Tips For Young Filmmakers From The Best In The Business
Yesterday, June 7th, as part of the Northside Festival’s series of panels, Legs Media Managing Director Adam Joseph led a talk with BRTHR, the directing duo (made up of Alex Lee and Kyle Wightman) behind some of our favorite music videos, including the Weeknd’s “In The Night,” which recently won a Webby Award. Entitled “What It Means To Be A Maker: How Legs Creates Content With a Physical Point,” the talk covered what it’s like to be a DIY, independent content creator in an increasingly corporate world; and how, in turn, major publishers and companies should respond to young upstarts. It was a fascinating inside look at both sides of a coin, with Joseph providing a manager’s perspective, and BRTHR giving insight into what it’s like to go from being scrappy independent filmmakers, to running massive productions.
The talk stretched for a little over thirty minutes, and those were meaty minutes; every statement was valuable. Here’s a condensed version of the whole shebang. Read on, young aspiring filmmakers. Wightman and Lee lived in Wightman’s basement once–there’s hope for everyone!
Joseph: We see different sides of things. I’m an executive producer, a managing director: I work a lot with the various clients that we work with. Being a maker, being an influencer, is nothing new, but it’s changing the industry, and changing the way I do approach my job. There’s a difference between getting a call (which I recently got) which was, “how many influencers does your director have, because we also want them to release the video.” You guys, out of all the directors we work with, I feel like are the most part of that maker community. Can you just describe to me a little bit about this new generation, and makers, and how that kind of infers in your process as a director?
Wightman: There’s definitely a new generation of makers, especially when websites like Vimeo started. You see all these filmmakers coming out of nowhere. That’s kind of how we started.
Lee: Vimeo’s been an amazing bridge for us: basically connecting us to music video commissioners, and just recently, commercial agencies. So just the internet, in general, I think has really connected everyone. That’s what, I guess, our generation represents. We started basically doing music videos, just the two of us – no crew, nothing. So we quickly learned that in order to work with these low budgets and be seen by people, we had to learn a lot of the different aspects of filmmaking. Nowadays you can really learn everything from the Internet. I learned how to use AfterEffects from a seven-year-old Ukranian kid on YouTube. [Laughter]
Wightman: That’s the difference: nowadays everyone can do everything, and it’s the only way to stay relevant. [To] create a style, you just have to keep learning and evolving. Each project we do, I think we’re always trying to push [and] learn something new. So we’re always online trying to watch tutorials, just trying to grow in that sense.
Joseph: That’s interesting. There’s a bigger conversation, not just in our industry, but in tech about dropping out: dropping out of high school, or dropping out of college. You guys dropped out of school. Is that kind of necessary as a maker? To just focus constantly on creating?
Lee: I think everyone has a different experience at film school – especially film school. I found it kind of draining, and kind of pointless, because I wasn’t learning that much from film school. I mean, I met a few people, but at the end of the day, I pretty much came out with a good relationship with Kyle, and then we dropped out.
Wightman: For us, we kind of struck while the iron was hot. We felt like we just had to dedicate all of our energy and time into making work, and we just didn’t want to be in debt.
Joseph: There’s makers everywhere, right? I mean, everybody’s a maker – there’s hundreds of thousands of YouTube makers. How do you guys keep up with it? How do you find inspiration? And if you’re a publisher or someone that’s looking to find someone that kind of works within the realm of what they’re hoping to achieve – whether it’s video content, or anything else – what tools do you guys use?
Lee: I think initially it was just absorbing as much content as we possibly could: keeping up with everything, and then just trying to stand out, and do something a little different. That’s kind of where we developed our own personal style, which I think comes through in the editing, for us.
Joseph: So on the note of where things are headed, we went from, I don’t know, six, seven years ago, where YouTube was a place to have fun to now, anyone with a lot of followers can get brands to work with them. Whether you’re a makeup artist, you can move the needle and sell a product if you start posting about a specific brand. Where do you think things are going to head in the future, with more people that have access to have more followers, where everyone becomes a content creator?
Lee: I think it’ll always go back to quality: as long as people are putting out good stuff, I think they’re going to get the opportunities.
Wightman: Or, they might take that approach and then regret it, just based on the quality or the reception of it. Maybe it didn’t turn out how they would’ve liked it to. I mean, I’ve heard stories of friends investing in YouTube stars, and they would do a movie or something, or a film, and it wouldn’t sell at all.
Joseph: What’s the biggest learning curve that you had, going from DIY to really running and conducting a symphony–because that’s kind of what directing is, right? You’ve got hundreds of people, and crew, and cast: how do you keep up with that? That can’t just be right on the internet.
Lee: I think we were pushed right into the deep-end, because our first big set was in India.
Joseph: That was for Iggy Azealea?
LEE: Yeah, and it was just like, going from a seven person crew to, like, 100. Someone’s job would be to, like, hold chai tea. For us, it was very overwhelming. The first time, I felt like we didn’t get as much as we wanted to done, actually. I think for the project we did for The Weeknd was the first time we really felt like we brought our DIY nature to a big set, as well.
Audience question: What would you consider to be your favorite projects?
Lee: I think even after we were signed to Legs, the best projects were the ones that we had a lot of control over and were super passionate about. You know, we would do jobs that were commissioned to us, but sometimes we hit up, like, an artist – like a musician – and work with them.
Wightman: Doing passion projects and not doing things for the money, I think has really helped us. All our best projects have been things we’ve felt passionate about.
Lee: And then eventually, you know, we felt like the money and stuff would come later, and that’s just the investment, I think: to do good work before you think about the money.
Joseph: And you’ve got to keep making enough to have a distinct visual style. Nobody will hire us or we won’t hire anybody else unless you already have that style.
Joseph: I remember, I was a photographer – this is like, I don’t know, 2000 – I had a great portfolio, but people kept saying “just keep shooting,” and I was like, “what do you mean, keep shooting? You’re saying I’m publishable, I’m great, why don’t you hire me?” They’re like, “keep shooting.” I gave it up to follow other interests, but I realized afterwards they didn’t say “keep shooting because you’re not good,” but “keep shooting because we need to understand what your view is on things,” so that’s just a recommendation for makers out there: just keep making, keep making. That’s how you get found, and good people rise to the top, thanks to things like Vimeo.
Lee: What’s it like for you [Adam], to build a roster: tapping into all the different styles, and building something that’s balanced?
Joseph: It’s interesting. There’s a balance between art and commerce. The same way as when you guys were doing Facebook: there’s art, there’s commerce in it. It’s trying to build a portfolio that makes sense as a whole, yet we try to equally do things that we feel are going to advance the industry, and, we’re a business, and try to find things that are also relevant to the industry, and making sure as much as we can to make really smart choices to sign people that fit into the family vision of what Legs stands for, which is really progressive, genre-defying work, you know. That’s how I would kind of encapsulate it.
Stay tuned to Milk for more innovative filmmakers.