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Your first film will suck, and that's O.K.

Embracing the idea that your first film will suck, frees us up from the pitfalls of perfectionism.

Before leading filmmaking workshops on my own, I learned the craft as a teaching assistant. It was a great opportunity to learn from other experienced filmmakers and hear their perspectives on how they explain the art of filmmaking.

One of the biggest lessons that stuck with me was what my co-teacher declared on the first day:

"It's okay if your first film is sh*t".

When I first heard this, I was taken aback. My approach as a teacher was always to be as encouraging and positive as possible, and this seemed to fly in the face of that. Even more so, my co-teacher made this point on the first slide, of the first day of class. He even had everyone in the class repeat it!

"It's. okay. if. my. first. film. is. s****"!

This was not what any of us were expecting, but the more I started to think about it, the more I recognized that it was a brilliant way to start the class.

First, it was a great way to break the ice and get the conversation started.

But more importantly, it set the tone for the class that we are here to learn how to make films, not to make perfect films.

It's hard not to cringe when I think about my first film, which involved a lot of moody lighting, heavy make-up and confusing metaphors. I remember thinking that we were going to make a great piece of high art that people could recognize and say "wow, what a statement on society."

First films are exactly that. Your first film. And no matter how high or bold your ambitions are, you're bound to fall short of your imagination. What we need to focus on here is progress as an artist and learning how to continue creating, versus making the perfect film we see in our head.

Embracing the idea that your first film will suck, frees us up from the pitfalls of perfectionism.

Here are some of the lessons that I've learned in overcoming this challenge

1. As an artist, we set the bar too high for ourselves

This is something that I struggled with a lot when I was starting out. I wanted all my films to be professional and polished-looking right off the bat. It's funny to look back on now. At the time I barely knew the difference between ISO and aperture, but I still expected my work to look top notch.

When I went to film something, the image in my head never matched what was on screen, and it was frustrating. The energy I spent being upset with my work and questioning "why my work isn't better", could have been much more productive if I instead used it to fuel learning my craft. Looking back now it's painfully clear that I only new how to make a good film in theory, but not in practise.

To make this even more clear, consider how we treat children learning to walk. When they take their first steps, we celebrate their achievement, cheering them on as they make their wobbly way forward. Soon after though, they will fall to the ground, failing the task at hand. We could sit there and judge them as failures because they didn't learn to walk in one go, but we don't. Why? Because they're a beginner, so of course they're learning, and therefore we appropriately set the bar low. Here we can easily see that progress is earned through a process, one less-than-perfect step at a time.

On the other hand, as artists we set the bar very high from the start. We tell ourselves that bad films and missteps make us a bad filmmaker, and so we do everything in our power to avoid these missteps. Therefore, the internalized belief is that we have to make something amazing from the start.

Take a page from our baby friends and lower the bar. If we change the way that we think about this, we set ourselves up for a career of actual filmmaking, instead of being trapped fantasizing about making the "perfect" first film.

2. The mythology of the overnight success

We hear the story time and time again, of someone picking up a camera one day, and next thing you know, they're a Hollywood director. We love the overnight success story. Mythologies of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg who burst into the film industry at 21 years old, and directing Jaws at 27.

What these stories often gloss over is all the hard work from picking up their first camera, to their ultimate directorial success. The reality is that most, if not all of these young success stories, still had years of practise honing their craft. For example, Spielberg made his first home film at 12 years old. I'm sure it wasn't a particularly amazing film like most 12 year olds films. But, he kept making films with his friends on his dad's super 8 camera long before he ever directed a "real" feature film. This means he had years and years of practice before being recognized by anyone in the film business. It was from this persistence and practise at a young age that earned him a spot in Hollywood at age 21.

We like the idea of an overnight success story because it's more fun for ourselves to believe that we're just one film away from being discovered. It's a much more comfortable idea to think about, but it keeps us from accepting the truth that it takes years of hard work and persistence to get to that level.

3. Finding the fun in filmmaking

One of my favourite pieces of advice to give my students is that they'll have a lot more fun making films if they stop caring about the results, and start practising the making. It's funny how clear this becomes when we go through the lessons: the students who are there to learn are the ones having fun. The students who are there to prove themselves and make their masterpieces are usually miserable. They are trapped by their expectations. The process of creating is a messy process and you have to be okay with that.

Take the sage advise from Mrs. Frizzle in The Magic School Bus:

"Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"

It is a freeing feeling to ignore the results of your process and just have fun with making it. It might not be as good as you imagined it, but you can try again on the next one. And as you build a body of work, the ideas that you have in your head will come into fruition more easily. Just remember, artists who have fun with their work are inspired to make more work. Keep the flame alive, don't overthink it, and keep trying out ideas that make you happy.

Happy creating,

Special thanks to Myles Belland for co-writing this with me.

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