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  • Is filmmaking still an option?

    Posted by Isaac David quesada on April 15, 2020 at 2:16 am

    I have spent my professional life following a long term plan to build my career as a filmmaker while, at the same time, being able to pay the bills. But now I find myself in a situation where film is very quickly evolving into different things so fast it is very hard to keep up. Streaming services, influencers, youtube channels, seem to be on the wheel of this changes, while movies and television are taking the passenger seat and also trying to keep up and sometimes even emulate social media.

    In the 90s it seemed like a great idea to be a filmmaker, with Kevin Smith, Tarantino, and others showing there was a place in film for independent creators, but now seems like the only two roads to success are working on a film franchise or trying to do viral social media content.

    So now I find myself hunting gigs on fiverr, reddit and other websites for a day to day living, while trying to figure out what´s the best direction to follow. I don´t want to be an influencer or work for a big studio where there is no chance of fulfilling my creative needs, I also don´t want to be hunting for small gigs forever. I just want to make movies.

    Am I the only one feeling like this? and if not how do you deal with this issues as professional creators?

    Freelance Motion Designer

    Tim Wilson replied 4 years ago 9 Members · 11 Replies
  • 11 Replies
  • Michael Gissing

    April 16, 2020 at 12:31 am

    I’m glad I’m at the end rather than the beginning of a career. However, if I was starting out then the new is normal so I would just accept it and find a way to work within it. If I didn’t like it I would do something else.

    The industry is changing. Always things change. I focus on the positives. Cheap but amazing cameras, computers and software. Doing things that were once really difficult with relative ease and available to all.

    I see life challenges outside of the industry. Overpopulation, disregard and damage to ecosystems, disconnection from nature, our food, water and society. Yep. Enough to worry about. Most importantly I want my life to have fun in abundance without destroying the joint.

  • Rich Rubasch

    April 16, 2020 at 12:36 am

    I think that is an astute observation. I suppose I might suggest there are many avenues you can take to explore your creative motivation to tell stories.

    I work in corporate video, which includes government and university. All of these, which also pay BTW, have provided me avenues to explore creative ideas in many different ways. Editing, animation, producing, writing…some were stories, some were producing to a script or boards. But in every case I was challenged to solve a creative problem using one of my skillsets.

    And then I got paid for it.

    So for me the industry has provided both the outlet for my creative drive, as well as the ability to earn a living doing something that is more of a hobby than a job. And with people who are driven in the same way and make their contributions to the creative at hand.

    So I’d suggest not to box yourself in to a particular type of media, but rather apply your creative skills to different kinds of media and you’ll find success and satisfaction.

    Rich Rubasch
    Tilt Media Inc.
    Video Production, Post, Studio Sound Stage

  • Tim Wilson

    April 16, 2020 at 3:05 am

    Hi Isaac,

    You’re asking “is filmmaking still an option” at the same time that every filmmaker, production company, and studio is asking themselves the same thing! So if you’re asking about this month, or even this year, the answer is, “I dunno, is it?”

    We may know more later this year, but it may be longer than that. I’m sure you’ve seen the study coming out of Harvard today proposing that, without a vaccine, we might be talking intermittent social distancing through 2022. The authors are submitting their numbers for peer review, and they’re saying IF there’s no vaccine, and MAYBE intermittent distancing…but it’s certainly worth keeping in mind that if there’s a vaccine before the end of 2021, it would be the fastest time to a vaccine in human history.

    Since you were asking in more general career terms, I’ll mostly stay there, to echo the advice of Michael and Rich. As objectionable as it may seem to toil for “The Man” while gathering resources to make your dream projects on the side, the “day job” approach to creative satisfaction is an old model that still works.

    Three of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers I can think of, guys who push crazily hard to make movies that only they could possibly make, have built virtually full time jobs around their side hustles.

    The first time that some folks ever saw Ridley Scott’s work was a commercial he made for Apple. It only aired once, during the Super Bowl in 1984, but people are still talking about it today. I love this particular YouTube clip, because it’s from a home tape of the game itself — you can see the game score as we cut to a break midway through the third quarter, and the promo after it. This was a real live TV spot.

    You could say, yeah, a spot made after Blade Runner, but the fact is that his company had made a TON of commercials before the first person hired him to make a movie, and when they did, part of the reason why was very much because they knew what they were getting from the guy, because he had a body of real work for paying customers.

    The fact is that he’s still making commercials today. He goes back and forth between them as money and time allow. And sure, he’s at the point in his career where he can do the fun stuff and get real budgets for it, including one he did for Hennessey that I wrote about at the COW last year. But he’s not doing these for love. He’s doing them for money.

    Errol Morris is one of my favorite filmmakers. He won an Oscar for his documentary The Fog of War, and I feel like even that is faint praise to describe the singularity of his vision. The Thin Blue Line, Grey Gardens, Gates of Heaven — it feels like there’s nothing he can’t do. Except get paid to make movies full time. Not even close. He reckons his time is split 50-50 between movies and commercials.

    He doesn’t get the glamorous stuff like Ridley Scott does, although he did get a gig for Apple. The “I’m A Mac” spots with Justin Long and John Hodgman, my least favorite campaign in history. LOL But it paid Errol, and frankly, paid a pretty good actor and a VERY good comedian and writer who all needed the dough, so I’m ultimately okay with it, even while hating it not one whit less.

    I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw this spot for Chipotle, though, because you can actually hear Errol in it speaking off camera. He actually does this in his documentaries all the time, because he’s never had the money (or inclination, honestly), to have a crew put him in a chair opposite his subject and speak face to face. Instead, he just yells from behind the camera. LOL I love this. He’s also genuinely good at connecting with people, which is why his documentaries work so well. I mean, you can say these are artless and stupid, and plenty of people in the YT comments do exactly that, but I love his directness.

    I’m a Zillow nerd, and I love this clip of Errol talking about his Zillow campaign. He speaks very specifically about his search for idiosyncratic stories, and because houses also touch on HOME, he finds it very easy to reveal those stories, whether it’s a person trying to recapture something about their childhood home, or someone running away from home.

    You’ll get to see one of Morris’s most distinctive inventions, the Interrortron, which uses the principle of the teleprompter to allow him to both shoot the interview AND have face to face contact with his subjects. They don’t stare into a lens when they speak, they look him in the eye, and at the same time, look directly in to OUR eyes. It’s certainly part of what made The Fog of War so powerful — basically looking Robert S. MacNamara in the eye for an hour and a half while he talks about being part of the strategic teams of everything from Hiroshima to Vietnam.

    What really strikes me in this Zillow spot is Errol falls into his own “trap”, not that it’s a trap, really — the Interrorton is a tool, and you can see it here working as intended, as I think he winds up telling us more about himself than he intends to, and it’s beautiful.

    He also says, and I’m paraphrasing, but you’ll see it, “Zillow is a website, how can you be emotional about a website?”

    I’m pointing this out to you specifically, Isaac, because once you can answer that, you can see why a documentarian who only cares about personal stories, and who wants to peel back social niceties to get to the truths that people might not have intended to reveal, will pursue that same passion in commercials. You could just as easily be doing this with corporate video or anything else. The stories are where YOU find them. Errol shows you how a campaign for a website that shows you pictures of houses with no people in them can be DEEPLY personal.

    For a more glam example, he was a hired gun for the Oscars, too. I adore this 2002 film as a bit of filmmaking, where pretty much the whole thing hinges on his ability to connect with people, to get them to give him something real without a script. Here you can see where he first perfected the “white screen” approach that he later used for Apple and that other people merrily swiped too. He’s the first to admit that he stole from commercial photography, but I’ve watched this every few months since it first aired because I really, really enjoy it. A bunch of civilians, plus Trump, Jerry Brown, Wavy Gravy, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Fran Leibovitz, Al Sharpton, Tom Brady (Errol is from Boston after all, and in 2002, Tom WAS Boston), plus a couple of surprises I don’t want to give away. And yeah, some of my favorite parts are Errol barking back at the people he’s interviewing.

    But even with an Oscar in his bag and some of the most influential documentaries ever made, and commercial gigs with extraordinarily high profiles, he still has to hustle for distribution. Some of his shorts wind up on the PBS series POV. He’s done a lot of films for the New York Times web series Op Docs. He’s done six shorts for the ESPN series, “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports.” Some of these, he might have been paid to do, but other times, it’s just a matter of finding an outlet. Not every option is open to him, so he takes the ones he can get.

    Probably the most idiosyncratic director of them all these days is another of my favorites, Werner Herzog, and talk about a hustler! He pays for his directing career with acting (including an unforgettable role in The Mandalorian), writing books, public speaking, and teaching out the wazoo. He’ll do a class for almost anyone, I think, as long as they’re paying.

    He opens his class on guerilla filmmaking by confessing that he stole his first film camera. It’s not a confession as much as it is a challenge, like to a duel. Are YOU ready to steal a camera? Because if you’re not, he says, you really need to ask yourself if you’re actually ready to make films. Other lessons include forging government documents, picking locks, and the basics of shooting a gun, all skills that he has used while making his own films.

    One of the craziest clips I’ve ever seen is when Herzog is getting interviewed outdoors in LA by the BBC, HE GETS SHOT by some rando, asks “What was that?”, says it wasn’t much, and KEEPS GOING.

    The hustle on this guy is freaking relentless, and when you read what he went through to make some of his movies, he really seems unhinged….except that he’s also freakishly rational. This is what I have to do, so I do it.

    If you haven’t watched any of his movies, the one I’d start with is Encounters At The End of the World, which is a very informal, light-hearted documentary about scientists at Antarctica, in which one of the most extreme filmmakers to ever pick up a camera gets up close and personal with some of the most extreme scientists. Some of it is downright hilarious, especially a talent show sequence. There’s some unbelievably gorgeous underwater footage, some of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen, and because it’s Herzog, some unexpected meditations on intensity, derangement, insanity, and even death. With apologies for the aspect ratio of this clip, it really blew me away:

    Talking about intensity and insanity, Werner plays a villain in the first Jack Reacher picture, starring Tom Cruise, and I think that both of these are worth your while (although the books are better, I say having read all 24 of them) who mangles both of his hands on purpose, for reasons that are downright psychotic — but hey, that’s why you hire Werner Herzog. LOL He leans into it for sure, but this is a guy who, when there wasn’t money to make films, moved to Mexico to become a rodeo clown and smuggled TVs across the Texas border for pocket money.

    Or so he says. Is any of this true? Your guess is as good as mine, but it’s sure right on brand. LOL

    I don’t have much of a point except to say that every filmmaker is also a hustler. Heck, look at Scorsese, who’s still busting his hump trying to get his next picture made, with Paramount basically telling him to pound sand, and that’s AFTER his entire g-d career, including the Oscar-nominated The Irishman, still playing on a TV or mobile phone near you. Nobody’s going to make it easy for him, ever, no matter how many times he proves himself.

    Same for Ridley Scott, Errol Morris, and Werner Herzog. They’ve each made a lot of people a lot of money, each had a huge influence on the industry, and each in their 70s hustling harder than kids in their 20s. Heck, probably hustling harder than THEY did in their 20s.

    So there’s your question. Can you find the humanity in commercial work? Can you keep asking people for money? Are you ready to steal a camera? Okay, this is the COW, we don’t support stealing cameras. So are you ready to move to another country where you don’t even speak the language and become a rodeo clown if that’s what it takes?

    There’s always a way. None of them are easy.

  • Todd Terry

    April 16, 2020 at 4:00 am

    [Rich Rubasch] “So for me the industry has provided both the outlet for my creative drive, as well as the ability to earn a living doing something that is more of a hobby than a job.”

    All that makes perfect sense and is a good thing… but I feel compelled that it is a little bit of a double-edged sword.

    Back a zillion years ago when I was young, energetic, and starry-eyed, I thought of myself as very creative and had big visions of doing creative things. I was always writing screenplays, thinking up film ideas, schlepping hundreds of miles to take meaningless acting jobs on (really good) TV shows or (really bad) movies, and in my day job as a television promotions producer I tried to turn all my spots into little :30 movies.

    When I started my own company 23 years ago (as of last Friday, I completely missed/forgot our anniversary), I thought “This is perfect“… I’d be my own boss, doing the kind of work that I liked (I did and do really like producing TV commercials), and I’d have all the needed tools, toys, and resources to be able to produce a movie, or short films, or whatever I wanted to do.

    Which I’ve never done.

    I’ve had a few efforts, and a couple of false starts that never went anywhere (spent the better part of a year on pre-prod for one film that eventually crashed and burned for a variety of reasons), but mostly it was just because I didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm to do it. I found that when I was writing, producing, and directing all day every day, I really didn’t have much drive to do the same thing in my off hours…. even though those would be my projects rather than the other-people’s projects that I did every day.

    I don’t think that effect is universal. I know plenty of professional photographers whose hobbies are taking pictures in their off hours. There are probably professional chefs who enjoy cooking for themselves on the weekends. Carpenters who enjoy woodworking projects. I’m not really one of those guys though… I can’t seem to generate tons of enthusiasm to do the same thing after work that I do during work.

    Please note that I’m NOT complaining. I love my job. It’s certainly better than having to work for a living, drag into an office promptly at 8am, or wear a suit instead of my usual uniform of Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts and Yankees cap (side story: the first day after I stopped being a guy-on-the-news for a living I gave away 12 Brooks Brothers suits). Now I get to do interesting work, it’s creative (in its own somewhat limiting way), I come and go as I please, and although I’m not a millionaire I have to say (with the exception of this virus business slowdown) I’ve been paid pretty darn well for doing what I do. I’m just not, at 56, the brilliant auteur that I thought I would be when I was 26. Oh well, plans change… or get changed for you.

    Of course that has little to do with IDQ’s original question… but thought it was worth mentioning.


    Todd Terry
    Creative Director
    Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.

  • Oliver Peters

    April 16, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    I think you have to first define what “filmmaking” is. If you mean Hollywood, that’s a very small and regimented market and the chances of breaking into that from the outside are slim to none. You either work your way up into that industry or you don’t.

    The commonly referenced exceptions, like Kevin Smith or the guys who did “Blairwitch” ages ago are outliers – flukes – people who worked hard at a shot and got it. Those types of options still exist through Netflix and many other outlets. But – and this is a big but – you have to separate making money with following your passion. I’ve worked on tons of indie films – nearly all of which have enjoyed some level of distribution – and I doubt that any of the principal investors and creators ever made money off of them.

    If you want to make a living and you want to be creative, then there seem to be two options these days. The first – and generally an unconventional route – is to produce your own creative projects and find an outlet for them somehow. This can range from something like being an “influencer” to doing your own films and docs, such as what Gary Hustwit does (“Helvetica,” “Objectified,” “Rams” and others).

    The second, more conventional route is to work in commercial/corporate media. Many companies pay for sponsored projects that have all the same aspects of high-end filmmaking, but you will actually get paid and make a living.

    So is the industry changing? Yes. Do you have possibilities for the future? Absolutely!

    – Oliver

    Oliver Peters –

  • Isaac David quesada

    April 16, 2020 at 10:31 pm

    Hi everyone, thanks for your very insightful answers. I do feel motivated after reading them. I want to give a special thanks to Tim for taking the time to present so many examples. I will watch Encounters at the End of the World as soon as I finish a gig I am working on. I also loved Errol Morris, I will also check out his films.

    I have nothing much to add, just appreciation, it is always uplifting to have your vision shaken into a new perspective, which comes very handy to me right now.

    I also learn a lot from your experience and insights Michael, Rich, Todd and Oliver. Again thank you for sharing your visions and I must say I do agree.

    And to answer the question about what I mean with filmmaking, it is not really about Hollywood, it is just to be able to join a centuries old conversation about life and humanity, to be able to share your perspective in such a way that can take other people away from their day to day into some other reality. But a you have reminded me, that possibility does not fade away just because your film is an ad for Apple.

    Thanks again, friends!

    Freelance Motion Designer

  • Tangier Clarke

    April 27, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    Isaac I have many of the same feelings. I’ve been a staff editor for just about all of my 18 years of a career in production, primarily in post. I have never gone union and have always worked for relatively small companies. I started on AVID, but quickly went to FCP legacy then FCP X, so my entire career has been built on somewhat of an underdog/uphill battle situation having to prove to professors and professionals what is achievable with those tools; Apple Motion included. I actually used to pull off various effects using LiveType lol.

    Yet many of my peers have built their careers around gigs or productions; climbing a ladder as AEs hoping to be an editor on a show and dealing with constant instability. I never wanted that as my primary source of income being that I am a family man as well. I didn’t even really know what an AE does until last year (after all of these years) because I’ve never been one really, yet my peers who know me and my work tell me that I am more than capable of being an AE. Now I find that (at least here in LA), you’re sometimes expected to master multiple applications, have more than a decade of experience, potentially a degree in the related field and after all of that you’ll barely get paid well. I had a clear path a long time ago too and I still love what I do and I love doing it on FCP X. I am working on a feature right now as well and some streaming shows, but I can’t make a living off of them. Like you I am re-evaluating this path, how to adapt, be happy, and make a living. Part of that equation has been looking to the education and training space. For far too long, I’ve always wanted to be like the guys I look up to and be in their spaces, especially since I don’t see many who look like me in their positions of being prominent and/or recognizable voices. To name a few (but not exhaustive) these are folks like Larry Jordan, Oliver Peters, Tim Wilson, Sam Mestmen, Mark Spencer, Bill Davis, Steve Martin, Michael Cioni, Bob Zellin. I got a Masters in 2002 (not that it matters) for the sake of teaching one day in this field and am working on my CTE credential to teach at the high school level (as an option), but I love editing and being part of the process; the technology, the creativity, just all of it I get excited about. Though now it’s in everyones’s hands (for better or worse) and markets are saturated. Competing with much younger people who will work to the bone for very little is challenging. Getting people/companies to see your value through experience is challenging. Ageism is challenging.

    Thes rate of change, the very thing I always loved because it keeps things fresh is the one thing that’s making it difficult to stay relevant while making a living without killing myself for monetary scraps. I don’t have a solution and there are numerous options depending on one’s situation, age, priorities, etc. The only thing that seems to be certain is having to adapt.

    Still figuring it out myself. There’s so many layers to this discussion. Good luck. You’re not alone in how you feel. I am 42 by the way for the record.

  • Eric Santiago

    April 28, 2020 at 12:53 pm

    I simply love this medium ☺
    It is very challenging and yes most of the time rewarding.
    Last night a colleague needed some VFX removal off a wireless pack during a kissing scene.
    No real budget due to the current climate up here in Canada so I went for it.
    Heck, my wife asked if I was getting paid for it.
    I told her I did it for learning purposes.
    I used Photoshop a la old school filmstrip style instead of Mocha.
    It was fun and sure it wasn’t perfect but I didn’t have to charge for it.
    That’s the part I like about what I do.
    If it’s fun and challenging, I don’t really worry about pay so much.
    I do get paid no doubt about that, but there are times (such as these) that you just need to do it for love 🙂

  • Tangier Clarke

    April 28, 2020 at 5:52 pm

    Agreed. I started working on a feature last year while another editor was hired working on it. I had no reason to put time and energy into it, but It was therapy for me. I just wanted to, and I like the story. A couple of months later, I ended up becoming the editor taking over the project…with modest pay.

  • Greg Janza

    April 28, 2020 at 7:58 pm

    Tim, I do believe this is the single most entertaining post I’ve ever read on the Cow. Partly why it’s so damn entertaining is because I believe you’ve captured into words some of the essence of why artists like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and hundreds of other film makers are so extraordinary at their craft. Their dedication to telling a great story is at the core of their film making.

    I also want to thank you for posting the Errol Morris Oscars short film. I remember watching it live and being stunned and awed at it’s greatness and I hadn’t seen it since that Oscar’s broadcast in 2002. I could watch that a hundred times and still be just as entertained on the hundredth viewing as the first. And the reason is because of the incredible attention to detail in the craft of telling that story of the love affair we all have with movies.

    And it’s that total obsession with telling a great story that drives most of us. I work in corporate branding which is a much less sexy genre but the same principles drive the work. We go into every piece with the goal that we’ll tell the most compelling and entertaining story possible. And that’s what makes the work endlessly enjoyable. It’s an endless quest to craft a great story out of the material.

    [Tim Wilson] “I don’t have much of a point except to say that every filmmaker is also a hustler.”

    Tim, all of your examples perfectly support your main points but I think this discussion of film makers as hustlers would be lacking if we didn’t mention the most infamous hustler of them all – Orson Welles. The recent Netflix documentary ‘They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” by Morgan Neville does a great job of telling Welles’ story of relentlessly hustling to get his last film made.

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