22nd March, 2019
I once, long ago, had a brief moment where I thought I would become a lawyer. Thankfully, my (very sensible) father talked me out it. Because he knew - he knew I was always going to work in a creative professional field and that it was never really going to be a much of a choice for someone like me. And, quite frankly, I would have made a rubbish lawyer.
However, I was reminded again this week of the difficulties professional creatives face and how the daily grind can come close to destroying one of the most important things you have to offer the world - your ideas.
I was working with a long-standing client (let’s call him Jay). The long professional history between Jay and I means that we can work quickly and with a real dedication to a creative vision. Our first draft of the edit was going so well - we knew we were doing really good work - so we sent it off for the first rounds of review. Jay’s agents got back to us immediately and in raptures: “Jay, it’s the best work you’ve done”, they enthused. The client, let’s call them *Big International Luxe Brand*, were equally enthusiastic: “We love it, it’s beautiful work. We just need to send it onto our global marketing director for approval”.
Anyone who works creatively in the commercial film and media world will be familiar with this scenario, the long chain of command which stands in the way of one’s artistic work and the way it is finally viewed and received by an audience. They will also be familiar with what happened next…
“The global marketing director doesn’t get it. He’s not sure if it’s *on-brand* and doesn’t understand the narrative”.
It’s one of the most frustrating, familiar and predictable aspects of making a full-time living from a creative profession. Fresh, original ideas are invariably, (through a process of vapid, exasperating, corporatised alchemy) watered down, undermined, over-thought and torn to shreds. Anything fresh about an original concept will inevitably be sent to a middle-man, a guy (mostly) in a suit who will then proceed to shape it into something else, decided on by quotas, market research, audience statistics, and whatever other bullshit the advertising agency / tv channel / global company / film agency base their opinions on.
It’s the reason why I do not agree with my personal and professional hero, Adam Curtis, about the power of advertising - advertising would possibly be effective and even down right manipulative, if it wasn’t for this excruciating process of dilution.
After 16 years working as a professional film editor, I’ve seen and heard it all. Nothing shocks or surprises me anymore; there is not a single piece of inane, ridiculous feedback that makes me break a sweat, and not a single scenario where I cannot be prepared to have my work (and occasionally myself personally) undermined. It goes with the territory, as it does for every creative, artistic person who has to make a living.
So how does one deal with this without becoming permanently jaded, angry and burnt-out? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few things I’ve learnt along the way.
1. “It’s all hustle, baby”. I am going to have this printed on a t-shirt (or possibly tattooed on my forehead). We all have mortgages and rents to pay, lives to live and sometimes families to look after. In order to live, we need to hustle. All work is hustle. It’s what you need to do to survive. It doesn’t dictate who you are, it’s just what you do. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about your daily hustle - you should give 100% to everything you work on if you value your reputation. But just remember, when you are on edit version 58 and are still getting client feedback so inane that you are starting to get a permanent dent in your forehead from it hitting the desk in front of you - it’s all just hustle.
2. People will steal your ideas, take credit for your work and copy your style. This is the same in any discipline of creative work and it’s unavoidable. It used to make me seethe, but now I barely flinch when it happens. Seeing someone who had very little involvement in a project that you had a large involvement in get credit for it; having people talk about how your good ideas are actually their good ideas; when your style of work is so obviously replicated by someone else. All these things will happen to you throughout your career - repeatedly. And it’s important to not get pissed off by it or to create a drama of it. If you work in a creative field, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and people will do whatever it takes to make themselves look better than you. Have integrity, don’t be like those people. I always think of that scene in 'Chasing Amy' where the Jason Lee character is accused of being a ‘tracer’ (see Youtube video linked above this post to appreciate the reference). Those people who steal your ideas and credit - they are tracers. Fuck those guys.
3. Avoid creative burn-out at all costs. I can’t even begin to explain the number of times I’ve suffered from burn-out. At its worst, I lost my ability to enjoy creative work for almost two years. Since then, I’ve learnt to manage it by: a) I no longer work with people who make me miserable (the fastest way to burn out) - anyone who is nightmare to work with, doesn’t pay you what you deserve and doesn’t treat you with respect - they are not worth your time and energy. b) I manage my time effectively. Even if other people sometimes take the piss with your time, know how long something will take and insist that time is allocated to make it work in the best possible way - this, for me, was a hard but necessary lesson to learn. This also includes as much as possible avoiding working late and on weekends - it’s not always possible, but if overworking is the rule rather than the exception, something has gone very wrong. And if you do have to work late, charge time-and-a-half. As one of my favourite fellow editors said to me after I worked til 1am last week: “Peta, your best revenge is your invoice”. c) Don’t lose sight of your work by looking at it over and over again. The number of times I’ve killed my creative spark on a project by losing sight of it... If you are getting to that point - walk away. Come back to it with fresh eyes. d) Sometimes you will burn-out and it’s unavoidable. And that’s ok. When it happens, go and do some work which pays well but doesn’t cause sleepless nights - make some money doing what you do well and give yourself a break from the ball-breaking, creative work which you are passionate about, but which can grind you down.
4. Know when to argue your point - god, this is a hard one. Is the client always right? No - but they are paying the bills. Sometimes feedback is useful in taking things to the next level, sometimes it isn’t. As much as possible, don’t be precious with ideas and use feedback as an excuse for experimentation. If this doesn’t work and you still feel strongly, say something - be clear about why and keep your ego out of it. Make it about the work and getting the best possible result. Also, there is a reason why director’s cuts are a thing - because clients and studios will fuck up your work. Save your preferred version for your portfolio.
5. Here is the most important thing that I’ve learned: Your personal projects are your REAL job. All the rest is just the hustle you have to do to make a living. It’s SO important to have personal projects you are working on, including ones where you are the primary creative, the client and the audience - where the only person you have to please is YOU. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. But also, and even more importantly, make sure your personal projects convey a radical vision of what you want the world to be. Everything you do should be a punk-rock style ‘fuck-you’ to the established norms. Alternatively, make it beautiful - make it so beautiful it makes people want to cry, laugh, scream and fall in love all at once.
If you are the creative / artistic type, chances are you have no choice but to choose an artistic field to work in. You’ve got to honour who you really are. We, the film-makers, artists, writers, illustrators, actors and musicians have another role to play in society (and an important one) - to entertain, inform and to captivate.
When all else fails, I remind myself of this piece of wisdom from Quincy Jones about a life working in a creative field:
“Always have humility when you create and grace when you succeed, because it's not about you”.