your very own bag of tricks

I used to get hung up on technique. As a theater major in college, I expected to be taught how to put on a show, soup to nuts. Build a stage like this, lights go here and here, tell the actors to do this, and so on. Unlike my High School Musical peers, I’d never done any theater before college. As a new major, I thought I’d graduate as summer-stock MacGyver: drop me in the woods with a bunch of actors and a Leatherman multi-tool. A week later, we’d have a fully staged Macbeth ready to go with bamboo proscenium stage, flies rigged with vines, lights made with quicklime dug out of the ground.

I left college with an artistic sensibility, a mode, a paradigm. But technique simply hadn’t been part of the curriculum. When I did put on my own shows, I had to fumble toward what I wanted to achieve through trial and error. With my so-called teachers holding out on me, I was forced to become a technique magpie, cobbling together whatever knowledge I could from wherever I could find it. I learned to cover the artificiality of an actor’s entrance with an action, like having her remove her glasses as she entered. I learned to move actors across the stage at a diagonal to create a more dynamic impression. I learned to write plays with fewer set changes to retain narrative momentum. With each little discovery, my frustration only deepened. Why couldn’t the professors save me all the effort and just tell me how to do the job? On some level, I figured they just didn’t like me. I was sure they shared secrets with their favorites.

Before directing his first feature film, Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino attended the Sundance Institute. There, he met Terry Gilliam. Tarantino had made a couple of shorts, but he was still wrestling with the same anxieties around technique:

I have all these cool visuals in my mind. I think I can make a great movie. But it’s all theory until you do it. I asked him: “Look, your movies all have a very specific vision. You have a vision and that specific vision is in each of your movies. How do you do that? How do you capture that vision?”

Considering Gilliam’s body of work, I would have expected a mystical or abstruse response along the lines of an Oblique Strategies card: “Towards the insignificant.” Instead, the filmmaker delivered some resolutely pragmatic advice.

“Well, Quentin,” Gilliam told him. “You don’t really have to conjure up your vision. What you have to do is you just have to know what your vision is. And then you have to hire really talented people. And it’s their job to create your vision. It’s their job.”

“All of a sudden,” Tarantino recalled, “what I was scared about and seemed like a mystical enterprise became very practical. I know I can articulate it. I can describe exactly what I want. All those fears and worries that I’d had leading up till that time just kind of went away because I knew I could do that. I knew what it looked like, hence the vision. I knew what it looked like. And I knew I could describe it.”

Gilliam had been referring to the skilled technicians behind any feature film. As a director, you don’t learn to sew. You trust the costume designer to know their craft and execute on your ideas. Likewise with the cinematographer and the prop master. But Gilliam’s philosophy can be applied universally. At heart, he was telling Tarantino to prioritize intent. Figure out what you want to do and trust that you’ll figure out a way to do it. That doesn’t apply the other way around. All the skill in the world won’t make something out of nothing without a vision to guide it.

So much of what we think of as “technique” is just an array of handy tricks and shortcuts developed by people from a different time in order to make yesterday’s work. Techniques are solutions to problems you may or may not have. Does crossing the stage diagonally always work better? If I’d been handed that technique my freshman year, I never would have found out. I’d just have done that every time, for every trip across the stage, whether it served my purpose or not.

The tools—rules—you’re handed by a well-meaning teacher may or may not be right for the work you’re doing now. How would you know if you haven’t had the opportunity to try to solve the problem your own way first? Any technique is seen as useful because it makes doing certain things in certain ways more feasible. But should you be doing those things? All we know is, you’re far more likely to once you’re given that nifty technique.

A lack of technique provides a constraint, and constraints fuel creativity. To make work that matters, you don’t need a shortcut to a slicker presentation. You need something significant to say. With a clear vision for what you’re trying to accomplish—in words, sounds, or images—you can figure out a way to get it done, developing your own techniques along the way.

Looking back, I can understand why my professors might have been reticent to hand over their tricks. They didn’t like me very much, yes, but that’s not necessarily why they were holding out on me. In any case, it amounts to the same thing: I ended up a writer and never even took an English class.

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