The Key to Filmmaking & Artistic Success: Become a Craftsman

The Key to Filmmaking & Artistic Success: Become a Craftsman

Henry Ford’s production methods were a complete revolution.

Ford found a way to mass produce a complex product, making it affordable to everyone, which opened the floodgates and completely changed the way we consume products.

This certainly had some upsides: I, for one, am very glad that I can immediately purchase a car, or a TV at a reasonable price.

Yet something has been lost in the process of mass-production. The soul is gone from products made en masse, and you can feel it when something breaks and your only recourse is to go buy a new one.

This mass-production mentality isn’t exclusive to consumer goods, either. Music, art, and especially film have fallen prey to the formula of the Ford Motor Company.

Industries like film and music have done their homework, and they know what most people like to consume. So they set up systems to pump out as much content as they can.

I’m not above enjoying the occasional pop hit while I drive around, or going to see an action-packed explosion flick from time to time, but these things don’t make me think. They don’t inspire.

Putting the soul back into the product

Way back in the day, before Mr. Ford changed the game entirely, many people had a craft. If you wanted shoes, you went to a cobbler. Wanted a nice big house? You probably needed a mason to come and build it for you.

A craft was a good or a service provided by someone with both talent and immense experience in what they were doing. They put in countless hours to be the best at what they did, and that effort was evident in the quality of their work.

And because each person brought their own experiences and expertise into the crafting process with them, the finished product was always unique. It had a soul.

Through years of trial and error, the men and women who plied their trade were able to find the things that worked, and the things that didn’t. On top of that, each was able to inject their own personal tastes into their work, and give it their voice.

This process, though much more labor-intensive than an assembly line, created products that were unique. They were valuable not just because they served a function, but because they also expressed an idea.

For me, this is nowhere more evident than in the architecture of Antoni Gaudi, particularly in his Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona. Stone pillars snaking off like tree branches, light from stained glass colored more brightly than neon signs, and details so intricate and numerous that you could spend hours staring at one patch of wall for hours. There is nothing else like it in the world because there was never another Antoni Gaudi who could have created something so uniquely him.

This kind of unparalleled uniqueness is what marks a craft. It is borne from the heart of an individual, and it speaks of their mind and experiences.

As creatives, we should approach everything that we do with a craftsman’s mindset. Doing so ensures that our work shouts in our voice, and communicates all the hopes, fears, desires, and concerns we have and want to share with the world.

Having this voice communicated in everything we do is a tremendously empowering experience. You’ve done more than just make something; you’ve given your voice form, and taken a type of ownership over your work that is unique to those who create.

Rather than pump out another product that was just like the last, you’ve taken the time to give shape to something all its own. No one can outright copy it, and no one can every claim it but you because so much of your personality is in the finished product.

As creatives, we should approach everything that we do with a craftsman’s mindset. Doing so ensures that our work shouts in our voice, and communicates all the hopes, fears, desires, and concerns we have and want to share with the world.

This is especially valuable to creatives not only because it makes your message unique, but because it resonates with your audience more clearly. People can see the traces of your voice left in the work, and whether they love it or hate it, they’ll know it’s yours.

Getting your hands dirty, or how to start thinking and acting like a craftsman

Being a craftsman requires a special sort of mindset. It’s one thing to sit and think of all the ways in which you want to reinvent the wheel, but to go out and do it is another beast entirely.

Being an intellectual creative requires thoughtfulness and new ideas. Being a craftsman requires action.

A craftsman doesn’t just ponder the possibilities, he gives every idea a try. A craftsman doesn’t wonder endlessly what might be, he sets about finding a way to examine each new idea and make it reality.

Often times a craftsman will fail to reach the mark they were aiming for, but they always walk away with new ideas, and a deeper understanding of their craft.

The key quality that separates a craftsman from an intellectual creative is a desire to act. A craftsman doesn’t just sit and think about a problem, he sets about trying each individual solution, and through that process of trial and error, comes to truly understand what works, and why it works.

The five principles of a craftsman’s mindset

Approaching your work as a craft is incredibly rewarding, but it does require a significant shift in mindset.The main thing to keep in mind through all of this is that the goal of crafting isn’t necessarily to succeed so much as it is to grow.

With that in mind, to approach filmmaking as a craft, you must:

1. Devote yourself to the 1% rule

It would be great if we could make massive leaps in our abilities every time we sit down to work, but the reality is that's just not realistic. Some days are just better than others. Some days you feel like you're on top of the world, and other days the work feels draining.

The 1% rule is a promise you need to make with yourself. A sacred pact to be just 1% better today than you were last time you practiced your craft.

Whether you’re just slightly better at nailing a challenging camera move, or even just managing your time on set, be open to the fact that success comes in many forms, and that small, incremental improvement is one worth celebrating.

It can be hard to find that 1% silver-lining on hard days, but the more you look, the easier it is to find over time.

On days I feel like I can’t write another word no matter how hard I try, my 1% improvement comes from things like handling emails with potential clients quickly, or setting out a solid plan of attack for the following day.

Being a craftsman requires that you understand the beauty is in the pursuit of growth, not necessarily in making the perfect film, song, painting, or whatever else.

The things you make are merely the tokens of your journey, each a mile marker in a long and fulfilling road. Besides, if you ever made something perfectly, what would be the point of every doing it again?

2. Embrace failure

I’ve written before on the importance of accepting failure as a good thing, but it warrants being mentioned again here and everywhere else where anyone is foolish enough to give me a platform to write.

Failing is a good thing. Learn to accept it, to love it, to learn from it, and it will make you better.

There will undoubtedly be a day when you wake up bright eyed and excited, ready to tackle the film you’re working on with loads of energy and enthusiasm. And then it will all go to hell for reasons you never expected.

Failure is the engine that drives growth. Every time something goes wrong, we gain a little piece of information that helps us improve the next time we ply our craft.

It can be disheartening to see the things we love and pour our hearts into fall apart, but you have to remember this is a good thing, and it will make you better if you’re willing to embrace it.

Failure is the engine that drives growth. Every time something goes wrong, we gain a little piece of information that helps us improve the next time we ply our craft.

Of course, this only works if you’re conscious of why you failed, and make a mindful effort to improve the next time. Doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is the definition of insanity, so be sure you aren’t just mindlessly failing in the exact same ways expecting to get better.

To become a craftsman, you have to embrace the fact that you will fail repeatedly. You have to look honestly at the ways in which you failed, and you have to mindfully pursue new avenues that will keep you from repeating the same mistakes. Doing so turns failure into an opportunity for growth.

3. Become an apprentice

Most trades require that anyone seeking to become a craftsman spend several years learning the basics as an apprentice. It is the lowest rung of the ladder in any trade, but it serves an important role for new craftsman by allowing them to learn from masters of the trade.

Sure, a great deal can be learned by reading about your craft, watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, that sort of thing. But you will never truly understand the ins and outs of one until you’ve tried it yourself. As we’ve established, the more you try, the better you’ll get.

Masters are men and women who have spent most of their lives perfecting their craft through that system of trial and error, and their insight and guidance can be worth more than all the knowledge on the internet.

Seek out the people in your trade that you respect, and ask to learn from them if you can. If they are far away, do your best to respectfully contact them and ask for help on specific problems you have, or see if they’ve mentioned how they overcame those same issues somewhere else.

Becoming an apprentice to the craftsmen you respect will help you better appreciate what it is that actually makes their work so great, and it will give you access to knowledge that can only be obtained through experience.

Seek out the people pushing the boundaries of your craft and pick their brain. It usually helps if you can offer something in return, as master craftsmen by their very nature are busy people, but you will be surprised at how receptive people will be if you show the same level of passion for their craft that they feel.

If there’s a director, cinematographer, or producer in your area whose work you love, think about volunteering your time on one of their projects to get access to them, and see how they work. Even if you’re not being paid, the experience will help you learn and grow.

4. Push boundaries

Because of the soul poured into every project by craftsmen, each craft is, in a way, a living thing. If craftsmen did the same thing over and over, decade after decade, they would never grow. The craft would simply become stale and start to look much more like an assembly line as people cranked out the same things day after day.

In order too continue growing as a craftsperson and an artist, you have to inject your own voice into your work and push boundaries. In this way, the craft itself continues to drive into new territory and thrive.

Because pushing boundaries requires doing things you haven’t tried before, things that might make you uncomfortable, it can be difficult to give actionable advice on how to pursue this aspect of the craftsman’s mindset. I will say though that the people who are consistently pushing boundaries tend to be eternally curious.

So follow your curiosity down whatever paths it leads you. This will help you to stay inspired.Even if it seems totally unrelated to your craft, learning more about something that interests you can always be pulled back into your work in unexpected ways. Stay curious, my friends.

5. Share your knowledge

A craft like filmmaking requires a community to grow, so you should share your knowledge and your passion with those who want to learn. Doing so keeps new ideas moving between people, and will help you better understand your craft as well.

Teaching someone else the things you know will help you understand them better yourself. Even if you know intuitively how to do something, being able to vocalize it and show someone else how will strengthen your understanding substantially.

There will never be a day when there’s nothing left for you to learn, or one when you have nothing valuable to offer someone else. Be open to sharing the things you have learned with others. It will help to drive your personal growth as well as the growth of your craft.

You don’t need to be a master to teach someone else either, nor do you need to feel like you can’t teach someone else simply because you’re still learning yourself. There will always be people who are better at your craft than you, and likewise, there will always be people who know less than you. 

Seeking these people out and sharing your experiences and knowledge with them will help to solidify the concepts you understand, and help you gain new skills.

There will never be a day when there’s nothing left for you to learn, or one when you have nothing valuable to offer someone else. Be open to sharing the things you have learned with others. It will help to drive your personal growth as well as the growth of your craft.

[Editor's note: this is exactly why we started Filmmaker Stories, a series of articles on this site where any filmmaker can share their knowledge with the community. To learn more about writing your own story, click here.]

The craftsman’s journey isn’t linear

One of the primary features of mass-production is the assembly line. It’s an apt name considering it follows one simple path forward toward completion. A craftsman’s journey is nothing like an assembly line.

Your journey will start with a choice to learn, and it will take you every direction you can imagine from there, with no end ever in sight.

Some weeks may feel like one step forward and two steps back. Others will feel like three miles rocketing to the right followed by being slammed into the ground. And others will feel like you haven’t moved at all.

This nonlinear path is all a part of the process. We like to think of growth and success as straight lines, but that simply ins’t the case. Life is too crazy and unpredictable to make a straight line, so don’t expect your growth to happen in a orderly fashion either.

If you work to improve a little every day, learn from your mistakes, continue to seek out teachers, push yourself, and share with others, you will grow immensely. I can’t tell you which way that growth will take you in the end, and honestly, that’s what makes a craft so exciting.

If you enjoyed this article, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

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