Seven Notes on Giving Notes

If you work in this business, chances are you feel entitled to give your opinion. Here’s my opinion on how you should be doing that.

David Anspaugh, director of Hoosiers and Rudy, speaks with crew on the set of the independent film: The Good Catholic.

As a freelance producer I’m often put in a place where I am giving notes to any number of departments on a documentary or narrative production. I’m not alone in this. A big part of the entertainment machine is the giving and receiving of notes. In fact, nearly every industry depends on different departments being able to give feedback to one another. Giving notes is a vital mechanism for improving performance and its very tricky to get it right.

From a management perspective, the goal is always to make the production run smoothly, ideally on-time and on-budget. This is easier said than done when you are surrounded by passionate, creative people who rightly put their heart and soul into their work. Yet, the creation of film, commercials, and TV is also a business and so the potential for conflict is great. When notes are given poorly they can create additional confusion and even be more damaging than if they had never been given. When notes are given well they can help clarify goals, empower teams and improve the final product.

Here are seven tips for giving notes in a creative environment:

 

    1. Limit Conflicting Notes

I see this all the time. Three producers on a film decide they each have the “fix” for a scene half way through the second act and they each independently email the director, who is spending hours in a dark editing bay, a fix that is in direct conflict with the other producers ideas. The director is then pushed in multiple directions (not to mention stay true to what she or he had envisioned for the film) trying to please different competing viewpoints and the scene ends up as a bland unmotivated shell of what was originally intended. The key here is to get on the same page with your peers before you hit send on that email. A united front, whenever possible, limits confusion and helps keep the road ahead clear. If a consensus cannot be reached, make sure to support your notes thoroughly. Cite how the change could affect the overall narrative, whether or not there is a glaring technical error, or honestly admit the note is sourced in personal preference.

 

    2. Collaborate Amiably

A collaboration can deteriorate quickly when notes come off like orders. The military can strip recruits of individuality and have them depend on their training to accomplish the mission. Entertainment, on the other hand, only exists because of individual points of view. Guide the filmmakers toward their best work, while also collaborating with yours. If you do not respond to an element of what your watching, ask about the intention. Then, give notes supporting that intention. Then, repeat the intention in your feedback. For example, “If your goal is X, then I think it is necessary to Y.”

If you disagree with the intention, you are likely on a project that doesn’t fit you, or you are faced with a really big problem that is going to take a great many questions to fix.

If you present questions or general notes about a scene or commercial, often the filmmaker can come up with something even better to solve the problem you are looking to fix. If you have a thought on the solution, try priming your note with “What if…” A little cushion can go a long way.

 

    3. Avoid Comparison

There are only so many ideas out there. Okay, I get that, but even a flattering comparison is an insult to an artist striving to be an original…and guess what? The likely response you’ll get from a filmmaker with strong vision is “I don’t care how they edited the iceberg scene in Titanic, this is a different movie.”

 

    4. Don’t Nitpick

Choose your battles. Look at your notes before passing them off and consider which are truly the most important to you. Which will have the largest impact on the project? Fighting over small details that don’t truly change the story one way or another is a waste of everyone’s time and most often comes off as some type of power play.

    5. Act Quickly

When a creative decision is made and all departments begin to act on that decision, it can be harder and harder (ie. more expensive) to reverse or change course as time goes on. Stay informed on all aspects of the production so you can see the warning signs and provide input before things go too far astray from the original vision.

 

    6. Give Positive Feedback

If you deliver nine notes that are all overwhelmingly negative about a project, it will damage morale. Guaranteed. Before you say, there is no time and no career to be had for the ultra sensitive, I say to you the best of us put our whole selves into this work, and we care deeply. If you want to work with someone again, try to give them some affirmation to live off of, while they lick their wounds, making changes that each feel like a loss in the short term. Offset the negative, “This doesn’t work,” with positive notes about what is working.

 

    7. Don’t call it broken if it can’t be fixed

Never deliver a note without suggesting a possible solution or a direction to take, and never damn an entire facet of a production that cannot be fixed. Nothing is worse than receiving a note like: “The first 15 minutes don’t work,” or something irredeemable like: “You should have had a different mixer.” If there’s no way you could reshoot a scene, don’t make suggestions that would require pickups. Be specific; find problems with attainable solutions.

 

The entertainment industry is insulated and hard to break into because filmmakers like working within a network of artists that can deliver results on a deadline, and most importantly, collaborate in a positive way. A select few tyrants can deliver a film and be successful. The stories of these individuals are more the exception, not the rule. Any time you might think it makes you look like a bigger deal to be a bigger burden on a team, you are actually showing everyone how green you are. Never forget that you are in the business of delivering entertainment. If a project is made in an environment of mutual respect and trust – it will often come through onto the screen.


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Graham Sheldon

Emmy winner, Graham Sheldon, resides in Southern California, where he works as a producer and director of photography. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America. Learn more about him at www.grahamsheldon.net