6 lessons for making personal film projects actually happen.
We’re big believers in personal projects at Story & Heart.
Partly because they result many more incredible stories being shared in the world—stories that likely wouldn’t have been shared otherwise. And partly because they’re often the truest and purest representations of the beating hearts behind cameras. There are no client requests. No marketing agendas. No corporate filters.
These stories are inspiring and refreshing. So why aren’t we seeing more them from filmmakers worldwide?
Often personal projects mean personally funded, which means money is a big part. Personal projects also—by definition—take up personal time. Which we know is in precious short supply for many filmmakers. And when you really dig in, there are many more hurdles that also get in the way of making personal projects actually happen.
We recently spoke with Brent Foster, photojournalist and filmmaker, about how he’s been able to balance building his filmmaking business with his remarkable personal project, “While I’m Here: The Legacy Project”.
From our conversation with Brent, here are 6 lessons learned in making personal film projects happen.
1) Spend time finding stories you connect with.
It starts with the story—it has to. Without a story you connect with, the chances of you even completing the film are slim, let alone it being a vehicle for displaying your talent, vision, and heart.
Brent Foster: “First of all, finding the right subjects has been way more challenging than I thought it was going to be—especially after the first. With ‘The Highway Man’ we realized that we want to find people that are living legacies that are doing amazing, but who are also doing amazing things to help others. That combination is challenging. We found a lot of people who are doing things to help others but maybe aren't necessarily phenomenal film characters themselves. We found a lot of people who are just incredible characters, but they're not looking to pass that on, or they're not looking to sort of continue, pass that legacy onto other people. Research has taken a lot more time than we would have initially anticipated.”
Be ruthless when selecting personal projects.
Make sure that the story is something that matters to you and that your characters will bring it to life—even if it means more work in pre-production than you anticipated.
2) Put your personal projects in the calendar.
Once you’ve found your amazing story and characters for your personal project, put everything in your calendar: Pre-production, production, and post-production days should all be included.
Brent Foster: “We would never do them otherwise, if they weren’t in the calendar. Our days are so packed between family and work that it's really hard to make time for these kinds of projects—it really is.”
Busy happens. And busy is the silent killer of personal projects.
Intentionally carve out time in your schedule to make sure your personal projects are protected.
Brent Foster: “It's a challenge, but it's something that we care about so much and drives us so much that we really want to make sure that it doesn't slip away as we're focusing—especially during the summer and busy months—on paying projects too. We are making sure that each week we take the time to block those spots where we say, ‘This day is a Legacy day and we're going to be working on pre-production for this particular project for The Legacy Project,’ and kind of move from there.”
3) Spread them out over a long period.
But don’t carve out too much personal projects time in any period of time.
As we hinted at earlier, money is a large hurdle for personal projects. By spreading them out over a longer period of time you’ll be able to balance both paid work and personal projects, ensuring both happen, the lights stay on, and your creative fuel tank is refilled.
Brent Foster: “The Legacy Project has become that approach where we know we're not going to be making money. It's something where we really want to tell stories that we think are important, and get them out there. But we also have to afford to feed our couple of kids at the end of the day and pay for our house. What we've tried to do is just space them out over the period of about a year and a half.”
The added bonus of spreading out your personal projects is you can give them the attention they deserve.
Brent Foster: “We want to make sure that we also have ample time to pre-produce each one as we move along. What we're trying to do is schedule time in our week to be able to take on the projects that we're doing commercially, and then also be able to have a day or a half day to be able to work on research, pre-production and planning for Legacy Projects as they move along.”
4) Start now and set an end goal.
Brent Foster: “I've actually had a lot of people reach out to me and say, ‘I've thought about doing a project about legacies,’ or ‘I've thought about doing this portrait project or this video project.’ It's real easy to think about though, right? At some point get out there and jump into it, kind of force yourself into it. I like the idea of setting at least a timeline on it where I say, ‘Okay, we're going to be working on this for 18 months.’ There's an end goal there. It's not a hard fast deadline but there's an end goal there. I also like the idea that we can kind of take our time through this process too and get these stories out there properly. Set a deadline that is going to light a fire under you, but set a realistic one that’s going to keep you going.”
Make sure your personal project has an end goal in the calendar. We’re a fan of SMART goals here at Story & Heart, but regardless of the how you define a goal—and as we mentioned earlier—make sure its end date is in your calendar.
Without the typical client deadline, it’s easy for personal projects to perpetuate forever.
What that means for you is there is no satisfaction of achieving something—anything. And without that motivation of success and completion, the chances of you making more personal projects happen is slim to none. And that makes us and the world sad.
5) Push yourself to the max—in the right direction.
There is security in the comfy client blanket of not wanting to push too far out of the normal or expected. Personal projects don’t have that blanket, and it can be scary. But don’t let that happen.
Use your personal projects as an opportunity to push yourself like you’ve never been pushed.
Brent Foster: “I want to make sure with each project we do that we're pushing ourselves to the max creatively and that we are spending that pre-production time. I want each one to be better than the last one. For me, it's a real test personally as well. Even though I’ve been a photojournalist for forever, I'm still pretty damn new to the filmmaking game.”
In addition to pushing yourself creativity, be strategic with your personal projects. We shared a great nugget from Dan Riordan of Gnarly Bay in our “5 tips for making a killer reel” blog post last week that’s also fitting here:
Dan Riordan: “It is the easiest way to communicate what you're capable of and to guide your ship towards what kind of work you hope to do in the future.”
The same applies for personal projects. Use them to guide where you want your non-personal projects to go.
Brent Foster: “One of my first newspaper jobs, I took my vacation and went and worked on a photo essay in the Gaza Strip. Then I came back and my next newspaper job I took a vacation and covered a story in Thailand. It's never been the paycheck, right? It's always been sort of like, ‘How am I going to fund what I actually want to do?’ Also, always trying to find that job that's going to balance that nicely too. I really thought for a long time that newspapers were going to be that for me. Where, it was like, ‘If I make it to the LA Times then I'm going to be golden. I'm good to go. I'll be traveling everywhere I want to. I'll be able to take those projects on.’ You kind of realize quickly that it's never really going to happen that way so you have to make it happen for yourself.”
6) Views don’t matter. Your Why does.
You’ve spent all of this time finding an amazing story and characters, putting everything in the calendar, going through the different stages of production, and successfully meeting your end goal. Now it’s time to upload your film and eagerly wait for all of those “Joe Schmo liked your video” or “Your video has been added to ‘The Most Amazing Film Ever’ channel” emails, right?
While praise is fun and exciting, don’t lose focus of your Why.
Remember why you created your personal project in the first place and know that by overcoming all of the hurdles you faced in bringing it to light, you’re already successful—regardless of the view count, likes, or praise.
Brent Foster: “I had no idea that it would have that direct impact to help him [The Highway Man] and the numbers didn't matter. It was a weird thing for me because I really looked at success as the number of video views, and what we realized was the success was the engagement, both the community engagement and the engagement with people that we previously had nothing to do with. I was like, ‘That is why we are doing this. That is why we are creating these films. It's not the 100,000 views. It doesn't matter in this case.’ That was such a kind of big thing for me because I have always sort of felt working as a photojournalist that you're always trying to justify why you're there. You're there at the hardest time in somebody's life in a lot of these assignments, where their loved-one has just died, or their struggling in one way or another and you're there trying to take pictures to help tell this story and help create and sort of have that impact. In this case we directly created that impact in one film and were actually able to help that person right away.”
Bonus: Personal projects are a great way to find talented collaborators.
Personal project doesn’t mean solo project.
Use your personal project as an opportunity to bring in like-minded collaborators.
Brent Foster: “It's also been a real cool way to start to build the team that you really want to work with, too. I'm trying to kind of work with different people along the way. Work with people that I've worked with in the past but bring them in on a passion project, collaborate with them, bring in their look on things too. It's been a fun way for me to start to develop that team a little bit as well.”
Ready to start a personal project? Share it in the comments below—even if you don’t know what it is yet, a simple “I’m in” is enough to help you make it happen.
Fired up—ready to make a personal project happen?
One of the biggest ways we’ve found to actually make something happen is to write it down. Even if it’s just a starting idea—a glimmer of something.
Special thanks to Brent Foster for sharing his insight on making personal projects happen with us, and to RODE, Kessler, Zylight, and Marmoset for supporting the "While I'm Here: The Legacy Project."