Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TEDxUSC 2011: a filmmaker's call to Action

Because I am both an alumni and a faculty member at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, I decided to attend this year's TEDxUSC 20011, which is a independent spin off of the wildly influential Now, why would a guy who writes Hollywood action movies (Conan The Barbarian, Hercules) and horror movies (The Haunting in New York, Masters of Horror) attend a conference about science, emerging technology, music, and social advocacy? Well, what got me in the door was just raw curiosity, but I was shocked by how every speaker, whether a bio-engineer or a circus performer, had something to stay that was directly and concretely applicable to the practice of filmmaking. In fact, I'd argue that the entire conference was about creativity and storytelling... as well as the director's call to "ACTION."

Here are seven provocative and challenging ideas, or rather ACTIONS (with lots of links!) that could inspire your filmmaking.


Much of the conference trumpeted the power of working in groups rather than in isolation. I was inspired by, which allows musicians from around the globe to play together in real time, creating ethno-cultural-musical mash ups of delightful beauty. I was intrigued by the work of Jennifer Pahlka, director of Code for America, who has assembled groups of computer-savvy millennials to find new ways for citizens to work together in online communities. Overall, I was struck by how each speaker trumpeted the creative power of groups made up of people from wildly different backgrounds and different areas of expertise.

To me this is a challenge to filmmakers to stop thinking of their "film by" credit and fantasizing about their Oscar acceptance speech, and start looking for new ways to collaborate in groups. What musician, scientist, historian, social worker, or circus performer can you work with create exciting and unexpected projects? What kind of filmmakers OUTSIDE of the Hollywood bubble can you connect with to develop strikingly original stories?

A great place for a filmmaker to start is STROOME.COM, where you can upload, edit, remix both your own footage and other footage, and join mass collaboration projects, all for FREE.


Early in the conference, Dale Dougherty, founder of Make Magazine, reminded us that the fundamental drive of a creative person is just to tinker, play, and make stuff that doesn't necessarily serve any purpose what-so-ever. He showed us how to make conductors out of playdough and breathalysers out of household batteries. Amazingly, as the TEDxUSC participants learned later, this kind of childish tinkering is exactly what young bio-engineers are doing - restructuring DNA and building molecular toys at the nano-scale.

The lesson to filmmakers is to remind themselves to play. Too often we read books, go to seminars and listen to "experts" to figure out which stories to tell, how to tell them, and how to be "successful" at it. This is much like the adults who need a manual to figure out how to use their i-phones. A child just PLAYS with her phone until she figures out what to do with it, often discovering entirely unexpected ways to be creative.

With that in mind check out this short film, shot and edited on an i-phone, an i-phone that was strapped to a model train: Apple of my Eye. The point is to go out with a movie camera and just play. Play with actors. Play with editing. Play with storytelling. Don't do it for any other purpose other than to have FUN.


At the conference, Jose Antonio Rosa showed us the amazing creativity of the poor in Chile, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, who re-purpose trash and discarded objects into bells, hammocks, sculptures, and magical household appliances. Alan Horsager showed us how re-purposing the DNA of photo-sensitive algae could one day cure blindness. Rick Nahmias showed us how harvesting the oranges in your backyard in the San Fernando Valley could feed the poor. This is a generalized kind of "hacking," taking the objects in front of you and reworking and redesigning them for some surprising new purpose.

So, how can you take the common components of filmmaking (the camera, the actor, found footage) and use them in ways they haven't been used before? For example, check out The Mother of All Funk Cords, a short film and musical composition made entirely out of clips from youtube.


Every filmmaker wants to be a star. They want their film to "go viral." But one of the biggest responsibilities you have as a storyteller and an expert on cinema is to help other unknown-but-brilliant films find the light of day. Instead of spending all your time focused on self-promotion, serve your audience by helping them find the kind of films that you yourself value and aspire to make.

For inspiration check out this HILARIOUS talk and clip from Derek Stivers, How to Start a Movement. He suggests that true leadership comes NOT from the "leader," but from the first person who is brave enough to follow.

Remember that you are not just a filmmaker. You are a sophisticated film VIEWER. Instead of complaining that the masses don't understand you, have the courage to curate, and teach others how to follow great films.


Storytelling was a big theme of TEDxUSC, not only telling our own stories, but taking the time to listen to and empathize with experiences that are not our own. By listening to stories at sites such as you could experience a revolution in consciousness and inspire youself to use your filmmaking skills and tools to empower those whose voices are not usually heard.

In general, Filmmakers and fans like to complain about the lack of creativity in Hollywood, while at the same time ignoring the thousands of wildly original films being made around the world outside the Hollywood bubble. The TEDxUSC conference challenged me to look to the edges and borders of the world, where the truly creative work is being done.


In general, the TEDxUSC experience changed my perspective; it allowed me to step out of my little world and look at things, not as a filmmaker or screenwriter, but as a scientist, a government activist, a poor woman in central america starting a business making soap, and even a circus performer (you MUST check out Troupe Vertigo.) Dr. Jill C. Carter, director of the Center for SETI research, reminded us that we live on a tiny spec in the universe, a universe that is likely to be teaming with extra-terrestrial life. Jose Antonio Rosa reminded us that we live on one side of the "Political Equator," and that on the other side live "the other four billion" people who survive on less than two dollars a day.

The traditional perspective of Hollywood is driven by profit, competition, and top-down thinking. A little shift reminds us that the most original and groundbreaking ideas come from the bottom up. The most successful projects are done in collaboration. And the most rewarding experiences come from work done for no money at all.


Whether working with with young actors at Deb Lemen's Acting Studio, or lecturing to eager young screenwriters at USC, I love to teach. By sharing your knowledge of storytelling and filmmaking you expand your influence beyond the selfish goals of your own career, and empower others to do good work.

Take the example of Andrew McGregor, founder of The Tiziano Project, which provides training, digital video equipment, and affiliations to citizens in conflict and post-conflict areas around the globe, so that they too can tell their stories. By teaching the skills of filmmaking to others, you (yes YOU filmmaker-boy) could change the world.


Filmmaking is a kind of start-up venture, and like any start-up, it needs to be financed. Too often filmmakers go to traditional sources of financing, the studios or to independent financiers who are dubious about the risks of original ideas, or filmmakers attempt radical financing options such as "crowdfunding" that bear disappointing results. These strategies ignore the fact that 80% of the funds for most small start-ups and independent films come from friends and family. These are the same friends and family who show up on the set to do craft service and doggedly promote your film on facebook.

Wouldn't it be great if you could create a community of investors around your film? A community that would be directly involved in the production and share in the hope and excitement of its success? Wouldn't it be great if there were a simple way to structure the legalities of such a tightly knit investment community?

Take a look at PROFOUNDER.COM which offers just such a service. Don't just create a movie. Create a community and a movement around your film. This is especially exciting for anyone who is telling stories about specific ethnic, economic, or underrepresented communities - communities who would be eager to invest in stories that speak directly to them.

The Big Picture

The message of TEDxUSC for filmmakers is ultimately to move beyond the blinders of ego, celebrity, and recycled, worn-out stories. Collaborate, communicate, hack and play. Look beyond yourself for inspiration. Go forth and call "ACTION!"
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Unknown said...

Awesome post, Sean. Much here for filmmakers to live by! Let's hope they do!!

Unknown said...

Best dose of real life philosophy and joy inspiration I have seen in a while!

Unknown said...

Thank you for all of the great links, I am especially interested in Stroome and The Tiziano Project. I see the creativity of people from other countries all the time (I have family in El Salvado, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and lets not forget about friends in Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, India etc)and it is just awesome to watch how collaboration between different people can create masterpieces of humanity not just one culture.