest every filmmaker should take to help define his or her voice as a storyteller. We call it crafting your Personal Keywords.
Before we share how this works, let's do a quick recap.
Story is built on 4 Pillars: People, Places, Purpose, and Plot. Purpose is about what we are trying to say with our story; what we want to leave the viewer with. We come up with 5 keywords that represent our purpose. These words serve as a filter for all of our decisions.
In this post we explained the concept of keywords and the 5 that we came to for #standwithme.
Developing your Brand Keywords is about developing purpose—these keywords—for ourselves as storytellers. We then use these keywords to filter the decisions we make: the stories we take on and how we bring them to life.
Ask yourself the following questions, and as you do, write down all the words that come to mind. The goal is not to try and get to the first 5 words that represent you or your studio. Take a moment to really consider each question. At this stage, don’t worry about how many words you’re writing down; we’ll narrow them down at the end.
- What inspires your filmmaking?
- Think about the stories you love to tell—what qualities do they share?
- Who is the perfect client for you?
- What do you love most about filmmaking?
- How do you want people to feel when they watch your films?
Depending on how many words you get down, you might notice that they start to form clusters. The next step is to start circling the 5 words that you feel best represent why you’re a filmmaker.
Don’t spend hours trying to get the perfect 5 words. This whole exercise should take no more than 30 minutes and give you a solid start.
Once you have your 5 words down, you can frequently come back to them. Over time, and every time you come back to them, they’ll evolve, just as your voice does.
If you’re curious, Stillmotion’s keywords are: Adventure, Collaboration, Empowerment, Innovation, and Impact. This is what our filmmaking and what our studio is all about.
Once you've defined your Brand Keywords, here are some ways you can put it to use in helping you develop and strengthen your voice:
- Looks at the films on your website. Which ones best represent your keywords, and which ones might look great, but really don't represent you? Try to highlight and share only those pieces that best represent you.
- Think about how you interact with your team, and consider how your keywords could help you craft a more relevant experience. For us, that means embracing adventure and collaboration, and celebrating and sharing the impact of our stories.
- Consider the experience you create with your clients and look at each point of contact—is it allowing your keywords to come through? Or is it habitual? What's expected?
- Look at the wording on your website, in your blog posts, in your emails. Look at your brand. Everything you do says something about you. In a perfect world, taken together, these things would say, very clearly, the 5 keywords you arrived at.
- When you have the opportunity to decide which stories to take on, try to move towards those that fit your keywords and away from those that don't.
- Make time to shoot for yourself. Find and tell stories that are inline with your keywords. We invest in cameras, workshops, and all kinds of fancy toys. Consider this an investment in your future, your style, your voice. We shot Old Skool pro bono, but it was a carefully chosen story that hit on all of our words, and it attracted clients that also wanted and fit these words.
What you put out there—the films, the brand, the experience—will attract people who like those stories. Be intentional about what you put out there. And this is how you’ll be able to get clients and stories much more aligned with your Brand Keywords.
We’ll share work that tries to be innovative, adventurous, and impactful in the hopes of attracting other people who have similar stories that need to be told. We try to make the experience, inside and out, collaborative. We hope our stories help empower those we tell them for, and we look to
Now look back up at that original list of why we make films and what challenges us. Our voice lies at the intersection.
Strengthen your voice and you’ll get more films you’re passionate about, work with more clients you love, charge more for your work, and—most importantly—you won’t be treated like a tripod.
You’ll be able to tell stories rather than making videos, and these stories will say something. Something that is important to you, and important to your viewer.