The Happy Filmmaker Blog

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  • The Sweet Smell of Success

    The Sweet Smell of Success

    Lately, I have had quite a few things to celebrate: apart from a birthday which turned out to be pretty spectacular in a unique way, there was a world premiere of THE ISLAND BUS, and another one, this time in the form of the Internet launch of Catalysta.org - career catalyst for the common good - and the web docu series DREAM JOB I have been working hard to help create for over a year now, there was a memorial retrospective art exhibition of my late mother's paintings, there is a national premiere coming up, a festival screening in competition and an avant-premiere that is promising to be a wonderful gathering of friends, supporters and total strangers who will join me for the first ever screening of the director's cut of my first ever feature length documentary. In other words, the filmmaker in me had quite a bit of happiness to share and go around.

    I like sharing my happiness. I go around like a three-year-old, bouncing up and down, squeaking: "Isn't this wonderful? I am soooo pleased. I really am." An ex-boyfriend likened me to a puppy, he said: "You get so excited and happy - and then sometimes something dampens your mood and you are upset for a bit. But then you bounce up again and run around in circles wagging your tail - figuratively speaking - and are all smiles and happiness again." While I leave the hobby (and studied) psychologists among you to decide what his simile said about our relationship ;) and while the image might not be congruent with the classy, lady-like appearance that another part of me likes to display, a lot of it hits the point.

    Yes, I do get excited about my successes and yes, I like sharing that excitement - for one simple and very pure reason: cause it is a great feeling and I want others to participate.

    I am not entirely sure how this participation can work, there is no chemical process I could control that transmits my emotions to others, so a bit of empathy and willingness from your side is required. But for sure I do want you to feel happy about this. As happy as I feel. If I could cut my happiness up like a birthday cake and give each of you a slice, I would.

    Years of happy experience and being a figurative puppy have taught me that this doesn't always happen the way I imagine it. In fact, one of my strongest childhood memories regarding sharing my happiness about an achievement contained the very opposite reaction.

    I was playing with a friend at her house, we were seven (me) and six years old, respectively. We went to the same primary school which for some reason had an extra class reserved for exceptionally gifted children. It was a few extra hours of school every week, so not exactly something any child would look forward to. Yet, as I had discovered, in that class you got to do the really cool stuff cause the students were allowed to choose the topics they wanted to deal with and all those fields I felt thoroughly neglected in my regular education (like theatre, films, Ancient Egypt - yes, sorry, those were my preferences as a seven year old, but I am sure rugby, car engines and photographic mechanics would have made the cut as well) were now in reaching distance. And I had recently been deemed worthy of attending. (The whole process of selection I found deeply suspicious - no doubt influenced by my psychologist and educational expert mother whose ideas of education looked somewhat different, more nourishing than controlling.) But nevertheless, it was a promising achievement - mainly for what it would allow me to experience.

    So I told my friend V, not forgetting to add: "I am sure, next year you'll get to do it too!" And I was sure. I totally believed in her capacity to be selected for that stupid class and therefore experience the fun of widening her horizons according to what she liked.

    Enter the voice of her mother who was a primary school teacher at another school and had overheard our conversation. She said a single word - but that left me speechless and it has taken about twenty years until I recognised it fully for what it was. All she said was: "Show-off!"

    I didn't defend myself. In fact, I didn't even know what I had done wrong. I just went home and let the comment "show-off" sink to the bottom of my consciousness - and ferment there for a few decades.

    These days I like recalling the story and I feel a lot of empathy for the mother who wanted to protect her child from the exaggerated expectations and disappointment that "failure" could mean. I feel empathy for the teacher who felt resentment against someone who seemed to effortlessly achieve something and boast about it while she might have struggled with other children and their capacities herself. Yet, non of those feelings justifies spoiling the party of a seven-year-old who was genuinely happy to have the opportunity to occupy herself with something that interested her. By the way, the class turned out not to be that spectacular after all. I don't even remember what we did there. (Or is that maybe just my denial mechanism that was scared of enjoying too much after that dampening comment? ;) Maybe the puppy hadn't leapt up again yet.) In any case, it was a very impressive lesson about the sweet smell of success - and how it can stink like faeces to others.

    This morning in my meditation, the same topic came up again. I am on headspace.com's Happiness series at the moment, and the topic is - very fittingly - enjoyment. Our own capacity of enjoying not only our own happy moments but equally the happiness of others.

    "Do you genuinely feel happy with them if those around you tell you about something that excites them?", was one of the questions. "And imagine now what it is like if others genuinely share your happiness when you have something great to tell them. And what does it feel like if they are a bit indifferent or maybe even resentful?" Those questions of course provoke the realisation that as much as it is lovely if you have people who can genuinely join your celebration, it is as pleasant for them if you can genuinely enjoy their success. It just makes for more happiness all around. Full stop.

    The meditation exercise is designed to enable you to enjoy the success of others as much as you would (and are enjoying) your own. And the funny thing is: once you have learnt to be happy for others, you can also easily get rid of the feeling of guilt if you have something to celebrate yourself. Everyone allows you to celebrate your birthday - it's something we all have, so no fear of anyone being in advantage, heaven forbid. I would suggest that we should start allowing anyone to celebrate anything, every tiny little bit of achievement is worth making a big noise about it.

    So here I am telling you while I have lots of things at the moment to worry about, I also have a few wonderful achievements to be grateful and happy and - yes - proud of. I know exactly who those people are who helped with them and they know it, too, I hope, and one of those people was I, myself. So I am celebrating and I invite you all to my party.

    Film schools and the film industry with its competitiveness can be pretty daunting places to celebrate success without fearing a stab in the back - or so we are told. But here is what I found: those colleagues I really relate to and whose work interests me happen to be also the ones who seem to be most genuinely happy and excited about others achieving what they had set out to do or even more. So I dare suggest that in order to become really interesting and original filmmakers, we should start loving the success of others as much as our own. That way, we certainly also become happier filmmakers.

    Here is to the sweet smell of things well achieved and celebrated! Raise your glass to all of us!

    With love,

    Sibylle, a very happy filmmaker

  • Inspiration versus To-Do List

    Inspiration versus To-Do List

    As I write this, my house is in utter chaos and clutter. One half of it has to be renovated, and not in the usual cosmetic style of splashing some paint on the walls - even though that usually feels stressful enough and chaotisizes life for a while - but in my case, the walls had to be stripped down to the naked stones, have to be re-plastered, then painted because they suffered so much from the humidity. The beauty of living right by the sea. I'm not complaining.

    Doors are unhinged and standing forlorn in the courtyard, the windows are gone, there is cement dust everywhere (it even covered the cats's food plates much to their dislike) and my camera gear, books, and other belongings build mountain ranges in the living room and my emergency office (the only sanctuaries of clean air) through which narrow canyons lead where I traverse from front door to bathroom to desk to kitchen.

    I have been away for two weeks and the plan was to get this done while I was gone - and of course the plan didn't quite work out (by about four weeks we will be missing the target). But that was to be expected seeing the amount of work that is necessary.

    While I was away, when thinking of the house, I would go through the stuff in my mind and plan what to sort out and give away or sell upon my return. Ever since I have come back, stacks of random belongings stare at me, begging to be sorted or given a new place to live. Wherever I go, I could pick up immediately and find a useful occupation that would keep me busy for the rest of the day.

    Yet, we are launching the preview site of Catalysta next week, I have emails to follow up with people I met at the Cross Video Days in Paris, the last episodes of Dream Job are getting ready for the site launch on 1 September, I am editing some of the preview content to go online on Monday and the festivals that will be screening The Island Bus in the next few weeks and months are expecting press material from me. Not to mention my personal and family affairs that require some attention.

    As you can imagine, my to-do list runs roughly the length of a Dostoyevsky novel. Those are the moments when I discover that odd thing about time: it really is relative.

    Yesterday, I edited for what felt like 20 minutes - and the day was gone. Bamm! The sun set, the cats were hungry. So was I - but I only noticed when the last of the clips rendered and there wasn't anything left to do but listen to my rumbling stomach. On my phone turned on silent, I had a message from a friend asking me to call her back which I had promised to do "in a bit". The message was 6 hours old. Editing does that to me. Most of the time. I simply lose track of any time outside the timeline of my FCP. Writing has similar effects. I have noted this down for only about 2 minutes and already an hour has passed.

    When inspiration strikes, the nice plan that a to-do list represents usually goes out the window. The flow and ease of concentrated creative work is a blessing that should not be tampered with. But it is useful to keep certain checks and balances in place (no one likes skeletal cats staring at them in reproach or dying from dehydration themselves).

    With filmmaking being such an explosive combination of creative play and of meticulous planning, finding and re-gaining this balance is key to being a happy filmmaker. It is also the reason why I advocate meditation and have been practicing it myself.

    If you are claiming to be the "creative type" while you are drowning in chaos, you will sooner or later get on the nerves of those around you and - more importantly - you will start annoying yourself. Neither does sticking to your to-do list like it was set in stone work out in the long run. The two strokes of inspiration that went into the teaser edits yesterday and delighted the producer so much were totally unscripted and would not have occurred, had I not allowed myself to get lost in the creative play. You might not even notice them when you watch next week, but without them, the pieces would feel slightly off. Such is editing, such is filmmaking, such is life.

    I have learned to accept situations like the one I am in during this week as normal. You don't necessarily get those bubbles of calm and clarity in which you launch your greatest artistic works unhindered by outer influences. Directors probably work on the final cuts of their works while 37 weeks pregnant, writers finish books during the loss of a child or a favourite uncle, painters put exhibitions together while splitting up with their spouse and moving house or preparing birthday parties for their best friend.

    Life is sometimes messy and chaotic, sometimes ordered and calm. Both are necessary and have their place and time. In an art form that has more potential for chaos than most others because of the complex logistics involved in most filmmaking, the demand for structure and reliability runs understandably high. But the unpredictable is where the "magic" usually happens. Surfing the waves and regaining balance between the two is what matters to the happy filmmaker.

    Off I go (90 mins later) to tick "blogging" off my to-do list...

  • Happy Mediamaking @ Cross Videos Days 2014

    Happy Mediamaking @ Cross Videos Days 2014

    These days I am not only a Happy but also an Excited Filmmaker cause I am off to the Cross Video Days in Paris!

    The city of love, light - and fashion: is there a better way to present Catalysta's web docu series DREAM JOB with its first season focussing on Eco Fashion?! DREAM JOB - which I am co-directing - has been invited as one of 59 projects selected for the CVD content market - and I am the lucky girl who gets to attend the conference.

    The Cross Video Days also have a section especially for bloggers to get the latest on topics such as "Learning in the Digital Age" or "Multi-Platform Storytelling serving the audience". Expect some insights into what's happy-making about all this - hint: the immediate connection with the audience, for starters - and the one or the other pic of the Eiffel Tower, just for good measure. See you next week in Paris!

  • The Money Thing

    The Money Thing

    Just recently, I had a chat with a camera woman who has been working in the UK film and TV industry for 13 years and felt utterly tired of her same-same job. She is working on TV talk shows which feels to her like boring routine and she was happy to hear about my enthusiasm for the docu series I am working on. While I wondered whether it wouldn't be nice to have the regular salary that she gets from the big broadcasting company that employs her.

    When I tell people that I make films, apart from the guaranteed interest and the follow-up questions about what the films are about and for whom and how I make them, there are usually two kind of reactions: either my opposite is very impressed and concludes that I am making a seven-figure income - or they ask: "Can you make a living with that?"

    I always find it interesting when that second question comes. Honestly, would you ask someone who has just told you that they are a dentist or an accountant or a nurse: "Can you make a living with that?" You probably wouldn't. But why not? I know lawyers who had to go into debt to open their practice and are struggling to make ends meet. Nurses are notoriously underpaid. Yet, if someone tells you: "I am working as a nurse on a children's ward.", you would probably not enquire how they earn their living. So why is that?

    Presumably because all those other professions are meant to be bread-winning first, fun-bringing later. Yet, there are kindergarten teachers who tell you how much they love their work, there are public servants who revel in their tasks. This is a true story. Yes, they also do their bit and complain about the routine just so that we don't think they are in it for the fun. But there are people who have chosen these jobs and enjoy them. So clearly they love their work. We should ask them, too, whether besides personal satisfaction they also earn their upkeep.

    Cause that - I suppose - is the underlying assumption behind the question: "Can you make a living as a filmmaker?"

    Here is the answer: if you are doing it to make a living, you can. It is sometimes easier, sometimes harder than in other professions. And it entirely depends on the path you choose. If you secure a job in a corporation - a broadcaster, a big media production company - you are more likely to have a regular and stable income than if you freelance. The same goes for carpenters and pharmacists, by the way.

    The media corporations tend to downsize and jobs there tend to be temporary. But the same can actually be said about universities and hospitals.

    Yet, without a doubt, there is a money issue involved in filmmaking. The German documentary association AG DOK has conducted a study in 2012 revealing that most documentary filmmakers working in Germany earn salaries somewhere around the poverty line.

    I am not a hundred per cent certain whether I like the public discussion of that study - even though I am permeating it now myself. As it seems to bring little more than the basis for the same old question again: "You are making documentaries? Can you make a living with that?"

    Hell, yes, if you pay for my work, I very well can. That means everyone from the person whom I work with to the audience that wants to see my work. If you pay for it accordingly, meaning: you pay for what you get, then yes, a filmmaker can make films - and a living.

    Which seems to be the crucial thing: when it comes to money, we seem to divide into two separate groups - those who are good at asking for things from ourselves and those who are good at asking for things from others.

    The first group - which I belong to - would not compromise personal fulfilment, integrity, ideals and wealth for a secure paycheck. All those are personal things that you have to demand of yourself first. You have to be sure to live according to you own values and be accountable first and foremost to yourself. And you might end up compromising on your income.

    The second group which is good at asking for things - in this case: money - from others would not go without making sure they receive a fair amount of something (money in this example) in exchange for whatever it is they are doing and would take no crap in that area, they would rather walk away than stand exploitation of their work. They do tolerate to a certain extend compromising their passions and ideals though.

    No one of these is better than the other. They just both seem to come with certain advantages or disadvantages. And - you guessed it - a lot of filmmakers seem to belong to group one and - if funds are tight - seem to be willing to compromise income for ideals, aka heart projects. A lot of artists in general, I think, can be counted among those.

    Then there are others working in the industry who are better at demanding a decent pay for their work who usually end up in a staff positions on bigger productions. Whether or not the amount of payment they receive there is appropriate for the hours worked is debatable - and always debated within the unions. Praised be they.

    But those employees seem to do better financially and also rise higher on the career ladder - while sometimes complaining about the lack of inspirational projects in their work slate.

    So what to do?

    Basically, first you could identify which of the two groups you seem to belong to.

    Have you got a tendency to follow through with the ideas you are passionate about, working on low to unpaid projects because you believe in them (or in yourself)? Do you tend to wonder how you will pay the rent, but feel proud of your work and what you have achieved creatively?

    You definitely make living to your standards and ideals a priority and compromise on the payment side. You first and foremost demand things from yourself and tend to let others get something from you even if the payment is low.

    Do you work hard for high profile projects, make doing a good job and your professional reputation a priority? Do you build on your previous job to secure a better paid job the next time, working the same crew position but with a better company or on a higher profile project? Do you steadily advance your career within the terms the industry sets, but wonder sometimes when you will finally get to work on something that you would actually want to watch yourself?

    You are striving for a fair remuneration for your efforts and are good at selling yourself and what you have to offer, knowing perfectly well how you want to advance your finances and reputation. You are good at requesting a fair exchange from others but compromise on your ideals and dreams if the paycheck is right.

    As I said before: both of these are "right" - and ideally, they balance out. But knowing your tendency can also tell you how to strike that balance.

    So if you feel your finances are a bit over-stretched, maybe it is time to use your capacity of demanding things from yourself (aka your discipline and enthusiasm) to apply it to the money side and get passionate about your earnings.

    If you feel bored and frustrated in your work by uninspiring projects, maybe it is time to use your talent for setting the right value for yourself for looking for work better uses your skills and "pays" you better in terms of creative satisfaction.

    In essence, both of these approaches are about self-worth and what we think we deserve. The Happy Filmmaker knows they deserve fair pay AND fun and work, because then what they deliver will be a pleasure to others and - depending on the project - might even advocate more fairness (and fair pay) in the world in general.

    Here is to making money and making films and making the world a better place - all in perfect balance! 

  • Burning the candle

    Burning the candle

    It's not about sparing myself. As I wrote this last night, I had been up for 22 hours, written work emails from 2:36 to 4:00 AM, then travelled by boat to the next island to sort out some household stuff, returned 12 hours later, got straight to the computer to watch the final cuts of episode 2 and 5 of the docu series I am co-directing - and to receive an email with pretty amazing news related to said series which led to another hour on Skype (hours 21 to 22 of time awake).

    The entire day had been spent on totally exhausting myself to make the combination of both happiness factors - film and life - come to their fullest.

    Of course, I cannot go like that everyday - and I don't. But it just serves as a reminder that the path of the happy filmmaker doesn't mean shying away from the impossible and taking it slow and easy always.

    Sometimes it means allowing the craziness. But you need to know why, you need to know your boundaries - and even more importantly: your priorities, and they need to be balanced.

    What is it you want to achieve and what's important for that? A little priority adjustment can go a long way - and even let you get by on too little sleep. Once in a while. ;-)

  • The Discipline of Letting Go

    The Discipline of Letting Go

    Just this morning I realised that it is actually quite useful having learned to be stubborn and stick to something: all that discipline of not giving up let's me show up every day for my meditation, for my gratitude, for noticing the things in life that make me happy.

    Since my work belongs to them, it also makes sure I stick to it even at times when the challenges seem a bit overwhelming. There are days when collaborators give up, money doesn't seem to flow, or if it does, it seems hard earned regarding what is required in exchange.

    On those days, the "discipline" of choice is self-love. Instead of resenting and going all sour, go out and count the daisies. For five minutes. Breath. Drink a cup of your favourite tea or coffee. Get some sun or some air. Take a photo of what makes you happy. (Or a little video on your phone.) Dance in your cubicle or in the bathroom. Write out what you are grateful for. 

    And make sure you are disciplined enough to practice that every day. The more you do, the less "discipline" is required. Promised. 

    Buena suerte!

    PS: and should you have clear skies tonight and still be at work after dark, give yourself a break and look at the sky to see whether you can see some of the Eta-Aquarides meteorites. Apparently they are having a party up there today which looks from down here like shooting stars. Time to act on a wish. 

  • 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.