You've connected with someone you admire and can learn from, sent them your work, arranged a chat over coffee, or are part of a mentorship program. Whether it's a structured mentorship or more ad hoc in nature, there are ways to get the most out of any such experience. We sat down with four renowned industry professionals across animation, live-action and sound design, who've been in the mentor seat, to get their advice on how to make the most of a mentorship experience.
Cool, you have a project or idea that you're passionate about! That's a great start! Now it's time to structure your idea. Vani Balgam, Founder and Writer/Director/Creator at Dancing Atoms Studios reminds us that it's important to start with a strong vision statement. And don't stop there, she prompts, that's just the first step: "rework and rewrite it until it feels right." Once done, as you start fleshing out the details of the project, "Ask yourself: Why, What, Where, When, How, Who. For example, who is your audience? Why do you want to make this project? Etc.", she reminds us. Having already tackled that preliminary step before meeting with someone, you're more ready to answer these questions when they come up, better able to explain your vision, well positioned to hone your idea when feedback is given, and you can more quickly get into the meat of things with your mentor right from the beginning. When working with industry professionals, their time and availability may be limited, so "the deeper you dive into this [initial step, early], the more polish you can do with them."
Dare to be Vulnerable
Embarking on a new project, or uncharted territory can feel daunting. And putting your ideas in front of people you admire and respect can be all the more so. We get it. But it's your talent and determination that got you there in front of them, in the first place. They've agreed to meet with you for a reason. It's time you let down the walls and trust that you can be your authentic self.
"Once your mentorships begin, don't try to impress us. You're here! We're already impressed. This is the time to show us your passion, but not the time to demonstrate your expertise. No one wants to share their insights with someone who seems to already know everything. Show the courage it takes to be naive, to learn, and to course correct when a better idea comes along. And don't think this is your only shot. It feels like that sometimes, but it never is. Knowing this is a very *special* opportunity can and should inspire you to reach higher... but thinking it's the *only* opportunity will terrify you, and make you reluctant to take risks." says Scot Stafford, Composer, Sound Supervisor and Director for animated films.
As for fears about finding your way with the idea itself, Kris Pearn, Animation Director and Producer at Sony Pictures Animation has reassuring advice: "To quote Joseph Campbell: 'You will know when you're on, or off the beam.' But for your idea to develop, you must be willing to fall. No decision is final until you're standing in front of your audience so along the journey, wherever you turn, you are never lost because you can always go back to the place you started. Nothing and nobody can take away the thing that made you want to make the thing you're trying to create... so if you feel lost, trust in the idea and know that the compass of your creativity will always point north. Always."
Is all this talk making you feel uneasy? "If you are nervous and feeling vulnerable that means you are on the right track, that means that you are ready to create." says Vani. And if you need a more visceral shake-up, Kris has you covered (Douglas Adams reference, and all): DON'T PANIC. Whatever feels impossible only feels that way because you're learning. Stay focused on your goals and work the problems. Whatever you're up against, you can beat. You can and you will. I had a teacher back in college that described the process as growing in a bubble... eventually you get big enough you start to push against the wall of the bubble and it's uncomfortable until POP... you break through... only to find you're in ANOTHER BUBBLE ... bigger than the first... and you will again grow into that wall until POP... so on and so forth. Staying calm when you're up against a bubble wall will allow you to see and hear better and find a way to pop that barrier quicker. Panic NEVER works. Unless you're a muppet. Then go ahead... scream all you want."
Trust in the Process
It sounds cheesy, we know. But with Vani, Kris and Scot all in agreement about its importance, there's obviously some truth to it. If you're sitting there reading this, wondering what "trusting in the process" even means, Kris' analogy will likely help. He likens the journey of a creative idea to that of raising a child: "You start off with sincere and focused intention, but at some point you have to allow your kid to develop a mind of their own. Same for your idea. No matter how well you plan, or how brilliant your idea is conceived... There are things that happen along the way that you must be willing to adjust to- budget, time, audience, technology, schedule... I encourage any creator to embrace the wind that blows and know that at the end of the day, the thing you make will be worth all the stress of making." When in the thick of a project it can be easy to get frustrated with the process, feeling like the journey is an impediment to getting to our end goal. That's why Scot encourages us to actively revisit what "trusting in the process" means to each of us, every so often, at different points in our career. That way we remember its importance, helping us maintain perspective when the challenging moments arise.
A compliment to the above, failure is part of the journey. And failure is our friend. As Kris reminds us: "Don't be afraid to FAIL- Failure is part of the process. If the only bar for your idea's value is pure success, you will not take the risks you need to learn. Look at failure as part of the process. Always work to your clock... try to fail early, fail often and fail cheaply. If you embrace that process, then you'll be calibrating and tightening as your idea grows in value and the deadlines, and budgets tighten. Remember... the idea needs to have a life of its own... it must stand on its own feet without you there all the time to defend it. Strength only comes from trial and struggle. Do not be afraid of the hard stuff."
Hearing feedback, even when constructive, can be challenging. But as Scot Stafford, so aptly put it: "Remember that mentors truly want you to succeed. Take their advice to heart, even if you don't follow every word of it." That latter part is worth exploring further. Mentors are giving you their best advice, to the best of their knowledge, with the information they have. But, just like us, they're not perfect. Kris Pearn, takes that to heart: "DON'T blindly take any of this advice. I'm just a human who has gone through stuff in my life... but I'm not (and will never be) you. This is YOUR journey." What one person needs from a mentor is different from what another does.
And the purpose of mentorship is to help you develop YOUR idea, project, or self. With that in mind, it's important to listen to what's being said, absorb/process/interrogate it, but then implement only what you feel services what you're trying to achieve. You're in the driver's seat. Kris' advice: "say YES, and Don't say NO...THINK- Then do what you need to do for the idea- So often in meetings we feel we must leave the room with action. Remember, the goal is connecting with the audience, and opinions are like assholes... everybody has one. Your job as the parent of your idea is to let it grow in as natural a way as possible... As such, you must realize you cannot make everybody happy. But the feedback you get will be valuable for this reason- Are you saying what you think you're saying to a cold audience? If you're getting a ton of feedback that suggests you're not connecting, I strongly suggest you Trust, then Listen, and finally... walk away and THINK. Your job is not to make the note giver happy. Your job is to make the idea better. So take a second and process before you act. Even a half hour walk or a night of sleep... Digesting and thinking is not inaction... It is NECESSARY."
Shuzo Shiota, President/CEO of Polygon Pictures, recommends likewise, that you think for yourself, not asking for implementation ideas or solutions, but instead, seeking to explore and discover new thought processes or approaches. "Don't ask your mentor, 'how' things are done. The 'how' depends on 'what' you are trying to create, and that 'what' should completely be your original, rendering the question futile. Instead, ask 'why' your mentor did what he or she did. Dig into their thought process, influences, context, and conflicts. It will inspire you to think about your very own 'why', which will then lead to a vague vision of 'what' you want to create, and 'how' you want to bring it into fruition." Important advice, and it obviously resonates: "Every note is VALID, but most solutions (99.9% of them) ARE NOT- Listen to the audience, but always... ALWAYS... solve things with your own voice. Come back to the thing you started with and don't make a move until you can tonally thread it into your own rhythm (or the rhythm of your trusted team)." adds Kris.
And thinking critically also means taking a step back and looking at things objectively. For example, "Don't equate the importance of an issue with your interest level in it. Relish every detail, and endeavor to spend twice the time on things you know the least about." Scot reminds us. Likewise, it might be tempting to go it alone on a project, if that's what you're most used to. But is that really the best approach for every instance? It's important to weigh the pros and cons: in a tactical sense, for your project, but also for your health and well-being. Scot's advice is to not try to do everything yourself. "Find collaborators. Get help from great people. You will learn so much more, and the result will be so much better than what you can do yourself." In addition, you'll have others to share the journey and experience with, coming out the other end having lived through something incredible with other kindred spirits.
Feedback is Gold
"Ask questions, lots of questions, feedback is gold!" Vani emphatically shares. If you're naturally shy, reserved, or soft spoken, speaking up may feel like an insurmountable task. But you've sought out mentorship in order to learn and grow. If no one knows what you're thinking or need help with, they won't be able to help you. And relax, there's no need to build up the pressure: "We're here to help and so much of this process should be a conversation. I always tell the artists I'm working with that I'm often wrong... that the window of being a cold audience to a new idea is tiny (about three days)... and that the conversation is important, not only for us to bond, but also for the idea to grow. [...] We're not here to be "right" or "wrong"... we're here to help you find solutions to grow your idea. So do push back... ask questions... process... chew... take things apart and really try to get under the thing you're wanting to fix. The more of a conversation this process is, the less defensive we all get, and the more we all become invested in growing something amazing. You are the voice... We are here to help amplify your message."
And as nerve-wracking as it may be to receive critiques, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. This is especially true when you're speaking with someone you trust, in a safe and supportive environment. As Kris puts it: "if you trust the process, and trust your idea, then your job as the 'maker' is to listen to the audience you want to communicate with. It can be painful, but way better to be honest in a space where you can still adjust than to receive a truth after the cement has hardened. The more you listen, the smarter you will become about your idea as it solidifies."
On a practical note, Scot shares: "You'll want to remember every conversation. But taking notes during our sessions [based on Sony Talent League interactions] can interrupt the flow and prevent you from truly being present. On the other hand, you will forget it all in the blur. Tip: record every session, then listen back to them just once and take notes. You'll be glad you did." Great advice, but remember that it's important to gauge the context of your mentorship when applying this suggestion (as some settings/situations may not be as conducive to its use). In addition, ask if your mentor is ok with you recording them/your interaction, and explain how you'll be using the recording, before you proceed. Transparency and honesty go a long way in building trust.
Give Yourself a Break
Working on ourselves or something we're passionate about can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting. It's helpful to take a step away and recharge the batteries every so often. As Kris puts it: "Remember... you're making something for an audience (I don't care if you're making a short, or developing a better hammer... the thing you're endeavoring to do is not just for yourself... you want it to go out into the world and meet people on its own terms)... so staring too close for too long is not only unhealthy, but it's bad for the creative process. Find time to take your brain out for a walk. Space to breathe. Room to be something other than a creator of THIS ONE idea. By living while creating, your problems will fold and find resonance with the world you're living in. This will always make you healthier, and provide more fertilizer for your creative ideas to grow."
And an important note that isn't often mentioned, but that we've likely all encountered: "Don't be surprised when you fall out of love- It happens. There will be moments where the making sucks and you want to strangle the idea in the cradle. [...] Trust the idea. Remember you love it and go for a bike ride. Or a run. Or whatever you do to not go crazy. It's natural to feel off. The love will return. I promise." Kris reassures us.
Scot's definition of mentorship: "an opportunity to workshop your ideas with professionals who have hard-earned and well-founded ideas that can help avoid common problems and make your ideas better," while equally being about the "relationships that you build along the way." was in response to us asking him about Sony Talent League. And although not all mentorships will take this form or duration, they all share that same essence: a wonderful opportunity to connect with knowledgeable people and learn from them. Following that same logic, his thoughts on "Stay in touch with your mentors and the people you meet along the way! We love hearing from you." likely applies across the board as well. If you've established a strong connection with a mentor, although their lives are busy, they'll likely still want to know how you're progressing on what you've worked on together. Don't be afraid to reach out.
Remember to Play
The older we get, the easier we forget the importance of play in our lives. As Kris reminds us, it's important to: "Have fun- I know... it's cheesy... but it's also true. These moments of life are fleeting and to be in the pocket of making something cool is a privilege. Never underestimate the value of PLAY. If you can always remember where the fun is... where the love is... then you can translate that fun to your audience."
So there you have it, words from the wise and hopefully a bit of a kick in the rump for you to seek out advice from those you can learn from. Be kind, thoughtful and genuine when approaching people, apply some of the principles seen here, and grow your fans and supporters as you go. What's not to love?