December 31, 2012
On Directing Software and Movies

In this year that is now ending, I had the privilege to work with an amazing crew to create Popcorn Maker. To say that I’m proud doesn’t really sum it up: of course I am proud, but mostly I feel grateful. I don’t think I realized how ambitious we were until halfway through this summer, when we REALLY needed to put the pedal to the metal in order to pull it off. In hindsight, a lot could have gone wrong, and a lot was on the line, so it’s with no small measure of gratitude to my colleagues, to the fates, and to everyone’s extraordinary effort that I’m ending 2012 feeling like we did exactly what we set out to do.

I remember feeling this way when finishing films as well - a certain euphoria and exhaustion, and a sense that the the work only really starts when you release something out of your internal group and into the world. It strikes me that all things worth doing are hard (at least for me). So as I look to new challenges and opportunities in 2013, I wanted to list out what I feel is a Survival Guide For Directors ™. All of these ideas owe to directors that I’ve learned from personally, or through writing (Rands, for example).

PICK GREAT COLLABORATORS

Software and Media Production are both collaborative crafts. As a director, you’re only one member of a team. Your job is to help people do their job well, remember why they’re doing it, and keep all eyes on the prize. Pick people who you know have crossed the finish line, or for whom this is a first chance to do something great. Try and ensure they have as much stake and opportunity in the project as you do.

OWN A FEATURE…..

Whether you’re recording sound, editing the footage, writing some HTML or pitching in on design, you need to bring some part of this to conclusion with your own hands. Not only does it set the right tone, but it grants you an understanding of the team’s challenges that you don’t get by delegating. Particularly if you’re embarking on a new subject area or technical approach, respect your collaborators and spend some time understanding their world.

….BUT GET OUT OF THE WAY

Since you’ve picked great collaborators, let them be great. Give them a sense of the vision, but let animators run wild. Let designers surprise you with an unexpected innovation. Remember your developers need time to bake a feature and that they’re as or more creative than you. Let your sound editors create brilliant juxtapositions you just don’t have the talent to dream up. Your job after all is to look after the audience, so do them the favour of letting artists be artists.

TRUST YOUR GUT…

Especially on projects with a long time horizon, everyone is going to have an answer when something goes wrong. Oh, and something always goes wrong. If something feels like it’s the wrong approach. or too easy of a solution, or not quite right - it probably is. You’ll need lots of advice, but learn to trust your own.

…BUT BE FLEXIBLE

You’ll never work on a project that turns out exactly like the original idea, so learn to adapt when real life steps in. A team member may leave, a documentary subject might change due to current events, you might run out of time or money. You’ll need to cut features, change your narration, change your story or your product. Remember that the proposal or slide deck you created at the start of this is just a thought experiment - the real test is whether it can actually exist in the world, and sometimes no amount of brute force or late nights can produce something that isn’t meant to be.

…JUST NOT TOO FLEXIBLE

At the end of the day, what drives things to the finish line is vision. It might need to change, but everyone needs a picture in their mind of what you are building together, who it’s for, and why the world will be better when it arrives. So as you adapt to reality, make sure that you and your team aren’t building something that they wouldn’t have signed up for. That way mediocrity lies, and that is cancer. Encourage an environment of peer review and critique, so calling something out as being not up to snuff doesn’t feel personal.

TAKE YOUR TIME WITH THE CREDITS

Have someone read them over. You never get in trouble for thanking anyone, ever.

And above all, don’t be a jerk. Life is too short. When you work in software or movies, generally everyone is there because they love it. Don’t be the person that changes that. Instead, be as light of a touch as humanly possible , help everyone get the job done, be a bullshit umbrella and fight like hell for your team.

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