‘Cubiculum’–Shaking hands with my fear of failure. A lesson of how not to work on my friend’s project

Even though we finished the work on ‘Cubiculum’ more than a month ago, the events and my thoughts around it are still haunting me – so I decided the best way to try and cope with them was to write them down. I tend to get lost in my obsessive thoughts if I don’t write them down – and what often happens is, once I write them down, it doesn’t look as the end of the world anymore. It’s not a crisis – it’s an opportunity.

When Dimitar first introduced me to his animation film project, I was really excited. Not only by the idea of the film itself – but also by the fact he trusted me enough and was valuing my input. I was excited by the idea of working with one of my best friends on something as impressive as ‘Cubiculum’. So we were discussing style, narrative, storyboards, and how to make the film look smart and beautiful. We also spent long hours on Skype talking about the soundscape – that would be my role in the project. One evening, we even went frame by frame through the animatic to plan and decide what sounds should be in each scene, what the ‘main’ and ‘background’ sounds would be, etc. – we already had a paper edit of the visual part, and now we were also planning the sonic part. It all sounded very well – until I was left by my own to actually do it.

Fear of my own high expectations

I knew Dimitar was the kind of person who is very creative, hard-working and determined – he truly believed in this film and wanted to make it good. I was promising to work as hard and as determined as he was – to make his idea come to life. This, however, didn’t happen.

I was scared. Very scared. I was terrified by the scale of the project, and by the high expectations. I thought that having some technical knowledge and experience with sound editing would be enough for me to deal with it – but in reality, that was the least important part of working on ‘Cubiculum’. Also, because I had my false beliefs that I am competent enough to ‘deal with it’, I didn’t allow enough time to sit and work. And I didn’t feel motivated. I didn’t have an internal drive to work, day and night, as he did.

First experience of a long-term project

One of the aspects of the project that I was having a really tough time dealing with, was the time scale. We had time from January to June to make it happen. For a three minute film, I thought that was a bit too much – probably because I tend to do things in the last minute – also because I was underestimating the amount of work that goes into each stage of an animation project. Of course, that just comes to show my lack of experience – and my unpreparedness to work on big scale projects. I’m the type of person who would deal with last minute perfectionism, but finds it extremely hard to spend time ‘in the process’. I very easily lose interest and motivation, if I don’t see tangible results soon. Or at least that was my mindset before ‘Cubiculum’.

Motivated by nothing but fear

So I would put off the work until forever – and the only factor that was able to motivate me to do any work was my fear of failure. The fear of failing my friend. The fear of losing his trust. And of losing my ‘authority’. I have a big ego – the people who know me or who happen to read this blog already know this. So the fear of losing my credibility is sometimes the only thing that can motivate me. And that’s exactly how I was working on ‘Cubiculum’ – instead of motivated by excitement, inspiration or simply by the idea of working with my friend, I was working on the basis of fear.

Keeping the problems to myself and slowing the project down

Being motivated by fear is a very stressful and unproductive way to work. In terms of the workflow of ‘Cubiculum’, Dimitar had to show each stage of the process to his lecturers, which meant I had these dates as deadlines to have a new sound draft. And that’s exactly what I was doing – putting work off until the last minute and literally sending it to Dimitar two hours before his lecture. What was worst, I wasn’t making any real progress, I was unmotivated and uninspired, so I was sending him crappy sound drafts. Also, because of my ego situation (combined with low self-esteem when comparing myself to Dimitar), I wasn’t reaching out for help. I thought I would waste his time if I ask him to help me, give me feedback or just be online while I was working – I didn’t want him to have to ‘deal with me’ while he had more important tasks to work on. Also, to be honest, I was scared of his drive and motivation – and I thought if I reached out to him that would mean I should work harder (to meet his expectations), and I was terrified by that thought. Of course, that meant I was wasting a lot of time and energy, and causing frustration (I was even hiding from him on Skype and Facebook, and I wasn’t returning phone calls) – so instead of being the first collaboration between two friends, this project was turning into a terrible experience. At least for me. But I’m sure it was also a nightmare for him.

Acknowledging reality

The turning point, when I actually started working hard and I was motivated to finish the project, had two stages. The first part was when I realised that even though I have some editing skills that would suffice for the project, that wasn’t true for my sound recording and creating skills. Turns out I’m not a very good creator – I also have a tough time starting things from scratch – and I was also having a tough time recording and creating my own sounds. I do think I am doing a good job in the editing stage – but I need to be editing someone else’s work. It’s very tough editing my own creations. Also, I finally realised I need to let go of my ‘creative ego’ and deal with the reality – my sounds weren’t good enough, and I didn’t have the motivation and / or resources to make them better. Feeling attached to my sounds – my creations, ‘my babies’, was affecting the quality of the project. I now finally realised it wasn’t about my creative ego – it was about the film. My sounds weren’t helping the film. They weren’t adding to the story. They didn’t fit the purpose.

That was a big shift. I finally turned to a sound bank for help. Since it’s a non-commercial project, I knew I could use sounds from the Freesound.org project – and that’s what I did. I immediately found quality sounds I could use – even for the toughest parts of the project. Submissions from people with years of sound recording and editing experience. Making them freely available to us. Finally, I was working with the project in mind – not my ‘creative ego’. It wasn’t about me using my sounds anymore – it was about giving the project the most appropriate sound treatment. I still ended up using a few of the recordings I made myself – but only because they were appropriate – not because they were ‘my babies’. For all other purposes, I was using other people’s sounds – I was finally where I was feeling the most comfortable and the most useful – editing and polishing for a specific purpose. I’m not a good creator – but I found out my strength is in editing.

Creative crisis

The second factor that helped me to finally shift my thinking, was when I failed one of Dimitar’s April presentations. I had a decent sound draft (with the new sounds from Freesound.org), which I was excited about – and it was the first time I was actually motivated to make a good sound draft and thought it was possible. But I sent it too late. I was working on it in the last minute, so I sent it a few hours before Dimitar’s presentation. I was underestimating the time he’d need to tweak and export a version with this sound draft – also, I was expecting things to go smooth. I wasn’t thinking with extra time in mind – and I didn’t allow Dimitar enough time to prepare the files. So he spent the last few hours before the presentation waiting for a draft to export – only to find out he exported the wrong version. He had a previous sound draft loaded instead of the new file I had sent him – and he ended up exporting the film with it. Because of me, he didn’t have the time to export a new version with the right sound draft and he ended up not showing anything to his lecturer.

That was my wake-up call. I had failed him. I had hit rock-bottom. It didn’t matter if the sound draft was any good – it doesn’t matter if you have a masterpiece or a piece of crap if you can’t even show it. It doesn’t matter if you’re any good at the technical side if you can’t deliver the project on time. I had lost everything – especially Dimitar’s trust. I had nothing more to lose. There were no more expectations – no one expects anything form a person who has failed them.

This was both a pain and a relief. I could finally work without the fear of failure – because I had already failed. Even the smallest improvement I could make would be welcomed – because it was better than nothing. It was a crisis, but I had finally freed myself from the pressure and burden of expectations (most of which I had set myself).

I came back to work. I was finally focused. I worked hard to deliver a good soundscape. I was motivated to ask for help and feedback – and I was thankful for comments on things that needed improvement. I was welcoming negative feedback – because it wasn’t about my ego anymore, but about the project. I wanted the film to work well.

But it was too late. It was already May. The deadline was in June. I had slowed down not only myself, but also Dimitar’s work. Not only in terms of time – but also in terms of motivation. We were working ‘side by side’ (on Skype, exchanging comments and jokes and ideas while each of us was working on their part), we were motivated, but we were late. We didn’t finish the film on time. The version we delivered was ‘good enough’ – but not a finished film. The first part looks and sounds much better than the second – and a lot of this was because of me. Earlier, we’d had the idea to make a ‘Director’s cut’ – after the deadline, when there was no more pressure – but we didn’t have any energy or motivation left to do it.

The film is still good. There are some brilliant scenes there. Some beautiful and powerful images. A few good sound moments. But we couldn’t take it to ‘the next level’.

‘Cubiculum’ was a big lesson. So much went wrong in this project – and I learned a ton. I’m sure Dimitar also did.

One of the biggest lessons in this project was to accept failure.

Failure is inevitable; it’s part of the process. But it’s not the end it shouldn’t define us. It shouldn’t stop us to keep going.

He has invited me to work on his next film. I don’t know how on Earth he can trust me with this – he probably also has his insecurities. I can’t promise anything anymore – I don’t want to set any expectations. But I somehow feel we should work together again. I know there would be problems – and I am ready to acknowledge this, instead of hiding my head in the sand. I just hope I don’t face them with fear anymore. It’s not a crisis – it’s an opportunity.


7 thoughts on “‘Cubiculum’–Shaking hands with my fear of failure. A lesson of how not to work on my friend’s project

  1. Next time shout in time for help 🙂
    You know… some of us, your friends, who will be glad to help and know a bit about “ego” and working in the creative department as well, if you feel uncomfortable to bother the person with whom you are making the project.
    *ahem* 😉

    Still… excellent read. 🙂


    • Can you believe it hadn’t even crossed my mind… It should be obvious, but it’s not.
      I’m glad I was at least able to describe it ‘on paper’ – it is now a real lesson, not just a chain of frustrating events. I was scared even to write about it – until I just said ‘today I’m getting it over with’ – and here it is, on the page (2000 words later), even with some nice conclusions.
      Thank you for offering a helping hand, I now know who I’ll call for my next creative crisis. I hope you know what you’re putting yourself into 🙂


  2. Pingback: I’ve turned into a ‘feedback giving problem-solver’ to everyone but a friend to no one. | Rumena Zlatkova. I live to create.

  3. hi, just thought you might want to know that your blog is messed when I view it on my iphone. Im not sure if it has something to do with my phones browser or your website? just saying


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