3 Reasons Why Passion Projects Will Accelerate Your Filmmaking
Back in 2010, we at Stillmotion had the idea of doing some pro-bono storytelling as a way to contribute to communities we cared about. Looking back, neither of us could have guessed just how crucial that decision would be for our growth.
That film that we made as a passion project, Old Skool Cafe, became a Vimeo Staff pick, was featured on Upworthy twice, garnered nearly half a million views, and brought in several hundred thousand dollars worth of paid commercial work.
Now, of course it’s fair to wonder: was that just a one-hit wonder? But the truth is that our most-viewed films of all time are Lek, the Elephant Whisper of Chiang Mai, and Spelling Father. Both films have between 2 and 4 million views.
Our top-viewed films are all passion projects—stories we told pro-bono to push ourselves creatively and make an impact with our storytelling.
Doing passion projects is one of the greatest ways to accelerate your filmmaking. Here are three reasons why:
1. Most client projects suffer from Story Erosion. Passion projects don’t.
Here’s how far too many client projects go down.
You get the job and are excited about all of the possibilities. You develop a story that you feel will help the client achieve their goals in the best way possible. You’re pumped to share it with them.
They enjoy what you’ve shared but they have a few “points of feedback.”
They request that certain people be interviewed, they remind you of some strong locations you should use, and they feel it wise to share a few shots that they think could really help push the piece. You acquiesce to these few requests while telling yourself that it’s no big deal.
As you go through production and post, you continue to receive a barrage of requests that seemingly come out of left field. Now, that’s not to say that collaboration or feedback is bad. Both are incredibly powerful and help us all become stronger artists. The problem happens when that feedback doesn’t actually make the piece stronger. When that feedback comes from a lack of understanding or a desire to simply have input in the creative process.
And you, wanting to make the client happy, continually try to make as many requests happen. At the same time you try not to lose faith in the piece you’re creating.
We call this the process of Story Erosion. In the beginning you’ve got a beautiful a story that will help achieve the client’s goals in an engaging and emotional way. But as things move forward one small concession after another is made, with each slowly moving you from a story towards a commercial—a piece based on the features other than a single human experience.
By the end of it you’re often happy just to ship the project and move on. It’s not a great story and it’s not going on your demo reel, but you still delivered.
But it’s so critical to craft films that you believe in, and to continually create things that you feel are the best you’ve ever done. When we get stuck in the cycle of client work and Story Erosion it’s so easy to disconnect from the work we do.
Crafting a passion project, a film that you’re making for yourself in your own way, is an incredibly powerful way to reconnect to the potential you have. It lets you see what kind of story you’re really capable of. Being honest with yourself about your own abilities can be challenging, sure, but it’s also one of the surest ways to grow (which we’ll talk about shortly).
A major tip to keep in mind when you set off to make a passion project is to always let everybody else know you’ll be telling the story the way you believe is best. That doesn’t mean you won’t collaborate, but it means you’re going to put the story first. It’s what we told Teresa at Old Skool, Lek at the Elephant Sanctuary, and Marshall of Spelling Father. We had zero changes across all three of those films.
We did make tons of revisions to get each piece to its current point. But every decision was made with story in mind, not simply to fulfill a request that held the piece back because we felt we had to.
If you’ve ever had a period where you feel you haven’t creatively developed, that’s often a sign of making too many concessions in a row, taking on work you don’t love, and suffering from a heap of Story Erosion. Getting out there and crafting your own film removes all of those barriers. And more than that, it helps you develop—which is our second point.
2. Growth happens at the limits of your abilities.
Imagine you went out and shot the same talking head corporate interview day in and day out. The client wanted a simple backdrop and the same three point lighting each and every time. Same camera, same lens, same everything. How much would you learn?
While it might feel easy to go out and shoot the same thing each time, without having to push yourself, you’ve got little chance to truly develop creatively.
I remember having to interview Obama on the sidelines of a football field with no more than 30 seconds of prep and no lights. That certainly pushed me to make the most of whatever was there. Or another time when another director of ours had just 10 minutes to set up for an interview with Andrew Luck, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Again, that constraint pushed him to find new ways to deliver.
When we experience something new and challenging, we have an opportunity to expand our understanding and abilities. If we keep delivering the status quo, we’ll forever miss that opportunity. Passion projects are one of the best ways to get out there and push yourself, really hard, really quickly.
Why? Because the tallest walls are often the ones you construct for yourself.
When you take on a film and you can make it in any way you dream, it creates the opportunity for you to see, and actualize, something that you haven't before. It’s the opportunity to push further.
When I shot the story of Dave Jacka, The Quadriplegic Who Reached For The Sky, I had just about a day of production, one camera, and myself as the main filmmaker and crew. I enlisted a couple of volunteers in Melbourne, Australia and took on this passion project intent on pushing myself to make the most of the story.
Dave’s story received a Vimeo Staff pick and was picked up by a television station. More than that, I grew creatively by pushing myself beyond what I knew my abilities to be. Normally, I’d have a full crew and many days to capture a story. In this case, I didn’t, and I had to find ways to make the most of my situation.
Whether it’s due to Story Erosion or a reluctance to really go after the story you believe in, it’s common for a majority of client work to become repetitive and almost easy. And that makes sense—when someone is paying us and counting on delivery, we often go with what we know to deliver results. Trying something new and pushing past our limits isn’t just scary in this scenario, but it can also feel irresponsible.
When you have a passion project, on the other hand, you have the room to see how far you can go. It’s safe to try new things. That’s how we grow creatively.
So the second tip when taking on passion projects is to never play it safe. Push yourself to make each one the best story you’ve ever told. Set a reasonable but high standard for yourself and see what you can do.
As we grow, we can offer better work for the next client. We can even hope to work with the clients we connect with more because of our passion projects, and that’s the last reason why they’re such a powerful accelerator.
3. You attract the type of work you show, so make it count.
Let’s imagine a filmmaker who shoots a good deal of corporate videos. She doesn’t love corporate videos, but gear is expensive and she’ll take the work wherever she can get it. She’s only been doing this for a few years and so her rates and skill set are both modest.
Most projects she takes on involve a few interviews, usually dictated by the client, along with some b-roll that they come up with together. It’s a fairly straightforward process and she can consistently deliver work that her clients enjoy.
And so her website is filled with examples of these corporate videos—simple interviews covered with b-roll talking about a product or service that’s offered.
This doesn’t sound all that bad. So what’s the problem?
Here it is: when she watches these videos, she doesn’t really connect with them. She’s happy that her clients appreciate the work, but she doesn’t feel anything when she watches them, and she’s not overly proud of the work.
And here’s the even bigger problem. Because her website is full of this one style of corporate video, the majority of her incoming clients are looking for that same thing. Not only is she not in love with the work she has made, but she’s also not in love with the work that keeps coming in.
That’s because we attract what we show. If your site if full of traditional wedding videos, then you’re going to attract people that want a traditional wedding video. Back in the day when Stillmotion did weddings, filmmakers often asked us how we got couples that were so different. The answer was always a simple one—we showed films in which the couples were different.
This is true of documentary, commercial work, weddings, and other film genres. The type of work you put out there will, most of the time, attract people that want work like that.
And if you’re like most of us who are within the first 5 or so years of starting, the work you’re showing is often far from the work you want to be doing. But if you keep going at the same pace—continually making concessions, allowing Story Erosion to creep in, making videos that aren’t pushing you all that much—you better believe that it will take a long time to get your work to where you want it to be.
But there’s a massive accelerator: passion projects. They give you the chance to tell a story you care about in your own way. When you then put that on your website, you can start attracting people and work that you’re excited about.
In late 2015, Stillmotion got its largest commercial job ever: a series of short films for several hundred thousand dollars. They were stories that really mattered, about women around the world who were making a massive difference in their communities. It was, in many ways, a total dream job. Can you guess why the client chose us? Yep, they were drawn to our past passion projects where we told the best stories we could, about things we care about, and in a way that felt right to us.
And so the last tip when taking on passion projects is to take the decision of what video to make incredibly seriously. The right video is an opportunity for growth, sure, but it’s also an opportunity to attract rates, clients, and work that truly fulfill you.
Make sure that you’re choosing a subject that’s relevant to you and the deeper motivations behind your filmmaking. That’s the surest way to know that whatever story you tell will help connect you to the right people.