One question that always comes up when we’re talking to filmmakers is how they got started making films. We love hearing about the first time someone picked up a camera, the first time they attempted to tell a story, the first time they saw their ideas come to life. There’s something important about remembering those early days. As the years go on and your hobby becomes your career, it’s easy to lose sight of what drew you to this work in the first place.
So we thought we’d put together some of our favorite beginning stories. Maybe one of these will remind you of your own.
We’ll start off with the people who were born to make films and knew it early on. You know the type. These are people who’ve been making films since they were in middle school, and they haven’t put down their cameras ever since. They’re the ones who mowed lawns and then used the money to buy Hi8 video cameras from Circuit City.
We also included Sarah Barlow in this list. She’s a photographer, but we love the story about how her dad bought Sarah her first SLR. Here are the early bloomers.
I started making stop-motion films when I was seven years old. My friend had a tiny point-and-shoot camera and one of those old PowerBook laptops with the colored shell. We’d create these stop-motion films about, like, pillows taking over the world. We set up these extravagant pillow armies that would move around the living room. It wasn’t very effective storytelling. We gave ourselves these rigid guidelines. We’d start at 9 a.m. and by the time my mom picked me up that night, we’d have a film to show her. We presented it at the end of the day and got feedback so the next time we’d make a more effective film. I started very early with that kind of mentality.
When I was in 7th grade, I scraped some money together and bought a really horrible Hi8 digital camera. I remember thinking at the time, This is either a big waste of money, or this is what I’m going to do with my life. I got the camera on clearance for $200 and started making really, really terrible videos with my friends in middle school. That’s where it started for me.
My dad bought me an SLR when I was 13. He’s the one who encouraged me to play around with it. He was like, “You have such a good eye.” But I didn’t really know what that meant, you know? Slowly people started to request that I shoot them, whether it was weddings or portraits or parties. People just kept commenting about how calm I was or how easy I was to work with. I’d never seen another photographer work, so I didn’t know what normal was. I started thinking, Oh, maybe this is something I can do.
We spent a lot of our childhood watching really good movies. My mom was really into cinema. Not just Jurassic Park and Back to the Future — my mom would be like, “Let’s watch Rear Window.” My older brother and I started making GI Joe movies, like stop-animation little adventures. I’m number seven in the family, so I just tagged along for these things. I didn’t really lead the projects. We entered a LEGO video competition and won a trip to LEGOLAND. That was really my foray into film.
There are some people who find film by accident. They pick up a camera on a whim and then realize that filmmaking is something they were meant to do, something they can’t stop doing. Our friend Zach McNair got his start by building GeoCities websites. Joe Simon was a professional BMX rider. Salomon Ligthelm was a musician/audio engineer. All of them sidestepped their way into filmmaking and never sidestepped back out again.
I was born and raised in Houston, and I grew up on a farm. There’s not a ton of stuff to do on a farm unless you want to ride horses all day long. My dad had an Apple computer, and that got me interested in this whole world of cool things you can do on a computer. At that time I didn’t know too much about it. I just had the AOL install disks and a chess game. When I was 10, though, I discovered GeoCities. So I guess my first experience with any kind of creative thing was actually web development, which sounds super lame. Over time I started getting more into design. I started doing album art, which got me into photography, which eventually got me into video. I was always just like, “Yeah, dude, I’ll shoot it.” I’m still like that. “Yeah, man, I’ll do it.” Even if I have no idea how.
I would say I started filming back in, I think it was ‘99. I was riding professional BMX at the time, and I wanted to get a camera to film. I had never used a camera before that. I picked up some number from Best Buy, and I really fell in love with the whole process of shooting and editing and creating whatever you wanted. Everything snowballed from that point to where it is now.
I was working for a church as an audio engineer. But it was a small church, and I was only busy during the weekends when I needed to mix stuff for the service. I had all these libraries of sounds, and I would sit in my bedroom and listen to them. I started thinking that if I could put some pictures to the music, it could be quite interesting. The church had this really crappy old camera, so I took it out, shot a bunch of stuff, and then created my own music for what I had shot. I thought there was some potential, so I went back to the church and said, “Listen, can I borrow some money?” It was right around the time Philip Bloom was experimenting with the 7D and the 5D. I bought the 7D and the rest just kind of happened.
Sometimes you have to see what’s possible before you realize you want to attempt it for yourself. For Khalid Mohtaseb, it was a visit to his brother’s college and a chance conversation with a film student that got him hooked for life. And thank goodness, too. We don’t want to think about a world where Khalid isn’t making images.
I guess it was in high school, really. It was my senior year. I had been taking photography courses: two years of photography, some graphic design, some architecture, some art courses. I never really thought I could make a living doing it. But during my senior year, my brother was at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He was in the architecture program. I went to visit him and started talking with one of his friends who was in the film program. The film program at Pratt isn’t anything crazy; but I saw a video this guy did, and I honestly couldn’t believe it. It was inspiring, to say the least, and I fell in love.
We love Wesley Walker’s story about how he fell in love with filmmaking, because it’s also the story of him falling in love with his girlfriend Shara. If there’s a more romantic way to “catch the bug,” we haven’t heard it yet.
I was a runner. I ran a 4:06 mile, and I planned to be in the Olympics. But after I found out I had bone cancer, my focus totally shifted. That’s right around the time Shara and I met. We started falling in love. She was shooting a lot of photography, and we took a trip to Central America after my last surgery. We were traveling through Central America together, and that was the first time I really encountered photography. We started shooting, and I realized photography was something I wanted to be great at.
Philip Bloom’s story is a little hard to classify — just like him. For Philip, becoming a filmmaker was a cool-headed decision. He thought it looked fun. Now he’s become one of the most influential independent filmmakers in the world. Just goes to show you, there’s no wrong way in.
I never made films as a kid. I never did anything like that. I had no idea what career I wanted. In school I just chose classes I enjoyed: art, computer, politics. Completely disconnected subjects. By choosing those, I couldn’t go down a vocational path. They weren’t specific enough. I had no idea what I was going to do. Then I saw a documentary on TV about a press photographer. I thought, That looks really fun. That’s how I decided what I was going to do. There was no real love. No real desire. I wasn’t shooting Super 8 films since age 10. There was none of that. I just liked photography and wanted to do something I enjoyed.
There are a million ways to catch the filmmaking bug. It can happen at any time and for any reason. One day, something clicks: You have to make films. You have to take pictures. It’s like you don’t have a choice. Maybe that’s why the imagery we use is of a sickness, a “bug” — it’s beyond your control.
We’d love to hear your origin story too. Tell us how you got into filmmaking in the comments below.