Sunday, August 27, 2006

One Goal

Most of the creative projects I work on, both for my paying job and film work, involve working with a team of people. Sometimes it works amazingly. Other times, not so well. Beyond general working relationship issues, what is it that either makes or breaks the group project? The goal. Does everyone know the goal? Does everyone have the same goal? Is the goal still the same? The best I've ever heard it put was by Sidney Lumet, director of 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, and Serpico. As a director he said his primary goal is to make sure "everyone is making the same movie."

My first exposure to this was while writing Captain Blasto. If I were to pitch a scene to Aaron and Ben one of them may spin the scene into action the other into slapstick. None of us were right or wrong, we were just coming at it from our own angle. It's my role as a director, not to make all of my own ideas rise to the top, but to facilitate all our ideas to make sure we're making one coherent story. If our goal is a comedy we'll lean into the slapstick, if it's a drama we'll lean into the action scene.

I've been involved in several projects lately where this was not the case. Either very few knew the goal, the goal consistently changed, or everyone had their own goal. What do you get? A schizophrenic project. It looks one way, acts another, and says something completely different. I can spot a schizophrenic project from a mile away and I avoid them at all costs, unless of course it's part of my day job in which it's not an option.

How do you make sure everyone is "making the same movie?" Here's my thoughts on it:

1) Make sure YOU know what "movie" you're making. No, you don't have to have every detail worked out. If you did, what's the team for? But you BETTER know the CORE idea and be able to talk about it at great length if so requested. If it's a film, what do you want the story to "say?" If it's marketing, what "feel" or "look" are you aiming for? Know that before you pull anyone else in. People don't like leading leaders.

2) Make sure EVERYONE knows the goal. Write it out. Print a banner. Do whatever it takes to make sure it's big, bold, easy to understand, and impossible to miss. For me it's typicaly a sentence. For the next script I'm working on I've got a simple sentence: memory and choices control identity. Every single person that works on this project will know that sentence and will aim their work at it.

3) Give people time to digest the goal. I've wrongfully held and attended brainstorm, writing, and graphics sessions where the goal has been presented and the team was INSTANTLY requested to provide ideas and(or) work that illuminated it. They barely understand it. How could they possibly spit out anything worthy of advancing it? The director may not realize that they've had this stewing inside for a while (hopefully), but to everyone else it's brand new. People need time to take in the idea, visualize it, and dream about how they can contribute to it. Depending on the project this is something that may be better measured in weeks than in days or hours.

4) Do NOT keep changing the goal, BUT IF YOU DO, make sure everyone knows the new goal. One of the most depressing things for an artist or creative developer is to have them spend time, energy, and resources on a piece of the project, only to have it either dropped because it doesn't match the new goal, or to have it stay but sit out there like an orphan without any tie to the rest of the project. If you say you're making a website that should look like an Etch-a-Sketch and your tech guys design a real working digital version of the famous toy, they're going to be REALLY frustrated and less likely to work as hard next time when you announce the site is now going to look like a Magna Doodle. It's just as bad if you keep the Etch-a-Sketch in the middle of the new design. They feel like they've contributed AGAINST the goal rather than with it.

This isn't to say you must be locked into a goal just because some work has already started and you're afraid to hurt some feelings. You just have to be aware of the pro's and con's of shifting your goal. If it becomes common practice, you're going to have a very difficult time getting people to contribute.

5) Make sure EVERY idea is aimed at the goal. Let's look at the movie The Incredibles. What's the goal? A comedy about a family of out of work super-heroes. What if I pitch a scene in which a villain uses a death ray to destroy the family station wagon. Does it fit the goal? It's funny and it's within the comic book genre. The idea is worth pursuing. What if I pitch a scene in which the family of super-heroes sacrifice their lives in stopping a terrorist from detonating a car bomb? Worthy of a super-hero, yes. Comic, absolutely not. It's an extreme idea, but I've seen many projects where ideas get developed and often times used that don't support or advance the goal.

6) Make sure you know the goal...still. When you get in the middle of the project it's incredibly easy to follow into details mode. When you're just taking care of the urgent details, don't lose sight of the big picture. Keep looking at your big old banner.

Agree? Disagree? Comments and such, post them here or e-mail me at

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