How to Create Your Own Screen Work
Whether it’s for our own pleasure or going directly into your next showreel, Matthew Jacobs Morgan gives us the low down on creating your own filmed work
If you have a good idea and an iPhone/camera, then the world’s your oyster...
Now is a very exciting time. We have the ability to be autonomous; to make our own content with very little cost. To play characters that we wouldn’t otherwise get to play by writing them ourselves and being our own brilliantly biased casting director.
Getting in the room for auditions becomes so much easier once you have a showreel or any good footage of yourself acting. But it can sometimes feel unattainable if you’re not booking the jobs that will lead to that footage being made. Or if you do get the jobs, it can sometimes take months (or years!) before you’re able to put it on your showreel. Never fear, though. If you have a good idea and an iPhone/camera, then the world’s your oyster.
Stephen Soderbergh’s Unsane and Sean Baker’s Tangerine are fantastic examples of using low budget filmmaking effectively, and for most of us, making something impressive on a tiny budget is not out of reach. This technology gives us the freedom to shoot stuff which serves us as actors. I have made a few short films with myself in a lead role, and those films gave me invaluable showreel material which hugely increased how often I’ve been brought in for auditions. Here are a few tips that I’ve learned from my various mistakes and successes…
Do Your Homework
Some people are natural born writers and as soon as they put pen to paper, they come out with brilliant stuff, but the truth is… most people aren’t.
If you’re setting out to write your own short film, or even just a scene, it is so important to do your homework first. Some people are natural born writers and as soon as they put pen to paper, they come out with brilliant stuff, but the truth is… most people aren’t. Most people (including myself) have to learn how to do it well. That isn’t to say that you necessarily need to go on an expensive course or screenwriting programme in order to get the hang of it, though. I did it by buying books (Save The Cat by Blake Snyder and Screenwriting for Dummies to name a few!) and reading them all back to back numerous times. I would also put aside a few hours each week to watch films and make notes on interesting things I noticed about the dialogue or what I liked about how they were shot.
Also, it is important to get hang of structure, and how that varies depending on what the format of the project is… Are you shooting a web series? Then learn about episodic structure and episode hooks. Are you shooting a sketch? Learn about writing sketch comedy. Your own voice is very important and if you want to rip up the rulebook, you totally should! But I think it’s definitely worth having a basic knowledge of writing which you can then build on and adapt as you see fit. There are heaps of great online resources too, for example, the University of East Anglia have a FREE course online which teaches the fundamentals of screenwriting.
Play to Your Strengths
What you can offer is different from everyone else.
If the purpose of casting yourself in a project is to show you at your best, then give yourself a role that does just that. If you’re a bubbly 25-year-old northerner with great comic timing, then it’s probably not the best idea to write a role for a downbeat 35-year-old mother of 3 with a southern American accent. The likelihood is that those aren’t the kind of roles you’ll be seen for, or the ones you’ll end up booking.
There is absolutely something to be said about showing range as an actor, and as time goes on it could be cool to try out some different roles, but I think it’s best to always start with you. What you can offer is different from everyone else.
Identifying your strengths is a brilliant exercise when writing a role for yourself. Sit down and list 10 characteristics that define you as an individual, then write your 5 best qualities as an actor. Take those things and imbue the character with them. Drawing from your own life and “writing what you know” is also a very good place to start. Tell stories inspired by your own experience - those stories will be way more authentic, and your “emotional recall” (*gags*) will be easier to access because you will have actually lived the experience of the character.
Get A Good Team
Low budget filmmaking is of course tricky in that you probably won’t be able to offer much money, but if you make it worthwhile for both of you, you could end up forming a relationship with someone you might work with again in the future.
So, you’ve got a great script and brilliant actors (including your wonderful self), yay! But that doesn’t mean the work is over. The amount of short films and showreel scenes I have watched that are ruined by bad audio or shoddy camerawork is crazy. It completely distracts a viewer from your acting which is the whole purpose for shooting it in the first place. So many people think it’s enough to be a great actor; that the talent will shine through despite grainy, underlit footage and muffled sound. However, if you want to come across as a professional, you need the footage to look good. If you’ve got any camera-savvy mates whose help you can enlist then great! Otherwise, it could be worth putting feelers out to film students who might also be looking to create some footage of their own. Low budget filmmaking is of course tricky in that you probably won’t be able to offer much money, but if you make it worthwhile for both of you, you could end up forming a relationship with someone you might work with again in the future. I would say if you’re working on a tiny budget, you can probably get away with having a skeleton crew of Cinematographer, Sound Recordist/Boom Operator, Editor, Colourist and Sound Designer. It probably sounds like a lot, but Iron Man had a crew of 3,310 people, so it’s tiny by comparison!
Try To Make Something Festival-worthy
If your film gets into festivals and screenings, it could lead to great exposure...
If you set out to make something which serves you as an actor and is a great piece of content, it will not only give you an excellent piece of showreel material, but also a piece work which can serve you elsewhere. If your film gets into festivals and screenings, it could lead to great exposure to up and coming filmmakers who you could end up working with in the future. I’ve met so many brilliant directors at film festivals over the past few years and have worked with some of them since. I’ve also met producers and commissioners at those festivals who I’m now working with on TV projects which I will (hopefully!) be starring in.
Just Tape A Scene
Find a good script, a friend and a well-lit spot with a blank background and just get something of yourself on camera.
Sometimes it’s not possible to do it full out. To write a complete script and manoeuvre a full on short film. But it is so important to have some footage to get you in the room. In these instances, I’ve heard from numerous casting directors, agents and directors that it’s best to just shoot a scene in a self-tape style. Find a good script, a friend and a well-lit spot with a blank background and just get something of yourself on camera. It’s better than nothing, and it’s less cringe than some of the “showreel from scratch services” that often offer badly written scripts and sub-par direction. It’s worth investing in some lights too. A couple of soft box lights from Amazon are relatively cheap and will make your tape look great. They’ll come in handy in the future for the heaps of self-tapes you’ll hopefully be getting once everyone can see how fantastic you are.
Matthew Jacobs Morgan is an actor and filmmaker from London. His credits as an actor include Our Town (Almeida Theatre), Tommy (New Wolsey) and the TV series Cuffs, Wasted, Love Nina, Midsomer Murders and upcoming C4 Drama Pure. He has numerous TV series and films in development including Dylan & Gracie which is under option at Tiger Aspect and Vamping which is being developed on 4Screenwriting.
Image credit: Michael Shelford