Downpour Productions recently went through a major media refit. Every hard drive, storage device, and piece of media in the company archive was catalogued and rearranged. 15+ years of digital video content, audio, photos, and text files. No easy task, since I basically keep everything I make.
For a few years I’ve had the idea of giving some of my older works the “special edition” treatment. Going back to the project files and cleaning them up. Re-processing, essentially, with a more disciplined and professional eye. This wouldn’t be possible had I discarded my original media after the project was done. Much of my early work was done on Mini DV, and before that Hi-8 tape. Indie filmmaking dark ages (or the renaissance, depending on how you see it).
An exercise in development
Of course, nobody would care but me. And that’s fine, I’d be re-doing the works for myself and the few friends that would be curious to see them. But the utility in such an effort isn’t limited to self-indulgence. No, in fact I think holding on to all of your works in an archive of some sort is crucial in your professional development.
Take screenwriting for instance. There are many ways you can screw up a screenplay. But how would you know what pitfalls to avoid in the first place? Experts have literally written books on such subjects, but they all boil down to the same common denominator: experience. Experience can come in a number of ways, but the best by far is hands-on, doing the activity in question. Repetition, revision, and application. Understanding of what went wrong and why. The same applies for shooting your movie, as well.
When you keep everything you write, shoot, edit, or make in a physical, tangible medium, you have an archive to reference. A catalogue of work to look back upon and say “here’s what I did wrong, how could I have been so stupid?” You weren’t stupid back then. You were inexperienced. Immature as an artist and creator. And that’s ok; it’s part of the journey. Those who refuse the journey refuse the reward – namely a filmmaking career.
Of course, this assumes you actually put the effort in to reference the material you keep. Just like studying a textbook or webinar, study of a reference work takes discipline and effort. But now you have a personal archive at your fingertips to do so.
Keep everything physical
In my office I have a filing cabinet. Inside are these antique things we call pieces of paper, with strange glyphs on them known as type. I keep physical, tangible drawers of all the material I’ve written (that’s survived) since the 90s. In separate drawers, I keep physical copies of all material that’s been given to me by friends. I also keep material that speaks to me, for one reason or another. I do this because I don’t want to rely on a computer to keep this stuff (I also have digital copies, obviously). But more importantly I want the ability to reference hand-written notes I’ve made on the various project I archive.
Some might say this is crazy. I say that I’d much rather review the hand-written notes on an old script on my comfy couch with a glass of wine than be a slave to a harsh computer display. Also, some of my records only exist in physical media, such as hand-written notes and scripts written on a typewriter. Sure I could scan everything into the computer, but there’s a certain X factor that I find is very real with physical media. Sort of like watching a movie in the cinema vs on an iPhone – none of this stuff was designed for the delivery systems we all use to consume it.
Funnily enough, in the foundational Screenplay by Syd Field, there used to be a chapter titled “On Writing With Computers” or something similar. Unfortunately I recently lost my hardback 1994 3rd Edition of Screenplay and as such have to live with the paperback (ugh) version of the 2005 4th Edition. If memory serves, the excised chapter discussed how many industry professionals resist using computers and how computers are sure to be the way of the future. The irony, of course, is that because I lost the physical book I can no longer read the chapter on computers.
If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences keeps a literal vault of films, I don’t see why indie filmmakers shouldn’t do the same.
But don’t overdo it, obviously. Just like anything in life, moderation and organization are key. With a system and appropriate discretion, you can keep a lot more than you think.
Keep everything you make. Make everything to keep. Build a library of work. Treat every project with the seriousness your career deserves. Make mistakes, learn, and repeat the process. Have discipline to do the work. Re-read and re-watch your old material, always. Remember that adage of those who are doomed to repeat history? Being a filmmaker is no different. So the only solution is to get to work, right now, and start building an archive of work for keeps.