Greg Pak: FilmHelp: General

Inspiration, motivation, and making a fool of yourself

Another transcribed tweet session by Greg Pak
On Saturday I had the great pleasure of receiving the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival’s Emerging Artist Award and participating in a “Conversation with Greg Pak” event moderated by Loraine Morrill. The conversation and Q&A session were a blast — but afterwards I realized I hadn’t fully answered one of the attendee’s questions, so last night I tried to finish the thoughts on the Twitter.
Read on for the transcript:

Had a fantastic time at the @PAAFF “Conversation with Greg Pak” event last night – thanks to Michael & Joe & Loraine!
But I realized I didn’t completely finish answering one person’s question. She was asking about inspiration/motivation.
I talked about the constant deadlines as a comic book writer being great for discipline. Can’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. [Comic book writers] have to learn how to make it happen, no matter what, in order to make those deadlines. Which is actually a great thing. Without deadlines, it’s far too easy to moon around with a creative project indefinitely.
So what I forgot to mention yesterday was that it’s possible to create deadlines for yourself to motivate yourself to finish creative projects. Just a few ways…

  1. Form a group with friends to critique each others’ work. Good kick in the pants to at least complete first drafts of projects.
  2. Find contests to enter. Those contests will have deadlines that you can’t miss. (But always carefully read competition rules/regs. Don’t want to sign away rights without realizing it!)
  3. Take a shot at stuff like Ntn’l Graphic Novel Writing Month or

I haven’t done those myself, but I’ve done the film world equivalent with a 48 hour film at @HamptonsFilm a few years ago.
Finishing projects is absolutely key. And here’s another crazy thought: embrace creative failure and humiliation.
When I was doing improv comedy, I had a friend who said the number one rule was to be completely willing to make a total fool of yourself.
Finishing those early projects is key because they’re going to be flawed and bad and we need to learn by seeing how people react to them.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true – we often learn more from our creative failures than our creative successes.
We might not intellectually know why a creative project succeeds – we just managed to hit the right notes without thinking it all through.
But when I screw something up, boy, do I take the time to think it through and learn from it.
It’s also critical to develop the ability to keep going in the face of creative failure. Most people quit. Sometimes the most talented quit.
The ones who make it have one thing in common – they didn’t quit.
And finally, it’s critical to embrace making a fool of yourself because every awesome creative project initially sounded totally moronic.
Particularly now, it’s breathtakingly/heartbreakingly easy to make anyone’s story sound stupid – in 140 characters or less! 😉
The relevant song for all of this: “They All Laughed.” Here’s part of the Louis Armstrong version.
Which brings me to my recently rediscovered 1980 centaur novella. 😉
Okay, y’all, thanks for putting up with all this yapping. And thanks again to everyone who came to the @PAAFF and @BNWCOMICS events!


By Greg Pak
I recently had a disaster in which three dubs were mislabeled and the wrong program was sent to three different festivals. The big solution: When recording or making dubs, label your tapes with program information IMMEDIATELY after removing them from the machine. Great grief can thusly be avoided.

Tip of the Day: Bring a VHS backup

By Greg Pak
When invited to show clips or films in non-theatrical settings — like conferences or classrooms — bring a VHS backup of whatever you’re planning to show. Even if you’ve confirmed that the venue can screen your preferred format (DVD or MiniDV or BetaSP, for example), a VHS backup may save your life when the venue’s MiniDV deck goes AWOL.

Just Ask

By Greg Pak
Just because you have no money doesn’t mean you can’t get good folks to help you make your movie, particularly if you’re just shooting over a single weekend.
When I was planning to shoot an extremely low budget digital short film this spring, I figured I’d do it all with a crew of three. But my astute and incredible producer saw that the script really required a few more key folks, including a wardrobe supervisor, a makeup person, a production designer, and an assistant director. She made some calls and a half dozen amazingly talented folks with whom we’d worked on other projects signed on to work for free that weekend. It turned out to be the smoothest shoot and perhaps the best crew I’ve had.

Why I Plug Film School

By Greg Pak
People often ask me whether film school is worthwhile for aspiring young filmmakers. My simple answer: Yes.
    I went to New York University’s much-lauded graduate film program. Like any film student, I had gripes about my school from time to time. But for several reasons, I’m greatly indebted to my film school experiences.

A place for real criticism

First, film school was the first place I got rigorous criticism of my work. Before film school, I made several films which friends and family told me they enjoyed. But no one ever told me this shot is too long; this scene is too didactic; this sequence doesn’t work.
    In contrast, my professors and classmates in film school clearly and coldly told me what they thought about my work. It was seldom pleasant. But without clear analysis of my work’s strengths and weaknesses, it would have been much more difficult for me to grow and improve as a filmmaker.

A place to aquire specific skills

Second, film school gave me solid tools for directing actors. I had worked with actors for years as a director of various improv comedy groups. But directing for the screen is a unique undertaking which my professors at NYU helped me understand. Similarly, film school gave me a strong grounding in other essential crafts such as editing, cinematography, and most importantly, dramatic writing.

A place for contacts and professional advancement

Third, film school provided me with contacts and venues for professional advancement. I’m still in touch with many of my classmates — we help each other out from time to time, tossing each other info about jobs, lending each other equipment, working on each others’ films.
    Professional benefits have come from the festival venues available only to students. I got several big boosts from student festivals and awards, including the Student Academy Awards and the NYU First Run Film Festival.
People often argue against film school by pointing out that a person can make a micro-budgeted feature instead of spending $60,000 on film school. True enough, particularly now that MiniDV and Final Cut Pro have made the costs of making features on video much, much cheaper.
    But it’s also true that most of these micro-budgeted first features disappear, never to be seen by anyone except the cast, crew, and the filmmaker’s immediate families.
    Before I went to film school, I made a sixty minute superhero spoof on Beta SP called “Random Man.” I have no regrets about making the film — I learned a huge amount from the experience. But the film didn’t really work, despite having a great first ten minutes. It played in only one film festival.
    If I had skipped film school and put the money right into making more films, I suspect I would have made several more interesting but ultimately amateurish feature length films which nobody would have seen.
    Instead, going to film school gave me the training and rigor to make each of my projects as good as they can be.
    In short, film school helped me live up to my potential.
    I know that film school is not for everyone — in particular, it’s not affordable to everyone. But even if you can’t afford film school, I’d recommend trying to create a network wherein you can get some of the benefits of film school. Specifically, I’d recommend joining or creating a community or workshop of filmmakers who can provide you the rigorous criticism and advice you need to grow.
    One example of such a group is the Workshop, or the Asian American Filmmakers Collaborative.


Never Say No to a Mint

By Greg Pak
When I’m shooting, I need to have private, one-on-one conversations with my actors. But with a half dozen crew members in the room, it can be a struggle to keep these discussions private and effective. The result is close physical proximity — I’ll often whisper a direction into each actors’ ear just before a take.
Nothing puts a crimp into this kind of intimate communication like bad breath.
Too much coffee, too much pizza, too little sleep — the conditions of stressful sets provide the perfect incubator for all kinds of interesting chemical reactions. I’ve suffered from the halitosis of others and no doubt stunned people with my own over the years. It may seem like a little thing. But the success of a film can be compromised by anything which hinders communication between directors and their actors and crew.
The principle applies during distribution and promotion as well. Initial conversations with prospective agents, distributors, producers, and programmers often take place in crowded rooms at festival receptions or parties –under these conditions, people will know if you stink — and they may infer that your film does, too.
Never say no to a mint. That little Altoid could mean more to your moviemaking than you realize.

Be Nice

By Greg Pak
Even when everyone around you has transformed into a total moron, be nice. Seriously. Disregard stories about John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock humiliating cast and crew to good effect. You’re not working for a studio and paying people tons of dough for the privilege of being abused by you. Most likely, your cast and crew are working for very little if any money at all. Even when they screw up, they will respond best to firm but civil correction.
This is particularly true when dealing with places like post houses. When they screw up your dailies (as they eventually will), you can pitch a fit, whine and groan, insult each worker and his or her family with scathing, satisfying rancor. But this will not get you better service — and in fact may cause you to lose the little bonuses you could get.
The reality is that most labs will readily correct any mistakes they make — for free. And the mistakes are seldom permanent — I’ve made six 16mm films and only one roll of negative has ever been scratched by a lab. Instead, typical lab mistakes include scratching a print (not the negative), making video dailies with the image off center, etcetera. Your best strategy is to clearly point out the problem and request a redo. Now if they want to charge you for the redo, you may need to show a little more fire… But all the shouting is seldom necessary.

Get Half Your Money Up Front

By Greg Pak
For anyone making money freelancing, I highly recommend getting half of your money up front. Here are two practical reasons why:
First, last minute schedule changes can ruin you. If you commit to a project, blocking out time and turning down other work, you could lose everything if the shoot is postponed or cancelled. If you’ve gotten half of the money up front, at least you’ll have something.
Second, if you finish a job without getting paid, you might never get paid. It’s not unheard of for independent producers to run over budget and out of money. Again, if you get half of your money up front, at least you’ll have something.
There will always be situations which will preclude your getting your money up front — maybe the production is being funded by a grant which has been awarded, but the check hasn’t yet arrived. If you know and trust the producer, you’ll probably accept the job and hope for the best. But if at all possible, get your deposit as soon as you can. Even trustworthly people and good friends can have their productions fall apart — and you don’t want to take the fall when it happens.
Incidentally, I’d argue that this is a good policy for producers as well as freelancers. If you want to make a career as a filmmaker, clean payment arrangements are critical for keeping collaborators happy and maintaining good vibes within your filmmaking community.

Manic Depression Is Normal

By Greg Pak
If today you feel like a moron, relax — tomorrow you’ll feel like a genius. And vice versa.
The nature of the filmmaking process forces most filmmakers into an only-sometimes-managable haze of manic-depression. Because there are so many factors depending on so many people which affect the success and failure of a film, at any given instant you may feel like Kurosawa’s reincarnation or a just another Ed Wood wannabe.
One example: You’re supposed to be shooting the big sunlit beach scene. It’s raining. You feel like a moron. Ten minutes later, the sun shines gloriously; you’re touched by God.
Another example: You’re making a documentary, shooting on film, and your rolls keep running out the instant your subjects reach those emotionally gripping parts of their stories. You feel like a failure. But two years later, when you’ve finished the piece, you see that the lack of picture forced you to find other photographs, footage, and images to use over the voiceover — which has resulted in a far subtler and more affecting film. You feel like a genius.
These ups and downs are normal. Get used to ’em.