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Five years ago, I was writing a feature adaptation of a short film that had made it to festivals and garnered some interests. It was a calculated move: I would write an ultra-low budget feature, shoot it quickly and use it as a business card to climb a couple of ladders.

For months, this screenplay was my sole focus. I was thinking, talking, breathing and dreaming about it 24/7.

After the second draft, I was forced to admit that not only was the story terrible, but also it was not going to open me any doors any time soon. And so I stopped, and I crashed.

I was burned out.

I had been working so hard trying to ‘make it’ into Hollywood that I had let my creative flow evade me. I no longer knew what I wanted to say or why I wanted to make films, all I knew was that a cat needed to be saved and if I could do so in 90 pages, its chances of survival would be higher.

When I realized my obsession to follow the recipe had made me lose my most precious asset –my creativity-, I did a u-turn and went to find it back.

And I’m glad to report that I found it back. It is well and alive, and stronger than it’s ever been. Last year I wrote another feature screenplay, In Five Years, this time listening to what I wanted to say, and got a producer on board three days after sending her a draft for feedback.

This has been possible through a combination of elements, the central factor being that for the last four years, I have been completing creative challenges on a regular basis. Doing so has had a tremendous impact on my creativity, on my confidence and on my overall skills, making me much stronger a filmmaker.

But first maybe let me clarify what I mean by creative challenge: a creative challenge is a contract you make with yourself, and often publicly on your social media, to create on X medium for X amount of time.

For me it translated into sharing a drawing of a character for a period of 100 days, making a timelapse every day for a year, making an instagram video for seven days, creating a graphic novel live sharing a page every 15 minutes, or making an interactive animation in 28 days. For others it might mean composing music, taking pictures, dancing, sculpting, painting, hand-lettering, knitting etc. The possibilities are endless.

A video posted by nathalie (@mentorless) on

And here are three ways I know creative challenges have helped me as a filmmaker:

#1 - It helped me gained stamina

The first day of a creative challenge is always easy, and it seems like you’ll always be inspired, and that the possibilities are endless. But the longer the challenge, the more difficult it gets to find the energy to continue. Just like in a marathon, you need to find pockets of energy when you thought there was none left to keep on going.

Guess what else is like a marathon? Filmmaking.

Being a filmmaker is all about endurance, being able to stand when everyone around you has given up after one more door has closed, and keep on putting one foot after another, no matter what.

My producer got on board on December 24th, 2015. A few days after that, I decided to start a weekly vlog to share my journey trying to make my film. And a few weeks after that, we decided to apply for a Film Lab. The deadline: February 15.

In less than a month, I had to go through a massive rewrite, create a mood board, write a director statement, but also vlog weekly about the whole process, while hitting my ‘normal-life-before-making-a-film’ deadlines. It was hard, but I made it happen. And I know where the stamina to work daily while maintaining the rest of my obligations came from. By showing up every day producing a drawing or a 15 second video no matter what.

#2 - It helped me grow a thick skin

As filmmakers, we have no other choice but to put our work out there, and try as hard as we can to have it seen by as many people as possible. Introvert or not, shy or not, this is part of our job.

The Internet has opened dozens of doors, through social media and streaming platforms for us to show what we can do and want to say, but it remains a tough game to play.

And it can be hard to be ignored. When you’ve put all your love, energy and money into creating a story only to get a hundred views, your ego gets bruised.

Creative challenges have helped me grow a very thick skin. Usually, the first day you post something, everybody is very enthusiastic. By the 30th, 60th or 90th day, you’ve had your share of lows and feeling transparent.

Creative challenges have shown me that people care and want to be kind, but they are also overwhelmed by the number of posts asking for their attention; that’s what gets the more success is often not my most innovative or creative work, but the ones that strike a universal chord in simple ways; that some people will always look but never like, while other will always like but never really look; and that my creative challenges against an earthquake or a terrorist attack don’t weigh much.

There is so much more than me and my stories going on at all times. I am one among seven billion. We’ve grown accustomed to the success story and expect/hope that whatever we put out there will spread like fire and ring true to thousands (millions?), but this is rarely the case.

Confronting myself to this situation over and over through my creative challenges has helped me not only to grow a thick skin, but also to learn why I am doing what I am doing.

And if you know why you create what you create, suddenly numbers lose their power. I know this will come handy each and every time I post and share about In Five Years, and I know the numbers of likes or views won’t be my motor to keep on doing what I do.

#3 - It helped me become more resourceful filmmaker

To paraphrase Kevin Smith, being a filmmaker consists in finding solutions to problems.

You need to think fast, and find creative solutions to keep the train in motion and at full speed.

When you do creative challenges, you impose a constraint on a daily schedule that is often already packed. You need to squeeze time to create something, no matter what. Whether you’re at a wedding, on holiday, sick, it’s new year’s eve, or you’re on a set shooting (ha), you need to find time to create and share.

This is by far the most challenging part of any creative challenges. I had sometimes found myself at 11.30 gasping because I had simply forgotten to do my challenge or losing 4h in front of a bad Internet connection, and in those moments, you need to make it work.

As indie filmmakers, we can easily spend months or years on a project. In the best-case scenario, we get to practice our creative skills a short amount of time, proportionally to the time spent handling other matters. In the worst case scenario, we barely get to use our creativity, and the film is never completed. Because film is a medium that requires so much time, it can become very difficult to not only cultivate our creativity but also make sure it grows.

Creative challenges have become my no-cost, easy-to-set-up way to keep myself on my toes, push my boundaries, and become a stronger filmmaker.

And if you feel like this is something you could use and would like to try, it’s very easy: pick a medium, pick a time frame between 7 and 365 days, share the results on the social media, and do it until you reach your self-imposed deadline. And then repeat.

Nathalie Sejean
Nathalie is a story fabricator and creative nomad who founded mentorless.com, a blog for filmmakers and storytellers to nurture their skills and craft. She also offers creative in burnout to reconnect with their mojo and stretch their creative muscle. You can connect with Nathalie on instagram at @mentorless where she hangs out during virtual breaks when she’s not working on making her film In Five Years.

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