5 Filmmakers Share Tips on What to Expect after Film School


To show you what work opportunities are available out there for film school graduates, we asked five filmmakers to describe their experiences after film school.  Their skill sets are as varied as their accomplishments—a senior VFX artist in Hollywood; a freelancer who has managed commercial work in films and documentaries for a decade; a multi-faceted talent who acts, directs, writes, teaches, and runs a production company and art gallery; a former assistant to Wes Anderson; and a US Air Force member who went to film school after his service only to discover years later a love for animation. Here are their stories.

Francesco Panzieri

Immediately after graduating at the New York Film Academy, I started looking for any possible opportunity to start my career. At first, I tried looking in New York City: I was enjoying the life in Manhattan and I wanted to test the waters there before considering another relocation. Unfortunately, neither the city nor its boroughs had something to offer at that time (2009) to a junior, entry-level artist such as myself. Ironically, New York is a city made mostly famous by movies, but back in the days there were very few to no productions (whether TV or feature) running in town. I kept Googling for any possible opening, day and night, obsessed to find a job as soon as possible. I finally struck my very first interview with the Head of the 3D Department at NBC, inside the Rockefeller Center. I wore my best outfit, put on a 32-Teeth-Smile, and went to meet him. After looking at my first reel, he gave me a quite derogatory yet entertaining look, adding that he'd rather hire somebody with more experience. Not discouraged by the first refusal, I had to aim somewhere else. I was lucky to be aware of websites such as Entertainment Careers, Creative Heads, and Creative Cow, where under the career section there were always plenty of offers for internship or unpaid entry-level positions, mainly outside of New York State, however. I placed all my hope on some California openings and, while waiting for an answer, I headed to my first SIGGRAPH in New Orleans to attend the Job Fair and to meet recruiters and producers face to face. I came back from Louisiana with many gift bags from the companies attending the fair and plenty of business cards of direct contacts to email more job applications to. The trip to Louisiana didn't bring me much luck either; however, I appreciated the Po' Boys, explored the town, and did some networking. New Orleans was also where I got to meet Will Wright, the acclaimed game-designer of SimCity and The Sims, videogames I had played for years during my childhood in Italy. He was giving the keynote address at SIGGRAPH that year.

“After my proving my enthusiasm and my passion, he asked me when I could start.”

Back in New York, very few replies came in to emails I had sent for job applications prior to my departure: the ratio was about one email per every thirty I had sent. One of them was a request for an internship interview in the heart of Hollywood, at Flash Film Works Studios, founded and run by William Mesa, most notable Visual Effects Supervisor on The Army of Darkness and Academy Scientific Award recipient. I immediately packed for my first California trip and flew to the Mecca of the Movies. Bill Mesa himself interviewed me the same morning I had landed. After my proving my enthusiasm and my passion, he asked me when I could start. I was in awe. Ten days after flying back to New York to pack for good, I found myself back once and for all in the sunny and dry Hollywood climate, ready to start my dream in the place where dreams can really come true.

I was first put in training, more specifically, opening previous compositing scripts the company had done for the movie Blood Diamonds, which was just delivered before I joined, and the TV show The Pacific, which Mr. Mesa had just won an Emmy for. I can still feel those migraines while trying to decipher every single compositing step that artists before me had worked on. I was also in charge of keeping the kitchen clean and the coffee hot, which is a no-brainer for someone from Italy! Eventually, Danny DeVito walked in and asked his friend Mr. Mesa for some help to finish his gory short films. I was asked to help the senior artists with some rotoscoping. Shortly after that, the feature film Clash of the Titans landed in-house, I was assigned to work on that, and that's where Hollywood got real for me.

The filmmaking business is a networking-based one. Often, to rise through the ranks, you might even have to start with a role that is not very remunerative but, at the same time, allows you to take your very first step through the door and get to know people. A clear example can be the production assistant, where you are basically a runner with duties such as buying donuts until you get to know somebody who trusts you and likes your demeanor and makes you a junior associate producer.

Also, I suggest that you have very clear ideas on your present and future professional goals: what you really want to do, who you want to become, and where you want to arrive. I remember all of my classmates having mixed thoughts about their professional goals. I can confidently say that it will not lead you anywhere.

Francesco Panzieri is a Senior Visual Effects Digital Compositor who lives and works in California. He graduated in Cinema Sciences at the Academy of Image Arts in Italy and then mastered 3D Animation and Visual Effects at The New York Film Academy. He has worked on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Clash of The Titans, Mad Men, True Detective, C.S.I., and many more popular films and TV series.
To read more about Francesco Panzieri, click here.


Lily Henderson

… I have never worked in an office. I've always been a freelancer. I think the first three years after college will be rocky. As a freelancer you will do a lot of small jobs, working as a producer, shooter, editor or “preditor” that don't pay much money. But it's important to try your hand in everything because you don't know who you will meet, who you will hit it off with. Meeting people, making connections, working all kinds of gigs is the only way to start. It may feel exhausting or that you aren't going down the right path—I definitely felt this way—but those jobs often led to bigger jobs down the road.

I certainly learned the freelancing ropes this way and I'm happy to say I've been working as a freelance director and editor for a solid ten years now. The best connections I made were with other crew members and with the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. On the side, we worked on one another's independent projects. One of these independent films that I directed landed me a series of gigs for IBM through the agency Ogilvy & Mather. This is the model that has worked best for me—do commercial work, form connections, and work with this talented lot on your own films!

Lily Henderson works as a film director and editor. Her most recent film, Lessons for the Living, a documentary about hospice volunteers, has been screened at regional and international film festivals and on PBS. It was endorsed by the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Foundation, and is available for sale through the Tribeca Film Institute's ReFrame program and Alexander Street Press. Her new feature, About a Mountain, is funded in part by a grant from Cinereach and is currently in production. Henderson is a member and co-organizer of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, through which she has collaborated on many films, including Keith Miller's Five Star, which at the time of this writing, is available to stream on Netflix. Henderson has also done work for clients such as IBM and Huffington Post. She is represented by the co-founders of Good Story.
To read more about Henderson’s work, go to Lessons for the LivingAbout a Mountain, Five Star (written and directed by Keith Miller) and Henderson’s website.


Alexander Kaluzhsky

There is no prescribed path and I think that’s a good thing. As for practicality—find a group of filmmakers to connect and be involved with, things will always come of that. I was lucky enough to find the Brooklyn Filmmaker’s Collective.

My own path thus far has been varied: I started, and continue, to work as an actor with some degree of success. I shoot, edit, produce; I’ve done work across the spectrum of art and commerce, including video pieces for Barney’s New York, and editing a commissioned piece for the Walker Art Center to commemorate Derek Jarman. I started an artist-run gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, called Honey Ramka. I teach filmmaking within the CUNY College system and elsewhere as an adjunct. I teach Final Cut X and Adobe Premiere to professionals. I’ve also struggled a great deal, and amassed and paid off varying amounts of debt, and failed and succeeded, and traveled, and lived, and got married, and did not allow myself to be defined by money. 

“Collectives and similar groups would be a good resource for people coming up.”

For the acting gigs I got headshots done and sent them everywhere and was able to get smaller agencies to take me on. As I booked jobs I was able to sign with bigger and bigger agencies and go out on bigger projects. Most things on the other side of the camera happened fortuitously: I met someone who introduced me to someone else and so on and so on. The Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective has been a great resource for me. Collectives and similar groups would be a good resource for people coming up. 

So if none of the normal paths are open to you at the moment then, as Werner Herzog wrote somewhere, work as a bouncer or butcher or a mortician or whatever other odd job you can find. Don’t be afraid of living. The more you see, the more you experience, the more perspective you have on life, the better filmmaker you will be. My one cautionary piece of advice would be to avoid at all costs doing any job in the film world that makes you despise being a filmmaker—the sort of soul-crushing, low-paid hack work that abounds in a place like New York City.

Alexander Kaluzhsky is a filmmaker and actor who was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and immigrated to the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, New York, with his family in the late 1980’s. He studied filmmaking at SVA and NYU, and theater at the Actor’s Center under the guidance of teachers from Juilliard, Yale, Harvard, and Tisch. As an actor, he has been in films such as “The Taking of Pelham 123,” directed by Tony Scott, and “Solitary Man,” co-directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Under his production company Apropos Films, he has produced features such as “The Missing Person,” directed by Noah Buschel and starring Academy Award Nominees Michael Shannon and Amy Ryan. He is currently in development on two feature-length films centering on his family, as well as a series of shorts, and was invited to participate in the 51st New York Film Festival’s Artist Academy. He is also the co-founder of Honey Ramka, an artist-run gallery space, in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Read more about Kaluzhsky’s film company, Apropos Films, or the artist-run gallery he co-founded, Honey Ramka


Ellie Lotan

After attending film school in Edinburgh, Scotland, I returned home to my native New York City to work in the film industry. I was determined to get paid while working in film, and so most of my work was as a PA, producer, or assistant. I worked on indie projects, high-budget commercials, Hollywood films, music videos, feature documentaries—you name it. I pretty much got jobs exclusively through word of mouth, except for my first job after film school, which I got through responding to an ad on Craigslist.

“I realized that if I was to be happy, my work needed to involve compassion...”

After six years of hustling, I finally admitted to myself that while I once had a dream to become a filmmaker, the reality of the industry was a completely different landscape than I had imagined. I realized that if I was to be happy, my work needed to involve compassion, and the work I was doing in film was the complete opposite: I was trying to get as much out of people for as little as possible.

After much soul searching, I finally decided it was time to "retire" from film and embrace the part of me that I wasn't able to nurture when I was focusing on film: my inner healer. I've since found a way to combine my love of storytelling, the arts, and healing, through Expressive Arts Therapy—therapy using visual art, music, movement, poetry, and drama. I am now in my second year of a Master’s program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and couldn't be prouder of the path that brought me here.

Ellie Lotan is a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art with a First Class Honors BA in Film and Television. Over several years, Lotan has worked in many aspects of film production, including as an assistant to Wes Anderson. Recently, Lotan has made the decision to switch paths completely to a new passion that has evolved in her life, and she has gone at it wholeheartedly.
Read more about Ellie Lotan on her website.


Avi Kohl

I had a conventional film-school education during college but discovered after graduating that it wasn't really the right calling for me. Years later, I discovered 3D animation through a freeware program called Blender. I liked it so much that I signed up for a year of formal training at NYFA. After that was a series of gigs that were either discovered on Internet job forums or offered to me out of the blue. The first thing I learned freelancing is that you are totally invisible until you have an online portfolio. Fortunately for me, compiling a reel is easier for a recent animation graduate, since everything can be done at home without worrying about logistics, permits, and cast/crew coordination. While upgrading your reel with work of increasing quality makes you more competitive and should be a high priority, an impressive project completed during school could get you a steady job early on, as in my case. 

“Don't sabotage the market by low-balling yourself.”

There is a lot of advice out there for rookie freelancers that I wish I followed earlier, but the most fundamental principle is to never let someone exploit you through your passions. Protect yourself and your art with up-front payment and revision policies and contracts. Don't sabotage the market by low-balling yourself. Don't be afraid to vet prospective clients back and to distance yourself if you discover anything shady. (The first client who stiffed me was involved in the case of a missing person, so I might have gotten off easy.) 

Avi Kohl graduated at the top of his class from the New York Film Academy’s intensive 3D animation program, and from Brooklyn College with a BA in Film Production. He synergizes both fields into a cinematic sensibility that produces visually and thematically engaging projects. He is currently a staff member for The Animation Project (TAP), which administers digital media therapy groups all over the city to address the needs of youth in settings like high schools, juvenile detention centers, and foster care facilities. 
Read about Avi Kohl and his work at his website.


The big picture

We had a chance to speak with many film school graduates while working on this article, and found that most are involved in a mix of documentary work and commercial work, many of which have received recognition at festivals and mainstream cable channels. Many run their own production companies, mostly focused on commercial work, and, contrary to the myth of instant fame and fortune, many did not have feature film credits to their names. One thing they all stressed, however, is the importance of networking.  

We hope this piece provides film school students with a snapshot of some of the opportunities available, as well as a glimpse into what’s going on in the field. We would like to thank the contributors for their generosity, stories, time, and patience.




Great article. Just switched my major from osychology to a two year video production degree. Any opinions or advice on that? 

I'm not in a position to provide advice, but if I could chime in with some additional info, which would relate to you directly as specifically video production is what you're learning -- the work is there in video production. I particularly want to mention an area that I've been hearing more and more about -- the online education industry. If you Google around, it's like $100 billion industry already, with subscription-based memebers, and it's dependent on video production. I don't recall exactly the name, but there's a big film guy, a big Hollywood producer, who's very vocal about how the audiovisual industry is in a prime position to capitalize on the growing online eduction industry.