9 filmmaking mistakes and how to avoid them

Filmmakers Roberto Palozzi, Michael Zomer and Juan Luis Cabellos on their biggest filming mistakes when starting out – and how you can avoid repeating them.
Filmmaker Michael Zomer in a forest setting with a Canon camera balanced on his shoulder.

"I've made all the filmmaking mistakes throughout my career," laughs Dutch filmmaker Michael Zomer. "I think you have to in order to step up your game." © Michael Zomer

What do the pros wish they could go back and do differently? Everyone has to start somewhere and, when stepping into the world of filmmaking, there is a lot to learn – from technical insights through to storytelling or finding your place within a large-scale production.

Making mistakes along the way is part of the learning process, but so is learning from others. Italian documentary filmmaker and TV presenter Roberto Palozzi, who runs video production company Erebus Productions and shoots wildlife, nature and history films for Italian TV, says he has learnt his craft through trial and error.

Roberto got his break filming wildlife in Antarctica – and he says the stunning scenery made up for his practical shortcomings. "Even though I wasn't experienced at all, I was in the middle of the frozen ocean with seals and emperor penguins, so it was quite easy to come back with good footage; not because I was a good filmmaker, but because everything around me was so fantastic."

Fellow documentary filmmaker Michael Zomer's roots are in extreme sports, having started out filming his friends skateboarding in the Netherlands, before moving on to film action for the likes of Discovery Channel and Red Bull. But today he increasingly focuses on documenting subcultures and filming with indigenous communities in remote corners of the world. "In the last couple of years, storytelling has become much more important to me," he says. "The best comment I could receive nowadays is, 'Wow, this story really got to me.' I've always been fascinated by other people, even without a camera, and I just love to connect with them and tell stories from the heart."

Director of photography and cinematographer Juan Luis Cabellos AEC is based in Madrid, where he has garnered credits on a huge range of Spanish series. His years of experience shooting for TV and film have taught him the importance of having a good attitude on the job.

"As a professional in this industry, you have to be reliable," says Juan. "A movie team works like a team that changes the wheels in a car race. If one fails, the car won't be ready on time. It is preferable that you are not the clumsy mechanic that slows down the operation."

Here, Juan, Michael and Roberto share what they have learnt from their years in the field, and reveal their top nine filmmaking mistakes to avoid when starting out in the film industry.

Filmmaker Juan Luis Cabellos filming using a shoulder-mounted rig.

Filmmaker Juan Luis Cabellos recommends studying the work of photographers and painters for inspiration. "Visit exhibitions, study how images have been made and try to figure out how they can be replicated. This will help your day-to-day work." He says he wishes that when he started out he had understood how much more there was to learn. © Juan Luis Cabellos

1. Trying to do everything yourself

While it's good to learn everything that's involved in a shoot and it can be tempting to try and do it all yourself, Juan and Roberto warn against this.

"This is definitely teamwork," says Juan. "It's very important to know how it works, not only technically, but how to communicate with the rest of the crew, as this will help you to better understand the day-to-day running of a movie. Above all, be nice to people, whether you are the director or the last assistant. At the end of the day, we are not only a team but a family."

"I tried to do everything by myself," says Roberto. "That can work as photographer but not as a videographer. To control all the many variables in a video production, you can't be alone. If you want to shoot a good documentary, work with a team."

2. Not understanding sequencing

Coming from a photographic background, Roberto started out looking for the perfect shot – which doesn't always translate to video. "In photography you show an instant, but in video you must tell a story. A beautiful 20-second clip doesn't have a big value if you don't have a clip to go before and after it.

"I wish I could have understood that every clip is linked to the one before it and what follows. A deeper understanding of video transitions would have helped me a lot. If you are making a documentary, you must have in your mind the final result, which will come in the edit. If you know how the editing process works, you will film with that in mind."

Even after years of practice, it can still catch you out, says Michael. "I think I know exactly what I need, so when I'm in the field, I'm filming safe, meaning that I don't capture too much, so it's digestible in post-production. But sometimes I can go too wild with that, and I miss out on certain shots when I should have continued filming at that moment."

Filmmaker Roberto Palozzi filming with a Canon video camera with his back to the water's edge.

Italian documentary filmmaker Roberto Palozzi shoots science and nature films for Italian TV. "If you are a photographer jumping into the video world, change your perspective," he advises. "Looking for the perfect shot is not the right approach for video. I've had beautiful clips which I haven't used in my documentaries, because they didn't fit the story." © Roberto Palozzi

Filmmaker Michael Zomer holds a Canon camera and sits and chats with two people one of whom is dressed in clothing indigenous to the area.

Keeping his kitbag small is essential when Michael is spending days and weeks on the road reaching remote communities for his documentary work. "It's a hassle to carry everything around," he says. "If you have to operate everything yourself, it's better to keep it simple, because otherwise you miss out on other things." © Michael Zomer

3. Thinking there is nothing more to learn

"Trust me, nobody knows everything," says Juan. "You have to shoot as much as you can, especially at the very beginning." Working across everything from short films and music videos to corporate jobs helps you to learn what can be done on a set, he says, as well as what you shouldn't do.

"Filming itself is like an extension of my body," says Michael. "Operating my camera is like driving a car – I don't have to think about it when I put it into another gear. But where I still have to gain more knowledge is with storytelling and directing. I have a lot of people around me that I look up to and who inspire me."

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Juan also recommends joining a film school to learn your craft. "It doesn't have to be the most famous or expensive school – there's a wide range across Europe, so just look for one that suits you. You will meet people in the same position as you and participating in projects with your colleagues will give you experience and 'flight hours'."

 Filmmaker Roberto Palozzi waist deep in a lake filming a tortoise feeding.

Roberto confesses that he's not very interested in bitrates and codecs, but acknowledges the importance of understanding what they mean. "I don't like that part, but I know it's very important to know how your equipment works. If your camera doesn't allow you to film well in low light, you cannot film in low light – it's very easy to understand. You'll save time and money, and avoid going home with nothing." © Roberto Palozzi

Filmmaker Roberto Palozzi standing chest deep in a lake with his Canon camera.

Roberto's top piece of advice relates to behaviour and the way you present yourself. "As with everything, it is difficult to get ahead in the film world if you are arrogant," he says. © Roberto Palozzi

4. Overuse of depth of field and wide-angle shots

"At the beginning, I thought that extreme shots were the best," says Roberto, who would choose 12mm over 45mm for wide-angle shots, favour extreme telephoto such as 400mm over 200mm, or push for a narrow depth of field more than necessary.

"Now I think that simplicity, smoothness and a natural look to your image is what you should try to achieve. If you need to resort to extremes, it means you are looking for something to make up for the shortcomings of your story. If your story is good, you don't need to shoot to extremes, and if your footage is simple and smooth, your story will be better."

5. Underestimating audio

"I thought audio wasn't important," recalls Roberto. "It was something you could worry about later. But if you haven't recorded good audio, there is nothing you can do about it later. A video is made up of both images and sound, so if the audio is not at the same level as your footage, the final video won't be good. Audio shouldn't be considered secondary."

Roberto, who shoots on a range of Canon Cinema EOS cameras, says he particularly values their in-built audio capabilities. "The Canon EOS C200, EOS C500 Mark II and EOS C300 Mark III are so good because they offer beautiful, professional audio at a very high quality," he says.

"I've always recorded in-camera audio," adds Michael, who often works solo. "It's challenging because I am doing that at the same time as filming, but the luxury I have with the Canon EOS C70 is that I have two XLR inputs. So I can put on a clip-on mic, and always have a mic attached to my camera, which is coming into the EOS C70 on channels three and four."

A close-up of filmmaker Elisa Iannacone looking at the vari-angle touchscreen of a Canon EOS C70 camera with an expanse of water and pink-hued skyline in front of her.

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6. Thinking you can fix it in post

One of Michael's biggest filmmaking mistakes was going into shoots in isolated jungles without a clear plan. "The places where I go are unknown, so you cannot always produce a plan, but even so, write a script," he says. "If you don't, you come home with all kinds of disconnected storylines. So, write the script from the knowledge you've gained and go in with that."

Post-production can't save everything, adds Juan. "The lighting mood must be created on set. The image on the set monitor must look pretty much as it should in final colour grading. Colour correction should be just a fine-tune adjustment to fix the little differences between shots and get the final nuances in colour reproduction. There are a lot of decisions, such as light direction, that you can't undo in post."

Juan also says you should always be careful with exposure and avoid an over-reliance on the power of RAW. "RAW files give us a great margin of action in post, but they are neither magical nor endless. Be careful with the aperture and also adjust the colour temperature so the settings correspond to the look and feel that you want to achieve."

Filmmaker Michael Zomer films an indigenous man with tattoos covering his face and chest in a small hut with a Canon camera.

Michael's work, which includes an ongoing documentary series about indigenous people who document their wisdom through their tattoos, takes him to the remotest parts of the planet. He often lives with a tribe for a month before starting filming to build a connection. "Then they don't care about the camera," he says. "That's just an extension of my body." © Michael Zomer

7. Underestimating the importance of local connections

"When heading to remote locations, you cannot just show up, so it's really important that you do your research," says Michael. When he wants to approach an indigenous community, he seeks out anthropologists who have previously visited the region. "I've been in so many places where just saying the name of an anthropologist or researcher gives you access, because that person has gained trust already."

Finding local translators is also essential and they can also assist with the practicalities of reaching isolated communities. "Sometimes it involves five days riding on a motorbike, or on a pack animal," says Michael. "I could not reach these locations myself, so you need to connect with locals and trust in their knowledge. And I love to do that. I think that's the key factor in making a production successful."

8. Neglecting cultural sensitivity

Some of the indigenous communities Michael films have rarely seen outsiders. "Let's say they've never seen a camera – it's quite a thing to show up and start filming right away," he says. "I always come with an open heart and a pure interest in their culture, but also share things about my life and culture, because they are interested in me too, and that's how you gain trust."

The size of your equipment plays a role here. "If we think about cultural sensitivity, you don't want to show up with a Christmas tree," Michael adds. "It's quite inappropriate to arrive with a huge camera. You want to have it as compact as possible which makes people relax and open up."

For his work in isolated communities, Michael leans on the cinematic capabilities of the Canon EOS C70. "I love the internal ND filters, that I can capture 4K and 100fps, and the battery life, because I've been in places where there was no electricity. It's the best camera I could imagine for my work."

Roberto Palozzi standing on a clifftop overlooking the shore filming with a Canon camera mounted on a long arm rig.

"My first bag with my equipment was so heavy," recalls Roberto. "I was so stupid because I thought I had to bring everything with me. Now, if there's something I'm not sure I will use, it stays at home." © Roberto Palozzi

Filmmaker Juan Luis Cabellos filming with a camera mounted on a tripod.

Juan stresses the importance of working as a team and understanding that as a videographer, it's often impossible to manage all the variables on your own. © Juan Luis Cabellos

9. Not knowing your equipment

Roberto recalls his early shoots, when he was laden down with incredibly heavy bags of kit. This was, in part, due to inexperience and lack of planning. He didn't know which cameras and lenses worked for which scenario, or even what shots he wanted to get, so he needed to cover all his bases.

"Over the years, my bag has become lighter and lighter," he says. "I try to only bring the things I am going to use – I want to be sure of what I want to do and not be in the hands of destiny. Now I know what I want to film, I know what equipment is right to reach my goal.

Michael also recommends keeping things simple. "One thing I've learnt is not to bring too much equipment with your camera. You should be focusing on the storytelling. Sometimes I'm busy with the focal length of the lens, or the depth of field, and getting this perfect image, but in documentary, it's the story that matters."

"It is very important that you know your tools well," concludes Roberto. "Knowing exactly how your equipment works means you know what you can and cannot do. This is why I film on Canon cameras – they have all the characteristics I need for my videos. When I shoot with Canon, I feel sure of the result."

Lucy Fulford

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