UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES: THE PHRASE THAT MEANS NOTHING & EVERYTHING
There’s a constant and nagging thread that runs through the back catalogue of production I’ve been lucky enough to work on. At every turn I’m frustrated about something, might be a lack of budget, it might be a lack of talent, it might be an idiotic client, or it might be just something as simple as a lack of time. Whatever it is, I seem to always be making excuses. “I’m really good, I just haven’t had a chance to show it yet.” I spend a lot of time studying other directors to see whether they do it too, and the answer is resoundingly, yes. ‘It would have been better had I…’, ‘We did really well, given the budget.’ etc. etc. I think, personally, I’ve become stuck in excuse land, because it shields me from having to be good when there are no excuses to be had. I guess I’m scared I’ll be found out.
Every time I go into a production, the question is always ‘how can we get more for less?’. We never sit and think ‘they’ve given us this budget so they’re going to get exactly what they pay for.’ If I buy a car I expect the car, no more no less. If you buy my services as a producer or director, then I will inevitably go out of my way to justify your decision. I will always try and exceed expectations. Give us no money and we’ll turn it into a nicely articulated backstory about ingenious producing skills. You know the one, ‘Yeah, we shot it for £300′ and ‘Yeah, we did all the VFX ourselves so it looks like a $50m film’… The story is the story, not the film.
I find myself doing it all the time. The piece of work I put up for critique recently was a miracle of low budget production, buy by no means the biggest of all time. I busted a gut, we pulled in all sorts of favours, no-one got paid, but the video has lots to suggest the budget was a lot bigger than it was. It also suffers in many ways, but didn’t we do a good job – under the circumstances?
Looking back over my career it suddenly becomes clear that this is the subtext of all my work. Whether you can see it or not there’s always a caveat, a blinking asterisk drawing the eye to a further narrative that this author vainly hopes will validate his endeavours. That terrible sinking feeling is the knowledge that my back catalogue tells the story, not of my skill as a director, but of my skill turning impossible production challenges into just about credible results. My two co-founders of Chrome Productions, the company we set up as a vehicle for our own work, feel exactly the same way. We started from nothing, living off scraps and crumbs and we over-delivered and over-delivered until we were in contention for the jobs we really wanted. We were defined by our client relations and our ability to pull off the impossible.
The problem with all this is that, while it might make you superhuman and godlike in the eyes of your clients, in the eyes of your peers you don’t really stack up. Going back to that video for SMR vs REESON, the original idea had a purity and a visceral edge that simply wasn’t possible on our budget. I had to compromise, and all those years pounding the music video circuit taught me instinctively where to make those compromises. I did so and we got the job done. I could have fought and fought for things but it would have been ultimately futile.
I like to know the struggle people went through to get things made, but often I think it’s used as an excuse for sub standard work. I know this because I find myself using it all the time. A few years back I was asked to judge one of the categories for the UKMVA’s, the UK’s music video industry awards. A video came up which I thought was pretty poor. It was produced by one of the really big production companies who also happened to have a judge on the panel. The story was that it was a miracle it had got made because the artist hadn’t turned up on the day, the whole thing had been a disaster and it had almost been canned. I argued ‘So what?’. No-one cares about that when they see it and it shouldn’t make a difference when we’re judging the video on artistic merit. I won that particular bout but it was interesting how it was used as a makeweight in an awards contest.
I, for one, am done making excuses for my work. I tend to take on too many jobs, preferring to be busy and using lack of time etc. as the asterisk for the slightly sub-standard of what I do. Sub-standard compared to what? Well, good question, and one which only I can answer when it comes to my own work. On my recent WW1 short we got stuffed when our lead actor pulled out three days before the shoot. So what? I want people to judge the film for what it is. No more excuses. If it turns out the lead actor ruins the film, then we’ll take that on the chin. I will do better work from now on and stop making excuses for where it did or didn’t work. If it turns out that I’m not capable of the level I aspire to then I’ll have to take that on the chin too.
The DSLR ‘revolution’ has brought this into ever sharper relief. People now routinely pull off miracles, making it harder for us longer serving miracle-workers to prove the power of our particular brand of magic. Miraculous is not making a 5D look good. Miraculous is making a PD150 look good. And you’d best remember that. Worse still is the ever-increasing popularity of the idea that if you shoot on Epic or Alexa suddenly you’re a traitor, you’re taking the easy route. People banging on about how the GH2 is the only camera that matters and if you shoot on anything else you’re an idiot doesn’t help anyone. And you’d best remember that too. DSLRs have made it look easy for you, or I or the guy who used to make the coffee, to label ourselves filmmakers. In order to earn the epithet ‘good’ in front of that particular f-word, it’s going to take a bit more work. I’d like to hear less about the circumstances and just focus on the work, but that’s the only story many of us like to recount because it’s far more interesting than the one we were supposed to be telling, namely, the film itself.
‘Under the circumstances’ – it’s a phrase that means everything since it defines the struggle, but ultimately, it means nothing. People won’t care to read the accompanying bumpf, probably. If they do, then they’ll be able to put it all into context, but for the most part, it’s the thing, and only the thing, that counts.
What’s your excuse?