7 tips for the first-time film director

Visual effects still from HaZ’s debut feature, sci-fi thriller The Beyond

After years of working in the VFX industry at MPC and Passion Pictures, HaZ has directed two full-length feature films. Here's what he's learned.

Want incredible sci-fi? Just ask Hasraf Dulull – or HaZ, as he’s called in the industry.

For fifteen years, he made a name for himself working in the VFX industry at studios including MPC, Passion Pictures and Prime Focus, earning high end credits on films such as The Dark Knight and Prince of Persia.

After working with so many different directors on their own projects, though, HaZ decided to try his hand at something new: becoming a director himself. Developing a bold, distinctive style that showed off his wealth of experience in VFX, HaZ created several shorts during his spare time including Project Kronos, which promptly went viral – attracting the attention of an agent in LA.

Today, he’s celebrating the release of his very first full length feature, sci-fi mockumentary thriller The Beyond (see trailer below) - which comes to VOD platforms in the US on Jan 9 (UK release to be announced soon) - and completion of his second feature, Origin Unknown starring Katee Sachoff (Battlestar Galactica, Chronicles of Riddick and Flash). It’s been a long journey getting here, and this is only the beginning. To find out more, we asked HaZ what some of the most important lessons to becoming a successful director he has learned along the way.

Think Outside the Box

"It goes without saying that expertise in the process of filmmaking is an essential part of any great director’s skillset.

"What’s just as – if not more – important, though, is the ability to find creative, unconventional solutions by thinking outside the box. You might spend months in pre-production, but once on set there are bound to be unexpected problems that you need to find solutions for on the fly, often with little or no money.

"One of the pinnacle visua- effects sequences on The Beyond, for example, was set in a film noir style sci-fi laboratory environment. When we started shooting tests, though, we noticed that the lab was too dark, but turning our lights on would ruin the moody look I wanted. Ultimately, the DP, Adam Batchelor, and I found a unique solution: grabbing smartphones from the crew, we turned the torch app on and hid them amongst the lab machines to create more subtle lighting effects."

HaZ on set with his longtime friend and collaborator, cinematographer Adam Batchelor

Share Your Work

"I find that with many in the industry – and I used to be guilty of this too – there’s this worry about sharing your ideas, and a tendency to keep quiet about them. I know it’s tempting to be protective about the movie you want to make, but as a director it’s actually better to do the complete opposite.

"Don’t be secretive, let your enthusiasm be infectious when sharing. It’ll help enormously when it comes to not only developing an idea, but also financing its making. And along the way you might even meet others who you’ll find yourself collaborating with years down the line."

Listen to Feedback

"This one is a much rarer skill. Of course, the more people you talk to when you share your work, the more feedback you’ll get on how to improve it. To be a great director it’s crucial to have good people skills, and that includes being able to listen to feedback.

"Definitely never dismiss someone else’s ideas – especially if they are from your crew and therefore invested in the project. Also, regularly screen your film for others both in and out of the industry. On The Beyond we received feedback that eventually led to us to reshooting elements, but ultimately it made the final film we delivered infinitely better."

Explore your Resources

"No matter what your budget is, remember that there are plenty of excellent free resources out there for directors too.

"To create realistic space sequences on both my short film Project Kronos and The Beyond I used some of the public domain stock video footage directly from NASA, which filmmakers can download in 4K. I also recently discovered a really great piece of software from Blackmagic Design called DaVinci Resolve, which I used throughout my work on The Beyond.

One of the space sequences from The Beyond, created with help from NASA stock footage and DaVinci Resolve

"It let me edit the film as well as grade, manage audio and even add effects like shot stabilisation and creative lens effects too – and it can be downloaded completely free from the Blackmagic website, even for commercial projects."

Prioritise the Script

"One of the movies that most inspired me to become a director was Blade Runner, because it integrated incredible visuals with an impressive script. I aimed to achieve something similar with The Beyond. Yes, it’s a sci-fi with cyborgs, interstellar travel and alien planets, but as with any other movie, it’s really about plot and characters first.

"Always remember to start with a great story – even if you have access to a unique location or a cool car, don’t revolve your idea generation or change a storyline to fit around assets or locations. That cool car isn’t an idea for a film, it’s just another asset with which to tell your story."

On set during one of The Beyond’s pinnacle visual effects sequences, involving cyborgs designed for interstellar space travel called Human 2.0s

Be Realistic

"The best directors always find a way to work with the restrictions they face, and even use them to their advantage. That’s what allows you to create some amazing visuals.

"A crucial aspect to this is to always be realistic. If you don’t have access to a motion capture studio or team of animators, then don’t make a film that involves a fully computer generated character that moves around a lot. If you don’t have access to pyrotechnics, don’t plan for massive explosions. Save that for your next film!

"For The Beyond, we didn’t have access to big name stars, but used that to our advantage by deciding to shoot the movie as a mockumentary: audiences wouldn’t expect recognisable names."

Still from another of HaZ’s viral shorts, SYNC. His next film will be called Origin Unknown

Never Give Up

"This last tip is the most important of all: never be afraid to fail. If you want to direct a film, do it.

"I failed plenty of times and even when I complete a film successfully, I will always take stock of things that I could improve on next time. Becoming a successful director isn’t about the amount of times you fail, but about your ability to learn from your mistakes and build on those lessons next time around."

You can watch the Project Kronos trailer here, the SYNC trailer or The Beyond trailer here.

Image Courtesy of hazfilm.com. The Beyond is distributed by Gravtias Ventures.

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