If you were to distill the internet and social media down into one positive, lasting legacy, it’s probably the fact that it has been the great leveler—a democratization of education. A few decades ago, you would’ve had to attend a (most likely expensive) film school to learn the ropes of filmmaking and it was pretty much the only way of networking and meeting like-minded creatives.
Nowadays, with social media especially, we’re able to follow filmmakers from all over the world with different backgrounds and at different stages in their careers. Suddenly, there’s an immense wealth of lessons to be learned from all the talent you can readily access on a phone in your pocket. But who to follow? And what can be learned? Below, we’re giving you 7 great answers to these questions – 7 accomplished, talented filmmakers who all have inspiring stories to tell and lessons to share.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon
photo by Jessica Earnshaw
If you’re a budding documentary filmmaker, Elaine McMillion Sheldon is someone you need to pay close attention to. Originally from the Appalachian region of the United States, Elaine is already an accomplished Academy Award-nominated and Peabody-winning documentary filmmaker and is someone who will go on to win as many awards as her middle name suggests. Notably, she’s directed two Netflix Original Documentaries, “Recovery Boys” and “Heroin(e)”, the latter of which was nominated for a 2018 Academy Award and won the 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Short Documentary.
Alongside Netflix, she’s also been commissioned for Frontline PBS, The Center for Investigative Reporting, The New York Times Op-Docs, TEDWomen, Field of Vision, and The Bitter Southerner.
More recently, her new feature-length film “King Coal” Premiered in the NEXT section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and is well worth watching. It’s a film that focuses on how difficult changes and powerful myths play a role in shaping our everyday realities, fears, and hopes – a creative rendering of the place she calls home and a creative departure that showcases a different side of her talents.
Along with a substantial, impressive body of work to study and analyze, there are also plenty of links to the interviews she’s done over the years, providing some great advice and learning for other documentary filmmakers. She even has a Skillshare course teaching you how to create a short documentary video portrait.
When it comes to first-time documentary filmmakers on the rise, her advice is solid:
“Develop stamina and focus, and find something you can access over a period of time without a lot of resources. Making a documentary always takes longer than you think, and if you aren't passionate about following the twists, turns and lulls of nonfiction, you can burn out and give up. You have to care more about the topic, person, issue (etc) more than anyone else. You have to allow time (nothing can replace the progression of time) for the story to grow and evolve. You have to make time for research and creative ideation (watching other films and learning new ways of telling stories). You have to do the work when no one is watching and no one is funding it.
We documentary filmmakers are semi-delusional in that we believe so deeply in the stories we tell but often funders and distributors can't see the potential in our films until they see the finished product. Is this fair? No. But I recommend setting yourself up with stories that are easily accessible to you so that you can build trust and see a story develop deeply. Don't rush your nonfiction - allow the messiness of life to find its way in.”
Header image above Elaine McMillion Sheldong (photo credit: Jessica Earnshaw).
Kansas City writer and director Morgan Cooper is a rising star with a unique voice, clear vision, and passion for storytelling. As a YouTube comment attests to a behind-the-scenes video of his “U Shoot Videos?” Morgan is “the most calculated visionary I've ever witnessed. He is one of the few up-and-coming masters who has turned the entire production process into a craft of his own and absolutely owns it!”
That “U Shoot Videos” film won best feature at the 2020 Tribeca festival and also bagged a Vimeo Staff Pick Best of The Year Nomination and since then, he hasn’t looked back. With influences from fine art, jazz, and hip-hop to photographers such as Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, Morgan Cooper always wants his work “to be something that’s relatable. I always want people who may not have felt heard – I want to make them feel heard”.
Perhaps the most remarkable milestone in Cooper's career to date was the attention he gained from a trailer he made for a "faux" dramatized re-imagining of the 90s sitcom hit "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." That short garnered the attention of Will Smith himself, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cooper teamed up with Smith's Westbrook production to create a series based on the short for Peacock. Season 1 premiered February of last year, and season 2 air April of this year.
As you probably already know, the world of YouTube how-to filmmaking tutorial channels is well-stocked. But as always, the cream tends to rise to the top and Philadelphian-born Danny Gevirtz is a filmmaker who’s really stood out over the years. Like many others, Danny kickstarted his career as a director and cinematographer involved with commercial work, short documentaries, and branded content. Take a trawl through his portfolio and the talent is clear to see.
What makes Danny worth following is that in tandem with his commercial work, he started a YouTube channel – “a home for young filmmakers”. Here, he shares priceless insights and valuable lessons about every stage of the filmmaking process. From advice on gear and the creative process to how-to’s and in-depth breakdowns of his work, there’s a lot to be learned from this talented filmmaker who’s teaching what he lives and breathes.
More recently, Gevirtz just completed his first narrative feature film titled “I Think I’m Sick” and has been enjoying a run of private screenings across the US before entering it into various film festivals.
The best part about “I Think I’m Sick” is that he documented the whole process of creating this film from start to finish on his YouTube channel.
It’s hard to stress how useful this resource is for other filmmakers. Can you imagine if we got an hour’s worth of documentary behind-the-scenes footage on the first narrative film Spielberg or James Cameron shot? Priceless.
I first came across Samba Diop when he was featured in Netflix & Adobe’s “The Great Untold” series—their first short films contest. Samba was one of three selected from among more than 16,000 submissions to TikTok, securing a $10,000 grant to make his film.
The son of Senegalese immigrants, Samba’s short narrative for Netflix explores the fear of immigrants that their culture, over time, may fade away. This short, powerful film explores the inner conflict of the word “immigrant”, showing a world with two distinct parts.
It’s no real surprise to see Samba win this contest and excel as a director. Just a quick trawl through his social media and website reveals that this is a filmmaker with serious talent who’s on the rise. From social media content to commercial shoots and experimenting with AI, Samba seems comfortable creating across multiple mediums and has just moved out to LA to continue his journey. It’s going to be fun to watch how he develops and see where he goes next!
Paul Trillow has a background in experimental film from California College of The Arts which makes total sense when you see what he’s up to. This is not a filmmaker you can put into one box or niche, with his diverse portfolio of work spanning all kinds of different genres and formats as he explores new ways to tell stories and engage audiences.
It’s this penchant for exploring new ideas and pushing the boundaries that have seen him innovating at the forefront of AI filmmaking. Just take a look at some of his uploads to Instagram, where he’s been experimenting with Dall-E 2 and the Runway App. Paul is a tinkerer and a visionary who’s showing us what’s possible with this powerful new technology and what the future of filmmaking may well look like – if you’re not following him, you really should be.
Sophia Nahli Allison
Los Angeles’ Sophia Nahli Allison, a self-styled “black queer radical dreamer,” is a filmmaker just warming up. Her Netflix-backed 2019 short documentary “A Love Song for Latasha” has already earned her an Oscar nomination and it’ll be no surprise to see further awards coming.
That particularly moving documentary celebrates the life of Latasha Harlins, a vibrant 15-year-old girl whose shooting sparked the infamous 1992 LA riots. The film was noted for humanizing Latasha through joyously edited archival footage. In becoming the “face” of a movement, Latasha may have been somewhat forgotten as a real, teenage girl and this film addressed that in a refreshingly bold style.
Sophia is a filmmaker exploring the profound journey for Black liberation. She’s since gone on to be director, co-writer, and executive producer on HBO MAX’s 2021 original documentary “Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground” which is a video-essay portrait of Black liberation honoring Henry Hampton’s 14-hour, Peabody-winning chronicle from the late 1980s. By giving lost stories a place to exist and spotlighting new voices for the future, Allison reflects on the moments that brought us to where we are – and where we're going.
If you watch travel videos on YouTube, then the chances are some point or another, you may well have already seen one of Brandon Li’s films. Brandon is an accomplished travel filmmaker, with a defined, signature style and many years of experience creating beautiful, jaw-dropping promotions for tourism boards and travel brands around the world. His work has garnered millions of views and gained wide recognition from the likes of National Geographic, the BBC, and Vimeo. He was even recognized by Sony Alpha cameras as one of their "Dreammakers."
Not only does he upload inspiring films regularly, but he also shares his tips and advice on YouTube, sometimes through tutorials that show the practicalities of shooting a travel film, as well as director’s commentaries on his latest travel films, breaking down the making of the video with behind the scenes footage and creative insight.
Aside from being inspired and feeling motivated when watching his videos, Li has a unique style that offers up lessons you can’t really see in any other filmmaker. Some of the ways he uses a gimbal and 360 cameras, as well as his post-production techniques, can give you all sorts of new, creative ideas for your own projects. If you want to dig deeper, Brandon also runs a filmmaking school known as “Unscripted Studio”.
Recently, Brandon released his stunning “Morocco Arise” video – a passion project that meant a lot to him.
“Passion projects are important for me because they allow me to create without boundaries and define my own voice and style. I can take risks with a passion project that would be unfeasible if I was trying to please a client and meet a deadline. I think my passion projects are my best work, and clients usually hire me based on these films - not based on my commercial portfolio. So they're a tool for self-expression and portfolio building.”
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