The Happy Filmmaker Blog

  • Success as a happy filmmaker

    As we are exploring the happy filmmaking life further, I would like to start with the first part: the happiness. We will explore the filmmaking, too, don't worry. But there are already a lot of very valuable tips out there about the technique and technology, the tools of the trade. Important to know. But all the tools in the world won't make you a happy filmmaker, if you are not happy first. Truth. (It's a bit like you won't be happy in a relationship - only for a short endorphine-fuelled high at the start - if you are not happy already. Truth that one, too. Trust me. Tried it.)

    With happiness I don't mean permanent cheerfulness, ignorance of life's more difficult aspects and neverending energy that is on 24/7. If you are after those, you might have to try cocaine or for a cheaper option that doesn't land you in prison, try sugar.

    If you are after what I would define as real happiness, read on.

    Happiness to me means a certain balance where you feel most of the time that things are working out, you find, that somehow life and work are in some maginficent order and you just have to show up to be part of it. Things might go wrong sometimes, or are a bit flat, but beneath all that, there is a permanent hum of happiness inside you, of happy stillness and peace of mind.

    That to me is succeeding in happiness. First requirement for being a happy filmmaker.

    There is a great quote about success by Arnaud Desjardins:

    Everything depends on Love. If we have professional success, we feel that Life loves us, that our employers, bosses, colleagues are no enemies. Love, love; do the first step!

    I have found the following to be a good definition of success as a filmmaker: if you feel loved by your audience, you consider yourself succesful. Success as a happy filmmaker also includes the love of colleagues, financiers, commissioners, producers, anyone you might depend on to do your work.

    Regarding my films, people often thank me for the places they have transported them to. Be it the physical place of a small Greek island or the places in our imagination and ourselves, the feelings the films evoke and the inspiration people derive from them. Audience members have thanked me for taking them on a journey to a place they didn't even know existed and giving them inspiration, hope and an idea to try out in their own life. (If you would like to check that for yourself, you can watch THE ISLAND BUS, the documentary that elicited these comments, here.)

    You cannot imagined how loved I feel when someone tells me these things. Bamm, success!

    In a wider sense, not necessarily related to any of my film or video work, people usually thank me for my kindness. Which again makes me really happy, cause the Dalai Lama's postulation that kindness is THE thing to get right in life ranks high on my list of priorities.

    Friends also often thank me for listening to them and for sharing advice I have found to be useful for myself regarding any situation they find themselves in. That is an absolute win-win situation because - I suppose you have guessed it from this blog - I am rather excited about sharing the things I am excited about. (And I love a bit of DADA in my phrasing, too.)

    Then there are those skills that I might possess but those around me not to such a high degree. Can be something simple: in a foreign country, surrounded by speakers of other languages, my native German skills are often appreciated. This obviously depends on the situation I find myself in. In Berlin, those skills might be of a little less value to the crowd around me. In the company of professionals of other stripes, having a photographer's eye and the technical knowledge to create images that speak to the viewer has earned me profuse thanks from those who were in need of these images for whatever it is they wanted to be photographed or filmed.

    Then again, there are professional skills that I have received thanks for: actors who appreciated my way of directing as it allowed them to bring out their best and shine, fellow artists who appreciated my input on their writing, editing and filming. (In a way, directing is mostly that: giving those creatives working with you feedback. What I try to do is leave room for their creativity - even if I don't understand yet what they are aiming for - to come out and do its best.)

    I am listing all these things not to tell you what an amazing person I am. (If you have read this far, you either appreciate my writing yourself, so at least you would agree on that one, or you simply wonder what the whole point of all this is. Let me tell you:) This list of what people thank me for is again a guideline for me to decide what work to do, how to do it and for and with whom.

    And that's important to know if you want to be not only a filmmaker, or if you don't just want to be happy, but a happy filmmaker.

    Find out what the traits are that elicit the love Desjardins talks about: the love of colleagues, financiers, employers, and your audience. Find out what people thank you for! Chances are, those are your greatest talents. So find those out, and then do more of that.

    See you on the small or big screens of the world!

  • Non-attachment for directors

    Non-attachment and directing seem to be paradoxical. But as a recent article about the 10 paradoxical traits of creative people suggests, for a filmmaker combining opposites in your personality is quite normal.

    So how about non-attachment?

    What I mean by it in its broadest sense is the ability to let go and let unfold. To NOT cling to your first idea. To be able to relinquish control. And if you read this list, it all sounds a little more sensible, doesn't it?

    For a director, the very term seems to suggest that you should give directions. So it can be very easy to feel the responsibility of "making" it happen.

    This may be even more so for that new breed of filmmaker - a very general term that basically means a micro-entrepreneur, oftentimes a one-man or one-woman band who conceives the idea, develops, shoots and edits, sometimes with the collaboration, help and support of creative partners in one of these areas, more often than not alone in at least one of them because that is what the media landscape and the - oh, so elusive - funds dictate to get anything done that is not totally the norm (or invented by others whose direction we have to follow). For these self-reliant "content creators", it can be very easy to get stuck or frightened by the sense of control that we feel we need to exercise. And even if it is just control over ourselves: getting the motivation up to continue with a project that we believe in.

    Whether it is for the purpose of meaningful collaboration or simply for the health of yourself - and the project: non-attachment is a wonderful thing.

    Let go of that great idea, open yourself up to the possibility of alternatives and watch what happens. (If you develop your project through any pitching workshop, you will be told so anyway.) Sometimes, you will find something stronger. But what's even more exciting is watching how letting go gives that idea a life of its own. If regarded as common good, like the idea of someone else, all of a sudden, you can see that your life doesn't depend on tiny details - and you can experiment with improving them.

    Non-attachment seems to be vital to our ability to calm down. A calm, happy and friendly communication is so desirable in the workplace, even more so when you are trying to create something that your audience should love and enjoy.

    Let people who want to work with you have their say. Listen to your idea through the lens of their perspective - you might find something useful.

    As a director, your main job is anyway to be the catalyst that spurs on everybody's creativity and coaxes them into bringing their best talent to the film. People might joke that you are dispensable since you aren't physically doing anything, just standing or sitting around and watching. Little do they know. You are like the compass, magnetic North, you are the ship's stewart, there to make sure the project travels on course. So you need to be able to de-tach yourself a bit from the details and get the bigger picture once in a while. Non-attachment again.

    How you reach non-attachment will be a personal thing. Actually it is a term that is used a lot when talking about meditation and that happens to be my own preferred practice - among others. As I mentioned in the very first blog entry, I will share with you here what I have discovered. So having started a daily meditation practice just about 6 months ago with the aid of the wonderful Headspace Journey, I find it more and more useful for my work practice. A calm fierceness or a fierce kindness is what I am trying to apply to my work these days. And when I manage, not only does work feel like play - it also gets lovely results in much shorter time than before. Then I've got to deal with the trouble that I feel like a cheat cause I "haven't really done that much" - apart from showing up every day and practicing - but that's another story.

    In fact, for those of you a bit more technically-minded who find the concept of meditation to sound like hocus pocus, how about thinking about it like maintenance for the mind? You clean your lenses, dust the connections and check out your cables, too. So how can the human brain and mind and being, one of the most complex "machines" on earth on which most other machines are modelled, be expected to function day in and day out without a practice to maintain its vitality and happiness?

    Don't take my word for it, try things for yourself. I am not re-inventing the wheel here, simply trying to merge my two passions: that for filmmaking and that for having a life full of happiness and love. Trying not too hard seems to do the trick.

  • Creative Energy Boost

    I find that only a few things in life are as exciting and stimulating as the energy boost you get from creative work and working in a team of like-minded creatives when things go right. It can feel almost physically addictive, because it is certainly releasing a lot of happy hormones. I tend to compare my own experience of this with the act of swimming (and pounding the waves smoothly with your limbs) or body surfing - being engulfed and carried by the elements around you, yet in control of them,

    It's what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called "the flow". The flow happens when a person is fully immersed in what they are doing. When actors play off each other and merge with their roles, they are in the flow. When you film a documentary scene and you manage to frame exactly the right action at exactly the right time, you are not thinking only and pre-planning shots, but you are in the flow, you react to what is in front of you and you control the camera with your reaction but that again provides more for you to react to. I sometimes don't realise anymore that camera and my arm are separate. It is almost like turning into that hybrid being where the arm supports the machine bit that feeds the eye - David Cronenberg would like that. 

    It is a state to cultivate and even practice as it is so essential for creating useful work - yet it isn't always easy to manage. As we know, filmmaking is to a great part scheduling, planning, calculating and in general being very adult and rational about things - lest they go wrong.

    Being an adult is also a bit tiring - I don't know whether you had noticed. At some stage, you start to become standoffish and short, giving commands and feeling like people around you either don't realise what's important or treat you somehow wrong. In other words: if you are being very, very rational for very, very long, you will paint yourself into a corner of unhappiness.

    Enter a tool that I am finally discovering to its full potential and which I realise is extremely useful on the quest of being a happy filmmaker: meditation.

    I had wanted to start with meditation for a long time, but somehow didn't quite get the hang of it. It worked, sort of, to sit still and try and let thoughts come and go, focussing on the body - but somehow I hadn't really got the right guidance. 

    Then I stumbled over a website that appealed straight away to the busy, multi-tasking geek inside me: 

    I signed up for the guided meditation practice that the guys over at Get Some Headspace offer and I admit it, probably mainly enticed by the wonderful animations across the site and the fact that they even offer an app for my phone.

    On a more serious level, the fact that Andy Puddicombe, the Headspace founder and fully ordainned Buddhist monk, set out to bring meditation to über-busy Westerners intrigued me. And they got me hooked.

    I am about 4 months into the experience, where their year-long daily meditation program now delves head first (literally!) into the realm of creativity. There are lots of thoughts, feelings and insights bubbling up - and I am planning to share them here once in a while.

    Today's mediation, which was the second of a series of visualisation techniques, made me think about that energizing effect that creativity has on the body. Interestingly enough, meditation ties in very nicely with that - as it can have the same effect. It is also extremely good for recharigng your batteries: like a hot foam bath for the mind. 

  • The Happy Filmmaker

    What is the first thing that comes to mind when I ask you to describe a typical filmmaker? What is the work environment you picture?

    All too often, there will be ideas of selfish and authoritarian producers, manipulative directors, "difficult" actors and snobbish and cynical technical crew only waiting to see any of the big wigs fall.

    While this is fuelled by some - admittedly entertaining - satires about the "business" from within the business (off the top of my head I can think of "State and Main", written and directed by David Mamet who I suspect likes a good story about intrigue and betrayal), there seem to be a great lot of people working within the industry who are anything but back-biting monsters.

    In fact, those people I am thinking of are in it for love - they do what they do with a passion - because if they did it for the sure paycheck or the riches to be earned, they would be working another job. They also do it for the people they want to work with, and the art they want to bring about. They love filmmaking and they want to be happy doing it.

    I am one of these people. And I know a whole lot of others who would whole-heartedly agree.

    It doesn't always work out well and happy - which is partly due to the crazy hours worked, the tight finances, the "fear" of the audience and its supposed whimsical taste. And some of those filmmakers who seek happiness at some stage quit the industry and open up a B&B or become a yoga teacher. While I love B&Bs and always enjoy the company of yoga teachers, the greatest love of my life (well, one of them ;-)) is filmmaking, creating images, especially the moving one. 

    But I also decided to live my life happily. 

    So this blog is to explore the ways in which you (and I) can combine the two. Because, as one of the most inspiring people I know rightly says: what you think, you become. 

    Films can inspire, filmmakers can inspire - and they also need inspiration to keep going. 

    Instead of bemoaning the state of the industry, here is to a collection of thoughts, ideas, programs and resources for the Happy Filmmaker - to keep you fuelled with your passion and let you work that passion in ways that benefit yourself, your environment and "the industry" alike. 

    It is a random collection of the things I find on my path to be helpful, and I hope you enjoy it and will find inspiration, too.

    Keep creating tiny miracles of moving images on screen!


    Sibylle x