Part of being in the entertainment industry is giving notes as well as getting them. If you're a screenwriter, you're going to wind up trading notes with other writers whose feedback you want on your own work (especially early on). If you're a producer or director, giving notes is pretty much your entire job description during certain phases of production. Bad note givers will find themselves getting suboptimal results from the people they work with, because if you can't communicate what you want, how can anyone give it to you?
Also, while notes sessions are different from on-set direction (which will be discussed in other posts), there are similarities, and many of these principles apply to direction: be polite, clear and concise, give the kind of direction you'd like to receive, etc.
Be professional and polite
Successful critiques are ones that are phrased in such a way that you describe the flaws in the work that need correcting in a way that is as positive as you can be without "blowing smoke" and coming off as a phony.
Genuine positive reinforcement in a notes session is easy to come by if you let yourself recognize the hard work that already went in to the work, and acknowledge it even as you observe flaws and make recommendations for improvements.
Nobody likes to be told that they are stupid, or that their work sucks, and hearing that in those terms will cause the note recipient to ignore the notes. Giving unnecessarily harsh notes is counterproductive.
If you think the person is beyond help simply decline to give them feedback, and if they're working under you on a production, terminate them. There is never a good reason to belittle or degrade a colleague or subordinate.
Yes, there are assholes in the industry. But most of the ones who are successful are not successful because they are assholes, but in spite of it.
Filmmaking is an industry of relationships, and you have to be quite amazing at what you do (or a marketing commodity, i.e. a "star") for people to be willing to have a relationship with you even though you're a jerk. Even then, those who are polite professionals get the best results from people. I know a number of prominent directors, writers, and producers through my work, professional associations, and the festivals and conferences circuit, and very few of them are assholes.
Give notes you'd want to receive
When giving notes, even if the person doesn't ask, give them <a href="http://www.bugaj.com/blog/2013/12/18/notes-on-notes-part-2-how-to-ask-for-notes" target="_blank">the notes you'd ask for</a> if you wanted their feedback. Be as brief as you can with each particular note, while still conveying the point you want to get across. And give as many details as you feel the recipient deserves.
For example, when I give notes on friends' feature screenplays, I usually give about four to ten pages of notes (unless they're pretty far along, and don't need it), all of them as precise as I can make them, organized more or less follows:
- My overall feeling about the piece
- What I think the theme is, what I think the plot is, and whether or not they are coming together successfully.
- My overall feeling about the main character, what I think his or her arc is, and whether or not its working.
- My major moments of confusion, if any.
- Any areas of confusion that run through the whole script.
- My major moments of boredom / being less interested, if any.
- Any boring elements that run through the whole script.
- My fix suggestions for any of the above, if I think I have ones that meet the writers' goals rather than changing things to meet the goals I would have if it were my story.
- What I think the scene is about, what I think it should be about, and whether or not it's working.
- Anything in the scene that's confusing.
- Anything in the scene that's boring.
- Anything in the scene that's just not working for me (even if it's not confusing or boring).
- Fix suggestions for any of the above, if I have any that will make the scene work better within the context of what the writer is writing.
That structure of note giving -- general overview of what works and what doesn't, followed by specific critiques on each element scene-by-scene -- can also apply to notes to directors from producers, notes to editors from directors, and so on. And it applies just as well to shorts, TV shows, and even stage plays as it does to feature film work.
Make your comments clear and concise
When giving notes you should be as precise as possible while still saying what you need to say. Don't bog down your point with unnecessary details, don't make tangential comparisons, and don't make suggestions that are so antithetical to what the writer or filmmaker is trying to do that they'll just shut it out.
Make the exact point you're trying to make, even if it seems too direct. Usually clear and concise is not only more useful, but also less painful to the notes recipient than dancing around something thinking you're trying to soften the blow. Rambling notes often wind up sounding like either you are confused or unsure about your own notes, or that you think the note receiver couldn't deal with it if you just made your point, which is insulting.
And definitely use correct filmmaking terminology whenever appropriate, since technical language is a shorthand that lets experts exchange ideas about a topic more clearly.
A note that reads something like this:
The protagonist's character arc is unfulfilled. You set up his flaw as needing to grow up, but he is just as immature at the end as at the beginning. It may also be hard for an audience to empathize with him, as he never makes amends to the people he's hurt with his childish stunts.
Is much better than one like:
You set up your protagonist as this whiny, immature dude who's always messing around with chicks and getting high. I hate people like that. It remind me of my ex-boyfriend, who is a total loser douchebag, and nobody would ever in a million years like a character that's like that. I mean, come on. He's like that the whole film. Nothing but weed and chicks the whole time, and he never learns anything about anything. He treats all these girls like they're nothing but hoes, and in the end, he still treats them like hoes and is high all the time. What a total jerk. Guys like that are just gross. Why'd you have to make it like that, anyway? Who's going to want to see that kind of crap, where some guy is just acting like a teenager the whole time and we're supposed to like this twit and what's that all about? I'd make him a choir boy, who loves puppies and is a complete gentleman tea-totaler, and then people will like him better than the creep you've got now.
Both of those are excerpts from actual notes on the same project. One was given by a professional that I now have an ongoing relationship with, and helped me make my script better. The other was given my someone whose attitude turned me off such that I no longer ask them for notes, nor do I any longer agree to help them with their projects.
Rambling and unprofessional notes are going to do two things: confuse and/or bore the notes recipient, and make them think you don't know what you're talking about since someone who can't give coherent notes is unlikely to be seen as someone who can help make the work better.
With notes, it's not about how many things you say, but how relevant each thing is to helping the writer or filmmaker achieve the goals they set out to. As Robert Browning said, "less is more".
Get the notes back as quickly as possible
The person receiving the notes from you is likely continuing to work, and also receiving notes from others, while you wait to get back to them with notes. This is even true if the person is someone working for you on a project that you're producing or directing. The longer you wait, the more obsolete your notes may become, and if it's your project, the more you may be spending to have someone go in a direction you don't want.
When you're giving notes as a favor, it can be more difficult to convince yourself to be quick. But you said you'd do it, and being timely does get the responsibility off your plate sooner. If you can't, let the person know not to wait for you, and offer to read the next draft if you may have more time then.
Leave on a positive note
End your notes, whether it's a written set of notes or an in-person notes session, with something positive. Often the easiest way to get out is a general platitude such as: "great work so far, looking forward to seeing how you make it even better" or "finishing a draft or cut is the beginning of the journey, and we've all been there before, so don't sweat the notes just make them your own and you'll find your way to a great draft or cut".
Those will suffice, but even better is to mention something specific you actually liked about the script -- a particular character or story point, the writers' voice, the director's vision, the editor's style, whatever it may be. And if you feel that addressing your notes will result in making a good work great, let the note receiver know you think they're on that right track, too.
Giving notes isn't your opportunity to seem brilliant at someone else's expense. Rather, it's your opportunity to seem brilliant by impressing someone with both your insights and your professionalism. Properly given notes will further a "I'll help you, and you'll help me" relationship. Improperly given notes can ruin one.