Exploring Ryan Kao’s Creative Process and Filmmaking Journey

Join Ryan Kao as he delves into the technical, emotional, and artistic aspects of storytelling, and how he utilizes Musicbed to elevate his work.

Filmmaker Ryan Kao

Whether it’s sharing helpful tutorials or insights into his creative process, cinematographer and creator Ryan Kao’s YouTube channel taps into every technical, creative, and emotional aspect of filmmaking. Hear more from Ryan on what sparked his passion for storytelling, his advice to new filmmakers, and how he uses Musicbed to find the right music for his work.

Musicbed: What sparked your passion for filmmaking/storytelling?

While I’ve been creating video content online since 2009, it wasn’t until I purchased my first DSLR in 2011 and discovered the ability to manually control camera settings that my fire for filmmaking ignited. The unique experience of being able to craft a frame, shallow depth of field, shutter speed, and framerates, was truly unlike any form of artistic expression I’d ever experienced. From then on, I was completely enamored with creating images and learning every single day. Thousands of hours online, DIY lighting, and camera rigs. Interestingly enough, I never had that spark or dream goal of a career in filmmaking. It simply became a life-long passion for capturing moments in time.

What keeps you motivated and creatively inspired?

It’s easy to get completely immersed or all-consumed in our creative process, often falling into seemingly endless weeks of work and thinking of nothing but that particular project. This level of focus and determination is crucial as a freelancer. However, plenty of times I’ve found myself losing touch with that spark as a side effect of that tunnel vision. Hobbies outside of what I do full-time as a cinematographer have been an instrumental tool in maintaining a sense of self and fueling the curiosity to continue creating every single day.

Ryan Kao on set

What elements do you think are essential for crafting a compelling story?

The essentials are a grounded sense of setting or location, established characters or themes, intentional camera and composition choices, and refined sound and music. Each of these works in harmony to allow the message and meaning of the story to translate seamlessly. A story missing even one of these components will often feel distracting and difficult to follow.

How important is music in your work?

Music is arguably one of the most crucial components of nearly every project I work on. It’s a true pillar to the way I go through my life. I believe everyone lives to a sort of internal rhythm. Whether it’s a commercial campaign or even a simple Instagram reel, music is a driving force that allows me to create stand-out art that keeps me motivated to craft the next piece. 

What advice would you give other filmmakers/creators who are just starting their careers?

It may seem obvious, but starting your journey as a filmmaker or creator without a goal is sort of like getting in a car and driving with no destination––one way or another you’re going to run out of gas. Set your intentions early on, even if they’re small.

Second, remain flexible and eager to get your hands dirty. The time will come with a certain type of work clicks. At that point, if you’ve built the fire in your career and it becomes self-sustaining, you can begin to decide how to best approach narrowing down your goals and niche. The key takeaway is don’t write off experiences or turn down projects simply because they don’t immediately align with your goals for your career.

How do you balance pushing boundaries creatively and delivering what your client wants or audience wants to see?

The key to client work is getting to know theirbrand, not necessarily seeking a place to put your stamp. However, each gig is different and there are times you’ll know when and where to infuse your style, vs. when to take a back seat. Your goal is to put together a puzzle in a way that makes it look like it was never a puzzle but just a completed piece of art. If a client doesn’t provide music for example, this is a great place where your style and creativity can be “injected” into that puzzle.

Ryan Kao filming in front of motel

What is the most challenging aspect of being a filmmaker/creative?

Without a doubt, for me, it’s that ability to stay in your lane––like running a race with blinders on. The journey to becoming a truly self-confident artist in today’s industry is harder than it’s ever been. We’re surrounded by the works of others. Endless notifications and alerts add up to a constant stimulation trap for creative comparison. Year after year I find that the less I pay attention to everyone else, the better and more fulfilling my work becomes. We often fail to recognize that our creativity is intrinsically tied to our own lives and experiences. Allowing yourself to maintain that separation, to consume as a viewer and not always as a creator, is truly challenging. But it can be the most powerful way to never stop improving.

What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on?

In late 2022, I shot a unique commercial spot for adidas Running with a talented local athlete, Adam Francique, for the adidas ‘Keep Running’ campaign in the New York City Marathon. This project was one that genuinely challenged my sense of confidence as a cinematographer. With an extremely rushed two-day production schedule, heavily limited resources, and frigid New York weather, we managed to capture something that truly shocked me in the end. A combination of on-the-fly improvisation and unshakable trust in each other in the 11th hour allowed us to succeed.

How do you search for music on Musicbed? What are some tips that you’d give other filmmakers to search on Musicbed?

My go-to approach for finding music for a new project generally looks like this: Start by eliminating all genres you can confidently determine what you do notwant for your search. I often find that starting in reverse can leave you with a broader selection of music that can challenge you to push outside of your comfort zone when it comes to style and taste. If your gut is initially telling you Electronic, you may be surprised when you hear a pop song that aligns better with your story. From there, I like to refine the search with mood or attributes. Some of my favorites include Contemplative, Tense, Atmospheric, Groove, Funky, and Quirky.

Why do you utilize Musicbed in your work?

The impact music has had in my lifenot only within film but the experiences and memories I’ve held onto, are often deeply interconnected to a certain sound or rhythm. It’s without a doubt one of the most powerful forms of art in my world. Musicbed’s library and careful attention to the quality and passion of their artists is undeniable. A tool like this allows me to stand out as an editor, filmmaker, and storyteller. It can also be a catalyst when I’m stuck in the process of creating something meaningful.

Explore a curated playlist of Ryan’s favorite music to use in his videos—available to license only on Musicbed.