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Make Better Videos, Part 3: Remember The Passionate Beginning

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Ask any working filmmaker a simple question: “what movie would you make if you could, right now?” After a second or two, you will most likely hear an accurate and intricate description of the movie that plays in his or her mind. A glimmering glow slowly erupting from the depths of forgotten passion, showering you with excitement and energy, capturing a glimpse of the original desire to make movies. Somewhere along the way, filmmakers inevitably forget about their specific origin of filmmaking passion. They get caught up in the professional pursuits of their career and over time lose their excitement. Regardless, as long as filmmakers desire to learn, grow and make better videos, they must continually remember the passionate beginning of their movie-making career.

Taking Your Pulse: Where Are You At Today?
Filmmaking is demanding, time-consuming and expensive. Creatively speaking, it’s hard to keep the juices flowing day after day, year after year. The little experiments that once brought tremendous joy, gave way to minimized risk, lessened satisfaction, and a deep-seated desire to escape the burdens of professional filmmaking. This is a critical part of the unfortunate, yet necessary, journey of the artist (yes, filmmakers are artists). If you can make it through the severe times of drought and doubt, you will become a stronger and more devoted filmmaker.

So, where are you at on your journey? For myself, I have been making videos for about ten years and I am coming to a point where I need to empty myself of all that I have learned, so that I can reconnect with why I initially wanted to make videos: To tell stories that matter.

Over the years, I have grown in my technical abilities, but I daily struggle with maintaining my passion and excitement. The stories became less about subjects that mattered and more about making sure that bills were paid and obligations maintained. Not the greatest ingredients for filmmaking success. So, how do you rediscover your initial enthusiasm for filmmaking?

How Far Away Are You From When You Began?
The first step in connecting with your passionate beginning—–why you make videos—–is identifying where you are at. This will help you to identify and strip away all of the baggage that has piled upon your foundations of passion and desire, things like:

  • Comparing ourselves to other filmmakers.
  • Lusting after the latest and greatest equipment.
  • Arguing about editing software changes.
  • Wishing that we were better at our craft.

As you purge these distractions and de-motivators from your creative process, you will actually see that you are closer to your passion than you realize.

Recapturing The Creativity And Passion Of The Early Years
The next step in recapturing the passionate beginnings of your filmmaking career is to make the film you want to make. Here are a few things that you can do:

  • Make a one to five minute short film about whatever you want regardless of budget, equipment and talent. Break out your cell phone, your home video camera or your professional gear and experiment with new styles that you normally wouldn’t think to utilize. If you are a fan of structure, play with cinema verite or non-linear storytelling. If you don’t like structure, try to be as structured and specific as possible. Essentially do the exact opposite of what you would normally do.
  • Return to the “lab” and experiment with the tricks of the trade. Rent a super wide-angle lens, go handheld, try a dolly-zoom horror/suspense effect, play with focus and composition. There are unlimited tools at your disposal, have fun.
  • Feed your creative soul by reading, watching movies and connecting with others. Need some suggestions? Read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud or Story by Robert McKee. Watch something funny like Monty Python and The Meaning of Life, a classic like Citizen Kane, something you normally wouldn’t watch like The English Patient or your favorite movie, mine is Time Bandits by Terry Gilliam. If all else fails, call up a friend and have coffee and listen to them talk about their job in cubicle world, that alone might just trigger an amazing surge of creativity and desire to make better films.

By letting the naïve filmmaker within emerge and run free, you might just make better videos that surprise even the internal critic. But in order to do that, you must never forget the passionate beginning to your movie-making career.

Blog What You Know – And What You Don’t Know

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I came to blogging from a writing background, and one of the tips that has been drilled into my head as a writer since I was very young is “write what you know.” In other words, even if you’re writing fiction, use your real-life interests and experiences in your writing to create stories that are believable.

While blogging might be a very different form of writing, I think this advice still has merit – and the opposite approach can help you grow as a blogger too.

Blogging What You Know

As blogging continues to grow in popularity, many writers, marketers, and others start blogs in the hopes of making some easy money. There’s nothing easy about blogging, though, especially if you choose a niche simple based on how much money you think you can make. It’s a clumsy way of starting a blog because you’re missing a prime element: passion.

“Blogging what you know” goes beyond choosing a niche, though. It’s also something to keep in mind each time you write a post. Lots of other bloggers have talked about how storytelling is an effective form of blogging, and I agree. When you talk about your own life in relation to your niche, it’s easier to connect with readers and write posts that are unique, rather than what everyone else out there is already writing. It’s a way to talk about the same information in a new way.

Some great bloggers have talked about storytelling on your blog; here are some of my favorite posts:

Blogging What You Don’t Know

I definitely recommend “blogging what you know” – but at times, blogging what you don’t know can give your blog that extra little “something” it takes to be really great.

I’m not suggesting that you write blog posts about topics that you know nothing about as though you are an expert. When you’re full of BS, people can tell (usually), and it’s a good way to lose readers if you ever had them in the first place. I’m also not suggesting that you start a blog about a topic when you don’t already have knowledge about that topic. With few exceptions, people want the writer to be an authority of sorts. You don’t necessarily have to be an expert, but if you don’t know anything about training monkeys, don’t start a blog about training monkeys.

What I mean about blogging about what you don’t know is this: speak to people about your shortcomings and about your learning process. Even if you do consider yourself to be an expert in your niche, nobody knows everything. It makes your more real to readers, which makes your other advice stronger.

One of the best examples I can give you, which I’ve mentioned before, is Erica Douglass’ The Failure Manifesto, which is one of the most popular posts on her site. Erica is wildly successful at what she does and, in my opinion, one of the smartest business minds out there, but in The Failure Manifesto, she talks about how some days she doesn’t feel that way. She’s made mistakes and has problems just like the rest of us. I think that post is when I became a true fan of hers.

Of course, you should write about how you’re a failure every other post. You want your readers to have confidence in your abilities and advice! But don’t be afraid to show that you’re human. People want to be able to relate, not feel as though they can’t live up to your perfection.

When it comes to content creation, there’ really no one right or wrong approach. I’d love to hear your thoughts about blogging what you know – and what you don’t know.

Make Better Videos, Part 2: Keep Your Objectivity… Kill Your Darlings!

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Over the years as a working video professional, I have gotten a lot of sage advice from fellow filmmakers on how to make better videos: “Befriend the person in charge of craft services,” “never date the lead actress,” and my personal favorite, “don’t fall in love with a shot, scene, or line of dialogue unless you’re willing to kill your darlings and leave them on the cutting room floor.” While the first two pieces of advice technically have nothing to do with the final product, the third piece of advice is crucial in maintaining overall objectivity and remaining true to your story and the audience..

“Seeing Around The Edge Of The Frame” – Walter Murch

A lot of time, energy, ego and money goes into making videos and films. Pre-production and production generate an enormous amount of work for a lot of people. Emotions get involved, decisions are hastily made, and the story begins to unfold. Dailies are produced and sent to an editor, who begins to watch them, make notes and construct a rough edit based on the script.

Ideally, there is distance between the production process and the editor, primarily for the purpose of maintaining objectivity. This distance allows the editor to see the story within each shot, and not be clouded by things that happened on set.

In film editor Walter Murch’s book on film editing perspectives, “In The Blink Of An Eye,” he extols the need for an editor to see only what is on the screen. He writes, “The editor, on the other hand, should try to see only what’s on the screen, as the audience will. Only in this way can the images be freed from the context of their creation. By focusing on the screen, the editor will, hopefully, use the moments that should be used, even if they may have been shot under duress, and reject moments that should be rejected, even though they cost a terrible amount of money and pain.”

Murch is known for editing films such as “The English Patient,” “Apocalypse Now,” a re-edit of Orson Welles, “Touch of Evil,” among many other films. “In The Blink Of An Eye” and “Conversations” are two books that every budding and working filmmaker should have in their library as they are jam-packed with nuggets of truth that speak to this idea of storytelling objectivity.

How To Maintain Objectivity In A One-Person Crew

But what about the one-person crew making videos? How can objectivity be maintained when everything is known from start to finish? The answer? Practice!

As a filmmaker, I love making short 5-10 minute documentaries for the purpose of practicing my craft and meeting interesting people. Each video is an attempt to learn how to tell a better story, and in many ways is a lesson in maintaining objectivity. I have learned to let the story breathe and unfold in each stage of creation.

When I get the initial spark of an idea, I think of who the subject will be, the questions I would like to ask them, what kind of B-roll will serve the story, along with technical questions related to production. I may have some shots that I want to try, but I am willing to cut anything that will make the final video weak. From there, I shoot everything that I think that I’ll need. Typically, I shoot roughly 2 to 4 hours of raw video including interviews and B-roll, which I then edit down to the final length of 5-10 minutes.

During the editing process, while I edit to the story that I have constructed through pre-production and production, I also think about issues of pacing and clarity, as well as educational and entertainment value. If one section is dragging, it is often because something that I thought would work, isn’t. By removing a line of dialogue, or even trimming 1-2 seconds, pacing can be improved.

I then think about clarity. Is there a clear message throughout the video? Are the interview clips telling a clear and concise story? Should the B-roll be introduced sooner or later? How long do I hold on the shot of the interview subject talking?

Finally, I think about educational and entertainment value. Did I learn something by watching the final video? Was I entertained? Did other people finish the video with a feeling that they wanted more? Or was there general disappointment in the story told?

Objectivity Is About The Audience

A lot of questions to ask. The truth is that whether you are working in a large crew or by yourself, the final video does not exist in a vacuum. There is an audience that interacts and watches your video, hopefully sharing it with others.

Keeping your audience in mind is the final way to maintain a sense of objectivity. By treating them with respect and telling the story that needs to be told, you will be able to kill your darlings.

After all, you can still release your darlings that were cut on YouTube, or alternatively, as Deleted Scenes on a DVD release.

With that, get out there and practice. Happy filmmaking!

Make Better Videos, Part 1: Emulate Your Filmmaking Heroes

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In an effort to provide valuable information and to learn to make better videos, I am embarking on a series of posts that will unpack some concepts that I learned in college and need a bit of a refresher as I continue the daily journey of filmmaking. The first part of making better videos is an important reminder for all filmmakers, rookies to seasoned professionals: emulate your filmmaking heroes so that you can learn how to tell stories in new and exciting ways.

Emulate. A Dirty Word?
With an abundance of affordable technology in today’s modern digital world, anyone can make a movie. But like any artistic pursuit, each filmmaker strives for originality, to have their own voice and style that is devoid of influence. So, with this framing concept of originality, why is emulation so important to me?

First, to emulate simply means “to imitate in an effort to equal or surpass” (dictionary.com). It is the identification of a style or technique that you want to learn and then imitating what has worked in the past, building upon the accumulation of knowledge to do something of greater value.

Second, emulation helps you learn from the mistakes made by others, why they were mistakes, and how they can be used in different applications or contexts as solutions to new problems.

Finally, emulation goes back through the different periods of art, expressed magnificently during the Renaissance through the relationship of the apprentice and the master painter.

Apprentices started out doing menial tasks around a master painter’s shop, but would eventually start copying the drawings and paintings of the master. If considerable talent was shown, the master would promote the apprentice to work on background and minor details of original paintings, leaving the primary details and figures for himself. If the apprentice excelled at these details, then and only then, would the prospect of becoming a master painter and hiring apprentices be a reality. [1]

Identify Your Heroes and Their Style – How Do They Tell Stories?
As a lover of cinema, who are the master filmmakers that you aspire to be and are inspired by? Are you inspired by the timeless films of Steven Spielberg? The futuristic views of George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers? How about the iconoclastic visions of Terry Gilliam or the comedic offerings of Kevin Smith? There are a million directors out there and identifying your heroes, why they are your heroes, and what you want to emulate is the first place to start.

From there, start looking at the different aspects of filmmaking and how your heroes use them to tell stories. Does a director favor one type of hero/villian relationship? Is the choice of dialogue wordy or sparse? Are there certain camera angles and shot compositions that are a trademark of the director? How is depth of field used to isolate or bring attention to details? How does the lighting change the tone of a particular scene? How is sound and music used in the context of storytelling? Is there music in every scene like Star Wars or is there room for the dialogue to speak for itself? How does the pacing and editing of a scene fit into the movie as a whole?

Using these questions as a starting point of analysis, start studying the work of other directors. Don’t just stop at gaining head knowledge of how a director works, take the time to grab your camera and try out different techniques. By emulating your filmmaking heroes, you will not only gain a deeper understanding of the filmmaking process, but in time you will make better videos, and shape your original voice.

A Shining Example of Emulation
I want to end with a story that has stuck with me for almost ten years. A friend of mine was mentoring a middle school student who had expressed interest in becoming a filmmaker. His desire and ambition led the young student to recreate scenes from Star Wars IV: A New Hope entirely with LEGOs.

Shot by shot, scene by scene, he used the same camera angles and composition, lighting, editing, music and sound effects. It was an impressive undertaking and to this day, I have no doubt that what he learned by recreating and emulating the vision of George Lucas has stuck with him through the years, especially as he continues pursuing a career in Hollywood.

With that, I encourage you to pick a scene from your favorite movie and do your very best at recreating it shot-by-shot. You might just be surprised at what you will learn about the art and craft of making better movies.

Happy filmmaking!

[1] The Renaissance Connection, http://www.renaissanceconnection.org/artistslife.html

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