Filmmaker F.A.Q.

After speaking to Will Story’s media students at San Joaquin Delta College I was was asked by Victor Rhodes, one of the students about doing an interview for The Collegian, the school paper. Victor emailed a list of questions, which I answered by dictating into MacSpeech. I gave Victor much, much more than he needed — but as with film footage, it’s always better to have more than less. This is the full series of answers I sent him. This will expand over time into a full Filmmaker F.A.Q. page.

Mike Carroll speaking to the media students at San Joaquin Delta College.

Mike Carroll speaking to the media students at San Joaquin Delta College.

What inspired you to get into filming?

My earliest memory of movies is when I was around eight years old then my parents took me to see Lawrence of Arabia. From the moment of the first shot and the overpowering music I was transported, and I’ve never been the same since. Every day of my life since that moment I’ve been watching movies in the hope of giving that same kick back. It’s rare, it happens only once every couple of years, but when you’re watching something and it’s magic, it’s life-changing––at least for me.

When I became a teenager, and people start asking you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It was pretty apparent to me that the only thing that really interested me was movies, so I always answered, “I want to make movies.”

About that time my parents gave me a book for Christmas called “The Film Director.”
It was one of the very first filmmaking books. It was filled with photographs of directors looking through cameras and standing next to cameras, so I’ve naturally came to the assumption that directors operated their own cameras. (Only later did I discover that most directors have absolutely no idea what the camera is or how to compose the shot.) So I figured that if I want to make movies than I have to learn photography, which I did with a vengeance.

When I got out of high school––which I thought was a phenomenal waste of time, the only thing I really learned was photography and typing––it was way before the “film school movement,” and growing up in Missouri really had zero film opportunities. So all of my high school friends trooped off to college and I got a job in a camera store, and a year later in the mail room of the TV station.

I’d read an article in a local newspaper about local TV news cameramen––this was way back in the days when TV news was still shot on 16 mm film––that said that most of the cameramen started out in the mail rooms for a couple years, then moved on to the processing laboratory where they developed the 16mm news film, and from there segued on into being cameramen. I wasn’t so much interested in news as I was in having the chance to get my hands on a professional movie camera and learn how to use it––and get paid for it at the same time.

So I got into the mailroom, which was a fantastic opportunity because it meant that I had to get to know everybody in every department of the TV station and really see the inside of how a TV station works. I was in that mailroom for a couple of years, doing my time, when all of a sudden TV news switched from shooting on 16mm film to video tape. In an instant film cameramen were being laid off across the country and replaced with engineers who had no idea of what the camera was but who did have an FCC license. In short, I was screwed.

A bit of time past, and in all my friends were finished with college and starting out their careers. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. Then good friend at the station, who was also a TV news cameraman and also wanted to break into making movies, gave me a break. On a Saturday we went into the station archives, pulled out a bunch of his news stories, dubbed them onto a tape, which I made a bunch of copies of, put my name on them, and started mailing them out. Within about a year I managed to find a station that would hire me. It was in Wichita, Kansas — a place I had no idea where it was on the map or how to spell.

When I started I didn’t even know how to turn the camera on, but I was determined to learn and learn in a hurry. I really didn’t have any choice — I was married, had just moved us 400 miles, left everything behind us — I had no other choice but to survive and succeed. The people I was working with were in their early 20s fresh out of school. I was in my late her 20s with no school. After their eight hours they go home at six. I stay on and learn how the gear worked — the camera and the editing. Again, I had no choice — I had to make this work. And I did. I eventually became the “chief photographer,” meaning that I was the head of the TV news photography department for that station.

This was my course into the business, but I don’t recommend it for everybody.

That said, I think this is true of any job or profession anybody gets into. I don’t think it matters how much school or experience someone may have — it all gets down to how to determine you are, how hard you apply yourself, and how good you are at working with people. You can’t be driven and also be a jerk — the kind of person that we’ve all seen too much of. You have to be focused, professional, and, most importantly, very good at working with people and making them like you and want to work with you. That’s how people have responded to me and also how I find myself responding to other people who have those traits.

TV news has been my film school. When the digital revolution swept in in the late-1990s all of my filmmaking skills had been honed in doing TV news. The affordability of digital editing on computers and digital cameras finally opened up the doors to being able to make films, and with the full support of my wife Bonnie, we jumped in and made our first film, a documentary in New York, where one of her daughters lives, about professional dog walkers, Dog Soldiers.

What is your role at KCRA?

At KCRA-TV I am a staff TV news cameraman. I’ve been at case KCRA since 1989, getting here two days before the San Francisco, Loma Prieta earthquake. I got the job because at the time the news department was going through a reinvention of itself and wanted to upgrade the look of its news and news photography. By that time I’d been a TV news cameraman for five or six years and had a resume with 40 TV news photography awards to my credit (mostly through the N.P.P.A. — National Press Photographers Association, nppa.org), which really opened the door for me and I couldn’t wait to start here. KCRA has a nationwide reputation for quality in the TV business so it was an honor to be asked to be a part of it.

KCRA and TV news in general is going through a new reinvention of itself right now with the Internet and continuing digital revolution. Stations everywhere are downsizing and adjusting to the new economy, as well as the overwhelming onslaught of TV channels available on cable and transitioning also with the Internet and online news and journalism.

To be able to succeed and survive in any business and profession you have to pay constant attention to what’s going on, where your industry is heading, and tried to stay a few steps ahead of those around you to be a part of the next wave. For me that means reinventing myself from being “only” a TV news cameraman — in addition to the myriad of other skills and responsibilities that are associated with that title — to also being a reporter as well.

For the past year I have been, with the permission and encouragement of the news department’s management, coming up with my own stories, going out and shooting them and doing all of the interviews and what have you by myself, then writing up the scripts for the stories and also tracking them on-air just as the KCRA reporters and anchors do. I’m to the point now where I am turning out one to two stories of my own that run on the evenings on KCRA News vet and with the reporter tag-line, “In Sacramento, I’m Mike Carroll for KCRA 3 Reports.”

This is where I see TV news heading and I want to be out there a part of it. It’s also an incredible honor to be granted the permission to do this by a station of the quality and stature of KCRA.

Will you continue making films after retirement?

How long will I continue making films? That’s a good question. As an independent filmmaker the hardest thing is to find a place to get your films seen. And this is not just the case for people like me who are making films with their own money, meaning with no money, as well as for people who are making films with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars and with star names. Even Jeff Bridges’ film Crazy Heart, which he won an Oscar for, very nearly did not get released and was on the fast track to go straight-to-DVD.

The film festival scene has changed drastically in the 10 years that I’ve been participating in it. The first time that I submitted a film to Sundance in 2005 they had a total of 3000 submissions. This past year in 2009 they had 10,000 submissions. Every body with the camcorder is making a movie and everybody thinks they have the stuff to be a star. So there is an awful lot of competition out there. I haven’t been able to get into a lot of festivals, but so far every film that I’ve made has managed to play in festivals and highly-a respected festivals, which speaks well of the people who have worked on these films with me.

I always tell people who want to make a movie that they should get my book because it will tell them how I made my movies with no money and made them look highly professional. I’ve had professionals tell me that they were convinced that my films had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I tell people to get my book to learn how to make a movie so that they can then they can know how to make their own movie and go out and do it and fulfill their dream. It’s great to have a dream but is not dented do you any good to never try to make that dream a reality. You’ll either find out that you can do it, in which case you’ll have a finished film to be able to show to potential investors to try to raise the financing to make up bigger film and fulfill a bigger dream — or you’ll make your movie and find out that you’re not really good at. But at least you will have done it. (And if you read my book you’ll find out how to do it and not go bankrupt in the process.)

There are millions of talkers in this world, but not many doers. People respect people who put their money where their mouth is and do something.

If nothing else, you’ll get it out of your system. You will wind up a frustrated, miserable soul that nobody likes to be around. And I also always tell people that spending $8000 or $10,000 to make a movie is a hell of a lot cheaper than therapy. And if you make a movie at least you’ll have something to show for it.

Who knows — you might fool everybody and make a good movie!

But back to the question: Will I keep making movies after retirement?

That’s a very good question. To be honest, I don’t know. I am only — “only” — 55 now. Who knows when or if I’ll ever be able to retire. I only hope that if and when I do it will be my choice and on my terms and not be forced upon me.

I finished my last film, Nightbeats, last year. Since then I’ve been focusing on finishing my book, Naked Filmmaking: How To Make A Feature-Length Film — Without A Crew — For $10,000 Or Less, and getting all of my films out as fully-loaded DVDs, complete with audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes extras and more, on Amazon.com. Not to mention developing and maintaining my website, nakedfilmmaking.com.

The thought of making a new film makes me think: 1) it’s going to be a lot of work; 2) it will take at least a year and more like 18 months or more to finish; 3) and then the ultimate question, Will anybody see it?

That said, I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t try. It would also be the subject of a new book — about making films in the new DSLR world of still cameras that also shoot HD video using spectacularly beautiful and affordable lenses. That alone makes the idea almost too tantalizing not to want to try.

There is a story that I’ve been playing with in my head and on my laptop for about a year that I think could be an extraordinary movie, totally unlike anything I’ve seen anybody do in a very long time, and not at all for decades. It’s not one of these big computer movies, which I do happen to love watching. It’s an actor piece that would be very mature and introspective and look at life at a particular stage in one’s life and mortality. The older you get, the more this is on your mind. It certainly ban on mine! At any rate, I think this might be a film that, since no one else is going to do it, I might just have to do.

I’ve also been wanting to try my hand at making short films. The Internet is a terrific venue for short films. And the Internet is the only place that I can see where independent filmmakers like myself can have it chance, indeed any chance, at seeing any kind of financial return — though, not necessarily profits — from their work. Self-distribution over the Internet, through CreateSpace and iTunes for example, are creating tremendous opportunities.

So, who knows? All I can say is, “Stay tuned.” Check out and subscribe to my website, nakedfilmmaking.com, where I post whatever I am doing, both on KCRA and with my own independent work.

In all honesty, I can’t imagine not doing something involving a camera.