The importance of getting genuine feedback.

Something that a lot of artists, be they musicians, painters, photographers, or filmmakers struggle with is self critique. We are both our harshest critics and our biggest cheerleaders (or else we should be). We will both love and hate a project and will constantly try to nit pick at little details or second guess decisions all in the name of “perfection”. We want what we’re creating to be perfect all the time because we, as artists, like showing off our art but we don’t like showing off something we don’t think is “good”.

We need both validation of our art and an outside perspective of what our art looks like. The problem is that we also tend to have an ego, which is necessary, but that ego can be (is) very fragile and like a muscle, needs some working out and toughening up. Some artists will ask for feedback but with caveats which will trick somebody into giving useless “feedback” about the artist’s project. It will usually go something like this:

Artist – “Hey could you give me some feedback on my short film? Keep in mind it isn’t finished and I had to cut it together on my little brother’s speak and spell and the lighting wasn’t the best because the guy I asked to do it had to leave right before the final scene and I only had my cell phone to record audio. Also I haven’t colored anything yet and my actors were SUCH divas. Just tell me if you liked it or not.”

Friend – “Uh…I liked it.”

So the only thing that happens in that transaction is the artists get what they asked for – “feedback” – but they weren’t given any substance or ways to improve because they didn’t specifically ask for that. They just asked (in so many words) “Can you tell me you like my project?” and any friend or family member is going to say yes, because how couldn’t they? This isn’t the case for everyone but it tends to be the case for most. Friends and family aren’t (usually) out to get you so when you ask them something like “Do you like my art?” they will usually respond in the affirmative.

A lot of artists only get this kind of feedback so they never learn or grow or get better. They are afraid of the pain of “failing” to please somebody, or they’re thinking that they’re not actually good at their art so any negative feedback will just validate their already irrational suspicion. So they go through most of their career with nothing but an echo chamber of positive feedback and will constantly churn out less than good art because nobody is telling them how to improve. In the off chance an outsider goes “Wait, this is bad!” their circle of friends will rally around the artist to undermine the critic or make excuses for the artist all to save their friend from a perceived attack.

So what?

This is my advice to help you not fall into the echo chamber of false validation and a positive feedback loop. Give your friends and family specific details about the feedback you’re looking for. Tell them what you’re thinking and if X, Y, and Z areas could use more work and improvement or if they should be left alone, and also give them an opportunity to offer any thoughts they might have had that you didn’t ask for.

For example:

Artist – “Hey friend, I was hoping I could get some feedback from you about the pacing of this scene. I think I have it where I want it but I would like an extra pair of eyes. Does it move the story forward? Are there any unnecessary cuts? Do shots linger? Do I cut away too fast? How does the scene make you feel overall?”

Friend – “Everything you do is garbage. Stop talking to me.”

That is a much better and more informative way to ask for feedback. Unlike my friend above, somebody who wants to see you do well and wishes for your improvement will give you genuine thoughts about what you specifically asked for. Even if they’re not filmmakers themselves, they at least watch movies, so they know even subconsciously what they think works or doesn’t work while watching.

Be prepared to receive comments and critique you do not like. These are the most important lessons you should learn. Even if you are madly in love with a shot or a line of dialogue, if the people you trust tell you it’s awkward, flat, uninteresting, or otherwise…cut it, or change it in a way where you can still get what you want but it also satisfies the why that piece of critique came back negative. Sometimes you will have to stick to your guns because after all, you are the artist and it is ultimately your decision, but you are also human, fallible, and make bad decisions. The only way you can get better is by burning away the excess ego and realize that though you’re ultimately making films you want to see, you’re also not the only one buying your movies.

So get out there, send your most recent project to three to five of the people whom you trust the most creatively and have them rip that project to shreds. If you have to start from the beginning, good.

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