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10 Essential Filmmaking Techniques and Tips to Succeed as a Filmmaker

Posted on: May 27, 2022

By Patrick Winters, script writer, sound designer, picture editor, cinematographer, documentary filmmaker and author. He has also been a college professor teaching filmmaking to students for 15 years.

The following tips give guidance on essential film techniques that are critical for successful filmmaking. Some of them may seem more advanced than others, however all of them are important for both beginners and for those with experience. Using the below filmmaking techniques will help any filmmaker avoid common pitfalls.

There is more information on these and other tips, techniques and mistakes in my book: The Dos and Don’ts of Successful Filmmaking. I also have written a book on film sound called: Sound Design for Low & No Budget Films. Applying the techniques in it will raise the level of your soundtrack above the crowd.

Book with sparks and lines protruding from it

1. Tell a Story Through Visual Storytelling

Before you begin focusing on filmmaking techniques, make sure you have a compelling story with a beginning, middle and ending. A common mistake for filmmakers is to not have a clear and structured story.

It takes thought and effort to create a story that will be of interest to other people. Just showing your boyfriend or girlfriend walking along the beach is not a story, it is a visual love letter. A story requires the main character to want to accomplish something. The drama comes in the difficulties they encounter while seeking that goal.

Audiences want to be taken on an emotional ride. Make sure the main character has that “goal.” Know the ending of the story, work toward it with several obstacles or conflicts for the main character to confront and keep it fairly simple.

Create a story that works with your movie budget and focuses on actions not dialogue. That is not to say dialogue is not important, it is. Dialogue adds exposition, which is necessary information about the characters and the story. However, it is generally better to show than it is to tell. For example, a character may say that they want to see the Taj Mahal before they die but showing them seeing it is much more interesting. The audience wants to see the look on their face when they first see it, which is far more impactful than just hearing the words in a line of dialogue.

outline of 3 people with gears connected by lines

2. Use Experienced Cast & Crew

An unfortunate mistake is to use people who look the part but are not good actors. Use people who are proven actors. Your dentist may look the part of a FBI agent, but if they can’t act the illusion is gone. Set up an audition in a public space and search for the right actor for each part. One of the best filmmaking techniques for making sure the actors are working to create the director’s vision is to hold rehearsals so that everyone understands the story and their character.

Use experienced crew members, not just a warm body. A cameraperson who does not know how to light or a sound person that holds the microphone too far from the actors are not going to deliver adequate images and sound. If you know the crewmember’s work and it fits your production, then hire them. If you do not know them, ask to see and hear examples of their work to see if they have the knowledge and experience your film may require.


A Crash Course Guide to Mastering the Filmmaking Process

A Crash Course Guide to Mastering the Filmmaking Process

Written for filmmakers, this free guide provides expert insights on 7 stages of the filmmaking process - screenwriting hacks, casting, production design, lighting & grip, camera techniques, recording sound and editing rules.



Image of studio set with lights and scaffolding

3. Create a Production Design

A typical mistake is to not consider the “look” of a film. How a film looks will sell the reality of the film. The locations, sets, props, furnishings, vehicles, wardrobe and makeup all create a complimentary design. The chosen colors and styles all provide information about the characters and the story. One filmmaking technique for creating a production design is to have a “look book” that has images and drawings of the look and feel for each scene. The book is shared with the crew so everyone has a better understanding of the director’s vision.

It is very common for the production design aspect of filmmaking to be overlooked. In order to sell a story, show realistic locations or give information about a character, then design must be addressed. If a character wears all black clothing, dark sunglasses and walks hunched over the audience will make some immediate assumptions of trustworthiness about them. If a house has a large entry with marble floors and a chandelier, an audience will know the house was expensive. The production design is just as important as the characters in the story.

Storyboard graphic

4. Film the Story

A normal mistake for many directors, whether they are beginning or well established in their careers, is to get hung-up on the cinematography and cinematic techniques. They focus on the camera and lighting to the neglect of the story and the actors. The key is to focus on the acting and the story and let the crew do the rest. Providing storyboards for the crew will reduce the technical questions and provide a blueprint for how each scene is to be shot. The technical aspects of filmmaking are important but are less important than the acting and the telling of the story.

Strategies for Mastering the Filmmaking Business

Strategies for Mastering the Filmmaking Business

Based on book content from our American Film Market Presents series, this handy guide provides filmmakers guidance on financing film and television projects, crowdsourcing, marketing and distribution. 



Graphic of video camcorder on a tripod

5. Camera Techniques in Film

Always shoot each scene using classic shot framing and camera angles so there is scene coverage for post-production. If you have time, you can shoot the more creative shots you may have devised, but at least the basics are covered.

Use a tripod for the basic shots and utilize pan and tilt movements to follow the action when it makes sense. Feel free to use camera movement such as dolly shots and gimbals in order to better tell the story. Always make sure the shot composition and lighting are directing the viewers eyes to the important part of the frame. Film techniques create meaning by what the camera shows or does not show and by how a scene is lit. A good question to ask yourself when you are choosing where to place the camera is, “What do I want to see?” If you want to see something, then chances are the audience does too. Follow your gut instinct, but do not forget to capture the basic shots too.

Graphic of traditional umbrella-style reflector

6. Lighting Techniques

Lighting techniques can help focus the viewer’s attention. Lighting can also demonstrate the mood of a character or tell something about how they view the world. For example, dark minimal lighting with deep shadows may tell the audience that the character in that scene is withdrawn or hiding from something or someone. At the other end of the lighting spectrum is brighter flat lighting which is common for comedic films. Flat lighting has very subtle shadows. There is very little contrast between the dark and light areas in the frame.

An often noticeable mistake is for the wide shot to be lit one way and then the closeups and other angles shot with a different lighting design. This can be distracting for the viewer. It is best to light the establishing shot and then use that lighting setup as the basis for all of the coverage shots.

Link to book The Dos and Don'ts of Successful Filmmaking

The Dos and Don'ts of Successful Filmmaking

Drawing on Patrick Winters’ many years of filmmaking and teaching experience, this book guides you through the whole process from preproduction to postproduction. It highlights common mistakes to avoid along the way, and explains where to put your time and money to successfully make a film that will stand out from the crowd.



Graphic of scissors cutting film

7. Editing Techniques

A simple mistake in the filmmaking process is to be so involved in production that there is little time to work on post-production. Picture, Dialogue, Sound Effects, Foley, Backgrounds and Music will all require editing time. Make sure there is enough time before the due date to make the images and sound flow smoothly. The best filmmaking technique for smooth editing is to have adequate coverage so there is a good selection of shots to choose from. Cutaways and close-ups can often help cover continuity errors. Fades and dissolves can be used effectively to show a passage of time. Some other transitions can be created during production. For example, a well-known hard cut between a bone thrown in the air by a primate to a space station somewhere in our galaxy is in the movie, 2001 A Space Odyssey, 1968. This type of transition takes planning during preproduction in order to have the needed shots in postproduction.

To avoid that amateur filmmaking soundtrack issue of changing backgrounds between dialogue lines, cleanup the dialogue by using short crossfades between the character’s lines so the background changes are less noticeable. If there is time to remove unwanted production sounds or use alternate takes of lines for poorly recorded dialogue, then do it. Sound Effects are ideal for adding a reality to a scene, but only if they are appropriate. Foley are the footsteps, body sounds and prop handling sounds that enhance the reality. Many lower budget films do not create Foley and the soundtrack is thinner for it. Backgrounds are the environmental sounds that add a sense of location to a scene. These are the basic non-sync sounds like wind, rain, traffic, birds, etc.

Graphic of film with music icon in the center

8. Use Appropriate Music

Some films make the mistake of using wall-to-wall music from beginning to end. Most films need some breathing room between music cues. Adding music to the entire length of the film could work, but it might sound like a music video. Some scenes do not require music. Use it when it counts. Too much music can dull the effect of the music. Make sure that the chosen music fits the scene, is emotionally appropriate and conveys the emotions of the actors to the audience?

Use music that does not have any singing or voices unless that is called for. Music with singing can compete with the actor’s dialogue. Using popular songs may work for credit sequences and montages, but not usually for score. Also, the filmmaker would need to have the legal rights to use any popular song in their film.

Most scored music is not music you hear on the radio. It is called underscore because it commonly plays under the dialogue and does not usually standout. A film score is the best option for music as it is created to work in synchronization with the film. One filmmaking technique that helps determine the best music for a film is to audition music from films similar to the one you are making. If you are making a war film, then insert music from a movie like Saving Private Ryan at appropriate places in your film and see if the style, instrumentation, tempo and melody work. You can then find similar music, acquire the rights and edit it into the film. If you are musically oriented, then you can create your own soundtrack.


Link to book Sound Design for Low & No Budget Films

Sound Design for Low and No Budget Films

Don’t let your indie film be sabotaged by bad sound quality! This book by Patrick Winters provides step-by-step instructions on how to use recording and editing sound effects to get great sound postproduction. It will teach you how to turn a thin and distracting sound track into one that makes your film shine.



Graphic of Film audio mixer

9. Sound Over Visuals

A frequent mistake is to pay little attention to sound until the film is shown to an audience. An audience will forgive a camera shot that is not lit very well, slightly out of focus or is shaky, but they will not tolerate bad sound. Dialogue is the most important sound in the mix. It needs to standout so the actor’s words can be heard. Music and Sound Effects are usually secondary to dialogue. Sometimes music may dominate sound effects or sound effects may overshadow music. It depends on what is happening in a scene. They should not ever drown out dialogue. One sound technique for helping dialogue stands out in a mix is to determine the frequencies of the actors’ voices and then use EQ (equalization) to lower or cut those same frequencies in the music and sound effects by a few decibels. Also, a minimal amount of compression can be used to get the dialogue to sit above the music and sound effects.

When I did the sound design for the shower scene in the remake of Psycho 1998, I adjusted the EQ of the shower water in order for the stabs sounds to be more present and not be drowned out by the water.

Graphic of film with magic wand

10. Special Effects and Advanced Filmmaking Techniques

A common mistake for filmmakers that are learning the basic techniques of filmmaking is to try to use special effects such as CGI and green screen. It is better to tell a reality-based story than spend a lot of time on special effects. Once you have solid production skills then you can expand into the special effects field. For example, it may sound simple to shoot a scene in front of a green screen and then add the background in post-production, but if the green screen is not lit well or there is a lot of green light reflected back onto the character in front of the screen it will be difficult to pull a clean chroma key and the composited image may not be as successful as desired.