7 No-Nonsense Tips Every Aspiring Filmmaker Needs to Know

Do you want to be the next greatest Malaysian filmmaker? Find out what it takes to be a film director in Malaysia from our interview with Edmund Yeo, a young Malaysian filmmaker who is making waves in dozens of film festivals abroad!

Updated 18 Nov 2016

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Are you one of those who can never be satisfied with just watching a movie? Does your mind start to wander, thinking of all the other possible story lines the film could have gone? Are you just itching to tell your own tale and be part of the greatest story ever told?

Whether it's a full-length 2-hour movie or a short 20-minute film, making a movie takes A LOT of passion, dedication and determination.

So, what should an aspiring filmmaker or producer do to prepare himself?

We spoke to Edmund Yeo, a young Malaysian filmmaker, to find out what it's really like to be in the film industry in Malaysia. His debut feature film 'River of Exploding Durians' was the first Malaysian film in history to be premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival, so he knows what he's talking about.

Here are 7 no-nonsense tips he has for aspiring film directors.

1) Don't do it for the money — do it for the passion

The truth is, being a filmmaker in Malaysia is hard.

Many local films are still not up to par, and Malaysians continue to choose big budget blockbuster movies instead of supporting local productions.

"You'll have a steadier pay if you worked at McDonald's," jokes Yeo.

So why does he continue to do it?

“It’s my passion. I love making films and telling stories," Yeo simply says.

It’s also one of the reasons why he returned to Malaysia instead of staying in Japan, where he was based at over the last few years, even though he had better opportunities there.

“There aren’t enough people here telling stories that matter — stories that transcend borders."

Make movies because it's where your passion lies. Don't do it for the money, fame or glory.

Asia Pacific University of Technology & Innovation (APU)

BA (Hons) in Visual Effects

Dual-award degree – one from De Montfort University (UK) and one from APU

2) No excuses — just go ahead and make films

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Don't hang around waiting for people to hand you opportunities or money to finance your film projects. Do you really want others to dictate your fate?

No money? Get a part-time job, sell some of your old stuff or give tuition to school children.

No fancy equipment? Shoot with what you've got.

In fact, Tangerine, a breakout Sundance Film Festival entry this year, was not only shot on a shoestring budget, it was also filmed using only 3 iPhone 5s smartphones!

"The advancement of technology has taken away ANY excuse for you to not be making movies," Yeo says.

Gone are the days where you need obscenely expensive professional equipment to shoot a quality movie. With the emergence of feature-packed smartphone cameras and cheaper equipment and software, it is getting easier and easier to make videos.

Remember that the more you work on your craft, the better you'll get at it. 

The question is — what are you waiting for?

3) Don't just watch movies — read more books too

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You might think that as an aspiring filmmaker, your life will revolve around watching movie after movie, avoiding the written word. After all, isn't this the reason why you chose film production instead of boring degrees like Law and Accounting?

But Yeo says that reading is crucial to being a great filmmaker.

"The danger of solely watching films is that it may lead you to copy another director's work and vision," warns Yeo.

Reading, on the other hand, allows you to immerse yourself in a world of imagination and creativity, essentially creating a film in your mind. Storytelling is at the heart of being a filmmaker, and reading a variety of stories can enrich your knowledge and experience.

Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema, famously said, “Memory is the source for your creation. And you can’t create unless you have something inside yourself.”

Whether it's the classics or modern fiction, build a rich reserve by reading a lot, and you might just find yourself unleashing creative ideas everyday!

4) Choose your platform and develop your own voice

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"What is a great film to you?" Yeo prompts.

Are you someone who loves YouTube, the addictive source of comedy sketches, short films and vlogs? Or perhaps you're an artistic experimentalist who dreams of releasing an independent art house film? Or if you prefer to shoot wedding videos, there's no shame in that either!

No matter the platform, it's important that you find your own voice as a filmmaker.

"Whether it's a viral YouTube video or an art house film, make it unique and tell the story that you want to tell," says Yeo.

Everyone has a unique style that sets them apart, so keep telling stories and keep working on your craft to develop your own distinct voice!

5) Don't get stuck with modern cinema — remember to also draw inspiration from the past

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Just as how Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa continues to draw huge crowds at the Louvre every year despite having been painted in 1503, great films will always stand the passage of time.

"Watch black and white movies, and learn about the history of film," Yeo says.

Whether it's Alfred Hitchcock's psychological thrillers or Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, classic directors are great storytellers too, and it would be a shame to overlook them.

"But don’t ignore YouTube or the digital era either, or you'll end up being dated."

6) Sacrifices will need to be made, but the results will be extremely satisfying

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Production schedules can be insane.

You'll find yourself pulling all-nighters, rushing for scenes to be completed within a matter of days, and filming in the hot scorching sun, not to mention punishing deadlines, minuscule budgets and sacrificing friends and family for the sake of your production.

Things will get really stressful, and you'll wonder why you're doing it.

And that's not even the whole story.

Yeo shares that at times, you may need to make films or videos where you have little to no say in the creative direction, and you are at the mercy of producers, clients or TV networks.

But at the end of the day, the adrenaline rush that you get when everything comes together is unlike any other. And you will soon find yourself in search of the next film project to tell yet another great story.

7) Formal education is NOT overrated

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It is true that many great directors, such as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino, never went to film school. Even Yeo agrees that filmmaking can be self-taught, as how he did in his early days.

But he doesn't believe that formal education is a complete waste. 

“Going to classes puts you in an environment where you are forced to make films,” says Yeo, who graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce before pursuing a graduate course in Media Production.

“It gives you the opportunity to explore and delve into films in more depth with your lecturers and peers, exposing you to various bodies of work that you may not have discovered yourself.”

Perhaps what's more telling is how he took learning upon himself.

“I was always sneaking into classes that I never needed to attend,” says Yeo.

Bottom line  — you MUST be learning a lot more than what your lecturers are teaching.

We hope this has given you some insights about being a filmmaker in Malaysia! Want to learn more about Film & Video Production? Check out our comprehensive guide here!

Find scholarships, discover programmes and connect with Malaysia's top institutions at the EduAdvisor Virtual Education Fair — happening this 1 – 10 March 2024! Click here to register.

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    Loh Sue May

    Loh Sue May

    Editor and writer. When I'm not busy putting words onto pages, I'm messing with spreadsheets and playing air guitar.