How Other Passions Can Help You Succeed in Filmmaking

May 31, 2017
Tips and Techniques
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If only there was one, surefire, way to navigate a successful filmmaking career. Read about the careers of six successful filmmakers, and you’ll likely find six wildly different paths to glory, none of which line up with the circumstances you face. To find our own way, we have to look inward, and there’s one very good place to start, our non-filmmaking passions. By harnessing our other passions (sorry if this sounds like a TED Talk audition - it is), we can carve out our own niches in the filmmaking world and become better filmmakers in the process.

There are a ton of famous examples to look at. Among others, transcendental meditation has influenced some of David Lynch’s most striking work, ocean exploration has driven James Cameron to new depths (in a good way), and Damien Chazelle owes his Oscar statue to his love of jazz. This idea is universal to us all and, to explore it in depth, I’m calling on the experiences of skater-turned-filmmaker Adam Reynolds and climber-turned-filmmaker Lucas Preti.

You’re An Authority on the Things You’re Passionate About.

Accessibility to video content is at an all-time high and growing. This means that there’s a place for filmmakers everywhere and specialization is king. As a filmmaker, you might not have a specialized resume, but you certainly have specialties as a human being. I am overly passionate about the NBA and coffee. If I were a smarter man, I would have tapped into the market for NBA fanatics with top-notch barista skills years ago, but instead I’m just telling the world about this on a blog right now. Don’t make my mistakes.  

For a better example, look at Adam Reynolds, Co-Founder of Scopo Studios. He works as a marketing producer and does branded content for companies like Thrillist.com. Today, his success comes from focusing on the active lifestyle space, but his life as a filmmaker stemmed naturally for his love of skateboarding and surfing as a teenager.

Adam Reynolds

“That kind of naturally led into the idea of picking up a camera and shooting content. Editing lead into that as well, and realizing we can tell stories based on cutting video and putting it together. It first started out as a hobby, but we eventually came to the realization that you can make a living out of it.”

That opened the doors for Adam to get into the accelerated art program at his high school. He was the first person to step into a film program they were developing, which began an interest in filmmaking that he would later pursue at Syracuse University. On his last day of college classes, he got offered a job in L.A.  

“It was a PA position at MADtv. My mom grew up with the brother of one of the executive producers on the show… I was very fortunate but I was also typecast as a political hire, so I knew that I had to work my ass off to prove that I wasn’t. I think the biggest thing that helped me in my career is that I’m a hands-on learner. Everything that I did or saw on the big-budget TV side of things, I applied directly to my own productions. I could really break it down to learn how to do what I was seeing. That’s opened a lot of interesting doors for me over the years.”

With a new life on the West Coast, Adam got heavily into surfing. In 2010, an injury became a blessing in disguise to his film career.

“I ended up tearing some cartilage in my shoulder, which put me out of the water for about eight months… I was like, ‘This sucks, not being able to surf with my friends.’ So I thought, ‘Why don’t I get a camera and at least I can photograph my friends.’”

He spent nearly his entire savings on camera gear to shoot his friends from the beach. Then he had a realization.

“Shooting from the beach is kinda lame. I’d rather be in the water doing it.”

He spent the rest of his savings on water-proofing equipment and took a swim with his camera.

“It totally opened the door to how I saw things. It changed my perspective… Surf photography became this release for me... I became sort of known in the Los Angeles scene, and I was able to start picking and choosing people I wanted to work with.”

Adam’s love of skateboarding and surfing evolved into a more traditional filmmaking education. For Lucas Preti, whose Coral Climb Productions produces documentaries, commercials, and branded content for companies ranging from Ikea to Cosmopolitan, filmmaking became an essential part of his job when, at age 18, he was accepted to Italy’s national climbing team.

Lucas Preti

“I was representing all of these companies, climbing shoes, climbing clothes, backpacks, sunglass, all of this stuff through my climbing… I had these contracts. They were saying, ‘If you show our company and show a number of views on your YouTube channel, or you can show a full page on a climbing magazine, we’re going to give you such amount of money. I was working hard to take good pictures and nice videos of me and my friends on the same sponsor team. I was learning how to make videos more and more people wanted to watch.”

As Lucas’ skills as a filmmaker grew, so did his passion for visual storytelling.

“There was a point where I was making more money and having more fun just shooting instead of climbing. So I decided to retire from my athlete career when I was 28.”

With his whole life ahead of him, Lucas decided to become a full-time filmmaker. Since then, he has opened his company in Santa Monica and found that the skills he learned promoting himself as a climber have translated to a full-time filmmaking career.

“I was shooting my climbing videos and learning cinematography and photography from the documentary point-of-view.”

For Adam and Lucas, their other passions opened the door for filmmaking careers. While that might not be true for all of us, what’s also true is that skateboarding/surfing and climbing made Adam and Lucas better filmmakers, something we can all learn from.

Your Other Passions Make You a Better Filmmaker

If learning how to be a filmmaker was all it took to be good at it, we would be living in a much simpler world and Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies would be the only education you would need. Unfortunately, being a good filmmaker requires a bunch of specific, oftentimes intangible, skills that are mostly learned while doing. A great way to master these skills, however, is in an environment you are already comfortable in.

For Adam Reynolds, learning how to be a strong visual storyteller came from a deficiency he saw in the action sports world.

“Learning to approach things from a run-and-gun perspective and knowing that you don’t always have to have the best equipment. The simplest setup is often the best, especially in those high-action scenarios. It also forces you to realize the sense of story behind a project and how important it is because what we have, and so much of what has been created in the action-sports industry, is just action porn, really. There’s not a lot of storytelling.”

Aside from storytelling, all of the time Adam has spent on the beach has paid dividends for his awareness of setting.

“For me, what became one of the most rewarding challenges was trying to understand what the West Coast is. To say, ‘I know that in late September and early October, that the evening light in Leo Carrillo is in a certain place and absolutely spectacular for getting backlit images that have a very stylized look to them.”

Developing a strong environmental attention to detail is one hell of a valuable discipline in the video world. It’s the kind of thing that sets apart a mediocre image from a great one, and it’s a discipline Adam might not have gained without his deep knowledge of the environments he was shooting.

“You can’t get those images unless you spend time in the place and immerse yourself in the images and really study and try to grow from them.”

 

Sometimes the disciplines you learn in one area can be instantly applied to filmmaking (very much in the vein of Chase Jarvis’ advice to filmmakers). The discipline Lucas Preti had to obtain as an athlete, the singular-focus he would need to ignore distractions and live in the moment, was easily translatable to his professional career.

“I think I can translate this way of living to also being an entrepreneur, or something like that where you need to focus, have goals, and try to find a way to obtain them. I think that can be used in every aspect of life.”

However, he also found that maintaining relationships with sponsors as a climber required the same skills and disciplines he now needs with clients.

“When you are a filmmaker trying to find new clients, the approach is very similar to when you are an athlete and you want to find new sponsors for yourself. I find a lot of similarities.”

For Adam and Lucas, their passions served as foundational pieces for their film careers. They also helped them become specialized filmmakers.

Your Passions Give You a Unique Perspective

You’re special! I hate the way that sounds too, but it’s true and important to remember. Adam Reynolds’ time spent surfing not only made him a better filmmaker, it granted him the perspective to find an underrepresented area of the surfing video market.

“If you look at the big-budget projects, they’re focused on male talent. The women don’t traditionally have that same level of quality and investment from a production standpoint. That’s sort of been my focus, trying to help advocate for the female voices in that space.”

From Adam's project "81 Jumpsuits."

Adam not only saw the discrepancy, he was able to identify how to fix it.

“In the water, guys are very high-energy, high testosterone, whereas the women are much more fluid and graceful and elegant. It’s understated as opposed to the flair guys will put into their surfing. There’s a beauty in that.”

To look at an industry, recognize a problem, and present a solution is the foundation of every success story, and Adam has found it in the surfing world because he already knows it, and cares about it, deeply.

“As a husband and a father of a young daughter, what I want to be doing is creating a better environment for my daughter to grow up in, and be taken seriously.”

For Lucas Preti, who does a lot of documentaries for Italian television focused on finding the beauty of places like Vietnam and Cambodia, travelling is an essential part of the job, one that he’s uniquely qualified for as a professional climber. He’s been traveling professionally since he was 12.

“Instead of bringing my rope and climbing shoes, I bring my tripod and my lenses.”

Not only is Lucas equipped for a certain form of documentary filmmaking, he’s also uniquely qualified to capture certain subjects. When I interviewed him for this article, he was finishing up a VR project in Europe with the American climber Sasha DiGulian.

 

“It was very challenging because we used cables and pulleys in order to avoid being seen. That’s very hard in virtual reality… It’s funny because the client for this video is actually one of my first sponsors as an athlete. It’s called La Sportiva. Now I’m shooting young climbers with the same brand.”

It’s safe to say that no one is more qualified to capture a professional climber than Lucas Preti, and no one is better equipped to tackle big ideas in the surfing world than Adam Reynolds. While their careers don’t completely revolve around them, it’s these subjects that allowed Adam and Lucas’ careers to blossom and expand naturally into other places.

When we find ourselves at a career crossroads, it’s always best to look inwards for direction. Look to your other passions and see where they lead you. Unless your other passions dip into the NBA-loving barista market, that’s my turf. Step off.  

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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