Eulogy for Akram Raslan, Political Cartoonist

Akram Raslan was a Syrian political cartoonist. As Asher Kohn (follow him on Twitter @AJKhn) writes in his Slate Roads & Kingdoms piece “Drawn in Blood“, his voice was silenced by the Syrian Assad regime.

“In October 2015, Raslan was confirmed to have been killed by Syrian police. A pseudonymous fellow prisoner said that Raslan died in a prison hospital, possibly after torture. It had been three years since he was first taken into custody and four since the Syrian civil war began. Raslan had been one of Syria’s best-known cartoonists before the war began. His colorful, almost optimistic scenes mocking corruption and senselessness set his work apart from his colleagues’. (…) Raslan’s style was more straightforward, almost insidious.”

Following the Paris attacks, it seems the last and best refuge of Europe is now an unlikely haven for dissenters like Raslan. It is a dark time to live in a world where a regime targets political cartoonists for torture and execution. Worse, it’s shameful that terrorist acts by the few restrict access to life-saving asylum for so many. As in all cases, art imitates life, yet it also intimates life–political cartoons and other types of open dissent make apparent what is known about corrupt and unjust regimes. Let us listen to the voices of reason from within conflicts such as that in Syria, and better understand the will of the people, by what the artists and journalists will have us know through their courageous acts of storytelling.

“Any haven would be too late for Akram Raslan, whose name now graces a magazine that acts as a eulogy. It is a haunting toast to a man who, a year into the Syrian civil war, seemed so sure of his ability to bring change to his country. Few changes since his death have been for the better, and it is hard even for an optimist to imagine Raslan’s pristine blue skies showing up again anytime soon over Syria.”

Image courtesy of the Freedom for Akram Raslan Facebook page. 


The Novelization of Corporate Strategy

Why Companies Need Novelists” is a fascinating piece by Michael Grothaus about an unusual title appearing in select corporations–that of CSO, or Chief Storytelling Officer. The poster boy chosen for this curiosity is Mohsin Hamid, an acclaimed author-turned-corporate strategist.

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid

I know what you’re thinking–how is this a thing? The best answer comes from Hamid himself, as he explains the value this role delivers. “How do you empower people inside a company to do their own thing, to try to innovate, to not be a completely top-down organization, to be an organization that is creative and inventive?” he says. “You can’t do that as a CEO by telling everybody, ‘Here is your set of marching orders.’ It’s just too much. You don’t have the capacity to do that.”

Grothaus goes on to elaborate: “Instead, Hamid underscores the importance of a clear narrative, one that allows others to appreciate the overall vision of where the company is headed and allows them to use their own creativity and approach to help it get there.”

In my own experiences working with and within creative organizations, including during times of massive change, I can attest to the prudence of this statement. Surely leaders do not want to tell people how to do every aspect of their daily job. Storytelling can persuade them–enlist them, even, to help enact a compelling narrative, one that takes the team from here to a better place, and unifies a complex environment to a single, clear mission.

According to Hamid, there are three times in the lifecycle when corporations need to engage storytelling: upon launch, when the world needs to know who you are, during acquisitions and leadership changes, when the world needs to know who you are becoming, and in slow growth phases, when the world needs to know you’re still dynamic.

Hamid recommends ground rules for companies interested in upping their storytelling game:

  1. Tell it like it is
  2. Put the audience in the center of the action
  3. Allow the audience to experience and label emotion
  4. Be plain
  5. “Hire a novelist”

Like Grothaus, I think that the barriers between people in the arts and business have more passages, and there is a true need for a dialog. In this case, it’s exciting to see a creative profession called upon to motivate and catalyze the business world.


Amazon Offers Grants with Low Application Barrier

As Steve Kolowich reports in his The Chronicle of Higher Education article “Amazon Offers Up Research Money for ‘Crazy’ Ideas That Just Might Work”, tech and retail industry leader Amazon recently announced a grant program that “takes ugly-duckling research projects that have a big upside but are too nascent or implausible to win the attentions of federal grantmakers or venture capitalists.”

Grants will range from $10,000 to $100,000, and will have a surprisingly short list of requirements. Anyone associated with University of Washington may apply, Kolowich reports, pointing out that such industry-supported grants are often directly related to efforts related to the grantmaking business.

However, as Kolowich points out, Amazon isn’t just giving away the farm. “That does not mean Amazon does not stand to benefit strategically. While all copyrights and patents that grow out of the research will be owned by the university, Amazon will have permission to reproduce, modify, and sell any of the work relating to a grant — including any ‘pre-existing work’ that a grantee incorporates into a project.”

In a world where there seem to be few resources for ‘crazy’ projects, but where funding a unique idea can bring so much good—financial and otherwise–this funding program offers up a powerful opportunity for researchers to bring new inventions to life. It’s an unusual and bold move by Amazon, which stands to enhance its reputation for being benevolent among the scientific community, as it positions itself to improve and increase the roster of its own products and services. I think we can all agree that more private-public sector grant opportunities such as this would certainly benefit in kind teaching institutions, researchers and the grantmaking organizations. When you really think about it, greater funding for developing ‘crazy’ ideas really makes a great deal of sense.

Photo courtesy of Sea Turtle, as share under Creative Commons on Flickr.

Writers, Please Stop Romanticizing Rejection

In her Atlantic article “Why the Literary World Shouldn’t Romanticize Rejection”, Kavita Das skewers the idea with a multi-pronged argument. Too often, it’s difficult to be heard in the literary world, especially if one is a minority or woman. The industry has also proven to be resistant to change, and continues to pass over talent without evaluating their virtues based ostensibly on marketing to the American public.

“Time and time again, the literary establishment seizes on the story of a writer who meets inordinate obstacles, including financial struggles, crippling self-doubt, and rejection across the board, only to finally achieve the recognition and success they deserve. The halls of the literary establishment echo with tales of now-revered writers who initially faced failure, from Stephen King (whose early novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before being published), to Alex Haley (whose epic Roots was rejected 200 times in eight years). This arc is the literary equivalent of the American Dream, but like the Dream itself, the romantic narrative hides a more sinister one. Focusing on how individual artists should persist in the face of rejection obscures how the system is set up to reward only a chosen few, often in a fundamentally unmeritocratic way.”

Where many will laud the persistence of the few who can endure the rejection and find a place for their work in the mainstream publishing houses, Das argues we should critique the zero-sum thinking driving these trends. Who says there can be so few minority and female voices heard? And why do publishers underestimate our desire to hear these and other diverse narratives?

In my opinion, publishers can and should expect more of American readers. We want to see the warp and weft of contemporary life and perspectives, rather than just the embroidery emblazoned on top. So what can be done to end the excessive rejection so many talented writers face? Publishers can publish more (and more diverse) first-time writers. Agents and publishers can forgo the old market segments, urging crossover. And finally writers can begin to draw their audience in channels outside of the major houses, including smaller publishers and online self-publishing.

Photo Credit: Francisco Puente. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Jason Mayden and Cultural Alchemy: What Creatives Can Learn From Youth Culture

What does it take to pick the next big trendsetter out of a crowd? How can these cultural leaders be developed? These are the problems Jason Mayden, former top Nike designer, is working on solving.

In Mayden’s case, as Mark Wilson writes in his Co.Design article “Ex-Nike Designer On How To Cultivate Tomorrow’s Top Creative Talent“, he’s repeated a common pattern by going from design house to venture capital firm. Among his roles, he’s on the lookout for dynamic young people who have already defined themselves and have diverse but complementary interests. These youth come from “middle American urban markets” but would be able to hold their own on leading college campuses. Mayden uses the term “cultural alchemists” to describe this segment.

“It’s not just coding talent. The cultural alchemists have a very specific profile,” Mayden says. “They fall between 14 and 25. They’re focused on immersive experiences, deeper engagements. They’re not people who want to pick a lane, they want to be a lane. They’re drawing from different influences. They have access to a planet. Their favorite food ranges from empanadas to sushi. Their music ranges from EDM to classical. The alchemist is a DJ, a coder, she grows a microfarm, she plays sports.”

While I concern myself with a slightly different problem set, including answers to the question What does it take for us to supercharge our own creativity and bring our work to new audiences?, I think we should add this definition of the cultural alchemist as an essential creative archetype. As creatives, we must sample broadly and deeply as we continue to discover—whether it’s a new mode or matter for our work. Sure, we may not meet the age criteria, but the call to action knows no age limit. We can continually curate ourselves to the most rarified state possible.

Photo above courtesy of Jason Mayden.

Filmmaking In Action

I never went to film school. Instead, my career, like all careers, followed a path that seems coherent only in retrospect. Early on, when I found myself supervising movies as a studio executive, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. Only later did I discover how the narrative alchemy of sound and image arose from layers of collaboration and hands-on craft. My process of discovery came from working on 30 movies, and from finding a way to put all the pieces together, which is the story of Filmmaking in Action.

Four years ago, the folks at Macmillan Learning asked me and my co-authors, Barry S. Weiss and Michael Goldman, to create the definitive college textbook on filmmaking. As we took up the challenge, I looked back over my 25 years in the business to see what I could draw on, and where I still needed to educate myself.

In addition to film and media students, I also hoped the book would become a great resource for independent filmmakers, a community I love and have been serving for more than a decade. Essentially, I wanted this to be the book I wish I’d had when I began my career in motion pictures.

At the outset, we approached the trade organizations and guilds and asked for their help. They all said: It’s about time! We’ve been waiting for a vessel into which we could pour the legacy of our knowledge, and share it with the next generation of filmmakers and media artists.

Humbled and motivated, we pushed ahead. The project was now supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the people who give you the Oscars), the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, the Writers Guild, the Editors Guild, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Visual Effects Society and the Previsualization Society. We drew on their resources and experts, and I learned a ton.

Then came the process of translating all that information into something readable and useful. Some of the chapters, like those on writing and directing flowed more easily. Other, more technical, chapters, like those on camera and lighting—crafts I appreciate but have never practiced—were harder to achieve. Our book went through three full drafts, with significant revisions along the way, aided by two dozen generous professors who wanted to ensure their students got the best learning materials.

Perhaps most exciting is the digital ecosystem that comes with the book. We shot 21 videos with people who normally stay behind the camera. In each, they share stories of films they have worked on, and how their wisdom and work-process can be useful for indie filmmakers and students. The movie community is generous, and everyone we asked to do a video said yes. Some are emerging filmmakers, and others are Academy Award-winners, like editor William Goldenberg. As a taste of what’s in store, here is his video:

Most of my career has been spent as a producer. A producer needs to have a general understanding of every step in the filmmaking process. Instead of a single chapter on producing, we decided to address what a producer does in every chapter; thus producing became one of the threads tying the project together.

We developed other big themes, too:

  • Storytelling. Every element of every scene needs to advance the story.
  • Collaboration. Because no movie is made alone.
  • Problem-solving. Because when Plan B fails, you need a Plan C.

Like that list above, we didn’t stick to dense paragraphs. We’ve confettied the book with:

  • action steps
  • insider secrets
  • business smarts
  • tech tips
  • and emergency check-lists

…all wrapped up in great design. To see more about the book, go to and you can even explore a chapter.

Students and their teachers tell us Filmmaking in Action is invaluable. But what if you’re not a student? If you’re an independent filmmaker, it will be the most expensive book you’ve ever bought, and you will probably think I’m crazy even talking to you about it.

Instead—consider Filmmaking in Action as much more than a book. It’s a full-access pass to the movie-making universe, a physical book and a digital master class, informed by experts who have devoted years to the craft, and I believe it’s the best all-in-one resource you can find. When you compare it to the workshops, seminars, coffees, meals and other things you spend money on, in order to increase your skills, I believe it is one of best investments you can make in your career.

While working on Filmmaking in Action, I have learned a few things about the academic publishing world. One is that it is staffed by consummately intelligent, creative and caring people. Another is that they have to navigate scores of government regulations, which include that they have to sell the book in pieces as well as whole. Which means it is easy to order the wrong Filmmaking in Action on Amazon, and end up missing the video master classes!

Believe me, you want to get it with the full digital component. To make sure you do, order it from this link: That way you will get everything we put into it. (If Amazon says they don’t have it in stock, don’t be alarmed and order it anyway. They keep getting more in, but they don’t always update their listing. Please order from the Amazon link so you get the right edition.)

In my own way, I now realize I did go to film school. It just took me 25 years of figuring it out. Then Filmmaking in Action came along, and it became my capstone project.

Top image from The Hurt Locker (2009). This Academy Award-winning film is among the many contemporary movies used as examples in Filmmaking in Action. Paul Ottoson, its sound designer, shot a special video for our project’s digital component about how he builds explosion sounds. Photo courtesy Summit Entertainment.

Lego’s Rejection of Ai Weiwei

Here’s a Sunroof Proposal

When Lego rejects Ai Weiwei, something is amiss. The iconic Danish company has rejected the dissident Chinese artist’s request to purchase a bulk order of Legos, and the news has caused backlash against the company and stirred grassroots organizing. In Katharine Schwab’s Atlantic article “Ai Weiwei Versus Lego”, she notes that supporters are expressing outrage that Ai is being, as they see it, censored by the Lego company, which has recently announced they’ll be building a LEGOLAND in China. As Schwab reports, the company specifically noted they “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works,” though they have since told commenters on Lego social media they are rejecting this because they cannot fulfill every direct bulk order.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

Looking past the politics for a moment, what’s really interesting to me is the energy regular people worldwide are putting into supporting the artist, who is preparing a piece to be installed in the National Gallery of Victoria (in Melbourne, Australia).  Schwab reveals there are already several drop off locations established—including through the sunroof of a parked car—and the Twitter hashtags #legogate and #legoforaiweiwei are trending. Tweets show children mailing packages of Lego from what appear to be their own collections for the effort. The response is completely astounding, and deservedly so.

Do this thought experiment: Imagine with me a world in which a bold artist with a vision and dedication to her craft has such a lifeline. What if any brave artist could raise such a response for the resources she needs to complete a project that couldn’t be realized without her? What would the world that supported artists at this level look like?

This project is sure to be a brilliant addition to Ai’s body of work. And people who participate in the cause can feel they have contributed to a worthy effort, as so many agree with the political statements Ai makes with his work. And then, it is my hope that we can keep this sunroof open—the one Ai used as his first Lego drop—and repurpose the idea by helping more art enter the world.

How could we continue this level of support for other artists?

Lego image courtesy of Kenny Louie, via the Creative Commons share license.

Ai Weiwei image courtesy of Hafenbar, via the Creative Commons share license.

The Dream Job as Nightmare

Can someone effectively produce work with a focus on a passion? I can attest that it can be done. How do you strike the right balance–so that you have the focus to perform consistently and the time to restore your reserves? The answer requires a bit of soul searching, such as the kind Willow Belden did for her recent Quartz piece, “What to Do When Your Dream Job Makes You Miserable“. 

As she begins her story, her tone is full of promise: “This spring, I created my dream job. At least, I’m sure that’s the way it looks. It’s a job that blurs the line between work and play—a job where the things I do for fun, like hiking and cycling, can happen ‘on the clock.'” And then she reveals her reality: “And yet no position has ever left me more emotionally drained.”

Many of us wish we could do something we love as a day-job, and Belden somewhat ruefully applies our cultural logic: “It should have been perfect. I had found a way to create a career out of my passion—to meld my training as a journalist with my love for the wild. I was following the advice we always hear: do what you love; love what you do.”

So what went wrong? Belden pinpoints the mistake of using a vacation as source material for a work project, during which her careful preparations seem to become snare she set for herself. Rather than a sense of freedom and discovery she enjoyed in non-work travel, she finds herself plodding along under the weight of the project. In creating a narrative out of lived events, she is essentially living her experiences more than once. Add in the preparations, and the “experience” seems become burdensome, and maybe even dull. 

As she reports, “I was getting good ‘tape,’ as we radio nerds call it. But the more audio I gathered, the more my excitement for the bike tour faded. What had once seemed a thrilling adventure—a time to escape the real world and rejuvenate in the woods—was now a chore. I realized with a sinking feeling that this trip wouldn’t be a break from work; it would be round-the-clock work.”

As soon as she stepped back from the “work” perspective, her interest and excitement returned. Under poor conditions, she decides to end the trip early, and has a unique adventure that she finds rejuvenating. And isn’t that the point of downtime?

Some takeaways from Belden’s story: 

  1. Doing what you love for work still has to count as work. Reasonable work-life balance should still include some downtime that’s work-free–even if you’re doing what you love.
  2. A full-time passion project isn’t for everyone. A side project or time-limited engagement may be a great way to test the waters and see if you’re ready–preferably before you set out to swim the channel.  

Your dreams about work just came true, and you can dedicate yourself to your passion project. Now what?