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How important is it to watch other films in order to become a better filmmaker? What are some ways to learn from others’ work? This week we are looking at a question about watching films to learn filmmaking.

STUDENT QUESTION: How important is it to watch other films to learn filmmaking?

JOHN-CLAY: How important is it for a plumber to study other people’s work, in order to become a good plumber? How important is it for a doctor to watch another doctor, in order to be good at doing surgery themselves? Book learning is great, and there are lots of ways to educate yourself beyond watching films. We’re going to speak directly to filmmaking. But I do think there comes a point where watching other craftsmen’s approach to telling stories is not only helpful, but it is important. Because we’re not just wrapping tape on a pipe, right? This is storytelling, it’s creative, you’re influencing minds and hearts with the things that you share and will be influenced by the other work that other people create.

So I’m not saying you have to go watch the greatest director or directors who retired, whoever the artisans are that everyone else is watching. That’s not always necessary to watch the classics. But you should watch things that are well-made. Be careful. Guard your hearts and minds. You can watch them with filtering. You can be cautious with what you watch. You can be wise in those decisions as well. You don’t have to let garbage in; just because you’re watching it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re actively learning. 

You don't have to let garbage in; just because you're watching it doesn't necessarily mean you're actively learning. Click To Tweet

There’s more nuance and breakdown in watching it without sound, listening to just the sound and someone who will take a scene and dissect that apart and do diagrams and study the editing and the study all the wardrobe and write all those things done. I know very few filmmakers lauding their DVD collection, who have taken any film and done that type of exercise to that degree with any scene. So just because it’s on the shelf doesn’t make you a great filmmaker either. Just because you have a wrench, just because you have a stethoscope doesn’t make you great at your craft either.

We have to study, we have to learn, we have to be practicing ourselves, and those films can be great inspirations. They can be great resources to draw from to go and practice and try to emulate and learn. So yes, I would say it’s important, but it’s not the only way to learn. There are enough great films out there that you don’t have to watch things that offend your conscience under label the of learning and education. There’s plenty of options out there of great things that you can watch instead.

ANDREW: I feel like having life experience can actually be just as much or even probably more beneficial. I remember in one book I read from a screenwriter who was talking about just literally go and sit somewhere and listen to people’s conversations. Not be creepy obviously, but just pay attention. When you talk to the cashier, what do they say? What are their mannerisms? Then you can learn next time you need to write a scene where a guy goes up and has an interaction with a waiter or a teller. Of the 20 or 30 interactions you’ve paid attention to, how did they act? How did they do this? What are the things they said? How did they respond to you saying this? Or whatever it might be. And just be super observant of listening and watching how life around you actually happens in the real world.

...Be super observant of listening and watching how life around you actually happens in the real world. Click To Tweet

Growing up, I didn’t watch a ton of actual Hollywood movies, which I’m grateful that we didn’t have the bad effects of being so inundated with that. But I know I had a very small idea of what filmmaking could even look like. So at some level, watching some of the good stuff with filters, wherever it might be, helps you expand your horizon of what’s possible. If you’re copying the people who’ve been copying other people, if that’s the scope of what you know of film to be, then ultimately, your copy of that is going to be even worse. So going to the source of really good work can help you see the big picture of what’s possible.

Bethany Meckle

Bethany Meckle

Content Curator

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