On a recent camera shoot, light and shadows played tricks on us all day. We were working with a terrific young actor, seated in a flower garden for a series of related shots. Tight spatial relationships among our set elements, and natural shadows cast by the sun's relentless glide past tricky, unreliable clouds tested our patience. The obvious question we started to ask ourselves was, Shouldn't we just MOVE?
That would have been easier, I suppose, but not better. Changing location would have wrecked the beautifully composed, rather precise look we wanted. In the finely tuned balance of sunlight and shadow, the actor's face popped off the screen. The saturated primrose blossoms at her folded knees burst like dreamy splashes of paint, and the rich soil underneath grounded the scene like a a stage. To move would make the location simpler to manage perhaps, but far, far less interesting.
Everything has a finite amount of time to take shape. Nothing has indefinite, endless amounts of time, at least nothing worth hanging around to see. There in the aging afternoon, we felt the pressure of an advancing clock like a nearby beast growling in the woods. But like hunters waiting until just the right moment, we held our ground, struggled to keep our breathing under control, and did the hard work of just staying put.
I recall something visceral, too, something I've felt many times before when I'm chasing a compelling goal. I felt hungry. I should be clear here: I do not mean "hungry" in a metaphoric sense. I mean, I felt hungry insofar as I wanted to eat something.
I've been thinking about this, and it occurs to me that the feeling did not come specifically because I was burning energy, although that's most certainly was a the case. Even a 15 pound tripod begins to feel heavy after it's been moved a billion times. Adjust it, test focus, reposition the dolly, refocus: work takes work. That hungry feeling was the direct result of suppressing ordinary comforts until such time as the goal gets done, and gets done properly. Hunger becomes a secondary concern, just like changing the radio station in a skidding car becomes a secondary concern until you manage to get the car slowed down and under control. The sun and clouds and shadows from the bare, early Spring trees were in conspiracy to drive us batty. What's more, the actor, though a great sport, was only 8 after all and we didn't want to drive her batty. The crew was tiny, the weather at risk of shifting, the shooting day unable to be rescheduled. Most of all, we didn't want to blow what was turning out to be a great shot.
Hunger is my trusted companion on a shoot. It's often the physical signal that tells me when I'm fully invested, if I've gotten deep enough into a moment to know that we're getting somewhere. When I'm NOT getting somewhere, it's easy to break for lunch, for some water, for "Ok, 10 minutes everyone!" Don't misunderstand: lunch is a good thing. We're not ascetic monks here, or crazed self-abusive task-masters. But hunger is the body pulling the mind back into balance. It's a physical way to let you know you're onto something, that you've been giving something your full attention. That doesn't mean feeling an uncomfortable emptiness will ever guarantee something good--if it were only that easy! The point I'm pushing is about something less literal.
Would I rather not be made uncomfortable? Would I rather not be tired out by schlepping gear, hungry from long hours, grimy from climbing on hands and knees to make sure the electricals are hidden from the lens? You bet. Like most people, I try my best to minimize discomfort; craft services are always in the budget!
But hunger and the related discomforts that routinely come about when you're focused and perseverant on completing a tough goal, offer end-game rewards for those who can see the process through. Discomfort makes completion relevant, makes victory sweeter, makes morning coffee taste good rather than simply like a caffeine delivery system. The potential trap for some is to court discomfort for its own sake, as if it were a penance, or an armor against facing the hard work of bringing something to life. Discomfort can be a person's excuse. "Do you know how much stuff we had to set up? Do you know how many hours we put in?" The secret is to realize that your own discomfort in the moment it's happening doesn't matter at all to the person next to you, no matter how close a relationship you may have or how long you may have worked together. He or she is feeling it too; they know already. You can share the feeing, but you can't seek sympathy. The secret is to turn those discomforting feelings that evolution has tried so hard to help you avoid into a buzz that keeps you engaged. You're not kidding around, what you're doing right now is more important than pangs of muscular fatigue or a rumbling belly, and you're not about to let it go just yet.
Even if you disagree with this premise--even if you think there are many other ways to be fully invested--it's certain you already agree about one thing: nothing of value ever comes without an application of intentional effort. Nothing at all. Therefore, I believe that fully embracing the discomforts that sometimes arise from intentional, focused effort--not courting hunger, or cold, or exhaustion, per se, but embracing them when they inevitably emerge--is a private tool for letting yourself know you're not wasting your time.
So….baby, it may be cold outside....but if you get that last shot of the snowflakes drifting past the street light, it's gonna feel terrific when you go inside to warm up.