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Ideas Development

Lights, Camera, Production!

Looking to boost your collaborative culture? Take a cue from the film set.

Lisa Joy, co-creator of HBO’s Westworld, says of directing, “[It’s] kind of like being the coxswain [steersman] in a boat race. You’ve got an idea and a direction you want to go in, but you’d simply sink if it weren’t for all the incredible talents in your boat.” Many directors and artists in the film industry share this sentiment (you can hear it in any Oscar speech to date), which suggests that great art comes from great collaboration, and great collaboration comes from trust.

I work in a team environment at NogginLabs, where every day I find myself using my filmmaking experience and knowledge, especially as they relate to the importance of trust in creation. A team is unified by more than shared goals — it’s unified by the respect and understanding team members pay to each other’s skills, personalities, and working styles. This is what allows people to bring their best ideas – and selves — to the table.

It’s also a big part of how we create engaging training experiences.

Creating a Set Culture

As our founder Brian Knudson likes to say, “Constraints force innovation.” Whether it’s actor availability, equipment availability, daylight, the thumping music of a neighbor’s party, money or… money, a filmmaker needs to know how to adapt. In an environment where constraints are inevitable and can run the gamut of no-big-deal to how-do-we-save-this-movie stakes, finding the right collaborators is key.

On a film set of any size or budget, it’s crucial for directors to find collaborators with whom they can share a vision and, perhaps more importantly, a professional dynamic known as the set culture. Many great television showrunners have policies surrounding their set cultures. For Jenji Kohan, creator of Orange is the New Black, it’s “No a**h*les.” Pretty simple. NogginLabs has its own version of Kohan’s slogan, albeit one that can be printed sans asterisks: “Smart. Nice. Funny.

In my experience directing for both stage and screen, creating a set culture has been the most important starting point. I am a firm believer that product is reflective of process. If anyone from an actor to crew member feels unheard or unduly stressed, that person’s work will suffer for it. For example, when working with two young actors on a particularly emotional scene, it was important to myself and my Director of Photography that the actors felt in control. He and I built a sparse shot list and made clear that our choices would be dictated by theirs. The result was an honestly emotional scene that brought even our crew members to tears. I believe this was because the actors felt encouraged to take ownership of the process and were comfortable in the company of our crew.

Regardless of a person’s talent and capability, whether or not he or she will be a great collaborator boils down to two questions: “Can I spend valuable creative time with this person every day?” Put more simply: “Could I stand this person every day?” Inevitably, some of those days may end with you never wanting to speak to each other again. But the respect and the understanding of a shared vision should be strong enough to keep the boat moving. Regardless of whether you’re on a film set or in an office, it’s important to create a collaborative space that your team wants to return to, even after the worst days.

Respecting Individuality

When I taught screenwriting to undergraduates at Northwestern University, one of the most undervalued lessons I had to impart to students was to not do someone else’s job for them. When we see a film, we see the result of sometimes hundreds of artists’ work coming together. Those decisions do not, and should not, rest solely on one person.

The screenwriter pens the script. There are very few hard and fast rules in terms of what level of detail that should include, but I’m of the school that says:

“Tell me what I’m seeing, and let the director, cinematographer, and designers decide how I see it.”

Directors take the script and often make their own pass (read: edit) on it before working with their Director of Photography (DP or cinematographer) to determine how to enhance the written language with a visual language. From there, actors are given guidance but will ultimately make the characters their own. And in between? All manner of design comes together to create an entire world.

The key here is understanding that every person who touches a film is an artist in his or her own right. Great directors accept their roles as leaders by encouraging these artists to do what they do best within the parameters set by the script and the director’s overall vision.

The same is true for teams at NogginLabs. Each person, from the Software Architect and Instructional Designer to the Designers and Content Producers, is there to bring individual expertise and background to the creative process. Allowing each other space to make decisions based on that expertise creates a supportive environment in which great ideas can thrive. This is not to say that collaboration is just a group of siloed individuals; indeed, just as it is important to give artists space to do their thing, it is equally important to create space for others’ opinions.

Giving Feedback

There are certain types of feedback that a director should never give an actor: a line reading or “more [insert general emotion here].” A line reading (literally dictating how an actor should say the words) goes back to the idea of doing someone’s job for them, and a direction rooted in an emotion is not playable. In other words, it is not active. And as one might surmise, actors need activity.

But this type of feedback is also missing another key component: motivation. To tell an actor to “be angrier” assumes the character has a reason to be angry. In an eLearning brainstorm, simply telling a designer to change the navigation buttons for an entire course isn’t effective without a motivation for the change. Everyone works better when there is an answer to the question “why?”

The strength of trust in any collaboration is often seen most clearly in how a team works with feedback. Whether it’s a film set or a project meeting, I have two simple rules: 1.) Nothing is personal, and 2.) nothing is precious. In either working environment, if someone believes an idea isn’t clear or effective, it is rarely worthwhile to respond with an explanation of what you were trying to do. Clearly, whatever that was is not coming across.

It’s a delicate balance between championing the individuality of each team member’s contribution while also understanding that everyone is invited to have an opinion about everything. The key to finding this balance has, in both my creative life and my work at NogginLabs, boiled down to one key idea…

Remembering Your Audience

Of all the commonalities between filmmaking and eLearning, the importance of knowing your audience is by far the most important. Viewer experience and user experience are ultimately identical concepts. Both concepts rely on the same question: “What do we want people to come out of this experience understanding?” Or even more literally: “This user/viewer will be staring at a screen for x-amount of time. How do we make that screen and the person’s time as interesting as possible?”

The late film star Jimmy Stewart offers my favorite quote on this subject:

“Never think of the audience as customers, always as partners.”

In both filmmaking and eLearning, the goal is to connect, never to condescend. Whether it’s for a learner taking one of our courses or a viewer sitting in a movie theater, every decision a team makes is aimed at ensuring the audience has the best experience possible — and that the audience feels involved in the experience.

Great filmmaking and great eLearning, while different in so many ways, both rely on innovative collaboration. Everyone involved brings together unique talents and ideas to create something inspiring, enriching, and memorable. The waters may sometimes be choppy and filled with obstacles. But if there is trust, a unified goal, and a culture of respect, there’s no reason the coxswain can’t lead the team to victory.

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