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Let’s be “Honest”…

April 5, 2008

A lot of people think I’m a jerk. In fact, probably more than a jerk. A “right prick” as British slang (my favorite type of slang) goes. In particular, the people who know me primarily via the internet.

For a while, especially looking back, I was pretty much a prick. I was young and brash and I was right about EEEEEVERYTHING. Now I’m older and I don’t necessarily always feel that way — I am still usually right, but I’m much more willing to consider the possibility that I’m not.

And now you ask yourself (or maybe you don’t, which is part of the issue probably): “Is he being sarcastic, or is he serious?” I’ll let you mull it over, because if it’s sarcasm it’s hardly as funny if I have to say so.

Certainly that’s part of it. People who meet me online seem to think I’m a tremendous ass. People who meet me in person generally find me to be very funny and approachable. The problem people have with me, I think, is that I’m honest.

An example:

Recently, a new series came on ABC called Eli Stone. It’s about a lawyer with a brain aneurysm who hallucinates musical performances of George Michael songs that also manage to show him the path he’s to take in life, and his Chinese-American acupuncturist/spiritual guide has a tendency to insist that Eli may be a prophet. If the description feels cumbersome, then it’s captured the show. The description of the show as a male Ally McBeal is about right, if a little less quirky.

We probably wouldn’t have wound up watching the show, if not for the fact that Ryan is working on the show as part of the Stargate Digital team. I watched it several weeks late, having a lot to get done and not a lot of time to watch the show. When I watched it, I was struck by one sequence in particular. Eli is up on a mountain in the Himalayas, for reasons that are beyond the point of my story here, and it was SO OBVIOUSLY greenscreen. Like, it was pretty bad overall. But other parts of the show were quite good — several parts I didn’t even know were effects until Ryan told me.

So later that night, Ryan and I were out to dinner and I asked “So, are you involved with the team that does Eli Stone?”

“Yeah, I’m on the show.”

“Did you do any of the work on the pilot?”

“Yeah, I did some shots for most of the episodes so far.”

“What did you do on the pilot?”

“That stuff where he was up on the mountains.”

“Oh…yeah, I thought that stuff was bad.”

My other roommates, who were there at the time, were shocked at me. To be fair, it did kind of seem like entrapment where I was getting him to confess to the part I didn’t like. But I was honestly hoping that he would say he’d done something else. Someone else might have changed their tune upon finding out what it was. Just veered away with a “Ah, just wondering. Good stuff overall.” But that’s not what I do. I don’t blow smoke up peoples’ asses, and at any rate Ryan isn’t someone who wants smoke blown up his.

After that, I discussed with Ryan why I didn’t think it worked. For example, the background was too sharp to be strictly “correct” as a composite. But that’s what the client wanted (“We paid a lot of money for that shot, we want to see it in focus”). If I had just told him good job and patted him on the back, neither of us would have learned anything. In this case, I was the one who learned a lesson about being a good client and trusting the artisan to know the right thing to do.

I believe in being honest. For one thing, that’s the best way to learn. For another, even if it means I’m often critical, it also means that if I’m praising someone for something, they know that I mean it, because I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t. I don’t think that my opinion of something ranks too highly on anyone’s scale right now, but I do think that people value it for what it is. If I don’t like something, I’ll say so, and I’ll say why. If I say I like it, I really do like it, and no one ever has to wonder if I was “just being nice”, because that’s not how I roll.

The other benefit is that I engender the same honesty in return. If I was strongly critical of someone’s work, then when I come out with my own work, they’re more likely to be critical back at me. If they thought I was particularly harsh in my criticisms, they will themselves be harsh in judging my work. To an extent this can mean that the negative reviews I receive need to be parsed — what part of this really didn’t work, and what part of this is just this guy being an asshole because he doesn’t like me? But by the same token as above, I know that the positive comments and reviews I receive are genuine. When someone wants to tear me a new one but has to grudgingly admit that I pulled something off, that has way more value than people who are going to tell me anything I do is great.

Honesty is one of the most important traits, and constructive criticism one of the most important skills, that I think anyone can develop, especially working as an “artist” in some form. Both giving it, and taking it.

Now, there’s a difference between honest, constructive criticism, and just being an asshole who tears people down. I think that when I was younger, I was probably on the wrong side of that line. I delved into this a little bit in one of my earliest posts, regarding insecurity and what I called the Better-Than Fallacy.

Acknowledging that someone is good at what they do does not equate to denigrating your own talent, and trying to cut someone down or insult them probably just means that you think they make you look bad. Don’t be that guy. If someone is good at what they do, you should be getting to know them. If they’re better at it than you are, learn from them! Find out how they do what they do. Trade ideas, build a relationship. You can’t do it all yourself anyway.

Likewise, realize that being honest doesn’t automatically mean that you’re right. One extremely important “spoonful of sugar” when giving criticism of some kind is to make it clear that it is coming from your perspective. “I didn’t think this worked,” “I didn’t understand why the character would do something so stupid,” “I don’t like the color combination here,” “I think it would have been better if you’d let someone else have a pass at the script.” Whatever.

You can be as harsh as you need to, as long as you remember two things:

1) It is coming from you. You do not speak for everyone and should never make absolute statements like “You shouldn’t break the 180-degree rule, you’ll confuse the audience.” Rather, it should be “When you jumped over the 180-degree line, it confused me. It may just be a guideline, but I find that outside of action scenes it’s generally less distracting if it’s followed.”

Always remember the difference between “This is how it is” and “This is how I see it.”

(You may notice that in my blog I sometimes fail to phrase it like this. For one thing, it’s more important to do when your criticisms are addressed TO the person; for another, being that this is a personal blog, I’m just assuming that “this is just my perspective” is a given.)

2) Your criticism should be aimed at helping the other person improve what they’re doing, to get better. The saying goes “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I disagree with that. Instead of “nice”, I would amend it to say “If you can’t say anything useful…” Many times you may see something that doesn’t avail you to say much that’s positive at all. But presumably the person has a passion for what they’re doing.

If you’re better at what you do than they are, then it’s your job either to encourage them and help point them in the direction of where they went wrong, or for all our sakes, just keep your fucking mouth shut.

Now, you’re going to come across people who don’t actually want constructive criticism. They don’t want criticism at all. They just want you to tell them how great they are.

I cannot abide these people. You go out of your way to give them a detailed critique, and they just turn around and start insulting you, or accusing you of being a jerk or trying to make them give up.

As I’ve always said, if anyone’s critique can make you give up on something you supposedly want to do, you probably didn’t really have a passion for it anyway, and it’s better that you quit anyway. If you DO want to do it, then nothing anyone says will deter you. So don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’ve killed their dream, and don’t you DARE be someone who tries to put that shit on someone else.

I just thought of a third thing to keep in mind:

3) You’re learning too. Whenever you critique someone, you’re articulating why you feel the way you feel about what they’ve done. It helps you understand your own sensibilities and your own work better when you give an honest, informative critique.

Anyway, I usually like to wrap up my posts better than this, but my writing brain’s attention is kind of split between this and the script that I’ve got to finish in the next seven days, and this wasn’t the topic I originally set out to talk about when I started writing this entry. So I’ll just say that’s all I can think of right now, and if I think of more, I’ll write another post about it (questions and comments always help!).

7 Comments
  1. Rin permalink

    If only several film makers of our era had someone to tell them “no” during key decision points, imagine how the films might have been better, or at least palatable.

    Civility is one of the keys I think to keep in mind when telling someone that you don’t agree with their choice of actions/thoughts. I used to hate being just “civil” thinking that it was a form of submissiveness. I think now thou its just a form of agreeing to disagree, because with that civility both sides can remember that there are larger goals out there, and no time to waste getting too emotional over things.

  2. Daniel Broadway permalink

    Interesting points. However, as my own constructive criticism, let me say this.

    If people are thinking you are a jerk, it might not be what you say, but how you say it. By that, I mean, being tactful. There are many different ways to say the same thing, and some are more brutal than others.

    I can’t recall ever being offended by you, but I’ve seen you deal with others online, and some of your comments can come off as lacking tact. That being said, some people just don’t have thick skin, and be offended no matter how you say it.

    Also, there is a problem of someone not understanding tone,intent, or even sarcasm with typed words.

    But as an example, your quote of your conversation with Ryan strikes me as a bit harsh. For instance, “Oh…yeah, I thought that stuff was bad.”, seems a bit of an attack , even though I know that was not your intent. It seems that you delivered your hard blow right off the bat, but THEN gave your constructive thoughts on why.

    Perhaps you could have said “Oh, well, some of the shots looked a bit off to my eyes.” While communicating the same thought, it’s not a hard blow as saying that Ryan’s work was “bad”.

    Just some things to think over, I think tact is highly important when dealing with others art, because art is a subjective thing.

  3. Dorkman permalink

    Daniel:

    That’s a good point. Generally when critiquing someone, you want to lead with the positive to start it off, and ease into the critique.

    My conversation with Ryan is admittedly something of a special case, in that he knows that I respect him and his work, and he hardly needs to defend his talent to me.

    In fact, I didn’t mention it because it would have gotten me a bit off the subject, but my actual quote was more along the lines of “Yeah, I thought that stuff was bad — and I know you know how to comp a shot, so what happened there?” In that case, it was always about helping me understand how that could happen. But I do see your point.

  4. Brett permalink

    One of my hobbies is live action role playing (see IFGS.org). In this, we have game scripts that have to go through a sanctioning process to ensure that the game meets all the requirements we have for a game. As a result, we’re giving feedback all the time. Being in a position of authority for this (unless you don’t care if your game receives “sanctioned” status), we give feedback in three categories: Shall, should and have-you-considered.

    Shall means you must change this if you want us to approve your game script. “This encounter breaks rule X. You must change it in [this|some] way or your game will not be sanctioned.”

    Should means that it’s been our experience that this won’t work well in-game or has caused negative backlash in the past, but if you want to leave it in, that’s your prerogative.

    Have-you-considered is just our way of suggesting other things to evaluate. It’s not saying your idea is bad, it’s just saying that it doesn’t fit with other things, doesn’t make sense in some way, etc., but that if you don’t change it, we don’t care. For example, in a recent game, the team leader receives a letter from the king and queen. My “have you considered” suggestion dealt with plausible denyability, saying that the letter should have come from some agent working on behalf of the king and queen instead. We don’t care if they change this detail – it won’t affect the game. But it fits better in some ways.

    What’s nice about this is having a common vocabulary between the sanctioning group and the game writer. They immediately understand how important some changes are, and what to tackle first. It’s still important that we deliver the critique in the most constructive way possible, but at least the writer understands the relative weight of each thing we tell them.

  5. RhysFletcher permalink

    you always write in this very annoying tone in your blogs, like you know it all. Oh and you rarly reply, So yeah, you are a jerk. Lighten the fuck up dude. Jeez

  6. Robin Alexander permalink

    Rhys, why read his blog if you think that? And that last sentence of yours goes right back at’ya.

    Anyway…
    Constructive criticism is a great gift. Without it where would we stand today?

    I also completely agree with what PixelMagic said. I’m involved in theatre so I give criticism often and I always point out what was good first. Start off easy and gently then get down to the more “harsher” stuff. Works wonders.

    Also, I must say I enjoy reading your blog. I recognize myself, in a way.

  7. RhysFletcher permalink

    a very good point robin, and when I wrote that I was in a shity mood, so I didnt really think when I wrote it. So just ignore it really.

    Well thanks for reading my blog, much appresiated. Nice to know im not writing for myself to read my own blog, lol. I took a look at yours actually, twas a good read, I liked the ‘VFX Stuff’ one. I look foward to your future blogs Robin.

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