“It’s done and it sucks”: learning from your last creative project

From Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon

Before I get into the next project — and before descending too far down the inevitable path of hopelessness/doubt/boredom as illustrated by Austin Kleon — I’m trying to keep in mind the stuff I learned from the last one.

The last project turned into a 40-minute film, ‘Unladylike’, about women and girls who box. It was the first time I’d made a documentary and the first time I’d worked with my two co-filmmakers.

The real lesson was that doing something like that is possible, if you’re prepared to put the hours in. But there were some more specific things I learned — things that could apply to other types of project, too: 

Be organised

It’s great to get absorbed in what you’re making; that’s why you’re doing it. Stop to do some boring but important stuff, too, though. We managed to transcribe most footage along the way, which made the edit phase much less daunting than it could have been. But we missed a few things, like failing to get some consent forms signed on the day, and then spending painful hours emailing, posting and even faxing forms off to interviewees months later. Similarly, keep files in order: name everything properly, use folders, make and clearly label backups.

Know what things need to be really, really good 

For film, that means capturing good sound. We didn’t have great equipment, but more importantly, we didn’t always insist on finding a quiet enough spot, meaning we lost at least one interview to the churn of gym machines in the background. Whatever format you’re working with, experienced people will tell you what’s most important to get right. Listen to them.

Take it seriously from day one

Commit to your project from the start (even if you don’t know what shape it will take in the end). Not least because you need your interviewees and supporters to know you’re serious and credible — so one of the first things we did was create a simple, cheap website (using Wix) and get business cards. And don’t make excuses, even if you’re a beginner. I remember telling someone vaguely connected to the film industry that I was making a documentary, but we were limited by our nearly non-existent budget. “Like every other filmmaker”, he replied. Every creative project is produced within some limitation of both time and money; blaming either is almost irrelevant.

Find a (sort-of flexible) frame

photo 2You start with a subject. You talk to one person, and they raise a few things you hadn’t thought of, and suggest a few people you should meet. Feeling encouraged, you contact those people, and they raise a few more things, and a few more people. Repeat, repeat. The more you explore the more you find yourself wandering off on tangents. That’s all intriguing and exciting, until it becomes overwhelming and exhausting. You’ve gathered so much material on so many different topics till one day you find yourself staring at a 15 ft long storyboard with hundreds of colour-coded post-its, wondering what your film is actually about.

Set boundaries. Limit yourself — to a time period, to a place, to a cause. I love (but often fail to remember), what the Irish inventor Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh says is the best piece of advice she’s had: start small and make it good.

Save some energy / motivation / budget for promotion

It felt pretty damn good to finally finish ‘Unladylike’ two and half years after we’d started. Until, that is, we realised we weren’t actually finished. Unless you’re already established, chances are you’re doing most or all the promotion yourself, and that means more hours spent entering festivals, exploring distribution options, preparing promo material, doing social media, organising screenings, etc. That’s time-consuming. And it’s hard to do — partly because if you loved this kind of work you’d be working in PR or distribution, not making stuff; and partly because it’s mildly terrifying putting your own creation out there, never mind trying to convince people they should pay to see it.

Pay for a pro, sometimes

We had a budget that just about stretched to buying a hard drive, but we knew we needed to invest in some extra help at the end.  An experienced editor got our rough cut down from an hour to about 40 minutes — and we barely noticed what she’d cut.

Accept that doing anything properly takes BLOODY AGES

Mug by gearbubble.com

Two years in, I was slightly horrified that we were still working on the same thing. It took another eight months or so of editing most weekends till, at last, we exported a final version. (And then there was the final, final version.)

I don’t think I’d have started the project if I’d known how long it would take — but I’m glad I didn’t. Next time round, I’ll hopefully be more patient. One thing that does help motivation is publishing something along the way: it makes you feel you’ve accomplished something (and you can reassure potential funders/supporters that stuff is happening). For us, that meant creating a teaser, then a trailer, and publishing updates on our website about the people we’d interviewed.

Wonder what I’ve missed? I guess I’ll have to get onto the next project to find out.

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