the poster for Jennifer Zhang's Auto-Pilot
Very recently I watched a documentary about the making of the Thriller album, and in an audio recording where he described his process, Michael Jackson said that it was as if the songs had already been written, and he was merely the source through which they came. It reminded me of another music documentary I had watched not long before about Wham!, where Andrew Ridgeley described an afternoon when George Michael had bolted suddenly upstairs at his house in a desperate search for a pen and paper, and 10 minutes later had come downstairs with “Last Christmas” fully written.

Both of these anecdotes (which were likely regular occurrences for Michael and George) reminded me of one of the rare times I was lucky enough to experience something similar. About a year ago, my creative partner Gina Su asked me to come up with a high-concept premise for a science fiction short. I had laid down on my couch to ponder for about 30 seconds before the entire story played out in my head in a bewildering instant. I sat up fast. I’ll never forget how it felt: like I had downloaded it.

That 30-second moment of inspiration has arguably defined my entire year in a way that’s almost cosmic. But that may not have been the case had I not coupled inspiration with just one other thing.

It’s what you do in the moments after inspiration that determine if actual creation ever happens.

Those moments carry the most danger of inaction. After all, big ideas usually imply big execution, and it’s the breadth and the magnitude of what will be required that can be daunting.

So we’re all in danger—in those hours, days, months, even years after inspiration strikes—of becoming that person who’s satisfied just telling people at parties and coffee shops about our big, brilliant idea… happy to have them validate that we’re capable of brilliance. And hey, who knows? Maybe one day motivation will strike the same way inspiration did and you’ll get it all down on paper.

Unfortunately, as they say: delulu is not the solulu. Being capable of the magic of inspiration doesn’t go far enough in giving that inspiration life.

And yet fortunately, you don’t have to go far for a solulu. And that solution isn’t daunting at all. (It may, however, feel just a little less magical.)

The solution is structure. It’s a beat sheet, an outline, a corkboard and push pins and index cards. (And if you’re reading these particular words on this particular site, chances are you could have guessed that.)

Your job in the moments after inspiration is not to agonize over how you’ll ultimately create something out of nothing. Anyone would be paralyzed by that.

Your job is simply to give structure to inspiration so that it stands a chance of materializing. So that it’s set up to have life breathed into it… by many people besides you, if you’re lucky.

Thinking of the story for Autopilot—the short film I would write/direct—took 30 seconds. Beating it out immediately afterwards would take half a day, and writing it based on that beat sheet would take a day more. And once the script existed, the rocket ship was on the launchpad. The script that resulted from the structure that was laid down was the magnet that drew an award-winning team to join me on another filmmaking adventure.

the filmmakers from AutoPilot
Left: The Autopilot team poses with their first award: “Outstanding Sci-Fi Short” at the Micheaux Film Festival. Right: Jennifer Zhang and Gina Su with their “Best Short Film” trophy at the Vail Film Festival.

Lead actress/producer Gina Su, director of photography Daphne Qin Wu, sound designer Diana Cha, composers Amit May Cohen and Alexandre Cote, VFX artist Tom Moser, editor Tom Herrick, and the entire spectacularly talented crew have done all the heavy lifting, giving life to something that began as a fleeting flash of inspiration.

Autopilot is 16 festivals deep now and is tearing up the circuit. We’ve garnered one “Best Sci-Fi Short” award (at the Micheaux Film Festival), two Best Short awards (at Vail Film Festival and China’s Blue Planet Sci-Fi Film Festival), one “Best Director” award (from the Busan New Wave Film Festival), and one Audience Award (at Etheria Film Night on AMC’s Shudder), with four additional nominations at Filmquest and Korea International Film Festival, plus official selections in two Oscar®-qualifying festivals (Hollyshorts and LAShorts). We’ve gotten to screen in Canada alongside a film produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck at the prestigious Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. In total, this highly decorated film has traveled to six states and five countries across three continents… and we’re only halfway through our run.

And the formula to set something so unexpectedly magical into motion?

Inspiration + Structure.

While the first part of that equation might be hard to come by, know that you’re already equipped with the second. Be ready to use it!

posters for Fetish, Autopilot and Charon
Inspiration + Structure = Lots of Awards

Follow Jennifer Zhang’s filmmaking journey on Instagram @thejenniferzhang.