Film School Blog

Feeling Creatively Dry

It’s back to (film) school. And it hasn’t gotten any easier while we were away.

This semester we will be making four short films in 290. The first three are individual projects, and the last one is a crew project. Sophomore year is different because not only have expectations gone up, but so has the way in which we make films. 

This is not to say that fundamentally the process of filmmaking has been altered, just that there is an undeniable added layer of complication: the first change is that we’re no longer allowed to use our own cameras (so don’t feel compelled to spend lots of money on a new camera the summer before sophomore year like I did), and while the camera we do get is pretty good (Sony XDCAMs), the drawback is that we don’t get to use it on our own schedule necessarily, as we’re sharing the camera with two other people.

The second point is that there are roughly, oh, ~5 billion~ rules we have to follow. Shooting in a moving vehicle? Nope. Fire of any sort? Better fake it. Going near the beach, pool, lake, or bathtub with your actors? Don’t forget to hire a lifeguard. Want to shoot anywhere other than your own home or USC stages? Have fun with the permit paperwork, and many, many more thrilling restrictions…

While we are told that this isn’t meant to discourage us but rather keep us safe and prepare us for working in the industry, it definitely forces us to re-evaluate our options and tone down the more complex ideas.

As much as I’d like to join the chorus of complaints, I actually think this is a really, really good idea.

When I taught Movie Club in high school to 5th-8th graders, we had to work with point-and-shoot cameras, cheap audio equipment, and improvised art supplies. Trust kids to come up with some pretty creative solutions and entertaining stop-motion films. It is my strong belief that restrictions foster creativity. Not just any creativity, but the kind that brings you back to that simplistic child-like wonder and genius of how to make something out of almost nothing. This material minimization forces you to think critically, just like when Iñárritu’s theater professor asked him to make his audience feel an emotion in a black room. It’s possible – it’s just hard.

This brings us to our first assignment, The Emotion Project. It’s similar to what we were asked to do in 285 last semester, except that this time we cannot use synch-sound (aka, onscreen dialogue). Our film does not have to tell a story – which we defined as a protagonist overcoming an obstacle. It does, however, need to make the audience feel something. Eliciting an emotion is an incredibly challenging task, but one that we as filmmakers, storytellers, artists of any kind, pursue like no other. Take a moment to think about scenes from movies that have really moved you. How did they do that? It’s considerably more involved than you might think, and the more natural it feels, the more work has gone into it to make it feel so authentic.

To summon an emotion effectively, with the level of perceived simplicity that films like Little Miss Sunshine (2006) so powerfully achieves in the car scene when Paul Dano’s character finds out he’s color blind, for example. This takes an enormous amount of thought, planning, practice, and ability by the performers and the crew.

Right now, I am SUPER out of practice. I got a lot of distance from filmmaking this summer. That was not by choice, but rather from working multiple jobs this summer and not having much free time to watch movies, read, or create. The creative and artistic synapses in my brain were dulled quite a bit. 

Coming back to school after doing very little creative work all summer feels like I took a three-month nap on my arm, cut off all the circulation, and am trying to make a fist to get the blood flowing again.  

Whether or not this is a bad thing, I don’t know. It happened, and I’m adapting to that. The things I’ve experienced this summer have forced me to slow down and ask myself what I’m doing and why I’m doing it more often. I really want to focus more on quality of concept rather than quantity of output.

Still, my inability to come up with any good ideas for two weeks after the first project was assigned is clearly a problem. Creativity is a “muscle” that constantly needs to be exercised otherwise it takes a while to get back to one’s initial level. Maybe someone will refute that people with pure, raw genius never lose their creativity, that they always have ideas bubbling and can pick up right where they left off. Cool. That’s not me.  

While I do write down every idea I have for a short film since 8th grade, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of those ideas no longer interest me. The problem here was that I took too much time off from thinking creatively that I changed as a person and my ideas inevitably did also.

So, how does one overcome this mental blockage? It can be incredibly frustrating and demoralizing, and I’m sure every artist is bound to encounter this at some point. These are a few things that seemed to have helped me:

 1)   Meditate.

This is undoubtedly the best habit I had last semester. Meditating for 10, 15, or 20 minutes every day (for me, mornings before anyone else is awake works best) energizes me more than coffee or tea ever has. You can use apps like Headspace or Meditate, or just find a quiet corner and close your eyes. Meditation is an enormously powerful and beneficial activity. I won’t go on to list the numerous reasons why it’s so good for you, but to summarize I’ll just say that training your mind, body, and soul to become increasingly sensitive to the present – the breath moving in and out of your body, the sounds around you, the way you feel, controlling what you’re thinking and what you’re not thinking about – grounds you in a way nothing else can. It allows your mind room to wander if you let it, or a chance to cleanse itself from all the constant noise and visual pollution that bombards it all day. For an exercise in creativity, meditation is crucial in allowing your subconscious to permeate to your conscious mind. And that’s where the good ideas are.

2)   Write. It. Down.

The one, the only, Leigh Preuss a.k.a greatest art/photo teacher of all-time taught us a very important lesson one day. She came into class and passed us all out a piece of paper with 20 empty circles drawn on it. She said that she would set a timer for two minutes, and that we had to have something drawn in every circle, none of which could be similar to a previous circle.

Leigh started the timer, it ended, and we reviewed the results.

Only one student had successfully filled out all 20 of his circles – the rest of us failed to do so.

This was an important lesson about not focusing on performing but rather doing what was asked, and generating as many ideas as quickly as possible. While this goes directly against my whole “quality over quantity” spiel, here’s why it can help:

Churning out ideas – good, bad, mediocre, whatever – as quickly as you can is actually a form of meditation. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’re no longer consciously censoring yourself and you’re just letting whatever comes to you fall down as an option. This lack of self-judgement and fear of expectation is remarkably liberating. No one will see this list but you, so be as audacious as you’d like. 

Remembering this exercise helped me do exactly that. I opened a Word document on my computer and just started listing anything and everything that came into my mind. Usually it would just be the image of something, for example, “cannonball in pool” or “woman lying on bed speaking to herself”. Something about these visuals were immediately compelling to me and I wasn’t quite sure why, but I could invent the emotion/story around them later on. They were starting points.

On my 29th idea I hit on something that I felt was easy enough to film (by that I mean simple in its visuals so that I could execute it in a less than a day) and one of the more conceptual ideas written down.

This provokes an interesting and more philosophical question: is creativity really just randomness? Lewis Wolpert in his book, The Unnatural Nature of Science would agree. He says that “the creative process is said to entail mental elements which are permutated in a random manner, and these random permutations are selected by another process so that the best ideas survive”. David Lynch might also agree, as in his recent piece for The Atlantic, he talks about where ideas come from, and repeats that ideas are like fish, “you don’t make the fish, you catch them”.  

So wait a minute. We don’t generate ideas? Is everything we “invent” so to speak, just the result of previous knowledge or memories that bubble to the surface and shapes themselves into a relevant, usable ideas? I believe that to say anything is original is a fallacy, but to restrict creativity to a process of pure chaos and randomness feels like a cop-out. Is there any way in which we can control that randomness, thereby enabling ourselves to be creative when we want to be, to generate ideas that we feel are worth something?

In my humble opinion, yes. I think that by feeding our minds and souls constantly with beautiful art, good music, great films, unputdownable* books we give ourselves a creative advantage. By allowing ourselves time to think, to slow down, to be bored, to just do nothing but breathe, we give our subconscious an opportunity to translate its feelings into thoughts.  

It’s very hard to come back and sink my dull teeth into the demands of film school. I can’t say I’m particularly happy with the idea (and subsequent execution) for my first film, but I feel like I’m starting to get back on track and reevaluate how my passions and pursuits have shifted over the summer.  

Not only that, but also critique in class is by far the best part of film school. Honest feedback about what is and isn’t going well in your story is crucial to understand from an outside perspective. Filmmaking is often a team sport: we’re all here because we love cinema and we want to experience work that moves us. You have to remember that everyone has their artistic ups and downs, but ultimately, we’re all rooting for each other to do well.  

(*my mom invented this word so it's real now)