Jean Reno, plays the amiable hitman Leon, in Luc Besson’s marvelous action thriller, The Professional.
“My idea of professionalism is probably a lot of people’s idea of obsessive.” — David Fincher, director of Seven.
What does it mean to be a professional? What separates him/her from the amateur? Is it merely skill? The fortune of being chosen or paid? Or something else entirely?
Disney’s famous Nine Old Men are widely regarded as the ultimate pioneers of the animation industry. Besides their immense talent and creative contribution, what marked their prominence was that they always delivered, making them the trusted cornerstones upon which Walt Disney could reliably build his empire.
There are many good artists out there but what distinguishes true professionals is that ‘pros’ aren’t just paid for what they do, they also provide an assurance as to a degree of quality and an expectation of delivery. In other words, the professional is accountable. This is why reputations matter and why word of mouth is still the most powerful determinant of whether someone is worth taking a chance on or even worth hiring.
Charcoal animation drawing by Glen Keane from Walt Disney’s 1995 release, Pocahontas. When people worked with Glen Keane, they always knew what they would be getting — consistent excellence in performance and the exciting possibility of him creating something absolutely outstanding.
There are basic considerations that run through the evaluation process about whether an artist is the consummate professional or not. Here are some of the common considerations:
g) Are respectful of the process and the people they work with regardless of relative title, position or authority.
In animation, “I got this” are the best words a supervisor or director can hear from his staff. (For those of you who are married, this is also highly effective with spouses!) When I ran a crew, there were individuals that I knew I could rely on. They removed concern, provided predictability and alleviated stress for me as a director. I knew I could trust them and count on them even if things were to go wrong.
Carl Hagan (Robert Duvall) takes orders from Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, The Godfather. Carl Hagan defined the always trusted and dependable council – a man who took care of whatever and whenever it was asked of him.
Being a professional is as much about consistent mental fortitude as it is about talent. Top professionals are skilled individuals who’ve not only built up their expertise in their craft, but carry a mindset designed for delivery. They set goals, persist, adjust as necessary and finish things. They don’t fail others nor do they fail themselves. (Note: we aren’t talking here about awards, financial gain or public approval but rather more integral matters such as dignity, excellence and due diligence.)
In Frank Darabont’s marvelous film, The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, showed that moment by moment, stone by stone, you can chip away at any wall or obstacle in front of you. The film is an important allegory for the power of determination, diligence and perseverance overcoming any challenge.
There is one major caveat however, and that is, when you make it as a professional, you risk losing the inner spirit of being an artist — that eagerness and drive you had as a beginner. As professionals, we must guard against this – you must continually find ways to “stay young” in spirit.
Painting by Nicolai Fechin, a masterful Russian artist whose entire life was completely devoted to his craft.
In the words of Nicolai Fechin:
“A professional, having achieved some technical feat or twist for which he has gained reputation, often fears to leave it behind in order to move ahead … Instead of making further efforts towards self-development, he allows his success to become a dead-end; he stops and begins to go backwards.”
So remember, if you love something so much that you want to do it for a living, then aim to become a professional by working to acquire any and all the skills and knowledge necessary to get there. If you’re already a professional, find ways to maintain that spirit of learning and devotion to excellence that got you there in the first place. Young or old, your spirit as an artist must remain the same, that is, one that is ever devoted to consistency, improvement, and the evolution of your craft. Often what separates the good from the great is a matter of inches, or in our industry, frames and pixels.
In conclusion, I leave you with this inspirational speech by Al Pacino from Oliver Stone’s, Any Given Sunday: