The Mastery Cycle

Slide1I led a master class and several workshops at a conference last week. My goal was to take the students through the mastery cycle without them knowing it. The outcome was eye opening during the debriefing stage of the conference – The time when reality revealed where on the master craftsman scales each person landed.

The mastery cycle has four parts to it: attitude, knowledge, practice, and skill. The attitude step is all about adjusting one’s dreams to a reality check without draining their vision. Increasing their knowledge is the second step that requires a certain amount of entertainment in order to retain the information. The third step is practicing with a coach who can guide and correct each step of the way. The fourth step is the development of a specific skill that can shine during the process.

Once the process concludes, it’s always useful to debrief the participants and find out what they achieved or learned. Everyone gains a new skill (or part of one) or learns how to avoid a disaster going forward. Both are needed for the master craftsman’s utility belt regardless of their occupation.

ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT
My classes were filled with beginning filmmakers and semi-professional amateurs. Both groups typically have a great aptitude for filmmaking, but greatly lack the skills needed to climb to a higher level of quality. Since its impossible to get to the next level until you first understand what you don’t know, adjusting the attitudes of the participants is critical to their growth.

I opened with an example of a finely crafted short story that an amateur would shoot for less than $10,000 and a professional would shoot for no less than $265,000. By explaining the difference in quality, story, skill levels, etc., I helped many of the students correct their vision and desire more skills.

INCREASED KNOWLEDGE
The next class was about how to develop a story using a simple logline as a blueprint. Loglines are one to two sentences that clearly articulate the overall story. Any variation due to overzealous creativity in the process weakens the story and hinders the film’s success.

The class developed the beats of the story based on the logline and then wrote a script to be shot the next day. Everyone in class got caught trying to take the story down a rabbit hole, but the team maintained focus thanks to the agreed upon logline – a safety net to make sure the chosen topic is adhered to.

PRACTICE WITH COACH
The day of the shoot was guided by the experienced training the inexperienced. We had hoped for a professional team coaching an amateur team, but circumstances didn’t come together as planned. Still, the experienced were able to help and encourage those with less experience. Three scenes were shot and then debriefed the following morning.

We reviewed the dailies and discussed the pros and cons that came from the shoot. And yes, there were more cons, but I prefer to say there were more learning opportunities. As long as the person learns from his or her mistakes, they are another step closer to mastering their craft.

During the shoot the director is in charge. He must hold true to the logline, the script breakdown, his notebook, and all the other tools he has in delivering the final story based on its original intent as expressed in the script. Unfortunately, the director was so busy trying to keep his cast and crew moving that he forgot to refer back to his notes.

The outcome was some really good shots and acting that had nothing to do with the story. During our review, I pointed out as many of the errors that added to the destruction of the story and why each person failed. I also pointed out that with film being a collaborative art form everyone must stay on task, rather than offering up things that don’t move the story forward.

SKILL DEVELOPMENT
Each participant got a taste of a new skill they need to develop. The director learned how to breakdown the beats of the story to make sure they are filmed. The actors learned the importance of becoming the character instead of changing the character to be like them. The writers learned that creatives can make things up all day long, but must only keep what fulfills the logline. And on it went.

The process that led to the beginning development of a new skill can now be cycled again to lift that skill to another level. The repetition will eventually see the person master the skill and others for his utility belt, which will eventually lead to the mastering of the craft.

The person who embraces the mastery cycle will eventually become the master and be able to properly break the rules in order to move the art forward. They are also the ones who are passionate about the art. They are the perfect type of people worth having on any set and in any workshop.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Controlling Kills Creativity

Control Kills CreativityWhen I was the lead carpenter for the Before Broadway Players, my director asked me to create a special effects box that looked high tech and gave the audience the sense that it was beyond this world. Having been empowered, I quickly put everything I had into the tech and the final stage prop created a great publicity buzz.

I was only able to use my ingenuity because I had a director who understood that controlling his team’s decisions would kill their creativity and force the audience to pretend the box was more than just junk parts glued in place.

There’s a fine balance between setting vision or giving a project direction, and controlling everyone involved. The latter tends to dilute creativity and drives creative types to withdraw their best efforts and replace it with something mundane.

It’s true that at certain key moments control is necessary to get things on track with market needs, but continuous control robs the team of unique successes and slaughters their inspiration for innovation in the arts. Put simply: long-term control kills the art form.

So why is it that new directors tend to control the actors and crew, rather than collaborate with them?

It might be due to insecurity. Or, maybe watching previous works demolished by the wrong choice in team or talent selection. In any case, I believe all directors can find a balance between control and collaboration by practicing three important steps.

EVALUATE YOUR ACTIONS. Most controlling leaders are not aware of their grasp on people. They make decisions based on their goal, not the person they work with. This causes them to stifle innovation from those around them, which is detrimental in all of the arts, but especially motion pictures.

To break free of control issues a director can ask himself several questions:

A. Are my ideas always the best?
B. Have my cast and crew stopped contributing?
C. Do people constantly ask questions for approval, rather than risk their creativity?
D. Have all of my projects gone flat and are no longer interesting?

If any of the answers above are yes, then the director must practice letting go.

PRACTICE LETTING GO. The word practice is critical in revealing the ongoing process for the controller. No one can throw a one time switch and suddenly turn everything into a great collaboration. It takes single daily steps to accomplish the change. There are a handful of questions a director can ask himself to move forward in letting go:

A. What responsibility can I delegate?
B. How can I measure the delegate’s success without taking over?
C. What new responsibility can I use to fill my time?
D. What new behaviors can I develop to keep my hands off the delegate’s details?

By letting go of the minutia and filling time with more important focuses, the director can empower his team to put their soul into the project.

LEARN TO EMPOWER. The best way to empower someone isn’t by understanding their ability to perform a task, but rather understand their behaviors and how they make choices. It’s the choices that determine if the individual will follow the vision or head off in a different direction.

A director, who spends a lot of time understanding people and how characters develop, can plan how behaviors can be triggered. To move in this direction, the director can ask himself the following questions to prepare:

A. What behaviors are needed to accomplish the responsibility?
B. What choices must be present to give comfort when I let go?
C. How can these behaviors be inspired or given to the person?
D. What support is required to empower the person?

Empowered individuals always out perform controlled people. Yet, it takes hard work on the director’s part to empower the people, while maintaining his vision.

Some new directors who get past the control factor shift to the opposite extreme with a mishmash of unclear activities. Empowering people does not stop the director from painting a vision and directing everyone towards it, as there is a great difference between getting buried in the minutia and inspiring everyone’s behaviors to reach the goal.

Whether you’re a film director or a manager, what do you do to empower your people?

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

How to Become a G.R.E.A.T. Screenwriter

© Pixelbliss - Fotolia.comOver the past few years I’ve spoken with a couple dozen screenwriters including three Oscar® winners. In each conversation I’ve asked how I should best spend my 10,000 hours in becoming a great screenwriter. For those of you not familiar with Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that it took experts in any given field 10,000 hours of task specific practice to master their craft.

In this article, I’ve summarized the various answers that I’ve received and created the G.R.E.A.T. acronym to share how to set 21-40 hours a week aside to become a great screenwriter.

G.  GO TO THE MOVIES every week (2-4 hours/week). Screenwriters go to a minimum of one movie every week on average. Additional movies can be watched on NETFLIX or from a personal DVD/Blu-Ray library (which all screenwriters own), but it’s critically important for screenwriters to attend films in theatres every week. This brings an advantage of understanding their audience and how they react to various types of scenes in a movie.

R.  READ A SCREENPLAY every week (2-3 hours/week). Studios make their best screenplays available every year for Oscar® nomination consideration. Screenwriters download the 20-30 screenplays and read each one to learn about their competition and to glean any useful information to improve his or her skills. Screenplays can also be found online and purchased from writer stores.

E.  EXERCISE WRITING SKILLS every day (14-28 hours/week). Authors write and screenwriters do the same every day. Yes, every day. Screenwriters experience what some refer to as a form of withdrawal when they don’t write. The creative side of the brain is very aware of its lack on the days that the writer doesn’t reduce some thoughts to writing. All professionals stay up on their writing to stay polished and creative.

A.  ASSOCIATE WITH SCREENWRITERS every month (1 hour/week). While networking is critical in the entertainment business, staying connected to associate screenwriters is also important. The creative soul is helped by the sharing of tips and tricks, along with the sharing of related circumstances that only writers understand. These comradery sessions encourage us to better ourselves regularly so we have something worth sharing.

T.  TAKE NOTES every day (2-4 hours/week). Screenwriters find great moments in every day life that are worth capturing for their “future” folder. During the research phase of a given story everything is captured in multiple forms for later. This might include roughing out a quick draft of a given scene, collecting clips from another source that can be adapted, or research notes captured on a napkin or scratch pad when submerged in the library or surfing the net. Those who try to stash the information in their memory typically lose those great moments.

The G.R.E.A.T. Screenwriter is a person who does all of the above without giving it consideration, as it is a part of who he or she is. The process is fulfilling for the screenwriter and makes total sense. However, the person who wants to be a screenwriter, but doesn’t have it in their veins will find the above list painful to execute.

For instance, a screenwriter will not only watch the films they love and the types of films they desire to write, but will also watch films they would never normally watch to better understand the genre, style, and narrative structure. On the other hand, the non-writer who wants to craft a screenplay will avoid films they don’t like and that don’t match the type of story they want to write.

While studying Scorsese’s film, The Wolf of Wall Street, I learned that the screenwriter used the F-word 506 times. Due to the rule of diminishing returns, the word was weakened to a meaningless quip. By understanding the lack of impact that film made on me, I was able to rewrite an action film without any language. By the end of the story when the main character screams out, “No!”, it actually makes a far greater impact than the F-word did in Scorsese’s film.

Copyright © 2014 by CJ Powers