It is always a treat whenever I get to sit down with a fellow filmmaker (or two) and catch up with them on their current film career and talking about different films we’ve watched (and why we thought they were either works of genius or absolute poop)….
However, one thing I rarely hear discussed among fellow filmmakers is about the films they made when they were in high school. If these long lost gems are even mentioned, they are spoken of with either disdain or embarrassment.
In some ways, I get it. It’s like looking at an old photo of yourself as a baby or a ten year old and thinking, “Wow. I look ridiculous with that mullet.” Sometimes those old photos bring up bad memories of your past, people that you didn’t get along with or even dark periods that you would rather forget. Both of these are understandable reasons why a filmmaker wouldn’t look back at their old movies from high school.
Yet, I believe looking back and learning from your origin story is the best way to improve your current films and to truly understand what kind of filmmaker you are and what type of films you would like to work on.
Here are 4 reasons why you should re-watch your old films from high school:
1. To Remember How You Started and Why You Started…
In 2005, I was in a model rocketry club for (mostly) homeschooled high schoolers. I knew nothing about model rocketry, nor was I interested. I was, however, interested in making an epic documentary about the club. Most of the club members were friends I had grown up with so it wasn’t like I was meeting a bunch of new people. When we weren’t launching or making rockets, there was a lot of downtime and it was very easy to get bored. I was also itching to start my own film.
I can’t remember when it started but during this time I began to write a story. This story was about a young man who was chosen by God to control the power of a mysterious model rocket for an eclectic rocket team. As cheesy as it sounds, I was very serious about this film and its production. As I got closer to finishing the script, I began to share it with my friends, grabbing their interest and their excitement. Many of them grew up with the same movies I did and were ecstatic at the idea of being in a movie of our own…
It would be another four years before this feature length film would be complete, thanks to an ever expanding script, scheduling problems, reshoots, and a ridiculous amount of lightsabers to rotoscope.
Not to mention most of us were in high school and couldn’t drive ourselves any where until later in production.
That’s the first thing I remember: THIS FILM WAS HARD AND CONSUMED MOST OF MY LIFE…
If I knew how hard it was going to be to put together a 3 hour long, special effects heavy, matrix/star wars-ish movie with non-actors and only myself and another friend (and his dad) doing all the special effects, I wouldn’t have even started.
So why did I even take on such a project? I fell in love with the story, the characters and I really wanted to do something epic…something I had never done before…I also believed I could change peoples lives through this film. And while the story itself may not have changed the lives of those who watched it, the production itself changed my life and the lives of my friends forever.
Of course, your motivation will change over time…but remembering why you started will help you to understand where you are going as a filmmaker and where you want to go…Never forget!
2. To Learn How to Properly Critique a Movie….
Every year since the film was finished, I would invite a few friends over (both friends who were involved in the project and friends who weren’t). As we’ve gotten older, we have started to grow more comfortable tearing the film apart.
One of the most common things we laugh about is how many of the characters would change in height or their voices would change, even though their costumes would not. The best example is the “house invasion” scene at the beginning of the movie.
This scene was shot and re-shot through for 4 years. As you can see, while we would fill in the footage with re-shoots, we didn’t re-shoot the entire scene. You will notice lighting changes and the age of the actors changing through out this one scene.
This is just one of many problems with Project Eagle. And that’s alright. It was an ambitious project made by highschoolers who decided that starting with a short film wasn’t good enough. But the more I learn about film and film theory and what makes a good film, the more I notice heavy exposition, constant crossing of the line of action, and my terrible day-for-night shots.
Because I could find these problems with my own film, it made it easier to figure out why Transformers is barely a good action movie and why the original Star Wars is so revered despite its low budget. Because I learned how to properly critique my own film, I began to understand the difference between a good film and a bad film.
Your old student films are the perfect place to start learning film critique and film theory. They are also the best place to start learning humility as a filmmaker. We aren’t meant to start out as a Spielberg, Tarantino, Kubrick, or Shyamalan. Heck, we’ll be lucky if we can become a Michael Bay. When we learn to accept where we, the sooner we can get to where we want to be.
3. Find Common Tropes That You’ve Used Through Out Your Career
One thing that’s great about looking back at your student films is when you start noticing themes, tropes, or cinematic choices that you are using in your current films.
For example, in the final fight between the protagonist and the lead antagonist in Project Eagle, there is a moment that mimics the Neo / Smith fight finale in The Matrix Revolutions.
(Start at 02:13)
(Start at 05:55)
Later, in my web series, Between Heaven & Hell, I created a similar scene (with different shooting and better results).
(Start at 07:12)
I’ve also noticed I tend to shoot closeups of my actors and during action scenes, I like to track the camera on a steady cam, and many of my shots are heavily influenced by cinematography from Japanese Animation.
Many of my lead protagonists are quiet, introverted and reluctant heroes…probably because I relate with that character type.
As a filmmaker, it is important to be self-aware of the choices you make in your films, so that you can know how to best utilize them and improve upon them in future projects…It’s also good so that you can know which tropes you don’t need to keep going back to. That said, I think I should be done with making my heroes fall from great heights and explode upon impact.
4. Remember the Fun You Had, The Friends You Had and the Kind of People You Want To Surround Yourself With…
Most people don’t understand how hard and time consuming even a simple student film is. They watch the final result and assume that it’s all fun and games. They don’t realize how late you stayed up rotoscoping all the lightsaber effects or how many days it took to choreograph even the simplest fight scene.
As a filmmaker, we put so much of our soul and our passion into whatever we create that if we aren’t impressed by the final product, we will often fight hard and long to forget the experience. We wonder what could’ve been as we try to appease the little film critic that lives in our heads.
That little film critic likes to forget important things like the people who set aside time to help us with our adventure.
Even though I saw most of Project Eagle as a cinematic disaster, I still enjoyed the time spent with my friends, getting to know them and getting to laugh with them. Whenever I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer size of the project, I would set aside a few minutes (or an hour…) to watch a private blooper reel I had put together on the side….and remember how fun it really was….how close the experience brought us together.
Putting together a film, no matter the run time, is like going on an enormous quest. You gather a group of people, each with different gifts and talents, to help accomplish a task that you cannot accomplish on your own…a task that is greater then anything you’ve ever done before.
You go through hell together; seeing each other at your worst and your best. You become close with these people. If you weren’t already friends, you become friends and have a blast, despite your differences and conflicting personalities.
Since Project Eagle, most of the cast and crew have moved on with their lives, moving away, graduating college, getting married and having kids. Some are an immediate part of my life, while others I haven’t seen in years it seems. But even the ones I barely see I still feel a connection with…because we worked together on this special movie.
I have since worked on about a dozen shorts and a few web series. Each of them have a special memory in my heart…because I chose to work with great people…people who wanted to have fun but also put their heart and soul into the film. It wasn’t just my movie. It was our movie…
Project Eagle never got a theatrical release. When the film was finally complete, however, we gathered everyone who played a part in it’s production, along with their families and close friends, for a special premiere at the church most of us attended. People laughed, cried, and even cheered at times…and I was immediately humbled by the impact this project had on my immediate friends.
Because of this, I am not embarrassed about my first student film. Because of the people who believed in the project.
The world might not think much of your crappy student films. But remember that these films once meant the world to your friends and to you.
If you want to see Project Eagle, check out the playlist below. It has been organized into a “web series” format so that you don’t have to watch the entire film in three hours.