New York Film Academy’s Liz Hinlein on the nuances between craft and creativity
This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. It has been edited for length and clarity. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.
What does it mean to be a creative director, for you?
It's two things. One, it's branding and getting the name out about your company. It's also creating a world, a place that's a creative hub where people gravitate towards. Whether they’re students or not, it becomes a place known for certain, big ideas.
A creative director, especially at a university, needs to understand their organization’s place in the broader industry world, and how to engage with it.
How do you compare the work of being a creative director to your experiences directing in film and TV?
It all crosses over quite a lot. Reading some of the other articles in this series, everybody is talking about storytelling, the creative process, and advertising. The basis of what I do, whether I'm in the role of a film director, immersive director, or creative director, is storytelling. The work of a creative director is about creating the best story and the best branding for their organization or project.
As a creative director, you’re making it so whatever your organization is selling is not a hard sell — you’re crafting a story that attracts people, that people want to be a part of. Coming out of being an indie filmmaker, getting people to work with you, all you're selling is a story, you're not selling a paycheck. You’re building this story that people want to help build, that they want to make part of their identity.
What’s the hardest part of telling stories through creative in a business environment — what gets in the way?
I always gravitate towards working with people smarter than I am. People I admire, that I really wanted to get the juice out of — but there's always, in the creative process, someone standing around, who hasn’t done the research, that thinks they know best. The challenge is listening to everybody’s ideas and figuring out what will rise to the top and excite people.
You have to remember what you’re there to deliver. Is this an independent project, or is your task to deliver a very specific thing? There’s a difference between craft and creativity. Craft is about delivering on a concept within budget and deadline. Creativity is a deeper thing — really getting into the “why” of a project and coming up with something new.
Your client might have very specific needs to be met and not want you to creatively elevate beyond those needs. Always understand whether you’re being paid for craft, creativity, or both.
How do you approach assembling a strong, effective creative team?
As an example, we’re building a team currently for a social impact immersive project. For this specific project it’s about finding people who are really committed to the idea, who are passionate about it and can run with it. Whether they’re the music supervisor, a writer, or a cinematographer, they need to feel that this is something they have to make.
With something like this, where there isn’t a huge budget, passion is necessary. That’s what the phrase “passion project” is about, of course. Will this person champion the project, will they go the distance to make it the best, all because it’s something they feel a need to see in the world?
Passion makes up for almost any skill gap. Passion overrides everything. You can teach craft, but you can’t teach passion. On any project, passion is what excites investors, folks like that. It becomes contagious. It becomes the engine of any project.
What are three things you couldn’t do your job without?
Reading is number one. Reading is about being in other people's worlds, gaining understanding outside yourself.
Number two is going out into the world, traveling. It’s about getting outside of your comfort zone, seeing how humans are in different parts of the world.
Third is running. I get really good thoughts when I'm running. Anything that's moving your body, where you're not just constantly caught up in your routine traps and in your brain. Spielberg famously got a lot of his best ideas in the shower, people get really good ideas driving. Sometimes the best ideas come to you when you’re distracted by some methodical, physical, bodily task.
What’s a piece of advice you’d want to share with people coming up in creative careers?
Here’s what I’ve learned: nothing stands in the way of perseverance. That’s not advice anyone gave me, just something I found out. The careers that I've seen built off of pure perseverance, especially from creatives who have been marginalized — it’s incredible.
Another thing, though I don’t remember who said it. If you can't film it, you can take a picture of it. If you can't take a picture of it, you can draw it. If you can't draw, you can make a paper airplane. Don’t let the medium stop your creativity. Just because you can’t rent a fancy camera doesn’t mean you can’t make that short on your iPhone.
Last thing, besides perseverance, bring your A game. It's very noticeable when you’re slacking off on a set. You don't want to be the PA, picking up the garbage? Well, it's the PA that's picking up the garbage that’s going to be noticed and hired on the next show. Not the one on their cell phone browsing TikTok. People notice when you care and take responsibility.