Fighting the pressure to specialize

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Fxguy1

Member
Greetings!

One of the biggest draws for me to practical effects and prop building was that it required skills that were unique but also that it drew from so many different disciplines / industries. I love going into the hardware store to find something for a project that is about as far from the original intended design as can be. The creative problem solving involved in figuring out how to build a physical representation of an idea provides not only a worthy challenge, but a dose of adrenaline that I can't seem to find anywhere else.
I tend to keep my art and creative projects to myself, a cardinal sin I believe, out of fear of criticism. As Adam Savage mentioned, putting something so personal that you created out in the world can be gut wrenching and heart breaking if it is not well received. I have decided to change that and begin thoroughly documenting my projects to share.
As I strive to improve the quality of any given project, it is only natural to research techniques and tools to achieve desired results. When doing so, how do you fight / avoid the temptation to learn a new skill or technique until perfection? We are all good/great carpenters, painters, sculptors, etc... but many of us are jacks-of-all-trades and master of none.
How do you deal with learning a skill enough to accomplish what you need but not so much that it becomes the focus as opposed to the project you were working on?
 

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George

Master Member
Fxguy1 First of all, acknowledge (to yourself) that this is about something you are passionate about.Passion supersedes necessity because art is expression of emotion, not reason.

Secondly, accept that (ultimate) 'perfection' is not possible, only satisfaction.Accept that whatever you make is good because it comes from a deeper realm than mind.Everybody on this forum puts their heart and soul into what they do and make, and that is already perfect.
Move 'mind-activity' towards 'gut-activity'.The mind is like a Dremel; only a tool.When you're done using it, put it away until further notice.Otherwise it's just going to drain energy.Stop analyzing everything and starting enjoying it (see #1).

Third: (receiving) criticism builds character.Start with the premise that people criticising you is not meant to break you, but to help improve you.Then it becomes pleasant listening to people around you.Critics are not your 'enemies', but your 'teachers'.

And lastly: enjoy (watching/sharing) the creative process!

My 2 cents.
 
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Fxguy1

Member
Thanks George! Sometimes words of encouragement can go a long way!
I really do love the creative process. I could spend HOURS watching others work and listening to them, soaking up the wisdom.

What are your feelings towards being paid / making a living with your creative works? Does it change the types of projects you do or your process?
 

George

Master Member
Due to both my personal circumstances and my personal view at this subject I could and would never make a living through creativity.No creative flow means no meal on the table, no money for rent.I could never cope with that stress of 'survival', and this way it would very quickly take the fun out of my profession, if it were mine that is.

Fortunately for me this is 'only' a passion and hobby, so I can enjoy any creative process to the fullest without worrying about deadlines or flow.When I feel enclined, I craft.When flow is absent, I go and sit behind the piano or devote to learning languages.And when none of this makes sense I solely focus on function and duty.Like I said: you can't force the flow or it wouldn't be 'real' and 'you'.

Sharon Carter said it so beautifully and strikingly in Captain America: Civil War when she spoke at her aunt's funeral:

"Compromise where you can. Where you can't, don't. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say 'No, you move'."

Always stay close to your heart whatever you do.Your brains are for 'checks & balances'.At least that's how I see it.

That being said: yes, one could do this for a living.There are many (on this forum) who do, although I do not know how they cope with stress and performing, but that is for them to answer.
 
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joberg

Master Member
Like George I'm not eager to make money from this hobby/Art...call it whatever you want. This hobby represents me, and as inspiration is a finnicky mistress, I never "push" the flow of ideas just "to do/build" something. You find your Truth in Beauty/Art, by creating, building, painting, etc...Money (therefore pressure) to produce no matter what is not my primary aim. If you like what I do...great! If you don't like what I do...great again! ;)
 

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asavage

Sr Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
Well, since being a generalist is my brand, I think I should pipe in. (also you mentioned me)
Excellent that you are documenting your work. You can NEVER OVER DOCUMENT a build. Even thought I've been putting 40 hours a week building alone and filming myself on my phone since the lockdown, there are STILL recent builds I wish I'd photographed at a specific stage of the build.
When I weather something I ALWAYS forget to take a "before" shot. Someday I'll remember.
I was going to say I digress but it's not a digression:
documentation is a key part of learning exactly how the puzzle pieces of your skillset all fit together.
Remember that the whole phrase is
Jack of all trades,
Master of none,
though often better,
than a master of one

You had a specific question though:
"what level should I seek when learning a skill?"

and I believe it also carried with it a hidden question:
"am I doing a disservice to my builds/creative output by not being better at this one technique"

It's a really rational question, and one that confronts all of us from time to time.

My answer is NO. There's no right/wrong way to gather a skill, and what level you take it to depends on countless factors, too many to come up with any guideposts.

Look, when you learn a new technique, and you use it on a key part of a build you care about, much of the time all you can see when the build is done is how bad you were at THAT particular process. That's what happens to me at least. And frequently, when confronted by such, I'll let the disappointment build in me until I know exactly how I truly want that object to look and feel. THEN i might go back in and 1. learn the technique better and better through iterative practice, until I know I can service what I'd like to happen on the build, or 2. I'll acknowledge that I can't deliver and bring in outside help.

But I can't know how far to take a technique until I know exactly/precisely what I want from it. Most of my favorite props I've built three or four times until I got it right. Oftentimes it took me months to know that the previous iteration wasn't right; i didn't have the right eyes at the time.

So document everything. It'll help you understand that you ARE progressing. Look over your pix of old builds, it'll help you gain the eyes to see what you truly want from each piece.

Even now my metric for what I consider "done" changes all the time. I just made my third, and hopefully final bowcaster, but who knows?

As for being paid. It changes everything. Working on the clock is vastly different than working on your own. I don't make a qualitative assessment about that, i don't think is either good or bad, it just is. When I started to get paid to do SFX in the early 90s, I noticed it lessened my desire to go home at the end of the day and make Art. I eventually understood that commercial work was satisfying my creative jones in an unexpected way. I didn't have a judgement about that, but I found it fascinating. Since then the amount of creative satisfaction I've gotten from my paid work has ebbed and flowed over the years, even when I was making Mythbusters. Sometimes I'd have tons of projects going on at home, sometimes none for months at a time.

If you're going to try and get paid you need to work on your speed. Fast is best. Working fast keeps you hired, and it increases the return on small gigs you bill for yourself. Being highly fast and accurate is far more important than being creative in terms of your employability.
 

Michael Bergeron

Legendary Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
Going to second everything Adam just said there. I've worked in TV graphics for almost 20 years now. I've hired many many artists and the big thing I look for is diversity of skills as what I do requires a bit of everything. Particularly in live TV, a person who is able to give me a 4 star graphic or effect consistently and on time is FAR more valuable than someone giving me a 5 star graphic but late.

If you're really passionate about a specific skill, then of course develop it further. Even a Jack of all trades will be better at some things than others. My mentality on most of these skills though is that I like to get to a point where I really understand what I'm doing. That way, even if I don't know everything, I know enough to accomplish what I need/want to with the knowledge I have as a base.

Think of it like school. You don't leave school knowing how to do a job, but rather with the knowledge that will allow you to learn it as you go. If something pops up that you're unfamiliar with, you'll be able to piece it together with that base.
 

Fxguy1

Member
Most of my favorite props I've built three or four times until I got it right. Oftentimes it took me months to know that the previous iteration wasn't right; i didn't have the right eyes at the time.

So document everything. It'll help you understand that you ARE progressing. Look over your pix of old builds, it'll help you gain the eyes to see what you truly want from each piece.
Please excuse me while I geek out for a minute... I can't believe ADAM Freaking SAVAGE responded! Ok, I'm cool....lol.

I have to say LOVE you and LOVE your book. Read it cover to cover, twice. On my most recent build I took to heart the concept of iterations. I downloaded the plans for a Mandalorian helmet from Punished Props and initially printed it at 105% (since I have a big head and not figuratively, lol). The initial piece came out WAY to large and wasnt as accurate as I wanted. I immediately printed out another one at 100% scale and made a small change to the pattern and it turned out AMAZING at least for me.
As for being paid. It changes everything. Working on the clock is vastly different than working on your own. I don't make a qualitative assessment about that, i don't think is either good or bad, it just is. When I started to get paid to do SFX in the early 90s, I noticed it lessened my desire to go home at the end of the day and make Art. I eventually understood that commercial work was satisfying my creative jones in an unexpected way. I didn't have a judgement about that, but I found it fascinating. Since then the amount of creative satisfaction I've gotten from my paid work has ebbed and flowed over the years, even when I was making Mythbusters. Sometimes I'd have tons of projects going on at home, sometimes none for months at a time.
This. All of this. I started out as a theater / pre-med double major and circumstances led me to pharmacy school where everything is specialized and being a generalist is frowned upon. What I've found after 10 years of being a pharmacist is that I'm constantly longing to do projects and builds. At the age of 40 I'm finally starting to explore the idea that I might be able to make a living teaching and doing builds as opposed to a job that makes lots of money but leaves me burnt out and little time to do something I love to do.

If you're going to try and get paid you need to work on your speed. Fast is best. Working fast keeps you hired, and it increases the return on small gigs you bill for yourself. Being highly fast and accurate is far more important than being creative in terms of your employability.
If it's something I learned is that given enough time or money just about anyone can solve any problem. Being able to solve it faster and at a lower cost than someone else is what makes you valuable, or at least employable.

Again Adam, I really want to thank you for your response AND for your book. Love watching your builds during lockdown and you inspired me to take on building the Eagle Moss Delorean (Back to the Future is what originally got me interested in how movies were made way back when I was 5 or 6 yrs old).

Again Thank you!

Even a Jack of all trades will be better at some things than others. My mentality on most of these skills though is that I like to get to a point where I really understand what I'm doing. That way, even if I don't know everything, I know enough to accomplish what I need/want to with the knowledge I have as a base.

Think of it like school. You don't leave school knowing how to do a job, but rather with the knowledge that will allow you to learn it as you go. If something pops up that you're unfamiliar with, you'll be able to piece it together with that base.
I understand this. When it comes to some new knowledge or skill I tend to want to master it enough to be competent, but not much beyond that. Either way at least I will know what I am talking about with others if I have to bring in outside help!
 

ScoobiJohn

Active Member
i've no illusions of becoming professional prop maker i'm happy serving my own collecting needs and making cool stuff for my newphews, so have nothing really germane to add to the topic other than deciding when your good enough to me is about looking at what you just made and do the flaws annoy you enough that you want to try again :).....

and would just like to say in the chance Adam reads this that mythbusters and more specifically tested got me into making stuff and now i have new centre to my life - my soul now lives in my workshop which i adore (and spend an unhealthy amount of money on) and also a pride of joy in my cinema space which is now full of movie/tv props and full display cabinets that i made myself - so thank you for what you've done and what you have put online - its both a great resource and inspiration!
 

TazMan2000

Master Member
You can never learn too many skills or techniques. Learning it to perfection? I can't see anyone doing so, but there is no harm in trying if it makes you happy.
If you're in the business of prop making, I'm surprised you keep your personal stuff private out of fear of criticism. Even a great idea or project won't please everyone. The point is that YOU are pleased with your work at the time. (You may look at your older work with a bit of disdain, if you have bettered your skills). :)
You will always find someone that admires your work, and aspires to match it and even do better. Take it as a compliment. Inspiring others is part of the joy of the hobby and hopefully your career.

TazMan2000
 

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PoopaPapaPalps

Master Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
How do you deal with learning a skill enough to accomplish what you need but not so much that it becomes the focus as opposed to the project you were working on?

By realizing and accepting that everything I do and learn is merely a means to an end. I want "Z" and results to be thus... So, how do I get there? Break it all the way down to step "A" and start there.

I have not reached the conclusion of whether I'm a "generalist" or just lazy---not passionate enough to pursue anything to mastery. I feel that's how it is for everyone though. One skill in something often informs or even carry over to another thing. For instance, personally, I've always liked making things but I've typically worked with "soft" materials, ie - clay, paper, plastics, fabrics, etc. Rarely have I ever worked in metals or am proficient in such things; I have not touched any heavy machinery since middle school shop class. However, I wanted things with substance and robustness over the years and slowly have pushed myself further into more engineering and machining feats.

A recent instance, I wanted the lightsaber that Mark Hamill used in the majority of RotJ: the V2. No prop produced thus far has satisfied me. To do so, I had to do it myself. Over the course of these last 3 years, going on 4 now, I've taught myself all that I needed to make sure my latest project was everything it needed to be (my foundry cast lightsabers) to my specifications, and damn anyone else, it is perfect to me. So what is perfection? Well, perfection isn't a homogenous term; it is set by parameters you as an individual dictate. That begs to be asked: When is a project finished? When you deem it to be.

It is never a matter of skill, it is a matter of gratification. You don't have to be a master at anything to produce something you find beautiful.
 

propmainiac

Sr Member
RPF PREMIUM MEMBER
Never be afraid of criticism...sometimes you get it wether you want it or not. I've built many props over the years and have never been afraid of showing them here. 99.9 percent of the time the advice I've been given has helped. The more you do or make the better you get at it. I built my first hardware store lightsaber more than 20 years ago. Still have it. I cringe a little when I look at it cause it looks like a kid made it. I still proudly display it next to my original graflex and Icons Obi wan and a few custom ones I made because it shows how far I've come. As long as you are happy with your builds that's all that matters.
 

EKF5

Active Member
My maker skills are minimal. The only project I've posted here I did specifically to learn the technique. I had no need to know it and so far haven't used it again. But I might. . . And I always enjoy the projects I see here.

My job focuses on employee development. To do that I had to develop platform skills, writing skills, slide building skills (sigh), etc. All of that had to be practiced again and again for me to become good. The same iterative approach Adam points out is critical for learning and improving making skills is what teaches and improves every skill. In developing materials for employees we always ask what does the employee need to know and how well do they need to know it to perform at or above expectations.

When I'm working on a hobby I ask myself the same questions. What skills do I need and how well do I need to perform them to reach my goal. I'll learn anything new for the fun of learning it. And then I find that the new skill adds insight into old skills I thought were unrelated. And sometimes the new skill can be used with the old. I found a way to use juggling to provide an example of the limits of demonstration as a teaching technique.

So Fxguy1, learn everything that appeals and helps you make what you want to make. Learn it well enough to satisfy your goal for whatever you're making. And don't worry about the critique.

If folks don't like your work but you do, you still get to enjoy your work. If folks like your work and you do, you get the extra satisfaction and pride - but mostly you get to enjoy your work. Separately, treasure any comments folks give you that allow you to improve your work. Take comments as intended to help but feel free to ignore any that don't. And ignore any comments about you as a person (a surprising number of folks focus critique on the person and not on the skill, item, etc.) because you aren't how you do something.

And of course, share your fun with us.
 

Fxguy1

Member
I am both honored and humbled by the wisdom and advice given thus far. Truly a heartfelt thank you! Can’t wait to post some photos of my Mandalorian helmet. Stay tuned! I’ve some epoxy sealer arriving tomorrow so I can continue working...
 

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