Acclaimed director—and Filmsupply filmmaker—Salomon Ligthelm took us behind the scenes of his music video for “Easy”, by Ayia, affording us the chance to watch his creative process unfold in real-time.
Filmmakers have always been on the front lines of change, and this cultural moment is no different. As the world reconsiders its perspectives on race, we can play a huge part in furthering that conversation through our own craft. We have the tools, so we may as well put them to good use.
We’ve talked many times about creative constraints and their value, but sometimes as filmmakers we don’t have the luxury of constraints. As they say, there’s nothing scarier than a blank page, and that’s just what Director Josh McGowan was faced with in his production of Cadillac’s Oscar spot.
For Nike’s Lebron 17 spot, the team at Blue Ox Films knew they needed to do more than think outside the box—they needed to create a new one.
As filmmakers, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. No matter how original or visionary you think you are, you’re borrowing an idea from a filmmaker who borrowed that same idea a half-century ago.
It’s hard to know what ‘appreciate’ or ‘support’ should mean to you, specifically, as a filmmaker or a fan of films. When Women’s History Month rolls around, it’s what we’re asked to do, but how do we put that into action? Is it just a matter of acknowledgment or credit to the women who’ve pioneered filmmaking in the past?
As filmmakers, particularly documentary filmmakers, it’s our job to do the digging. It can be uncomfortable and it’s never clean, because the truth is never simple. This is why documentaries are so important—they offer the time and context needed for the truth, as long as we can extract it.
Welcome back to our second article in a series exploring The Commercial Directors Diversity Program, or CDDP. In this installation, we had the opportunity to speak with Vanessa Black and Jane Qian about the specifics of their productions and how they overcame challenges to make them a reality.
For many filmmakers, branded content is a tough code to crack. With variables including — but not limited to — product, budget, timelines, and internal politics, it may seem like a game not worth jumping into. But, allow Scott Ballew, YETI’s Head of Content, to simplify it for you.
Filmmaking is an act of courage, a leap of faith, no matter what role you play in its production. It takes vulnerability and strength to believe all of these pieces will come together and make something that’s good, not to mention something that actually connects with people.
What do you do when you’re sitting in the same room with quite possibly the most legendary filmmakers of all time? Well, you listen to every word… Every word.
There is a painting in France that historians believe is 32,000 years old. The oldest surviving film, on the other hand ⎯ incidentally, also French ⎯ is only 128 years old. A film called Roundhay Garden Scene. 2.11 seconds long. Filmmaking has obviously come a long way since 1888; but compared to painting, it’s still in its infancy. There’s plenty of new territory to explore. It’s only fitting that a painter-turned-filmmaker is one of the people breaking new ground — for example, by creating a documentary about a New York street football team in the style of a Beats by Dr. Dre ad. That’s what Bennett Johnson set out to do, and the result ⎯ Coach Pamz ⎯ is a beautiful statement about life, sports, and the brotherhood of amateur athletes.
The best stories are often the ones we find by accident while we’re working on something else. We don’t force them into being. They already exist. We catch sight of them and can’t get them out of our head. They’re a gift. Or, in Diego Contreras’s words, “a miracle.” And he would know. It was only after abandoning two fully formed concepts and scouting a completely unrelated project that he came upon the subject of his recent short film, The Sandman. Pound for pound, it’s one of the best films we saw last year. And it was a total accident.
Writing about authors, Annie Dillard warns: “He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns because that is what he will know.” It seems there is such a thing as useful ignorance. It is possible for artistry to be spoiled by intellect. Or maybe what we’re trying to say is simply this: Be careful what you learn in film school.
We’ve been fans of Diego Contreras since before his breakthrough film Islands nabbed a Vimeo Staff Pick in 2013. Since then, his career has been on the rise, taking him briefly through one of the most well-respected ad agencies in history (BBDO), and more recently into the realm of professional filmmaking. Not long ago, he directed two stunning short films for The Lincoln Motor Company, Bloom and Open Your Eyes. And he’s done it all within two years.
It’s very hard to tell what makes a film great. Students spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to learn the secret. Critics write hundreds of thousands of words trying to explain it. And still, it usually remains a mystery. But we had a revelation recently while talking to Diego Contreras about his “Unimpossible Missions” series for GE, an ad campaign meant to show off GE’s ingenuity by accomplishing seemingly impossible tasks. What makes Diego’s work great is how he invests a staggering amount of meaning into even the smallest details of his films. There is nothing trivial in his work. Even the snowballs have backstories.
The Oscar-nominated Body Team 12 would be a sci-fi horror film if not for the fact that it really happened. The short documentary follows the eponymous Liberian body team tasked with the most grueling job in the fight against Ebola: collecting its victims. Their work was dangerous and controversial; but more than anything, it was heroic.
Two of the latest trends in film have existed for centuries in the theater. Plays are all done in one take. And plays are 3D. But while the medium has been around since before anyone can remember, it hasn’t changed all that much. In the end, it’s actors on a stage telling you a story. Which is what makes theater an ideal training ground for film directors. Stripping something down to its essential components teaches you how it works.
There is always more to a place than what you can see. There are the sounds, the tastes, the smells. There is — maybe most importantly — the way a place makes you feel. In Brandon’s Li’s recent travel film, Gateway to the Ganges, he used Musicbed artist Ryan Taubert’s “We Wish It Was Never Light” to bring a feeling of darkness and foreboding to the otherwise vibrant and beautiful Indian landscape.
There are plenty of filmmakers exploring the blurred line between fiction and reality, but far fewer explore a much more interesting phenomenon: fiction that creates reality. The most iconic example being Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” which became instantly legendary for inspiring mass panic in listeners who didn’t realize the broadcast ⎯ a live reporting of a Martian invasion ⎯ was fake.
Now that the playing field is level, what puts one filmmaker ahead of another? For Renan Ozturk, a veteran expedition filmmaker, the answer is simple: suffering. “You get maybe five [magic moments] in your life,” Renan told us. “You have to suffer a little more for them, put yourself out there a little more…”
Despite being necessarily collaborative, filmmaking can be lonely. And that loneliness can start to affect you — not just personally, but creatively as well. It’s hard to do good work when you don’t have people behind you.
Hazuki Aikawa makes films that might make you uncomfortable. They tackle subjects that confront norms and may make you squirm in your seat. When a tsunami hit Japan in 2011, she made a series of experimental films encouraging people to listen to the sounds of the carnage. Her work is always provocative. And for good reason. Hazuki is not only challenging our preconceptions and biases ⎯ she’s also challenging her own.
It’s easy to make charity films the wrong way. Low budget, heavy handed, cliché ridden, predictable. If they work at all, it’s because they shame us into caring. But that’s the old way of doing things. At least according to Stefan Hunt, whose cause-based films rival Wes Anderson’s for their playfulness, spontaneity, beauty, and fun. They’re great films regardless of the cause they’re promoting. Many of them have won Vimeo Staff Picks. For Stefan, creativity and storytelling are just as important as educating people on an issue. “I want to inspire people to help, not guilt them into helping,” Stefan told us.
You don’t need a reason to make films, but it helps. Case in point: Paul Pryor, director and cinematographer best known for his work with TOMS Shoes, Charity: Water, and The Adventure Project. Paul makes films for a very simple reason: to help people. His work has helped raise awareness and funds for some of the most important issues facing our world today. (Thanks, Paul!)
e week after graduating from high school, Cale Glendening drove his mom’s car 1,465 miles from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to begin his career as a filmmaker. He didn’t have a plan, a job, or even a place to stay. He’d taken one video production class (and got a C in it), and he would soon be rejected by USC’s film school. But as you’ll see from our conversation below, discouragement has a sort of reverse effect on Cale. It makes him work harder.
If you we were to list all the reasons why you should listen to Lenore DeKoven’s advice about becoming a better director, it would take a long, long time. So we’ll just list a few: Lenore has worked as a director and producer in theater, film, and television. She has taught at UCLA, NYU, and Columbia, and has been a member of Columbia University’s Graduate Film division for more than 20 years. And on top of all that, she wrote a book, Changing Direction, that has been recommended by everyone from Ang Lee to our good friend Salomon Ligthelm.
If there is such thing as a “traditional path” to becoming a film director, Elle Ginter did not take it. After finishing her degree in journalism, Elle literally found herself out to sea. She worked on a whale-watching boat and talked to people about whales. As luck would have it, her job on the boat eventually led her onto major Hollywood sets with people like Adam Sandler and David Spade…
“I am a guidance counselor’s worst nightmare,” Brandon Bray, creative director at DECADE, told us about his zigzagging, Tasmanian devil-esque career path, which has included everything from launching a successful coffee shop chain to all but disappearing into the landscape of rural China. No matter what he was doing, though — no matter how far removed he was from filmmaking — filmmaking was always on his mind. After returning to the craft in 2008, Brandon hasn’t looked back.
We talked to Mathy and Fran about the nuts and bolts of creating music videos, the blessing of short deadlines, and why exactly their work makes us just a little bit uncomfortable. Here’s the charming and brilliant duo, Mathy and Fran.
Lately, there is a movement toward highly constructed, pristinely executed “nonfiction” films. These films capture real people, real places, and real stories with a heavy imposition of cinematic techniques. If you talk to these directors, they freely admit to directing events, doing multiple takes of supposedly spontaneous moments, and generally making up stuff. But then there are directors like Elizabeth Lo, an NYU grad who’s pushing her work in the opposite direction: messier, less narrative-driven, raw. Her films have been featured in Sundance Film Festival, Short of the Week and she’s been named as one of the ’25 New Faces of Independent Film’ by Filmmaker Magazine.
For the past two weeks, we’ve been consumed with A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin, a nearly 600-page conversation between the legendary (and infamous) filmmaker Werner Herzog and editor Paul Cronin. While Herzog comes from an older generation of filmmakers, his rogue approach to cinema strikes us as being particularly timely today. Not just timely, actually — but challenging. At 72 years old, Werner Herzog is still ahead of his time.
Lately we’ve been asking filmmakers why they make films. The question is usually pretty awkward, since most filmmakers haven’t really thought about it. They make films because they are compelled to make films. But when you ask, and when you press past the long silence that follows, there is often a surprising and beautiful answer waiting for you. For Leonardo Dalessandri — the visionary Italian filmmaker behind Watchtower of Turkey — his reason is simple.
There is so much good advice out there, but almost none of it sticks. For every thousand pieces of advice you get, you might remember one or two. But what does stick is significant. You can learn a lot about someone from the advice they’ve retained. And you can learn a lot from them too. For the past few months, we’ve been asking filmmakers what advice has stuck with them. Their answers were as varied as their work. But we noticed something: When advice does stick with someone, it becomes not just advice they remember, but advice they give. It becomes their advice. In other words, the best good advice becomes part of who you are. Maybe something below will do the same for you.
SKÜMASKOT is a film about loss set in a frozen psychological wasteland. The environment is the antagonist. Man versus nature representing man versus humannature: the main character is at odds with himself. To bring these empty, violent places to life, filmmaker Jared Knecht and actor Madison Hatch flew to Iceland, where they subjected themselves to some of the most brutal conditions on earth. “We literally got saved by the search and rescue crew during a blizzard one night,” Jared told us.
It would make sense for most first-time narrative directors to keep the bar low. Shoot locally. Limit variables. Make something simple. Don’t, for example, incorporate a sacred bull-jumping ceremony in a remote Ethiopian village. Don’t, for example, shoot the entire film in a language you don’t understand. But of course Joey L. isn’t most first-time directors. And People of the Delta is not most films. Set in a brutal section of Ethiopia known as the Omo Valley, People of the Delta is the first narrative film of its kind ⎯ so unique that it will live in an Ethiopian culture museum as an ethnographic study of the region.
How far are you willing to go for your films? Are you willing to break the law? Get arrested? Spend 18 hours hiding from helicopters to get a single shot of a dam exploding? For Ben Knight, one of the filmmakers behind the recent (and excellent) documentary DamNation, the answer is yes.
Reinaldo Marcus Green was a lot of things before he was a filmmaker. Promising athlete, master’s level educator, family man. He worked on Wall Street before, during, and after the 2008 financial collapse. And only then did he decide to study film at NYU under the guidance of legends like Spike Lee and Todd Solondz. So you could say Reinaldo has seen some things. But, more importantly, he has something to say about it.
There’s no secret formula for getting great performances from your actors. Just kidding — yes there is! And Adrienne Weiss knows all the ingredients. After beginning her career directing plays at Yale, Adrienne has gone on to write and direct feature films (her first feature premiered at Sundance); coach directors on feature films and for shows like Girls, 30 Rock, and American Horror Story; and teach courses at NYU and Columbia on how to direct actors. She is also the founder of DirectingActors.com, teaching private workshops that give directors the tools they need to get great performances from their actors. So, yeah, she knows what she’s talking about.
Matthew Porterfield, a 39-year-old filmmaker from Baltimore, Maryland, has written and directed four feature films, including Hamilton, Putty Hill, I Used to Be Darker, and the soon-to-be-released Sollers Point. His work has been screened at acclaimed festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, and the Berlinale. And in 2010 he was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. It’s an impressive CV for any filmmaker, let alone one who claims, for the most part, to lack ambition.
When Ricky Staub, founder and director of Neighborhood Film Company, decided to make his first narrative short film, he went back to the oldest writing adage in the book: write what you know. And what did Ricky know? North Philly, that’s what. “It’s the most inspiring place I’ve ever lived,” he told us. “It’s a unique world that I don’t see explored a lot — a world I have tons of nuanced insight into.”
There are few people more experienced in cause-based storytelling than Ashley Gutierrez, creative director and founder of Cliff Co., an Impact Storytelling Agency. And that’s due to not only how long she’s worked on these types of projects, but also the specific projects on which she’s worked. Namely, Kony 2012 — arguably the most viral video of all time (at least according to TIME). If nothing else, the Kony film was a testament to the power of storytelling and the relevance of online films — particularly when it comes to causes.
A sculptor doesn’t see the rock. A sculptor sees what’s inside the rock (i.e. The Sculpture). It takes a different kind of eyes — ones that look past the surface and see the shape underneath. In many ways, it’s the same kind of eyes that a documentary filmmaker needs: x-ray eyes. “You have to chisel away at big chunks of rock,” filmmaker Jake Viramontez told us. “But what it ultimately reveals is something beautiful underneath.” Jake’s latest film, Killing the Rock, is both about a sculptor and is a sculpture in itself: a piece of art carved from the Syrian refugee crisis, and one man’s attempt to make sense of the senseless. Watch the film below, then read more about Jake’s experience making it.
Years before Abby Fuller became Chef’s Table’s first female director, her first job out of film school was making the series True Life for MTV. That’s where she mastered the most basic building blocks of storytelling: beginnings, middles, and endings. For being so fundamental, it’s surprising how often they’re forgotten. We’ve all watched films that are nothing but a series of beginnings with no real story or progression. And we wonder why we lose interest. We wonder what’s missing. Well, the middle. And also, the end.
Documentaries excel when they don’t hold back, when they give an “unmitigated” perspective on someone’s life, as director Garrett Bradley puts it. That’s exactly how she managed to make an incredibly specific story relate on such a broad level, by telling a story in its entirety. Because, when you get below the surface-level details, great documentaries remind us that our stories aren’t as unique as we may have thought in the first place.
Tom Levinge’s comedic short, Mister Biscuits, is silly. It suspends reality by putting humans in the roles of beloved pets. There’s the occasional poop gag. And it’s unapologetically a “dog movie,” whereby the power of one’s pet’s affections is strong enough to help the protagonist recover, repair, and move on with their life — despite undergoing some pretty significant hardships. And yet, that’s exactly what makes this piece such a fantastic filmmaking achievement. It’s recognizable but inventive. It’s impossible, but it’s honest.
Sometimes the most compelling way to present a story is to take a step back. A narrative can, and will do the work for itself, giving the audience the chance to make its own conclusions. But, make no mistake; this “hands-off” approach doesn’t take any less work than the alternative. Documentary filmmaker James Burns went to painstaking lengths in building relationships with his subjects in Revolving Doors, a film that follows a man facing his second stint in prison. But, by putting in the time to build relationships, he had the opportunity to reveal the humanity behind recidivism in the prison system. Burns, an ex-convict turned filmmaker, crafts stories about how quickly we forget that incarcerated individuals are still human like the rest of us.
Dylan Allen’s The Privates manages to tackle sci-fi, indie-rock, group dynamics, and merge them into one brilliantly thoughtful short film. The ideas in the ensemble comedy transcend filmmaking: waiting for your big break, struggling through creative differences, grappling with the drive to create something so great it melts faces. But despite all of those highly recognizable elements, the film has a wit and through-line that is totally original. That’s probably due in large part to the work Allen put into making every single role in his cast of characters strong enough to stand out from the background noise.
There’s a moment in Free Solo during Alex Honnold’s historic, rope-less ascent of El Capitan when the audience sees cinematographer Mikey Schaefer doubled over, so sick with anxiety that he’s unable to watch what’s happening. It’s a powerful moment. And, after speaking with Co-Directors Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, it seems to accurately sum up what sounds like the most stressful production we’ve ever heard of — a production they weren’t even sure they wanted to take on:
There are a lot of ways you can learn how to make films. You can go to film school. You can study film books/history/theory. You can get a job as a PA on a film set. Or starting at age 15, you can make 300+ rap music videos in the nooks and crannies of London, England. As you’d expect, Charlotte Regan did the latter, which is perhaps why her work stands out as being beautifully offbeat, charmingly nonconventional, and — best of all — funny.
Danny Madden (a.k.a. Ornana) has one rule: Make films the hard way, or don’t make them at all. “Sometimes it’s easy to look for tricks, or to want to master your craft to the point where you know what you’re doing and it gets easier. But if you get to that point, where what you’re doing is easy, then you’ve really lost something.”
It’s a weird time to be a nonfiction filmmaker in America. But rarely has it been more important. Not only do we need true stories, but we need deep, nuanced true stories that eschew the broad brush of clickbait journalism in favor of what New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani called “the fresh, mixed-up happy-sad texture of real life.” In other words: we need documentary filmmakers. And we need good ones.
There’s no easy way to make a film. The process is incredibly long and complex with a thousand unmarked pitfalls along the way. Sometimes you learn by falling into them. Sometimes you learn by having someone else point them out to you. Which is why we called our friend Adrienne Weiss, an accomplished filmmaker and coach who’s spent the past decade teaching up-and-coming directors at NYU and Columbia. What advice did she have for directors, we wondered. What did she wish someone had told her?
Eliot Rausch likes parables and has a habit of turning them into beautiful and thought-provoking, albeit highly ambiguous, short films. On the surface, the form might seem outdated. Parables aren’t data-driven. They’re not timely. They’re not easily retweetable, shareable, likeable, loveable, Snapchat-able. They don’t contain takeaways. All reasons why it would be easy to write them off. And all reasons why we need them now more than ever. “Our time is limited and our attention spans are really short,” Eliot told us. “There’s something incredibly beautiful about passing on these short parables to future generations.”
At just 26 years old, Daisy Jacobs was nominated for an Academy Award for her animated short film, The Bigger Picture. Short in this context is a bit ironic. The project was physically massive: life-sized paintings painstakingly animated frame by frame over six months. The result is striking — unforgettable even. Ostensibly a simple story about a family, the film explores life-sized issues including death, loss, anger, and grief. In many ways, the scale of the art matches the scale of the themes. But that might be too tidy of an interpretation. Daisy’s reasons for working in the large scale are much more down to earth: “Personally, I can get more into the character,” she told us. “He is the same size as me; and what he does and physically touches, I’m animating at the same scale I encounter in the real world.”
On Directing Film by David Mamet is a short book, just over 100 pages; but it contains everything Mamet knows about directing films, which he admits isn’t much. But then, that’s his whole point. Directing is a craft made up of a few simple tools mastered painstakingly over time. And one of those tools — maybe the most important one — is understanding how to craft scenes. “The unit with which the director most wants to concern himself is the scene,” Mamet explains. “Make the beats serve the scene, and the scene will be done; make the scenes, in the same way, the building blocks of film, and the film will be done.” To put it gently, some of Mamet’s perspectives can be polarizing, but asking them can challenge your own perspective on what makes an effective scene.
Hip Hop Cafe is smart. Very smart. From the location to the soundtrack, the concept to the execution, it all works together seamlessly — which is quite the feat considering the entire short film is framed solely around classic hip-hop lyrics. It’s a simple, yet incredibly time-intensive and difficult concept to pull off. When we talked with U.K. filmmaker Robbie Samuels (a.k.a superrocketman) about his Staff-Picked film, he seemed to have a matter-of-fact reaction to our glowing review of his passion project. To him, it was simple:
In Jim Cummings’ breakout one-take short film, Thunder Road, a heroically unselfconscious police officer (played by Cummings) takes the stage at his mother’s funeral to sing a cringeworthy, albeit gut-punchingly heartfelt, rendition of Springsteen’s classic tune. The film — which would go on to win the Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize — not only paved the way for Jim’s career, but it’s something of a metaphor for what Jim’s career is all about: sincerity, vulnerability, and a whole lot of putting yourself out there. “Everybody’s so terrified to do anything,” Jim told us. “So was I. But it takes doing something to do something. Being persistent is what makes you a director.”
No matter what kind of profession you work in, there’s something to be said for good, old-fashioned hustle. Squeezing every bit of value out of an experience. When director Tucker Bliss stepped up to direct the Staff-Picked Monster Factory, he was bringing a wealth of experience, taste, and style to the table — all of which were developed in one place: commercial work. Whether you’re a filmmaker whose goal is to make a feature-length narrative or to direct ads for Nike, there’s a lesson to be learned here: why pay for an education when you can get paid for an education?
Win, lose, or draw, there’s something respectable about diving headfirst into something — going for it. The great Annie Dillard puts it nicely: “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” It’s the tension between gravity and impact that forces us to get creative, build processes, and maybe even escape disaster. Because, let’s face it, there’s nothing quite as motivational as imminent failure.
Non-profit films may be the perfect testing ground for new techniques. As an action-oriented medium, it’s one of the most record- and data-driven forms of filmmaking. Beyond views, organizations need to see return on investment — it’s the entire reason they exist. So, there’s a testable result for every new implementation. Did people react differently? Did they donate? Did the storytelling tactic work?
The “based on a true story” trope is equal parts appealing and daunting for a filmmaker. An amazing story rooted in some sort of reality can feel like the perfect creative storm. But how do you do it justice — especially when it hits close to home for a community in the wake of a tragedy? That was the challenge facing Evan Ari Kelman, director and co-writer of Where There’s Smoke, when he set about exploring the transformative nature of the tragedy that occurred one night in 2005 when three FDNY firefighters lost their lives — otherwise known as “Black Sunday.”
If our conversation with Dan Sadgrove seems to rove a bit, bear with us. It’s what he does. “I don’t have a mortgage or assets. I have a suitcase of clothes and that’s about it,” he told us. The director films projects during his travels across the globe, so when our conversation went to Vietnam, South Africa, or West Texas, we let it go there. And while it may seem like he lives a romantic life on the road, Dan didn’t hesitate in admitting that it’s a hard life as well. In fact, he was reluctant to encourage anyone to take it on.
If you gave five different filmmakers the same prompt, you’d get five different films. That’s because every objective element of the process (plot, characters, story) passes through the most subjective filter of all: our perspective. What results is an infinitely nuanced version of reality, with all of our biases, opinions, and values attached. This perspective is what makes films unique and it’s defined by our first-hand experiences, which is exactly why U.K. Director Charlotte Regan’s films are successful — she writes what she knows. Nothing more, nothing less.
Humans are productive beings; it’s in our nature. We excel in building, creating, and existing in a constant state of motion. But, this comes with its downside too. We’re also prone to overworking and overstressing. Burning out. So, how do we maintain a healthy lifestyle without self-destructing? Maybe we need to change our perception of what “productive” really means. As Tina Essmaker, founder and former editor of The Great Discontent, puts it, “when you make space in your life, the universe will fill it.” In other words, sometimes we need to get out of our own way.
Procrastination is often an act of self-preservation. When we know something will be difficult, we naturally tend to avoid it. This instinct may have been useful at some point (stone age, maybe?), but for us creatives, it can be our worst enemy. While we wait, problems seem to multiply, obstacles grow larger and while we’re busy thinking about those obstacles, the opportunity may be slipping away. Director Brent Foster experienced this first-hand; ultimately, it’s why he started his award-winning “While I’m Here” docu-series:
There’s maybe no one more qualified to be leading the charge for independent filmmakers these days than Jim Cummings. Since we talked to him a year ago, he’s gone on to make his first feature, Thunder Road, and win the Grand Jury Prize at South By Southwest. The film is currently sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s already generated $500,000 in ticket sales in France alone. Maybe most notably, though, he and his crew made it on their own — no major studio, no executives, no distributors. It’s an independent film in the truest sense of the word. Let’s just say, he’s fired up about that:
Prospect isn’t just a good film for first-time directors. It’s a good film, period, which is a rare feat for any filmmaker, especially those who haven’t tackled a feature before. So, when we saw the immersive, haunting sci-fi film, we decided to track down its two directors, Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell, to see what they had to share about their experience. Luckily for us, it turns out there was quite a bit.
It shouldn’t surprise you that Ryan Koo didn’t go to film school. He is, after all, the founder of the wildly popular website No Film School, an indispensable resource used (and loved) by independent filmmakers around the world — us included. No Film School is a direct extension of Ryan’s scrappy, independent mentality. This is a guy who does things his own way. Like when he moved to New York to start a job as a graphic designer at MTV, despite having zero design experience. Or when he ran a Kickstarter campaign for a film that ended up being years away from being produced.
Something weird can happen when you start making a film (or start making anything, really). You can get too close to the project, lose perspective, and start writing things that sound good but aren’t actually true at all. It happens so easily, and you often don’t realize it until you look back. For Douglas Gautraud, the filmmaker behind the My RØDE Reel 2014 award-winning short film My Mom’s Motorcycle, telling the truth in his projects is the most important thing.
In his or her own way, almost every person in the world is a travel filmmaker. When people find themselves in new places, they get out their camcorders and hit Record. These videos, of course, are historically some of the most boring videos ever made. That’s why when a professional travel filmmaker like Brandon Li turns his eye on a place, the result is so striking. There is an art to making a great travel film, and we hoped Brandon could teach us what it is.
Jared Hogan has a beard that reaches down past his collar. He wears hats with straight brims and shirts that must be at least a decade old. He looks comfortable. But beneath his nonchalant exterior is a filmmaker who is deeply committed to becoming one of the best in the business — a filmmaker who can’t stand the thought of mediocrity. “I’m incredibly ambitious,” he told us. “I can’t disappear into the middle.” This makes Jared’s statement on his About page on Tumblr all the more interesting:
Everybody wants to be Salomon Ligthelm — except Salomon Ligthelm. After years of being Vimeo’s darling and a poster child for crowdfunded passion projects, Salomon has left all of that behind in search of a more fundamental form of filmmaking. Filmmaking based on characters. Actors. Human experience. We talked to Salomon after he’d been living in New York for eight months. He was still very much transitioning from who he was to who he is becoming. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, as you’ll see from our conversation.
“Ignorance is bliss,” Isaac Testerman says. “Everything we did was taking the bull by the horns, not knowing if what we were doing was the best way to go about it. We were just doing things the best we could.” After making his first short film with zero filmmaking know-how, Isaac went on to cofound Delve, one of Facebook’s lead creative agencies. Now, seven years later, what Isaac and his team lack in formal training, they make up for with gusto and experience.
On a whim a few years ago, Eliot Rausch borrowed a 7D to film the final hours of his friend’s dog, Oden. When he woke up the next morning, Last Minutes with Oden had 30,000 Vimeo views, and Eliot’s directorial career had accidentally been launched. But that’s the way things seem to go for Eliot. Without trying to control or manipulate his career path, he’s inadvertently become one of the most well-respected independent filmmakers in the business. After working for major brands like Nike and Under Armour, Eliot is now taking a step back to rediscover what brought him to storytelling in the first place. This is our conversation with the legendary Eliot Rausch.
Susi Sie does not like computers, so it’s a little bit ironic that our conversation took place over Skype. When we talked with her, she was sitting in her studio in Berlin, surrounded by the machines and materials she uses to make her kinetic, otherworldly, and yet entirely tangible films. Everything you see in a Susi Sie film is real. No computer trickery. No 3D. “I have a lot of sand,” she told us, “petri dishes, plastic cups, gloves, color, aquariums, tape, pipettes, cable ties, protective goggles, protection masks. It’s like a construction market, actually.”