There’s no other field like Art with a big and large A. No knowledge, no skills, no wisdom will ever ensure that your new work will be better and/or better received than you previous one.
There’s no progress in art, your last work is not going to be better than your first work. So the best thing is to be authentic and honest with your own work. Guillermo Arriaga
Art is not a meritocracy. And yet, the reason why we Art is not for fame but for connection through our singular expression. We can’t help to art and we can’t help to grow whether we’ve had a hit early on in our career that we’ve never outperformed or we’re still working in the shadow, ignored and rejected from the gatekeepers.
Recognition is what unlocks bigger means to create bigger projects and take bigger risks. But it doesn’t take long to realize that whatever the discipline within the Arts, lack of success means nothing about the quality of one’s work. It just takes one Yes.
Which is not to say that failure is easy to handle, especially if it keeps on repeating itself. The best way to deal with failure is to use it as a tool to learn and grow. That’s what filmmaker M. Night Shyalaman has been doing throughout his career and shared in a podcast episode on Bouncing Back from Rejection with Adam Grant
Shyalaman has had an unusual career. With 13 feature as a writer-director, Shyalaman has had big hits and big failures. Determined to keep on taking risks by developing original screenplays, Shyalaman decided early on to learn from his failures to make films that would stay true to himself while connect better with his audience:
“Iterate is another word for failure. The exponential growth happens there. For me if you have tenacity, energy and iterate, you can do anything.” M. Night Shyalaman
Shyalaman likes to switch genres within his films, but realized he used to switch genres lowering down the intensity of genres. So instead of going from drama to thriller (up) or horror (even higher) he would go from fantastic to drama for example. This would frustrate the audience and backfire.
Keeping that in mind, he wrote a new script where he went from thriller to super-natural, increasing the emotional intensity. But when he shared his screenplay, nobody wanted to produce it. So he self-produced it for $9 million and the film made a 610% return within the first six months with $276.9 million worldwide. Not bad.
The story “ends” well, but that’s not the point. That’s never the point. The point is that you can only control your personal growth and how you react to what happens to you. Success is not yours to decide and doesn’t reflect the quality of your work anyway. So grooming our growth by learning from failure and rejection is the best way to get something out of a bad situation.
I’m reading music composer Philip Glass‘ memoir, Words Without Music. Or rather I should say I’m savoring it. Glass belongs to this slowly extincting generation that seems to remember facts and emotions from decades of life with an intimidating precision. (I have the same delightful feeling each time I read Patti Smith)
One of the life advice Glass received was offered to him by musician Ornette Coleman:
Don’t forget Philip, the music business and the music world are not the same.
Glass mentioned that he’s pondered this advice ever since Coleman gave it to him and I relate. I would replace music business by art and music world by money to encompass as many creatives as possible.
Money rarely aligns behind the projects that make us vibrate, take risks and feel like adding something to the table.
In Just Kids, Patti Smith talks about “the role of the artists as a responsible commentator“. But to comment in an artistic way implies to have found your voice. And to find your voice, you need to search, wander, get lost.
You need to enterthe flow.
To enter the flow you need to let go of what creates friction and keeps you still.
Money often keeps us still.
Art and money are not the same. Don’t judge the quality of your work by the money you make. And vice versa.
While I do believe -based on everything I’ve read, heard and watched so far- that Kubrick had an instinct geared toward filmmaking that gave him an upper hand, he took more risks and worked harder than most will ever agree to. And that’s what allowed his body of work to become unique, hard to forget and hard to replicate.
A telling anecdote would be the time Kubrick spent scouting the right locations for Barry Lyndon:
In 1975, Kubrick produced Barry Lyndon, a film which, although not often heralded in the same way 2001: A Space Odyssey is, typifies his obsession with hairline details. A British-American period drama, Barry Lyndon is based on the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray. It tells the story of an Irishman who marries a rich widow to climb the social ladder and assume her late husband’s aristocratic position.
In order to find the perfect locations, Kubrick, his daughter Katharina and production designer Ken Adam’s team spent six months location scouting and arranging shoots in castles in Germany, Ireland and much of England. This was a direct result of Kubrick’s insistence that the film only be shot in real castles.
How Much to Become a Genius?
We currently live in a time where a lot of people are attracted by the price but neither aware nor willing to do the work to get the price.
Filmmaking feels like the perfect mirror for that: it’s a long and arduous process that can, sometimes, lead to extraordinary success and glamour. More often than not though, it’s just a lot of hard work rarely seen and quickly forgotten. (I know how depressing this sentence sound but it would be a lie to pretend otherwise)
A lot of despair is currently bubbling up in the filmmaking world as the honey-moon between the idea that everyone can make a film so go make one and the illusion that making a film is all it takes is coming to an end.
Making a film is half of the battle. The other half is finding how to distribute your film and at this stage I’m not even talking about money. I’m talking about getting people to see it, which, in 2019 has become a real challenge.
Getting people to watch your film (whatever length, mind you) is a full time job that asks precisely for relentless obsessiveness. It asks the producer and the filmmaker (if they are two separate entities) to have a vision that develops before the making of the film.
To understand this mindset, I can only recommend the video interview with Megan Gilbride.
Wanting to Is Not Doing the Work
Rebecca Green, the producer and force behind the site Dear Producer recalls how shocked and heart-broken she was to discover that one of her mentee did not take the time to properly read her monthly digest about what had been going on in the business:
I’m always shocked at the lack of knowledge producers have about the business when information is available via the world wide web every single day.
When I graduated college and started my first job in 2001, Facebook and Twitter and Variety online didn’t exist. If you didn’t work at a company that could afford the expensive Variety print subscription, you had to go read it at a newsstand. To stay in-the-know, every Sunday I got together with a group of other assistants for brunch to talk shop because that was how information was shared.
But today? Now you can wake up in the morning, lay in bed, and learn all you need to know about the industry before you show up at the office.
Talent Will Only Get You so Far
This is something I’ve been grappling with myself in the last year, working with people who admitted lacking knowledge on topics essential to their growth and yet did absolutely nothing to change that.
Green’s words hit a chord:
I’ll ask you this, how do you plan to survive, let along succeed, if you are not educating yourself on the business? Talent will only get you so far. (…)
Indie filmmakers are quick to complain about how they are underpaid and how their films don’t turn a profit, but too many of those complaining aren’t studying the business and coming up with innovative ways to work around the archaic systems in place that are stifling diverse storytelling.
Too many are instead making their art and then waiting for Media’s Most Powerful Executives to control their destiny. Your career is in your own hands. Education is power.
I wasn’t planning to connect Stanley Kubrick to Rebecca Green when I started this post, but here we are.
The point to me: everything is a choice, every choice has a consequence.
If being obsessive sounds romantic to you, remember that behind that words hide sacrifices (mostly for others to adapt to you) and a whole lot of work. Kubrick might have been a “genius” in the sense that working obsessively on a film did not cost him and came as a pleasuring activity to him.
For the non-genius, we need to face that producing a unique and viable film requires working twice as hard every day. If we don’t, let’s not wonder why things don’t turn out the way we want.
A collection of bits and pieces from the many notebooks I kept during my first three years of trying to figure out how to teach this practice (of having a notebook*) to my students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Traveling through this compilation of work from Barry and her students has been a delightful trip.
Every answer is different but for the latter, every answer is the reflection of the same truth: success is whatever makes you feel good. For some it’s money, for others it’s social recognition, and for plenty it’s about personal alignment between values and lifestyle.
During her interview with Dear Producer, “successful” producer Megan Gilbride got asked the question and Gilbride answered:
My definition of success is “You’re still doing it”.
I love this definition because filmmaking but also art-ing in general are marathons with no end line. And it only takes doing it more than a few years to look left and right and realize most of the people you’ve started with have given up, and the more you continue the more you see others (the ones that came before and the one that came after) giving up.
It’s hard to explain to people from the outside how much of a marriage the creative life is and how much will it sometimes takes just to still be doing it.
Gilbride goes on to explain why she opted for this definition of success:
We work in an industry where you could be at the peak of your success, better things could be happening to you than anything you’ve ever imagined and someone will come up to you in that moment and they will say: “But what are you doing next?” And it’s like, you’re having the thing, you’re checking all of the boxes you didn’t even know were there and the next question is: “But what are you doing after this?”
When you’re in the shit and things are terrible it’s like “What are you making now? What are you doing next?” and then when things are really great and unimaginable it’s like “But what are you doing next?”
So success is just that you’re still doing it, and I try to remind myself of that when I’m having a moment of “things are falling apart!” and a project where I’ve put a lot of time and energy to is not going to go forward or nobody wants to make it and we’ve done everything we can. I try to remind myself that that’s the definition, that I’m still doing it.
I still regularly wonder how X or Y scene was written and recently I’ve wondered this while watching Shaun of the Dead, co-written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (and directed by Wright).
What interested me particularly was to find out how the visually fast-paced transitions between two scenes were actually written on paper.
Since I watched the film before finding the screenplay, let me take you through the same process of discovery. So first, you should:
check the sound free short video below to visualize what I’m talking about:
How Did They Write It - Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg - YouTube
Wright and Pegg used the sequence of Shaun getting dressed as a transition between the living-room scene and the conversation in the kitchen with his roommate, which translates into six zoomed in close ups showing :
SHOT 1: pants zipped down
SHOT 2: toilets flushed down
SHOT 3: water going down
SHOT 4: teeth brushed
SHOT 5: hands washed
SHOT 6: badge put on shirt (where we have the time to read Shaun’s name and title)
So, how does this six shots that amount to 3 seconds on screen were written on the original screenplay?
So, out of the six shots, only two are mentioned in the screenplay. One -the shower- changed into something any other shots.
What I found interesting here is that they didn’t put any camera indication, even though Wright was going to direct the film. No Close-Ups, no Zoom-In. Just three actions back to back that gives a sense of how it will end up on screen.
The same happens with the second transition that explains that Shaun prepped his “breakfast”.
This time, let’s start with the screenplay:
Five actions are described that were translated on screen into four shots:
SHOT 1: drawer opened
SHOT 2: toast jammed
SHOT 3: coffee spooned
SHOT 4: Milk fridged
Simple in appearance (that’s a lot of shots to schedule, plan and shoot for very little screen time) but so efficient in dynamism and storytelling.
Instead of either skipping the scene altogether or showing only a single detail (Shaun biting in a toast) to make us understand Pegg’s character is going through his morning motions before heading to work, Pegg and Wright opted for something ambitious not in budget or scale but in work.
It’s more work. But the pays off is that much bigger. With simple framing and props, the film offers a compelling energy and forces the viewer to keep its eyes on the screen. 3 seconds away and you might miss a compressed sequence.
In 2017, Professor John Hunter gave a TED Talk at TEDx Bucknell University titled The Hollywood Guide to the Future-Pastwhere he shared his biggest findings while looking at the top grossing films and TV Shows in the U.S. in 2016 and 2015.
Hunter noticed that popular culture, via the films and TVs people decide to watch and pay for, tell us 2 important things:
1. We really resent the technologies that are running our lives
Interestingly, almost no films showcase neither cellphones nor network computers and Hunter argues that “That’s because we resent what these things are doing and the control that they have over our lives“.
Hunter TED Talk was initially shared by the Nerdwriter who made a whole video about that particular first point titled Why Are There So Few Smartphones in Popular Movies? . He decided to test Hunter’s affirmation by checking 8 of the top grossing films in 2018 and find out if cellphones were used in those films and how they were used.
The result: 16 cellphones were shown on screen throughout the 8 films, and only one time one of them was used in a way that would send us back to the way most of us actually use cellphones for: to watch and scans through a feed. (news feed, social media feed etc).
As the Nerdwriter says: “Social Media, which is what sucks most of our time spent on our phones, never appear on the top grossing films.”
and Hunter: “The makers of Star Wars are very very smart. They know we don’t want to see network technology because that’s part of the world we don’t like.”
Not that no films showcase cellphones and technologies the way we use them, but they don’t belong to the top grossing list of films, meaning they don’t reach the biggest number of people.
2. We don’t make popular entertainment about right here and now
Hunter also found out that when it comes to popular entertainment, we either seek
stories about a past that is cut off from the present or
stories about a future that is depressingly well connected to our present moment
We just don’t want to deal with our reality and the way we behave. We can handle an extrapolation of the consequences (always dark), or a nostalgic look at an fantasized past, but what millions of people all over the world will seek at the same time will not be about daily technologies and present time.
It’s interesting for me to discover Hunter’s TED Talk now, almost a year after I shot a short film that tries to do exactly the opposite: integrating the way cellphones interact with our daily lives and disrupt linear temporality, and making it in the present time.
And in a way, me making Chloe and Everyone in Her Pocket made me realize and understand this. Not that I was aiming at making a “blockbuster” but my initial desire to tell this story and the feature film attached to it was to showcase the world we live in and how cellphones have become these little machines that can entirely disrupt the course of our linear days and lives.
While I still feel strong about this topic and find it a subject of fascination, it occurred to me while filming it that this reality was disconnecting. And the truth is that we make, share and seek stories to connect.
This realization put a halt on the feature film and sent me to an analog path. Because analog is back.
Because to start something new, you need to make room for it. Making room can mean make time or create a literal space for something to grow. Either way, adding new things into your daily life gets harder and harder as you age.
It turns out one thing needs to die for another to see the light of day.
And letting something die often proves to be difficult. I’ve tried -unsuccessfully- to find out who said that it’s much harder to stop doing something than to start doing something new.
It might seem to contradict the previous point that it’s hard to start something new, but I believe it explains it. At some point we get overstuffed with everything.
And we just can’t add up one new thing because we can’t let go of the old habits.
I am at the beginning of what feels like an intense skin shedding and I can see the huge gap between the habits I’d like to implement to better my overall life and what I’m actually doing. The one thing that I’ve managed to make re-integrate into my life is the habit of reading daily, which is something I had lost in the last decade of technological revolutions. It was a long road.
Bottom line: if you’re having a hard time to just do it, may this video of Shia get you closer to either smile or do it.
In a 55 minutes generous talk, Brillhart -who used to be the principle filmmaker for VR at Google and is now the founder of Vrai Pictures, explains her explorations and findings in the immersive world.
Coming from a “traditional” filmmaking approach, Brillhart explains the parallels between the two worlds and what that means when it comes to building an immersive experience.
The frame becomes a world.
The viewer becomes a visitor.
The match on cut transforms into a match on attention.
Overall, everything in the immersive world is about action. Being active.
Listening to Brillhart felt exciting and energizing. In my tiny scale, doing an interactive animation in 2014 felt like I was opening the door to a wide wide world of possibilities, but 5 years later, the same problem remains:
accessibility for a seamless experience
If you watch a VR film from YouTube, you have to play with the arrows to move around, it doesn’t feel neither precise nor emotion-full. You often need to download app only available for iPhones. The “storytelling” can be unclear and when you adds up all the elements that create a small friction, it feels like the pain points are too many for little reward.
Which means people don’t come back to it. And platforms that showcase those experiences stay minor and hard to share. (The interactive animation can’t be embedded on FB, doesn’t have a view count, and demands from the visitor much more actions than what they are used to).
Pluses and minuses as with everything. But a lot of potential and a lot of food for thoughts.
If you have the curiosity, I highly recommend watching Billhart’s talk. At the time I write this, we were 171 humans on the planet to benefit from her wisdom and generosity. I hope the number will go higher, for our sake.