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?


The Power Paradox In Leadership

In leadership, just because you have the power, does not mean you should use it. And even when you don’t have the power, sometimes you must act as though you do

As a CEO, how should you exercise your power of leadership? Should you govern by consensus? Make people tremble in fear? Be tough but fair?

We confront the same questions every day in Hollywood when we’re working on movies, because each movie is its own start-up entrepreneurial venture—we craft the business plan (the script), hire a bunch of people, and then make the product (the movie). Along the way, those of us who finance films and run studios need to decide what kind of leaders we are and what kind of power we will wield.

This issue comes into play at every step in the process, and nowhere more so than at the end, when we have to decide how the movie will be finished. We call that “final cut.” The “final cut” is the final version of a film, the moment where we stop tinkering with it and say it’s done. It’s also a moment where emotions can run high, because most of the time the director does not have “final cut”—that power is reserved for the motion picture studio or financial investors. While I know this seems strange to people in many other parts of the world, the United States has no tradition of droit morale or “moral rights” given to creators of intellectual property. If someone else is paying the bills, everything, even a movie, is a “work for hire,” which means the filmmaker, in the last days of a movie, holds precious little power.

On one film I supervised, our studio found the ending unsatisfying. We had an instinct, borne of our experience, that if the ending were better—in fact, if the last two scenes were reversed—audiences would leave the movie much more up-beat, which would translate into better word-of-mouth and more ticket sales in the future. The director didn’t want to make the change. She liked the ending the way it was, but she agreed to a test, so one Sunday afternoon we went to a cinema and screened two versions of the movie in adjacent rooms for test audiences. The versions were the same except that two scenes at the end were in a different order. After the screening, a research company did an audience survey, and it turned out we were right: the version with our ending had a higher approval rating.

You’d think that would be the end of the story. We, the studio, had “final cut,” and the director didn’t. But, even with the audience results in hand, she didn’t want to budge. She made an artistic plea, stating that the film was simply a better film with her ending, and that we should support quality and artistic integrity.

That evening, we executives at the studio caucused among ourselves. We reached a surprising decision—we agreed to let her keep her ending. We had done our job, and showed her that a different, more commercial ending was possible. She had done her job, and fought back to preserve her vision. Why did we make the decision as we did? Because, at the end of the day, we recognised that our role was to be financiers, not movie-directors, and even though we had the power to change the movie, it would overstep our role and imperil our relationship with this director and other directors we may work with in the future.

The outcome of that film was an even further surprise, because its box office turned out to be double our expectations. The director had been right all along; the audience appreciated her mark of quality.

Then I worked on another film with the opposite result. This time, we had engaged an extremely powerful director, one of the few who commanded the power of “final cut” himself. When we screened the film for a test audience, it tested poorly. The fixes were obvious to all of us, including the director. But he knew the film’s star would not want to go along, and this director told us, in confidence, that the only way to get the changes made would be if we played a charade, so he could claim we were forcing him. Here, too, we played our role, and he played his. The film got changed and became a moderate success.

What’s the lesson of these two stories, and what does it tell you about the kind of leadership that you should practice? Think of it as the Power Paradox. Just because you have the power, does not mean you should use it. And even when you don’t have the power, sometimes you must act as though you do.