How to Learn in Film Industry


Reading time: 8 mins

Film industry, is not set up for easy learning. This is why who can learn efficiently get ahead faster.

There are a lot of both technical and artistic roles that you can’t really master outside the set. Not from books, not from workshops, not from school.
You get a good start with them, but most of the knowledge is not written anywhere. These are the nuances coming up during the job.

Also, for example, the books on technical positions like for a camera assistant get outdated really quickly. Technologies and new systems with them come and go.

So we have to learn from the pros. Our colleagues, our bosses.

But it is still not that easy.

With a colleague, we discovered some distinct types of “teachers”. (of course they are not teachers, but colleagues. But their role here is teaching. Even if sometimes they don’t realize it 🙂 Actually, not just “they” but “we” all do that.)

Type 1.: The great teacher

This is the rarest type. Maybe 1 in a 100 or 300. You can recognize this type by the fact that he/she is happy to teach you everything there is about a position/task/technology/method. And is supporting your learning by motivating you to learn, giving actionable advice, giving opportunities to practice.

This is the person who honestly wants to support you not just wanting to feel better than you. And who really figured out how to make those certain things well. Intuitively or knowingly understands how a learning process works. (more on the learning process later below)

Type 2.: The usual colleague

Most of our colleagues fall into this category. You can learn a couple of things from almost everyone.
Most people figured out parts of their job deliberately and are doing other parts unconsciously.

The parts they had to figure out, are really systematized in their heads and can tell you a lot about these.

The only warning here is that these are usually partial skills. So you have to stitch the information together from multiple people to get the whole image about a specific part of the job.

Also, they won’t be able to teach you other parts. There might be a field where you struggle in, but which came naturally for them. Don’t worry if they are just blinking at you weirdly when you ask about these things.

Don’t blame them. They learned those skills maybe earlier in their life somewhere else, and never had to think about them in film-industry contexts.

Just go and ask another colleague. Or 5 more.

Type 3.: The bad teacher

You can recognize the bad teacher where you hear “I already told you this once” (more on this sentence further below)

You will run into these people as well. The problem is, that these people don’t want to teach you. Even if they do, their conscious or subconscious motivation is not teaching you, but to feel like they are better than you.

These people don’t understand how a learning process works, and often just let out their own steam on you under the title of “teaching”. They also lack patience.

You can still learn from these people, but for that, you have to get into the habit of forgiving them in a split-second.
You have to get rid of your own anger quickly because it can overshadow those tiny bits of useful feedback, from which you could learn. If you are angry at them, you won’t accept even what might have been a rightful comment on what you were doing.

So after letting go of anger, you have to look at what they said (or usually shouted in front of everyone) this way:
Whatever the problem was that they pointed out, its not a part of you. It’s not your being who is faulty.
It is just an indication of a probably inefficient part of the systems you use.
You have to see how you can fix this inefficiency in the system you use. But it’s not something you have to fix in yourself.

Separate your self-worth from this. All human beings worth the same. Just the different systems people use to do their work might be more or less efficient.

But if possible, avoid learning primarily from these “teachers”. Although this might be a great spiritual practice for the virtue of forgiveness 😀 this route is waaaay slower than the others. Look for someone else if possible.

The learning process

I mentioned the “understanding of a learning process” a couple of times earlier.
Well, this is what I mean by it:

Imagine that I take you to a party, with a lot of people. I know all of them, but you don’t know anyone.

I introduce you to everyone when we arrive.

Then later in the evening, I ask you to go and ask Paul, if he would also love to have a margarita with us.
But you don’t know who Paul is. You actually already know who Claire is, but the question is now Paul.

So you ask.
“Ehm… so show me again who Paul is?!”

And here I’ve got 2 choices, with varying consequences:

Option “A”: “I already introduced you to Paul once…”
With this I publicly make you look forgetful and “stupid”. Which in itself switches off your learning center, but I am also not correct about saying that “you forgot”.

The thing is, we learn in “layers”.

By the end of the first night we went to this party,  you might remember 5 people’s names. If I keep helping you with the names, you might actually finish the evening by knowing 9 instead. If I keep on humiliating you about asking back on the names you might actually end up remembering only 4.

But let’s stick with the 5 names base now.

The next time we come to the same party. You again have a chance to learn more of the names. By the end of this 2nd night, you might remember 10 names.
Also, you might remember from the last time that out of those 5, who has a cat. But by the end of this second party, you already know that out of those first 5, who likes whiskey, and who lives in your neighbourhood.

And the third time we come here, you are already a bit more relaxed, because you know some people. (10, to be precise 😀  ) You might also see other familiar faces whose name you don’t know yet. But here comes again the opportunity.

And you will start to remember these people who I actually introduced to you all at once at the first time.
You will also remember more and more details about each.

So… Layers… like ogres… 😉

And now let’s get back to the question of “Who the heck is Paul” on that first night.

Now you can see why my first option doesn’t make sense.
Option “A”: “I already introduced you to Paul once”

This is not how we learn. Sorry, I am the ignorant one here, it’s not you who is not paying attention.

So what shoud I say instead?
Well… if I let you ask, you will memorize the names faster. You can keep refreshing your fading memories, which makes it easier for them to stick for longer and longer.

If I don’t just let you to, but even encourage you to ask… whoooa… lightspeed learning.

So I go with the other option, while smiling, in a friendly tone, I say:

Option “B”: “He is the guy in the red sweater next to the door. Just let me know if you want more names” 😉

Hooray! everyone is happy, and learning has happened.

This time instead of 5 seconds, you will remember Paul’s name for longer. But it might not be forever. Maybe it will be just 15 minutes.

And if you come back to me an hour later asking:
“Sorry, who is Paul again?”

I could tell you again. “It’s the guy in the red sweater” And now you will remember it even longer than 15 minutes. Maybe even until the next party.

3 Things you can do to learn better and faster

Of course, this topic has much more to it than 3 things. But these 3 ideas might be a really good kickstart to get better faster at learning on set.

No. 1: Start small

If you are on a million dollar production, even if you’re a trainee, it is rightful sometimes for people to not to have the patience to teach you.

First, start working on smaller budget shows, where screwing up things is less of a problem for your career.
Making mistakes is an important part of learning, but in expensive productions, they can’t really affor too much basic mistakes.

Because of the same thing, in a lower pressure environment, everyone will have more patience to teach you.

When you step up on the budget ladder, you can now ask less basic questions. This way, you will find much more people who is patiently willing to teach you the advanced stuff.

No. 2: Make notes all the time

It won’t be possible of course always, but whenever possible, do it!

But most people stop here. Of course, it already helps a lot when you write things down. It just sinks in more immediately.

Although if you go further, you will learn much faster.

Review what you have written down! Review at least once a week, but preferably after each day.

Try to repeat back what you have written down without looking at the paper. The first time you do this maybe nothing will pop into your mind. You will have to look at the paper and read it again.

The memory of this fresh read might last for 5 seconds for the first time. If you ask yourself in 2 minutes, nothing might come up again.

Then read it again and, it might last for 15 minutes this time.

Then ask yourself about it an hour later. And continuing like this, after a while, it will stick in your mind for years.

This technique is one of the most effective learning techniques currently in use. Top universities and the best language programs use this for learning.

3: Ask multiple people about the same thing

The most teachers you will have, fall in the second category. Colleagues who can teach you a skill/method/technique partially. The part they really had to think about while learning.

But these will be partial knowledge pieces. You will have to stitch together the whole image from many fragments, from many people.

The more people you ask, the more complete your picture will get. So don’t believe anyone saying this is everything there is to know about that “X” topic 😉

In Conclusion

No. This is not an ideal environment for learning.

But with the right mindset and skillset, it is absolutely workable. Think about, how many great filmmakers learned in this environment before you.

And with the right amount of awareness, effort, and skills, your learning will be much faster than theirs!

Cover Photo by Nicolas Thomas on Unsplash

About the author

Peter Varnai
By Peter Varnai

Peter Varnai

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Heey, I'm Peter. Father of 2, filmmaker, solopreneur, and a helper of other solopreneurs and self-employed people. :) Feel free to reach out to me and let's have a virtual coffee. or Sign up for the newletter.