A visual storyteller’s guide to active consumption

Open book in front of Netflix screen

I once was the sort of luddite who believed television killed creativity. I agreed with Edward Abbey when he famously called tee vee the “great American lobotomy machine.” When I was studying in hopes of being the next Great American Writer, I believed in the supremacy of the written word. It was a simple equation: reading = good, TV = bad.

So it’s not without some irony that I now find myself an independent filmmaker and media production professional. How can I condemn television (and its online video analog) when I actually make the stuff? Ah, the hypocrisy. And what’s more, we’re in the Golden Age of Television, right? With unlimited choices, channels and outlets from large-production epic series to micro-budget indie films, there’s more amazing content on the flickering rectangle than at any point in history. And it’s only getting better.

“It’s more important than ever for creatives to handle their consumption with care.”

But for filmmakers, media producers and visual creatives, there’s a downside to this wealth of inspirational content. As creative professionals, we walk a fine line between being either producer or consumer. And it’s easier than ever to drown in the passive side of that equation. So while it’s certainly overkill to demonize video, film and broadcast content no matter the screen size as a creativity killer, it’s more important than ever for creatives to handle their consumption with care.

Here area  few tips for remaining in balance:

Consume with a purpose. Don’t just watch television, YouTube, Netflix, Vimeo or what have you. You should approach the consumption of video and film content with at least as much ceremony as it takes to wander over to your local multiplex. That’s why theatrical screenings always feel more special: you physically remove yourself to a new and strange location in order to immerse yourself in the experience. You think about it on the way home.

Turn your consumption by a more powerful experience by analyzing what you watch. Become the student again. Deconstruct what you see. Think about how you can apply the techniques to your own work. Take time to reflect after watching something instead of just launching into the next video. Take a break, a walk, cook a gourmet meal or work out, and use that time to reflect and make your media consumption more active and analytical.

Veg out carefully. Hey, we all need to decompress. A few idle hours of channel surfing or binge watching never hurt anyone, right? And plus, isn’t it all research? Won’t watching hours of screen content make you a better filmmaker?

Well, actually, if you do it every day, it will leave little time for your filmmaking endeavors. Most of us have full-time jobs, and magic rarely happens between 9 and 5. You need every hour you can squeeze away from work or your family, and sitting in passively in front of some screen, when you should be making spreadsheets, writing a scene, cleaning your camera or what have you, will do little to help you launch your next project. So schedule a few hours each week to blow off some steam and shut down  your brain. Better yet, schedule that time with your spouse, partner or kids and watch it together. Talk about it afterward and turn it into a more active experience. Then when it’s over, get back to work on the production side of the equation.

Read, read, read, read, read. Or so says Werner Herzog. And it’s not just because he’s a bombastic auteur with a cool accent who quotes Virgil. He’s got a point. Reading is so much more active than watching television. When you’re reading, you’re doing work to create scenes in your mind. You’re dressing sets and blocking the characters in your brain. You’re making a thousand decisions on every page, filling in the blanks left by the writer, deciding on color palettes, hearing voices, deciding whether to speed up, slow down, reread or just lay the book down for a moment to revel in the funny way the words make your brain feel. And the whole time you are visualizing, which is probably the most important skill for a director.

Visualization is the ability to see the scene in your mind before you move the talent and crew on any set, or as you’re covering a scene for a documentary. You need to be able to visualize quickly, on the fly. And there’s absolutely no better preparation than reading.

Write, write, write, write, write. Filmmaking is storytelling. It’s narrative. It’s creating scenes and manipulating emotion. The same goes for writing.

Keep a journal. Write notes about the videos, films, books and media you consume and continue your analysis on the page. Write reviews. Sketch out sets and hack out scenes. List the ideas and techniques you plan to steal. Write plays, essays, short fiction, poems, whatever captures your interest.

Making films is as much or more about writing as it is about cameras. You start by writing pitches, fundraising letters, grant applications and end up writing emails to sales agents and distributors. You write scripts, treatments, scenes, synopses, outlines, call sheets, website copy, storyboard captions and interview questions. You use the techniques of narrative to develop and refine film structure.

Framing a beautiful shot is invaluable. Knowing your camera inside and out is fantastic. Being a decent person that plays well with others is also helpful if you want to successfully complete any project. But writing is the one indispensable skill that can bring a film to fruition.

“Film is the great literature of our time.”

I’ve come believe that film, and now some of the exquisite serial storytelling that’s happening on smaller screens, is the great literature of our time. That’s a tough thing to admit for someone who grew up loving Hemingway and Dostoyevski more than Scorsese and Coppola. But it’s just a fact that everyone watches and loves movies. Some people scorn sitcoms. Some don’t read novels. But around the water cooler you can always count on “seen any good movies lately” to prompt a passionate conversation.

But to be a great visual storyteller, you need to be a well-rounded creative professional. And you can’t get there merely through the passive consumption of other filmmakers’ and media producers’ work. With the floodgates of content open and the Binge Era in full swing, it’s easier than ever to slip into the passive side of the consumer vs producer equation, and for creatives, that’s a dangerous place to be.

So make it a point to consume with a purpose. Read and write often. Take the occasional break to revel in the medium about which we’re all so passionate. And then get back to work.

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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