Wins and Woes
January 17, 2019 // Brett Crow
Read Length: 10 Minutes
In the middle of 2017, the film team I had called family disbanded. I wasn’t sure what was next; we had been producing, in my own heart, the best work we had yet. I pushed my own skills to the next level, though I sometimes felt mentally deflated when it came to matching my own creative visions against reality and restrictions.
2018 was no different. There was no profound blog post or insight. Things rolled over as they did the year before. I trode water and connected the months with a scant client list and freelance network. The mundanity of operating my own business began to take a toll on me. I lost strategic and creative initiative, and began to lose motivation. Frantically, I began to search for any full-time gig that would get me by and offer a steady paycheck. Regardless of my passion for these positions, I never struck the full-time gig I defeatedly searched for.
Before the year turned over, I realized I had to go all-in on my own brand mission, and launch Polyphony (pronounced “puhlifuhknee”, not “po-lee-fo-nee”). It was the culmination of over a year of branding, watching as an industry onlooker, and attempting to put to words what I had felt for the past several years: How I can help others in the world by creating beautiful moving images, at an accessible budget, but with unlimited ambition. A level of creative enthusiasm to match brand passions, whether professional, artistic. Anything that welled from a core in their hearts and wanted to scream to the world in defiance.
2018 was about finding honesty within myself, and yet, my own unacknowledged disillusionment of finally getting to do what I wanted, and thought I deserved, and the ignorance of that perspective. But above all else, I am grateful for every client, collaborator, friend, and supporter I've had along the way. The ones who reached out, but it didn't precipitate. Entrepreneurs with a resolve for industry disruption, creative muses and sources of inspiration, and those driving to make this city a better place to nurture a stronger, more accessible, creative community.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts from 2018 that no one asked for, and even far more likely, few will read. The good, the bad, the embarrassing, the true, the ignorant, the misunderstood.
This cannot be stressed enough. Nothing is owed to you. No one is dying to see the reel of yet another small video production company in St. Louis -- no matter the level of clever industry jargon, so thoughtfully arranged into something, you think, just might be utterly cerebral, or the first time someone has heard it. Creative Directors are not lining up at your uninspired apartment office, dying to get you to create some new campaign for a vibrant upstart out of Cortex, fresh off series B financing.
Agencies have their hands full, their own retainer production companies. There’s little need for more outside help. Small brands (which we strive to create emotionally, strategically impactful work alongside) don’t see immediate value in something like crafting a visual ode to their complete brand outreach.
The urge to sell strategically feels soulless, and desperate, though appears to be the only option to grow business, and your dreams. Expect nothing. An alternative? Make friends and honest connections. Invest in the stories of those who reflect the same amount of passion as yourself. Learn from their hardships, their wins, their aspirations, their losses.
I learned in 2018 that I need to be a better friend. How can I can help others on a personal level, firstly? Business growth is a satellite requirement for me now; following my own passions for human experience and discovering that actuality in others is deeply rewarding, and has begun to offer a new lens on narrative, structure, and soul. I have a stronger desire to peel back the layers to uncover more about my craft through the experiences and tales of others.
Invest in your own worth
This doesn’t mean bloating budgets (which I never have, and never will). It means matching the same level of passion behind uncommon brands with your own ambitious visual appetite, to create an unforgettable experience. Often we have to match budget with reality, but at the same time, we can look outside the box to overdeliver, and create work we can be genuinely proud of at an accessible price point. Your time is worth it; there is no point in making something that won’t change a company into a great brand. Concurrently, you need to stake value to yourself, your own brand, your craft. But never lack the nimbleness or interest in a shoestring budget if it means creating something great that will help others to achieve their dreams, or make you a better creator. Practice humility, communicate with empathy, balance the two.
Do awards matter?
As I rounded the corner into this year, I submitted two pieces which I felt proud of to our local ADDYs. It felt like an entrepreneurial initiative I had to take just to get our work in front of the people who mattered: agency heads, creative directors, potential collaborators. I feel like we have something to prove and have a slight chip on our shoulder. My hope for this year is that, even if we do take home some hardware, it will be for the right reasons.
I need to temper my own ambitions and expectations. There simply exists the internal struggle of a light marketing budget, and the desire to show that we can make great work that catches eyes, provides solutions for our clients, and enriches their full brand without the need for any army of producers and a behemoth studio space.
Humility, ego, and confidence
There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Actually, not that fine. The commercial advertising industry is cutthroat, and I have no problem with that. But we all need to practice respect, relinquish ego, and embrace humility. Ego, especially on set, annihilates creativity and mental health. In pre-production, it robs the vision and collaboration. It’s too much business and not enough soul.
We are all lifelong learners (or so I should hope). The moment I sniff ego and arrogance on set, the quicker I will never work with those people ever again (I know, huge loss right?). Treat others with respect and invest yourself in the lives of others, and realize that no matter the title on set, we all want to have an enjoyable experience and provide a beautiful end result for our clients.
Get to know your brand,
pursue it honestly
Engage, befriend, and (hopefully) partner with brands and agencies that you can align with on a wholesome level. There’s no sense in creating something soulless, or just creating to create. When that happens, you’re just making content. Content is not passionate. It doesn’t reveal an engaging narrative. It’s bite-sized mindless work that does nothing more than the occasional social media impression from Instagram bots. There’s a difference between organic creativity with a sound direction and just hitting record on a camera without intentionality.
Understand there is a difference between a strategic campaign and content. A campaign does so towards a specific result. Content for the sake of content is internet fodder; there’s an increasingly large amount of it being put out that litters the internet, and garners little to no brand recognition and pride.
Create with intentionality,
but not without spontaneity
I’ve found that intentionality has helped me to become a more efficient, and, narratively-speaking, more adept creator. Start with the big picture. Remove yourself from it, and doors will open to the next pieces. Sometimes assembling a concept takes time, it takes organic movement and alignment of the stars. But there is intentionality at the same time that directs itself in the background, manifesting in stylistic or thematic result.
I’m tired of trying to sell the filmmaking process as a commodity. We want to forge authentic industry friendships and create as partners alongside passionate brands. Growth is secondary to our goal of helping to make brands the greatest they can be. Heartless advertising and e-mails are not a way to develop relationships.
Competition is healthy;
partnership is praiseworthy
As creatives in a region brimming with talent and ambition, we claw at each other for our reels to be seen, catch the eye of the CD with a passing email, for our shameless gear-a-grams to be reposted by the myriad of equipment manufacturers for some hollow follows. What if we all came together in a noncompetitive spirit, maybe once a month and did something good for the city we call home?
I know I hear plenty of grumbles throughout the region on our inabilities to collaborate on a political level. How we fail to market our fair city as a great, even exceptionally, creative town. Where city leadership fails, perhaps we, as makers, thinkers, dreamers, pitch in, and do our utmost to combine our talents, pro gratis, to make this community the best it can be; to attract, educate, foster, and retain talent rather than ostracize and pass judgement. Destroy the “little big city” misnomer we have all come to accept, end the inferiority complex, and make our region stronger through our creative moxie, and less by political strength.
Always practice gratitude
This might be something that doesn't need to be stated. But always remain grateful that we have the privilege of doing what we love for a living. Cherish the little moments; the projects that you spent dozens on hours on in pre-production only to dissolve, the missed shots, the friendly reach-out, the stressful moments on set when ten things are going on at once. Every moment is an opportunity to learn more about your craft, others, yourself. Find the strength to dust yourself off from setbacks and know that the next relationship will arrive, and make you a better creator.
It’s a cliche complaint in this industry for small shops like us, but your kit doesn’t matter as much as your concept, your crew, and the needs of your client. I will take a couple of HMIs and a trunk full of grip gear over blowing a budget on renting a RED and a set of master primes. Know the limitations of your kit, how to account for it, and pick the right tool for the job. Exercise due diligence in pre-production, and determine your setups beforehand.
I’ll continue in part two on this with a case study of how I approached production hurdles in the following blog post. Am I the greatest filmmaker of all time? Far from it, but I thought I would share how we helped to create a successful short advertisement on a shoestring budget through a strong devotion to pre-production and brand equity.