Health, video production, procrastination, perspective and documentary
Thank you for taking a moment to read a few musings on challenges I believe many creative people face. Sometimes the effects of these challenges are delayed by decades or years. Video production, commercials, features and documentary come with a few issues baked into their very essence. With documentary often comes long extended projects, with peaks and valleys of productivity, success, failure, excitement and despair. Often with docs, the makers can become deeply emotionally engaged with their subjects and empathy can kick in like a freight train. With video production, (here using video – could be media, commercial, digital, film) there is a constant need for attention to detail, responsiveness and flexibility coupled with demanding hours, strength and stamina. Plans can change at a moment's notice, and commitment to the job requires near 24 hour availability and can demand any and all life concerns take a backseat to “the gig.” This can create havoc with personal relationships, family and keeping up with taking care of ourselves. I’d like to press pause, step back and view these trades/disciplines/careers with a long lens – so to speak – give a little insight on how these pursuits can effect our physical and emotional health and see if there’s anything we can do to mitigate ill effects.
From the outside looking in, film and media seem glamorous and luxurious. Yes we are not planted on an assembly line, behind a grill or in a cubicle most of the time. And yet, for example, editors, designers and fx artists – they are firmly planted in front of their machines. Crews routinely stay up all night on night exteriors, brave snow, heat and rain often, and work at all heights and depths from construction cranes to underwater filming. I personally almost set myself on fire a few times trying to warm up outside in the winter in Chicago, but that's a side story. When I started out, I marveled at the beautiful desk chairs, accent lighting around monitors, colorful coffee bars and endless cabinets full of snacks at the amazing post and efx houses where I was often a guest, sometimes a client and later where I've shot many projects. Those chairs need to be the best because, as it turns out, sitting for 10-12 or more hours a day is horrible for your back. Combined with a high stress environment, easy access to unlimited sugar, caffeine, carbs, gluten, and any food you want, in time can really take its toll. I’ve heard of editors' carpal tunnel, tendonitis and other issues. My time sitting and editing has not helped the back issues either. If you’re beginning this journey – remember to get up and stretch! Get loose, take time off. Production department is on call constantly, lighting, grip and camera department work long hours carrying heavy loads, and focus pullers, ACs and DPs have to commit to minute attention to detail under the closest scrutiny. Audio, makeup/hair, art, fx, transpo, directors and writers all have enormous demands, stresses and long days. This is neither easy nor glamorous.
With documentaries, things seem to move at the speed of sludge and there’s often a need to self-fund projects. I got too close to my subject and when they came close to death, it freaked me out. With finding funding not my specialty and grant writing not in my wheelhouse (yet), along with a sense of impending demise, I backed away from my last feature doc project. The time and financial commitment was one reason why I have focused more on short docs, work for hire and cinematography projects. I’ve preferred to leave the longer doc directing to more committed, more centered filmmakers. I’ve focused on gigging and earning a living, shooting corporate films and lensing others’ doc projects. I've directed many “image” films – fundraising pieces and awareness boosting films for non profit clients. But have I left something on the table? Perhaps. I’ve opened up to that pursuit again recently and started to collaborate with a few filmmaker friends to try and get new docu-series off the ground. I’m getting in early, providing and asking for support, hoping to be part of larger projects as they take shape. I believe a key for me is partnership and collaboration. This lone wolf thing is not for everybody. All of this spec work comes with a change in perspective - there is no short term gain, no invoice or check to pay expenses, but the trade off is there. It’s the long game and a challenge to maintain a positive outlook sometimes, but that is the key. And to simplify – finding some kind of work-life and long term/short term project balance of course helps. I'm in favor of taking some time off when you can, too.
It seems endemic; this life of independent production is a cycle of boom and bust, freelancing and steering JBL Films for over 35 years has had its ups and downs. There’s a mindset and a discipline to getting stuff DONE every day that comes with time. Even now, I have definitely NOT mastered it. This procrastination thing is real and it is a beast. List making, calendars, ½ caf coffee and setting boundaries seem to help.
One of the best pieces of advice I got in my short stretch in film school was NOT creative in nature. It was simple, if you’re serious about working in production, join a gym and get strong – this business will beat the crap out of your body. I listened, but as the years went by, I found less and less time to keep up with it, I started directing, producing, editing too – the shoots got smaller, the lights got smaller and I got smaller. Some people used the pandemic to exercise, I used it to cook, bake, eat and watch every documentary and streaming series I could get my remote on. The gym membership got canceled even before then, as I stressed out on deadlines and replacing clients that had retired, changed jobs or whose budgets had dropped. These were not good decisions, and lately I started feeling it more often.
With the cinema verité style I do, hand held shooting is a central part of my style. I’ve been at this a LONG time. Worked a few reality shows in the 2000s and before. It takes a toll, the single sided camera weight, the whip pans, the low angles kneeling on floors and furniture pads if you’re lucky, shooting out of cars, off motorcycles, crouched on dollies. In that scenario, you put the camera down when the scene is over, not when you feel like it.
Working in L.A. I sit in the car for HOURS, driving to gigs, meetings, fun, everything. Color correcting reels – yep everything at the computer- can add to that back strain – To help with some of that I’ve got a stand up desk now I move up and down. I have gone through 3 chiropractors in the last 3 years. One actually retired! I’ve found a new one and happy to report its WORKING. Getting the physical stuff dealt with is important. I got a boost of energy from the new adjustments, plan to get swimming again soon, and have been out hiking the hills of L.A.
If you’re starting on this journey, take care of yourself, if you’re mid way in, don’t lose focus on the physical and emotional aspect. You can always reach out to me, and of course your friends and family. Set a few hours aside for the really important stuff. I’ve got no magic bullet for this, but I can tell you it helps to pick up the phone and reconnect, take a few walks, grab some lunch with old friends and spend time with family. Also maybe get that body tuneup you’ve been putting off. Listen to it while its whispering and you won’t have to hear it shout. I’ll be sending out a newsletter soon with more about recent gigs, news, gear and of course, looking for work. Still going after it hard, 35 years in.
View from my new chiropractor's office parking lot.