.17 Practicing scales

How do you get better at making videos?

As this email lands in your inboxes, I should be landing at JFK. I’m New York this week, filming for that project I told you about a few weeks ago. It’s a big investment for us so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous about the shoot.

Anyway, onwards with the letter I wanted to write last week. Apologies, it’s a bit longer than usual!


I got an email from Brendan, a British filmmaker who makes great video essays that you will enjoy if you like my videos. He asked a really interesting question which I have spent a while thinking over and will try and answer here (with Brendan’s permission):

…I was wondering if there was anything you'd found which was like the equivalent of doing scales on the piano, deliberate practice that improves your work. Video essays involve so many disciplines: finding ideas, research, writing, visual thinking/directing, editing, music research/composition, motion graphics, sound design... I wondered what you saw as the most important skills and whether you'd found particular activities that improved them?

I

The first thing to say is this: daily practice is a powerful phenomenon in any discipline. The laws of compound interest come into effect and with even minimal commitment - just one hour a day, let’s say - mountains can become rubble.

I used to think that to write a screenplay I needed to be a full time screenwriter. Well, it turns out an hour a day and nine months is all it takes to write two drafts of a feature, plus a 50,000 word novella.

Daily practice takes the pressure off the individual action. When do you something every day, you can have bad days without it being a disaster. Daily practice builds momentum and muscle memory.

So Brendan is right to be thinking about daily practice as a filmmaker. But filmmaking is a funny one.

II

About two years ago I put this very same question to filmmakers on Twitter - “what is your equivalent to practicing scales?” I asked.

I was, to be honest, disappointed by the answers, which fell into two camps: a lot of people said their form of practice was watching films, which is like Tiger Woods saying his daily golf practice involves watching reruns of the Masters on ESPN. The other half of people said their practice was writing.

I can see value in that - writing is unbeatable as the fastest and most efficient way to elucidate and communicate ideas. It’s a good way to practice drama. But it is not visual and that’s kind of the name of the game, right?

My survey was not representative at all, but no-one who responded said they had found a way of shooting or editing on a daily basis. No-one said they had built a daily habit of storyboarding.

III

A common rallying cry you hear these days is “if you want to be a filmmaker, just go and make a film!” It’s well intentioned, but it makes too many assumptions and leaves people without an iPhone or a free Saturday feeling bad about themselves. It also makes a confusion between two different kinds of practice and that’s an important distinction in answering Brendan’s question.

Let’s call these two kinds of practice external and internal (for desperate want of something better to call them!)

External Practice is practice that leads to the creation of something. It’s the argument that the best way to practice is to have a project, some kind of outcome you are shooting for. My video essays were a form of external practice: I literally designed them to be a reason to practice making videos every day. It is true that nothing motivates learning better than solving a problem. I became an After Effects pro purely through trying to solve problems (i.e. make better animations) for my videos. The storytelling skills I use at The New York Times, I learned in this self-designed crash course.

But external practice comes with drawbacks. It puts a lot of pressure on the practice to produce something - it demands to be productive and successful. A bad day, or an unpopular video can kill your motivation.

Internal Practice, then, is a kind of practice that has no external results, it is practice for practice sake. It is the equivalent of the piano scales alone, the hour of drawing gestures before throwing them in the bin, the penalty shootouts to an empty stadium. Like a meditation practice (which also only works if you do it alone, daily) it is not about what the individual moment produces; it is about how the practice strengthens you over time.

I am not saying one kind of practice is better than the other, but here is some good advice: before you begin, decide what kind of practice session you want it to be.

IV

Brendan’s question suggested he was looking for ideas for internal practice.

The three most important elements to build a daily practice around (in my opinion) are: Ideas, Story and Images. The rest are technical and you can practice as you make films.

Ideas: The trick here is to build a habit of generating a quantity of ideas. I refer you to James Altrucher, who has this great practice of coming up with ten ideas every day on little waiter’s notepads. Over a year that’s 3650 ideas! Even if only 1% are good, that’s still 36 good ideas. His wife Claudia has published a book of prompts which is fun to work through.

Story: The most useful form of a story design is a step-outline, which lays out a story beat-by-beat or scene-by-scene. Take something that does not have a dramatic structure (a New York Times written op-ed piece for example) and imagine how to make it into a well-structured dramatic story. (Then you’re basically doing my job!)

Alternatively, back when I was starting out making video essays, I used popular science books and compendiums of interesting ideas as source material. Another good exercise is to use frames - like letters of the alphabet, months, seasons, for creative constraints. Five years ago I turned each chapter of a history book into 15-second Instagram animations.

Images: Storyboarding is the best way to practice visual storytelling. It’s fast, it’s free, you can fill sketchbooks with rows of squares and work your way through them. Scott McCloud has a fun exercise to board a movie using just 16 panels. It’s good practice in clarity (I tried it last summer). Emma Coats goes a step further with an exercise where she thumbnails an entire movie shot-by-shot. I took a sequential art course in Brighton two summers ago and we did a bunch of fun exercises. One good one was to get into the habit of journaling your day (or a moment from it) in three panel comics.

V

Finally, here are some general things which I think help a daily practice:

  • routine: do it at the same place, at the same time of day, each day.

  • work small: work on the smallest size paper you can. It’s a lot easier to feel like you’re building momentum when you’re tearing through a pad of cheap paper.

  • work in pen: this forces you to commit and make a mess.

I have been slowly collecting a list of exercises over the years. It needs refining (and testing!) but if anyone thinks it might be a useful guide, I will compile them into a PDF.

Oh, and if you have any daily practice ideas you enjoy, let me know and I’ll share them next week.

Thanks for your question Brendan!


Oh - and thank you to all of you who responded to my letter about generosity (#15) with gifts of your own - once again you were extremely kind both in the amount and the lovely messages you left! - I am very grateful.

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Until next Sunday,