Finding Your Personal Voice as a Filmmaker
The following is the outline for a lecture I gave at a film school in southern California. “Find your personal voice” is apparently a common but ambiguous bit of advice that student filmmakers receive on a regular basis. No wonder most of them go mad. Uh, but I’m sure that won’t happen to you?
By Ken Aguado
In filmmaking, an “artistic voice” is a unique and recognizable artistic/personal style. It’s that special sum total derived from your inspirations, your life experiences, your themes, your creative flair, your technical skills and your point of view about the human condition, all of which adds up to you as a singular artist. In the best case, all these qualities come together to create something in a way that looks like it comes from you and no one else.
Having a “voice” as a filmmaker can be a valuable thing. It’s part of what distinguishes “an artist,” on one end of the creative spectrum, from “a hack” at the other end. To be clear, many talented filmmakers earn a fine living without possessing an easily identifiable single style, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Famed director Robert Wise made all kinds of great films in his long career. You might say Wise had many voices, which should tell you something about the true nature of an artistic voice. It’s not just one thing. It’s the point of view you bring to any project you work on. And many filmmakers will spend their entire careers as competent journeymen (journey-persons?), fulfilling the needs of production and commerce. In fact, this probably describes most of what we see in the world of filmmaking. So be it.
But if you’re just starting out and want to find your artistic voice, where do you find it? The joke answer is, “It’s always in the last place you look.” But in reality, it’s usually not something you find, but rather it’s something you develop. Rarely will it spring forth in a fully-formed way. Developing a voice involves building an “artistic approach,” based on the seeds that are already within you. And then you also have to master a ton of techinical stuff. Hey, before Mozart became one of the great composers, he had to learn to play the piano, even if it took him ’til the ripe old age of 5-years old.
Here’s my take on the general stages of artistic growth for filmmakers, and the pathway to the developing a personal artistic voice.
This stage encompasses two parts. It’s both the personal discovery of your artistic inclination as well as learning the nuts and bolt of the medium.
Discovering your inclination is another way of saying, “What do you love?” What inspires you? It need not just be film and television. It can be fine art, theater, world travel, literature, history, religion, and so on. To be clear, this spark of inspiration may not be where you end up as an artist. In many cases, if not most, you will end up following some new artistic path, driven by the discovery of a new passion or talent, or the needs of the marketplace and the opportunities that come your way in life. But that’s okay. Every journey somewhere starts somewhere else, right?
Learning the nuts and bolts of your art is the second part. There’s just stuff you have to know to be a filmmaker. Famed screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky might have become a football player if he never learned how to type and master the form of a screenplay. What would Steven Spielberg be doing today if he never learned how a movie camera works? For all we know, the greatest filmmaker who ever lived never made a movie because he or she was one of the nomadic Saan people of Botswana and never saw a film nor learned how to operate the Alexa 4K. The bottom line is you have to learn the “technical” aspects of your craft. There’s no avoiding it. I could’ve been a great doctor — I, uh, just had some trouble with that science-part.
To summarize, learn what inspires you by immersing yourself in all aspects and history of an art and master the means of production. It can take a lifetime, so better get started.
Most aspiring filmmakers begin by copying, mimicking, or appropriating, the things that inspire them. This is not the same as duplicating the works that came before, which is sometimes illegal, and can be painfully derivative. But the early stages of creating your own original work usually begins by identifying things you love that already exist, pulling out those wonderful artistic “threads” and reweaving them into something new and fresh. The threads can be whatever you want. You may find some of Stanley Kubrick’s films a little cold, but love his use of detail or composition. Or, you might find Wes Anderson’s films a little “mannered” but love his eccentric characters and the way he frames his images. Or, you might find Frank Capra’s work a bit old-fashioned, but respond to his humanistic approach to his stories. There is nothing wrong with working this way. We all stand on the shoulders of greatness. This is how you begin to develop your artistic orientation. You’re not reinventing the wheel. You’re just hoping to make one that rolls a little better than the last one. You learn by trial and error how the building blocks of filmmaking contribute to… whatever comes next.
To summarize, actively identify the things you love in great works of art. Then adapt/merge them to your ideas and make them your own. This is the start the next stage.
Once you start to feel capable in your field, the fun really begins. When you really know the rules of your craft, you can start to re-synthesize and adapt them to a new purpose. This is where the artistic choices become driven by your own life experiences, points of view and unique understanding of your craft. This is where you will start to feel like a filmmaker with a voice. You make new choices derived from your inner artistic compass, based on the way you see the world. It’s kind of like learning when you can cross the 180-degree line in cinematography. Or when you can break the 3-act structure in screenwriting. Sometimes your new creative expression will grow from the frustration you feel after being constrained by the rules you been studying for years. Sure, the rules must be the foundation of your understanding, but they can also feel like a brick tied around your neck when you’re taking a swim. Just remember, the rules are there for a reason. Picasso mastered more representational painting before he disrupted the art world when he co-founded Cubism.
Typically, this personalization does not happen in one moment. Breaking the rules is often an incremental process. This is for several reasons. 1) You make not think of it all at once, or you are testing your new ideas. 2) Sometimes the consumer of your art is not ready for sweeping changes, or 3) You employer or boss will not allow the sweeping changes you envision. Welcome to the “business of show.” It’s a balancing act.
To summarize, think about the assumptions you’ve been making. Recognize your creative opportunities, when you can break out, and seize those moments. Step outside the comfort zone of conventional thinking, challange your entrenched assumptions and hopefully that’s where you’ll find your individual voice.