We’ve talked about healthy ways of receiving feedback. Now let’s talk about healthy ways of giving it. In almost every way, giving good feedback is harder than accepting it. It is a discipline. And it takes a long time to master. Any novice can teach himself to listen to wisdom. It’s a thousand times harder to speak it.
But learning how to provide good feedback is important. Not just for helping other filmmakers fix their problems, but for helping you think more clearly and critically about filmmaking itself. Helping other people tell better stories helps you tell better stories.
Lily Henderson, of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, puts it this way: “By giving feedback, you learn what you’re passionate about. I might sit there watching someone else’s film, and it’s not at all similar to what I do, but I’m reacting very strongly to it. I’m feeling very passionate about some clip they’ve shown. It makes you ask yourself, Why am I so excited about that? It refines your own artistry.”
With that in mind, here are 4 ways to get better at giving feedback.
Fundamentals rarely work against our intuition. Instead, they often confirm our intuition.
Intuition can take you a long way when improving your own projects. But it won’t get you very far when it comes to improving the projects of others. Good feedback requires good communication, but intuition doesn’t come with its own vocabulary. Telling a filmmaker to make something “more emotional” will probably leave him feeling more lost than before.
Learning the fundamentals ⎯ especially narrative fundamentals ⎯ will help you take a story apart, understand its components, and identify what isn’t working. It gives filmmakers a common language. Three-act structure, five-act structure, the inciting incident, denouement ⎯ these terms might sound like jargon, but they’re incredibly useful for fixing problems. Telling a filmmaker that her inciting incident needs to be more devastating is a lot more helpful than telling her that her film seems meandering and pointless.
Fundamentals rarely work against our intuition. Instead, they often confirm our intuition. We felt like something wasn’t working and now we know why. Now we can communicate why and offer valuable feedback to someone who can’t yet see it for herself.
Here are a few of our favorite books on fundamentals:
Story by Robert McKee
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
The Art of Character by David Corbett (read our interview with David here)
One problem with feedback is that it can be very unstructured. It’s a mix of emotion, personal taste, and critical thinking. There’s a lot going on. It can be confusing — both for the person receiving the feedback and the person giving it.
In Discussing Design, Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry offer a simple framework for giving feedback. The book was written for designers, but we believe their principles for giving a good critique can be applied to anything creative. Just replace the word design with scene, character, dolly shot, etc.
This framework helps you take yourself out of the equation and zero in on what isn’t working. If something feels off about a scene, the first thing you have to understand is why that scene exists ⎯ its objective. If you don’t know the objective, there is no way to know if the scene is working. Then break it down even further: What are the elements of the scene and are they doing their job? Once you know the objective, it should be fairly straightforward to determine if the elements are working toward the objective or not.
If you’re not sure what the objective of a scene should be, here’s something Kurt Vonnegut said about sentences, but it could well be applied to films: “Every sentence must do one of two things ⎯ reveal character or advance action.” It may not be a perfect parallel, but it’s also not a bad place to start.
We stole this next suggestion from Pixar, so you know you can trust it. In the book Creativity, Inc. Pixar President Ed Catmull reveals the inner workings of Pixar’s now legendary feedback group known as the “Braintrust.” This group is not only responsible for Pixar’s success, but also helping the studio avert more than a few disasters.
Here is the Braintrust’s criteria for a good note (where note means “piece of feedback”):
“A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense. A good note is offered at a timely moment, not too late to fix the problem. A good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix... Most of all, though, a good note is specific. ‘I’m writhing with boredom,’ is not a good note.”
It’s important to recognize that these notes are just that…notes. They don’t propose changes and they most definitely don’t tell the creative what to do. They simply recognize an issue and the person receiving the feedback ultimately has the autonomy to make changes the way they see fit, or not.
Pixar’s “Braintrust” is made up of a colleagues and peers, and most notably people not directly involved in the project. They aren’t emotionally tethered to the creation process, and therefore can make the most objective feedback possible.
Less tangibly, but equally important, a good note inspires a director to make changes. Or as Pixar director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) says: “Sometimes you talk about the problems in fifty different ways until you find that one sentence that you can see makes their eyes pop, as if they’re thinking, ‘Oh, I want to do it.’”
Great feedback comes from people who care about a project.
Great feedback comes from people who care about a project. That’s one reason Pixar’s Braintrust works so well. Those people care about the project more than they care about the director’s feelings and more than they care about their own opinions. They get fired up and angry, but that’s just because they’re so passionate about the story they are trying to fix.
Honestly, it’s hard to fix something you don’t care about.
So try to find a way to connect with the project you’re critiquing. Find something about it that you’re passionate about, that you relate to, that you believe is true. Start there. And if you still can’t find it, there’s nothing wrong with admitting you might not be the best person to help fix what’s wrong.
Learning how to give better feedback will make you a better filmmaker and a better collaborator. It will force you to take apart films, understand their insides, and then put them back together again — better this time. It will force you to be humble, to look through other people’s eyes, to help them create a great film because great films are their own reward. It’s not easy. But easy things are rarely worth mastering.