When I was growing up, I played around with some still photography, and I shot some little Super 8 movies as a kid. One of my friends, Gabe Torres, made movies in our little town. So, I had some exposure to that kind of filmmaking experience at an early age. I also loved music. I listened to it before I went to school after I got home from practice or a game. It also helped me by calming me down and sweeping me off to a good night’s sleep.
Now, this was back in the day of vinyl — no cassette tapes or CDs, let alone iPhones and the digital age. So, with my love of music came my aspirations to be a Disc Jockey. I invested much of the money I earned helping my Dad on the farm in turntables, amplifiers, and really big speakers. I was the DJ for Cayuga County, doing high school dances, proms, homecomings, you name it.
Back in my Day…
My parents were willing to pay for my education, which was very special. They had saved up some money to let me fly. My Dad had told me to get as far away from the farm as I could.
With respect to my parents being so gracious in helping me with school, I didn’t want to go to some school that costs thousands of dollars since I really did not know what I wanted to do. So, I went to this small two-year college in Upstate NY, Herkimer County Community College, to really find out if I liked DJing.
The first year was radio, and the second year was television. Well, I fell in love with radio and loved all aspects of it. The next year was television and I fell in love with that even more, I was hooked! That summer, when I graduated, I came back to my home town and Gabe Torres was shooting his practicum film for USC. I asked Gabe if I could help out with anything and he introduced me to the cinematographer, who was also from USC.
That experience changed everything for me.
After graduating Summa Cum Laude from HCCC with a full-ride scholarship to go wherever I wanted, I selected Emerson College. I had been accepted into the Television program that spring, but when I landed at Emerson, because of the opportunity I had on the short film with my friend Gabe, I went directly to my counselor and changed my television major to a film major and completed their 4-year film degree in 2 years.
I just had this burning passion to be a filmmaker.
…Now what about being a filmmaker did I want to do?
I didn’t want to be a Director of Photography. I thought I was going to be a Producer. I didn’t have much experience in cinematography, and I didn’t necessarily want to be a cinematographer until finally moving out to LA where I started out at the bottom…
This is where we come to the crossroads.
I feel that if you are going to be a really passionate filmmaker,
you’re going to have to understand everyone’s job and understand how to do it.
I started at the bottom.
I began by working at a grip, lighting, and camera rental house. No matter if you want to be a cinematographer, a director, or a filmmaker, I would start at a rental house.
As I worked there, I started to understand grip gear, and then to understand lights and how to take them apart and how to fix them. Then, I started to understand cameras and how to load magazines and how to clean lenses, and those little idiosyncrasies of camera lights and lenses.
At the bottom level of working at this rental house is where I gained all this experience. I learned that if a light went out on a job that I was Director of Photography on, I could walk right over there and fix that light. I knew the idiosyncrasies of like:
“Ok, open the door, wait for a second, screw the micro switch out a little bit, snap the door, OK, take the head extensions out, OK, put the head extension back in and-
BAM! The light comes back on.
There are all these little things that you learn from starting at the bottom.
My advice is simple. Having the ability to have passion and a love for filmmaking is 60% of you being this artist. You have to fill in the other 40% with a strong work ethic, with this increased desire to be the best you can be. If that means starting at the bottom and figuring out all these specific things in order to be a better filmmaker and knowing what it all takes to put it all together, then that is what I feel your journey should be.
Breaking out of your shell is: you just gotta get out there and do it.
You’ve got to fail. And you’ve got to fail a lot.
So many people worry about how they’re not going to not succeed, and that they are going to fail. If you’re scared of that, you’re not going to move forward. You’re not going to be the filmmaker that I know you can be.
What you have to do is-
You have to be fearless.
You’ve got to jump out of the plane without a parachute. You’ve got to have a backup parachute, but you’re not jumping out with a true parachute.
That’s how you learn.
You have to fail to succeed and don’t be scared of failure. Really go at it. Gotta be fearless.
Fearlessness is such a powerful approach because when you are fearless, other people gravitate toward you. You’re like this magnet. So many of the people that work with me love working with me. Now, you should know that I’m difficult at times, don’t get me wrong. I can be very direct and biting sometimes, but they come and work with me because of this magnetism of just going for it. This fearless nature. They know that if they sign on, they’re going to learn so much. They’re going to do something they’ve never done before and they are going to go on a journey that they’re going to be able to talk about for years to come.
Fathers and Daughters
Buzz Moyer was my A-Steadi/camera operator on Fathers and Daughters. I was told, that with our limited budget, I had to use local operators. I was like, “OK,” who is in Pittsburgh? Well, this man, in my opinion, is within the top 5 operators I have ever worked with. Period. And he just happened to be a local in Pittsburgh. Buzz has done over 80 feature films, so there’s not much this man has not seen.
I walked in on the first day of our test week and I told him that we were going to change the way we make movies. I have this device called the MōVI and it will change the way you think. Remember, the MōVI was invented in March of 2013. We started production on this film in the fall of 2013. No real support for it, no Klassen Sling Shots, no Armor Man rigs, no Klassen Wheels, no mimic, just a joystick.
Well, Buzz being the salty and skeptical dog that he is, said, “REALLY!!!” By day one, he was hooked, everything was fresh. All his incredible talent, wisdom, and experience were now funneled into a device that would take this story and our characters’ performances to a whole new level while still staying on schedule. This is the Moth to the Flame aspect, the magnetism I talk about. Inspiring even the most seasoned professional is your job, ALWAYS!!!!
That’s what you want to create — that fearless nature and that energy that attracts and pulls the absolute best from you and your collaborators. They start to become Fearless as well. This is when the magic starts to happen.
They go out there and they just do it, even when they think it’s impossible.
With many decisions I have made in my career, I failed horribly. I’ve learned from that failure and used it to my advantage, and then I succeeded.
They might fail at what I’m setting up for them, but the next time they won’t and the end product is so much better because of this fearless nature.
Get out there and get your hands dirty. Get out there, make those mistakes, and find out what makes you unique.
Failure makes you humble.
You want to be humble. You don’t want to be this arrogant individual that just thinks you know more than anyone else, standing on the pulpit looking down at your team. I think that humility is so important to being a great artist.
You really have to try to break out of your shell. Before this digital age, you were shooting with film. If you failed back then, for instance, if you tried this wacky exposure, and all the stuff came back and it was unusable… Sometimes the repercussions were huge, but I kept on doing it because I knew it was so important for me to fail in order to succeed.
That was the era that I experimented in. That was the era I jumped out without a parachute on. In this digital age, you can fail and it’s no big deal because it’s just shot on a little card. So, go out there as a photographer and play with all these different compositions, lighting, exposures, and unconventional ways of shooting a scene. Experiment to find your creative SOUL as an Artist.
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