I am somewhat embarrassed as to how long it has taken me to finish this post, especially given the subject matter! For the record (and I guess as required reading) this trilogy of posts started back in April 2008 with How to Finish 1/3 – Inspiration, the essence of which could be summed up by Aristotle as “Well begun is half done.” A month later I followed up with How to Finish 2/3 – Development. And then some time passed. And some more… It wasn’t that I was procrastinating exactly, more putting thoughts into action & trying to establish what is actually going to work for me with regards to my own personal projects. As I’ve said before, I love deadlines – every film I work on is full of deadlines; big & small, and always with the one HUGE deadline at the end. But with my personal projects it seems they are all endless work in progress, and that’s something I have been seriously working to change, in fact if I was to sum up 2009 I would say a lot of my ‘spare’ energy this year has gone into establishing a modus operandi by which 2010 will be a prolific year of finishing things….. And so here is my research into the MOST crucial stage – in many ways the ONLY stage that matters; completion.
When you stop & think about daily life, most of it is work in progress – we all spend our weeks working & living, doing lots of stuff but only ever actually finishing projects occasionally. So the first step is stating the obvious: the scale of the project has an obvious bearing on how & when it is completed. For example with a feature film, my work as sound designer may well start & end within a three or four month period, whereas for the director it may be more like four or five years… But the common element to both scenarios is that completion is not a singularity; its made up of hundreds of endings. Renovating your house or whatever is the same; lots of little deadlines leading to the large scale project completion.
So recognising & then fulfilling these many individual deadlines is essential – a simple example: say an element of a mix is good but it needs an edit pass to tighten it up. While you may have only mentally noted the need, if it hasn’t actually been done then the project will simply never be finished. This is obvious, but it’s still oddly common to hear people say “I’ll worry about that later” which actually means it thereby becomes something they WILL have to worry about later AND it will remain a BLOCK to finishing until it is dealt with.
So along with identifying & dealing with all the little parts of the process it is also important to celebrate each of the little deadlines along the way; to acknowledge they are done & also thereby prompt thoughts of any other little curve balls waiting in the wings… When we finish the predub for each element of a film soundtrack (ambiences/foley/FX etc) I definitely insure we celebrate (1800 Tequila is my choice) as much to acknowledge the act of meeting a deadline (& the end of a contributors work) as the deadline itself… and if its a deadline met, but there’s a list of six fixes to do, then those are also celebrated, and another tiny deadline assigned…. And methink the larger the scale of the project, the more important the acknowledgment of the individual deadlines that lead up to its successful completion.
But an aspect I have come to believe is a pre-requisite to completing a project is the existence of a delivery vehicle, ie the means by which it will be presented to the world or the intended audience, even if that audience is just a blurry unknown number of downloaders….
Working on films, that isn’t directly my problem: sure the age of the target audience can sometimes dictate the extremities of the content, but usually with film the initial funding is dependent on having distribution in place. So when the post supervisor tells me the schedule, with all its delivery deadlines, it is because the director, producer & distributors of the film have already targeted film festivals, market places & public release dates for the film. Accordingly we inherit our own, directly related/back-timed post deadlines. So what at first seems arbitrary & immovable dates are actually based on the reality of the finished project reaching its optimum audience, in a very carefully strategised manner… The existence & timing of those screenings are fundamental to everything that drives the completion schedule. Sure budget plays its part – no one can afford to continue mixing for months on end – but having the final product in its full resolution, fully mastered/graded glory is the critical criteria that drives the most ultimate act of completion… And so acknowledging & developing the means of distribution has been fundamental to me planning how (& why) to complete my own projects, because otherwise why finish them at all? I could happily never finish any of my own projects, and whats the difference? The difference is absolutely fckng HUGE!
So how do we reach a point where we can commit to delivery of a project, such that we are happy? Some people like to quote the saying that ‘art is never finished, it is abandoned’ but really that saying does not sound like the words of a happy, fulfilled artist to me. I don’t want to go to sleep at night thinking; ‘Wahoo! Today I abandoned another work of art” – that already sounds full of regret. I want a process that allows me to feel I have finished a project, to the best of my abilities…. And by abilities I mean two things: first, the best of my technical means. Second, to the fulfillment of my aesthetic goals. I don’t want to finish something knowing its ok, but an aspect isn’t what I already know to be right. I want to make creative decisions & live by them.
Maybe when you are young & naive you might think that your art exists outside time & aesthetic development, but wait a few years & you soon realise that age and/or maturity also brings a constantly evolving shift in what you consider ‘your art’ to be. In a sense we are all the sum of our experiences & the older you get the more experiences you accumulate, and accordingly the deeper your appreciation becomes for what it is you strive to do. Prove me wrong: create your masterwork, wait ten years & then check it out & tell me its exactly what you would create now. Sorry to sound cliched, but I think completing a work is like puting a marker in the endless stream of time, saying ‘this is the very best I can do now’ and acknowledging it as that, rather than the unattainable ‘this is the best work of all time’
So how do we recognise it as the best that we can do now? I’m going to propose two means, you can choose what order they occur. First is showing the work to yourself, second is showing it to others. But surely you do the first all the time? Maybe, but there is listening & then there is listening – are you listening while mixed up in the flow of creating, or are you listening, hands (& screens) off, being objective? Borrowing a quote from Gian Lorenz Bernini:
“There are two devices which can help the sculptor to judge his work: one is not to see it for a while – the other – whenever he has not the leisure for the former – is to look at his work through spectacles which will change its color and magnify or diminish it, so as to disguise it somehow to his eye, and make it look as though it were the work of another, removing by this means the delusions caused by amour-prope (self-love)”
While its common practice to check mixes on other speaker systems (eg in the car, on a laptop, ipod, radio etc) than what its been mixed on, to check that the mix translates to less than ideal playback, it can also facilitate the objectivity of pretending it isn’t yours. There is also an important shift in perception when it is in a form where it cannot be adjusted. With film, we have double head screenings in a different theatre than where the mix occurs & this process is motivated equally by the aforementioned process of checking the mix translates, but also psychologically by leaving the place associated with continually altering the content…
The second process, of showing the work to others, is more complex in terms of interpreting the response. A friend & I were talking about this very subject recently and we both were at a complete loss to explain the sudden clarity provided by having an audience of even one. Why is that as soon as just one person sits down beside you, that suddenly you notice things about the work that were completely oblivious before? WHY? And I don’t mean that the visitor pointed some things out, I mean before they even react, as soon as you hit play. It seems to me that perceptually we can fool ourselves (or delude ourselves as Bernini describes) or ignore aspects UNTIL the presence of another psyche and/or potential critic rationalises our own awareness.
How do you choose who to show the work to? This is going to depend on how close to completion you think you are. For example with film, often mid way through post when the picture cut is close to being locked another trusted editor or writer is invited to a screening to see what their first impressions are, particularly with regards to story & character arcs. If there are existing doubts about any aspects needing further work, then having someone who understands the process & what state the project is at can be hugely beneficial. Equally some films require test screenings with random members of the target audience, but the important thing in both scenarios is that before any reaction is heard you need to be clear what are the main issues you are testing for & how much significance the response should play. If its any help, screenwriter John August has posted a list of some general questions for test screenings as well as a PDF of an actual questionaire for a film project. I’m not suggesting you actually use these when testing a mix on someone necessarily, but they do maybe make you think about what it is you want to learn from a test playback.
Ok so having played your mix to some trusted people, the next stage is making the final revisions. When working on film sound design, I always set aside specific time (usually 2-3 days) to do my final pass. This happens just prior to taking all the material we’ve spent months working on, to the mix stage for premixing. And for me this is vital; I am basically playing each element (eg vehicle FX, or ambiences, or footsteps) from the start of the film to the end, checking it in a real time playback & signing off on it. Its an important psychological shift from all the previous passes I have done because this is the final version I am presenting to the mixers, and you may be sure if there is an element in the tracks that is weak or doesn’t work, then you can count on it being SOLO’ed, sooner or later, and revealed to everyone in the room. And as supervisor I have to own it, because I did the final pass on it & approved it. So I am applying a brutal, pragmatic decision-making process whereby its either 100% good, or there’s a problem which I have to fix then & there. This is instinct based, not intellectualised and it is rare that there is a problem I can’t solve at this stage, not because I am some genius or anything but because by this point the material has been evolved & checked a number of times over many weeks & months. But the important concept to realise is that this most important revision is the final reality check. From here we move on & we no longer doubt the source elements as being able to be completed.
So having completed the final revisions, what are your criteria for completion? Does the final composite version affect you, moment by moment? Overall do you feel it? Is it entertaining? Emotionally engaging? Characterful? Thought provoking? Are all technical flaws solved? or absolved? And is it uniquely you?
If you are happy & resolved that the project is completed then the next step is for the deliveries to be done, such as outputing & sending the media for mastering…. But having completed the epic creative phase, there are some other important aspects to consider. In fact if you zoom out a bit & consider the role this work is playing in your ongoing life as an artist, what is your criteria for success AFTER completion?
I was ranting with an old friend a while ago & he was essentially beating himself up about the possible negative reception of a project he had laboured long & hard on. In fact he had laboured on it for so long that he had begun to resent it. But I stopped him in his tracks by asking him how would he know when his project had succeeded? He had obviously put a lot of negative thought into what the worst case scenarios were, so what was the actual successful outcome for the project. He wasn’t sure, he’d have to think about it. I’m sorry but WTF? If you don’t have a goal, how on earth are you ever going to get to enjoy the satisfaction of celebrating the fact that the project achieved ‘success?’ And self-defined success is an important part of progression.
So if you’ve made it all the way through this lengthy rant, you obviously have a project in mind: define its success. Now. Success may actually just mean finishing it and everything beyond that is icing on the cake. And if so, acknowledge & celebrate that. But also be aware that larger goals have a way of coming true, if the belief is resolute & you are prepared to do all the work involved in making them come true. So confession time, I have three discrete projects I have been working on all year. And the more clearly I have come to define each project the more I have had to learn. Each project has a very different outcome & I am setting a basic level of success for each such that they are definitely achievable. But for each project, the sky is the limit. And I expect to learn a LOT as I discern between the prerequisite for basic success & the goals of my dreams.
So a step further along the path of completion, you will inevitably receive feedback. Do not underestimate its effect. I think it is a basic human characteristic to do more of what one is encouraged to do, and accordingly whenever I come across work that I love online I do send a spontaneous email saying “I love your work – please do more!”. Maybe this comes from childhood eg DO NOT draw on the walls with crayons, DO draw on the paper….’
Who’s criticism do you listen to? And really how can you honestly accept accolades while ignoring criticism? But the creative/psychological concern is: what has more impact: good reviews or bad ones? The quandry of ‘success’ as described by Picasso to Teriade in 1932: “Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility”
But on a more immediate level, if you think of a film you like, go check it out on Metacritic – if I search eg 30 Days of Night, which end of the spectrum is most useful? The critic who voted 80% or the one who voted 25%? The only answer is both. If I had any doubt or concerns about an aspect of it, then chances are so did someone else & reading the 25% review will help clarify it…. Patting oneself on the back about the sense of achievement of completing the project & it finding an audience is also important, but the primary goal is to get better with each project, not more conceited…. And so you must take the good with the bad, and learn from both. But never let either rule you. I am going to finish this rant with two quotes:
“There is nothing ugly in art, except that which is without character, that is to say, without inner or outer truth”
“If your work of art is good, if it is true, it will find its echo and make its place – in six months, in six years, or after you are gone. What is the difference?”