Show your work: The Force Awakens edition

I love seeing how creators create.

I appreciate a master pulling the curtain back and letting us see at least a bit of the behind-the-scenes process. The chaos and messes and wayward first drafts that lie behind the art are just as instructive as, if not more than, the inspiration and perspiration.

I preordered on iTunes the digital download of the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, so it was waiting on me when I woke up last Friday. My family enjoyed a movie night together as we watched the film again for the first time since we saw it in the theater on Christmas day.

And it was entertaining the second time through. But the next morning I got even more enjoyment out of watching the documentary that was packaged with the extra features, Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey.

It’s an hour-long documentary about the making of the film, and it was better than most “making-of” films I’ve seen.

The documentary spotlighted a visceral enthusiasm among the film’s makers. They all seem like kids let loose in the toy factory, from the young lead actors to the veteran director and producers and writers.

There’s a great scene in the documentary of the key cast members reading through the entire script together before the shooting began.

I was most intrigued, though, by the way designers and artists were let loose to create compelling images, of potential characters and sets and scenes, even before a script was in place.

The director and writer were inspired by these images which often ended up informing the story.

A light saber duel in the snow? How cool would that be? How can the story take us there?

And, indeed, that was my favorite scene in the film, and the turning point in the plot.

When I’m creating a presentation, I’m often inspired by disparate, seemingly unrelated ideas and images. Even honing the typography of a slide or stumbling on a compelling image I find online can propel my narrative in a different direction than I originally imagined.

In the discovery phase of your work, feel free to ramble and collect and follow what delights you. Consume voraciously. Make note of every little thing that sparks your curiosity.

The small details can support the big picture, but it’s possible for those details, even seeming tangents, to give life to a big picture you haven’t yet imagined.



The Roosevelts, another Ken Burns masterpiece

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, on Netflix.

Burns first fully captured the attention of the nation with his epic and innovative multipart documentary series, The Civil War, which was originally broadcast in 1990. It remains the most watched program ever to air on PBS and was a breakthrough in putting documentary filmmaking into the mainstream of popular culture.

I remember coming home from work to my little one bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill eager to settle in and watch each episode unfold. It brought to life the greatest event in the nation’s history and merged history and entertainment as never before. It provided the water-cooler conversation for the nation as we all discussed the people and politics of mid-19th century America. This was reality TV in its most noble and artistic form.

This new series (first airing in 2014) on Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin Roosevelt is just as compelling. These icons of American history come across as profoundly gifted yet flawed people who embraced action and made a difference that still resonates to this day.

Burns is a master storyteller and mixes photos and film footage with music and voice-over along with interviews to spin a riveting narrative and evoke deep emotion. Meryl Streep voices Eleanor, with Paul Giamatti as T.R. and Edward Hermann as F.D.R.

I’ve been drawn to biography since my childhood. Studying how others lived their lives informs me on the possibilities for living my own life.

If you want something to watch that will be intellectually challenging and emotionally moving while possibly inspiring you to make your own life more excellent, give this series a go.

Michael Pollan and Netflix aim to inspire you to cook more often

Netflix recently released their newest documentary, Cooked. It’s a gorgeously filmed exploration of the impact cooking had on making us human and the perils of abandoning cooking and relying mostly on the packaged food-like substance industry.

The documentary is based on Pollan’s book of the same name.

The film is a delight to the eyes. Gorgeous scenery from around the world provides the backdrop for a clear and compelling case to get back to our primal connection with the food we eat.

As the primary cook for my family I’m in the kitchen almost every day. And it’s a pleasure. It’s one of the few tasks I do every day that is tangible and satisfying in the most visceral way. I make something real that I can smell and taste. And this daily act fuels, and hopefully delights, the people I love most.

I recommend that as often as you can, you should cook your own food.

Watching this new film will inspire you to appreciate your relationship with food and how you prepare it.

“Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself. People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought. It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.” –Michael Pollan


Show your work: Star Wars

Seeing inside the process of a craftsman or artist makes me appreciate their work more. Knowing how the magic is made doesn’t diminish the magic; it enhances it. 

And that kind of transparency inspires me to push through the messy misfires and tedious small steps on the way to making my own art. 

Even the world’s greatest masterpieces didn’t emerge instantly pristine. Imagine how many discarded drafts and crumpled sketches and trashed recipes came before the lauded final product. Trial and error and daily effort and persistence don’t grab headlines, but the art wouldn’t be art without the work. 

Want to make something great? Do the work. 

Inspired by Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work”, I regularly share behind-the-scenes glimpses of projects I’m working on. Let’s demystify the creative process and encourage others to dive in and make something remarkable, too.  

All of us can make art. If it’s something you care about and making it would be meaningful to others, it’s art. Your work, your hobby, your passion. 

I love this video that was just released showing the work being done now on the upcoming film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens:

This is the kind of thing you would usually see only after a film has been released. But the creators are “showing their work” in progress, and it gives a sense of just how much they care about what they’re making. Now I have a new hope (see what I did there?) for the future of this grand story. 

Creativity has to start somewhere

Suck is a default starting point for almost all truly great work.

From Ed Catmull’s great book, Creativity, Inc.:

“And yet, candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.”

You don’t need to be a kid or have a kid to go see Pixar’s latest sensational film, Inside Out. It’s so good and has a depth that has you pondering its message long after you leave the theater.

But it started out sucking at first, too. The Pixar team kept at it, though, and ended up making remarkable art.

Start somewhere. Awful is a good place to begin. In fact, try to be as dreadful as you can, as laughably bad as you can imagine, just to take the pressure off.

Then see how you can make it just a little better.

Then keep going.

ht Parislemon

Heroes don’t need villains

My family went to see the new Pixar movie, Inside Out, on its opening day last weekend. It was a hit with kids and parents and showed a depth of story telling that most movies never attempt.

My friend, Calli, sent me this article about the movie.

The article highlights the film’s lack of a villain and how novel that is.

Finding Nemo is one of my favorite Pixar films, and it, too, does not rely on a villain.

I am partial to stories without obvious villains. It’s too easy to put a hero in a story doing battle against an “evil” nemesis. But that’s not reality.

The obstacles most of us face are not from an arch enemy. Most of our battles are within. We all face resistance, but I know for me that resistance is usually of my own making. Self-doubt, fear, laziness…

That’s why Inside Out really shines. It asks the audience for more than most films do and succeeds without a bad guy to root against.

Busy Saturday


My busy Saturday today centers around two key commitments with my daughters: the pool this afternoon and the movie Tomorrowland tonight. I might squeeze in some reading if I find some down time.

This is my kind of packed schedule. 


While listening to a technology podcast today I was reminded of just how good the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark is.

Not like I needed reminding. It’s always been my immediate response when asked for a favorite movie. But I tend to chalk up my affection for it as a bit of nostalgia rather than simply an appreciation of the merits of the film.

I saw it when it was first released in the summer of 1981. I was a rising high school senior. My family went to see it on opening weekend at the downtown theater In my hometown and sat in the balcony. Classic.

But, we arrived a few minutes late and missed the opening scene. We then sat through what was the most sensational film I had ever seen. We were all delightfully stunned. It was unlike any other movie. And when the closing credits rolled, we decided to stay for the next screening to see just the first few minutes we had missed. And then we ended up staying and watching the whole film again. We couldn’t stop watching. We went through some popcorn that night. And happily.

The very next weekend I was back at the theater to watch it again, this time on a memorable first date with a girl from my high school.

That movie was etched into my consciousness. Indiana Jones’s  improvisational heroics and authentic, rough-around-the-edges cool became my inspiration.

But it was more than just a happy teenage summer memory that endears the film to me. It was also a remarkably well crafted film. Spielberg and Lucas were in their prime, and the great Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script. The casting was spot on. There were no wasted scenes. The story was tight. The dialogue rang true and remains so quotable. There was clever humor and action and an unconventional love story. The cinematography was impeccable. The music was epic.

I took a screenwriting class a few years later in college. The professor had us over to his home one night to watch Raiders (on VHS tape, of course, at a time when owning a copy of a movie was expensive). Raiders was my teacher’s example of an ideal screenplay. The class gathered around his television while he charted the plot points with us. And we all marveled at the skill of the filmmakers in creating an unapologetically fun film that could stand as a work of art as well.

Yes, it’s just an action/adventure film, but it’s impeccably made, crafted by true icons of the film world. I would not hesitate to rank it with some of the best films ever made. I can’t think of any Spielberg film that’s better than this one, and that’s saying something.

I went back today and listened again to the episode of The Incomparable podcast that’s devoted solely to Raiders. And those guys feel the way I do. It’s such a satisfying film on so many levels.

If you haven’t seen Raiders, go fix that. And make an event of it. Watch it on the biggest screen you can. Make the room dark. Pop some popcorn (not the microwave kind, certainly), and enjoy a truly great escape.

Cinderella’s Stoic virtues: Courage and kindness

I took my wife and daughters to see the new live-action Cinderella movie yesterday. I’m no movie critic, but I thought it was really good.

It’s visually sumptuous. The costume design, the sets, the locations, the sweeping camera movements all were dazzling and crafted on an epic scale.

Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean actor, directed and played the story straight and with a classic, elegant style. No clever updates. It’s in essence the same Cinderella story you know from the original Disney animated feature. But it’s done so well.

The acting performances are solid. Lily James as Cinderella lights up the screen. She’s earnest and charming and quietly strong without being sappy sweet. The prince is not a bore or a boor. The ailing king is endearing. The wicked stepmother, Cate Blanchett, is suitably cruel but finishes by coming across as pitiable.

It’s not high art, but it’s a worthwhile story, especially for my young daughters. Early in the story Cinderella’s dying mother exhorts her to always “have courage and be kind.” That mantra gets repeated throughout. It could seem simplistic, but the character solidly embodies those traits.

When Cinderella gets banished to the attic, she could have become a teary-eyed damsel in distress in typical princess fairy tale style. But this Cinderella embraces her fate with a twinkle of optimism and hope and makes the best of it. She deals with her cruel treatment and bad fortune with similar fortitude throughout the story without coming across as weak and woeful. She exhibits Stoic-like acceptance of all that happens outside of her control and remains kind in spite of the cruelty she endures.

“Have courage and be kind”, simple and obvious as it is, is a decent motto for anyone, aspiring princess or not.

No one is fearless, but we can all show courage by taking action in spite of our fears. And life is too short to be short on kindness.

Four thumbs up for Cinderella from me and my three princesses.

What movies teach kids

I enjoyed this TED Talk by Colin Stokes about the way movies are affecting his young children. He makes some great points about the role of female characters, but his key point is what movies are teaching boys.

As the dad of two young daughters, I want my girls regularly to see strong and smart female characters in movies. (And they love movies.) But I want boys to see that, too. I want the boys and men who will be in my daughters’s lives to see women as just as strong and smart as my girls do.

Certainly, my kids are informed about their possibilities more from their family and the people around them in their actual life, but there’s no doubt the stories they consume affect them.

But it goes beyond just having more female lead characters. The stories need to be smart regardless of the gender of the characters. Some of the Barbie shows I’ve seen my kids watch are filled with girl characters, but they don’t model a level of thoughtfulness and intelligence that make the viewer better for the experience.

The quality of the stories we consume can shape the stories we tell with our lives. I want my girls to get lost in books and movies and comics that inspire wonder and delight and challenge them to live a great story themselves.