As a Filmmaker, Is It Better to Be a Jack of All Trades, Or a Master of One?


This is a complicated question, and a little later, I’m going to answer it. But let’s start with a story. My story.

When I made my thesis film at the University of Denver, I did everything. I wrote, directed, and edited. I shot, sound designed, and color corrected. 

The result…? That film sucked. At least compared to my ridiculously high expectations going into the process.

After that semester, I transferred to a different film school. One of my first teachers there was a rugged old dude who spent a good deal of time in the grip department in his earlier years. For the purpose of this article, I’ll call him Chuck. 

Chuck gave us all one stark piece of advice on the first day of class.

“I know you think you can do everything. But I’m here to tell you that you’ve gotta specialize and master your craft. Otherwise you’ll be broke and on the streets two months after you make it to LA.”

“Well shit,” I thought to myself. “I sure don’t want to live on the streets. I need to get my act together and start doing what I need to survive in this industry.”

So I threw myself into cinematography head first. And over the next two years, I learned a hell of a lot about cinematography and became pretty good at it (at least in my opinion).

Let's jump ahead a few more years, to the present day. At this point, my philosophy on filmmaking has come full circle. 

While I love film more than words could possibly express, I’m not particularly fond of the industry itself. I won’t get into my specific reasons, but suffice it to say that I'm not inclined to work in an industry that has a nasty habit of treating its below-the-line crew like dirt.

For that reason, I’ve become one of those people who has a day job (writing about film), and who uses that cash to work on film projects that I actually care about.

On those small sets, surrounded by friends and working on films that are genuinely cool, I find myself slipping back into the role of “jack of all trades,”  despite the fact that cinematography is what I know best.

Of course, unlike my thesis film, I’m not doing every last thing anymore. I’m mostly shooting these days, but I still find myself helping with the writing, various pre-production tasks, production design, sound, editing, and color correction.

And honestly, I love it. Filmmaking is a fascinating, complex process, and being a part of a good film from start to finish is a thrill.

Needless to say, this is how I plan on spending the rest of my life, doing something enjoyable (writing) for my income, and working on films that I care about with the rest of my time.

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You might be asking yourself, what on earth does that long-ass story have to do with the question of whether we should be a jack of all trades or specialize in one?

Well, it has everything to do with it. I’ve come to understand that there are two paths through life as a filmmaker, and that it all comes down to this one question:

Do you want to make your own films, or do you want to be in the industry working on other peoples’ projects for a steady paycheck?

Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification. There are a select few people who get to make their own films for a living (lucky bastards). And there are plenty of people who do both of these things, working on other folk's sets for a steady income, then working on passion projects in their spare time.

But in general, these two distinct types make up the vast majority of filmmakers in the world.

So let's get down to answering the question posed by this article.

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The traditional advice is that we need to specialize and master a single aspect of the filmmaking process so that we're more employable down the road.

If you intend to go to Hollywood, NYC, or Atlanta to work in the film industry, this is great advice. As a specialized worker, your chances of finding industry work are far higher than someone who shows up and is kind of good a handful of things.

In fact, I'd wager that the kid who's got a few decent skills under their belt and tries to make a living from all of them will have a much harder time finding work than somebody with a singular laser-like focus on one aspect of the craft, especially if that second person belongs to one of the many specialized unions in the film industry.

So, if the industry is where you're headed, the advice to specialize is probably some of the best advice you'll find. Of course, you'll have to work your way up from the bottom, starting as a PA in your department of choice, but eventually you can make a decent living in the industry as a specialized worker.

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If you're like me, however, and you're only interested in working on films that you care about, then becoming a jack of all trades might suit you very well.

There's a popular phrase out there, and I'm not convinced that it's all that accurate. "A jack of all trades is a master of none."

The problem here is that becoming a master of one trade takes years, and maybe a lifetime of hard work, patience, and constant study. All things considered though, becoming a master of something doesn't really benefit us when we're working on smaller passion projects as much as it does when that skill is your career.

There's a principle in the business world called the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, and it states that 80 percent of the outcome for any situation comes as a result of 20 percent of the effort put in. For example, many businesses find that 80 percent of their revenue comes from 20 percent of their customers.

In the context of filmmaking, the Pareto Principle simply means that you don't have to be a master to be effective. In fact, I dare say that most of us can make great films without ever "mastering" a single filmmaking discipline. 

That's the beauty of the Pareto Principle. If we can achieve great results without traditional mastery, then we're free to hop around to different roles in the filmmaking process as long as we can produce good results.

In my case, I end up as the DP on most films that I work on, but if a friend asks me to come record sound at the last minute for a film they're working on, I can do it.

Will it be the most masterful sound ever? Of course not. But it will be good sound because I've taken the time to learn the basic principles of audio, and I know enough to get 80 percent of the results of a professional recordist. Hooray Pareto Principle!

Of course, when you're on set, it's best to have a director, DP, sound recordist, AD (or producer), and other assorted crew to help those folks out. Sets run best under traditional hierarchies where everyone has a specific job to do. No doubt about that.

If everyone were trying to do every single job on set, it would be mayhem. That's not what I'm arguing for in this piece.

More than anything, I'm saying that becoming a well-rounded filmmaker is not only an attainable goal, but it will make you a valuable asset for those people whose projects you work on. Even more importantly, it will give you a better grasp of your own projects.

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Ultimately, the answer to this question comes down to what you want to get from filmmaking.

If it's a career you want, specialization is key.

If you simply want to partake in the greatest art form known to man, however, take some time and learn multiple aspects of the craft.

You'll be glad you did. Filmmaking is truly an incredible process, and experiencing the different aspects first hand is thrilling. You may even discover hidden talents and passions that you might never have known about otherwise.



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