Posts Tagged ‘Art’

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Art is Work, Inspiration is Bullshit

August 21, 2010

I had an argument the other day with a writer friend of mine. At the time, she hadn’t written a word in months. When I asked her why, she said she was uninspired.

It blew my mind that a simple lack of inspiration would be enough to stop someone doing what they do best. Then it occurred to me that even artists can look down on the creative process, thinking that it’s not worth their time and effort to see through – to work at it – if they don’t feel like it.

To me, the acceptance of this logic puts the artistic process on par with a pastime like videogames or waterparks. The simple notion that if you’re not in the mood, then it’s not worth doing, is a very dangerous slope for an artist to stand on.

Happy Mother's Day

Art is Work
I was a Jazz musician for the entirety of my adolescence, into adulthood, playing professionally until my 30s. My training as a musician informs everything I do as a director, actor, producer, writer, editor, and any other jobs I take on.

In Jazz, the learning process is never-ending. No matter what level you’re at, there’s always a mentor you’re trying to extract knowledge from, or some new melodic/harmonic trend to wrap your ears around and try to find a voice in. Like other artistic genres, the community you inhabit influences the direction of your work (with or against the trends), and ultimately determines the merit of your contribution, either as a leader or side-man.

The process of learning Jazz is basically learning a new language. The style of Jazz you play is a specific dialect of that language. Then you need to learn to be a poet in the chosen dialect of that language. It’s a big undertaking, because you’re attempting to develop both as a technician, as well as an artist.

A version of this process is true for any artform. The refinement of skills involved, both in technical competence and in aesthetic awareness (to say nothing of taste), require a lifetime commitment to the craft.

Inspiration is Fleeting, Work is Forever
When I was 18, I had a mentor – a virtuosic saxaphonist – named Hal Melia. I was having a bad night on the gig, and he told me: “how the audience feels when you play, has nothing to do with how you feel at the time.” It took me about 20 years to figure out what that meant, and I still have to remind myself. He was saying, “show up and play your ass off, and then go home and forget about it,” because my inspiration has nothing to do with theirs, and vice versa.

The notion that we should be so precious about every artistic choice we make is like running a marathon in leg irons. Whether you think your idea is total genius, or just OK, chances are you’re going to hate it in five years anyway, so what’s the point of agonizing over it? Inspiration is nice when it happens, but you don’t need it to do your work. And art is work, whether you enjoy it or not.

Pick a direction and see it through. The solution is in the doing. Sometimes you’ll feel great about it, other times you won’t, and it really doesn’t matter either way, because it’s not for you to judge.

Conclusion
Most of us who have jobs likely treat those jobs as commitments, not as pastimes. We need the paycheck so we do what we are contracted to do until we quit or get fired. Its not a choice. The doughnuts must get made, whether or not we are inspired to do so.

Even if you are a freak-of-nature-super-genius-virtuoso, attacking your creative endeavors with that same bootstrapping pragmatism is paramount to your evolution, and ultimately your success, as an artist. Developing your work is an enormous task and a huge responsibility – and there is no assistant manager looking over your shoulder to make sure you clock in on time.

Your work is what you leave behind. It’s worth more than any furniture you could own, than any vacation you can take, than any money you can make. And it’s entirely up to you to see it through until you are dead.

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Optimism vs “Everything is Shit”

January 11, 2010

This Christmas, someone gave me a DVD called The Secret. I had never heard of it before then, but later learned it was a huge self-help juggernaut book/movie combo that made a popular holiday gift a few years back, particularly from mothers.

The Secret
The Secret posits a formula for material success in life, based on the scientific Law of Attraction.

I would describe the movie as part conspiracy film, and part get-rich-quick infomercial, slathered in motivational self-help rhetoric. It’s jam-packed full of re-enactments, often by fake historic figures, conspiring to keep The Secret, well, secret, so that only the powerful few can prosper, while the rest of humanity languishes in their miserable, unwealthy, yacht-less existences.

According to The Secret, if you visualize the material things you want, you will refocus your brain from the negative scourges of life (debt, your period, your face, your neighbor’s face), to the positive elements you wish you had (mansion, private plane, big TV, etc).

[above] What I thought this was a spoof of The Secret, turns out to be the trailer. Enjoy.

The Secret recommends supplementing your merchandise-centric thinking with something called a Vision Board, a kind of bulletin board of goodies that you spend a designated period of time per day staring at. By literally focusing your eyeballs on the yacht on your Vision Board, over time, you ingrain the presence of that object in your mind (I want the yacht, I want the yacht…) and by doing so, you turn yourself into a cosmic yacht magnet. Thanks to The Law of Attraction you are on an unstoppable collision course with the boat of your dreams!

Vision Board

Vision Board

I had fun watching this The Secret and while it didn’t turn me into a Secret practitioner, it did get me thinking about positive thinking, the impact its had on my work, and how easy it is to forget or dismiss its importance. Thinking positive hasn’t gotten me any yachts so far, but it’s definitely put me on a collision course with getting some movies made, which is pretty much the most important thing in my life.

Culture of Optimism
It used to be that the costs of making a film were prohibitive to all but studios, independents with wealthy friends, or the extremely ingenious among us. Now days, things are different. Because of the digital revolution, particularly the advent of 24p video, and increasing proliferation of low-cost HD acquisition, pretty much anyone with a few thousand bucks can make an indie movie if they want to.

With all the advancements in movie making technology, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that it still takes skill to make a movie anyone wants to watch. The quality of any movie is dictated entirely by the creativity and skills (or lack thereof) the filmmakers bring to the show. The fewer resources available, the more skill and creativity it takes to accomplish the mission.

Independent filmmaking is lousy with pushback: financial, institutional, municipal, personal, you name it. We can also assume most people making indies don’t, strictly speaking, “know how” to make a movie. So if an independent filmmaker doesn’t exactly know how to make a movie, and doesn’t have much money to hire people to help them, how the hell does the movie get done, let alone be watchable?

Creating any work of art starts with a strong affirmation that it will happen which is, by definition, positive thinking. In a big group project like film, the initial affirmation (re: this is going to happen) has to be powerful and unwavering. This will keep morale high and will bring forward the qualified and experienced personnel needed to get the thing done well.

The logic on this is obvious: Why would a seasoned cinematographer want to work with a less experienced producer or director that is totally down on themselves? Answer: They wouldn’t – and neither would you. It’s no secret that depressives are a drag, which is why they are not carried around on the shoulders of cheering crowds.

Skilled production people have better things to do than provide therapy sessions for the emotionally needy, especially in low/no-pay situations. It is up to you, the leader, to be strong and believe. Your strength and idealism has the power to bring forth everyone and everything you need to make your film happen. Simply establishing a forward-moving, can-do environment in a creative context can make even the most overqualified film practitioner excited to be a part of your project.

Production, Inc.
Many people roll their eyes when they hear terms like ‘corporate culture’. When I talk about corporate culture, I’m not talking about guys in blue buttondowns sitting around conference rooms drinking expensive coffee and saying phrases like “low hanging fruit”. What I’m talking about is any organized group of people that work together, and the behaviors and beliefs therein.

A film production is essentially a corporation. It has layers of bureaucracy that divide up the work in a tactical way to maintain a proper chain of productivity. The culture of that corporation is defined entirely by the standards set by leadership, in terms of the code of conduct, the rate of productivity, and an adherence to a defined, uniform standard of quality.

Setting a cultural standard is leadership. Lead by example, set a standard of affirmative fixation, and things start happening.

Going Negative: Don’t.
Anecdotally speaking, those who fixate on the difficulties of a task, don’t usually complete said task. Even if they do manage to power through, the results of their efforts are usually not excellent. Why? Because starting from a negative place corrupts the purity of the effort.

As a producer, starting from a negative will get you nowhere. Unless there’s a lot of money involved, a negative attitude will stop cold anyone from getting involved. Going negative during a work in progress plants seeds of doubt in the fortitude of your project, its leadership, and will weaken the resolve of even your most loyal followers.

Conversely, maintaining a positive attitude and focusing in on the things that are good, that do work, and the things you do have going for you, opens up avenues of opportunity you didn’t know existed. Why? Because the people around you are not repelled by your shitty attitude. In fact, they might just be inspired. The more inspired people you have around, the more people that can contribute, and open doors for you. I’m not just talking about more people to carry heavy stuff around, I’m talking about people who know other people, have stuff, have money, have time, and have a desire to participate in something inspiring.

On an independent film set, three inspired people can work miracles together. On the other hand, 25 people that don’t care and don’t want to be there will just eat all the food and leave. Not that helpful.

Sitting on a stump whining turns difficulties into impossibilities. Standing up and saying I’m doing this, brings an entire universe of possibilities into focus that you couldn’t see before because your thinking was corrupted with too many nos.

Reality
Things do not always go well, and sometimes no amount of positive thinking can help it. I don’t dispute reality. People go broke, people get sick, buildings collapse, riots break out, Acts of God take thousands of lives at once. All of these things impact our lives and our creative endeavors. It’s no excuse not to make art until you’re dead. To do that, you’ll need to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. If what you’re doing involves other people, you need to believe for them, and then they will believe too. Then, what is simply a belief, becomes a reality.

It helps to remember that our ancestors had it a hell of a lot worse than we do, and still managed to make some pretty damn good art – often under truly oppressive circumstances. How did they do it? They had faith in their vision, faith in their skill, and faith in their ability to acquire the skill necessary to accomplish the work.

Conclusion
Whether you’re making a movie, or a dog house, nothing ever goes as planned. You can look at this fact as a looming nightmare scenario, or as an opportunity to create solutions. I say acknowledge your obstacles and attack them with glee. Be enthusiastic and affirmative about what you’re doing at all times; demand it to happen – with or without a vision board.

Focusing on all the things you don’t have/can’t do/don’t know how to do is no way to get anything done – in film or otherwise. Nobody wants to hear excuses, and nobody likes a naysayer (except maybe another naysayer). What’s worse, is that negative energy will spread through your film company like crabs. Ask anyone that’s ever worked anywhere – once people get into a negative headspace, nobody wants to do anything but complain, leave, or both.

Resolve to acquire the skills, material, and personnel you need to get the work done to the best standard possible. Keep a positive attitude at every turn, no matter what obstructions come before you. Your poise and optimism will inspire the people around you to do the same, and your team will be an unstoppable force.

And buy my book, Muscles in Minutes.


Important Post Script: Fire negative people immediately. They will only screw up your production.

The independent film struggle is rife universal pushback: financial, institutional, municipal, personal, you name it. We can also assume most people making indies don’t, strictly speaking, “know how” to make a movie. So if an independent filmmaker doesn’t exactly know how to make a movie, and doesn’t have much money to hire people to help them, how the hell does anything get done?
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Making an indie for it’s own sake

December 27, 2009

Every time I’m on the cusp of production, and things start spiraling out of control, someone always poses the question “why now?”, as in: “why are you making this film in May instead of June”, or “why not wait till next year?”, or “Why not just make a short film instead?”, “Why not wait till you have more: money, time, experience, help?”

‘Why make this film now?’ is a perfectly valid question, and the honest answer is determined by the filmmaking motivation itself. To get there, we’ll first answer the question ‘Why make this film?’

Why Now? / Why at All?
Speaking very generally here, solely for the sake of discussion, let’s say one of the following is the driving force behind the making of any movie:

1. Commission: An individual or business entity pays a sum of money for creative and/or production services (instructional or industrial, music video, advocacy, commercial, television, studio feature, etc).

2. Commercial Entrepreneurship: An individual or business entity embarks on an independent money-making action (Girls Gone Wild, Video Professor, etc).

3. Art for Art’s Sake: An individual or partnership embarks on a creative project simply to make said project, with no regard for economic or commercial benefit (Tarnation, Four-Eyed Monsters, etc).

Personally, I make films for reason #3. That’s not to disparage reasons #1 and #2, mind you. Being entrepreneurial and making money by filmic means is perfectly admirable, but for me, creating a construct to do so is no more interesting than opening my own convenience store or starting a landscaping company (both of which are also perfectly admirable).

I prefer instead to focus on making the movies I want to see, as honestly as possible, and to consider the economic viability of the work and how it should be marketed, after the creative process is complete.

[This, by the way, is not the only way to make a film, it’s just the way I do it. Many fine films have been made with a dozen writers, a room full of meddling studio executives, multiple focus groups, etc.]

So, if the answer to ‘why you are making the film?’ is Art for Art’s Sake, we’re back to ‘why now?’

Logic
If one cares about his art, doesn’t he owe it to the work to be patient and take whatever time he needs to build the proper infrastructure and assemble the resources necessary to make the film all it can be?

I understand why people think this, and for many projects – especially those that require immense resources to exist (animated, epic, FX-heavy) – it really might be the right thing to do. In my experience, however, this wide open, wait-for-the-right-time approach is a death sentence for a project getting off the ground, particularly when the purpose of the work is the work itself.

The problem with this logic is that in the context of making an independent production, an open-ended or distant shoot date, removes present adversity – a critical component in mobilizing radicals in any anti-establishment or underground operation (which all independent films are). More time rarely leads to more money, what it does lead to is wavering attention spans and the inevitable attrition of your co-conspirators.

Without conflict, there is no story. Without looming deadlines, there is no urgent scramble to make things happen. With no urgency, the challenge of the independent feature is diluted, and your people are no longer afraid or angry. Without fear and anger there is no hunger for action – the lifeblood of the independent feature.

Your intention may have been to make the best picture possible, but you ended up with no picture at all. No good!

Going Against Logic
If you’re doing Art for Art’s Sake, you must strike while the iron is hot. The heat is the thing that drives it, and you have to harness that energy and quickly turn it into action. Waiting is not only a wet blanket on smoldering enthusiasm, but it also means delaying the creation of content while time passes. The longer you wait, the less time you are alive, the less stuff you have created, and the less potential you’ve realized (because you’ve had less practice realizing it).

My thinking on this is probably informed by the fact that I was 30 years old when I decided I wanted to make movies for the rest of my life, so there’s always been a ‘time-sensitive’ component to my decision making. I also have a background as a Jazz musician, the practice of which is predicated on the creative process occurring in an unpredictable, precarious context (both harmonically, as well as lifestyle). Suffice it to say, the instability of indie film and all that comes with it, has never been that scary to me.

Some people believe making a film without proper resources, experience, all the right preparation, etc., will result in a bad film. This thinking is totally reasonable for those who do not make films, but a wrong-headed waste of brainwork for anyone who does. Overcoming this kind of doubt is the ultimate test of your fortitude as a filmmaker. If you aren’t strong enough to believe in your work from inception, to have not only confidence, but overconfidence, about your potential – if you do not (privately) believe you’re making the greatest film ever made – you should consider opening a convenience store or landscaping company. You’ll still get criticized, but the bloggers will probably not flame you for being self-indulgent, being an inept story teller, or making a film that is too dumb or too smart for its own good.

It is essential for practitioners of any artform to actually practice their artform. To create. If that means tolerating frequent criticism and ridicule from individuals who create nothing, suck it up. If you haven’t the sack to circumvent your own doubts, your fragile ego will never survive what’s to come if your film is ever released.

Filmmaking is not some sort of mysterious witchcraft that only super-human rocket scientists in Castle Grayskull can do. Filmmaking is comprised of regular human tasks, requiring regular human skills, each to be performed by a regular human being. You will learn in the doing. Skill is not magic or genius, or athletic gift. Skill is perspective, and perspective is only gained through experience.

To put it in even more aphoristic, Steven Seagal-like terms: If, over the course of five years, a martial artist only ever practices form and never spars, he will not fare well in combat, especially against an experienced opponent. If a martial artist has twenty fights a day in that same five-year period, chances are he will have a good perspective on combat, and, at the very least, approach a more experienced opponent with less trepidation and emotional interference for having experienced combat so many times before.

The other possible outcome to that story is that the guy that did 20 fights a day for five years, kicks the living shit out of all comers. Only God knows how you will fare as you pass though the thresholds of experience, but hiding yourself away from the challenge teaches you nothing.

Similarly, taking meetings does not teach you to be a better filmmaker. Nor does reading blogs, or books, or listening to people tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. I enjoy talking as much as the next blowhard, but nobody ever learned how to do anything, filmmaking or otherwise, by having a theoretical discussion about it.

The only thing that teaches any of us anything is the experience of doing it for ourselves, because the way each of us responds to a learning experience is totally subjective. Nobody, including ourselves, knows what we are capable of in this life. There is no reason not to assume the very best in ourselves and our potential. There is also no reason not to fight dirty, pull hair, bite, and kick our obstructions in the nuts, so we can achieve what we want in this world.

The Downside
Even the smallest features cost a lot of money and pride. If you only have a duct-taped video camera, one light, and $200 to make the feature of your dreams, you can still do it, but understand that what you lack in cash and gear, you and your colleagues will make up for in sweat and man hours.

You can get everything you need to make a movie for free if you shake enough hands and appeal to the right people in the right way, but that in itself is a fulltime job for everyone involved. Still, this is nothing you should shy away from. It’s done every day to great effect by much dumber people than you. Besides, there’s no greater character-building exercise than making something out of nothing. And if that something turns out to be something beautiful, the hard times will disappear from your memory… because it was worth it.

Conclusion
If you want it, do it.

Making a feature film under any circumstance is a God-awful, herculean task, but if you’re truly committed, and resolve to do whatever it takes to see it through to the bitter end, making your independent feature will be an incredibly rewarding, and life-changing experience.

Make the movie you want to watch. Use everything at your disposal to make it as good as it can be. Don’t wait. What you plan to do in some imagined future doesn’t exist. Make the film, and what you do now is forever.