Felling the Oak

Abraham Lincoln once said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” While I doubt Honest Abe was thinking of the creative process when he said this, he nonetheless described quite precisely the single greatest asset any creative production can leverage – preparation.

It’s funny, because when people imagine fantastic creativity, the image conjured is someone erupting like a volcano with passions and ideas, inspirations and whim.  The notion of a mad-scientist-type creative person is pervasive, and is perhaps perpetuated by people who enjoy the illusion that creativity is something inborn and god given, not something that is labored over, like the chopping down of a tree.  In reality, being successful as creative person is just an awful lot of hard work, just like being successful in any line of work is, and perhaps even more so.

Undoubtedly, part of the creative process is about accessing the wealth of ideas and thoughts that sometimes percolate out  from within the subconscious, but it is also about disciplined work… forcing yourself to extrude as many possibilities as you’re able, rather than settling for the first half-dozen that pop to mind.  What makes the end result successful is the narrowing of focus and a refinement of a select few ideas that emerge from the pile that you might otherwise have rejected or left hiding under a rock.   It is the sharpening of the blade, the elimination of the less good ideas, and the thoughtful, deliberate delineation of the best ideas, that allows you to execute with a deft touch, with thoughtfulness, and with the efficiency required to stay on time and on budget.

Abraham Lincoln, multifacted hero

In addition to believing in the power of preparation, Abraham Lincoln was really tall, and had really cool hair.

Counterintuitively, extensive preparation, disciplined decision making, and commitment to a plan do not limit your ability to be creative on set.  In fact, they enhance it.  It is only when you are prepared to shoot specific shots in specific ways in a specific order for specific reasons that you can remain relaxed enough to respond when new inspiration strikes, focused enough to evaluate the new ideas objectively, controlled enough to adjust the business end of production, and flexible enough to harness the full potential.  Preparation enables you to transcend your plan when true opportunity presents itself.

“The light is really beautiful over here right now!’ the gaffer points out.  Okay, that’s great, beautiful light is an asset, but what can we do in that light that also fits within the puzzle of our story.  Thorough preparation allows you to act decisively – to identify opportunity and to manipulate it to fit within the construct of the piece.   Working without a plan is just laziness masquerading as creativity. Fear pretending to be control.

Successful creative ambition is not an endless stream of possible ideas: it is a patiently sharpened, precisely honed blade, aimed carefully and swung with force when the time is right.  When this happens, felling the oak is a labor of love, the cut is clean and pure, and the tumbling tree comes dangerously close to being a work of art.