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How to Give (and Receive) Effective Feedback

Hillary Nussbaum, Co-Leader of the South Brooklyn Chapter of Filmshop, Offers Advice for Collaborative Peer Review

Films can be intensely personal, and creative opinions are often highly subjective, which makes giving and receiving feedback a delicate endeavor. Don’t let that scare you. Workshopping—in a collaborative, critical way— is also an invaluable part of the filmmaking process.

Filmshop members discuss a script at one of the collective’s North Brooklyn chapters. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Basarich.

Filmshop, a New York City-based filmmaker collective, is founded on the idea that all filmmakers can benefit from constructive feedback and from thinking critically about the work of others. Members meet weekly to workshop everything from treatments to fine cuts in a range of formats and genres—from documentary to VR, comedic web series to dramatic features. With close to 10 years of participating in meetings, the Filmshop leadership team has learned a few things about giving and receiving effective feedback. Read on for our tips.

When giving feedback:

Try to understand the filmmaker’s goals. Giving feedback isn’t about telling someone how you would make their film. It’s about helping them to execute their vision and convey their message as effectively as possible.

Avoid phrases that are prescriptive or proscriptive. Generally, that’s anything that begins with:

  •  You have to…
  • You can’t…
  • I would…
  • You should…

This can make a filmmaker feel boxed in, as if their own choices and ideas are not good enough.

 Focus on how something makes you feel, or on the questions it raises. For example, if you’re confused about a character’s motivations, ask why that character did what he or she did. Or, tell the filmmaker how that moment made you feel. This will help the filmmaker see whether the film is communicating its messages and identify areas of possible confusion.

A member of one of the North Brooklyn chapters of Filmshop presents his project for feedback. Photo Courtesy of Filmshop.

Be honest. If all you do is offer insincere compliments, you are not doing anyone any favors. If you find something confusing, say so. If something makes you uncomfortable or feels offensive, use that as an opportunity for an open, honest conversation. You have a different perspective from the filmmaker, and may pick up on something filmmaker didn’t even realize they were doing.

Don’t forget to talk about what IS working. It is useful for a filmmaker to know what they are doing well, or what their audience is responding to. Plus, it can be discouraging to receive a bunch of critical feedback without any positive remarks.

When receiving feedback:

Be open-minded. Remember, critical feedback is intended to make your work better. It provides for growth and learning. It does not mean that your work is bad. It is important not to take constructive feedback personally: what might be said about a film is not being said about yourself as an artist or person.

Look for the “note within the note.” Even if you don’t like a suggestion or an idea, try to identify what it offers you.  “I don’t like x character,” could really mean “I don’t understand x character.” “Cut this scene,” may not mean that it needs to be removed entirely—it could suggest that the pacing is off, or that it’s in the wrong place.

Listen to what others think your film is saying. If people are misinterpreting or misunderstanding something in your film, try not to explain it to them right away. Remember, you won’t be there in the audience to talk people through every screening. If there’s something you want to say, it needs to be there in your film, not in the footnotes. So pay careful attention to what is and what isn’t coming through. Then, you can explain your intentions and discuss ways to convey those things more clearly in the film. But, no matter how clear you are, remember…

Members of the South Brooklyn chapter of Filmshop during a workshop session.
Photo Courtesy of Filmshop.

People will interpret your film in a variety of ways. If every little thing that happens in your film is perfectly, clearly explained, your audience might lose interest. Things are more fun with a little bit of subtext. But with subtext comes room for interpretation, and people will read things into your film that you didn’t put there. At a certain point, you’ll have to be OK with that.

Remember, it’s your film. Ultimately, you need to be happy with the finished product. Take the feedback that makes sense to you and helps you reach your goals, and forget the rest.

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