Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain On Technology, Creativity, And Avoiding Screens On Weekends

09.20.15 3 years ago

Tiffany Shlain

Harnessing creativity that results in success is hard. And it’s even harder to do it consistently. Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker who is also the founder of The Webby Awards and co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, does this seamlessly. She’s directed and produced projects such as AOL’s The Future Starts Here and, more recently, The Making of a Mensch. I met Tiffany (online, surprise surprise) a while back and was immediately drawn to the ground that she covers in media and the way she conducts herself while doing it. It’s perplexing, really. But, today, the line between filmmaking, technology and media is heavily blurred. There are no lanes anymore. Some might see this as bad. I am not one of these people.

Tiffany is a filmmaker, producer and, overall, creative person. But how does creativity fit into daily life? How is creativity sustainable, but still enjoyable? Here’s what she had to say about it all.

Tiffany, good to speak to you again! I’ve always admired your go-getter attitude – so, let’s jump right in with that, where do you get that contagious “make it happen” mindset?

One of my favorite quotes that I’ve had taped above my desk since I was a child was “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

I think that really speaks to the way I approach the world.

I want to also jump right into your no phones/social media rule that you abide by during the weekends. What’s your reason for unplugging? How long does it last?

My husband and two kids are on our sixth year of no screens from Friday night to Saturday night. We call it our Technology Shabbats and it’s probably the best thing I have ever done for our family… and for my creativity. Having that one day completely off from screens (phone, computer, tv, etc.) has created a much more fertile soil for my brain to create with. I’ve made a whole film about the neuroscience of daydreaming because I was fascinated by how much more creative I feel after the one day off each week. It’s a five minute film called A Case for Dreaming.

You have roots in filmmaking and storytelling and that is a hard talent to master, but it’s one that can translate into so many other facets of your work. What was your first experience with filmmaking? With storytelling? Was there a certain movie that made the light bulb click on saying, “I have to do this.”

That’s a great question. My father was a great storyteller. Each night before we slept when he was home (he was a surgeon so he worked a lot) he would tell us amazing stories. So that’s ingredient #1. I think seeing Star Wars in the 70’s many, many times may be another ingredient. My mom would literally drop us off in the morning when we were obsessed with it and we watched it back to back…and I was entranced with how this film could teleport me into another world.

But I also loved the storytelling in so many filmmakers that were basically a running narrative in my upbringing. Every Sunday night my family went to the movies, then to Chinese food and ice cream where the discussion would spill from the theater to the last bite of our sugar ice cream cone. It was a way to unpack morals, ethics, ideas, emotions, and story. In my filmmaking today, I think of the stories as vessels for ideas.

Moving from the film side of the fence… you are the founder of the Webby Awards. Would you take us up to that point? Where did that idea come from? And what specific things did you do to become a genuinely successful entrepreneur in the tech and social arena?

Curiosity and hard work. I have always loved technology from my early Apple IIe before the web existed. I am always interested in looking at the good, the bad and the potential of these tools we create. I’m very tenacious too. CNET just had me write an article reflecting back 20 years since I founded it. That tells the whole story.

What’s The Moxie Institute?

It’s the name of our film studio in San Francisco. We also run a sister organization that is our nonprofit (Let It Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change) that hosted Character Day this past Friday where we did a global cloud film premiere. We have over 6,100 screenings happening simultaneously in 41 countries. The two new films we premiered for free online are The Adaptable Mind and The Making of a Mensch – both 11 minutes (that was not deliberate, that is just the way it shook out in the edit). There was a global Google Hangout on the screenings where people asked questions and engaged in ideas around Character.

What’s your initial creative process like? After you get an idea, do you start writing? Filming? Talking to others?

I do a lot of reading…and talking to people…and then trying to develop animations with my animators for complicated ideas, and looking through video images. Then, I actually usually try to integrate the ideas into talks that I give. I give around 15 talks a year and in many ways these talks are R & D for films. They are very visual and I usually will integrate videos and animations I am working on. For each finished film, you could see early ideas growing in talks. For the film The Adaptable Mind, the early seeds of that film were in my UC Berkeley commencement speech from 2010.

Mind telling us more about the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences?

I co-founded it when I started The Webby Awards with my team to establish a judging body for The Webbys. Today, we are inundated with infinite amounts of tech and social media. Do you have a strategy for organizing all the apps, social networks, etc.? Is simplicity the best route? Pick what speaks to you. I love Twitter. It stimulates so many ideas I would never be exposed to, and this one is a lifesaver: the app Pocket. When I see a cool headline on Twitter that I want to read but don’t have time, I hit the pocket icon and it saves the article. So when I have time, it’s like I have my dream newspaper.

What are some of your favorite movies and characters in movies? 

That is a tough question. I have a list of 30 favorite films and I have different reasons for why I love each one, but because I am racing to finish two films that are premiering in two days, I can just give you these films and characters off the top of my head.

Harold and Maude: Maude

Beaches of Anges: Anges

Meshes in the Afternoon by Maya Deren: Maya

If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Curious, hard-working, grateful.

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