Ryan Sun (he/him) is a post-producer for AlkemyX in Philadelphia and has a rounded portfolio, breaching almost every skill in the industry. This week through Project Forte, we delve into Ryan’s outlook on specialization in the workforce and why he finds it important to mentor and bring up others around him. Read about how Ryan found self awareness and new goals which will celebrate and preserve his family’s diverse cultural background.
Written and Edited by Kate Feher
Ryan Sun: My name is Ryan Sun and I am a post-producer for Alkemy X. I am of Filipino-Chinese descent, originally from South Jersey, and I’ve been living in the city and suburbs of Philadelphia for about 17 years now.
Kris Mendoza: How did you get your start in the industry? It sounds like you went to school locally?
Ryan Sun: Yeah, I went to Temple University and graduated with a BA in Film and Media Arts. Their program was highly ranked and very helpful in terms of leading students into this industry and preparing me for my career.
Kris Mendoza: In what way?
Ryan Sun: I was able to get an internship working in local news and that led to a position as a technical operations coordinator for the NBC news affiliate here in Philly. At the time I was toggling between production and post, doing local independent projects, commercial work, and eventually settling in on assistant editing / editor work. I even got to do some background work down in Virginia for a movie called Evan Almighty and that led to PA-work on other bigger budget movies. So, I’ve run the gamut as far as different types of work goes and settling in. I was really big on being a jack of all trades / master of none with my eyes set on editing.
Kris Mendoza: How did you get yourself to editing after all that?
Ryan Sun: Yeah, in 2012 I picked up an assistant editing position with Alkemy X – at the time they were known as Shooters – and I was there for their heavy political season in 2012. That led to a staff position as a junior editor for about 4 years before I went to Bowstring Studios up in Conshohocken to do some other fun engaging projects with them in 2018.
Bowstring let me go when the pandemic hit, which happened to a lot of people. It actually allowed me to start freelancing which, ironically, gave me an even surer foot in the market and the industry.
Kris Mendoza: It’s great that you stayed so positive through that experience.
Ryan Sun: Yeah, this past year I really got a chance to explore a lot of my creative sides as far as editing, freelancing, and learning how people were handling projects and jobs as we moved through this whole lockdown and quarantine situation. Over this time, I also got to reconnect with the SVP of Operations from Alkemy X, and picked up a post producing position, so here we are today!
Kris Mendoza: You touched on two things there… First, what’s the importance of specializing? You talk about being a jack of all trades but also about honing in on a particular craft. I think oftentimes, myself included, you might graduate and want to do absolutely everything, for whoever’s going to hire you, you know? You’re eager and you just sign up with anyone who wants to give you money. Maybe then, you very quickly realize you need to be known for something that you do very well, whether it’s gaffer, grip, editor… anything like that leads to more opportunities. Is specialization better in terms of self-branding or professional branding for yourself? What are your thoughts on that?
Ryan Sun: I think that it can be a double-edged sword in a way because when you hone yourself, you’re really committing and defining yourself and you have to be ready for that. I’m a little indecisive though I wouldn’t say non-committal. I feel, personally, that I have a lot to offer and a lot of facets to myself which should be honored. I’m open and I don’t want to shut out opportunities that come my way.
The other edge of that sword involves getting pigeon-holed. I know so many people that want to be… I don’t know. They want to be a writer. Well… they’re also really good at being an AD. It’s hard to branch out toward your writing goal if you’re being hired to second or AD your whole life.
For the longest time, I was playing to one strength that I had of understanding workflow and how to get from point A to point B on a project. So, I became known as this assistant guy who could get projects started and progressing with a plan. It was really hard to break out of that position and into an actual editor role where I get to make creative decisions and help people understand my ideas for a narrative or commercial or whatever it is. So, like I said, it’s a double-edged sword for people like me. Other opportunities that I took to remain active and relevant kept pulling me back to one thing or another. Regardless, my experience with exercising multiple skills all comes together to better inform my current position in a really engaging way.
Kris Mendoza: What level of balance between internal and external validation occurs while you’re narrowing in a career? For example, and I’ll speak from experience, there was a point in my life when I was doing a bunch of work shooting and editing. I called myself a videographer. I never quite felt comfortable calling myself a DP nor did I feel comfortable calling myself an editor. I was just not very good or confident about either skill. That’s the internal. The external is when people might tell you, you are that DP or you are that editor, until the internal catches up, and you can define yourself.
Ryan Sun: Yeah. When I started freelancing, people recognized that I had a lot to offer in different roles. I was getting various jobs based on what they remembered of a specialized aspect of my skills set.
When they recognized I could do more, that helped me see more opportunities. It pushed me to think, “Oh, you know what? Maybe, I can direct this thing, or maybe I can lend my hand towards a little graphic animation, create assets, or in another aspect of this job over here…”
It’s about self-awareness. It’s going to be a little bit different for everyone, and this is how it found me and how I found it.
I think you should do what makes you most afraid, what scares you to the point of finding your own edges.
Kris Mendoza: Absolutely. So, circling back, you gave us a pretty good understanding of winding down an unconventional career path. I want to unpack that, was it unconventional from the typical corporate 9-5 or unconventional from a cultural standpoint?
Ryan Sun: Oh, from a cultural standpoint is what I meant by that, yeah. My parents are off the boat Filipino, but they were never super conservative or strict like, “You should go be a doctor. You should be a nurse. You should be something where you have that nine-to-five job or this is what the job is kind of person.” I think they knew, and I knew, from the get-go that I wasn’t going to be very conventional.
But you’re asked as a kid what you want to become, and I wanted to be a magician chef. My parents said, “You don’t want to be a chef.” [They didn’t even acknowledge the magician part of it] They said “You’ll work terrible hours. You won’t have any friends. You won’t make a lot of money. It’s going to be hot…” I remember, some part of that sounded engaging. It sounded fun and exciting. But regardless, it was at the forefront of their minds that I should find a way to grow my roots, whatever it was. With film, they didn’t really know what to make of it, and they didn’t mind for the most part, but they were always worried about me finding success.
For them, it’s the monetary aspect of being able to survive making a living off of whatever video editing means or whatever getting into media communications means. The idea of a starving artist is prevalent, especially in Asian culture. They avoid it by being very strict on school, bringing honor to the family, being very diligent and hardworking.
What’s different generationally is not just the idea of success but the concept of hard work too. My parents came to this country in order to provide a better life for their kids. If you think about it, they gave up a lot of themselves to come to a foreign country, start fresh, and make a brand new kind of life for their family. That was hard work.
Kris Mendoza: So, you talk about defining success as being so subjective. How do you define success? You’ve made this a career, so it’s possible to have that success in film & TV and not own a starving artist label.
Ryan Sun: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that as far as success goes, I’ve been very fortunate to have met certain people and been able to have a support group like that. Coming out of college, a lot of people reached out to me or kept me in mind when it came to different projects. My talents and skill sets took me far, but I think without those connections, I recognize my goals might not have come to fruition.
I’m not even saying that I’m successful, I think I’m still figuring it out. People think about success monetarily: how much are they making, how much money they have, how much is their time worth. For me, I think that there’s a holistic aspect to success and how you feel as a person, and what you can contribute to the world with your gifts. I try to pay it forward and use a lot of my experiences to give back to students that are just coming out of college or people that are able to get a start into this industry. I find that very rewarding, personally and so that embodies a sense of success in itself. I can use my place to connect them to the right people.
The constant search for work as a freelancer is probably one of the most daunting things you can endure. It’s a mark of success in itself when people remember me and reach out for more work, otherwise I would spend 100% of my time doing that instead. Now it’s 50/50 hunting and gathering. Not to mention, being told, “Hey, I can really use your help on this.” is so rewarding. That’s how I gauge success.
Kris Mendoza: Do you think that whole notion of giving back and ushering in the next generation was fostered in you by someone in particular? How did you arrive at that mission?
Ryan Sun: So, actually to answer your question there, it’s because no one offered that to me. I feel like growing up, school, being on projects.. there’s a lot of stuff that I had to figure out on my own and said, “God, I wish someone would have told me this.” And just taking the time to encourage someone to go to a happy hour with industry folks can make a big difference too. There’s a lot to be learned in that aspect and it’s hard doing it without a lot of guidance.
Kris Mendoza: In terms of breaking into this industry… Almost every success story involves someone helping you up a ladder, but it can also be a kind of Catch-22. I mean, there’s still nepotism, favoritism, and cronyism. Unqualified people get jobs in every industry because they are given an opportunity from someone who feels connected to or responsible for helping a familiar struggle. That’s how the status quo gets fed. With Asian-Americans existing as a minority, it can be that much harder to break into a very distinct establishment, any thoughts on that? Did any of that factor into your early filmmaking days or even in film school?
Ryan Sun: Well, yes and no. I might have to go back to my upbringing to explain this. I grew up in a small town in South Jersey called Pennsville. Their claim to fame was being the town next to the town where Bruce Willis grew up. The demographic was primarily White and Christian.
My parents ended up here because my uncle worked as a doctor at the county hospital. He sponsored my dad to come lay down roots there, in the center of the tri-state area. I was one of maybe a handful of Asians in this town. There was still a strong Filipino community because they stuck together, maybe to survive. I remember going to backyard parties, having pig roasts, and doing all sorts of fun Filipino activities. But for the most part, going to school, I was surrounded by white people all the time. I hate to say it, but I became whitewashed in a way.
I was in some dumb band with my best friends growing up, and we had a little geocities website. But we wrote as our description that we were just “three dumb white kids from South Jersey.” And then, we looked at that sentence and all of us said, “Wait a second. Something isn’t right here.” I stopped, and I realized, “Holy shit. I’m not white.”
I didn’t see myself as different from these kids of Anglo-Saxon Christian Catholic backgrounds, and that’s not to say my parents didn’t try to instill our own culture in me. I didn’t want to be different, and I mentally blocked a bit of my Asian identity and made their white-ness a part of my life. You get teased in school, especially in a town like that, very conservative minds and very right-wing focus. And so, I saw that kind of target mentality towards anyone who was different. There were probably two or three black kids in my school, I was one of three Asians, and some of us got bullied. But I felt like I wasn’t on the other side because I had been around these people all my life. I couldn’t see that I wasn’t one of them.
So, using that growing up experience and going back to the original question: getting my start in this industry, I didn’t fully expect to be treated any differently concerning my race or cultural identity. I will say though that I remember going to my first internship, with all different walks of life sitting in the room with me as we went in for our first intern meeting…
I looked around and didn’t see anyone that looked like me. I don’t think it was a hindrance. If anything, it made me stand out. I’m not trying to say that me being different gave me an edge. I’m just saying that I think that it’s one of those things that people just notice. I’ve actually been mistaken for a few other Asians in this market…
Kris Mendoza: Who I’m sure you look nothing like, right?
Ryan Sun: Yeah. It was Neal Santos, who I went to school with.
Kris Mendoza: I know Neal. [jokes] Ok, maybe you look a little alike…
Ryan Sun: I could see maybe distant cousins, right? But one guy mistook me for him, and I’ve been mistaken for Ben Wong also, he’s an audio engineer.
Kris Mendoza: I know Ben, that one’s a little harder of a sell for sure. It’s not racist or hateful, but it is somewhat rooted in ignorance or just mistake people of color for someone else who looks nothing like them.
Ryan Sun: They’ll see someone that resembles me and it’s a harmless kind of thought, but at the same time it strikes this chord, “Where’s that coming from? What does that mean deep down?” I do try not to read into it too much.
Kris Mendoza: I mean I think it takes a good level of self-security to brush past that. It could eat away at a person…
Ryan Sun: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Kris Mendoza: I can’t really navigate through this without touching on – call it – the current state of being Asian. This is an interesting time especially after a year like 2020 with focus landing on social injustices against people of color, specifically the Black and Asian communities. What role can we play in helping to stop this within our industry?
Ryan Sun: I’m glad you asked, and I should say that I am so totally not a political person, but if anything these past four years have forced me to be hyper-aware. I was involved in the political cycle, working on ads this past election, and I learned that I don’t know as much as I should. You go toe-to-toe with people that are super into what’s happening and I want to hold my own in those conversations – uncomfortable conversations even – but I’m not confrontational and I don’t want to say anything too damning.
We have seen a lot of injustices and outward transgressions towards people of color and the Asian community. I’ll be blunt about this, growing up as I described, I certainly witnessed a lot of that mentality. I’ve never had anything outwardly scary happen to me while living there but the micro-aggressions are noticeable. My wife is Jewish, and we’re an interracial couple, so I’m hyper aware of that.
And I hate to say it, but in 2016 when we elected Trump as president, I saw a lot of that vitriol and hate in my social media feed. There was a new public mentality that it was ok to outwardly display this kind of behavior now. More recently, I saw a video of this woman in New York who got beaten up on her way to church. I thought, “Holy Cow, this is scary”
Kris Mendoza: You think: “This could be your mom, my mom, or your lola.”
Ryan Sun: Oh my god, yes, she was a 60-year-old Filipino woman on her way to church. Take race out of it for a second… for anyone to just wail on an elderly woman is so obscene. Then, you add the fact she was targeted for being Asian, and this man thought she didn’t belong here. I mean that just sets off a lot of bells.
It raises an issue in our society of how Asian culture is viewed. If anything, we’re seen as the comedic sidekick, the comic relief, or just the fun-loving Asian guy: the Jackie Chan. We’re not necessarily seen as threatening or –
Kris Mendoza: – or controversial or anything like that –
Ryan Sun: I personally am a fun-loving guy but I’m not sure anyone should equate that to me being Asian or not. I wish we weren’t portrayed as goofy. And that’s changed a lot over the years, but holding on to pure culture and respect for traditions is important because there still is a lot of whitewashing. Well, who was it, Scarlett Johansson? She was going to play some anime character. Think about that loss for Asian culture.
I’m a big fan of cooking shows, as an aspiring magician chef, and Anthony Bourdain did a phenomenal job of highlighting the Filipino culture in his show No Reservations. Honestly, watching that episode made me cry. I was very emotional just because it was so endearing to see someone respect the culture and understand where people of my country came from and what they hold true in themselves.
Kris Mendoza: Is it fair to say that as media makers and storytellers, especially being people of color and Asian, it’s our responsibility to tell our own stories accurately? It’s going to be a slow burn… a feature film or two won’t suddenly change the perception of Asians. You talk about this “goofiness” and that comes from years and years of conditioning in Hollywood, creating those stereotypes.
Ryan Sun: I think honestly, for any culture, it’s important to maintain the rights to our stories, whether you are Black, Asian, First Nation, Indian, Caucasian…
I told you about growing up whitewashed, well now I’m now playing catch up in regards to understanding my own culture, who I am, who my family is, and where I see myself going. I’m having a kid this summer. I need to make sure that this child is going to be raised knowing that we have a very vibrant Filipino culture on one side and on the other there will be Hebrew school and learning about Judaism. I think it is our responsibility, yes, and we’re the ones with the tools so if we don’t tell our stories, who will?
Kris Mendoza: No better way to end it right there. Any parting thoughts?
Ryan Sun: I think that for me and for any other marginalized person in this industry, it’s always important to stay true to yourself. Do what you need to do to stay on a path that fulfills you, but also stay true to your culture and family.