Learning From The Best - Leonardo Da Vinci

In 1632, many years after his death, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s manuscripts were published as ‘A Treatise on Painting’.' They have been summarised for us into 11 neat lessons by ‘The Cultural Tutor’ (who I highly recommend following if you use Twitter). In the spirit of learning from the best, I will relate them to video production in 21st century UK. So here goes. 

Lesson 1. Don't just trust your judgement; listen to criticism. Especially the criticism of your enemies. It's much more valuable than that of your friends.

It is so important to make people feel free to offer feedback and criticism of the video/films you are making but this needs to be done at the right stage in the production process. Also, it's important to remember that you don't have to act on all the notes and feedback you get. Work out if they have seen something you haven't seen yourself.

Friends can be tied into an unspoken contract with you whereby they don’t want to hurt your feelings. A stranger (or enemy as Da Vinci puts it), is less bound by these habits and norms.

I am yet to find a way of avoiding the slight wince of disappointment when I hear criticism of something I’ve created, but I know it is a very valuable tool. The observation offered is often apt and correct and if it makes the film better, why not use it?

Lesson 2. Never compromise on learning; never compromise on quality. A proper grounding is required.

Always strive to be better. Even the great man himself was keen to learn. It is crucial to challenge yourself and reflect on your experience - it helps you develop and improve. This ‘self reflection’ creates a philosophy and style (conscious or otherwise) which you can use to stretch yourself. 

This is true of any art form and/or discipline and is definitely helpful when making video and film content.

Lesson 3. Never be satisfied with your work or your ability; without being able to doubt yourself, you will not be able to improve. It's a high threshold, but Leonardo certainly thought it was necessary.

Self doubt serves us to avoid complacency. In our age of Social Media hubris, we feel exposed if we show that we doubt ourselves. But, it can be used as a fuel for self improvement and development. 

It is good to feel confident in our ability to tackle a project whether it be in video or anything else, but self doubt also helps us to work harder and to push our own standards and limitations.  

Lesson 4. Find the source material - whatever that is for you - and learn from it yourself; don't just learn from what other people have said about it, otherwise you won't understand it properly.

We all need inspiration from others. Imitating the manner and style of another is hard to avoid. It is easy to fall into the trap of limiting ourselves to self-created bubbles from consuming and watching similar content. 

Da Vinci advised having recourse to Nature ‘which is replete with such abundance of objects than to the productions of other masters, who learnt everything from her. ’ Nature can help us recalibrate so that our observational faculties are restored. Clear observation is a great basis for a creative approach to filmmaking. 

Lesson 5. Pay constant attention to the world around you and, as Leonardo says, find a method for digesting and learning from it. Take notes and look for patterns. Think it out. Engage deeply.

Leonardo’s recommendation to take notes is extremely helpful. Pre-production should be the most creative stage when making a video or a film. It costs little to research and play with ideas and demand more from the imagination. 

By the time the camera is rolling and the edit machine is running, budgetary considerations become uppermost. Take notes, research, think, discuss and share ideas to create a clearer vision before going into production. 

Lesson 6. Leonardo says that anybody, if they try hard enough at one highly specific thing, can master it. Any craft has many different elements; learning too narrowly is not sufficient.

Technology offers many solutions for multifaceted video makers. Recording and editing equipment is transportable to the point where a one-person crew can be a runner, researcher, camera operator, sound recordist, producer, director and editor.

Returning with self-shot and edited features, while working on professional golf tournaments around the world, on my own, taught me this. I was principally a producer before the job and still was by the end of it, but I had gained a greater understanding of the roles of a camera operator and editor.

Lesson 7. Following that, Leonardo recommends mastering everything relevant within the scope of your field. Otherwise everything you produce will either be so narrow in scope that it becomes repetitive; or, when you try to expand, it will be of inconsistent quality.

I am a great admirer of a former producer colleague who had mastered an enormous range. One project would be an eye-catching and visceral short promo film and the next would be a long form, thoughtful, slow paced documentary for a large corporate organisation.

She was equally comfortable with either form. Her experience had given her a style, philosophy and techniques that she could select from her internal toolbox whenever it was required. Her consistent strength was communication. She always held the vision and motivated others so they all could achieve it together.

Lesson 8. Listen to other people. Everybody has an opinion, and Leonardo thinks it's worth hearing all of them - even of those who are not experts.

This reminds me of Lesson 4 (above). There is a tendency in any profession to compound received wisdom. It is refreshing when someone from outside the ‘inner circle’ offers a solid, reasoned opinion. They are less bound by fashion, notions of best practice and repeating things because ‘that’s just how it’s done’.

Film-making is an art form and like all art forms, opinions are subjective. This facilitates a great range of responses and opinions - it’s great to listen to those outside of ‘the bubble’. 

Lesson 9. Work on your memory. Every night, Leonardo went over the things he'd observed and learned that day, especially the bits he struggled with. Perhaps more important than ever in the digital age.

Every day, I tell myself I am going to do this. Every night I forget to. 

10. Be Wary of Ego-Don't have too high an opinion of yourself, otherwise you'll overlook your flaws and won't improve. In Leonardo's words, you must learn to identify your own defects.

There is a fine line between having a clear vision and being too egotistical. When either time and/or budget is becoming a pressure point in the production process it’s important to remember your clear vision but it’s when ego can stamp its little feet and demand attention.

This is an ongoing battle through life; one best addressed using a cool head, reason and trusted counsel during those moments of pressure.

Lesson 11. Look for inspiration in everything - absolutely everything. Ideas come from the most surprising of places.

100%. Through formal education, we tend to be trained to rationalise and compartmentalise our knowledge and that’s a wonderful mind expanding process. In a creative process such as filmmaking this can give a great grounding, but it’s important to be open to non-rational creative sparks. 

Producers, writers and directors often talk about moments of inspiration that come to them when they are not thinking about the project. Many films have been conceived of when in the shower, shopping or on a school run. 

It’s like giving the conscious mind a holiday from the project, and letting the unconscious breathe and express itself. The important thing is to be witness to how we react to our environment and the ways in which our conscious and unconscious minds operate. 

Become attuned to and listen out for those moments when you have been inspired and explore them - they sometimes contain the gold.

Whatever your definition of ‘genius’, it is easy to make the argument that Leonardo was one. It’s somewhat reassuring for the rest of us, therefore, that these notes reveal he had to work hard to develop, refine and make the most of his own amazing abilities. 

See how we do it: send us an email to hello@shortstories.media if you would like to discuss your next film project.

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