Why you must be willing to fall out of a tree, to stay creative. 

 February 28, 2012

By  Pascal Depuhl

You’re on the tree already.

Creative people often struggle to break out of a the type of work that they have been doing for a long time. They have climbed up the creative tree and have grown accustomed to the branch that they’ve ended up on. Then one morning you wake up and you’re not happy, because the work is always the same or you know that you can do better or you wish you would do more than just crank out _________________ (fill in the blank).

So how do you branch out from where you are now? How do you get those creative juices flowing again, that got you where you are in the first place? What do you do to break the routine?

Go out on a limb. Far out. Further than you think you can go. Once you’re there, go further.

If you remain hugging the tree trunk, you’re gonna stay in the same rut you’re in now. I promise.

Case in point: my recent documentary film shoot in Afghanistan. About 6 months ago, I had a thought pop into my mind: “I should really use the ability to create visually compelling content to help others, not just to earn a living” and Daniel popped into my head. I have known Daniel since the late 80’s. Currently he works for a humanitarian organization in Afghanistan, whose mission it is to fly other NGO’s to remote places in the central Asian country, enabling those relief workers to help the people who need assistance the most.

Map of the locations for my documentary film in central asia

Then I thought “Who am I to shoot a documentary? I’ve only produced videos for a few months and have never done a documentary.” What I found out though, is that by being willing to create a new genre, one that I have not done before, I challenge myself to go out and educate myself. So I picked up the book that people recommended me to read (Directing the documentaryMichael Rabiger), I spoke with award winning documentary film makers, who are at the top of their field (thanks for your advise, Hugo and Denis – and thanks for the introduction Judge). But initially, I thought that i was not qualified to produce this, so I did to act on that thought.

A few days later that same thought popped into my mind again. This time I thought “Afghanistan is one of the most remote, inhospitable places, where I’m gonna have a hard time, if equipment goes down or stops working.” What I found out though, is that by being willing to push my equipment to it’s limits, allows me to be able to shoot the more everyday assignments with greater confidence (after all I shoot in Florida where I rarely encounter -15° C or 9,800 feet above sea level). On top of that, I can have any piece of equipment, that I can not pick up locally, overnighted to me. I consulted with my equipment manufacturers like the folks at CPS, Canon Professional Services, who flat out told me that I was going to be working outside the equipment specs for my cameras and lenses, but it should be ok. It forced me to plan very carefully and by finding people (like the senior CNN photojournalist – thanks for your insights Jerry and thanks to you too Scott), who have been in those places and learning from their experience, I was able to be prepped and not have a single piece of equipment go down. But initially, I thought that My equipment would be an issue, so I did to act on that thought.

Preparing my Canon 5D MkII to film a Kodiak aircraft landing on a dirt runway
Preparing my Canon 5D MkII to film a Kodiak aircraft landing on a dirt runway

A week or so later – you guessed it – same thought: “I should really go.” This time the objection was that it was going to be unsafe, impossible to plan the logistics from half way around the world, to expensive, unneeded, … But by this time I was also questioning, if I was just looking for excuses not to go, or if I was going to listen to that little voice in my head that kept pushing me to do this.

A crazy idea – how to start letting go of the trunk.

So I emailed Daniel. “I have this crazy idea …” What I expected was – at the very best – a very strongly qualified maybe. ’cause it was a long shot. ‘ cause it was expensive. ’cause it was dangerous, ’cause I had not done this before, ‘ cause I wasn’t sure, ’cause they couldn’t use a documentary, …

What I got was: “We’d love to have you. When are you coming? We’re actually in need of a documentary. We actually have a budget for this. And there is a really neat story of a medical flight that we can use to build a story of the documentary.”

Well after that initial email it still took months of planning, prepping, booking, testing, reading, meeting, calling, … until I stepped on the plane. I encourage you to follow that still small voice, your gut, the thought you think is crazy or what ever you call it. Don’t ignore it. Explore it. Go out on a limb. The further you get out on a limb, the greater the chances of you failing in a big way, but also the greater the chances of you coming back with something amazing.

Today, I am willing to try something new. Something I’ve never done before. I have an experience under my belt, that will bring confidence to my clients “If he can produce a documentary, then I feel confident to book him on a project that he has not done before.”

Today, I am willing to push my equipment. Further that it got pushed yesterday, I know from personal experience how long my batteries last in a below freezing environment, that my gear can shoot in an unpressurized airplane cabin at 16,000 feet. That I can produce a job in one of the most remote places on earth. What do you think that does for the confidence that my client in my ability?

Today, I have a production to show my clients, that was produced half way around the world. In a place that is not easy to film in. In a country that requires you to have security in mind 24/7. A project that had to have multiple redundancies, because their was not plan B for failure – so I had to bring Plan B with me.

That’s me on the ‘runway’ with the plane buzzing 4 feet over my head – but the footage rocks!

You gotta see the view from the tip of the limb!

What does all this have to do with creativity? Everything. You can only try new things, if you get out on that limb. Far out on that limb. Is the risk great? Yes, but so are the rewards. I will have a documentary, once I’m done editing, that is being presented to the European Commission of humanitarian Aid and Civil protection. I will have a piece that is shoot in a country that few people would volunteer to go to. Will that set my reel apart from the next guys?

I have also learned more in a shorter period, than if I would have stayed in my comfort zone, close to the tree trunk doing what I have been doing for the last 20 years. This experience has also given me the knowledge that I can do something that many people say is stupid, dangerous, impossible, …

Next time my client has a crazy idea that they want to realize, it’s gonna be a lot easier for me to say “Yeah, I can do that” and be able to back, ’cause I’ve done it before.

Get out on your limb.

Use the comments below to tell us about your limb that you went out on. I look forward to reading your story…

  • This is such an awesome article! Your words are a simple reminder that everybody has that “little voice” when faced with an opportunity to step beyond their comfort zone. Our minds are easily filled with the ‘what if’s’ and self doubts.
    …. Why not go out on a limb, isn’t that where the fruit is? The constant battle between the “little voice” and self doubt – conquered only by taking a leap of faith (which indeed is the hardest part. I guess if it were easy, it wouldn’t be called a leap!). Love, Love, Love the article. Very inspiring indeed! :)

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    Pascal Depuhl

    Miami product photographer, video producer, cinematographer and chief mindchanger at Photography by Depuhl I love to share the knowledge I've gained over the past two decades. Catching light in motion.