Lights, Camera, Uncertainty?

The hardest part about the unknown is that, while it’s scary, you never quite know what to fear. You can’t know and that itself is the scary part. It’s very different from facing a known obstacle such as, say, pain or humiliation. These things instill fear to be sure, but at least they’re out in the open to be seen and reckoned with and hopefully, overcome.

 From the very first morning of the Smooth Feather Film School I knew it was going to be a veritable stew of uncertainty and we, both instructors and students, would be the veggies and meat bubbling in the center of it.

The students would need to act, shoot, edit and present a film in six, eight-hour days. To make things spicier, none of the instructors had more than a rough outline for the plot or filming schedule.

On that first morning, students sat in a circle for a kind of debriefing. Silas wasted no time describing the uncertainty that awaited them—we hadn’t scripted any lines, so the students would need to improvise their own. No storyboard was in place so the students would give input on structuring the shots. And for good measure, he mentioned that the film would use animals—some very, very large animals—in several key scenes, but that there were no guarantees on how they would behave.

In the 20 minutes it took to get through that first morning meeting, the film school went from being a clearly defined and known quantity (a school about making films, duh) to a giant yarn ball of mysteries.

You could see some of the kids’ expressions begin to contort. Some were excited but nervous, others sublimely confident and still others were absolutely terrified. One student looked like a man facing his own mortality, such was the sheer discomfort radiating from every twitching fiber of his limbs, lips and eyes.

No time to think, only to try

To compound matters the very first day of the school would also be the first day of shooting and acting. After receiving a brief summary of the plot, a brief lesson on film and running threw a couple acting exercises, the kids shipped out that afternoon in a bright blue Winnebago to make movie magic. 

For the first half of the first day, several of the students tried to cope with uncertainty by convincing themselves they couldn’t act, or they weren’t good with computers, or that they were shy around groups—all very legitimate problems. The film school was making them ask a lot of questions about themselves and what they could do, and as is the case for all of us, the tempting answer is to seek certainty in self-doubt and say, “well, I’m sure I can’t do any of it.”

But questions turned into preparations and preparations into the actual shoot. By the time the group had been at the site of its first scene for a few minutes a strange thing had happened—there was no longer any room to fear uncertainty. There was only room for work.

Students who before thought they couldn’t act were suddenly in costume. One of the stars of the film, Jenoah, had to learn to roller skate on location, minutes before he would be filmed…while improvising his lines. There wasn’t any time for him to wonder if he could skate or not, only enough time to try.

And in all of this commotion, it occurred to me that once the time, space and language of uncertainty were removed and the students could no longer speculate on what they could and couldn’t do, they proved amazingly competent.

I watched Jenoah, Kane and Kaitlyn come up with their own lines and practice different deliveries while Clarence, Rachelle and Tristan all learned to operate boom microphones and cameras. In what seemed a matter of minutes they’d transformed from a sleepy batch of teenagers into something that really looked and sounded like a film crew.

Learning to move forward

And that transformation lasted for the entirety of the school. The students learned to use film-editing software, overcame their shyness to canvas the area with posters and prepared their own speeches for the film’s premiere. By the end of the week it no longer occurred to them to say “I can’t.” Instead they asked, “what’s next?”

A lot of us assume that if only we had enough time, or enough money we could do something we’ve never done before. But as I stood there watching a bunch of kids with neither, I was struck by how much we can do just by leaning into uncertainty and taking the steps from “I can’t,” to “I don’t know if I can,” to “I’m going to try anyway.”

It inspired me and by the end I felt I’d done a lot less instructing and a lot more learning about how to handle uncertainty in my own life.

-Mike Schoch, Smooth Feather Film School Instructor