Category: Filmmaking

Why Create?

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I had an interesting meeting this past week where the topic of AI was brought up. The person I was meeting with brought up an interesting point:

 
The future will enable anyone to make a film. So the question won’t be “can I make a film?” But “why should I make a film?”
 
Of course, the reality of this hypothesis is still playing out. But, like the digital camera, new tools are coming on the horizon that will make the barrier to entry all that much easier. So the question we will need to ask ourselves then, is one we should be asking ourselves already:
 

WHY DO I WANT TO CREATE?

 
This is a question every artist and filmmaker that burns out has forgotten to ask themselves. Creating anything takes a tremendous amount of effort. Just thinking about a concept uses time and energy. So before we even start thinking of embarking down this long, dark but oh,so fulfilling path. We need to have a reason to keep on venturing into the unknown.
 
Ultimately, it comes back to this internal question:
 
What do I want the world to know and learn from me?
 
One of the many events that changed my life was the death of my father. He succumbed to alcohol addiction when I was 29 which left our family in pieces. Before he died, he tasked me with being the executor of his estate. And one of the duties I was left with something we don’t think about when we pass on:
 
What to do with all the stuff.
 
One of the items I discovered was an old sketchbook from his college art class at Dartmouth. There were a lot of drawings of nature and some of people. He was in that middling stage of artistry – not good enough to present, but there was talent there. There was a final note from his teacher:
 
There’s something you’re trying to say. But it’s not quite there yet.
 
I still have the sketchbook. It sits on my desk and I pull it out from time to time. It reminds me of why I keep going. And some of that is attributed that I know my father would have been a much happier man. Had he tried to fully explore his artistic potential. So in a way, my career is a tribute to his legacy.
 
But that alone isn’t enough to build a career, and ultimately a lifestyle, upon. It’s mostly a reason not to stop. But there is a reason to keep going. And that’s to build connection. To let other people around the world know:
 
 
I explore race and identity. Because the world tries to divide us. The first way it’s done is by having us see the division in ourselves. And my efforts are a way of helping people see themselves as whole again.
 

A DEEPER PURPOSE

The wrong lesson was taken away from the pandemic by the large gatekeepers of the industry. The lesson was:
We did more with less. Let’s cut what we can.
Crew sizes were shrunk, talent would self shoot, all to keep the content machine running. But what was forgotten is part of what enabled the explosion in streaming and digital media was the knowledge that it was a shared experience. We were glued to the people who either distracted us from reality. Or encouraged us that we could get through it.
 
And even with this shared experience. We still succumbed to feelings of anxiety and depression.
 
Because at the end of the day. Human beings are wired to be connected.
 

THE FUTURE QUESTION

 
So while companies fight to make the barrier of entry so low that anyone can create their own film. They haven’t stopped to think – will they?
 
Think about your work week right now. At the end of a hard day of work (which is seeming to get even harder). Will you have the energy remaining to craft the story you want to see? And if so, you’ll still have to ask yourself the question:
 
What is it that I’m trying to experience?
 
Without trying to imagine the infinite number of future scenarios of how art will be created and monetized. Anyone with the ability to create will have to ask why they are doing it. And also, who will we share it with? As much as we hear artists say they are creating for themselves. We are also creating to share part of ourselves with other people.
 
 
So whatever the future holds. We will still have the need to create. We still need to learn, share and grow from each other’s experiences. If you are a filmmaker, this is your mission. It’s the broader why of what you do. The specifics are left up to you. But the mission remains the same.
 
Life can take from you as much as it gives. And we are in a moment in the creative space, where those with a large amount of power are trying to take it from those who have little. So it helps to imagine a world where the opportunities from before are gone. But the need to express ourselves still remains.
 
Many will give up. Many will stop trying. But there are those of us who will still keep going. Will still keep trying to have our voices heard. Because we spoke for more than ourselves. And it’s those people who will change the world for the better.
 


The New Film School (Part 3) – The Power of Story

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This week is a return to form with the 3rd part of The New Film School – the Power of Story. Most schools and creative teaching start with story first. Which is a key element of what we do. But the reason why this is the 3rd part is simple:
 
We have to tell stories for the right reasons.
 
Filmmakers are taught to create stories to create attention in order to make films for the big studios. Which means you are being conditioned the make the stories a large media corporation wants to hear. Having the right mindset and knowing your Creative Source gives you the internal framework to make films for the right reasons:
 
To create impact on the human experience.
 
But in order to do that, we need to know the framework of a compelling story.
 

A GREAT BEGINNING

 
While this sounds negative on film schools. I had a great experience learning the craft of filmmaking at my alma mater Columbia Chicago. While we didn’t learn anything about the business itself. We were expertly brought along the steps needed in order to create great films.
 
My first semester was spent learning the history of film and also about story. Before we picked up a camera or started writing screenplays. The school felt it was important to know what makes up a good story structure. I had a story class with Karla Fuller who introduced me to the story framework of:
 

THE HERO’S JOURNEY

Many of us have heard about the Hero’s Journey.
 
The basic overall structure is this:
 
A young Hero accepts the Call to go on a Great Adventure with the help of a Mentor. Leaving their previous, Ordinary World behind. While traveling into this New World, the Hero encounters Trials, finding the Artifact they need in order to defeat their Enemy and realize their Potential. Afterwards, they return home a changed person.
 
It’s a often referenced story structure most typically seen in big budget sci-fi and Marvel films. One of the most well illustrated examples of The Hero’s Journey is Star Wars. But what most people forget is that the original inception of this framework was for the internal journey of we all go on.
 
Which means there are elements of this in stories of all kinds.
 
There is an exercise that I recommend all my clients do. Take a look at the framework of the Hero’s Journey. Think of the point you are at in life right now. And apply the Hero’s Journey to it:
 
When did you leave the world you knew behind?
 
What mentor helped you achieve a goal?
 
What great ordeal have you overcome?
 
Now, let’s make this smaller. Think of some impactful events in your life. Apply those to the same framework. Make it even smaller – take a common event. Let’s say going to the store:
 
What was the world like before you knew you had to go?
Once you got there, what tests did you have to overcome to get the items you wanted?
How did the trip change you once you returned? Both internally and externally.
 
An important element of this exercise is to actively look for how we can apply everything to story. Which helps us to see the story in everything. This can be applied to various formats – commercials, books, podcasts, simple conversations. To use a personal example, the ability to see the story in everything is what enabled me to find success as an editor.
 

A GREAT POWER

 
Human civilization rests on the power of story. It’s how religious organizations are formed, politicians are created, and nations are made. America is widely recognized as the Land of Opportunity. Because we created an entire industry that allowed people to see this story being told on a global scale.
 
In fact, the first two parts of this series were frameworks to recognize your own story. And how it connects with that of your audience. Now, you can take the Hero’s Journey and use it to create work that is magnetic.
 
You have the necessary foundation to make an impact.
 
The Hero’s Journey is also something that is meant to be a guiding framework. It’s a starting point that can be expanded upon and modified. Trying to capture something as weird and unpredictable as the human experience cannot be simplified into a simple set of instructions. Which is why AI driven LLM’s struggles to create engaging scripts.
 
Which is another article for another time.
 
Learn the power of story. Study it. Hone your skills in it. Use it not only for the work that you create. But in how you communicate your message online and with people.
 
The next part of this series is going to be some Tech Talk. I’ll be going through some of the technical knowledge all filmmakers and video storytellers can benefit from.


Striking for the Soul of Art

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This week was a pinnacle moment in the entertainment industry. As many of you know, the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) has gone on strike and have now joined the ranks of the WGA. The other entertainment industry guilds are currently standing in solidarity, waiting for the executives of the large streaming companies to come to the negotiating table.
 
This news comes on the heels of a unnamed source from Apple TV who claimed they are waiting until “union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses” and the unveiling of how residuals in streaming actually work. As the strike goes on and massive change comes to the industry. I’m seeing a large disconnect between what the heads of the new studios (large tech companies) and their customers actually want with the art that being created on-screen:
 
It’s to be spoken to.

A TRUE PURPOSE

When you examine art as a fundamental practice:
 
It’s about communication.
 
Art is about expressing things we can’t put into words or communicating in a way beyond language. We use it to communicate to the world around us, to our spiritual practice, and also to the people we come in contact with. One of the earliest uses of art was to use it as a way to signal that you weren’t an enemy to a stranger.
 
It’s a symbol between people that we share the same experience. That our values align.
 
That we can be trusted.
 
As advancements in art have been made. So too have its uses. But that fundamental purpose of communication still remains. And that’s also why we love TV and film. Because it still shows us that our experiences matter. When done right, it allows us to simply feel what it’s like to be human and builds empathy with our fellow beings.
 
It speaks to our very soul.
 
Granted many people (especially ones that look like me) were excluded from being a big part of the industry. But the primary focus was a holistic one. Hollywood became ultra-successful because it built a machine around speaking to the soul of it’s nation. The business was forged on creating stories that enraptured us – the audience. Because, in one way or another, it awakened a part of us that we don’t get to tap into very often. We get to be inspired as well as entertained.
 
But somewhere along the way, the strategy shifted. The people who make the big movies and TV put more effort into entertaining and less into inspiration. This coincided with the large media studios and companies being taken over by the institutions of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Places that value the quarterly profit spreadsheet more than the experience of an audience.
 
This shift in focus paved the way for what we are experiencing now:
 
An overload of nostalgia and dopamine.
 
It’s become a common parlance that in Hollywood everything is either a superhero movie or a remake. The reason for this being, in order to maximize profit, big movies have gone back to what’s worked before. Essentially in order to trick and addict us.
 
The nostalgia aspect is simple – to bring us back to the days when we were kids. When we believed things were much simpler and better. When we didn’t understand how the world works because we didn’t have to. The goal being to keep your audience in a state of arrested development where they will exchange their money to a trip down memory lane. To a time when so many things seemed possible. And this is accomplished by giving us:
 
Dopamine. It seems the goal of the largest movies now is to thrill us with sight and spectacle to elicit a dopamine response. Just like sugar, the idea is to keep us addicted so we’ll keep coming back for more sights and spectacles. The thinking is that being inspired and provoked is no longer necessary. We just have to be coddled and given a few hours of bliss in order to feel satisfied.
 
But audiences aren’t satisfied. Movies are products, but they also are not. Not in the same way your iPhone or a bag of chips are. Less people are going to the movies year after year.
 
Because there’s nothing novel about it anymore.
 
Nostalgia and dopamine only work in the short term. The same dopamine response eventually wears off and makes us numb. And we’re left searching for that initial experience. Hollywood planned that nostalgia-driven cinema would keep us in a state of bliss.
 
But nostalgia just reminds us of what we are missing.
 
The Wall Street and Silicon Valley media companies have banked on art being a one way form of communication. One where we are being told what to believe and feel. Instead of inspired to do so – which is how Hollywood became a global juggernaut.
 
 
There’s no joy with Hollywood eating itself. The people involved in the industry are here because we love it. Because we have stories we want to tell and audiences to communicate with. We want a Hollywood that represents the best of the old and the new. We tell stories because we want to connect with people, not data points.
 
The art a nation creates tells you about its soul. We are now in a moment where the unions are the last line of defense before we begin to lose it. At it’s best, Hollywood is a big sandbox we get to play in. It can be chaotic and messy. But most of all, it’s fun and we can’t wait to get back i it.
 
This is what the strikes are fighting for right now. It’s what’s keeping Hollywood from slowly dying.
 
Which, tragically, would be by its own hand.


The Writer’s Strike is A Battle for Diverse Stories

THERE’S BEEN NEWS

Unless you’ve been completely ignoring the news, you know that the Writer’s Guild has gone on strike. If you’re a creator or in the entertainment industry, this is a huge deal. But if you’re not, it may seem trivial. However, this strike is not simply about compensation for a privileged few. But also about how we think of creativity and who gets represented in the world’s biggest storytelling platforms.

Because if the studios get their way – TV and movies will go backwards. Leaving us all searching for the stories that represent the way the world actually is.

This is secretly a battle for representation.

THE WRITER’S GUILD

The Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) has long been an advocate for the rights and fair treatment of writers in the entertainment industry. However, the recent strike has shed light on persistent issues that threaten the livelihoods of writers.  Which impacts the quality of the content they produce.

Studios and production companies have referred to anything “digital” as something done on a lower budget. The original agreements for working with actors and writers on a digital project, were created with the idea of paying them as little as possible.

These same agreements were used as a baseline for anything on a streaming platform – including the major ones such as Netflix, Disney+ and Paramount. The staffs were cut down to the minimum, writer’s asked to wear multiple hats to work long days for lesser pay. And essentially, writers became gig workers who were asked to work long hours. With little to no guaranteed that their job was secure. In addition to other considerations such as rewriting scripts generated by AI. The WGA had had enough of working their writer’s being mistreated.

They tried to negotiate. But ultimately were forced to strike.

A LACK OF VALUE

The studios consider anything that’s done for a digital platform unworthy of a higher rate. Which, not coincidentally, is where the majority of women and people of color get their initial break. We know from the UCLA diversity report that streaming is where the budgets are lower and the representation is better. Beyond the outliers like a Ryan Coogler or a Jordan Peele. It’s how most people of color get their break into the industry. And much to no one’s surprise, studios don’t see it as being of equal value.

During the streaming boom, companies ran up large amounts of debt to get their foot in the streaming door. They wanted to get the attention that was diverting to online platforms. But now that they no longer want to be in the red. They want to cut costs where they don’t see any value. Which is ultimately anything that doesn’t have “broad appeal”, aka plays to an older, Whiter audience.

When HBO was bought, several sources remarked how the owner wants to highlight shows by Chip and Joanna Gaines. HBO has been stripped from the name of the company with a coming emphasis on cheaper, broader stories. This means less money spent on anything “risker”, i.e. diverse. Which makes one wonder – would creators like Issa Rae ever gotten a chance?

And without them, would streamers even having the profits they’re bringing in?

A FIGHT FOR OUR STORIES

When HBO was bought, several sources remarked how the owner wants to highlight shows by Chip and Joanna Gaines. HBO has been stripped from the name of the company with a coming emphasis on cheaper, broader stories. This means less money spent on anything “risker”, i.e. diverse. Which makes one wonder – would creators like Issa Rae ever gotten a chance? And without them, would streamers even having the profits they’re bringing in?

The demographics of America are changing at a rapid pace. The people of this country will look increasingly different. And we want the stories we see to reflect that. Stories are a reflection of our values. This strike is an indicator that the people bringing us those stories don’t see the value in who we are. Their decisions ultimately discourage people from entering the industry and letting their voices be heard. Which ultimately effects how we are able to see ourselves.

Of course there are social media platforms and YouTube to get the type of content and community we want. But there is still something special and unifying about narrative stories that the world see. It’s what kept us going during the pandemic. It still keeps us talking and connecting across cultural lines. And those stories are brought to us by writers. Who need the security to keep thinking about stories. And not having to worry so much about their own survival.

This will most likely not be the first upheaval in a creative industry. Along with AI, a time of big questions is coming. But all comes back to 2 things:

How do we value creativity? And what kind of world do we want to live in?


The Right Way to Build a Creative Portfolio

As creators, we are deeply passionate about our craft. However, it’s easy to fall into misconceptions when it comes to our portfolios. Having gone through numerous revisions of my own portfolio, I’ve learned a few key steps that everyone should consider.

So let’s take a closer look at how to approach your portfolio effectively:

Quality Over Quantity

In the beginning, it’s important to focus on quantity as you start building your body of work. However, as you progress, the emphasis should shift to quality. It’s easy to believe that a large portfolio with numerous projects is more important, but it’s crucial to remember that showcasing a few exceptional pieces is more effective. Prioritize quality over quantity to make a stronger impact.

Focus

Once you have a body of quality work, it’s time to hone in on what you want to be known for. While versatility is valuable, a focused portfolio can make you more attractive to potential clients or employers. Instead of including projects from various genres or styles, curate a portfolio that reflects a clear artistic vision or specific niche. This showcases your expertise and helps attract the right opportunities.

Curate Your Audience

It’s easy to overlook the intended audience for our portfolios. However, each project should be tailored to resonate with the people you want to impress. For example, including romantic comedies in a portfolio aimed at the horror genre might dilute your message and confuse potential collaborators. Understanding your target audience helps present relevant and compelling work, giving you an edge in the market.

Storytelling

Your portfolio should be more than just a collection of work; it should tell a compelling story about who you are and the kind of work you do. Consider what you want people to know about you and how your portfolio can take them on a journey to learn more. While technical skills are essential, striking a balance and highlighting your storytelling abilities are fundamental aspects of being a creator.

Update and Adapt

Regularly review your portfolio to ensure it aligns with the kind of work you want to pursue. Remove anything that doesn’t showcase your desired direction and use it as an opportunity to assess if you’re heading in the right direction. Revising and refreshing your portfolio is vital to showcase your growth and keep it relevant to your current abilities.

 

A great portfolio is a true reflection of your skills, vision, and artistic voice. By approaching it with the right mindset and following these steps, you can greatly enhance its impact and secure future opportunities. Remember to prioritize quality, focus on your desired direction, curate for your intended audience, emphasize storytelling, and regularly update your portfolio. With these considerations in mind, your portfolio will become a powerful tool for showcasing your talent and attracting the opportunities you seek.


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Forced Into Filmmaking

From cleaning houses to making films: hitting rock bottom pushed me to realize my dream.

Life can be unpredictable. One moment, you might be doing just fine, and the next, everything can turn upside down. That’s what happened to me. After I got married, I found myself struggling to find work. Even with years of experience in the entertainment industry in Chicago. There wasn’t a job I could find in Los Angeles. So sadly, I landed one cleaning houses. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, but it put food on the table and a roof over my head.

One aftertoon while I was cleaning a bathtub, I sprayed cleaner against the wall. I took a breath and accidentally inhaled some fumes. So I rushed home to recover. As I sat on my bed struggling to breathe, I realized that I needed to make a change. Especially considering that I was fired from that job a week later.

Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary(Monty) on Unsplash

A Lifelong Dream

For as long as I can remember, narrative and storytelling had held a special place in my heart. I was fascinated by the power of crafting a story, building characters, and taking audiences on a journey. So, I decided to take a leap of faith and actual begin filmmaking.

The last film I had made was in film school. At that point, almost a decade prior. But I needed to start creating. Just a couple of months later, I made part of my first big short film. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start, and it opened up new opportunities for me. 

My first attempt was both a failure and a success. I never completed the film. Because the budget was too big. But I found new collaborators to work with. I made more films with them that found their way into festivals big and small. I learned how to direct, edit, and produce films, which helped me generate freelance income.

Finding Opportunity

Over time, I continued to develop new skills, create new work, and network with other filmmakers. It wasn’t easy, but it led me to a place of greater confidence and stability in my life. I realized that I was capable of achieving my dreams if I was willing to put in the work and stay dedicated to my craft.

Looking back, I realize that hitting rock bottom was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to reevaluate my life and pursue what truly mattered to me. I had to face my fears and doubts, but in doing so, I found my true calling.

My advice to anyone who is struggling is this: Just start doing it. Take the leap, show up, be humble, and keep learning. You’ll be amazed at how far you can go when you pursue your passion with dedication and perseverance. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it. So don’t give up, keep pushing forward, and never lose sight of your dreams.


The Power of Narrative Filmmaking

Recently, I was reminded why narrative (i.e. scripted) stories are so important in our media landscape.

As visual inspiration for the film I’m writing, I’ve been watching Euphoria. I’ve always been hit or miss on the show. Some scenes are absolutely brilliant. Others are like a music video that goes on for too long. But after watching it all the way through. There were moments that really touched a nerve.

Like the main character, Rue, I lost my dad when I was young – age 29 to be exact. He had suffered with alcohol addiction since I had been in college. And his liver and kidneys eventually just gave out from the abuse. With that being said, I wouldn’t be in Los Angeles without him. The little money he had put aside to leave to family was used to fix my car, finance the move and honor one of his last wishes to me – to use it for filmmaking.

There is a scene in Euphoria (not really a spoiler) where she sees her dad in a dream sequence, hugs him, and tells him she misses him. That she can barely remember what he looks like and the sound of his voice. And in that moment, I felt like I was in her same shoes. Because while the pain of losing him has lessened over the years. There are still moments that I feel the exact same way – wishing that I could see him just one more time.

While I love the craft of documentary. It’s power is getting you to understand and empathize with another person. Narrative has a unique power – it helps us see ourselves in the shoes of the characters we’re watching. Because it’s fictional, It allows us to be a part of the journey the character is on. We fill in the details of what we don’t see. So it is a true representation of our own journey. It’s like it was made for just us.

I am not going to declare that the film I’m working on is going to be as impactful as Euphoria. I’m on draft 2 and I have a long to go. Not only in this film, but also in my career itself. But watching things like it reminds of why I fell in love with filmmaking in the first place. And why real, human stories will always be needed.


The Lottery Myth

There is a myth every filmmaker was told to believe at the start of our career:

That is we just make the right film. Then Hollywood would come find it. And they would give us the resources in order to make whatever we imagined. Now for some, this might be true. There are people who do indeed make a great film and the door is swung wide open for them. However, that is almost like winning the lottery.

And you can’t build a career on buying bingo tickets.

There is a version of success for every filmmaker who commits themselves to building a body of work. Once you realize that the cavalry isn’t coming. You start to find ways to create your own version of success. For some of us, that might lead to working on big budget films on studio lots and flying all over the world. For others, it might mean having a small but sustainable following that allows us to make the work we find impactful.

The insidious part about the myth is that it makes us waste our most valuable resource – our time. It makes us create with the goal of wishing and waiting. Instead of the goal of creating and connecting. It takes the power away from us. And gives it to someone else who’s in charge of making our dreams come true.

While making a film is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. It doesn’t have to be a soul-burning one. And I’ve found the best way to make films for the right reasons – to tell great stories and create an impact for your audience.


The Next Step

Every year I think about what I want to accomplish. For the longest time, I’ve written one thing at the top of the list:

Make a feature film.

I’ve made a lot of short form content – narrative shorts and documentaries. But the creation of something long form has always eluded me.

Some of that comes from my own fear. Some of it from trying to go too big – like a film that needs 1 million to “do it right”. But this year, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. I tell people often to start where they’re at and then scale up. So I’m going to take my own medicine.

I have some equipment and the whole city of Los Angeles to build a narrative around. I’m working on the script right now which should be done by the end of February.

But by the end of the year, I will have a feature film made. No excuses this time.

Is it frightening to do? Yes. But part of bravery is knowing that you’re afraid – and doing it anyway.

What’s the worse that could happen – it sucks and I make another one that’s better?