January 17, 2016

Lessons from Van Gogh: Why You Should Keep Making Films That Nobody's Going to See

Creatives define success in many different ways, but I doubt very many would say that it's making art that nobody ever sees.

As filmmakers, we're ambitious and have dreams of walking in the footsteps of our great cinematic heroes. We work and toil to become better at our craft, sacrificing everything to get just a little bit better -- a little bit closer to our goal of having our films noticed by those we respect. However, for most of us, these dreams are rarely realized and fail to match the grandiose visions that we have in our heads. We end up making films -- in the dark -- until eventually we give up.

But in this video essay, Adam Westbrook explains, through the arduous career of world-renowned painter Vincent Van Gogh, why you should never stop making art, even if you're the only one who knows you're making it.

What usually happens at each stage of production? Let's think about it. You come up with a story idea. You tell your buddy about it and ask, "Is it good? Do you like it? Would you watch it if it were in a theater?" To which your buddy replies, "Yes, I'd totally watch that, man!" So, you get to work writing the screenplay -- maybe you even send it off to some trusted people for review. They say, "Yes! Damn, that's good!" You then get a cast and crew together to shoot the film, and in all of your production meetings you're talking about how to more or less ensure its success. "Do we know any noteworthy actors/DPs/producers?" Now, you've finished shooting and editing your film, and now you're trying to find ways to maximize attention. So, you set up a Twitter and Facebook account for the project -- tweet at nauseum, try to get a few big-hitters to retweet you. "Can we partner with some celebrities/companies/film organizations to help generate buzz?"

Now, what if your buddy said, "No, I wouldn't watch that," or "No, it's awful." What if you didn't know anybody with a following to help get people talking about your film? What if your Twitter and Facebook accounts failed to gain any followers? What if your film existed only in the dark? What if no one ever ended up watching your film -- ever?

Would you still make it?

That is the question at the heart of Delve's video. In a time when everything is put online and pushed out on social media, your little project is fighting (many times) a losing battle for attention. Even if it's good, even if it's visionary, even if it's brilliant and unique and original -- your film may only play to an audience of one: you. 

That thought is depressing, yes, but maybe the problem doesn't lie in how you do it, but why you do it. The video explains an idea from Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience called "autotelic experiences", which describe activities that are done not for the sake of any future benefit (like attention or notoriety), but for the sheer sake of doing them. 

Autotelic: A self-contained activity that is not done with the expectation of future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

Maybe being talented or having the most Twitter followers is not the key to success; maybe it's being passionate and prolific in your craft. In other words, if you make films solely because you love making films, you'll never want for anything. Clinging to the desire to see your film play to a big audience (or a small one, or whatever) will more often than not result in disappointment, since the probability of that actually happening is so slim. 

That's why Vincent Van Gogh is such a great icon when it comes to successful artistic losers, because the painter spent over 10 years in obscurity before he actually made anything anyone wanted to see. PetaPixel did the math: during his short career, he "created roughly 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches — that’s an average of 200 pieces per year, or 1 every 1.825 days." Now that's an artist who loved his craft! 

This is the third chapter in Delve's series The Long Game, and I highly recommend you check out the first two.

Your Comment

16 Comments

P/A/T/I/E/N/C/E

yep

January 17, 2016 at 11:39PM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
799

Really inspiring. Makes me want to perfect my craft to the n'th degree.

January 18, 2016 at 12:57AM

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Timothy Grindall
Screenwriter
17

I'm refueled...!
...
Thanks...!

January 18, 2016 at 5:36AM, Edited January 18, 5:36AM

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João Marco
Independent Director/Writer
168

Great videos.

January 18, 2016 at 6:57AM

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Andy Tokarski
Director, Editor, Colorist
960

Except that if you paint something, all alone in your basement, it won't take you a huge amount of finance and energy to do it. If nobody looks at any of the paintings you've done, if nobody ever reads your novels, all you've done, at worst, might be wasting time. Filmmaking is a different beast. If you've avoided feeding your retirement fund to finance a movie nobody is going to watch, ever, if you keep doing this again and again, years after years...if you keep missing so much of life, I mean real life, not the virtual one that happens on a screen, years after years, with no results, no validation from anybody whatsoever, go ahead, just keep calling it perseverance.

January 18, 2016 at 7:36AM

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We are fortunate to live in a time where we can make films without making huge money sacrifices. You CAN make films with no budget. They might look like you have no budget but that is not the point. The point of this article and the videos within, is to continue doing it. If all you have is a camera, you can make a film.

January 18, 2016 at 8:33AM, Edited January 18, 8:33AM

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Sannah Parker
Producer/Editor
169

I strongly disagree. It's like saying, if all you have are brushes you can make a painting, or if all you have is a pencil and you can write a novel. This is where the illusion of democracy fools so many of us. What about talent, craft, time, studying? If all you have is a camera and you end up making Jessica Jones, thanks, couldn't watch passed the first episode? I understand somebody is going to produce Season 6 of the Walking Dead! Good for them. This is the problem of our time. Thinking that access to equipment by the masses is going to see an increase in quality work. By browsing Netflix all I see is an increase in crap. Oh, and did I mention the number of kids out there busy producing and casting...one more zombie movie! The number of people with decent equipment and nothing to say is mind numbing, and I don't think I'm the only one to think so. Have you noticed the number of guys who collect the last piece of equipment and all they can do is produce YouTube video showing them unboxing cams, or testing this cam vs this one? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaDDKHFg3Tg

January 18, 2016 at 10:54AM

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"Have you noticed the number of guys who collect the last piece of equipment and all they can do is produce YouTube video showing them unboxing cams, or testing this cam vs this one?"

Amen!

January 18, 2016 at 11:33AM

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Sorry but I don't agree with you Phillippe. Yes there are going to be people who get gear and make shit. Great observation. But to actually believe that democratizing filmmaking by making equipment inexpensive will result in only shit is ridiculous. The fact that I can go out and spend under $10k and make a great film is amazing. Would you rather everything cost a million dollars and nobody be able to make films except for those who can afford it? If you have a pencil you CAN write a novel. It's up to you to put in the time but you can't write it if you don't have the tool. Don't confuse tools with talent, they're completely different things.

January 18, 2016 at 1:05PM

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Devin Pickering
Cinematographer/Editor/Composer
16

I agree Devin.

To add, I do think making the tools to create a movie more accessible will certainly dilute the pool of talent and work out there with mediocrity. But Philippe, your equation is wrong. That there is more crap out there doesn't mean there is less talent. There is still the same amount of great talent, and probably more than we would have seen in the past due to the cheaper cost of doing business. But their work is certainly more clouded with the lust for content that is out there and the production houses' willingness to churn out shit just so people have something to Netflix and chill with.

BUT I do think we are going to see more talent from the people who take the craft seriously, who practice, and who work hard to create something brilliant, and not just good enough. And in 20 years, no one is going to remember the latest viral piece of crap content that is coming out right now. They're going to remember the films and series that are being studied in classes, poured over by students of motion picture, the ones being rewatched by generations because great work is timeless. And there is a good chance that the man or woman who made that timeless piece of work could only have practiced and mastered his or her craft because filmmaking became so much more accessible these last two decades.

January 18, 2016 at 8:34PM

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Ian Park
Documentary Editor / Director
88

I think somehow you missed the part where I said that films with no budget may look bad, but they are still films. I also feel that some of you have missed the point of this whole article. I understand that in order to make films that are up to industry standard you need a lot of money. However I make films with no budget (yes they obviously are not amazing quality) but I learn more with every film. That is the moral of the story here.

January 19, 2016 at 8:23AM

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Sannah Parker
Producer/Editor
169

I do agree with you in a sense. Film is an industrial art. And a lot of people find validation and merit from sales and reviews.

But I think the point of Westbrook's video essay is that there's another type of validation that people might forget while trying to succeed, which is the pleasure of making a film, whether it be seen or not. This whole post is just an inspiration thing, a reason to keep going. But film is an industrial art. Money is involved, you need success to keep making things. And there is an inherent way of thinking: "How will the AUDIENCE perceive this edit? How will the AUDIENCE perceive this choice of sound design?" It's great to make things and enjoy the process (because frankly, it's sometimes the best part of the whole damn industry), but we're thinking of the audience, we're doing it for them. I'm trying to get better and what I do because I want to be able to better instill in my audience the subtle messages and feelings that I have.

Because film is such an industrial art form...I wouldn't blame someone if the fun of filmmaking was sucked out of it. I'm often discouraged and wonder if film is for me. The politics, the money, the pressure of profits, etc etc etc. It's such a headache. But when I make things with colleagues whom I respect, and all the pieces work, there a grand pleasure in the process, and I'm reminded why I like doing this. Sometimes it'd be easier to just say "screw it. I quit. This industry sucks." But...at least for now, it still has a hold on me.

January 18, 2016 at 8:45PM

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Ian Park
Documentary Editor / Director
88

Although the amounts of money differ, canvas and a rich palet of paint is not for free and you need to buy it again and again.
Van Gogh could paint because his brother supported him financially.

January 19, 2016 at 8:26AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
7575

You don't necessarily have to buy materials to make art. Art is in the interior. Many artists do their things with pieces of rubbish. Good example is the brazilian artist Vik Muniz who makes incredible artwork with the help of people living in landfills and revert the profits for them. Many artworks sold for a more than US$ 200.000. Not bad! What would you think if you found a pair of your refused socks in an artwork valued this much? :) There's even a documentary about it. Worth to check it out.

When someone wants to do something, does with whatever tools they have. AMAZING MESSAGE THESE VIDEOS PASSED!

January 19, 2016 at 8:55PM

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This essay is brilliant,thank you maker.

January 18, 2016 at 12:40PM

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Vladimir Miketa
Cinematographer & Editor
179

Such an encouraging video. Thanks for posting. Now I need to get back to my work even if no one ever sees it.

January 18, 2016 at 7:44PM, Edited January 18, 7:44PM

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Matthew Tibbenham
Director/Writer
13

[zen modus]
Autotelic resembles karma yoga a bit: not doing it for the 'reward' you may get for it, but just doing it because it needs to be done. Because it is the right thing to do, not because anyone sees you doing it.
Letting go of the expectation of being rewarded is also a great way to not get frustrated...
[/zen modus]

January 19, 2016 at 8:21AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
7575