Before the lights, cameras, actors, and awards, there’s only you and your idea. This idea exists in the dark, constantly evolving and begging to be put into the real world, representing a million different possibilities before it takes its final shape.
Launching your first feature is no small feat. Some will say the hardest part is finding an idea worth pursuing, or that the real roadblock is convincing other people that your idea is worth pursuing. Others point to the logistics of production as the real challenge. One thing is for certain: well-informed preparation goes a long way towards making the process smoother—helping you bring the film you’ve envisioned to life.
We recently sat down with the founders of MOUTHWASH Studio: Abraham Campillo, Mackenzie Freemire, and Alex Tan, to discuss the value of unique online experiences for filmmakers and their work.
Amid the hustle and bustle of getting things done, it’s easy to lose sight of who we are and what we’re about—it’s easy to neglect our brand. We can get so caught up creating that we forget the “why” behind our work, and everything we do starts to feel fluid and ungrounded.
Strange times like these are perfect for creatives. It’s in our nature to adapt and working from home requires its fair share of adaptation. You’re competing against loneliness, distractions, overly affectionate dogs — and that’s just the start of it.
It’s a new year, and you’ve probably made your fair share of resolutions. But we have one more for your list: Attending film festivals. As a filmmaker, you probably fall into one of two camps. First, you already know why you should go to them and are tying to decide which film festivals in 2020 to attend. Second, you’re either unconvinced or unsure if they’re worth the effort.
While the wedding film industry may seem insulated from other film industries, it’s still one-hundred-percent filmmaking. There are stories, editing timelines, demanding clients, and hard drives full of footage. Yet, a career in wedding filmmaking is also different than any other film career. There’s a steep learning curve to learning how to work with clients, manage, schedules, and stay sane during the infamous “edit season.”
In the spirit of reflection, why not start 2020 on a high note with some of the best filmmaking advice we received in 2019?
The CDDP’s Dominique DeLeon offers up a few reasons why he thinks you should think about getting into commercial filmmaking.
Looking to up your efficiency game? Learn about 10 different tools for filmmakers that will make your creative life easier.
Drea watches more than 350 films every single year and plays an active role in whether they’re successful or not. She’s well aware of the uphill climb many filmmakers face to get accepted — she said Sundance receives around 14,000 submissions every year and only 100 actually get a premiere. So, in an effort to make that climb a little more friendly, we decided to chat with Drea to put together a rough guide for getting into film festivals.
There are a lot of conversations surrounding the Vimeo Staff Pick, but no one in the indie film community can question its importance. For many creatives that elusive badge has been the starting point for their career, the moment when they get noticed.
For many filmmakers, branded content is a tough code to crack. With variables including — but not limited to — product, budget, timelines, and internal politics, it may seem like a game not worth jumping into. But, allow Scott Ballew, YETI’s Head of Content, to simplify it for you.
At Musicbed, we’re passionate about CDDP’s cause because we get it. The commercial industry can be an intimidating place. Beyond being underrepresented, there’s a whole set of skills needed to navigate a professional career. There are clients and collaborators. There are pitches and revisions. It’s a whole different beast.
Perhaps the most unique trait Ryan Booth has is his transparency. Sure, as a creative and commercial director, he’s built a burgeoning career on the back of his visionary style — but finding someone so talented and transparent is beyond rare.
As a leader how do you motivate creatives — or even motivate yourself as a creative person? As roller-coaster rides of emotional stability and productivity, how do you bring out their best? After all, we’re willing to put up with this instability for a reason — creativity, in our book, is one of the defining attributes for meaningful work. It’s probably worth learning how to work with them.
Building a production budget is arguably the most important part of the filmmaking process. It creates the framework for the project, a rough outline for what will eventually be a film. But, it’s also one of the least fun parts of the process as well, probably just because it’s so damn difficult. There are an infinite amount of moving variables and unknowns — yet another reason building one is so important.
Micro-budget filmmaking is not for the faint of heart. You end up wearing multiple hats, taking on debt, asking friends to work for free, and toiling away on a project — likely for years — without seeing much (or any) monetary return on your investment. Not to mention it’s highly unlikely you’ll attach a star of any kind at this level, so getting press or festival attention for even a great film can be challenging.
On certain levels, developing a production budget is the same regardless of the type of film, whether you’re diving into a personal project or developing branded content for a client. We’ve already tackled a few notes on developing a production budget on the personal side, but after speaking with producers Sarah Schutzki (Feral Creative) and Zanah Thirus (BBDO Atlanta), we decided the commercial side deserved its own article.
A few months ago, we were talking with Vimeo’s creative director, Jeremy Boxer. We asked him what he was most excited about, and, without hesitating, he said Vimeo On Demand — Vimeo’s newish service that allows filmmakers to sell their work directly to their audience. Vimeo On Demand, he told us, is going to radically change not just the economy of filmmaking, but films themselves. We asked him what in the world he was talking about. “I think the first thing it’s going to do is erase the idea of traditional formats,” he said. “We’ve had filmmakers who’ve made 35-minute films about a specific subject for a specific audience, and they’ve done better than some feature films. It [becomes] more about the storytelling. I think you’re going to start seeing a lot more odd-length projects coming out in the next couple years.”
If you’ve ever seen an episode of Mad Men, Nashville, Orange Is the New Black, or Weeds,you’re already familiar with Russell Ziecker’s work. After starting out in the mailroom at Chrysalis Music Group, Russell is now the head of television music at Lionsgate, overseeing music for some of the most popular television shows in the world.
Walking into Anthropologie is, hyperbole aside, darn near transcendent. In fact, for most of us who spend our days inside, the interior of our local Anthropologie does more to put us in a seasonal mood than the outdoors themselves.
Question: Are you the type of person who carefully checks the temperature of a swimming pool before slowly, over the course of an hour or so, working your way into the water? Or are you someone who dives into the deep end headfirst like a lunatic? If you’re the second type, then you might have a bright future in film.
We’ve been fans of Diego Contreras since before his breakthrough film Islands nabbed a Vimeo Staff Pick in 2013. Since then, his career has been on the rise, taking him briefly through one of the most well-respected ad agencies in history (BBDO), and more recently into the realm of professional filmmaking. Not long ago, he directed two stunning short films for The Lincoln Motor Company, Bloom and Open Your Eyes. And he’s done it all within two years.
We’ve talked about healthy ways of receiving feedback. Now let’s talk about healthy ways of giving it. In almost every way, giving good feedback is harder than accepting it. It is a discipline. And it takes a long time to master. Any novice can teach himself to listen to wisdom. It’s a thousand times harder to speak it.
If you don’t know Joey L. from his work for the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, or charity: water (his images have been displayed in little places like, oh, Time’s Square), then you might know him from his tutorials. Since 2006, Joey L. has been distilling his hard-earned photographic know-how into easy-to-follow instructional videos (originally in the form of hand-labeled DVDs, and now available on the World Wide Interweb). His most recent series, Dudes with Cameras, is a compulsively watchable mix of photographic wisdom, travelogue, and late-night sleep-deprived mischief. Highly recommended.
Years ago, someone gave me a piece of business advice I haven’t forgotten: “Find a competitor,” he said, “and learn to hate them.” In a lot of ways, his advice was sound. Competition not only drives people forward, but it drives entire industries forward. Heck, it’s the whole basis of capitalism. And yet, after following his advice for a number of years, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something seriously wrong with it. Sure, competition could drive me to the next level, but did I like who I was when I got there? (Nope.) And would I be able to keep that same competitive spirit year after year? (Probably not.)
Why do we make films? It would be so much easier not to. The poet Charles Simic said: “I write because I want every woman in the world to fall in love with me.” Whether or not we say it out loud (or even admit it to ourselves), recognition is always on our radar. As it should be.
Creativity is such a fragile thing. Maybe that’s why entire mythologies have been built around it — everything from the Muses to the idea of “genius,” all attempting to explain where creativity comes from and where to find it when it’s gone missing. And it does go missing. Sometimes it goes missing a lot. The inspiration leaves, the magic is gone. You question everything you’ve ever done. Nowadays, we call this a “creative block,” and it can be terrifying.
If you want to get filmmakers worked up in a hurry, talk about film school. Opinions are as varied as they are impassioned. As they should be. Film school requires a lot from a person. It takes a lot of money, a lot of time, and, ultimately, a lot of trust.
When filmmakers think of pacing, they typically think of plot, scenes, music, editing. But there’s another form of pacing that’s equally important — if not more so — than how you pace your story: the way you pace your life. As creatives, we are prone to bad habits. We pull all-nighters. We eat fast and cheap. We spend hours, days, even weeks sitting in our chairs, writing and editing, and living inside our heads. Sometimes it seems like these behaviors are required. Par for the course. But the weird thing is, while creatives are notorious for their unhealthy lifestyles, our best creativity often happens when we’re living our healthiest.
Despite being necessarily collaborative, filmmaking can be lonely. And that loneliness can start to affect you — not just personally, but creatively as well. It’s hard to do good work when you don’t have people behind you.
Any act of creativity takes some amount of audacity. Films more than most. You have to believe your vision is worth bringing to life — that it’s worth investing in, producing, and being seen by as many people as possible. That takes confidence. And in various seasons of life, our confidence comes and goes. When it goes, it can be devastating. You may wonder if you’ll ever create anything good again. Or anything at all.
Here at Musicbed, we talk a lot about community and collaboration — and that’s because we really believe in those things. We believe our lives and our work improve when we share them with other people. But there’s a flip side we haven’t talked about very much. And that’s the importance — maybe even the necessity — of solitude.
If there is such a thing as a secret formula to success, it might be this: work your ass off. After two years of talking nonstop with successful creatives, that’s the best we can come up with. And few exemplify this better than Joey L., a Brooklyn-based commercial portrait photographer who’s shot the likes of Robert De Niro, Jessica Chastain, and Martin Sheen, and worked with brands such as the US Army, National Geographic Channel, and charity: water.
“An important attribute of a great junk shop is longevity,” Luc Sante wrote recently in The Paris Review. “It should accrue layers, like an archeological site.” By this definition, you could consider famed graphic designer, ephemera enthusiast, and second-generation junker Aaron Draplin an archeologist. Inside Draplin Design Co., Aaron keeps an ever-growing collection of artifacts he’s found and swiped for just a dollar or two from junk stores and bargain bins around the world. “See, when you find old, shitty Chevron stickers all stuck together like this, you don’t ask for just one,” Aaron told us. “You ask for the whole stack because then you can trade them with your buddies.” Later, he described himself as a rescue unit. He’s saving bric-a-brac from oblivion and using it to fuel a fresh round of timeless, creative work.
A recurring topic in our conversations with independent filmmakers is how personal/passion projects have either launched, sustained, or saved their careers. For some people, like Hunter Hampton, personal projects have kept them from jumping off a creative cliff. For others, like Khalid Mohtaseb, passion projects have become a surprisingly effective marketing strategy. We don’t think there’s a “wrong way” to approach passion projects. But after having dozens of these conversations, the conclusion we’ve drawn is that passion projects, in whatever form, are an essential part of a creative lifestyle and an even more essential part of a creative career.
At Film + Music we don’t just work around a lot of filmmakers and musicians — we work around a lot of creatives, period. In fact, a lot of us are creatives ourselves. Designers, photographers, writers…and, yes, filmmakers and musicians too. Over the years we’ve had the privilege of watching a ton of careers unfold. Some have blossomed, some haven’t. And after a while you start asking yourself why. What is it that leads someone to a successful career? What choices are they making to set themselves up for success?
If there is such thing as a “traditional path” to becoming a film director, Elle Ginter did not take it. After finishing her degree in journalism, Elle literally found herself out to sea. She worked on a whale-watching boat and talked to people about whales. As luck would have it, her job on the boat eventually led her onto major Hollywood sets with people like Adam Sandler and David Spade…
T. S. Eliot once said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” It’s as true in life as it is in creativity. Like in any great story, we only find out who we really are when we’re put to the test. The catch is, as filmmakers we often have to put ourselves to the test. Nobody else is going to do it for us.
Learning a craft is never easy, and there aren’t any shortcuts. As we’ve talked with filmmakers over the past few months, one question we always ask is “How did you learn how to do what you do?” Sometimes it feels like that’s the only question that really matters, and yet it’s usually the most difficult one to answer. While only some of the people we interviewed attended film school (and even fewer finished), all of these filmmakers are self-taught in their own way. Meaning, filmmaking is something they internalize—they’re constantly learning, discovering, and working it out for themselves. Just in time for the holidays, we’ve compiled a smorgasbord of insights into the benefits of a formal versus a not-so-formal film education. Salud!
If you’ve been in an Apple Store recently, you’re already familiar with Austin Mann’s work. He’s the photographer responsible for some of the stunning iPhone imagery currently being used in stores, online, and on billboards around the world. We’ve driven past his 30-story-tall image of a waterfall in Downtown Dallas many times. But if you think having your work on display for the world sounds like a dream come true, you’re wrong. Or at least Austin doesn’t see it that way. His ambitions are much larger and much smaller at the same time.
Anyone who edits interviews knows how much gets cut. Most of our Musicbed interviews start at around 10,000 words and end up around 2,000. We throw a lot away — usually just because a question or an answer doesn’t fit with the overarching theme.
Most people use a simple test to judge the quality of a film, book, song, photograph, etc. They see if they can remember it the next day. They see if it sticks with them. The general idea is that if something isn’t worth remembering, then it isn’t worth much at all. No matter what we’re creating, memorability is always the goal. At least that’s photographer Miller Mobley’s philosophy. “The challenge I give myself is: How can I make a memorable photograph today? If this were going to be my subject’s last photograph, what would I do to make it something other people would remember?” Considering Miller Mobley has created memorable photographs for nearly every celebrity we’ve ever heard of (a very partial list: Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman, Barack Obama, Philip Seymour Hoffman), we believe his philosophy holds water.
Some people know what they’re going to do with their lives before they’re old enough to drink a beer. Some of us take a little longer. Autumn Durald didn’t decide to be a director of photography until after she’d graduated college, traveled the world, and held a steady job in advertising. Once she’d made the decision, though, she didn’t look back. Since then, she’s lensed everything from major motion pictures (Palo Alto) to documentaries (Portraits of Braddock).
We assume you make films because you want people to see them. Actually, more than just see — think, feel, resonate with, remember. An audience isn’t a passive group of eyeballs. It’s the reason your film comes to life. Literally, the motion of a film is created inside people’s brains. And the story too. Their experiences and feelings and thoughts and opinions will resonate with yours, and “movie magic” happens. It’s what keeps people going to the movies. And ⎯ allow us to be idealistic for a second ⎯ it’s what keeps filmmakers making them. So it’s funny that, when it comes to feedback, it’s so easy for us to believe that no one’s opinion matters but our own. Or, to go to the other extreme, to believe that someone else’s opinion is the only one that counts.
If there’s one thing filmmaking is not, it’s not a solo act. Sure, every once in a while you can go off on your own and create something beautiful; but for anyone who’s wanting to make a career of their craft, collaborating is nonnegotiable. You’re going to end up working with a crew. You’re going to end up working with actors. We’ve talked with dozens of filmmakers over the past year of the Community, and one topic that almost always comes up is collaboration. As you’ll see, it cuts both ways. While collaboration can be frustrating at times, it’s also almost guaranteed to improve your creative game.
For the past two weeks, we’ve been consumed with A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin, a nearly 600-page conversation between the legendary (and infamous) filmmaker Werner Herzog and editor Paul Cronin. While Herzog comes from an older generation of filmmakers, his rogue approach to cinema strikes us as being particularly timely today. Not just timely, actually — but challenging. At 72 years old, Werner Herzog is still ahead of his time.
The question is not whether filmmaking is stressful. It’s how you’re going to deal with the stress when it inevitably comes your way. Stress is a physiological survival mechanism. It’s our body’s way of telling us to run away from dinosaurs and hide in a cave. But it’s also philosophical ⎯ it’s something we can overcome. Some of the most productive, well-respected filmmakers in the world deal with stress on a daily basis. And they’ve learned how to put it in its place.
There’s a new year upon us, and lately we’ve been thinking about mentorship. Thinking about people who have mentored us, the people we’ve been honored to mentor, and the gift of mentorship itself. For most of us — creative people prone to melancholy and emotional volatility — this relationship is our best hope for keeping each other on the rails, and making sure we all keep working, and living, honestly and productively.
Authenticity, in any case, is a key to work we love. It doesn’t matter if it’s an album, film or some other creative endeavor. We can’t tell you how to make something authentic, that’s up to you, but we can say that we believe your best work comes from a place that’s truly yours, and no one else’s.
Creativity, like any job, is a daily grind. Salesmen don’t wait for inspiration to make a sale. Surgeons don’t wait for lightning-bolt revelations to make their first incision. And the same goes for those of us who do creative work. Whether it’s our full-time job or our side passion, creativity is best practiced every day.
For years now, the name “SoulPancake” has been floating around the Internet, attached to unapologetically feel-good (and unstoppably viral) videos like Kid President, Kitten Therapy, and Heart Attack!, as well as disarmingly philosophical series like Metaphysical Milkshake. Yeah, we’d heard of SoulPancake. But for a long time we weren’t exactly sure what SoulPancake was. A creative agency? A Rainn Wilson side project? A, for lack of a better term, movement?
Everyone wants to be a prodigy. Our culture and generation idolize God-given talent above all else. We’re all waiting for our “gifts” to be discovered — by our industry, by our peers, and even by ourselves. But it’s not long before you’re 30 and you realize you still don’t know how to play the cello. You’ve never looked at a piano and it just made sense to you.
Every project comes with its own lessons. There are lessons in failure and success, lessons in easy clients and difficult clients, and lessons in not being able to drum up any projects at all. Some of the most important lessons, though, come when we make projects for ourselves ⎯ passion projects. When left to our own devices, we have the chance to discover what we really have to offer, what we value, what we believe good work actually means. The lessons we learn by making passion projects have the ability to affect every aspect of our work, from the clients we choose to the stories we tell. Often, that’s worth the cost of production alone (whether that’s dollars, or simply the time spent by the people producing it).
Making a film is one thing. Making money on a film is something else. And nobody knows this better than Mia Bruno, producer of marketing and distribution for Seed&Spark, a new crowdfunding, direct to consumer platform that’s currently disrupting the more traditional, entrenched distribution models. “Most filmmakers want the same thing,” Mia told us. “They want to pay back their investors, and they want to make their next film. So the question is how do you do that?”
If you aren’t careful, creativity can get really narcissistic real fast. In some ways, a bit of narcissism isn’t such a bad thing. You need that drop of ego to fuel your creative drive. But left unchecked, our creative lives can easily become rampant with self-aggrandizement and self-promotion as we become more brand than aperson. Most of us are aware of this slippery slope. That’s why we cringe a little bit every time we post a link to a new project or ask people to watch our latest film. Of all the hard things about a creative life, one of the hardest is knowing how to talk about yourself and not sound like a total jerk.
Charity: water is one of those rare organizations that not only does amazing work (bringing clean water to people around the world), but also tells amazing stories. As you’d expect, we’re suckers for both. We recently flew to the Big Apple to visit with members of the charity: water creative team and hear about how they use Musicbed in their videos (honored). While we were there, we grabbed a little extra time with video producer Jamie Pent and learned more about the charity: water creative process and what it’s like crafting stories for one of the most compelling nonprofits out there today.
This is something we all know is true: Wedding films are growing in popularity. We’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. Rachel Silver, founder of Love Stories TV, has definitely seen it. Through her platform, she’s seen demand increase along with the quality of content and her team has helped bring wedding films to the forefront of the wedding scene.
Much like the myth of overnight success, the idea of “finding your voice” implies an unrealistic immediacy. As if your voice were something you might stumble upon one day, fully formed, just lying on the ground. Something you’d recognize if you saw it. In our experience, that’s not how it goes. Instead, your artistic voice is something you build through incredible amounts of time and tireless effort. It’s a slow accumulation of influence, work, and discernment. It takes years and there are no short cuts.
Who hasn’t had to scale back an epic film project knowing there is no way to actually pay for it? Between quality actors, a camera crew, makeup artists, stunt doubles, and you name it, the cost of a film adds up fast. But, thanks to great crowdfunding platforms, there’s no better time to pitch your film to potential patrons and help your film go the extra mile.
In many ways, there’s no difference between being a “church creative” and a “creative.” Whether you’re serving a client or the congregation, there are still goals to reach and deadlines to be met. But, as you already know as a church creative, there’s a whole other set of criteria you need to meet in your world, namely a mission you were called to in the first place.
Reinaldo Marcus Green was a lot of things before he was a filmmaker. Promising athlete, master’s level educator, family man. He worked on Wall Street before, during, and after the 2008 financial collapse. And only then did he decide to study film at NYU under the guidance of legends like Spike Lee and Todd Solondz. So you could say Reinaldo has seen some things. But, more importantly, he has something to say about it.
We’ve been rereading one of our favorite books, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, and getting as much — or more — out of it the second time than we did the first.
At this point, we expect advertising to be insincere. We’ve never won a free cruise to the Bahamas. That cheap Mexican beer won’t transport us to our own beach — not even inside our minds. So if we expect anything from ads these days, it’s entertainment and little else.
Like any good story, our careers often make sense only in retrospect. In the moment, the way forward is anything but obvious. It’s only when you look back that you can see how one thing led to another: how you were preparing for your next big move all along, without even realizing it. That’s how things worked for director Rob Chiu who’s now directed commercials for brands like McLaren, Lexus, and Toyota — just to name a few.
There’s nothing harder than doing work that conflicts with what you truly believe. So, instead of changing your mindset to adapt to your work, why not adapt your work to your mindset? That’s what Rand Getlin did. As a prominent sports reporter with the NFL Network, he enjoyed the job, but also felt constrained by the parameters of traditional journalism, so he left to start his own production company. According to him, it’s the same type of work, just tweaked to reflect his own philosophies on truth and objectivity.
The thought of a “path” can be a little bit misleading. Just the name implies that there’s a clearly marked way to go, or maybe even a route backward toward where we came from. We all know that’s not the case. Finding our way can be a confusing, wayward, and terrifying experience — more like navigating a maze than anything else.
It’s easy to feel helpless when it comes to the lack of diversity and inclusion in filmmaking. How do you even begin to approach that conversation, much less start thinking about how to solve it? According to a 2018 report from the Directors Guild of America, only 9.7 percent of films were directed by minorities in 2018 and only 12.2 percent of films were directed by women.
It’s that time of year again. From Sundance to the Oscars, the Globes to SXSW and Tribeca, nominees and winners are everywhere in the trades right now. But if you’re sitting at home stockpiling a slew of rejection notices from festivals, labs, or contests and still grinding away at your work, seeing others bask in their achievements can become disheartening.
Observation is an act of creation. Whether or not that’s true for the cosmos, it’s true for clichés: they don’t exist until we notice them ⎯ or someone points them out. Creative Director Andy Baker (Nat Geo, Netflix) pointed out a cool German term for this, which you can read below. But suffice it to say that clichés abound, and they’re more prevalent than ever. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Danny Madden (a.k.a. Ornana) has one rule: Make films the hard way, or don’t make them at all. “Sometimes it’s easy to look for tricks, or to want to master your craft to the point where you know what you’re doing and it gets easier. But if you get to that point, where what you’re doing is easy, then you’ve really lost something.”
At some point on the way to becoming who we want to be, we have to stop being who we were. Muhammad Ali had to stop being Cassius Clay. Rachel Morrison had to stop working on The Hills. And Katelin Arizmendi had to stop being a camera assistant. “I moved to L.A. and I decided I wasn’t going to introduce myself as a camera assistant ever again,” Katelin told us. “I only wanted to shoot.”
Creativity and loneliness seem to go hand in hand. Some even believe loneliness is essential to creativity — not only as a by-product, but also a catalyst. A study from Johns Hopkins University found that people who were socially rejected early in their life tend to be the most creative. Rejection becomes their “fuel.” This explains why creative people are usually pretty weird. They are literally “out there.” On the fringe. Refusing to conform. Which can (a) make their work meaningful, and (b) make their work impossible.
I recently heard one of my favorite directors, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant), say that his biggest concern for young filmmakers coming up behind him is our outsized focus on results, our obsession with recognition, and our overwhelming need to be seen as a big deal. Basically, he’s worried about our egos getting in the way of making substantive work. For him, empathy is the central focus as he engages the process of making a film.
Creativity is full of paradoxes — not the least of which is the fact that having absolute creative freedom is often highly uncreative. It’s a phenomenon called “paralysis of choice.” The more options we have, the harder it is to choose anything. So we do nothing. When everything is an option, somehow we find ourselves optionless. Which is why almost every artistic medium develops its own limitations over time.
In his TED talk on the value of creative sabbaticals, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister describes a project he orchestrated in which hundreds of volunteers wrote, in coins, “Obsessions make my life worse and my work better.” It’s a distillation of a pervasive idea: that life and creativity are a zero-sum game. Devotion to one destroys the other. But there also comes a point when obsession with art begins to destroy the art itself. It manifests as stagnation. Or worse ⎯ burnout. Which is the whole point of Sagmeister’s talk: Sometimes you need to step away.
A film can be perfectly executed and beautifully shot, yet still ultimately waste the viewers’ time. As high-end tools become more accessible to entry-level filmmakers, the scales have tipped heavily toward slick, dazzling, albeit somewhat boring films. Maybe that’s why so many of them are only three minutes long. They’re a sprint of flash and wow factor. But you can only sprint so far.
As David Foster Wallace famously put it: “Of course you end up becoming yourself.” Which probably just means that everything seems inevitable in retrospect. And maybe that’s why it’s not surprising that despite having so many things working against them, cinematographers Autumn Durald (Palo Alto, One & Two) and Rachel Morrison (Black Panther, Cake) have built not only successful film careers, but also families. Which isn’t to say it was easy. Just that, when you hear them talk about it, it makes sense. “I guess on some level, [being a DP and a mother was] always a part of the plan,” Rachel Morrison says. “But I got to the point where I was like, ‘How the hell can you be a DP and a mother?’”
If you’re waiting for permission to start making great films, chances are you’ll be waiting forever. Here’s the secret: You don’t need permission. We’re in the ask for forgiveness line of work here. There are no extra-credit assignments. There are no credentials. There are no grades. There’s just you and your camera and your inexplicable desire to put something worthwhile on the screen.
“On your way to wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through all right,” Bill Withers warns filmmaker Damani Baker in his documentary Still Bill. “And when you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.” In other words, it’s very hard to be great. And very few people get there.
According to a recent study by the Behavioral Science Research Institute, 70% of us will doubt ourselves at some point in our career. The other 30%, of course, will be lying to ourselves. Self-doubt is a curse of the human condition — it comes with being a person. But it is especially rampant among creative people. Maybe that’s because creative success is so nebulous. Maybe it’s because so many insecure people are, for whatever reason, drawn to making art. But we think psychologist Christian Jarrett might be on to something when he suggests: “In our world there is a pervasive myth that there is a minority of super achievers who are born with a magical gift, while the rest of us mortals struggle by with our ordinary talents.” We interpret our effort as lack of talent. We see our successes as flukes.
The hardest part of making a film isn’t the grueling days, the logistical Rubik’s Cube, or the 10,000 problems that arise over the course of production. The very hardest part is getting started in the first place. How do you go from having an idea to doing something about it? And then how do you keep doing something about it? The great garbage heap of abandoned ideas is both deep and wide. We’ve all contributed to it. But at some point, if we’re ever going to make the film we want to make, then we’re going to have to actually make it.
It’s a dangerous time to be an artist. A couple times a year, the whole world appears to pick one artist to turn on. Maybe they mixed up some facts. Maybe they misrepresented a subject. But, most often, it seems like artists are lambasted for stealing from each other. There are few things trolls love more than showing why something that seems original…isn’t. But with so much content flooding our world and minds right now, the line between inspiration and derivation has gotten blurrier than ever. How can we be influenced by great work without ripping it off?
It wasn’t easy to find someone to interview about failure. It’s not just that people don’t like talking about their failures; they can’t remember them. Most failures are quickly forgotten — maybe as a form of mental self-defense. Everyone experiences failure; but when it comes to recalling specific defeats, people draw a blank. Which is why, over time, failure feels less like an acute pain and more like a chronic discomfort. It’s something we all must learn to live with. The question is: how can we live with it best?
The way people make films has changed a lot over the past few years. But the way people watch films has changed even more. Video on demand, mobile viewing, subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime — all of these things have fundamentally changed our relationship with movies. They’re less of an “event” now and more of a constant presence. Easy to access and just as easy to ignore. What does it mean for filmmakers when massive theatrical distribution is no longer the gold standard, but the goal is still the same: to get as many people as possible to see your film?
If there is no “right way” to make a film, then is there no “wrong way” either? If you’ve seen Paul Özgür’s work — an award-winning Dutch cinematographer whose films have screened at festivals like Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival — you’ll start to question if there are any boundaries at all. “This is filmmaking,” Paul told us. “There are no rules.”
No matter how big our creative dreams, we still have to live one day at a time. Or, to put it in reverse (and to quote Annie Dillard): “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” We can’t montage our way to success. We have to live every moment between now and then. And what we do with those moments is everything.
We’ve spent more than four years of talking with some of the best filmmakers in the world, and there are a few questions we haven’t asked. What had these filmmakers been totally wrong about when they first started? And what was the very best thing they did for their careers? We thought these two questions could help calibrate the navigation system — give us all a sense of what we should be moving toward, and what we should be moving away from. So we sent out a bunch of emails. The responses we got back were wonderful and surprising. Some were personal (Eliot Rausch’s sobriety; Reinaldo Green meeting his wife). Some were professional (Joel Edward’s disillusionment with the industry; MINDCASTLE’s belief in director’s cuts). But they all had one thing in common: these lessons were learned painstakingly and firsthand.
Deciding to not make a film is hard. We’re living in the golden age of people making films — thanks to new technology and an increasingly low barrier to entry — and so often the ball starts rolling before we ask ourselves if we should roll it in the first place. In a craft that ultimately amounts to a series of impactful decisions, the first hard decision is whether or not to commit to your film at all. There is nothing worse than getting to the middle of a project, only to realize you’ve been making the wrong film.
Filmmaking, for many, is a treadmill. You spend so much time clawing your way into a position to make films for a living that you find yourself in a place where you’re not making the films you want to be making. Or at least the films you’re personally invested in making. There are deadlines. There are clients. And, of course, there are bills to pay. Sometimes years can go by without stepping off of the treadmill and our big ideas for passion projects do nothing but collect dust. It happens to the best of us. But, here’s the good news: by working to put yourself in this position, you’ve (maybe unknowingly) given yourself the tools you need to pull off a film you only would’ve dreamed of making in your early days.
Commercial filmmaking is experiencing a tectonic shift. Clients are expecting better projects for smaller budgets, and if you’re part of the old guard, you may get a few cold sweats thinking about when or where the next project will come from. If you’re an up-and-comer, though, the outlook is a bit brighter. Just take it from Dan Walser, Executive Producer at Neighborhood Film Co., and Ryan Smith, Creative Director at Counsel, who just wrapped up our commercial Find the Music You’ve Been Missing.
No matter what kind of profession you work in, there’s something to be said for good, old-fashioned hustle. Squeezing every bit of value out of an experience. When director Tucker Bliss stepped up to direct the Staff-Picked Monster Factory, he was bringing a wealth of experience, taste, and style to the table — all of which were developed in one place: commercial work. Whether you’re a filmmaker whose goal is to make a feature-length narrative or to direct ads for Nike, there’s a lesson to be learned here: why pay for an education when you can get paid for an education?
We’ve talked to some incredible women on our blog: directors, DPs, acting coaches, animators, Oscar Nominees, creative directors, artists. They’ve shared illuminating, perspective-shattering advice that any filmmaker can take to heart. Today we’re celebrating some of the wise women we’ve talked to on our blog by pulling some of our favorite moments from their interviews. Reader beware: the topics are all over the place — from storytelling to panic attacks — but we think that speaks to the overwhelming amount of great advice we’ve received over the years. Enjoy.
If our conversation with Dan Sadgrove seems to rove a bit, bear with us. It’s what he does. “I don’t have a mortgage or assets. I have a suitcase of clothes and that’s about it,” he told us. The director films projects during his travels across the globe, so when our conversation went to Vietnam, South Africa, or West Texas, we let it go there. And while it may seem like he lives a romantic life on the road, Dan didn’t hesitate in admitting that it’s a hard life as well. In fact, he was reluctant to encourage anyone to take it on.
Humans are productive beings; it’s in our nature. We excel in building, creating, and existing in a constant state of motion. But, this comes with its downside too. We’re also prone to overworking and overstressing. Burning out. So, how do we maintain a healthy lifestyle without self-destructing? Maybe we need to change our perception of what “productive” really means. As Tina Essmaker, founder and former editor of The Great Discontent, puts it, “when you make space in your life, the universe will fill it.” In other words, sometimes we need to get out of our own way.
Procrastination is often an act of self-preservation. When we know something will be difficult, we naturally tend to avoid it. This instinct may have been useful at some point (stone age, maybe?), but for us creatives, it can be our worst enemy. While we wait, problems seem to multiply, obstacles grow larger and while we’re busy thinking about those obstacles, the opportunity may be slipping away. Director Brent Foster experienced this first-hand; ultimately, it’s why he started his award-winning “While I’m Here” docu-series:
Our CEO Daniel McCarthy has been on an NBA kick for about 10 years now. So, when he’s delivering an analogy about creative fear, chances are Lebron James’ name is somehow going to find its way into the conversation. Our recent team meeting was no different. As he was giving us a classic McCarthy pep talk about what (and how) we create as a team, he went right to the 2016 NBA Finals.
Problems, if anything, are a lesson. Whether we’re defeated by them or come up with a genius solution, afterward they serve as nicely packaged tutorials in what to do and what not to do. So, it only makes sense that the production of a film is a wealth of valuable lessons because they’re filled with obstacles. As famed producer Lain Smith said in a 2014 interview with Screen Daily, “Making a film is a series of problems to solve.”