Fear Not the Feedback: How to Take Criticism Like a Champ

No matter who you are and how established your career is, the idea of notes on your creative work can be very stressful.

I’m a writer and a producer, so I’m familiar with my work being torn to shreds and also the process of having to give constructive feedback. Both can make your stomach churn. If you want to make movies, TV, documentaries, commercials or any entertainment content, though, you’ll find yourself in a collaborative environment, fielding notes from all directions.

A good note takes a project from mediocre to great. Every filmmaker reaches a point in a project where he or she can’t see the forest for the trees and needs feedback from trustworthy people.

“No one ever wants to get notes. Your natural instinct is resistance because you’ve done the best work you could’ve shown. Then someone says, ‘This isn’t the best; fix it, and get back to work on it.’ In theory, it sucks,” says Chris McCaleb, Emmy-nominated editor who’s worked on Fear The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire. “I’ve always found that no matter how large or small the note is, just getting notes always makes things better. It doesn’t mean taking every note literally—you just can’t. There will be too much. But every note at least makes you think about the material differently, which is what keeps the creative process vital and keeps the work fresh.”

Which leads to the big question: How do you differentiate a good note from a bad note? And once you’ve identified the pearls, how do you put them to work to make your project the best it can be?

Control When and Where the Notes are Coming From

Working with people creatively aligned with yourself is a way to solve a lot of problems from the beginning. Mutual respect and a shared vision go a long way in the feedback process. Sometimes you have a choice on where notes come from and sometimes you don’t.

My partner, director John Stewart Muller, and I are currently in post-production on a feature called Indiscretion. We have a multi-tiered feedback process that involves us being proactive about collecting notes. We don’t do this because we have to in order to finish the film—we do this to understand how our project translates. We do multiple small group screenings at various parts of the process to test out ideas and make sure we’re heading in the right direction. A few weeks after we wrapped photography, our editor, Sam Restivo, had a full assembly for only John and me. Keep people from seeing the movie early on, so it’s fresh for them when you do show it.

After the first assembly and before the edit is locked, show your working cut (with many disclaimers about how the music is temp, color isn’t finished, digital effects are also temp, sound isn’t mixed, etc.) to a small group of people whom you know and trust: people who have similar tastes to yours, who have seen a lot of the films you’re referencing, and who understand what your intentions are. For John and I, these are mainly industry friends and people we went to college with.

It’s also important to get notes, in the early stages, from people with a good grasp of the moviemaking process. A work in progress is difficult to judge unless you know the language and how something will translate later on. I learned that after a two-hour conversation explaining what a temp score is.

Then, when the project is close to complete (i.e. it has the final soundtrack and score, the color is finished or very close, and there is nothing technically distracting), show it to people who don’t know you or have any idea what you’re making—people who have no history with the project, who can watch it without any preconceived ideas. When you don’t have a budget to hire a company that handles this, you organize a screening and ask friends to invite other friends or colleagues. Offer some appetizers and refreshments to help entice participants.

When you do this screening, pass out a list of questions and plot points to have rated. Then after the test audience fills out this questionnaire, do a discussion where you ask questions and hear the reactions. It’s a very interesting process. In our experience, both verbal and written feedback is both beneficial. People will write down what they’re afraid to say out loud; what’s said out loud usually involves errors or issues that are very big. Every note should be explored.

“You can tell a technical note from a personal note,” says Muller. “People will voice their personal feelings about characters’ actions based upon their own experiences and the way they look at the world. That’s very different from a note that the handheld camera work is distracting. I personally enjoy it when a project elicits a lot of debate because then I feel like we made something thought-provoking. If everyone has the same criticism, that’s when you have to worry.”

Sometimes the test screening process feels at odds with the creative process. “Moviemakers evaluating notes are understandably [sensitive to them],” say McCaleb. “Sometimes a problem is overcorrected. It happens a lot with movies and with pilots.

“Test screenings are a very odd way to judge an artistic experience—some of the most profound works of art do not necessarily make you happy all the time. Audience feedback can very easily be misinterpreted.” So how do you avoid going crazy?

Wresting With Feedback—and Yourself

Some feedback will be crystal clear and immediately helpful. Other feedback will be heartbreaking. How you respond to either is entirely up to you.

“There are different types of writers: ones who are resentful of the feedback process and others who understand collaboration,” says Gloria Calderon Kellett, the writer and supervising producer of iZombie and How I Met Your Mother. “You’re going to get notes, so you need to learn to roll with that. It’s a skill set to cultivate.”

It’s easy to be defensive about your work, especially if you’re passionate. I have to tell myself to knock it off! Defensive people are difficult to work with. So take a deep breath and, first of all, thoughtfully listen to feedback in order to make sure you fully understand the concern, before assessing whether it’s warranted or not. Then you’ll be better equipped to address it.

A note is not a personal attack. (Well, hopefully it’s not.) Do not take feedback on your work personally (i.e., as feedback on yourself).

“Insecurity will cause fights,” says Kellett. “Digging your heels in for the sake of it can hinder growth”.

“Do what’s best for the show or the movie,” says McCaleb, “and don’t take anything personally, ever. You can enjoy praise, but don’t let it get to you. If you believe all your own hype, you have to believe the bad stuff too. You’re making a mistake to disregard any note. There’s always a kernel of something [useful] and even if you don’t use it, it’ll make you think differently.”

Yes, the material is personal to you, the project is something you’ve lived with for weeks or months or years, the characters are a part of you… but remember, not everyone reading or watching the work will connect the way you do.

Declining Misguided Feedback

What if you’ve tamed your own insecurities, and you still disagree with a note, no matter how well-intentioned? If something doesn’t feel right, you can challenge it. Explain your reasoning. You might ultimately find that this note is only the symptom of a deeper problem that neither the feedback-giver nor you had put your finger on yet. Also, remember that you can get a second opinion, like you would at a doctor’s office. (Just make sure that second opinion isn’t just a yes-man or -woman.)

When you know for a fact that an idea isn’t going to work for your project, there are a couple of techniques to politely and diplomatically decline a bad note. First, explain why the note isn’t going to work. Try to avoid using the word “bad” or “wrong”—you want to keep things as calm and friendly as possible. Remember, you’ve asked for a favor. That someone is taking the time to give you feedback already indicates that your work is worthy of serious consideration.

Say phrases like, “I see where you’re coming from, but here’s why I think it’s important to keep this…” or “I understand what you mean. What if we tried…?” Or try the slightly less-committal “How about this—we’ll try both ways and see what’s working”.

After a certain level of confidence and experience, your gut will be right more often than wrong. “It is a learning process,” says McCaleb. “You’re not always going to be an expert at taking feedback right out of the gate. Sometimes it takes failing and sticking to your guns and realizing later that you were wrong. But when you’re silent about something you feel strongly about, you’re not doing your job.”

Translating Feedback into Action

Good executives and professionals have practice in the art of giving feedback that is easy to understand and translate. But not every note will be that decipherable.

“Sometimes there are things you just can’t do,” says McCaleb. “By the time it gets to post, the footage is already shot. There are only so many ways to reshape it. Sometimes you can take the advice, and sometimes you can’t.”

Notes such as “extend that shot,” “lose that shot” or “switch to another angle” are easy to understand, but it can be difficult to articulate exactly what is wrong with a project. Other notes are less specific, like “tighten the scene,” “lose two minutes from the sequence,” “make it funnier,” etc. A frustratingly common phrase is the classic “it doesn’t feel right.” How are you supposed to interpret that?

“Nod, breathe, grit your teeth, and try to get through it as best you can,” advises Kellet. “Try to keep from drinking too much.”

“If I take a note and implement it to the word but it doesn’t work, I always come up with one or more alternative interpretations of the intention of the note,” says McCaleb, “So much is interpretation, trying to find the intention of the people giving the feedback.”

One note we received in an early screening of Indiscretion was that our main character was very complicated but not sympathetic. That’s a very broad note! I was flattered that we’d written a multi-dimensional character, but we needed the audience to relate to our protagonist. Luckily, we needed to reshoot missing scenes from the script, and ended up writing an entire new sequence for the film, with an inner monologue to give the audience a way into the protagonist. We tested it with a screening to a new group of friends who hadn’t watched the film. The change worked! Whew! Now I think the new sequence adds depth to the film and I love the result of that (initially head-scratching) feedback.

“Sometimes,” says Kellet, “following up on a note opens your mind to something you didn’t expect and changes your point of view. Or it’s a total disaster and really proves why your original idea works.”

“Best advice? Don’t be a dick,” says McCaleb. “As long as you’re respectful to the people you’re working with, you can have a debate or an argument—that’s a big part of the process. People collaborate to make something and part of that is arguing about what’s better. Just be respectful about it.” MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies, 2016. Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

With her production company, Granfalloon Productions, Laura Boersma has worked on features, scripted series, documentaries and commercials. Indiscretion, starring Mira Sorvino, which she co-wrote and produced, is currently in post-production.

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