Zack's Declassified Film Survival Guide: Giving and Receiving Notes

first-time-filmmaker
pre-production
post-production

(Zack Morrison) #1

Zack is a filmmaker, YouTuber, and creator/host of the webseries “We Have A Show.” He has a MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. Here he discusses directing techniques for indie filmmakers…some he learned in school, and some he learned the hard way.

Happy Tuesday everyone! Today I want to talk about Notes. Not like ‘notes’ that we write to each other and/or play on a piano. But ‘Notes’ with a capital N. That thing we constantly crave from each other yet always immediately despise upon receipt. Getting notes on your work is a very important part of the creative process, and when obtained from the right people, in the proper environment and correct circumstances; your work will flourish. That said, notes can often be as detrimental to your project as they are instrumental. And as creatives, it is imperative that we understand how to give notes to one another. Because nothing is worse than someone who is horrible at giving notes and can’t take any themselves. So let’s unpack this necessary evil, and see if we can understand some of the do’s and don’ts surrounding notes.


A scene may feel perfect when you’re shooting it. But the Notes process may completely change your understanding of “what this scene is” and “why this scene is here.”

WHAT ARE NOTES?

In the simplest terms, notes are criticism. It’s how we as fellow creators talk about each other’s work. This immediately should be distinguished from audience and/or critical analysis. Notes are something that is given from one creator to another, being inherently different from a non-creator speaking about a creator’s work. This is not to say that all audiences are non-creators. In today’s ever-increasing technological democratization of filmmaking, most audiences are comprised of creators. Case in point: how many of us talk about Oscar-frontrunners or the latest Marvel movie on a daily basis? But when we assume the role of the audience—when our relationship with a piece of work is that of a consumer—we cannot give notes. We only have our opinions. Even if, somehow, we as fans have a chance-encounter with our idol filmmaker, we are still members of their audience, and therefore, unable to give them notes. It’s important to understand the peer-to-peer nature of note-giving. Because it is only in a relationship of trust and/or respect that notes can be given or received. Forgive a crude analogy, but it’s very much like sexual consent. Now to completely contradict said-analogy, there are times when notes are given from our higher-ups: our producers, executive producers, people who have final cut. So there is a spectrum of the kinds of notes we may get (or give), but even with a chain of command, that is still within a working relationship of two fellow creators.

Notes are criticism. But they’re not always negative criticism. That’s another misconception surrounding notes. There is often an assumption that as creators, we must always speak about our work in the negative. We often get so wrapped up in the ever-present need to be suffering artists that we forget that it is ok to like and enjoy something. Feature films and episodics are consumed en masse by design. They’re made to be an enjoyable experience. That is OK. I’ll be the first to tell someone that I liked something. Especially when I know someone is an uptight cinema connoisseur, nothing gives me more joy than to rant and rave about how much I loved the new Star Wars or Seth Rogan project, and watch their brain short-circuit. All that aside however, as I digress, notes do not have to come from a negative place. As much as it is important to point out a project’s flaws, it’s equally as necessary, for the filmmaker’s psyche as well as our own desire to improve, to identify a film’s strengths. By learning to identify where a piece of work succeeds as much as where it fails, we are able to grow as creators.

WHAT IS A NOTE?

So now that we’ve defined what notes are, let’s talk about what a note is. A note is not a statement of enjoyment or dislike. A note is NOT your opinion. You opinion doesn’t matter. A note is an objective statement. When talking to a fellow creator about their work, whether or not you like the project; that is irrelevant. It’s important to understand this crucial difference. Because a note is to identify whether something is working or not working. Does the project function properly? It’s a very mechanical way to look at things. Personal taste is not mutually exclusive from a project’s success. For example: You can hate a film. But if that film accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish, then it is functional. And conversely, you can find personal enjoyment in a piece that is objectively missing the mark. The hardest part about talking shop with a fellow filmmaker is removing your personal taste from your objective reasoning. The function of a note is to first and foremost, identify problems in the mechanics of the story. The second function is to identify the efficiencies and strengths of a story, in the hopes that through recognition of those strengths, the remaining problems can be solved. Please note (hehe, get it?) that nowhere in that definition did I say, “suggest solutions.” That is the second half of the intellectual transaction, and should not come until after the mutual recognition of problem areas. I’ll get into “prescription” in a moment.

HOW TO GIVE NOTES

As I alluded to above, giving notes is like helping your friend solve a math problem. They presented you with an answer that partially works, but maybe skips a step, or doesn’t totally solve for X. And that’s ok. We never get every math problem correct on the first try, and sometimes, we need the point of view of someone who hasn’t spent hours hunched over his or her desk trying to figure it out. That’s where you as the note-giver comes in. You watched their piece. You have seen what works and what doesn’t work. So now it’s simply a matter of wording your response properly. Because unlike earlier when we discussed being an audience member, we are now watching a peer’s work with an invitation for feedback. We are literally watching the film through a different lens.

You should ALWAYS start with what works. It’s impossible to watch something and, in addition to it having zero intrinsic value or moments of success, truly loathe every minute of it. Think of the worst film you’ve ever seen. There is at least one moment in there that you objectively enjoy. I’m sorry if you disagree with me, but you’re wrong. So therefore, even if your personal taste is telling you to abort the entire conversation, you should still open with identifying the project’s functional strength. This creates an added layer of trust between the note-giver and note-receiver, but more importantly, as the note-giver, it’s a good exercise in respecting a peer’s work for what it is, rather than what you want it to be. I keep going back to the Rules Of Improv as a guideline here: say “YES, AND!” By accepting the project on its own terms, we are able to talk about its strengths and weaknesses relative to itself and what it’s own goals are, rather than some kind of arbitrary measuring stick that attempts to compare apples and oranges.

The basic structure of a note is like this:

“[THIS MOMENT] WORKED FOR ME, BECAUSE [REASON].”

You should always be able to identify why you are giving a note. Not only does this further separate your personal taste from the conversation, but this is also the real meat of the discussion. Why does this moment, this scene, this line of dialogue, or this beat work? What do we feel after it happens? How does it further the story in a constructive way? By being able to identify to a collaborator or peer what is strong about their project enables you to then compare its relative failures. It creates a benchmark—a starting point for Notes. It grounds the conversation in the terms needed to discuss failure, and eventually, to brainstorm solutions. Because the goal is to get the problem areas to work the way these successes are working.

“[THIS MOMENT] DID NOT WORK FOR ME, BECAUSE [REASON].”

Here we go. The moment we’ve all been waiting for. This is how every criticism should be phrased. It’s a courtesy when talking about a functional success. It’s a requirement when you discuss something broken. Because this is not your opinion. This is an objective statement. Here is where you need to tread lightly, because it is very easy to fall into the trap of a bad note-giver. By phrasing things in terms of what isn’t working, it creates a collaborative effort to problem-solve. It could be as small as “this scene didn’t work for me because it’s unnecessary," or "It didn’t do anything for the character.” It could also be as large as “this piece didn’t work for me because I’m not sure what the story was about.” The goal here is to identify the problem. This way, the creator can go back to the problem areas and address them as he or she sees fit. And it’s ok to say something doesn’t work for you. It’s hard to make objectivity out of subjectivity. As long as you can justify your critique, on the project’s own terms, it’s ok to say it. And be specific. The more you can dig into and unpack a problem, the better the note will be for the creator. It’s the difference between “this character isn’t working for me because I don’t know what he wants,” and “this character isn’t working for me because I don’t know what he wants in this moment.” By identifying problems, we can solve them; we can be constructive.

HOW NOT TO GIVE NOTES

Prescription. Prescriptive notes are not helpful, only unless they are asked for. If your friend were sick, you wouldn’t give them random pills out of your own medicine cabinet, correct? It’s the same deal with notes. First and foremost, you are not here to offer your opinion. If the note receiver asks for it, then sure, it’s ok to offer suggestions. But your note should not be contingent on the creator making a specific change that you prescribe. That’s not meeting a project on its own terms. Those are your terms. And your terms don’t matter. Sure, you may say something like “This isn’t working for me because I’m missing clarity in the story,” or “This isn’t working because I want this character’s wants to be stronger.” And often times, if you’re speaking to a friend, he or she may absolutely welcome your opinion in how to solve it. There are many times where I phrase notes saying “I want” something, but that’s me, the note-giver, saying that as an audience member, I would feel more satisfied if I had that. I’m not saying, “Make this change because that’s how I [a creator] want it to be.” That’s why I refer to naming solutions as the second half of this conversation. If you give a prescriptive note, you’re not helping the person you are giving notes to, because they can’t do anything with it if they disagree with you. You’re not serving the function of Notes. A non-prescriptive note gives the creator the flexibility to solve a problem in a number of ways. A prescriptive note is telling someone to make a specific change, which they can either do or not do. There should never be a binary yes or no to a note that you give.

Also, and especially if this person is not a close friend, giving a prescriptive note will completely destroy your credibility as a note-giver. Whoever is listening to you will just “yes” you the rest of the conversation, or simply ignore you. Because you have now wasted their time. In the spirit of collaboration, that’s not only not helpful to them, but it’s a detriment to you as well. Indie Film Land is small, and the last person you want to be is someone who cannot be helpful. Just as a director should never give an actor a line reading, a collaborator should never give a prescriptive note.


Everyone on your set is going to have an opinion about what you’re shooting. Learning how to discuss a project objectively, and especially learning when to accept that your solution may be the wrong one, is an important skill for any filmmaker to have.

HOW TO RECEIVE NOTES

Ahh—the sound of the other shoe dropping. This part is exceptionally difficult to swallow, so I suggest you buckle down and get ready. The secret to receiving notes is…

LISTEN!

Listen to what the note giver is saying. You invited them to this conversation. You should be open to hearing whatever they have to say. So many times we as creators are too insecure to discuss our work. If that’s the case, you’re in the wrong business. We learn from our failures. We study our failures in order to grow from them, to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes twice. You as a creator should embrace these shortcomings instead of hiding from them. Challenge yourself to take risks, try new things, and attempt work outside your artistic comfort zone.

The problem is that too often, creators don’t listen to the notes they’re receiving. Remember, as we established, good notes are not coming from personal feelings. So therefore, when someone is pointing out problems with your piece, it is not coming from a place of malice or distaste. Your work is not bad. It might be broken, but that’s different. You can solve these problems in a constructive way. However, if you’re not even open to discussing your own artistic shortcomings, why are we even here? Why are you even showing your work to anyone?

The biggest thing here is that you never have to take every note you receive as gospel. Because notes should be a helpful way for you to identify problem areas, embrace the creative freedom that comes with solving the problem your own way. Make it an artistic challenge for yourself. Remember what I said earlier about prescriptive notes being not helpful? As soon as you’re on the receiving end of one, you’ll understand what I mean, and hopefully never give one someone else again.

A lot of times though, not everyone is a great note-giver. Sometimes they’re unable to properly articulate the source of a problem, and will either divert into prescription, or simply “non-notes,” which is kind of like talking in circles without a point to be made. In these cases, you want to consider the note behind the note. Whether or not the note you’re receiving is helpful, buried in there somewhere is a red flag that was triggered. Something in your work is setting off an alarm in the note-giver’s brain, prompting them to say something. Again, what they may be telling you is completely out of left field, but try to zoom out your perspective and determine what they’re really telling you. If they’re suggesting dialogue changes, maybe what they’re really suggesting is clarifying a character’s intentions. If they’re offering story suggestions, maybe what they’re really asking for is raising the stakes of the situation. By discovering the note behind the note, you can turn a not-helpful note into a semi-helpful one.

The situation is completely different if there is someone over your head that is calling the shots. In that scenario, a note may not be a suggestion or invitation. It may be an order. And while you may not agree with it, if they’re the one funding the project, you might have to take it.

WHEN TO NOT TAKE NOTES
At some point in your process, you have to trust your gut. I know this is kind of counter-intuitive to the rest of this article, but as great as notes are, too much of a good thing is often a bad thing. It is very easy to fall into the trap of “needing” notes from everyone, all the time. Over-revision is one of the largest issues that plague our personal creativity today. Eventually, you need to be able to identify when to say no and commit to what you have on paper (or in the assembly). I won’t go on too much about this, because it’s different for everyone, and finding that confidence in a strong piece is something that only you can do for yourself. As the saying goes: Artists are never finished, they only run out of time.

TL;DR:

Notes are an important part of the creative process. Your goal is to help a fellow collaborator out of a problem situation by breaking through the emotional barriers obstructing one’s view of their own work, and clarifying the problem areas. You want to be specific, and objective. Create an invitation for collaboration, and allow the creator to solve the issue on their own terms, rather than like Adam Savage from Mythbusters puts it: rejecting their reality and substituting your own. And if you’re on the receiving end, just LISTEN. Swallow your pride, and accept that something isn’t working. Stubborn filmmakers don’t get very far in this industry. Don’t be that person. That person has no friends. Good note-giving and good note-taking are your friends.


(Meg Carroway) #2

This is awesome!


(Bri Castellini) #3

:point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2:

So often, the way people give criticism (especially with writing/screenplays) is to offer a solution immediately, or offer what THEY would do, and it’s frustrating because it’s not their project. Their solution might be great for them, but at the end of the day, their solution, good or not, may not be right for the project, and being able to separate the purpose of a note versus the prescription of a note is super important, because like you said, there are always going to be bad note givers.


(Zack Morrison) #4

Thanks Meg!!


(Magdalena Waz) #5

Great insights about the structure and content of a note and how to spot prescriptive feedback.

I have a question for you all: how do you feel about workshop (or writing group) settings where the writer is explicitly not allowed to speak/ provide context and rebuttals for notes? Personally, I’ve learned a lot more about how to parse feedback by staying quiet and listening (like Zack says above) than from a back and forth that forced me to defend decisions I didn’t necessarily make on the page.

Do you get better/more useful notes when you just sit back and listen?


(Zack Morrison) #6

Thanks @ThrowBigWords! I think there’s a middle ground somewhere in there. I’ve been in workshops where responding is specifically prohibited, and honestly I think that’s kinda silly. On the one hand, I find that a lot of people tend to snap at every critique they get and always have a response to things. That’s not helpful, and honestly that’s a clear sign of some immaturity. Cause no one wants to hear someone say “but you just don’t get what I’m trying to do,” and have that person be completely closed off to things. So I understand why sometimes these groups have those rules. However, I find that in a practical sense, having the ability for a dialogue can lead to somewhere really positive and constructive. When I give notes, I often ask questions. Obviously, a response is needed there for us to continue. But also, I find that posing questions allows the creator to find solutions on their own; like setting someone up for a kill in volleyball, instead of handing them a prescriptive note. It fosters a better relationship in the writers room when it’s not “commanded” that the writer not be allowed to speak. This creates a need for the writer to have some restraint and be the kind of person that’s not going to naturally get uber defensive. I think at the end of the day, over time, the “writer can’t speak” rule becomes less of an actual rule and more of an understanding that the writer is going to be respectful of the note-giver’s notes so long as the note-giver “yes, and’s” the writer’s intentions and crafts the notes in a way that’s productive.

(Forgive my double-commenting. Still learning how this message board works) I find that while, short term, the notes may not necessarily be “better” or “more useful” specifically by enforcing those rules, what will happen is you will form a more-positive relationship with that other writer. By not attacking the critique, it builds respect between you and the other writer. That writer will then (hopefully) show the same respect when you give him or her notes. So long term, yes, you will be able to get to a deeper collaborative place with that person.


(Zack Morrison) #8

Totally!! Prescriptive notes are just not helpful. There are times when I’m totally stumped and I can’t think of an answer, so I welcome it–obviously with the understanding that the suggestion will either work or not. Nothing is ever a hard and fast rule. It all depends on your relationship with the other writer. But yea, in situations where you’re not best buds with the other writer…best to avoid that kind of thinking!


(Magdalena Waz) #9

I think you’re right that a total gag rule can be counter-productive. In fact, it ends up privileging the perspective and voice of the workshop leader or professor in many cases, and I think we’ve all been in situations where that perspective is also not right for the work. So being more flexible when it comes to responses during feedback can create more useful relationships between writers down the line.

As a writer being workshopped I do like to stay silent, though, as a personal preference because even if I question is asked of my work, I’m always curious to see how other writers in the room answer it. We won’t always be around to answer every question a reader or viewer has about what we’ve done, and making sure our meaning is clear without us in the room (artificially) is super-important to me to.


(Bri Castellini) #10

That’s the only way I can feel productive in a workshop, honestly, whether I’m on the receiving end of critique or I’m giving it. I have met and worked with so many defensive and insecure writers and there is nothing more frustrating than spending time to come up with critiques and then having them argue with you at every step. If you don’t want notes, you shouldn’t be getting critiqued. You should leave and be one of those American Idol hopefuls who’s terrible but thinks they’re amazing (except for writing).

One the receiving end, it’s a great training exercise to hear what people think without you stepping in. You won’t be there to clarify when people watch your series/film or read your story/book. You’ll just have what’s on the page. And forcing yourself to sit through people misunderstanding or misinterpreting shows you where things need clarifying, even if you thought they were clear.

I do like a ten minute or so portion at the end of these sessions to allow the writer to provide context and ask questions, because sometimes something is prescribed that is against what your intentions were, but once you clarify your intentions, more accurate solutions can be brainstormed. But for the brunt of the critique, I don’t think the writer/creator should be able to talk unless they have a question.

***this is all ESPECIALLY important in classes, where you haven’t necesarilly chosen your group and may not have any control over the people in it. When it’s outside of an educational perspective I still do this myself (stay quiet during critique and get frustrated when others don’t) but obviously on a case by case basis it isn’t mandatory or useful.