If you want to create something, just start doing it – but have a plan

One of the most common things I've heard since we've started working on The Filthy Pumpkin Show is "Nice! I've also had the idea of doing something like this, just never got round to actually doing it". Interestingly enough, that was my own situation as well until July 2008. It's not like I haven't tried to create something before, but for various reasons, not much came out of it. Now that we are working on the second Filthy Pumpkin Show (abbreviated as FPS from here on), I've decided to write down some tips that worked for me very well. This is not only about movie making; it also helped me with software development and in some other areas.

Ideas alone don't do anything

I have blogged about this before. So you have this great idea? Cool, so do I. With all these ideas in my head, I have a movie that could win more Academy Awards than Return of the King, make more profit than Terminator 2 and be more culturally significant than Star Wars. But you know what? That movie will likely never exist, because it is only a set of ideas. Ideas on its own don't do anything. The first step to actually create anything is to get the idea out of your head as fast as possible. I always carry a small notebook with me to write down ideas. This is important because it makes sure I don't forget about it. But getting them out of your head and onto paper (or a Text file, an Evernote note, an e-Mail, whatever) is the first step to realization.

Have a written goal

Closely tying in with this: Set a goal and write it down. Again, stuff that only exists in your head is unlikely to ever get realized. By writing down what you want to do, you do two things: First, you make a commitment to the idea. And second, you start filtering and evaluating ideas. Some idea that you had yesterday may be really stupid now that you look at it again. On the other hand, maybe there are two or three other ideas that can be combined? Suddenly, all those random, seemingly unconnected and sometimes weird ideas come together to start forming one piece.

Essentially what you do here is a list of requirements: What do you want your final product to be? What features do you want to have in it?

Plan how to reach the goal, but don't overdo it

This is the hard step: Start actually realizing your project. This is where most projects fail. So you now have a list of ideas/features that you want to see, and you roughly know what your final product should be. You know the end, so now you can plan on how to reach it.

Often I see people trying to plan too much. They spend hours or even weeks to do all sorts of research. They spend hundreds of Euros to buy all the stuff they might need. They make Excel sheets that have thousands of rows for every tiny bit of the project. And then they run into their first obstacle and the whole project falls down.

Actually, the main thing you want to do in this phase is to decide what NOT to do. Especially if you have only little experience in whatever you are doing, your ideas are often a bit too ambitious for a start. As an example: The original screenplay of the FPS features a climactic battle on the second platform of the Eiffel Tower, featuring about 60 video game characters, with big explosions and all sorts of epilepsy-causing effects. The thing is: That was too much for a start. I would absolutely love it, but we had almost no experience in special effects, no equipment and not much of a budget. So we removed this and many other "too ambitious" parts.

The end result was a screenplay that was still ambitious based on our skills and budget, but that was within reach. After trimming it down to something manageable, we could now make a plan and do research and purchases in the areas we knew we would need. You certainly do not want to rent the Eiffel Tower for a day and then discover that your idea is not feasible.

Get the product out and the feedback in!

Another big point of failure is after the project is finished: Release it! We worked on the first FPS for about 6 months, and we almost decided not to release it. In those 6 months, we learned a lot about movie making. So much that we now look at it and see its failures. That's dangerous thinking. If I remember what I had in mind in July 2008 and what we released, I should be (and am) very satisfied because the final result is a lot better than my original expectation. But now, we can do so much better, FPS1 doesn't "feel" as great anymore.

Many people have their own projects (be it movies or software) which they never release because they are ashamed of them. Being a bit ashamed is a good sign: It means you actually learned something! If you create something, look at it and think "This is it, this is the best I will ever being able to do", you should possibly quit. Instead, think: "This is the greatest thing I have done so far! But with all the stuff that I learned - I wonder how much better the next one will be?". Also, don't fall into the trap of "This is okay, but if I knew what I know now 6 months ago, this could have been so much better", because that reduces the value of your creation.

Try to take a little time to reflect over your creation. Look at what is not so good, but also look at what is good. Compare it to your initial expectation, think about what you have learned, and how you can make something even better, but by all means: Love your creation. Know its shortcomings, but always keep in mind why you made it in the first place.

If you have a positive opinion about your creation, you are ready for the hard part: Getting external feedback. Show it to your friends. Or to strangers. Upload it to the internet and get feedback from 6 billion anonymous people. Listen to what they have to say. And filter their feedback.

Don't be personally insulted by criticism. Every comment you receive is a good comment at first. Yes, trolls on the internet can be very insulting, but also the reaction of your friends can hurt even if they don't mean to. Don't sit in a corner and cry just because someone made a negative comment. Instead, read Jeff Atwood's blog post, which quotes Randy Pausch's Last Lecture:

And when it was all over, one of the other assistant coaches came over and said, yeah, Coach Graham rode you pretty hard, didn't he? I said, yeah. He said, that's a good thing. He said, when you're screwing up and nobody's saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up. And that's a lesson that stuck with me my whole life: when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody's bothering to tell you anymore, that's a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.

If you receive criticism that means someone still cares. Even an internet troll who is just there to make you cry cares enough to take the time to write an insulting posting. Congratulations, you have just created something that impacted the life of another person, and that means you already achieved more than millions of other people on this planet.

Change that you believe in

But of course, not every criticism is meant as an insult. You should carefully listen to all comments, but then take the time to think about it. I have changed a few scenes (and cut about 10 minutes) from FPS after some feedback. At first when people said that a particular scene is boring or how cool it would be if X happened during that scene, I was naturally reluctant. I mean, this is my baby after all, and I want people to praise it, not to say bad things about it! But after thinking about it, I realized that they were right and made some changes which ultimately turned it into a better product.

On the other hand, do not blindly take all feedback. Always keep in mind: This is your project, and at the end, you have to be satisfied and love it. If you just made Star Wars but your friends would have preferred Batman, you should certainly not start giving Luke Skywalker a black cape and Leia some clown makeup. On the other hand, maybe (reading between the lines) they felt that the atmosphere should be darker to fit with the plot. Try to find out what they would like to see in your project, but constantly evaluate it against what you would like to get out of it.

You may be surprised how much improvement you can gain from other people's feedback, without actually sacrificing your project to them.

Don't be afraid to involve other people - if you're serious

You want to be a One-Man-Army? Writing, Producing, Directing and playing the lead and all supporting roles? Think twice about it. If you are already determined to make a product and willing to take feedback, don't be afraid to involve your friends. My concern with involving external people is obviously their reliability. You want to shoot on Tuesday night at 2 a.m. because you're on vacation, but your friends are working and unavailable, so now things get more complicated. But think about what you can create if you actually have supporting characters or people who can hold a light or operate the camera!

The other big benefit is that now you are putting pressure on yourself to realize the project. As long as you are the only one involved, you can always procrastinate or cancel it because of some minor reason. But when other people are involved, you cannot just turn around and say "haha, sorry, that was only a big joke, but thanks for wasting your time with me!". Do not underestimate the positive effect of this pressure, but keep in mind that the other people naturally have their own ideas and feedback. Read the previous paragraph for how to deal with that, except that in this case, the people are actually directly involved in the project.

Think if you want them to help realize your project, or if you want to turn it into a collaboration project of all people involved. The second option may mean you sacrifice some of your ideas, but it could also mean that the end product is a lot better. Or worse. In any case, as long as you stand behind the project as a whole, go ahead.

Just do it! Start small, but start!

With all the advice on the right amount of planning, on how to deal with feedback and how to involve other people, the most important rule should never be forgotten: Just do it. If you are enthusiastic about creating something, use the momentum and start working on it. James Cameron did not get famous for staying at home just thinking about stuff, and George Lucas' THX 1138 was not a huge success. Kevin Smith's movie Clerks had a Budget of $27,575 and I certainly recommend checking the Production Notes on Wikipedia which are a great example of realizing something great with modest resources, as long as you are committed.

For comparison: The first Filthy Pumpkin Show had a "budget" of about 400 € and involved 4 people. The second one has a budget of about 3000 € and will involve at least 12 people. We could not have started with the second one, because most of the budget is spent on equipment that we did not know we needed before. We bought lights because the lighting in FPS1 sucked. We bought a blue screen because we saw how great this turned out in FPS1 Part 3 (which was shot in a movie studio that we rented) and because we learned how to properly use it. We bought more costumes because we wanted to make the characters more believable. We bought a steadycam because the static camera angles are boring. We bought HD Cameras because… Well, because 1920x1080 is just so damn sexy.

We did something, we learned from it, we are doing something bigger. We will learn from FPS2 as well, and when we make FPS3, that one will be even bigger and better. But it all started in July 2008 when we started doing something. Without the beginning, there is no end. And now, stop reading this posting, grab an idea from your mind that start creating something.

Comments (2)

Vincent D'AmicoJune 29th, 2009 at 01:05

Inspiring , True & Well Written. A+

AmilcarNovember 6th, 2009 at 20:58

Nothing new here