This is an article I’ve been wanting to write for a long time but I just keep pussying out. I wrote a 1,000 word version already and then canned it because I was too scared about pissing everyone off. But here we go: Why is so much mediocre work held up as ‘amazing’ or ‘stunning’ when, actually, it probably isn’t? What are the consequences of that? Should we care? And what could we do about it if we did?

A while back I wrote a staggeringly vicious article attacking Tom Lowe from Timescapes about the manner in which he was trying to fund the completion of his film. In hindsight this was unnecessarily brutal. I stand by my argument but the delivery was an echo of my days defending myself from school bullies by being the most sarcastic, hurtful bastard I could. So, sorry Tom for that. At the time I wrote the article I was in the middle of trying to unpick a riddle. Why on earth so much work I considered to be no more than average was inspiring so many fawning, congratulatory comments on Vimeo. We all know the type: ‘Wow, so inspiring. What f-stop did you use?’ kind of thing.

Example: this is a video I posted a couple of years ago that inspired all manner of great comments. It’s really just a canny example of track-pumping, where you milk a piece of music for all its worth so you make your work seem much better than it is. My skill in picking the right track far outweighed everything else. And more power to me.

Was the reason simply that I’m generally mean-spirited and one of those people who don’t like anything? Am I just in fact way more aware of great quality work because I’ve been exposed to a great deal of it in the paths my work has taken me down? Or is it in fact just a symptom of chronic politeness in a community that desperately wants to feel good about itself and doesn’t tolerate criticism well?

I suspect it’s all of the above.

I can be mean-spirited, yes, but I also like a whole heap of crap and it’s one of the great joys of production that it’s so nuanced, so layered, that you can readily take a mere fraction of the perfection we all aspire to, and still be entertained. In trying to find an idiom for my own sensibilities I’ve spent a lot of time picking over my responses to work to understand what mix of all of that I’d like to put into my own work to engender the kinds of potent responsibilities that made me fall in love with film in the first place. So, this is what I look for in other people’s work.

Quick career history. Started in extreme sports, moved to music videos and television, grubbied up with corporate and paycheck work, came out the other side, veered into comedy and am now pushing for drama. I’ve spent 6 out of 7 days for the last 11 years working in film and video. More importantly than that I’ve spent about 90% of that time editing in some capacity and that means I’ve been exposed to a lot of rubbish. Editors are the waist in the hourglass, where all the mess of production is concentrated and focussed ready to be cast out into the great yonder again. We’re confounded and delighted by camerawork, we fix story, we polish turds, we get to see all the hard work and we get to bring a director’s vision to life. We should know our shit. I know what I like, but I can also appreciate craft, talent and hard work in that which isn’t to my taste. I don’t like timelapse films for instance as I get bored after a couple of minutes, but I can still appreciate the craft that goes into making the really great ones.

It’s with all this that I feel I can trust my opinions. But can you? And more importantly, would you respect them?

On Vimeo we are all equal.

We can all post videos, we all have avatars, and we can all post in the same place in the same way. We can all comment. On forums there’s often a ranking system usually based on how long you’ve been active in the community, but, as often as not, based on how proactive, or helpful you are. Those rankings command respect. On Vimeo you earn respect by doing good work, by leaving nice comments, and by being proactive, but really that’s as far as it goes. Everyone’s so polite. Compare that to YouTube which is savage, horrid and often quite hurtful. My question is, are we too polite on Vimeo? Could we be more critical in a helpful way? And would Vimeo benefit from it, or is it in fact simply the wrong place for that kind of interaction?

Now, possibly, the answer is that it really doesn’t matter. The comments on Vimeo are not what win you jobs. If you’re a bit crap and you’re hiding behind great comments then you will be found out and quickly. I think, for me, the real worry is that a generation of filmmakers will grow up judging their work by the comments they receive and not by the general canon of the work which represents the best of their genre, niche, field or discipline. I’ve participated in a number of competitions this year as well as applying for a fair few funding schemes and I’ve just been shocked and surprised by the work that has been picked or been successful. This is more than sour grapes. I’ve got over feeling offended by negative comments, in fact, I welcome them. By defending yourself you understand what those comments mean, and if they’re justified or not. It’s more about standing up for a quality of work which reaches beyond, that is so rare and amazing that it genuinely deserves the epithets ‘amazing’ or ‘super epic’. There’s a danger we’re all going to be just too happy with stuff being good enough, decent, and that’s okay. But I want more than that, I really do. And I think we need to be able to be more critical, safely, of people’s work, without it being seen as an attack.

I did an English degree at Oxford University and was taught by some superhumanly intelligent people. Practical criticism is an essential skill in English literature so I’ve done a fair bit of it. There has been plenty of published critical appreciation of the great classics and we were encouraged to read as much as we could of it. My tutor always said ‘Criticism is at its best when you disagree with it. If you agree, then it’s only telling you what you already know.’ At the heart of that statement is something incredibly important – being forced to think. The unquestioning acceptance of something’s value because there’s a string of comments already in place that state said value is problematic. I know many filmmakers choose not to voice criticism for fear of it rebounding on them and negatively impacting their own place in this precious little community of ours. And, let’s make no bones about this, we are precious. We’ve spent hours and hours honing our work, exhibiting it in public is a little bit like exposing a piece of your soul. Except, it’s really not. Hire a screen, get 100 people in a room, then do a Q&A afterwards, inviting people to criticise you. That’s a vulnerable place to be. Why are people scared to voice their opinions? I’m not and never have been, but then I do have a body of work behind me which protects me from return criticism, which often occurs in the form of ‘Well what have you done then?’

And that’s half the problem. Most of us have no idea what the rest of us have done, and where our opinions have come from. You have to fight to earn that, and the comments section on Vimeo is really not the place to do that. So, most stay stum. What would be much better is a feature on Vimeo where you could submit your work to be critiqued by a panel of peers. Opting in to criticism means you want it, you value it and you’re ready for it. You may not like what people have to say, but ‘the most valuable criticism is that which you don’t agree with.’

Here’s an example.

I have a huge amount of respect for Vince Laforet. You don’t criticise Vince. Ever. He’s very good at what he does, and he works incredibly hard to be good at what is actually a relatively new thing for him. So, to Mobius, his short film, shot on the C300. It’s been incredibly well-received and rightly so, as it was put together incredibly fast, and shows off the strengths of the camera brilliantly. However, I didn’t much care for it. It’s a piece of drama, and judged as such I felt it fell short. For me, drama should move you, beyond all that crap about something looking great (which is important, absolutely) drama’s absolute and principle goal should be to make you feel something, whether it’s action, comedy, drama or farce. Judged by that criteria, me, personally, in my opinion, not anyone else’s, not yours, disagree with me for all you like, I thought it was flat. There, I’ve said it. I’d happily write you a precise and detailed critique of the film and exactly why, but I’m already at 1500 words and this article is looooong. I’m pushing for a career in drama and I would have killed for the opportunity to shoot a film with that camera. Not because it’s brand new, but because the audience for a film of that kind would be an incredible opportunity to get my work in front of a ton of people who I’d want to give an strong emotional experience to.

But that’s just me.

This is an open-ended article, because I don’t have the answer. Taste is an incredibly subjective thing, yet, despite that I believe far too much work that falls short of brilliant is labelled as such, and I worry that the truly brilliant work isn’t getting seen, or recognised as such. And it’s because we all want to be positive. Positive is inclusive, it’s comfortable. Criticism is pointed and sticks out. It suggests you have a point of view that’s different from everyone else. But, hey, isn’t that what being a filmmaker is supposed to be all about?

Feel free to disagree with me anytime @aka_skid

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.
  • micah

    Pretty much

  • Patrick Lockerman

    Frankly, mean-spirited, harsh, coarse, or whatever, your remarks are usually spot on and can be of value. I follow you for that reason. Sure I am entertained by your ‘delivery’ but once a person gets over or beyond that, the substance seems to hold up.  The honest and brutal truth is worth way more than someone blowing smoke up your a$$. 

  • Loren

    Nice post. This sums up why I prefer the “like” or “thumbs up” feature, lest anything I say be taken wrong.

    As far as Möbius (took the extra time to include the pretentious umlaut) in concerned, I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way…but its first purpose wasn’t as a dramatic piece, it was a camera demonstration. I don’t think he’s entering this thing in any festivals. For what it is, it’s awesome (though I’m just as impressed with Jon Yi’s demonstration).

    Anything I could say about the pros and cons of criticism I’m sure has already been said before, but definitions of “criticism” and “critic” for that matter are changing rapidly and not in a positive way. Thanks, internet!

  • David Aldrich

    Damn Skid, you are destine to become the internet/indy-film voice of reason!

  • Chris M

    Glorious writing. The way you shaped your sentences makes me yearn to write like this someday. Epic!

    Was that about right?

  • Oliver Kember

    Beautiful blog post. Did you write it on Word or Pages?

  • Chris Collins

    It must be that perspective from across the pond! There is certainly a danger to this happy acceptance of mediocrity… especially when you step onto a major league field.  There you have it… another positive comment!

  • micah

    The Mobius (omitting the pretentious umlaut) video description should’ve said:

    “A camera demonstration about a photojournalist…”

  • El Skid

    I actually wrote it on a napkin then scanned it.

  • El Skid

    You forgot the irony and the self-mocking nod of the head, plus the accent was all wrong.

  • El Skid

    To be fair guys, Mobius was a reference to the Mobius strip which only has one side and goes on forever, so in that sense, the umlaut was perfectly justified. Didn’t have a problem with that. And you’re right Loren, it was a camera demo first and foremost, but I think VL worked pretty hard to get a good story on the screen and so he should since the camera’s job is to serve the story. What it serves to illustrate though is just how hard drama actually is. When it’s great it’s so powerful but it takes an enormous amount of effort to get it there.

  • Nonya

    El skid you talk to much, but not so much that nobody will (Read) listen,
    Simple question?
    why are all your writings negative and about everyone’s failures?
    You think this will gain you some respect?

  • @BrentwGraham

    I was going to comment on what a great article this is…
    But then I realized my comment doesn’t really matter…


  • Yosemite Steve

    Perhaps we can start a Vimeo channel that is designed to get REAL criticism. You post your work and you WANT people to rip it apart. I’ve learned a lot from so many online filmmakers, yourself included, but I get my best feedback from my wife, who isn’t afraid of hurting my feelings with the truth.

  • Me88742

    Hmmm…. I think this community spends far too much time back patting and commenting on each others work. Just get on with your own thing and share knowledge if you choose to.

  • El Skid

    Good question. I think the simple answer is that this is what interests me to write about. It’s not all negative though. I wrote ten reasons to hate the FS100 but I also wrote ten reasons to love the FS100. I am trying to have a more balanced point of view in what I write now. At the end of the day you’re under no obligation to read a single word of what I write, but as you say, there are people who do get something from it. And that’s up to them.

  • El Skid

    We all need an audience don’t we? This is why all this is so tough to balance out. 

  • aombk

    Wow, great article, so inspiring. What f-stop did you use?

  • Travis

    I think if El Skid Marks put as much work into his films as his blogging, he’d be great at it. Instead, he is putting out sketchy work, just like all the people he complains about. Hope you’re getting paid to blog. Your chops aren’t as beefy as you think.

  • El Skid

    Anything in particular you’re referring to? Since we’re talking about critique here it would be helpful if you could be a bit more specific. Why do you think I stopped blogging full time?

  • Nonya

    Horse shit! all of it!

  • Nigel Walker

    If the mediocre work is celebrated as much as it is it gives the false impression that anyone can make a living in this business. If a DSLR personality posts a two minute clip on Vimeo and it gets 30,000 views what does this actually mean?

    A new genre of media has been created, it’s not traditional short film or gear test but something different. It falls short in both cases. If there is criticism about story the ‘director’ will say it’s just a camera test and if there’s criticism about the gear test they will say they wanted to make it interesting. Jonathan Yi’s film is the first exception to this.

    The question is what do you want to do with the tools that are available? Because if you believe that making nice Vimeo’s and getting lots of views is all it takes to make a living in the business you would be wrong. Having this skill basically qualifies you to make more camera tests and sell gear. Nothing wrong with this but there are only so many of those positions out there and something tells me you got involved in this filmmaking thing to make, well, films.

    It’s been said so many times before but there is so much more to earning a living in this business then pretty pictures. The best films out there, short or long, say something. They evoke emotion, they create a different environment and wait for it, they tell a story. Learn this. Read. Study films and how character arcs are created through images.

    So when people say how great a clip is ask what is so great about it? Is it great because it got a thousand people to buy the latest slider? Or is it great because it moved you in some way?

  • El Skid

    Thanks for the considered comments Nigel, having spent the majority of 2010 getting all up in blogging and everything that went with it, I suddenly realised I hadn’t made anything I cared for in a long long time. I’m nowhere near where I want to be in terms of my own work yet but I certainly know where I’m aiming for and, whether I get there or not, I’m under no illusion as to the worth of my films. Far to go.

  • El Skid

    Ah, you pulled your initial comment. Shame. It was good.

    Ah, you pulled your initial comment. Shame. It was good.

  • Sebastian TR

    Interesting and good post. A feedback or Critique Lounge area in vimeo would be an excellent addition to the site – not only to get feedback – but to help people learn, and see what potential audience / other filmmakers have to say or advise on your work. 

    I always thought threadless did this quite well with having a critique section setup for designs – where people could critique / rate it – and the artist can update the design according to the feedback if they desired  ( V1, V2 , V3 etc… )

    For now though – vimeo to a degree is more of an art gallery, showcasing various works, less of a film-makers club or artist’s cafe. Lots of polite appreciation for work along with the occasional questions about the medium or technical issues here and there, not so much pure critical thought.  (Of course there are always exceptions)

    End of the day though – those who wish to further their work will seek genuine criticism by asking for it – from friends or other film-makers.     

  • James Miller

    Well put Robin. It’s very predictable on Vimeo, you kind of know the general comments your going to get and send out. Way to much politeness, but who am I to judge? well I know what I like…

    I set up an additional vimeo account ( last year with the intention of getting several unnamed moderators on board to critique in a positive way user submitted work to that channel. With the intention of getting some real first gut reaction feedback with out all the back patting I like 😉

    Still have not found the time to start this. But something like this would be nice, needs more thought.

    Cheers, James

    Vimeo needs a like button, and an actual like button.

  • Joel

    There are far too many pretty pictures of slider shots, time lapses etc. all without story. Even a single photograph should tell you a story. Even a good artist will paint a picture that has a story. I’m so bored at looking at these shallow thoughtless so called short films. They are great camera demonstrations but show zero skill at what any type of film making is about. They were fine for a while to demonstrate shallow depth but now they irritate the fuck out of me. Whether a wedding, a corporate, a commercial, a documentary a story needs to be told. The more sophisticated and accessible equipment becomes, the worse it’s becoming. People, you need to tell a story! If I want a pretty picture, I can just open my eyes, look outside and nature will give it to me. However nature will not tell me a story. That’s where creativity of the human mind comes in. There’s about two percent of it at the moment. So enough with pretty pictures and pretty music, If you want to make films, then forget then get off your computer, remove your geeky hat and go shoot something with a start, a middle and an end.

  • Alexander Buhlert

    I very much agree with a lot you’ve written in this
    blog post, especially with the part on criticism rebounding, which as we know has
    led to a lot of bad blood in forums, Youtube and blogs.

    I for one am nowhere near as comfortable
    at the level at which I shoot and create, to freely criticise other filmmakers
    and shooters (although I’d often like to).

    It is much easier to criticize someone who
    you know to be at a similar level as oneself. I would find it very pretentious
    of me to criticize Vincents work (or yours for that matter) because I just don’t
    feel I have the expertise to do so. And since people on Vimeo are on such
    different levels quality wise, it is simply easier to say something nice or to
    say nothing at all. So in regards to the usual comments, yes, they are utterly
    worthless in evaluating your own skill.


    Besides, Vimeo and Youtube, along with the
    rest of the internet are casual places. This translates to the comments being
    of a casual nature and not necessarily very deep.

    And since vimeo is very much a community
    of aspiring and established filmmakers etc. it doesn’t surprise me that the
    comments are more enthusiastic and “supportive” than anything else.


    I would
    very much welcome a vimeo group or something of this sort with a possibility to
    see true constructive criticism which enables the filmmaker to evolve in his


    In this
    spirit: I hope your WW1 short holds up Skid! 😉

  • El Skid

    The stupid thing is that sometimes, the less ‘educated’ perspective on things often sees more clearly to the root of a problem than a more educated view. Film is a mass-market medium, and as such it is owned by everyone. I often get really annoyed by clients who watch work 15 times in a row before deciding they don’t like something. Your first couple of viewings are the ones that most closely resemble the reaction of your end user. That’s why you have to step away from work and give it time to breathe before coming back and re-evaluating it. Thanks for the comment man, you only have to look at the insane shitfest that accompanied the Bloom debacle on nofilmschool. Crazy.

  • El Skid

    There’s always been about 2% of filmed work that had anywhere near a decent story attached to it. What pisses me off is that most people now tend to assume it’s easy. Sure you can pick up a 5D and a good lens and your photos won’t suck, but I own that gear and i would never ever call myself a photographer. Hell, I shoot constantly but nowhere will you find me calling myself a DoP. I find it insulting to those who actually genuinely are DoPs and have served apprenticeships in that world. Whether we like it or not, short films without stories do have an audience and as such they are valid. Which just devalues the whole category for all of us. We can’t fight this and we shouldn’t. Percentage wise there’s just as much shit being made as there always was there’s just so much more being made. The problem is it’s far more visible.