Interview: Media Producer Christy Steele on Uncovering and Cultivating One's Passions
Christy Steele has spent more than ten years crafting a career in multimedia production and filmmaking, and she's only just getting started. Her work has taken her from producing media at National Geographic and Science Magazine, to freelancing, starting her own company, and developing a video series, called Uncovering Passion, that explores people's passion projects. She shows no signs of slowing down, taking steps every day to cultivate and protect her dedication to the arts and her love for beautiful things. Read on to see how Christy got her start in the multimedia and film industry, her observations on gender dynamics and technology, how she inspires and motivates herself as an independent artist, and her fascination with uncovering and cultivating passion in one's life.
What kind of artist you would describe yourself as?
I think I would probably call myself a visual producer. I’ve worked a lot with photography and with video, both in print and digital, and in television and films. In sort of all mediums. But I would describe myself as a producer, essentially someone who gets things done from start to finish. I’ve worked all parts of the process from pre-production to post-production on photo shoots and video shoots, even in digital contexts, building internal systems that hold content, so a lot of different parts of the process.
And how did you get your start in the arts and visual producing?
When I graduated from college I got lucky and got a job at National Geographic as a photo coordinator, so I was there for a couple of years. I always had an interest more in TV and film, so I kind of slowly worked my way there through different jobs, some freelance jobs and some full-time jobs.
Then what drove you to pursue the arts as a career?
I always loved photography growing up, my mom did a lot of photography and I think I knew I would probably do something related to journalism. And as soon as I got the job as a photo coordinator I realized that I could probably make that work and do something related to photo/video and for companies like NatGeo [National Geographic]. So I think I always wanted to do something artistic.
So it wasn’t until after college that it become more about visual producing and less about journalism?
Yeah, that’s right, I mean I was appreciative at National Geographic that we were always telling a story, so there was always a strong story behind what we were doing. I continued developing an appreciation for the importance of the story and the facts and the information. But I think I very quickly realized that my interest was more in the visual part of the story.
What was your major in college? And how did that help when you ended up moving into visual producing?
So at Georgetown, English was my Major, Studio Art was a Minor, and Psychology was a Minor. The Studio Art program wasn’t hugely developed at that time, so I did darkroom photography, paintings, sculpture, more of the fine arts. And English helped me a lot in learning how to craft thoughts, and craft arguments which is helpful always in any type of writing, even in writing emails, writing proposals, writing pitches, that kind of thing. So, I think I used moreso the English critical thinking skills. The Studio Art--I was glad to do that as a Minor but I wouldn’t say I learned a lot of “skills” that I applied once I worked professionally. But it was really once I was working professionally when I started seeing the actual applications of some of my interests and some of my skills that I knew I could develop further.
What has been your drive or inspiration in the arts over the span of your career? What has continued to push you forward to continue in the arts?
I have thought about this a lot. I really love pretty things, I love beautiful things, and I think every time I work on a project, from the very first thing I worked on with National Geographic to now working on different films/projects: when I see a final product, whether it’s a photo where I produced the shoot, where I talked to the experts, where I hired the photographer, and was on set, or a film where I helped with a part of it, and I got to interview someone--I think it’s magical; I really do. Just yesterday I was watching a film by a producer I’m working with on another project. I helped him with that film, so I watched his rough cut, and I couldn’t stop grinning. It’s not even my project, and I was only on set for two of the five days, but I think it’s so incredible to go out and capture things in the world and put them into a format that you can share with other people. I think it’s that simple. For me it’s always been watching movies, watching feature films, flipping through magazines like National Geo, or other ones that I don’t work for. And seeing those amazing images and graphics and seeing stunning films and thinking I have to be part of that. In any way, I have to be part of it.
So, it’s the pride of taking a project from proposal to production and seeing it come to fruition?
It’s incredible, yeah, and I have all different roles in all my different projects. And my most recent project is most exciting because it’s come out of my head and I see it in the film so that’s really cool. But no matter what part I play in it, I’m still amazed when I see the final thing and that you can do that, you can create these things. It’s so cool.
What inspired you to launch your own company, Pink Dragon Creative?
I have experienced frustration in my full-time jobs where I just don’t feel like I am living up to my full capabilities or participating as much as I could, or contributing as much as I could. And when I started Pink Dragon Creative and I started doing web design, I really wanted to be the one to come up with ideas and be the one to execute the ideas, to push myself. I think I wanted to push myself and test out what I was capable of and learn in ways it’s sometimes hard to do in certain jobs. So, I think that’s what started me on that path of thinking that I wanted to start out on my own.
And how did you go about creating your own company?
What I started with was first determining what skills and what products that I could offer, so I had to be really clear about what I could give them--a website--and how I was going to build it. And I really just did a lot at the beginning, a lot of cold calling and contacting everyone I knew, telling them here’s what I’m offering, and I slowly got a little bit more word-of-mouth business. And since then I’ve changed directions a couple of times and worked full time for companies and this year have taken a slightly different approach. But I think at the very beginning it’s just determining what do you have to offer that you feel excited about and figuring out how you’re going to give that to people. And I certainly didn’t develop that company into a very thriving business, I sort of took a different direction, so I would not say I am the expert. But I think it is starting with that: what are you really excited about and what do you want to share with people? What can you give them that they can’t get from another company that does something similar?
How would you define collaboration?
I would say it is the process of working with other talented people to create a product, create a service, and using everyone’s skills, everyone’s unique skills, to create a better product than you could on your own.
How would you say collaboration differs between different art forms, different media forms?
For every project it’s different and the first question I always ask when I start with anything is basically, what skill do I need? What do I need that I personally cannot do myself? And there are a lot of things I can’t do myself. So, for one specific project I worked on where it was basically designing and developing a website that was going to sort of be a database, I couldn't do the coding myself so we needed developers. I wasn’t even a project manager on that one, we needed a really good project manager who could keep us on task, who could keep track of the hours we were putting into this project. That’s mainly who we needed for that task, a team of developers and a project manager, and then we had someone overseeing it. But then for a film project for instance, my skills lie in communicating my ideas and portraying the subject matter and getting a story together, but when I started my project I didn’t have a camera, I never had audio equipment. So I needed those skills, I needed someone who could do those things. So I think that’s always the question for me, what it’s always been about for me: what do we need that we don’t already have on our team, whether it’s an in-house team or I’m doing freelance and working on a project on my own. The one thing for me, the most important thing in collaboration is to find people who are open-minded, positive and who are easy to work with, who want to be part of a team and who want to contribute and don’t have ego. That’s super important.
Yeah, especially with artists . . . that’s something you have to consider. No matter what the art form, egos always have to be addressed.
Yes, super important. I will if I have to, but it’s not a great experience when someone is possessive or thinks that they are better or contribute more than the rest of the team. That does not work well. And you can get yourself into challenging situations when you are working on a media project, because you are working with personalities--you’re telling stories, so there are always a lot of factors. And if you get yourself into a tight situation where someone shows up late, or someone isn’t super organized, doesn’t bring the right equipment, or you have someone who doesn’t have a super high standard, then you are going to have a lot more trouble, because you’re going to be arriving at a place and you’ve got 30 minutes to film something and you know you can’t take any more of this person’s time. If you don’t have everything else running pretty smoothly with your team members, you’re not going to be able to do what you’re trying to do.
So how do you go about finding people to collaborate with?
I mostly go through people I know actually, so if there’s someone I’ve worked with in the past, I’ll basically get in touch with them and tell them what I’m doing and tell them what I’m looking for and say “Do you know anyone?” Also I definitely use Women in Film and Video, the DC organization; I’ve been a member of that for over two years now and it’s been an amazing resource. So for that I’ll use their listservs. And I’ve found a really amazing group of people, people who want to collaborate. And pretty much everyone I’ve met has been positive and works really well on a team. So yeah, people I know and groups like that, that are established groups. At different times I use different ones, even meet up groups. I’ll go to events and talk to people there and talk to the organizers. I was helping to organize a meet up event one time and brought in a speaker and I’ve stayed in touch with him since I did that, and he’s a designer and has been super helpful. And he knows a ton of people and he wants to help people and he has been a great resource. He’s put me in touch with different companies, with different people. So I think I’ve carefully cultivated this community around myself. I recognized from early on, when I started working, that it was important to keep in touch with the people that I enjoyed working with, who appreciate the work that I do, and so I slowly built a list of individuals that I can reach out to and say “Here’s what I’m doing and do you know people, do you have suggestions?” And that works really well for me and I’m still very much building that. And you can’t have too many people.
Are there certain people that you will always go to if they’re available? Your first string players to work with?
Yes, absolutely. I have a couple of photographers and a couple of videographers that I have worked with on different projects for different organizations and personal projects who always come through for me every time, who are very reliable, and mainly very curious people and very creative and collaborative. Curious is the right word, because what I like to do on any set or anything that I’m working on, I like to motivate and kind of use a playful approach to things. And I like to say to people, let’s start from scratch, what would we do here? I like everyone to contribute.
I did this awesome photo shoot outside Front Royal at this ecological site where they capture a lot of environmental data. They’re doing this long-term project and I had a photographer and a videographer, me, and then the people who run the facility there. We were up on this tower, like 200 ft in the air, and the photographer had built this rig and we actually got the experts involved, the scientists who were helping us climb up there, asking, "What would you do with this rig and which direction would you point it?" When you bring a lot of people into the process, you get much better results. And it’s just more fun, and it makes it all just an amazing experience. And I think that you can see that in the final product; you know when there’s more flexibility and there’s more fun and there’s more play. You see a final product, even if it’s not technically perfect, and you can get a sense that it’s a really fun thing. And I think it maybe makes the reader or the viewer more excited about it.
What’s the difference between working on your own project and collaborating with multiple people? How do you take charge of the situation while including everyone’s opinion?
I guess my approach is very subtle, but I think from the start, if I’m not already in a position where I have a title, that often makes it clear enough that they know they’re doing a job for me, for the company. But I don’t know that I’ve had to ever exert my position. I know other people who do that. I’ve been in the position where there is someone in charge, where they will come in and make it very clear that their opinion is the one that matters and that they’re making the decision and that’s their way of leading the team. I don’t do that so I do tend to err on the side of losing a little bit of control. And if that happens then I just figure that it’s okay because I’m not overly assertive so I will probably tend to let that happen.
But I think from the start I just try to make that really clear. For example, if I approach someone for a project, I say “I’m producing this series, I’m looking for people to help me with this part of it, I’m looking for someone to help me shoot or I’m looking for someone to help me to do the audio or I’m looking for some advice on editing." So I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m looking for someone to collaborate with, at least in that initial reaching out to someone. I would make it clear that this is my project and I need input and I need an expert, I need someone who’s really good at this, but I’m keeping ownership of my project going on. And because once that tone gets set, it's set. So, you do have to be careful. But, I've never had too much of an issue with that. And, you know, when I do have an issue with that, I try not to work with people like that.
It's really ego. I really think it's ego. You bring ego into it. Because, it's when somebody comes in, and they really want control. They really wanna say, "You know, this is better." I'm not doing that. And if someone's like that, it's gonna be hard to change that. And I don't really want to have to be in a position where I'm having to constantly assert myself and say, you know, "Sit down," or whatever. Yeah, I don't enjoy that.
What other problems would you say you've run into when it comes to collaborating with people, aside from ego?
Well, certainly, anyone who doesn't have the ability to do the skill or the thing they're supposed to do. And there are people like that, you do run into that. They’re not experienced enough. You can usually know that from the start.
Is it false advertisement?
I think it is. I can't really think of any specific example of that. It's usually more nuanced. You get a sense for "oh shoot, they're not gonna deliver me the files."Or "Oh shoot, [they] didn't quite report that exactly how I needed it." You know? Or they tried something, which I would always encourage. Like, oh you have a new idea, go try it. But, then it didn't quite work, because they didn't quite know how to do it. And that's fine. I would always prefer someone who says, "I wanna try this thing," than [someone] who just tries to do it perfectly the whole time.
But, you do run into issues. And the thing is, with media, once you get into the editing room, or you get into the final stages of a layout or something, you can't go back and redo it. And so, if you don't have it, you don't have it. That's not always the case. Sometimes you can send someone back. But you know, often, in this industry, people aren't working on huge budgets. I haven't worked on, you know, big feature films. But even with those, with millions and millions of dollars, they have very, very tight budgets. You can't take your team for a million dollars and repeat something.
As a senior photo editor at Science Magazine, I was very, very careful about that when I hired a photographer. I looked very carefully at her portfolio. And I had to learn. And that was something that my mentor, Bill [Douthitt], helped me a lot with. Really discerning from the beginning, do they have the skills? Do they have the technical ability to pull the shot off? Because, with science, there's often a lot of detail in there. A lot of nuance in there that you have to pick up. And, if you don't have the skill, if you don't have the right equipment or you don't quite know how to use that equipment . . .
Frankly, I mean, I'm thinking of one specific example. We had a super experienced photographer. I hired him, and he didn't get what we needed. In that case, I think it was actually enthusiasm. He wasn't actually as excited about it. And so we did have to hire a new person. Because this was an important shoot. We had to get a good photo, so we hired a different photographer. We sent him back. And he was newer in the profession, but we saw his portfolio, and we thought, "Okay, he's really excited about it, and he had done some really technically beautiful photos." And he got an amazing shot. And I think It was because he was so excited to have the opportunity. And he hadn't worked with us before. So he was so gung-ho. And he showed up, and he did an amazing job.
So, certainly competence, technical skills--they’re extremely important. But another thing is enthusiasm. And, most people in the media profession, at least who are freelancers, they are very enthusiastic, because if you're not enthusiastic and excited, you're not gonna survive. Most people have already been kind of weeded out, like natural selection. So for the most part, people I've run into do have those technical skills, like filming, or editing, or audio, or photography. They're extremely skilled and they're really motivated and excited. But, those are two, I think, of the main things--competence and enthusiasm. They seem kind of obvious, but actually, they're kind of the first things that come to mind.
That is the dream, to find people like that. It doesn't always happen.
No, it doesn't always happen. No, not at all.
If you had any choice in the world, who would be on your collaboration dream team? What kind of project would you work on?
Probably Steven Spielberg. He's a pretty amazing person, and has done some incredible powerful projects. I would probably say James Cameron. He is so unbelievably talented and visionary. I mean, the stuff he's done is unreal. And the stuff I read about him . . . I think that people with that mindset, those are the people I would choose to work with. Who just see the world with no filter. Like anything is possible. There is nothing limiting their ideas.
This one's gonna sound really cheesy, but I would put Tony Robbins on my list. He's a motivational person. He started out in sales. But, he's an incredibly, motivating, positive, hard-working person who inspires people. And, he's inspired me a lot. I've watched a lot of his things and watched him work with people. And he does these big seminars. And I think that, again, that attitude . . . I mean, he doesn't do any film. But even if I had a film project, if I can get him on my team, I would get him on my team. Because he would bring so much life force to the project. And that's what you need. You need to be starting from that point. And then you can always figure out the technical things, the detail.
Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Tony Robbins. That's a dream team (laughs). What are you producing? A motivational speaking series? Or sweeping feature film? The life and styles of Tony Robbins?
Oh my God. I mean, if I could work with three of them on a project, what would we be creating? The first thing that comes to mind, is it would be a journey, because James Cameron does underwater explorations. It would probably be some crazy Planet Earth kind of thing. Where it's, like, from the bottom of the earth to the edge of the universe.
Oh. I like it. That's a good tag line.
And then it would include outer space footage. And maybe it would be fiction. So maybe we would have to get a good screenwriter in there.
What kind of music?
We'd have to hire a composer.
Yes. Yeah. Exactly. Someone unbelievably visionary.
It feels kind of like a 3-D IMAX thing that you would watch.
Oh my God, could you imagine? And you could watch it in IMAX theaters or you could just watch it on your computer. But the only other person I would really consider is Neil deGrasse Tyson. I do really like him and the work that he does. Because I think that he has a curiosity about the world that comes through in everything he does. And I like that a lot, because I think that that's what propels projects to the next level. When you have people like that who aren't just showing up and saying, "How do we execute 1, 2, and 3?" You gotta think big. And those are the type of people I would bring in.
That's why you want the universe, because you want to think as big as humanly possibly.
(Laughs) You can't think bigger than that. That would be my dream, that would be my dream. Yeah, actually, I can't think of a better project.
If you can't get Adele to sing a Bond-style theme song, I'm happy to step in (laughs).
Thanks (laughs). We need something as good as [Adele]. Like super intensive music. Yeah, exactly. I would add Adele to my team.
Adele would be great on the team.
Her voice is amazing. And she’s hilarious. She's honestly amazing. . . . I didn't add a woman to my team.
Do you think that's a problem in the industry?
I do think it's a problem in the industry. In my personal experience, looking at all of the people I've worked with—which is hundreds of people across my full-time jobs and my freelance jobs, and meetings I've gone to—I notice a difference. I notice a difference, sadly, a lot of times, in women, in men, in the way that we approach projects.
What kinds of differences?
Oftentimes what I see women doing is thinking a little bit smaller and looking more at solving problems. Creating companies or creating ideas that are kind of finite. And what I see in men--ranging from men who are making films, men who are scientists, men who are working at companies, men who freelance--is that a lot of times, men think so much bigger. It's almost like they start from the idea that they can do anything. There's a guy who was creating titles and graphics for the Smithsonian. And he was around my age. But, he came in to the Smithsonian, basically just being like, "What do you need? I can do everything for you. I run my own company. I work with the government." And he was no more talented than any of the people I've worked with in graphics and design. But his attitude was much more, just like, "I've arrived. I'm really skilled. I can do anything for you, and I'm going to do this." And, women, I've seen who run their own companies, who make their own films, a lot of time they're put into situations saying, "Here's my idea, you know, it's pretty cool. I'm trying to get funding. I'm trying to get more support for the project." And men just show up and they're just like, "I'm filming the thing! And, here's the script, and this is really great. And I've already pitched it to ten people." It's just a different attitude.
I think it's a societal thing. It's partly the industry, but I don't think you can blame it all on the media industry. I think it's just the way that girls are raised, and a lot of women aren't necessarily raised with and given the right attitude. Just go take over the world. And I think men can go off and have more of that attitude. I don't know. There's a very distinct difference that I have noticed. And it's not everyone. There are certainly standouts. Women who don't do that and men who don't do that. But in terms of looking more at freelancers and contract people and people who are making their own projects, men really approach it differently.
Which side of the spectrum would you say you would fall on?
I fall more on the way the women approach things. But I am very aware of seeing people like James Cameron, like Steven Spielberg. They have created careers by thinking so big; it's like nothing could stop them. And I am aware of that every day. Every time I pitch someone. Every time I come with an idea. Every time I create a plan for my idea. I'm very aware that I'm probably thinking too small, even if I think I'm thinking too big, I'm probably not thinking big enough. So, I think that's a really important thing to teach women. And to remind women; don't think so small. Don't just try to create a company where you can make ends meet. Create a company where you are fascinated by the work that you are doing, and trust that some things will fall into place. And you can hire people to do those little things. But, think bigger. Just think bigger.
So I am always trying to push myself further. Every day I try to remind myself, don't think small. Don't undersell yourself. I do a mentoring thing for Georgetown, so I'll go and talk to current students, and I think with everyone I talk to, I can immediately sense where they are on that spectrum of confidence. And like I said, some young men, they're not overly confident. Some young women are super confident. So it totally varies, but generally I would say it is stereotypical, from what I've experienced. But I think you can pretty quickly sense from a person where they are, and then work with them from that point. So that's a more individualized approach. But you know, even if it's a talk that you're doing or a presentation or something, I think, in my opinion, it's okay to start from the place of having the ultimate confidence in yourself. Because if someone has that ultimate confidence, great, but for the most part people aren't gonna have that.
But then how would you balance that? Because if you're super confident but you're not actually competent, that can get you in even more trouble than if you're competent but you're a little bit more reserved, a little bit more cautious about presenting yourself.
I think that you have to be really honest, first, but start by being honest with yourself, about what you can do and what experience you have. What technical experience and what specific examples you have of work you've done. So I think you have to gather that. And if you're in college or if you're just graduating, you might have a portfolio. Just be honest with yourself first about what do you have to offer.
And a lot of times I think there are soft skills that people have to offer, and those are sometimes the harder ones to promote yourself based on, because if you've gotten a film you did, that's one thing, but if you're just gonna say that you're really, really capable of getting projects done, it's a little more vague. You have to create a very brief, concise elevator pitch about yourself and why you're unique. One good way that's been recommended to me is to basically pretend that you are your own coach, that you are your own advocate, but you're a different person, and look at yourself. So, you know, say that you've hired yourself for $500 million, and if you get me this job, or if you get me into this career, you get $500 million. You'll figure a way to do it.
Think of yourself as an agent, a third party agent for yourself. Who's held accountable to you and you alone.
Absolutely. Exactly. And it always works for me. Whenever I'm doing a pitch or something, I step outside myself and I think, "Well how would I tell myself to do it, if I were advising someone else?". I can always do it, I can always see my skills and my abilities more objectively, and then present the information in a way that's effective but not arrogant, and that's still truthful. Because everybody does bring a unique personality and skill set and background and experience and diverse way of thinking. Everybody brings something different. So I think it's figuring out how to present that. And of course, once you have a film under your belt or you've shot something, and you have this award-winning thing, then that's great. But until you have that, I think you can spin things, whilst still being honest. And then you just present yourself with confidence.
People who become arrogant about it, that's different. I don't even know how to advise on that. Just don't be arrogant, because that will rub people the wrong way. I think you can push confidence pretty far and not irritate people. I mean if you're generally, like a quieter person or more introverted or less confident, you're probably not gonna be able to push it so far that you annoy someone, or rub them the wrong way.
How would you describe a typical work day?
In my full-time positions I've been either an associate producer or a photo editor. So in a position like that, there's a lot of email communication. Some calling. I'll tend to pick up the phone and call people. At Science Magazine, for example, I would have two or three projects going at one time. And I'm always trying to get more projects on my plate. I always want to do more, different things. At Science, I would have three distinctly different projects at one time. So basically in the morning I would look at where I am on each different thing, what are my deadlines, and what do I need to get done today and what can I do a little bit of. Then sort of just scheduling out the day and figuring out how I'm gonna spend two hours on writing this pitch. I'm going to spend an hour finding photographers to do this photo shoot, I need to find a photographer in Lebanon, and how am I gonna do that. And sending a lot of emails, looking at a lot of portfolios. I was working on a couple of different projects, so some days it would be literally just designing a website, doing like a couple of mock ups. There would always be meetings mixed in there depending on the job and you know, what was going on. At a publication you often have a daily meeting, so you're checking with people every day. I also tried to interact a lot with my colleagues, even if it wasn't for something work-related, because there's always an amazing amount of talent and skill and knowledge and people aren't even always getting to use all of that, so I would often, you know, just try and chat with people and learn what they do. It's always kind of a mix of those things.
When I'm working freelance (laughs) . . . . often a third of my day is just self-confidence, self motivation. I'm just trying to keep myself going. Honestly, I really mean that. Anything from taking a walk and listening to a podcast inspires me. Doing exercising, doing yoga, or watching a film that inspires me, or reading some blog post, reading some articles, checking the news, just sort of to tap myself into something that will inspire me.
Building a space to create.
Yeah. Super important, and I spend a lot of time on that. Time that is not, you know, going towards a specific project or billable hours. It's a big chunk of time. Because, when you're working on your own, you're your own source of everything. All your own motivation. You gotta create all of that and it's not easy.
No, no. By no means. It’s really hard because it's just you. Even if you have other people believing in you, at the end of the day you still have to believe in yourself.
You're the one who's waking up in the morning and asking yourself every day, "how am I doing?"
Yeah, so that's a good chunk of time. I'd say every day I'm absolutely spending--and I include weekends in that too--every day I'm spending time on that.
You say yoga, exercise, podcasts, movies, just anything to inspire you, essentially?
Yes, and that can include going to an event, going to a meet up, going to a "Docs in Progress" [Women in Film and Video] event, something where I'm connecting with other people. I would include that, so that's two or three hours. I'd say another third of the day is probably honing my own ideas about what I'm trying to do. So that can be writing. That can be working on a website, that could be writing copy for a project I'm working on. But really trying to get very clear on what am I trying to do, at least that day, that week, that month. And then I'd say the other part is probably calling, emailing, searching, you know, openings online. Whether I'm searching for a full time job or I'm searching for a contract position. And writing pitches or putting a portfolio together that I can present to somebody, something tangible that I can give to someone. I would say that doing the actual work of a project sometimes just gets layered on top of that other stuff. You've got to do all that other stuff.
Because it's not a 9 to 5. It's just kind of every day, all day every day.
Yeah, I'm not good at separating. At least this year I haven't been good at separating work from normal life. I'll realize it's 11 pm and I'm just stopping editing. I'm like "Oh, I should have gone to bed an hour ago and I didn't do anything today, like talk to a friend, all that time." But you gotta be open to when the inspiration comes to you.
Because it can come at any time.
At any time.
What has the been the biggest change you've seen in the media industry throughout your career?
Certainly social media. When I graduated in 2006 [from college], we had just gotten Facebook at Georgetown the year before that. It was new, so when I was at National Geographic, they didn't have a Facebook page. I was on a team that started a Facebook page for Nat Geo, so social media was an enormous change. And I am no expert on social media, I don't like using it, I don't know how to use it. I try, I do my best, but I don't know what I'm doing. So that's a huge thing because it's central now to the way people get their news, get their information, get their stories, connect with people, and you have to know what you're doing. You have to put content out on there, if you're creating content. So, that's huge.
Another big change I think is the way that content is disseminated and shared, so, looking at all the big cable channels and the way that media and TV are changing--the way different companies are joining with each other. HBO having HBO Go, streaming with Hulu, Netflix, all these places. And even now, in the last couple of years, places like Amazon, places like Apple are actually paying individual creators to do their series, so they're finding people online. They're reaching out and saying we'll give you a million dollars to do this project, and that's crazy.
Netflix too. Netflix and YouTubers have taken over the world.
They genuinely have. You build up your audience enough, you put content out that people are watching and you can get a deal with these places, which is insane. I mean, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, people didn't have access to those types of opportunities to share content. And I do not claim to be any kind of expert on any of that. Having worked at a company that produced shows for Nat Geo and the Travel Planet channel, I at least got a bit of an inside perspective on how that process works, and that's even been 6 or 7 years. So I could see how an independent production company pitches ideas. And then they get a lot of business and they keep making shows for these places. Even that's changing now, but working in some of those circles did help me get a perspective on that. But yeah, it's changed. It's just always changing. I think one of the biggest things about technology is how fast it changes. So basically if you want to shoot video, if you want to record audio, if you want to do any of those technical aspects, that sort of has to be your profession and you have to figure a way to keep up with the technology. And I think it gives a broader base of people an opportunity to get into the industry.
For example, if you buy a drone, if you spend whatever, $500 on a drone, and you have a camera, you can do some unbelievable stuff, and sell it. And get jobs doing that. Then again, if you've got the right cameras and you have the right DSLR and the right lenses and all these things, you can shoot a feature film. You can be hired to shoot a film. I know somebody who literally just graduated from film school and he shot a couple things, really small on his DSLR, and then he just got hired to shoot an Emmy award-winning show, Anacostia. I think it won an Emmy this year. He just got hired through connections he had, he actually got a camera, he's off and running. But he's 22 and he just got out of film school, and he wanted it so badly that he was pounding the pavement. But he was able to buy a camera and he got a job, and he'll have it made. He'll have to work hard, but he'll have it made. So you can jump in at that level, you can buy a camera for $800 that shoots great quality video. That's amazing.
So would you say then that technology has leveled the playing field?
A lot more. A lot more than it ever was. I mean, even for someone like me, I've worked for companies that do this stuff but I can, as a freelancer, actually get a little piece of the action basically, and get some jobs here and there and decide where I want to go with that. But 10 years ago it would have been a lot harder for me to have any of the equipment to do a simple video or a simple audio recording, a simple podcast.
Does it make it more difficult though, because that means the market is so saturated?
I think it's easy to feel that way, and I think I fall into that a lot of times when I'm looking at other people's content online. This morning even, I was looking at a listserv and someone asked for a DP, and immediately three people responded with a total of 10 names and links to websites, and I started clicking into these websites and I'm just like, oh my God, all of their work is incredible, stunning, beautiful videos they've edited. I think it's really easy to get discouraged about that and feel like "Oh my God, there's no way I can break into that market."
But at the same time, I do believe that we all bring our own unique background to it, our own unique perspective to it and that there's a place for everyone. There's a lot of work out there and I think it's just a matter of connecting with the right people and being, like I said, really honest about what you offer and how you wanna offer that, you know. Because if I put myself up against 50 other producers who are trying to make content, I'm probably different than all of them in some different ways. So present yourself that way. I think it has to be really simple and really clear to people what you'll give them, but I think if you do that, if it's what you love doing, you want to do it, you'll find work. It's out there. You'll get paid to do it.
What advice would you give other filmmakers looking at a career in media or production, whether they're just graduating from college or some middle schooler who just picked up their first camera?
Really hone in on what excites you about it. Because it's different for everyone. Some people love the technical part of it. They want to understand all the inner workings of the camera and the F-stop and the shutter speed. Some people really love connecting with other people and they just, they want to do it through media but they love talking with other people, interviewing other people. Other people, you know, want to be part of a company. They want to be producing content for a weekly magazine or an organization like Science Magazine or Nature, you know, these big publications. So I think you should continue to spend time getting clear on what you really love about [film and photography] because that's what's going to keep you going--finding the part of it you really love. It's easy to sort of get really general and say, "I just want to work in media," but that's not going to push you very far.
Like for me, I love seeing beautiful final products and I just want to be part of that. So it often comes back to that. How can I make that thing? For example, I did a series of short films; I didn't do a full documentary because I thought, "I'll get discouraged." I have to have the ability to create something that I can see that I finished and that will keep me going. So, I think if you can get really specific on that . . . and it takes time I think. Or you might know immediately. But it might take you some tries. You might try a film camp if you're in middle school. Maybe you don't like all of it, maybe you don't like the people or whatever but maybe you think, "Oh, I got a really cool shot of that rabbit." There's a girl I interviewed for my project. She loves bugs. Bugs are her number one love in life. And so she's a filmmaker but she still loves bugs and that's what pushes her forward in all of her projects. She's usually covering some species. Some animal something, an insect. And that's what she loves and so that's why she keeps going. So, get really specific on that.
How would you define success in your industry and your profession?
I think for myself I define it as feeling fulfilled. And that doesn't mean that the project that I'm working on has to be perfect or the outcome has to be amazing. If I'm doing something for a magazine, if I'm working full-time and we have to cancel something or we don't get to the end of it, it doesn't mean that I can't feel fulfilled. I think feeling fulfilled is just a matter of feeling like most days at least--not every day but most days--that I'm getting to push myself to the limits of what I'm capable of and I'm getting to grow. I think maybe getting to grow a little bit. I think that's a big part of it. For me, feeling fulfilled includes that I'm growing a little bit. I'm learning something. I'm in a situation I've never been in before. I'm interacting with a person who's unlike anyone I've talked to before. Where I get a little gem of wisdom. I get something. So, for me, that's usually how I judge it.
At what point would you describe yourself as a professional? Is it when you're getting paid for something or when you're working at a really professional level with really ace people, but it's unpaid? At what point do you look at your career and say, "I'm a professional filmmaker and I deserve a certain amount of compensation as a result?"
That's hard. I wouldn't want to tell people that I don't think they're a professional if they've only been working for a year. But for me, I did get a lot of confidence out of the fact that I have been working for 10 years in various types of media. And for me, working up to full-time work for some of these companies, working for National Geographic, I felt immediately like I was a professional in the industry. If I were judging myself independently, I think I would tell people that you should call yourself a professional as soon as you're doing it. As soon as you're in the middle of it. You have a project, you work on a project, you know. There's a group that creates films and they invite anybody to join them no matter if you have any experience or not and you can go out to this place. They'll do a day-long shoot and you can apply and say, "I want to be a director. I want to be a producer. I want to be an AD on it. I want to be an actor." Whatever. They'll put you in a spot. You'll get this experience. Go do that and you can call yourself a professional. I think it's more that you're actively pursuing that, and that you're showing up and you're saying, "This is what I want and this is what I can do and this is what I'm gonna try to do."
I think the only time I worry about labeling myself [as an artist] is when I'm presenting myself to other people. And I'm saying, "Here's what I can do for you. I want this job. I want to do this for you." And then I do want to be sure that I'm presenting myself honestly, but also really confident, like "This is what I can do." So I never use that word "professional." But I'll say something like, "I'm an experienced media producer who has created, you know, award-winning photo content." Whatever. But it's always so silly, too, because I have to be super careful the way I word stuff. I haven't won awards for videos, but for the photo stuff, I have. And the thing is, for the photography stuff, I haven't even taken photos. I'm the photo editor. So you can't say "award-winning photographer." And then are you an award-winning art director? So labels are very, very difficult for me, and wording things in the best way to present yourself in the best light.
Because people also define things differently.
People define things very differently. But yeah. I think that I would call myself a professional when I feel like I'm really in it and I'm working hard and I'm really going after whatever I wanna do. And then I would say, "Oh, I'm a professional producer." You've been in media for a year, and you've done two photo shoots, and you've done a photo for someone's website: "I'm a professional photographer." You got paid for something. Maybe it is getting paid for something? Maybe it's getting paid and achieving that level.
Tell us about your series Uncovering Passion.
Uncovering Passion is a series of short films about people who are pursuing things that they love to do and things that they're trying to weave into a life for themselves, where they feel both fulfilled and passionate.
And what inspired you to produce and create Uncovering Passion?
I've been wanting to do my own project for a long time. Back in, I think it was January, I talked to a friend who I used to work with at the Apple Store and she told me she was producing her first music album. She's a singer and I've seen her perform at open mics and she posts a lot of videos online. But she told me she was recording an album so I asked her a lot of questions and you know, she was nervous about the process and said that she had won some studio time. I thought, "You know what? I know a lot of people personally who are either working full-time and doing things they love on the side or who are trying to do what they love full-time, or they're going back and forth." So if I know that many people, personally, then there must be a lot of people out there [like that]. I would say there's a large number of people I know who, even if they have always worked full-time, they're still doing stuff on the side. So I thought, "Well, why not just see if there's interest."
So I posted on Facebook, posted on LinkedIn. I sent an email out to some friends and I got amazing responses. I had like 50 or 60 people in the first week who were like, "Yeah, that sounds like me and I want to talk to you." So talked to all these people and just realized that I wanted to learn more about how other people were approaching [their passions], and I also wanted to use it as an opportunity to create some films that I could claim as my own and just see where it went.
What's your creative process? Once you identify someone that you want to interview, how do you proceed?
So for everyone, I have talked to them first on the phone. So I get a sense of their journey and their experience of what they do and why they do it. From that, I then create a set of questions and have scheduled a time to interview people. Part of the creative process was just basically finding someone to shoot it for me. And working with him to sort of discuss what I was looking for, how I wanted it to look and all that. Then once I talk with someone and I get my questions set up, I just interview them. It's not long, it's three hours of filming and I just sort of have a conversation with them and record. I don't record myself. I just record them. And then I guess more of the creative process is in the editing.
Because most of the videos are less than five minutes, so three hours is a lot.
Exactly. So for everyone, I've pretty much had anywhere from like forty minutes to an hour of interviews. So cutting that down is insane. But I transcribe the footage, I read through it. I highlight the parts that I think are really essential and really inspiring. And for the first couple [of videos], I think I was more methodical about it. What I tried to do was say, "Okay, I'm gonna go chronologically and say that first they graduated from college and then they did this." I did that for the first couple and I felt like I was really boxing myself in. So now I'm still transcribing. I'm still highlighting. But then when I start editing, I'm sort of trying to just grow things, grow it together in a more inspired, fun way. Rather than saying, "I'm gonna go in order of what they said." So that's still a process I'm figuring out. How to best piece it together into a story. And I don't know if I've done it the best that I could. I've done it the way I knew how to or the way that I thought was interesting. The length has varied so I think there is still a lot that can be determined and how the rest of the videos will turn out and what happens with them.
What hopes do you have for this series? Where do you see this project going in the future?
Maybe a full-length documentary; that's one idea. And it might include some or all of the people. But maybe have more of a common theme that would connect all the people together. And I don't necessarily know what that common thread would be. I think there would be a lot of options for directions to go. And then, that would include bringing in others, whether it's media professionals and experts or or whether it's bringing in research about, you know, happiness, about passion, about whatever it is. Another thought is just to have it be a continuing project that I do, whatever my career looks like. And just to continue to connect with people and figure out better ways to tell people's stories.
I think that's what I'm interested in learning: how do you make the story really interesting? I don't know how to do that. I mean, I've seen people do it. I've tried to do it. And it's what I'm always trying to learn. But I think that's part of what I want to get better at, is how do you tell a story that's really interesting that people want to watch and that they learn something from. It's not an easy thing. It sounds easy. And I thought it was easy. You're narrowing [the story] down, and making it in a way that everyone can understand it. And then, I think, in the end, a lot of it is sales technique. How do you grab someone's attention? I don't have a lot of training, except for just observing it and being a part of the process. But often times as a person whose a part of the process, you don't have to think about those things. You do your part of the process while someone else bigger has figured out how to market, you know, this TV show or this movie or whatever. So doing that part of it is a challenge.
If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing?
Probably something related to finance. Or numbers. I always loved math. I think it would be something that would be not relatively natural for me. I can learn that stuff. Although, as a side note, I took accounting in college and I hated it more than anything so maybe I wouldn't (laughs). The other thing I would say is something related to science, like doing some kind of research or something, because I loved science. Probably one of those things. Even though I hated accounting, I think [finance is] something I could pick up. I think I could learn the concepts, and I love math and numbers.
And what would you say is your greatest achievement so far in your career? What is the thing that you hang your hat on today?
I would say that the thing I'm most proud of is the fact that--not to sound arrogant about it--I've forced myself to have the confidence to try to find my way to something that feels fulfilling. That I've not stuck with things that logistically and financially I probably should have. That I haven't stuck with things when they didn't feel right and it wasn't with the right people. They weren't the right projects. I feel very proud of that. I feel more proud of that than any product I've created or any photo shoot I've done or film that I've done.
Just having the persistence and dedication to keep going with a career that's not always rewarding.
Yeah. And you know what? It's super painful (laughs). I can't even. I mean I know that you know and other artists know how deeply terrifying it is. When I'm working full-time, I have some comfort. I have some . . .
Yes. So that terror is so intense. You feel it.
Yeah, like physically. You feel pain sometimes.
When you're creating something and you're putting all that effort into it, you want people to care. And when other people don't, you do feel very isolated. You just think, "Why did I do this? Is it just for me?" Which it can be. But on the other hand, as an artist, you kind of want people to see you and your work.
Exactly. No, it's very true. I think that's the point I'm getting to with my series. If people don't watch it then yeah, it's for me. Which is great, but what bigger thing do I want to do? What's my goal? Do I want to incorporate other people? Other viewers? And if so, then I better figure out how to get 'em. How to make them interested.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?
Ideally, I would be running my own business and I would have a large enough network of clients that I was getting work. I would be producing shows for places like the Smithsonian. Mixed in with producing smaller projects, videos for companies, for websites, for anyone really. Being able to take projects that I really want to do and sometimes projects that you know, just pay the bills and that aren't as exciting, but that's fine. Having a network of people, you know, for whom I can work, who I generally like working with. And being able to support myself and hopefully, hiring people for each project as I go. It'd be amazing. Get enough of a budget to hire a video person and an audio expert and an editor. And all that stuff. Paying someone to transcribe my stuff, that'd be great.
Any last thoughts on being an artist, being an independent artist, collaboration, life in general?
I think it's just really important for people to have confidence in themselves. Because I think it's easy in this industry and when you're working freelance to get down on yourself. And I do it all the time. To get really like discouraged and overwhelmed. When you see what other people are doing, and how much it pays and stuff out there. But you just have to keep going and keep getting closer and closer to what you really, really, really love. And at that point, no one's gonna be able to stop you because you're not going to not do it. You've gotta find what you can't not do. And when you find that, then you're good, because that's the ending that's going to push you forward.
Curious about Christy's series Uncovering Passion? Check out her teaser trailer below and subscribe to her YouTube channel for more videos exploring and celebrating what makes people passionate. You can also follow Christy on Instagram (@uncoverpassion) and visit her websites to learn more about Uncovering Passion and to check out her personal portfolio!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.