It takes an awful lot to become a successful indie filmmaker.
You've got to understand story, the craft of filmmaking, the technical stuff, marketing and distribution, and plenty more. But beyond that obvious stuff, perhaps the biggest factor in whether you'll actually get noticed is whether your work is, well... worth noticing. Basically, you've got to have a unique voice.
In a world the knowledge and tools to make and distribute a film are available to pretty much anyone, standing out and making a name for yourself is harder than it has ever been (and it was never easy to begin with).
So developing your unique voice (and having the courage to actually use it) is one of the best things you can do to distance yourself from the crowd and get attention for your work. Conforming and playing it safe, on the other hand, is the best way to blend in an ensure that no one cares.
As an added bonus, it’s also significantly more satisfying to make films that speak in your voice. Hell, it might be one of the most satisfying things in the world to make something that is uniquely yours.
So that's what today's episode of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast is all about. We'll be tackling this idea head on and getting into what it really takes to develop a voice that is uniquely your own.
Here's some of what you'll learn in episode 8:
- Why having a unique voice and a unique perspective is one of the most effective ways to stand out in a world where anyone can make and distribute a film.
- The one important rule you must follow if you want to make original, authentic work.
- How the internet and being digitally connected has simultaneously made it easier than ever to develop your voice, while also making it more difficult to pursue true individuality.
- What Ira Glass can teach us about the long, tedious process of making work that we're truly proud of (and why that process is totally worth it).
- The exact 3-pronged approach to finding your voice that I teach in my course.
If you enjoy today's show, it would mean the world to me if you'd leave a rating and review on iTunes. That's the best way to support this small indie show and to help new filmmakers find it!
The first season of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast is sponsored by my friends over at Music Vine.
You have a lot of choices these days when it comes to finding music for your films and video projects. But Music Vine stands above the pack.
Not only is it refreshingly straightforward to license music you’d actually want to use, but it’s also genuinely affordable, even for indie filmmakers on shoestring budgets.
And the best part is, the music is all thoughtful, expressive, and genuine. It’s sourced from indie artists all over the globe who put the same care and attention and soul into their music as you do into your films.
That’s why all of the music in this podcast comes straight from the Music Vine library. Here's the playlist of songs from this episode.
You can get 10% off your first purchase when you use the code FREEDOM at checkout. Enjoy.
Practical Takeaways from Today's Episode
Before we get to all of my advice for finding your voice, it’d be helpful to share exactly what not to do. It all boils down to one simple rule:
For example, when I was in film school, most everyone was watching the same movies, reading the same scripts, and generally consuming the same art. Now, part of that was we were all following along with the school curriculum. But even in our extracurricular time, we were consuming the same movies and living similar lives.
Not surprisingly, most every film coming out of that school felt like a variation on the same thing. Sure, there were some outliers here and there, and there were gradations of quality, but for the most part, it was a homogenous experience, both in terms of what we consumed and what we produced.
Homogeny, my friends, is the enemy of producing great original work that speaks in your voice. Remember that.
It’s hard not to conform, even in the digital world
Now, this point could be an entire book on its own, but I just want to make you aware of the problem so that you can start avoiding it.
In many ways, humans are prone to conformity. It’s comfortable to fit in and be part of a tribe. It’s comfortable to share the same ideas as the people you’re close with. It’s comfortable to make things you know people will embrace. And who doesn’t like being comfortable?
But remember that homogeny, comfortable as it may be, is still the enemy of finding your voice.
Even in the digital world, with an endless supply of information and inspiration at our fingertips, our psychological and sociological tendencies still push us towards conformity.
So despite the fact that all the raw materials for developing your unique are more freely available, it’s easier than ever to become more tribal and insular.
I know this probably seems like a strange theoretical thing to be talking about, but the moral of this story is this. If you want to develop your own unique voice, you need to fight the urge to conform and you need to continuously expose yourself to things that might make you uncomfortable. That’s how growth occurs. And unlike homogeny, growth is your best friend when finding your voice.
Anyhow, now let’s finally get to some juicy voice-finding tactics that you can start using right away!
Rob’s three-pronged approach to finding your voice
1. Don’t be afraid to emulate filmmakers you admire
This might seem counterintuitive, but the process of finding your own voice usually begins with you emulating the work of people you admire.
Here’s the deal. When you’re just starting out, you might already have interesting ideas, but you’ll have an exceedingly difficult time trying to express them in your own voice through the medium of film.
This is what Ira Glass refers to as “the gap.” Here’s a great video that you’ve probably already seen explaining how the gap works.
Now, you can absolutely overcome the gap by making work of any kind, even if you’re not emulating anybody. But what I’d argue is that emulating will get you to the stage where you “make things you actually like” much more quickly. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of the process and gives you a clear set of guidelines for what good work feels like.
And once you’re capable of making things you like, you can start pushing boundaries, trying new things, and deviating from the filmmakers that inspired you.
Basically the process of emulating filmmakers you admire helps you build the foundation for your voice. Once that foundation is in place, you can start forging your own path. It’s a very economical way to go about this whole process, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to openly emulate other filmmakers. It’s not theft, mostly because every filmmaker steals and borrows from other filmmakers, regardless of whether they consciously realize it or not. So just be honest about the fact that you’re emulating, and always give credit where credit is due, and you’ll be fine.
2. Consume more broadly, and go deep in areas that really interest you
In order to really start developing your voice, you need to consume a wide variety of art and ideas, and then start combining all of it in interesting ways.
Uniqueness doesn’t come about in a vacuum. It comes from taking in a wide array of influences (preferably in fields that are completely unrelated), making connections between them, and then applying new thinking to old ways of doing things.
So don’t just watch movies. Read books of all types. Go to art museums. See a play every once in awhile. Listen to new music you might never have given a chance. Go out of your way to consume both old and new art. You can learn something from all of it.
More than that, really pay attention to the things that interest you. You’re almost certainly passionate about more than just filmmaking, and it’s these non-filmmaking interests that will give your film work a unique perspective and level of depth.
For instance, right now I’m super interested in jazz guitar, coffee roasting, small business, and some occasional philosophy. If I were to make a film, you can bet that elements of those things would show up, simply because I’m interested in them.
So beyond filmmaking, what topics inspire you? What ideas do you want to explore? Figure it out and really immerse yourself in that world. Not only will you have a blast learning about stuff that interests you, but it will impact your filmmaking, particularly if you’re creating stories from scratch.
3. Live your life and have experiences that push you to grow
Interesting people make interesting art. I think most of us can agree on that. But what makes a person “interesting?”
Well, if you spend all of your time watching movies and reading and consuming, you might have lots of interesting thoughts, but interesting thoughts are only one half of being an interesting person. The other half of the equation is that you need to do interesting things.
Now, when I say that you should do interesting things, I’m by no means saying that you should quit your day job to be an adventurer and climb mountains.
It simply means that you should make a habit of doing things that are slightly outside of your comfort zone.
To start, take a walk in a part of town you’re unfamiliar with. Have a conversation with a complete stranger. Tell your significant other something they don’t know about you. Write something deeply honest and publish it online. Start learning a new skill you’ve always been interested in.
Just do something small that you wouldn’t do on a typical day in your life. And then make a habit of doing small things like that.
The main idea here is that new experiences push us to have a more nuanced and personal perspective on the world. And having a unique perspective is the foundation for almost all great art.
Putting the three steps together
An important note about this process. It’s not a linear thing, where you start by emulating, and then consume stuff, and then start doing interesting things. Instead, all of this should be happening at the same time.
That might sound overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. I’d venture that all of us can spare 30 minutes a day (or even 30 minutes a week) to immerse ourselves in new ideas and do something new. And it doesn't really matter how much time you put towards it (although more is better if you can spare it). All the matters is that you do these things consistently. Make it part of your daily or weekly routine.
Like every aspect of life, it takes time to develop your voice into something that is unique. But if you practice this stuff in your day-to-day life, it will start building up, and over time, and it will amount to something profound.
Join the Podcast Squad
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Just record your answers into your computer or phone mic, and then you might just hear yourself on the show!