LEARNING TO FAIL

Cameras

Filmmakers are an arrogant lot. It seems to come with the territory. I’m no exception. We tell people what to do for a living and they do it, because that’s what they do for a living. I do wonder though whether we really have earned the right to be so arrogant. In fact I know most of us haven’t. Any creative endeavour depends on a leap of faith at some stage in the process. Most people take this leap by looking at what other people have done and deciding that’s what they’re going to do. Very few people have the constitution to hack a path through the bushes by themselves and vault head first into the unknown. When setting up a new business one of the first things you do is an in-depth analysis of the competition so you know exactly what they do. The point of this is differentiation. Filmmakers should do the complete opposite. The further I go in my career, the more I regret my early approach to work, which was to employ this self-same technique to projects. I’d look at what everyone else had done and I’d try to do it differently. Inevitably I tried so hard to be different I forgot to be excellent. Instead I was mediocre. Good enough. Fine. Who wants to be fine? It’s like the girl you fancy telling you she thinks you’re nice. Kill me now.

When I worked in a strategic marketing consultancy (yes I know, how does that happen!? Long story.) innovation was described as going into the Room of not knowing. In there you left all preconceptions at the door and came at the problem with a clear head and a fresh set of eyes. All very nice, but actually this is bloody hard to do. It’s not a stupid idea at all but I just think we’re all so bound by the need for certainties that any attempt to wriggle out of the creative straitjacket we impose on ourselves inevitably results in lots of dislocated joints. Each new project I take on is a conscious attempt to do something completely different. The music video director Sam Brown, who I respect enormously, makes the same video every time he steps into the ring. It’s a very good video and it’s served him well for the last 15 years, but the moment I see his work I know it’s his. Is this a bad thing? No, it’s not at all, it’s just not the way I like to work. But he’s been a lot more successful than I have so who’s right?

Over the last 18 months, coinciding with the rapid uptake of cheap filmmaking tools, I’ve been sickened by the deluge of unoriginal work I keep seeing. Very occasionally I see something that has a spark of flair but mostly it’s just the same old shit someone else does better, rehashed and rehashed again. Most filmmakers can’t make that leap. Staring at a blank piece of paper and creating a unique and creative solution, straight out of your own head, is very difficult. The temptation to go online and dig around for some inspiration is too strong. Just try it one of these days. Creative disciplines always require two ideologically opposed battles: the battle of ideation and the battle of execution. The one requires you to throw all the toys out of the pram, the other to put them all back in again. The one requires a bottomless pit of nerve and talent, the other requires a bottomless pit of nerve and talent. I’d argue that most filmmakers these days peek out of the pram, lob a few things over the side, then think better of it and rearrange what they’ve already got, noisily and with great enthusiasm.

I directed this. It’s not good.

Failure. Fear of failure. You are a cruel mistress. If you play football (soccer, sorry) then there are many levels you can get involved at, depending on your skill level. Filmmaking tends to be less accessible. You’re either good enough, not good at all, or you’re excellent. At least in people’s perceptions. There’s very little room for failure. And yet you have to be prepared to fail if you’re going to be any good at all. My advice? Stop watching other people’s films. For a whole month. In that month, set yourself a task that involves shooting something you would never ever normally shoot. Hire a PD150, not a DSLR, edit it on Premiere, not Final Cut Pro, cast an old woman as an action lead. Go out there, explore, innovate, get scared and be prepared to fail. This is the only way any of us are ever going to escape this sickening sea of sameness that’s destroying the critical faculties of us so-called ‘cinephiles’. You never know what you might learn. And who cares if you do make a dud? It took Kubrick three massive films to find the Kubrick voice. Ridley Scott only came to feature films at 39. There’s no rush. If you are going to watch anything this week, I’d recommend having a little nosey around these guys website. Great stuff.

Good luck.

PPS: Here’s a video I directed a long time ago that I think is actually really good

Jared Abrams
Jared Abrams is a cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional camera assistant he switched over to still photography. About two years ago a new Canon camera changed the way the world sees both motion and still photography. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • http://twitter.com/plockerman Patrick Lockerman

    Once again, great writing Robin. You tell it like it is and hold nothing back. I like that! 

  • Bill A.

    “PPS: Here’s a video I directed a long time ago that I think is actually really good”

    I concur.  Really nice work – bravo!

    :)

  • http://twitter.com/jamesdrakefilms James Drake

    Great advice with wit as always. As some reps from Digital Kitchen stated, “Fail Big, Fail Often”.