Understanding Criticism vs. Cynicism

I have often heard that you should seek out feedback on creative projects you are working on. I have just as often heard you should ignore what everyone else says and just do what your gut says is right. What’s a creative person to do?

“If I am creating for an audience, shouldn’t I listen to that audience?”

“Hey, whoa, I am the creative person here. I know what’s best for
my project.”

Confronting criticism is one of the hardest things for us creative types to deal with (initially at least). Whether it be a script, a short film, or a musical composition; it’s something that you’ve probably been laboring over for weeks before letting someone else in on it. It can be very disheartening when you finally show something to someone and instead of glowing accolades and a pat on the back, you get hesitation and suggestions for improvement.

It sucks, but it doesn’t have to.
Feedback is one of the most valuable tools you can use to hone your craft. It can point out things you may have never noticed, or worse, noticed too late. But it can also be a poisonous tar pit of despair. Ok, that sounded a little scary… but it’s true.

Like any good tool, you need to know how to use criticism to make your project better. The first step in coming to grips with this new found tool is understanding the difference between criticism and cynicism. Knowing which to use and which to toss out is probably the most important skill a filmmaker can possess.

Let’s break it down.
Criticism is doubt informed in curiosity or a deep knowledge of the subject or discipline in question. Often times it comes in the form of insights such as, “The lighting here is a little flat and makes her face look a little wide,” or “It’s a little long, you may lose your audience.” Whether it is constructive or destructive, it comes from knowledge.

Cynicism is a state of mind that is often rooted in ignorance and antiquated ways. Many times in the film industry, experts will often shun new technologies because it doesn’t fit within the workflow they have settled into over the years. This type of behavior is a handicap and barricades you into the good-ole-days. A large percentage of Youtube comments are often written by cynics looking to knife creatives with their keyboards for no other reason except the joy of the troll.

Know the difference
Feedback is gold to a creative person, and you’re guaranteed to get your fair share. Requested or not. Understanding how to pan the good stuff out of the Ganges River of Opinion can be tricky. As storytellers we need to harness the ability to discern thoughtful criticism from short-sighted cynicism.

Here are some thoughts to help you separate the gold from the mud:

Consider the credibility of the source: Who is giving this “advice”? Is it someone with little to no experience. Does this person legitimately desire to see you prosper? Do they have years of experience in this situation. It may not always be a black or white situation. Many times it will be someone that actually knows what they’re talking about, but sucks at being gentle when telling you. It might be a well-meaning parent that has no idea why Mr. Spock needs pointy ears. It’s up to you to decipher whether or not the person dealing out the criticism is qualified to do so. If not, patiently await the end of the verbal vomit and walk away from the steaming heap. You’re not a dog, so leave it alone. If they are qualified, then get a spoon and eat it up.

Remove fear and ego from the situation: This can oftentimes be the hardest part to spot and deal with. Typically when someone offers up criticism our defenses go on high alert. We begin loading the “yeah buts” into the chamber ready to fire off why it wasn’t our fault and “the lights, and the lens, and those lazy grips…” Criticism does not explicitly equal failure, and even when it does, failure is only a bad thing if you stop there. Being able to pull back and remove your ego from the situation will allow you to properly judge the critic’s motives and the true value of said criticism.

Learn to handle scrutiny. What good is feedback if you get all worked up because of it. If you want to grow as a filmmaker or storyteller, you absolutely need to embrace and take advantage of real criticism. After all, you want to write and film stories meant to be shown to large groups of people. What else do you think is going to happen, standing ovations every time? Not likely, at least not initially. It takes a lot of work and refinement to get to those standing O’s. That means you need to be willing to be refined.

“Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” ~Aristotle

17 thoughts on “Understanding Criticism vs. Cynicism”

  1. True words, sir. This is both a problem of mine and a growing point recently. I especially like the parallel with the Aristotle quote. I will probably be using this article as a talking point a few dozen times over. Thanks!

  2. Fantastic advice, I smiled when i read the part about “Yeah, buts” because I seem to do that every time without even noticing, its like a default haha

  3. Awesome read. This is advice that almost all aspiring filmmakers are going to have to face at one point or another. Especially when posting to an online community.

    (Now to just get myself off the “yeah, buts” too!)

  4. Great article, reminded me of the recent event of Hobbit prescreening controversy. 24fps vs. 48fps – Of course, I haven’t seen it but I think that one is just people not being able to adapt or even be opened to something new, in terms of technology, thus the criticism.

    Back to the topic though, very well written and very good read for everyone I believe :) More of these!

  5. This is great although I don’t think Youtube falls under these two categories. Vimeo does criticism perfectly but Youtube is a different beast entirely. You have to know who is honest and giving you positive advice/criticism or if they’re just being a troll.
    Best advice is harden yourself & come to terms with no matter how much time, effort, planning you put into a project someone will always dislike what you do. Filmmaking like every art form is bittersweet you will love it and you will hate it. You’re not odd if criticism affects you because it affects everyone but at the end of the day remember your the filmmaker & they are just a critic ;) Art is never wrong if you see something one way and a critic sees something another accept it.

  6. In addition to what you’ve touched upon @Olan, every artist has a message, a theme, something they are trying to get across to the audience. But if that becomes lost or convoluted, and multiple people are in agreement over it, it might be worth considering revision despite your initial desires.

    You are correct; there will always be someone who doesn’t quite like your style, or doesn’t get it, but the fact is, in this medium, you as a storyteller should be able to communicate a story that most people can accept and understand. Another part of it is, you are (sometimes) trying to transform the way an audience perceives something; to help them see things similarly to how you see them. If they are missing your vision completely, then try again.

    Harden yourself against harsh criticism, but make sure your armor is breathable so that the good stuff can get through to you, or . . . how else do we grow?

  7. Quick question, is it saying that if a parent were confused by the pointy ears that you should try to make it more clear as their purpose or origin or just let it go? (Sorry if this seems dumb. It’s an honest question)

    1. No I meant up there when it’s explaining how to handle criticism and how some people might have great advice and be bad at giving it gently Or it may be a well meaning parent who is wondering why Spock’s ears are pointy. Should you ignore that parent or take their advice and make it more understandable (as in give the history of the race). To me it doesn’t seem like the pointy ear is as important and the parent is given as an example of criticism to just turn the other cheek to but I wasn’t sure that’s how you meant it.

      tl;dr Should you ignore the well meaning parent or make it more obvious as to why Spock’s ears are pointy?

    2. I suppose it depends on the person. If it is your parents, you know them best. If they are open to explanation then go for it.

      That analogy was really just a show of how sometimes people can focus on something little and ignore the bigger things. Spock’s pointy ears only serve as a differentiating feature to help the viewer identify that he is a Vulcan and not a human. The fact that he is a Vulcan is the more important thing to focus on. But sometimes people get so hung up on the little things that they never allow themselves to understand the fact that he is of a different species.

      So, understanding that the person criticizing may not fully understand, will allow you to react more appropriately.

      If multiple people react the same way, perhaps you need to better explain in your story/make more obvious the purpose of the difference. Maybe it’s as simple as having a character say a single line of dialogue with some needed info in it.

      “Vulcans, I never did trust those pointy eared bastards. They should just stay on their own planet.”

      If it’s your 93 year old Gram Gram, then she may just never understand.

  8. I’ll also add, my acting teacher put it a really good way when helping me overcome my problems and fears of judgement and criticism.

    Nobody truly wants you to fail (except trolls, but honestly… do they matter?). People WANT to be entertained, they WANT you to succeed in entertaining them, captivating them, taking them on a journey. So instead of seeing criticism as hostile, think of it as them helping you to do your very best, because that’s what people want to see out of you. They’re on your side!

    1. That’s a good point. I don’t WANT to waste my time when I plop in a movie, or see a play, or read a book. It happens though. Sometimes, however, if my time has been wasted, I come up with a lengthy review and post it online just so I can discourage other people from wasting their time haha

  9. Everyone needs to find their own best way to handle criticism, but I like Stephen King’s. In ‘On Writing’ he says he goes through two phases:

    1) Writing with the door closed. At this point he is telling the story TO HIMSELF, and without any fear of judgement, says everything he needs to say to make sure he understands the story. No one not no way not no how gets to read what he’s writing at this point.

    2) Rewriting with the door open. Now the fact that people besides you need to understand the story becomes an important consideration. You’ve told the story to yourself and you like it, but now you need to streamline it to tell to the masses. How will they understand it? This is when he solicits feedback from a close circle of people he trusts.

    I tend to take step 2 a little further– I find asking for general ‘feedback’ to be a gateway to get a lot of unspecific criticism. Thus, when I do ask for feedback, I ask for specific questions to be answered. Did you understand why Amy stole that stereo? Can you see why Felix is attracted to Sybil? Did you ever get bored, and at what point?

    Yes, I’m talking about writing here, but I think the same principles can apply in the editing process for a film. You can start with putting everything in there that you need to make sure the story is clear to you, then start paring it down to something you think will make sense to an audience, and using specific questions, ask for feedback.

    Again, everyone’s different, but this works for me.

    1. Great addition, @ibrews. I agree with all of that completely. It’s good to use your Circle of Trust, but at the same time, it can be equally beneficial to open the doors to the average critic, who has no attachment to you or your work, and has fresh eyes. You current work, once posted, is beyond repair. That is not to say your future work can’t benefit from old critiques.

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