Getting Started in Your Filmmaking Career

A film professional offers advice for film industry newcomers.

Interview with Mark McCullah

filmmakers shooting a movie scene

Lighting Designer
Over 12 years in the film business

The film industry is all fierce competition and long hours, but that doesn't prevent aspiring filmmakers from dreaming of big screen success. So how do you avoid filmmaking career pitfalls? Lighting designer Mark McCullah, a Hollywood veteran, gives tips about life behind the big screen.

How did you decide on a filmmaking career?

My eyes were trained on film school since I was old enough to read a book and smart enough to watch the movie instead. I ended up at New York University, and while I learned a lot, I quickly realized that I didn't want to be a director, screenwriter or film editor as I'd always assumed. I had wanted to work in film because it sounded fun and glamorous, but I'd never taken the time to consider my own talents and preferences.

How did you discover lighting design?

In school it became apparent that I was better at technical projects than creative ones. I talked with a few professors whose classes I'd enjoyed, and I ended up with a summer internship working as a gaffer's assistant for a small film. I would advise anyone who is considering a career in film to first get an internship in their ideal career field—paid or unpaid. Not only will the experience impress potential employers, but also you can assure yourself that the job is a good career fit and make incredible business connections in the process. That's how I landed my first job. Internships are definitely a good way to go.

What's the most challenging part about working in the industry?

Keeping things simple. When you're working with crews of people, things get complicated quickly. Often you end up taking orders from multiple people—all of whom are ambitious individuals with their own opinions about how things should run. Know who you should be taking orders from, be able to communicate well, and follow directions.

What do you like most about the work you do?

The people I work with are all talented, creative, driven and amazing. The hours are long, but I'm able to travel to places like Egypt or Japan for work, which I always wanted to do. Plus, I've been able to learn how to operate a camera and do various other things on set. For me, it's basically the dream job I never knew about.

What is one common rookie mistake?

My advice is: leave your ego at the door. You can't learn anything if your ego is clouding your eyes and plugging your ears. On top of that, no one wants to work with you. It doesn't matter if you're really talented in your field—you won't get the opportunity to show anyone if you're not ready to work as part of a team. It takes an army to make a good film, not an individual.

What does an individual starting a film career need to know?

You get a good outline of the basics in film school, so that's a start. This is a hard industry to break into, so perseverance is a must. Good connections inside the industry don't hurt, but not many people have them, and if you're tenacious and talented, you don't really need them. However, you do need experience. I'd say that's the most important asset you could flash at any potential employer—internships or past work experience.

Be willing to learn. Education doesn't stop with school. The film industry is constantly developing technologically, and the people who are going to succeed will be the ones willing to adapt and learn new technology and techniques. 

Learn more about a filmmaking career as a lighting technician.