Creativity can’t exist without tension. There needs to be a problem, and a solution. A question, and an answer. An obstacle, and a breakthrough. And no one understands this tension better than filmmakers. We spend so much of our time in the middle of it, trying to generate the ‘aha’ moment so we can nail a pitch, rough cut, or, if we’re lucky, a final film.
In their latest film, Musicbed explored this idea with Filmsupply Filmmaker and award-winning Director Salomon Ligthelm. As a visionary filmmaker himself, he has a knack for overcoming these inevitable moments of creative block, and turning them into creative breakthrough.
1. Get Out
It’s easy to think that creative ideas come out of thin air. But, in reality, creativity is simply our brain’s ability to connect disparate things that we see everyday. In other words, it needs to be fed. It just makes sense that the first thing Salomon does when he faces creative block is step out his front door:
The biggest thing for me, at least in unlocking creativity, is seeing the world. And that starts from that process of ingesting. When I go on trips, when I leave my house, I’m inputting all the time. I don’t find that on the internet or on Instagram. That’s not an input for me. I find I almost never generate ideas when it’s through a screen. I usually generate ideas when I’m seeing the world.
When I leave here and I go on to another job in Kazakhstan or Kiev, I’m inspired by those cities, those places, and those people. Out of that there’s creation. I find leaving your home or leaving your comfort space is important as kind of a means of ingesting, taking from the world, and absorbing ideas.
Every new experience you take in is ammunition for your next creative idea, either consciously or subconsciously. Our brains excel at continuously logging new information, and by experiencing the world in new ways, you’re giving it more opportunities to do so.
2. Slow Down
Of course, if you’re going to activate your mind, you also need to give your mind time to do what it does best. So, after Salomon hits the pavement, he spends time letting his brain process the data:
You have to be in the world to build a storehouse of ideas, to build a storehouse of experiences. Then, you need that moment of reflection, that moment of contemplation, meditation, for an idea to drop. It can be a simple but repeatable action that your body does, where your mind is allowed to work. Then, it’s on to the tools to try and bring it to life.
And, going back to momentum, sometimes I’ll sit for hours and try to come up with something. But if nothing comes, I’ll go for a walk or a run or a bike ride. Anything just to kind of shake up the status quo of what I’m doing. During those times, I feel like something drops. The mind is allowed to wonder and allowed to start piecing things together without ingesting. I have to allow my mind some space to do some of the creative circuitry by itself. In its own time.
There’s an element of trust to this exercise. Trust that your brain is capable, that it will generate creative breakthrough when it needs to. Then it’s just a matter of giving it the chance.
3. Listen Up
Creativity is creativity. If you’re a filmmaker or musician, you understand what it takes to create something truly original. And music is special because it speaks to those subconscious, subliminal parts of our brain that we can’t always access. Maybe that’s why it’s so involved in Salomon’s process:
I always go searching for music. I might find a song on YouTube or Spotify, and recently I’ve been very interested in songs I’ve found on really old clips. I go to the Prelinger Archives and look for songs there. I also have a bunch of friends who are composers on Musicbed, so that’s another avenue. Ryan Taubert is a really good friend of mine, so is Luke Atencio and a bunch of other composers. I’ve found some really great options there.
I lock on to music quickly, and when it’s right for my sensibilities I connect to it in a real way where it’s that or nothing else. Honestly, it’s true that you know it when you hear it. It’s really hard beyond that to really qualify music. It’s just a feeling. And ultimately for creativity, it’s the only thing you can ever go on, is your feeling of it.
Sure, it sounds simple, but try hitting ‘play’ on a song. It can activate areas of creativity you never even knew were there, and can spark new ideas for your timeline, music-related or otherwise.
4. Group Up
Humans are not solitary creatures, so why should we be solitary in our creative process? When Salomon was struggling to make a connection for a soundtrack, he reached out to Musicbed Artist Cubby to create something that he couldn’t quite piece together:
Maybe it’s because I have a bit of a history with music and having created music myself, I will get fixated on a track. And the track would almost be like the impetus for an idea. There’s a producer called Cubby, who’s on Musicbed. And I was working on this passion project. I had this idea of using an old Gregorian-style chant and I reached out and I said, “Hey, do you have something that could work alongside this?” Because I wanted to counter the classical piece of music with something that felt super modern.
I overlayed two of his tracks over that classical piece of music. It was unbelievable and stayed intact while we were shooting. I was just taking the visuals and adding them in, and it worked.
It’s a key moment in your creative career when you realize that you can’t do everything alone, and you shouldn’t try. The creative community is strong, and your work will only reach its full potential when you reach out and connect with it.
5. Log Off
The modern world excels at creating noise. It’s everywhere. In fact, it’s so good at it that we have to be more intentional than ever about silencing that noise. Our brains won’t be able to do what they do best if they’re constantly being distracted or derailed. So, we’ll just say it: turn off your iPhone.
When I started, I was on the internet a lot. Just searching for ideas. But, now I’m so fatigued by Instagram and everything that’s on there. You scroll through everyone’s posts and everything looks the same. It almost feels like Instagram is representative of one person, not the millions of people who are on it. And I can’t compete with this person. They put something out yesterday. They’ll put something up today.
I’m trying to just get myself off that crazy rollercoaster. I’ve been reading a lot more. I’ve been trying to look at all the films I’ve been studying. That’s not necessarily something I’m doing straight after a pitch comes in. But, in my subconscious I’m storing and trying to educate myself on older films, and things from the real world.
There’s so much out there that isn’t dictated by some algorithm on Instagram. As a filmmaker, it’s so important that you have control over your influences. How can we be original if we’re being told what to be inspired by? Log off, and look around. You’ll be surprised by what you find.
It’s important to remember that there’s no surefire way to avoid creative block. And maybe there shouldn’t be. Instead of ‘processes’ or ‘steps’, think of this list as ‘practices’. Each of the strategies Salomon puts into practice can be one more tool in your creative toolbox to overcome obstacles and spark creative breakthrough. Take your pick.