Thoughts on Filmmaking

Over the past 12 months, I've realized that my passion is directing and producing projects. While I love the technical aspects, learning how to use new equipment, and having my hands directly on how something looks or sounds, I really enjoy bringing a team of people together and letting them work on the project with me. It allows me to focus on the overall vision while building a relationship with people that are extremely talented in their areas of expertise. In the end, the product is much richer and greater than the sum of its parts. Hopefully I'll be able to continue down this path and bring even bigger projects and teams together. That's the plan, anyway.

Bringing a team together is an exciting and challenging experience, especially in the realm no-budget filmmaking. These are people that are passionate about their craft and like your idea enough to dedicate all of their energy to it. Magic is the only way to describe it. As the director, you have to be conscious of providing your team something challenging enough that will be rewarding and valuable to them, but being mindful of the fact that they providing their time for little or no money.

Any person that creates something, whether a movie, a song, or an iPhone app does so because they want to connect with people. They have a talent and they want to use that talent. They want people to get something of value from what they've created, whether it's a deeper meaning behind the song they've written that helps them get through a difficult time, or spending a few minutes of their day watching their short film and enjoying the ride. 

I recently made a 25-minute documentary on photography, Portrait. It was an awesome experience that I've written about in detail. I considered the option to enter it into film festivals, and I may still decide to do that, at least for ones that don't mind if your film is already available freely online. At 25 minutes, Portrait was at an interesting crossroads. It was too long to really be considered a "short" film (though by definition, it is), and it was far too short to be a feature-length documentary. But at 25 minutes, it was exactly as long as I felt it needed to be. I felt everything in the film had its place, and I did not want to destroy that to satisfy some qualifications of a film festival that Portrait may not be accepted to screen. It was also risky, though, to release a 25 minute film online, considering the attention deficit disorder inducing nature of the internet. 

Working as a freelance videographer, you fight for videos for be shorter and shorter. When a client says a video needs to be "about 10 minutes," you die a little inside. And it's true, if a video is longer than a few minutes, many people won't watch it. Others will bookmark it for later and may come back, or may not. Certainly, if it doesn't appeal to them in the first minute or so, they won't bother to watch the remaining 24. But people watched it, and they loved it. In the first week, over 30,000 people watched it. After the first month, Portrait is at just a hair under 50,000 views. Multiple people said it was the perfect length, that it let the film have room to build naturally and not be rushed. I can only recall two comments that said it was too long, and of them, they only said it could have been "about five minutes shorter." Not twenty. I have even more respect for a filmmaker like Peter Jackson who dares to make most of his movies three hours long. For one, it's incredibly hard to cut things you love, and I now have better appreciation for that. But two, and more importantly, is that people can have a longer attention span than we give them credit for. It's just a matter of telling a story worth sharing.

All of this is to say that filmmaking is an intensely passionate and personal thing. You make a film because an idea or a subject takes hold in your mind that you can't shake. A story you want to tell or a topic you want to explore. For me it was looking at the creative process through the lens of photography, and how different people with different objectives approach it. Decisions I made, with respect to resources, budget, time, and scope, were ultimately personal decisions. 

I put Portrait online, for free, because I wanted as many people to watch it as possible. I am happy and humbled to sit here today, knowing that 50,000 people watched Portrait, with one description of it as "...a beautifully shot documentary that may remind many of you of why you fell in love with the art in the first place." The alternative was to go the festival route and try to sell it. I could have made a few bucks that way, and maybe even gained more "acclaim" if it had been accepted to festivals. If it had won awards, I guess I could call it my "award-winning" documentary. But how many people would have seen it? 1,000? 5,000? Maybe. Probably not. And I'm guessing not 50,000.

I took a chance, and it was the right choice for this project. Portrait is about creation in a digital age, and what better way to share it than to embrace the internet's ultimate equalizer: freedom. Portrait is free to all with internet access and a web browser. It can help someone on their journey or be thought-provoking. Or they can not watch it at all.

That's the scary part of this, particularly when you're also trying to make a living doing what you love. Maybe one day I'll make something that one million people watch. Or, more likely, maybe my next video will get under 100 views.

As I was approaching the end of post-production for Portrait and preparing for its release, I started focusing on what my next major project would be. I just recently finished the first draft of a script for a film. I sent the first draft to a couple friends to read, and then I started thinking: what if no one likes this idea? What if I put all this time and effort into it and it goes nowhere?

I guess that's the nature of filmmaking. And all creative pursuits, really. To block out both rational and irrational fears. To follow your gut and know that if you push forward through the uncertainty, good things will happen.

I read two blog posts recently that moved me and helped push me forward on my journey. I'd like to share them, with some thoughts as they relate to these very creative pursuits.

Writing

"The blank page of any project — writing, exercising, making, learning, doing — is paralyzing. It’s the weight of great expectations and unmet aspiration. It’s the fear of finding out that you’re no good, of failing, of looking stupid. It’s laziness. It’s the specter of busyness that looms over your shoulder saying you don’t have the time and energy for this, to do it “right” — and you listen."

- Janet Choi, "Getting in the Writing Place Every Day"

Writing, or more specifically starting to write, as the quote above states, can be paralyzing. Working on my first narrative feature-length script (outside of a previous screenwriting class in college), knowing that it's on me to come up with interesting ideas and to tell a compelling story was, at times, pretty frightening. It still is, as a few people are just now starting to read the words I've written. I have no idea if what was in my head came out on paper in the way I had hoped.

Writing is a process. Doing is the most important thing of all. Write, write, write. If it's not good, you can delete it. But every idea is worth writing down. You never know when you'll come back to it. I have also found that the more I write, the more ideas tend to come to me. Once I start writing, I sometimes can't write the ideas down fast enough. I thought of this sentence at least two sentences ago, and now it's probably different than I originally had in mind.

That's the great thing about writing. It's organic, and it can be whatever you want. Creativity is nothing more than taking your ideas and actually making something from them. Writing, photography, film... it only takes true skill and talent to become great. It takes very little skill to get started.

Leading

"The combination of clarity and freedom is what makes work a joy; one without the other is where you find frustration. When you have great freedom, but an incomplete understanding of the goal, you’re likely to invest hours of effort in a futile attempt to hit a target you can’t see."

- Brian Bailey, "Clarity and Freedom"

If I am going to be a director, I need to understand what qualities I do and do not like in a leader. I need a better understanding of how to continue to foster creativity, passion, and enjoyment towards these projects as my teams and budgets (hopefully) grow.

Be thoughtful in what you say, but don't regret saying what needs to be said.

There's being mean and then there's being truthful. Some people will interpret truthiness as meanness. Generally they have a very narrow perspective. This is both true when talking about being a leader and being led. Vague instruction or direction leads to confusion, lack of inspiration, and lack of trust.

It can be scary, but do it.

This relates both to the point above and to working as a creative in general. It never really gets less scary. As you get better, the stakes just get higher. It's not always easy to say what needs to be said, or to try a project and potentially fail, but if you're following some combination of your brain, heart, and gut, you'll do ok.

"The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It's the same thing, fear, but it's what you do with it that matters."

- Cus D'Amato

If you say what needs to be said and follow your heart, people will respect you.

People will respect you and your principles. If they don't respect you speaking up, if they try to take advantage of you, or only care about themselves, you don't want to work with them. Everyone is programmed to look out for themselves first, and that's ok. But as someone trying to get their start or to build a business or an idea into reality, you can't lose sight of that fact either. Don't let someone take advantage of you and convince yourself that it's all in the name of "progress."

As long as you are being reasonable, there are no consequences to speaking your mind. 

You may find out, however, that certain people don't want to work with you when they realize they can't walk all over you. Be proud of that fact. If you consider losing that relationship or that work a consequence, then so be it. You shouldn't want to work with someone that doesn't value open communication.

Follow through with what you say.

The most frustrating part of being on a team is when someone else doesn't follow through. "Things will be different next time." ... "We're working on changes and improvements." ... "You'll get more responsibility in the next round of projects." 

If those promises don't see the light of day after 6 months, start looking at your options and consider if you want to continue down this road.

These are the types of people or projects where the promise of the future is always better than the present. This is always a major reason why I don't take free or discounted work, even if it will apparently "lead to more paid work in the future." I also don't ask people to work for free if they're going to work for me. The rare exception is when there is a mutually beneficial end goal or if someone offers to volunteer their time. Ultimately, if you're not invested, you're going to lose interest. If you're not taking steps towards the next progressions in your career, you'll get burnt out.

Working as a creative

The feeling that the floor is always about to fall out from under you... does it ever go away? I don't think so, and it probably shouldn't. It is what keeps you moving. If you sit and think about it too long, you'll think you can't handle it. If you just keep moving, everything keeps working.

Ben Affleck was a so-so actor. Some hits, some big misses. He's an incredible director. His movies, Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo have been huge successes and excellent films in the minds of critics and fans. He's cast himself as the lead in two of his three movies. When asked why, he responded that he never knows if this might be his last chance. He's going to cast himself because he doesn't know if anyone else will.

I can appreciate this sentiment even more after working my first year as a freelancer. To sum it up with a quote from David Fincher's The Social Network:

"Yes. Everyone at Harvard's inventing something. Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job. So, I'll suggest again that the two of you come up with a new new project."

- Larry Summers, as played by Douglas Urbanski

It's more than that. It's not just "better" but it's required. The process of creating a job for oneself is critical in the creative world. No one is just going to hand you a title or money to pursue a project. You have to convince people that you and your projects are worth something. Because that is a never-ending journey, you have to pursue what matters to you, and be willing to pass on what is not. If you keep taking on the same projects, you'll never break out into what you really want to become.

Make time for side projects. I have two websites that are for fun. If I learn and grow from the experience, even in failure, it's been worth it. If just one person gets something out of what I produce, it's been a success in some way. And don't ignore that side projects can become your main projects. I may be wrong, but I believe this is the key is happiness. 

Everyone has a lot of little things that make them happy. What if you could make a living out of it? Chances are, you probably can. You just need to be willing to work, learn, fail, and grow before you can succeed. Make the small steps everyday to progress on each of those goals. Eventually one or more will be successful. Anyone who's transitioned from a full-time job to freelance has done this. You take small steps, small projects, and eventually you can maintain a lifestyle from your work. The even better part is that these things can change over time. Whether small, like my preference to direct projects instead of handling the cinematography, or huge, like deciding you don't want to do web design and decide to work towards becoming a photographer.

There is no single path. There is no one right answer. The key is to keep moving forward, through the good times and the bad. Take the time to learn from your progress, but don't dwell on mistakes for too long. The lessons you learn from those mistakes will be put to task on your next project, or the one after that. 

It all comes down to getting started, and if you take those first steps, you've already achieved more than most.

Don't stop there.

Before you steal my video

The greatest paragraph ever written