The Duties of a Filmmaker

picThis morning I was curious about the changes in the film industry based on the generational shift in business. The shift is hard to describe, but instead of handing numerous projects over to millennial filmmakers, Hollywood is still making most of the films with more experienced directors and producers.

I googled to learn what new filmmakers think their duties are and was surprised to read about tasks and software. There were no articles about crafting great stories in regard to a filmmaker’s duties. Nor was there anything I could find about the filmmaker’s core responsibility—entertaining the audience, while exploring the human condition.

Film is an emotional medium, which suggests a plethora of articles about how filmmakers create those proverbial roller coaster rides for the audience, but again there were few articles educating millennial filmmakers on how to build the emotions of the audience.

Story is king in both the emotional arena and in the exploration of the human condition. Story is also pure entertainment that opens the eyes and hearts of the audience to consider the filmmaker’s message. But again, there was little about how a millennial filmmaker could craft a story that changes the lives of its audience.

I think Steven Spielberg summed up the core problem well:

“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”

I’m not suggesting that filmmakers take classes on film and story theory. But I do advocate that new directors have as many diverse life experiences as possible to create a cinematic “tool belt” from which to fashion dynamic stories. I also recommend directors read a minimum of 10 books a year to capture and understand the observations of writers who explore the human condition.

Unfortunately the typical Millennial only reads an average of five books a year, keeping them far from the ability to contemplate various viewpoints, let alone draw noteworthy conclusions about our culture. A director must have a life perspective that integrates with, not isolates from, the culture at large in order to meet the audience where their hearts live and guide them to a more hope filled life.

Directors must also live inside the culture at large. They don’t have to be of it, but they do have to be in it. I worked on a major animation project years ago with a professor that was my exact opposite. I was conservative and she was liberal. I believed in sustaining life at all costs and she believed in “mercy” killings. The list continued ad nauseam.

The project we worked on helped over one million kids learn the basics of chemistry in 12 weeks. Even I fully comprehended the scientific principles in that short time frame. Why? Because I lived in the professor’s culture and in my own, which allowed me to bring all kinds of innovative ideas and new perspectives to bear on the project.

Once released, the professor admitted that she had worked with several liberal directors that were unable to simplify here complex teachings into simple animations. None of the previous solutions shared truth in a logical manner. She understood that it was my diverse knowledge and experience that made me the right director for the project.

She shared how much she grew as a person from the experience and offered her future services for free. She was willing to do anything for an opportunity to collaborate again. And, she started to rethink her position on a few controversial life issues.

Directors must be able to enter the worlds of other people and capture the essence of the person’s “why.” He must also thoroughly think through how to thread his message in and out of the entertainment elements of a story. These techniques allow the director to come along side of the audience and draw them from their viewpoint to his by the end of the film—fulfilling the duties of the director.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Rich Culture in a Vacant Industrial Lot

Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 9.03.30 PMThe richest forms of culture aren’t in the tourist trap destinations, but in the quiet streets where real people live, love and labor. I’ve traveled to over two-dozen countries where I’ve had the opportunity to step away from the tourist attractions and work my way into the backstreets where the nationals let go of their commercial facades and live their normal life.

With the great diversity in the Chicagoland area, I’ve also stumbled upon pockets of people living richly in the heritage of their family culture. Those moments are precious to me because I get a glimpse of what they face in their day-to-day lives.

A couple weeks ago, I finished work in Addison’s industrial area. The fastest way home for the weekend was driving past the older and more run down warehouses. Some of the buildings had boarded up windows and none had seen a fresh coat of paint within the past decade.

I was three blocks from a street that would take me back to my life’s reality when I noticed high-tension power lines overhead. To my left, underneath the lines, was a vacant lot with old rusty semi-trailers flanking the far side. The area looked dormant and unkempt with the exception of the lively soccer game being played by dark olive and lighter skinned Mexicans.

The contrast between the energetic players in the dilapidated surroundings compelled me to stop the car. I hopped out and hustled to the side of the lot with my video camera in hand. The tan and brownish grass perfectly matched the color palette of the rusty trailers. Bare trees and spindly gray bushes helped to confine the outer areas of play. The multi-shades of brown bricks at the neighboring warehouse where spectators watched the game framed my footage.

Within seconds the players and those sitting against the neighboring building turned their heads toward me. I acknowledged everyone with a nod and continued filming. A few guys played harder with the presence of the camera and a couple moved out of frame. There was only one woman on the field, and she displayed a great deal of frustration every time the guys passed the ball around her.

The youngest man was in his late teens and the oldest looked like he was pushing 70 something. The sidelines were filled with family members and injured players from a previous game. A beautiful woman surrounded by a few kids stood up and called out to me, “Would you like to play?” What a generous person to make an offer for my inclusion.

“No thanks, I’m filming,” I said and then turned back to shoot an incredible battle for a loose ball and an attempted score. The ball hit off of the makeshift goal, which looked like dirty yellow pipes bent in the approximate shape of a giant croquet hoop to satisfy any arguments of what was considered in or out of the would-be net area.

When the guys took a beer break, an eight-year-old girl ran up to me. She was inquisitive and filled with joy. I showed her how the camera worked and she took me over to meet her family. It was no surprise to learn that her mother was the one who invited me to participate.

The mom’s nickname was Chellie and she was a beautiful woman with a classy, yet effervescent personality. She spoke English eloquently, while humbly suggesting that her vocabulary was small. Chellie introduced me to her three daughters, son and husband. Her husband, who was injured and not able to play, took care of the little guy.

One of her girls shared an interest in becoming a doctor and our conversation revealed her ability to become whatever she desired in life. Our discussion meandered through several more topics as we all enjoyed getting to know each other.

I was surprised to learn that Chellie was a driver for the same company where her husband, brother and father worked. Based on how well she spoke English and how she carried herself, I would’ve expected to hear about a professional career. But then again, I come across very different than the stereotype of my job.

The best part of the conversation was sharing our cultural differences and similarities. And, thanks to a few Spanish classes at church, I attempted to say a thing or two without murdering Chellie’s language. Thankfully she was gracious and enjoyed practicing English because she speaks Spanish at home and work.

When I asked how often the guys played, she answered, “Every Friday after work.”

“For how long?” I asked.

“They usually play until 9 or 10 at night.”

“It sounds like a ritual.”

“Well, there is no changing it.”

“So, do you go home and make dinner or something?”

“Oh no, I never make dinner of Friday nights,” she said with a smile. “We go out.”

“I suppose that makes sense if you’re here watching them play all night.”

“Oh yes. Nobody here cooks on Friday night.”

My time was running short, so I excused myself and headed toward the car. I thought about returning to the vacant lot in the near future to check in with my new friends. It would give me a chance to share the final short film I cut together.

I hopped in my car, started the engine and reflected back on the various topics we discussed. I had gained a lot by listening to their perspective on life. I also felt a longing in my heart to create a story that could give the kids hope in a future that they currently perceive as bleak.

As I drove away, my heart ached for funding to create stories that might touch the lives of those kids. I need a miracle and I’m waiting for an answer. After all, everyone in the area deserves someone interjecting hope into his or her life.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

5 Rules of Brainstorming

Idea LeadershipWhenever I ask if anyone knows how to brainstorm, they always say, “Yes.” Not long into the activity they demonstrate that they don’t know how or are unable to follow the rules. I always keep a reminder sheet of brainstorming rules on me to quickly review with teams. Here is the list—

1. There are No Dumb Ideas. This is the hardest rule to keep for people who don’t practice brainstorming often, especially when someone shares an idea from out of left field. Any negative feedback immediately closes down part of the person’s mind in the name of protection. It also shuts down anyone else who heard the comment and hinders the team’s progress.

The best way to approach all ideas is from a position of acceptance. Everyone knows when a better idea is shared, so no one ever needs to be told their idea wasn’t any good, especially when the weird ideas tend to spark more creativity that leads to great ideas. The not-so-great ideas are like kindling that starts a bonfire. If kindling is squelched, the bonfire never gets lit.

2. Don’t Criticize Other People’s Ideas. The moment judgment, a left-brain activity, enters the discussion it shuts down the right brain where great ideas are formed. The only reason for a person to shoot down an idea is to show superiority, which stifles creativity. No creative team has room for a superior being on it. After all, a dominant person in a brainstorming session tries to leverage their ideas instead of finding what’s best for the story.

When someone criticizes an idea, the greatest tool of correction is for the team to immediately use the “bad idea” as a launching point for a diversion into play. Dave Crawford, a Disney Imagineering Principal Mechanical Show/Ride Engineer says, “The most unrealistic options inspire tangent ideas that take you to new places you would have never considered.” By exploring all the possible tangents, not only does the criticizer learn his or her place, but also the team gets to overcome the negative comments with numerous newly inspired ideas.

3. Build on Other People’s Ideas. Some ideas are like taking a thumb out of a dam with a flurry of side or bigger ideas pouring forth. Teams can get on a roll of ideas that build one on top of the other. This sends the team into diverse directions and can shift the focus to address sustainable details. The goal is to capture the best of all the ideas and find an angle on it that will out last the test of time.

In the improv community, who brainstorms live on stage, the process is called, “yes, and.” The yes acknowledges the first person’s comment in a positive light and then adds to it a bigger, tangential or more detailed idea. The add-on is never viewed as being “better,” but instead as being the next step in the developmental process for creating great show or story.

4. Reverse Quality for Quantity. During production or performance everyone focuses on quality. However, in the developmental brainstorming process its mandatory to chase after quantity. It’s impossible to come up with a new invention, show or story without pouring through a gazillion ideas until you find that one new angle, perspective or idea. Whether the goal is to educate or entertain, some form of the idea must be new.

Most pros board their brainstorming activities and later gather the large quantity of ideas based on observable groupings, topic, viewpoint or uniqueness. Screenplay writers group their ideas by set pieces, turning points and entertainment value. Businessmen group their ideas based on presentation, features and benefits. Preachers group their ideas based on scripture, story and application.

5. Play Wildly. This is the most important element and the one few people want to see on the list. The more childlike the approach during the brainstorming process, the more creative the final solution. The play factor instills energy into the developmental process and infuses it with fun-based passion. This activity drives the kind of creativity required for a successful brainstorming session.

Many people define play differently. Some watch a movie in between sessions. Some quip off jokes. The more energetic get into character and role-play various perspectives. Others pull out board games, while still others get into pretend or make-believe worlds. Some even get more elaborate in their play within the worlds of cosplay or steampunk. Any activity works that is immersed in right-brained activity—even scribbling games on a blank sheet of paper.

When the rules of brainstorming are adhered to, all participants gain energy from the experience. When the rules are abused, people feel drained afterwards. This thermometer that tests the flow of creative juices is important to monitor for the sake of future sessions and productivity. Without play, all brainstorming sessions fall a part.