My Purpose and Process for Personal Work

Monday I posted a fun little film about marriage. If you haven’t already seen it, watch it before reading this post. I thought this would be a good opportunity to share a little bit about how and why I go about producing personal work, as well as some interesting things I learned in making this.


I’ve blogged about this before, but the reason I do personal work is 1) to keep my skills honed as a filmmaker and storyteller and 2) to add some variety and spice to the types of projects I get to do. Personal work is so important to the professional creative, that some companies like Google and Yahoo actually allocate 20% of their employee’s time to producing personal projects. This was a concept originally developed by 3M in the 50s. Called 20% time, the idea is that is bolsters creativity and innovation.


Depending on the project, there are different ways I tackle personal work. The first is coming up with an idea. Whenever I come up with an idea, I jot it in Evernote. Once I flesh an idea out more, I’ll create a story record in my free account. With one click I can turn a story into a script.

For “Lawn,” I originally had the germ of the idea last year. The original idea was to have it be the beginning of a much longer film about a married couple. But, I knew that if I waited until I had a full-blown script, given my schedule, I’d never get it done. So I opted to do just this short. Based on some of the feedback I got, I may have to do a follow up episode. Who know, maybe I’ll make a series out of this couple.

Once the script is complete, I figure out cast. You could do a whole blog post about casting (and maybe one day I will). For now suffice to say that for this project I relied on the star of this film Phil to fill the roles. You may recall Phil is the up-and-coming filmmaker in my mentorship program who has contributed a couple of guest blog posts. He heads up casting at my church, so he has access to a lot of talent.

Casting is a crucial part of any production. If I had the time and budget, I’d go through a complete casting call and auditions. Nowadays, you can even do that via videos submitted online. That’s what I did last year for the casting of “For the Man Who Hated Christmas” that we produced for “Lawn” on the other hand was always meant to be a quick and dirty shoot (I had exactly 2 hours on a Saturday afternoon). Therefore, I entirely trusted Phil’s input. For most other scripts I pretty much would have went with anyone for the role of the wife. However, for this one, I made a conscious decision to have the wife also be African American. The film is already provocative enough as it is. I felt that having this particular couple be interracial would have caused the provocative nature of the dynamic to over shadow the comedy.

Speaking of my mentorship program, I utilized my mentees for the crew. Monique Shaw and her hubby came out to help with audio and grip. My beloved wife did the set photography.

Set photography by Tasra Dawson

The other specifics of this shoot are as follows:

  • Shot on T2i with a 28-70mm 2.8L
  • DP Slider for sliding shots
  • 4′ 2-bank KinoFlo light
  • Silver reflector
  • Zoom H4N
  • Rode Mic on boom


Lighting on this set was challenging because it was so bright outside. In the two-shot where we see both the husband and the wife in the background, in order to keep the house and the wife from being blown out, I had to stop down to F22. In order to keep Phil properly exposed in the foreground we used the KinoFlo. But, it turns out the KinoFlo was not even bright enough to compensate, so we ended up using my wife’s silver reflector to properly illuminate Phil’s face.

We used a silver photography reflector to fill Phil.

The Shot List

I always make a shot list for scripted shoots. I use Google docs to write out all the shots and leave columns to make notes about which takes are good. You can get the template shot list I use for free on my Resources page.

Click for larger image.

Analyzing the Results

Once the film was completed, I did what I did on my last personal film, I sent it to a select group of people for feedback. I prefer getting specific and honest feedback from a select group of professionals whose opinions I trust vs. posting on a forum. In this particular case, I sent it to both filmmakers and non-filmmakers. Since this film was meant to be a spoof on the popular Christian film series “Nooma,” I also had it sent to a group of seminary students for their feedback. I created a very short survey form in Google Docs that asked five quick questions (not including name and email):

  1. How effective was the video (on a 1-10 scale how much did it make you laugh)?
  2. Which part made you laugh first?
  3. How was the color grading?
  4. Were you familiar with Nooma before watching this?
  5. Any additional comments

Here’s how the scoring went down:

Overall. I’m happy to report that the overwhelming response to the film was positive. On question #1, with 1 being “not effective at all” and 10 being “hilarious”, the average was 7.72 and the median was 8. Most of the scores were actually 8-10. The average was brought down greatly by two scores: one of 4 and one of 5. The person who graded a 5 provided no comments. However, the person who gave it a 4 commented that he expected a longer piece more along the lines of a true Nooma. (The draft reviewers were told up front that it was meant to be a spoof on Nooma.) That says a lot about how expectations can affect one’s take on a certain piece. There were a few other comments comparing “Lawn” to the Nooma films with regards to what they expected. Based on that feedback, I removed any reference to Nooma in the Vimeo description or the blog post (I do give props to Nooma in the credits). I knew there would be lots of people viewing the film who never heard of Nooma. I also knew that anyone familiar with Nooma would see the comparison right away (in the title sequence, the voice over, etc.) I didn’t want any pre-conceived expectation to affect the viewer’s response to the film (other than the obvious set-up that this was going to be a moving and uplifting film about marriage).

Color Grading. Where the scores got really interesting was in the color grading. Among the professional and seasoned filmmakers who saw the draft, the color grading score average 5.43. But among the others, the average for color grading was 9.09. For the record, even I would have only given myself a 5 on color grading when I completed the draft. I wasn’t totally thrilled with it. That was the reason I put that question on the survey in the first place. I shot the film with a flat profile, then added saturation and contrast in post. My original color grade just made everything look “normal.” However, my take on the huge discrepancy in the color grade score was that to an untrained eye, a “normal” looking color grade is great. The greens were green. The browns were brown. Etc. However, to a trained eye, someone who knows what the power of a good or creative color grading can do to a project, “normal” is NOT good. It’s boring. It does nothing to elevate or enhance the story. I made tweaks to the color grading based on the feedback I got from a couple of filmmakers (I won’t mention their names here only because who knows if I did a good job based on their advice. If you still think my color grading ain’t that great, I don’t want you to blame them. 😉

Below is a gallery that has three still frames from the film: raw footage, the first color grade pass (the draft review), and the final. The final pass has a slightly cooler tone with a moderate vignette added.

Click for larger image.

In the End

My goal with this project was primarily to get another personal project under my belt. I wanted to stop talking about all the ideas I have and starting actually making them. For that I’m very proud of myself.

Perhaps the greatest achievement I would like to share with respect to this particular project is that Santino Stoner (the writer/director of all the Nooma films, and a soon to be guest on my podcast) gave the film a 9. That totally made my week!

3 thoughts on “My Purpose and Process for Personal Work

  1. Thanks for the kudos and mentions my friend. I am very privileged to be a part of this program with you. I’ve learned a ton as you continue to teach and pour into us as a mentor.

    A series or follow-up sounds awesome boss! I’m ‘ALL IN!’ Let’s get her done. And of course, turn up the dial on the satire.

    Love God. Love people.

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