How to Increase Your Filmmaking Creativity

Creativity is not something that occurs in a filmmaker’s mind all the time. Sometimes, it needs ignition and inspiration to get the creative juices flowing. There are days when creativity just overflows while there are days that a filmmaker can’t seem to think of any ideas for a documentary. Here are some simple, yet effective, ways to increase your creativity in filmmaking.


1. Get Outside

Get away from your laptop, mobile device, iPad or whatever other device you’re on!  Getting outside can certainly mean just getting outside your house or apartment and taking a stroll down the park blocks, if you live in a city.  That’s fine.  At least you are out actually engaging with the world, as opposed to interacting with it in a virtual sense.  Talking to an actual human being instead of their avatar is certainly a helpful thing.  But I am actually more talking about getting out into nature.  Getting in touch with your roots… like, as in, trees.  Or a mountain.  And not to get all Buddha on you, but try sitting down by a stream and watching the river flow (isn’t that a Dylan song??).

The idea here is to disconnect from all of that intense writing, photo touch-ups, editing, or whatever you may be doing in the dark on your laptop and stepping outside to re-charge a little bit.  Breathe in the air (that’s Pink Floyd, right? Wow, the musical references are really flying today).  I want you to step back from all of the hard work that you’ve been putting in – and by the way, this can really be important for the editors amongst us who are not unaccustomed to spending upwards of 12-15 hours a day in front of our computers.

I want you to step back from all of the hard work and just get out into the wilderness and do anything but be in front of your computer or camera’s monitor.  Re-charge & re-energize the creative juices, that’s what we’re looking to do here.


2. Find Something Good

Years ago when I was first doing documentary work in Cambodia, we were spending six months in the countryside filming people digging up old UXOs and mortars and bombs, and attempting to dismantle the metal from the TNT in order to sell as scrap metal.  At the time, Cambodia had the highest per capita amputee rate in the world.  One out of every seven people were missing a limb.  They were long days in the sweltering Cambodian sun, 6 days a week.  Often I was feeling sick from exhaustion or the desperate things that I was seeing and hearing about every day.

I remember an old dear friend writing an email to me and demanding that I do something for her… although it was really for me.  She wanted me to take a mental picture of something – anything- that I saw in the day that made me smile or brought some sort of lightness, regardless of size or duration, and she wanted me to write that one thing down in a little book.  So I started doing this.  Every day.  One day it might be a pretty little flower on the side of the road.  It might be a pleasant exchange I had with a sugar cane seller.  Or the smell of a cooking fire.  The many shades of green of a rice field.  And I wrote these things down at the end of the day.  And I have to say, that it always brought me back to a positive, lighter state of being, often after having experience another of those long, heavy days.

And I might implore you to do the same.  Especially if you happen to be immersed in a documentary project that might also deal in heavier subject matter.  Write down something positive that you experience.  Nowadays you could even whip out your mobile device and snap a quick pic, if it’s something that you see.  However, you want to document your little moment, it can be a nice reminder that there are beautiful things out there in the world, and that they too should be celebrated. Every. Single. Day.


3. Engage with Some Like-minded People

Too often, we as documentary filmmakers, can lead somewhat solitary existences. We’ve mentioned this many times here at TDL, that we documentary filmmakers we tend to be the ones that might be the least connected.  And so it’s important for us to get out there and interact with other people who are either doing what we do or at least are doing something creative in their lives.

We need this as human beings.  We need to feel connected.  You know, as I write this, we are only ten days away from attending Podcast Movement in Philadelphia.  It’s the biggest industry gathering of its kind in the United States. We went to our first Podcast Movement last year and it was a revelation.  To be amongst a crowd of hundreds of people who were also producing podcasts, talking podcasts, living & breathing podcasts, and who we didn’t actually have to explain what a podcast was and why we were doing one… well, yeah, it was exhilarating, to say the least.

And it’s the same with us documentary filmmakers. We need to be engaging with other documentary filmmakers.  Having conversations about things like fundraising, distribution, fiscal sponsorships, or how the hell we live our creative lives when we’re also responsible for providing for our family of four!  A lot of us may not live in LA, London, or New York.  And so we may have to go a little out of our way to meet up with other filmmakers or creatives.  We may need to get hooked up with groups online.  But it’s important that we do these things.  We need to feel connected to other people who are doing what we also do and are living in the way that we are living.


4. Ask for Feedback

Sometimes we can get so stuck in the films that we are making that we forget to share any of the process with the world.  And the more that we are the only people experiencing our films while we’re making them, the more possibility of becoming so attached to what we’re seeing – this is especially the case when we’re editing our films – that we start to lose some perspective on our films.

I can give you a great example of this.  Years ago when I was working on Journey to Kathmandu, Id been editing the film for nearly three years.  There were large gaps between when I was able to work on it, but nonetheless, I’d spend a ton of time cutting the film and I didn’t ever seem to get any closer to being able to host a rough cut viewing of the film.  Finally, one day, after being increasingly frustrated with not being able to figure out the direction of the story that I wanted to take, I finally showed what I had to a colleague, who insisted that I do so.  I think he was sick of hearing about how I was editing it, but never seemed to be getting close to finishing it.

After watching the film, he offered so much insight and inspiration that I had the kind of breakthroughs that enabled me to finish editing a rough cut of the film within two week’s time.  Without allowing someone to see where I was with the film, who can say how much longer I would have been spinning my wheels on the project.  By letting this colleague into my filmmaking process, it had unlocked something in me and my film, that allowed me to make real true progress on it.

So, if you should need some unlocking of creativity or you’re feeling stagnant in any way on your project, consider allowing someone to take a look at it.  It might be just the thing you need to kick start your creativity.


5. Exercise

I mean, this one is a no-brainer, right?  In fact, a recent study by the National Institute of Health indicated that a way to help any mental fog and fatigue is to participate in bouts of strenuous activity.

For years I was a runner (I’m now getting a bit more into biking).  And I can’t tell you how many times, after a long days of working, I’d go out for a run to re-invigorate the body and mind.  Often times the answers to some mental block that I’d had about work or a life issue that I was having would suddenly just come to me.  Or maybe a creative solution to a filmmaking challenge that I was up against would come to me.

The thing is, if we’re too sedentary in our lives – again, this one is especially true for the editors amongst us – we can become too accustomed to one set of thought patterns.  It makes it very difficult to navigate in a creative fashion when we get tied to one way of thinking.

This is not just me saying ‘hey, it’s healthy and good for you to exercise’.  Physical activity can truly help unleash the creative juices.


How do you get your creative juices flowing? Do any of these resonate with you or do you have others? Share them with us in the comments below.


Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

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