fearless filmmaking: taking the plunge with video

Our first video workshop was a success. So we asked our man just how he got good and advice for people wanting to experiment but might be a bit wary.

by Steven Davies

I’ve made films for as long as I can remember. Honestly - I can't think of a time when I didn't shoot something for fun. I was lucky that there was always a camera in our house growing up and I was always allowed to play with it.

I was never afraid. I did forward rolls and pretended I was a stuntman, I burned train sets and pretended that melting plastic on the patio was a special effect, I even Duck Taped the camera to cars and got away with it.

‘No fear’ doesn't mean I was fearless. I was quite the opposite in fact - I was terrified of dropping or breaking the thing so I couldn't use it any more - but I was never afraid of being told not to use it.

I was never disciplined for wasting time, getting it wrong or trying something out. Maybe that was good parenting, maybe it was bad, maybe I need to talk to a shrink about the whole thing and not stand in front of a class full of young impressionables.

The strange thing I’ve found since I’ve shot for a living and not just a hobby is that I’m very much in the minority. It seems to me that when you start to shoot films, videos, promos, tv shows or anything else professionally, you’re basically doing it because you’re a delicate mixture of a) good at it and b) willing to take the the responsibility for it away from people that are too busy or too weary to be doing it themselves. At one end of the spectrum it might be the director that wants you to find interesting angles while they concentrate on teasing a performance out of the actors. Or increasingly, it might be the behest of a company that has tasked you with creating a ‘viral’ video to storm the internet by mid afternoon.

There are known knowns” (To quote Donald Rumsfeld) and unless I’m reading the wrong cookbooks, the 1,2,3 step recipe for creating guaranteed million hit viral videos isn’t one of them. There are steps you can take to make sure that your masterpiece is exposed properly, framed nicely, cut effectively and so on, and there are books you can read to shorten the number of steps to getting better at those things, but there’s no substitute for trying something and getting it wrong.

Chances are if you bring a filmmaker or videographer into your organisation for a day shoot a video to push your brand you’ll get a video that looks nice and sounds good but is more often than not going to be a fairly close approximation to all the others out there. We’ll only get to know what you do so well and only be able to deliver a snapshot of that, not an holistic view. Relationships like this usually need to be collaborative, where we work together as equally responsible parties, not clients and producers recruited to save the crops like Kambei.

Bottom line: we might understand how to use pictures to tell stories but we don’t understand your organisation like you do. Time and time again companies want videos that look like all the others out there because they’re afraid to break the mould, afraid of their boss and afraid to get it wrong.

I’m not sure that’s the right recipe. Take Lee Unkrich from Pixar - “Screw-ups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.” If there’s one surefire thing that’ll make your video bad it’s fear. Fear of the process, of the iterations, of the meetings and review panels. Fear of that camera you bought at the end of the last financial year and has been in the box in that drawer ever since.

My philosophy is much less about fear of making mistakes and focusses on learning by doing, getting it wrong, and finding out what people didn’t like about it. Video might be linear but they don’t have to be irrefutable. If not for the audience, who are you making the thing for in the first place?

Ask your customers, service users, fans, critics - whoever - and involve them in the process of getting it wrong the next time too. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake - just don’t be mean or offensive while you fail to take over the world! So grab a camera, a DSLR, an iPad, an anything, quite frankly and shoot something that you think appeals to your audience - I guarantee that they’ll let you know if they like it or if they don’t!

If they don’t then I’d happy to give you some tips, and if they do, I’d love it if you gave me some too!

Steven Davies is creative director at Film Cafe an d senior lecturer in television and digital media broadcast at Glyndwr University.

Steve is guest workshop leader at or our Essential Video Skills for Comms in London on June 23, Manchester on July 2 and Birmingham on July 21. For more information and to book visit the events page here.