6 Artina Michelle

Project Forte: Artina Michelle

Project Forte is a compendium of interviews tuned to the frequency flowing from creatives working within the Philadelphia film industry. Our goal with this initiative is to promote a continuing conversation around the responsibility we have as storytellers and to amplify marginalized voices deserving of recognition and opportunity.  The project bears witness to their unique experiences, issuing a sense of empathy and honor for these leaders and their innovative teams.  Each story, profound and vulnerable, sheds light not only upon the status quo but also upon ways to challenge it respectfully.  By exposing their struggles and successes, these industry professionals have compelled others to ally around each other in solidarity, recognizing that there is space for everyone, and proven tools to create safe sets for collaboration within our community.

 

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Our final interview for 2021 features the incomparable Artina Michelle (she/her), a Liberian-American filmmaker who reminds us that “cinematography is the rhetoric of film.”  Although at home behind a camera, Artina is able to speak candidly about both recognizing and challenging fear.  That we have a responsibility to recognize our talents and use them, regardless of roadblocks and lessons yet unlearned. Ultimately, pinpointing fear and rushing headlong into it is the fastest way to reward.  Read on to hear more about her latest documentary This Too is Liberia and the talented collaborators working with her!

 

 

Written and Edited by Kate Feher

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Artina Michelle:         My name’s Artina Michelle and I’m a director of photography in the process of co-directing and producing my first feature film, This Too Is Liberia.

Kris Mendoza:           Born and raised in Philadelphia?

Artina Michelle:        I was born in Staten Island, New York. I was raised in Philadelphia.

Kris Mendoza:           Talk to me about how you got started in the film industry. How early in your life did you know this was what you wanted to be doing for the rest of your life?

Artina Michelle:        The earliest memory I have of film is when my mom bought a camcorder for one of our family reunions. My older sister and I would take it and make home videos. We used to do remakes of MTV Cribs, just random things. We did our first short film, edited everything in camera because we didn’t know how to edit. My brother would make cameos. It was just something fun that we would do. I didn’t take it seriously at the time.

Kris Mendoza:           Just so I can place us here, is this Mini DV, Hi8, VHS? What era are we talking here? 

Artina Michelle:        Yeah. I don’t even know the name for it. It was one of those camcorders with the cassettes.

Kris Mendoza:           It was a mini cassette like… Yeah, Mini DV or HDV, depending.

Artina Michelle:        Wait, does that make me old?

Kris Mendoza:           Ha, no, it’s cool you grew up in the analog era. You touched some analog tapes. That lets you straddle both cool old school and new age.

Artina Michelle:        Vintage, I’ll take it.  Anyway, as I got older, I thought I wanted to act, but I was too ashamed or afraid to say it. Fast forward to college, I thought I would be going into psychology because I did well in an AP Psychology course in high school. But I knew I didn’t really want to do that for the rest of my life. The acting thing was still in the back of my head, but… I’m a first generation Liberian American and I felt like I couldn’t tell my African parents I wanted to act. I just didn’t feel like they would support that. They’re very academically driven.

Kris Mendoza:           So you had the preconceived notion that they wouldn’t be into it. What’s a typical Liberian American career path you thought was expected of you?

Artina Michelle:        Yeah, for sure. I mean, I believed it because I heard it. “You sure you don’t want to be a nurse, a lawyer, or an engineer…” just different conventional paths that a lot of immigrants see as profitable.

Kris Mendoza:           But you declared your major as film, the actual major cinema, and then your parents didn’t need much convincing. Were they supportive after all?

Artina Michelle:        Yeah. I think what it was was my dad saw that I was really going hard for video work. I was doing events at that time. I was shooting music videos. I was shooting anything that I could.

Kris Mendoza:           Ah, and he saw the passion?

Artina Michelle:        Yeah, that and I started making money. I started making money from shooting events, and then that’s when he was like, “Okay…”

Kris Mendoza:           “This is a career.”

Artina Michelle:        Yeah. I think when I did my first event, it was either a wedding, or baby shower, or something. I got that paycheck. My dad was like, “They paid you all for this? … Okay, we’re in America. Here, children can do different things.”   That was it. After that, he was really supportive.

Kris Mendoza:           Ha, like, “What? They’re paying you money for this?”

Artina Michelle:        Yeah and that all started in college. I got advised to take a film analysis course as an elective. At the time, I was undeclared at Temple University. I didn’t think I would care too much about this course. I was just trying to get close to the theater but in this course I learned about cinematography. It reminded me of an English class I took that had to do with rhetoric.

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Isabella Granada AC, Sabaah Folayan Director, Artina Michelle DP

 To me, cinematography is the rhetoric of film. It’s the visual language, and that’s something that really interested me. After that, I bought a camera. I taught myself how to edit. I finally took the plunge. I picked my major which was film and media, and told my parents. They saw I was so passionate about it, so they actually did support me to my surprise. I started interning for  FreshFly. After that, it’s just history.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s right!  I don’t know if you remember how we met, but you were renting our studio. Then, I think it was Greg Heller, who was working with you at FreshFly, who had come to Maestro to edit right around the same time you arrived. You guys saw each other in the hallway and I thought he must have been a Temple student with you. It was such a coincidence…

Artina Michelle:        Oh yeah, I forgot about that!

Kris Mendoza:           That’s Philly production world for you, small world. Was that 2014?

Artina Michelle:        It was! I’m surprised you remember the year.

Kris Mendoza:           To that end, walk us through your work since? In what way did film school equip you for the workforce and really starting a career out there?

Artina Michelle:        Yeah. I would say one of the biggest things I got out of film school was a network. I got a chance to connect with different people. A lot of my peers are doing some major things. I’m super inspired by them. 

Kris Mendoza:           Yeah it’s a safe space to put yourself out there and find different pockets of people.  I always say to folks working in Maestro, being a people person is just as big of a part of this business as being a technician or creative.  Getting along with people, and having them remember you, pulling you onto other jobs, giving you opportunities and stuff. In that regard, I think it’s worth noting. Are there any people, whether it’s companies/organizations that you feel really helped you open up new networks and start to try new things? I know you mentioned FreshFly is one of them, but how does one transition from student trying to build a network, to being known for a position, and then getting calls and getting work?

Artina Michelle:        Oh yeah.  I would say it was FreshFly, then Maestro, you all really hooked it up, and Carron Willis at Alkemy X.  I think my network got much bigger through PA-ing with Alkemy because I met Marcus Clarke, a talented director, who ended up getting me on the set of Creed II

That was a formative moment for me. I was doing the best that I could on those jobs – they had me on background and stuff – but I was also already doing DP work as a side hustle. So by the time I got on Creed II, I was already nearing the end of accepting PA work… then, someone got me really upset on set one day and I was like, “I think I’m over it. I think I’m better than this.” 

I was like, “Let me just go talk to the DP real quick, and tell him I’ve been inspired by watching him work.”  I was going to tip my hat and go. But just through having a conversation with him, that turned around.  That day I was told I got moved to the camera department as a camera PA. That got me specialized in what I was actually interested in which was camera work.

Kris Mendoza:           Was that a turning point for you in terms of specialization and the like?

Artina Michelle:        Oh, I’ve always called myself a DP from the beginning. Even when I was interning, I was like, “I’m a DP, I’m a cinematographer.” I knew that, but when I first went into the industry, it was as if I couldn’t say that. People advised me not to say it.

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Isabella Granada AC and Artina Michelle DP

Kris Mendoza:           It felt like it was a title you had to earn?

Artina Michelle:        Yeah in a sense. 

Kris Mendoza:           It’s interesting. Right? There’s an older DP that we work with who you know, and he mentioned, to this day, he doesn’t feel comfortable calling himself a DP. He is “the camera guy” because of the pressure and the weight that he felt like came with the title, but I think there’s a lot to say about just owning it and saying, “This is what I am, and these are the kind of jobs and stuff I want to be known to for and get called for.” 

Why did you decide to draw a line and take only DP work moving forward?

Artina Michelle:        Oh, wow. To be honest, it was a twofold thing. I was reading this scripture in the Bible, the parable of the talents which talks about how you should not bury your gifts, but use them. At the time, I really would sit with myself and think, “I’m still learning.”  I’m ever-learning. I’m ever-growing, but at the same time, I don’t need to wait to take the leap. I know that I have the capability to have this title, regardless of what the industry was telling me at the time.

I think that goes hand in hand with what you’re talking about concerning identity too. It’s something that you have to find within yourself – to say, “This is who I am, and this is who I’m presenting myself to the world to be.” One thing I found helpful at that time in my life was that I got to PA for a female DP –  Oo, actually I don’t like using the word female to describe women.

Kris Mendoza:           Non-male. 

Artina Michelle:        Ha, right.  I should say I was on set with a woman, Julie Kirkwood, and she was a DP from LA.  I just didn’t see a lot of women DP’s in Philly at the time, and our B-cam operator was also a woman too. Basically, seeing them just added fuel to the fire.

Kris Mendoza:           Digging into the experience of not seeing a lot of non-male representation on the set… it sounds like you felt it drove you to be even more forthright in your mission to become a DP, yeah?  Had you seen that as a main obstacle? 

Artina Michelle:        To be honest, my gender didn’t really cross my mind when I was choosing my career. I’m confident that everyone’s path is different. Everybody has different ways to get to their destination, you know?  I had the confidence that if this was for me, that was going to be true whether I’m a woman, whether I’m black, whether I’m young, you know, or something else. If it’s mine, it’s mine, and no one can really take that from me, basically.

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Artina Michelle

Kris Mendoza:           How do those circumstances all factor into creating you, the artist? Do you find yourself gravitating towards certain projects? Do you find yourself being comfortable on certain sets? Are you picking and choosing who you work with? How does all this factor into the creative approach?

Artina Michelle:        Yeah, that’s a good question. Even with confidence, it’s definitely challenging. When I was learning about lighting, it was hard to be around a whole bunch of guys who were grips and stuff, especially having smaller arms like I do. That’s not a woman thing, that’s an Artina thing (jokes).

I think I was there for the knowledge, but definitely had to deal with a lot of male ego and people who were trying to fight their way to the top. People are crabs in a barrel when you’re in a small market. Then for me recently, or when I defined myself as a DP, I had to find my voice within what I wanted to do because now I’m making creative choices. 

I realized that in film school, I was taught a very Western-centric way of thinking about film that didn’t resonate with me, to be honest. What I was told was good, I didn’t think was good.

Kris Mendoza:           Is this from a story sense or technical approach?

Artina Michelle:        I would say story. Technical was good, but… There are certain films that are American classics which I don’t find…

Kris Mendoza:           There was zero cultural experience for you. As an American, you’re like, “None of this resonates with me whatsoever.”

Artina Michelle:        Exactly.  When I would get a chance to speak in my courses, I was made to be the issue. “You’re the person who doesn’t understand high cinema,” basically.  The culture that I come from is much different from the people who are creating these things. It’s not to say that my opinions, or what I would want to see, or what I would want to make is wrong or lower class cinema, but it’s just… an untapped perspective basically. I had to realize that my voice is important and it’s comprised of my varying identities as a Liberian American, as an artist, as a black woman, and more. 

Kris Mendoza:           Only you can tell it, right? Quite frankly, with a lot of culturally driven stories, if you’re not telling it, who is?  Someone may opt to write it, but if they don’t come from that culture, they may miss key elements or moods. I’m not necessarily getting to the point where, for example, only Filipinos can tell Filipino stories, etc. 

But – it’s no secret that in the last year and a half or so, The US has become super race conscious.  Some call it race guilt, this move toward intentional calls to hire minorities.  I don’t know if it’s the optics that scare them into action or if there really is authenticity behind it.  Do they actually want the right crew for this – to understand or appreciate it – or do they have their eye on a quota? Ultimately it opens the door for a lot of minorities in this filmmaking space regardless. It’s interesting because I think about it through the lens of being qualified. You talk about this inner validation, external validation, but ultimately it’s who’s qualified to tell what stories and who’s qualified to aid in the telling of it?

I’m curious to hear what your perspective is on this.

Artina Michelle:        Yeah, It’s interesting because for me, I didn’t get an influx of jobs carrying the pretense of needing a black DP.  I probably got maybe two jobs simply because the talent themselves said, “Hey, I want to see someone who looks like me on the other side of the camera.” 

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Artina Michelle and Melvin Kabakole Jr

I’m learning that there’s just a long way to go. Last year was a revelation for a lot of people, but for my community, it was stuff that we were saying and experiencing for so long. I still feel that sometimes people’s advocacy comes off performative. It can be a little shallow without a deeper understanding of other cultures, other identities and experiences. I do think that, for the most part, we’re on an up trend though. 

Kris Mendoza:           Hopefully it sticks…

Artina Michelle:        Yeah, exactly. I think I’m a little bit more cynical than others are, maybe. I just want to see longevity, but what I am interested in honestly is just the awakening that’s happening within black artists as well as other cultures and communities of artists. Basically, Americans and all our variations, like Liberian American, Caribbean Americans, Asian Americans, Black Americans… I just love that there’s a Renaissance of art that’s been going on for us. 

The independent projects are the ones that I’m interested in. Recently, I was called for a shoot about black women who are preparing to deliver their children in the middle of America’s black maternal health crisis… that’s a story that needs to be told, and I believe that it can only be told from the perspective of the women who are going through it, or at least can relate to it.

Kris Mendoza:           I think that’s a good segue then in terms of independent projects  –  can you talk a little about the documentary you’ve been traveling to Liberia for? I think it’s been a few years in the making. Can you give me the high level overview, and where you’re at, and what you’re accomplishing.

Artina Michelle:        I started working on This Too Is Liberia at the end of 2018. I was fresh off the set of Creed II… and I just got rejuvenated by all the diversity that was on that project, for example seeing Steven Caple Jr., who is a young black man from Cleveland, directing. 

Kris Mendoza:           Non-female.

Artina Michelle:        Yeah, for us to witness someone in this generation just killing it and making a project of that caliber, I got really excited. 

I already planned to go back to Liberia at that point. Naturally, I wanted to create something there. I thought it’d be a short project, but I discovered that Liberia has a surfing counter-culture that is growing so I started connecting with that community. 

Then I went for it. 

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Melvin Kabakole Jr and Bill Diggs

Initially, I went to Liberia for a month and started filming. I connected with my family over there – connected with my culture, my identity in a way that I’ve never done before. 

Then I came back, thinking I would get a whole bunch of grants and everything would work out how I wanted it to, but  instead had to wait a whole year and some change to go back to Liberia. It was during the pandemic that I actually went back for the second trip. That was fall 2020. I stayed there until February 2021. Now we’re close to the finish line. Thankfully, we just got approved for a grant a few days ago to finish the last bit of principal photography.

Kris Mendoza:           Congrats. What have you learned as far as documentary filmmaking when it comes to you as an artist throughout this whole journey? 

Artina Michelle:        So, so much… The journey with this film has been impactful because I’ve been documenting this story for the majority of my 20s.  I think that timeframe in anyone’s life is just… There’s a lot of growth. It’s been a lot of reconnection and learning about my family and about my history.

When I first started it, I was super excited. I was thinking, “Okay, this is going to be my first feature. It’s going to take a year tops.”  All I wanted to do was show my homeland, and so, in a way, it was all about me.

Then, when I met the surfers, I learned that it was bigger than me. I wanted to do it for them. I wanted to showcase the people who were in Liberia, who stayed after the war. I realized they are basically my counterparts. 

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At that point, I started to put more pressure on myself. I was like, “Oh, this project needs to be good, and I don’t know if I can deliver.”  I realized I had a fear of failure, and what I learned most through the documentary so far is overcoming fears and not letting fear rule me as an artist or even as a person. 

Kris Mendoza:           The game got big when you realized you really had something there.

Artina Michelle:        Yeah, seriously. I was like, “Oh, okay. This is actually looking like it can be something.”  Then I started to get fearful that it wouldn’t happen, that someone else, some Europeans – I know the French, in particular, do films in West Africa – would come in and take over the story.  That became a fear of mine. 

Throughout the project, I began to experience a lot of rejection, not getting the grants I was applying for.  I was like, “If we don’t get this money, I’m not going to finish this project…” That rejection process really taught me a lot. 

Then 2020 the world stopped. I thought, “I can’t push anymore for this doc. I can’t even leave the country. I can’t even leave my home, what now? What do I do with this time?”  So I learned to let go, and that’s actually exactly what I needed. 

There’s enlightenment on the other side of fear. Now I know, if I’m afraid of something that basically means I should go in that direction, to address it. Whatever my fear is, my treasure is on the other side. It’s just an indicator.

Kris Mendoza:           And now you’re just rushing towards your fears?

Artina Michelle:        I don’t know about rushing, but I’m definitely more inclined to use it as…

Kris Mendoza:           As a Motivator?

Artina Michelle:        Yeah, as a motivator. There we go. Now fear is more of a motivator.

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Artina Michelle

Kris Mendoza:           That’s super powerful to mentally unlock that for yourself and also empower yourself rather than be too paralyzed to do what’s next. You talked about the fear of failure, and conquering fears, but also, it’s important to note that the creative process lends itself well to learning from failure, embracing failure. I think that those things go hand in hand. 

When you look directly at rejection and failure, it makes you a better artist, a more resilient person at the end of the day. 

Artina Michelle:        It hits differently, fear of rejection, when it’s art that you’re creating, that you’ve become a part of.

Kris Mendoza:           You’re more vulnerable, right?

Artina Michelle:        Yeah. It’s very vulnerable, especially when the project is close to your heart like that, it’s close to your growth, and your identity.  You may have people say, “We don’t believe in this right now.”  And that’s tough but, that rejection is also creating the project, because every time I got rejected from a grant, I had to go back and revamp, rethink it.

Kris Mendoza:           You asked yourself, “Why did I get rejected? What can we do better?”

Artina Michelle:        Yeah, those questions are needed. I think all of it is needed for growth.

Kris Mendoza:           Absolutely.  So where can we find more information on this particular project?  And also, there’s one other project that I’ve been following… Can you talk to me a little about Dear Philadelphia

Artina Michelle: Yes, you can find more about the doc on my website, ArtinaMichelleDP.com there’s a tab for This Too is Liberia

Dear Philadelphia… That started with the director, Renee Osubu. She is originally from London but would spend her summers volunteering with kids in North Philly. I met her through a friend of mine who I was going to church with at the time. He told me Renee was looking for a DP for her project. Originally, Dear Philadelphia was a photo series that she intended to turn into a short film.

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It was true vérité style filmmaking. We were just rolling around and capturing people in North Philly. Renee didn’t tell me at the time, but she lost her father a few years prior to starting the project. It just so happens, the series is about black fathers in Philadelphia. I guess that was a turning point in her journey to make this project. I really was just there to help but  every time I watch it, I tear up because I know that it was made with love. 

I started out with them during the first half of production, but I had to leave to focus on This Too is Liberia. Then, she brought on Luis Lopez, a DP from San Diego. I was happy that they kept going. I had to bow out but I think that was the best thing that could have happened because Luis definitely did his thing on it. 

I was still able to pop in on them throughout the summer, shoot a couple shots here and there. That’s how organic it was. It would be like, “Here’s a camera. Oh, you’re here hanging out. Grab some shots.”

Then it ended up just being massively successful and way more than we thought it would be. It is her first film and her first short. To me, watching that after being in the game for this long, and knowing how difficult it is for people to even just finish a short, let alone have it reach this level… I’m just like, “Wow. All glory to God.” 

Kris Mendoza:           And this is out for people to watch now, or it’s still running a festival circuit?

Artina Michelle:        Oh, yeah. Dear Philadelphia is now available to watch on Vimeo Staff Picks.  Aftering premiering on the British Film Institute online player. It had an International premiere at Sundance, screened and won at Blackstar Film Festival and is now an Oscar qualifier. 

Kris Mendoza:           I love to hear it, a lot of good stuff happening. Thank you so much for joining us and best of luck!

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Project Forte: Kelly Murray

 

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This month on Project Forte we sat down with the co-founder of Pink Lemonade Pictures, writer and director Kelly Murray (she/her). Follow along as we discuss the risks and rewards of taking a leap, not only into the film industry, but from stability to freelance life.  Throughout her career, Kelly has been exploring such themes of transformation which mirror great changes especially in women-led stories.  She has developed her own experiences into relatable storytelling and continues to hone her writing for publications such as Accidentally Wes Anderson while creating editorial and visual content as the Director of Marketing for Trail Creek Outfitters.

 

 

Written and Edited by: Kate Feher

 

 

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Kris Mendoza:         So, You and I met on the set of Americano, and you had a different capacity there. It’s been great to see you flourish into many roles, and I know you’re capable, keeping busy with so much more. Tell us, how did you get started?

Kelly Murray:           Well, my journey into film and production has definitely been non-linear. (laughs) I was always creative growing up, and was drawn to theater and the arts. I was a strong writer at a young age, so I went to the University of Delaware for English. At UD, I got involved in a student theater group helping with makeup and costuming, but I didn’t get into film until after I graduated. I was always fascinated with film, and wanted to be in the industry, but I didn’t really know what that path would look like. 

After I graduated, I worked as an English as a Second Language tutor for two years and then took a job in marketing. Around that time, there was a large demand for content writers.  Businesses were starting to use blogs and social media as marketing tools, so I joined a recruitment company in Newark, Delaware as their marketing coordinator and content writer. Marketing was never really the plan, but I was excited to be able to work as a writer.

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Kelly Murray on the set of Renewed Spirit

Ironically, it was through that job that I met a Delaware-based filmmaker named Chris Malinowski. Chris was a friend of the CEO’s and he was using our office for pick-up shots for a feature film. Around that same time, in my marketing role, we were talking about exploring video, so my manager connected me with Chris and suggested I shadow him during his shoot. Delaware isn’t really known to be a filmmaking hub, so I found it really cool to have the opportunity. 

When I met Chris at the shoot, he gave me the rundown of their set up and I watched them block their scene. Then I sat in the background during one of his pickup shots as an extra. It was just him and his DP (Chris was also the lead actor in his film), and I think that experience, for me, was the moment I realized, “This is what I want to do.”  After I shadowed Chris, the company sent me to a video production workshop at WHYY and we ended up making some marketing videos. As it turned out, I was actually laid off from that same marketing job a few months later. So while I was figuring out my next move, I decided to pursue film production and see if I could make a career out of it.

I found Film.org and applied for a PA job on a film called Brotherly Love, which was a feature film shot in West Philadelphia, directed by Jamal Hill. Queen Latifah’s production company produced it, and Keke Palmer was in it. I worked in the production office with the UPM and APOC, delivering things and helping with paperwork. That was my first introduction to a large production. It was mostly night shoots, it was crazy. But I was just happy to be a part of it. 

After Brotherly Love, I continued to find jobs on local productions, and around the same time, I got a part-time position at QVC as a copywriter. So I began splitting my time between QVC and production work. Given my background with theater, I was drawn to art department roles on set. I started out doing makeup and costuming. And as is the nature with low-budget indie films, I began helping on set wherever there was a need, so I started set dressing and eventually began art directing on low-budget projects. 

In the beginning, a lot of my jobs were unpaid. I worked on a lot of student films and short films, trying to get as much experience as I could, and make as many connections as possible. I was then hired full-time at QVC but still took set jobs when my schedule allowed. I was living in West Chester by then, and was surprised to find an amazing community of filmmakers there. I worked with the production company/animation studio Something’s Awry Productions. I did a lot of production coordinating with them on their short films. I also did some art directing on a handful of narrative shorts in the West Chester/Philly area and New York.  

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Kelly Murray and Hillary Hanak on the set of Block

Around 2015, I met Hillary Hanak through a mutual film friend, and she and I became really fast friends. At that time, one of my colleagues reached out about a short documentary they were producing on World War I veterans. They didn’t have any crew put together yet, but were looking for a director and a DP… and I thought, “Hey, I’d love to direct.” It was something I was interested in, and never done before. So I offered to direct the project. They agreed to bring me on, and I brought Hillary on as DP. The documentary includes a series of interviews with Philadelphia-area genealogists telling the stories of their ancestors who fought in World War I. The project is called Memories of the Great War, and that was the first time I had ever gotten behind the camera as a director. 

After Memories, I was getting the itch to write my own project. A few months after we locked in the Memories edit, I saw a call for artists for a video exhibit at The Delaware Contemporary, which is a contemporary art museum in Wilmington, Delaware. They were looking for videos that were themed around space exploration. I felt inspired by the prompt and wrote a short script called The Astronomer, which essentially is an adaptation of a Walt Whitman poem called When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer. That project became my first narrative short film, which Hillary also DP’d and co-produced; and led to the launch of our creative partnership as Pink Lemonade Pictures

 

Kris Mendoza:         I don’t know the course of how many years you went from here to there, but I think it seems like your journey was, I won’t say relatively quick, but one thing certainly led to another. And part of it is how you sought these opportunities. 

Let me take a step back, because I wonder, if you didn’t get laid off from that job, would we not be talking today? And I ask that because I’m curious about the relationship between job security and freelance life.  That seems like a barrier for some, and also a badge to wear on your sleeve no matter how successful you are, because you challenged yourself to make the leap. 

How big of a decision was this pursuit? When it was right in front of you, did you think, “This is a no-brainer….” and had it not been for the timing, do you think you’d have different outcomes in retrospect? Was losing a job, in fact, a blessing in disguise for you?

 

Kelly Murray:           Yeah, that’s a great question. I think at the time, because I was so young…I was 24…I remember feeling humiliated. It was my first office job out of college and I couldn’t believe I was laid off. But like you said, I think it was a blessing in disguise. It offered me the time and opportunity to explore another career path, so I didn’t really think twice. I just was like, “You know what, I’m going to see where this goes.” Film production was this whole new world that I hadn’t encountered before. I felt like I was part of something bigger, and it felt attainable too–

 

Kris Mendoza:         It sounds like it took a lot of your interests and your skills and put it together in one role.

 

Kelly Murray:           Yeah. So what’s crazy is that I started this film journey with losing a job, and after years of pursuing this passion “on the side”, I then decided to voluntarily leave my job at QVC to freelance full-time. I was 28 and I felt like I was at a turning point in my career. I thought, “I’m not getting any younger, maybe I should just go all in on this passion,” So I did, but you know what? I really struggled in finding my footing as a full-time freelancer.

Looking back, I think there were a lot of factors that contributed to this, but a major one that impacted me heavily involved my relationship at the time. I had an agreement with my partner that I was going to give myself six months to a year in dedication to launching my freelance career. I had a bit of a slow start at first, but I began booking work.  My first freelance booking was actually with Maestro on Americano

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Kelly Murray on the set of Americano

This relationship I was in, looking back, I think it suffered from the circumstances. And I say that just because with freelancing, you have less separation between work and home life, and they affect each other. What ended up happening was that my partner just…he came home one day, ended things, and left. It was about five months into our “agreement”, and I remember feeling blindsided. He said that one of the reasons why it wasn’t working out was because of the production life that I had chosen.

 

Kris Mendoza:         Wow. And how long were you guys together?

 

Kelly Murray:           A year and a half. It hit me pretty hard. We were living together, and I think because I had tied up so much of my identity with working in film, that it kind of levelled my reality. He said he was done, and “You have a week to move out,” type thing. And in three days, I was supposed to fly out with Hillary for a production job in the Caribbean for a week, so I was in a bit of shock. I was like, “Cool…”

 

Kris Mendoza:         “…we’ll figure this out later…”

Kelly Murray:           Yeah, like on one hand, I just got dumped really badly, but on the other, I have this really great job opportunity…

Kris Mendoza:         And the show must go on!

Kelly Murray:           Exactly, the show must go on. It was the biggest job I had booked at the time, and it was a week away on an island — it was an incredible opportunity. So I had to steel my nerves and focus on the work.

Kris Mendoza:         Did you even have time to process it?

Kelly Murray:           I mean, I went and it was an amazing experience — we were doing 360 VR and photography for a client located on the island of St. Kitt’s. But I remember coming back to the States and having to face the reality of, “What do I do now?”  My life had kind of turned upside down. I ended up moving back home to my hometown in Hockessin, Delaware. I was 29, and it felt like a major setback. But after I moved back, I ended up getting a contract job at a company called Spirit Animal Collective, I don’t know if you remember —

Kris Mendoza:         I know Spirit Animal, yeah.  Edan and Doris, right?

Kelly Murray:           Yeah! So I was producing with them for a little bit. I drove an hour and 20 minutes from Hockessin to Philly and then back every day. I was so determined. I just was like, “I’m going to make this happen, I’m going to make this happen.” And I guess my point in saying all this is that there have been a lot of ups and downs, really –

Kris Mendoza:         – It’s not a straight line, people may see it differently.

Kelly Murray:           Right. It isn’t a straight line. And even while working with Spirit Animal, I still had to take a step back and reassess my path. I still wasn’t able to support myself financially freelancing, so I decided to step away from crewing and return to the marketing field. I eventually got a 9-5 marketing job at an architecture firm back in West Chester. I moved back out on my own, and really focused on rebuilding my life. I’ve continued with marketing and currently, I’m the Marketing Director for Trail Creek Outfitters, an independent retailer of outdoor equipment and clothing in Glen Mills, PA. It’s a great company and the owner loves video, so I’ve been able to get behind the camera again and write and produce videos for the store — like a mini in-house creative department. 

Kris Mendoza:         Awesome.

Kelly Murray:           Yeah, so I guess my point in telling that kind of rocky road story is that pursuing a creative career is far from glamorous… it isn’t one size fits all…and it’s really important that you know and stay true to yourself.

With social media nowadays, I think it’s easy to compare ourselves and think that we’re not where we’re “supposed to be” in our careers, or whatever. Of course, we want to market ourselves and put out our best sides out there… but I think for any artist…creative person…or entrepreneur, life can get really messy sometimes. Life can throw a lot of curveballs at you. Staying true to yourself and your goals is so important.

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Kelly Murray on the set of Americano

And it’s different for everyone…I had to deal with some major setbacks in my personal life, but through that I also realized that my approach to the industry wasn’t really sustainable. Even though I wanted so badly to work in film…just working “on set” wasn’t enough. I had to take some time to really think about what I wanted to offer as a filmmaker and as a creative. So I consciously decided that I would refocus my creative efforts on writing and directing, even if it just meant for my passion projects in my free time.

When I stepped back and focused on writing again, I found that more doors began opening organically. People began seeking me out to help write scripts and develop their film projects…which was so refreshing. Along with my current job, I’ve been growing a client list for freelance writing. I’ve written scripts and developed videos for both Fortune 500 companies and mid-size businesses. And currently, I’m a contributing writer for Accidentally Wes Anderson, a digital platform with over one million subscribers. Kind of crazy.

Sometimes the path isn’t always a straight line, and having that self-awareness can be really important, because the great thing about film and production is that there are so many avenues you can take, and it might not be exactly what you expect, but if your goal is to work in film or any creative medium… it can still happen by another route.

 

Kris Mendoza:         I’m glad you said that, it’s refreshing to hear someone get back to that sentiment that it takes hard work, takes a lot of networking. I can relate to both the entrepreneurship side and also the filmmaker side, that it can be a lonely road sometimes. There are times other people seem like they’re staying busy and getting booked with all these jobs but you’re kind of like, “I’m qualified, and I’m out there, and I’m marketing myself, why am I not on the set?” 

 

Kelly Murray:           Exactly, yeah.

Kris Mendoza:         And you kind of start to worry more about that than being creative. 

We’re really lucky that filmmaking is also the most collaborative medium out there, right, because having other artists to work with keeps you inspired and learning… keeps you creative.

It just takes a bit of balance to motivate yourself, when you’re a freelancer and you’re essentially your own boss… you are an entrepreneur, even if you’re reporting to set, and the balance is about finding that daily motivation to go out there and get it. 

“Find something you’re passionate about, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Which I think is flawed, right?  “Passion is fleeting,” in fact.  Passion is the very, hot and heavy romanticism that exists when you fall for a medium like this and something sparks in you.  But to develop an appreciation for every factor of the process – a gratification for the parts that didn’t come easy, maybe marketing and networking and collaborating – if you can do that, you develop a deeper love for the entire job.  It changes what feels like work and that’s when  “you’ll never ‘work’ again.”  

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Kelly Murray writing for Accidentally Wes Anderson

I went to watch Todd Carmichael, who owns La Colombe, speak one day and he said, “Passion is what I feel when I kiss my son on his forehead, for my son, that’s an injection of passion. But to be good at something and get to that next level, there’s also a certain level of it that’s obsession.”

I think people on the outside of this industry don’t really get how much you have to immerse yourself in filmmaking to see it through. If you’re the only one telling yourself you need to get this script done or get this film done, you’re the first and last case of accountability and the idea of an entire film becomes more daunting as you broaden your scope to see all those different moving parts.  That alone can make you stall before you start. One method to combat that is staying open to collaboration, because that is where you find moments of rest and relief from the larger goal.  It’s not a marathon, it’s a relay.  

And people find different ways of making it work, whether you have a full-time gig and you’re doing filmmaking as the side hustle that is really just another main hustle, or you’re doing the full-time thing, or you’re working at a production company full-time, there’s no one size fits all in terms of making it work. But in terms of your role, how do you reconcile the work?  I don’t want to paint it negatively, but you’re kind of burning the creative candle on both ends, right? And I hear from a lot of people that maybe they’re a photographer during the day, and a video editor on the weekends. And you almost have to find this endless source of creativity, because you’re using up your creative functions on both ends. How does that work for you, and how do you make it work?

 

Kelly Murray:           That’s a really great question…I recently had lunch with Tim Viola, the writer/director of Americano, and he asked a similar question, too.  We were talking about working through writer’s block and creative block, and he’s like, “How do you keep the well full?” And my answer in that moment, and maybe this is a writer’s perspective, was “I do anything but… [writing].”  (laughs) I will simply focus on doing things to get out from behind the keyboard and experience life.

So, Tim’s question was more of in regards to enduring the pandemic, because it’s been such a crushing, isolating–

Kris Mendoza:         Sucks the creativity out of you.

Kelly Murray:           Yea, sucks the creativity right out of you. So during the pandemic, I took up horseback riding, which was something I loved as a child. I could do that outside, and still be safe and active… plus, riding keeps you present and disciplined. I began hiking and camping, a lot… that sort of thing. Just trying to find new experiences that kept me sharp. Creativity is pulled from within, from our life. If you’re constantly writing and just banging away at the keyboard 24/7, what are you pulling from? We operate in a very emotional world as filmmakers, whether you’re writing a narrative film, or even if you’re doing something commercial, right? We’re still telling a story, we’re still relating to people. If you are simply spending all your time at the keyboard… how can you… effectively relate to your audience?

Kris Mendoza:         Or replenish that well, yeah.

Kelly Murray:           Yeah, you have to have that balance, so that you’re not burning it from both ends. I’m fortunate because much of my marketing work is computer-based, so I can easily transition from my marketing world to my freelance or personal writing projects right on my laptop, but the time commitment can be difficult. Right now I work full-time and then I work on my freelance and personal projects in my free time.

I think through the pandemic it was a bit comforting, because I had something to do after working remotely all day, and not really having other places to go. I was doing a lot of Accidentally Wes Anderson (AWA) writing, which was exciting because I got to research and explore different parts of the world each night. AWA features original architecture photography inspired by Wes Anderson’s symmetrical style. As an AWA writer, I’m assigned a photograph and then I write a short history on its location. The histories are intended to be narrative in tone, so it’s a great opportunity to stay creative.

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But yeah, I mean, I think just trying to be as present in life as I’m trying to be in my art… remembering that I have to have that source. Before, I felt like I wasn’t a true filmmaker or a true artist or whatever term you want to use unless I was always on set or making something, and I think it’s easy to fall into that hole or the mindset. Of course, if you’re freelancing you want to make sure you have steady work… but what I’m saying is, just don’t forget to experience life.

 

Kris Mendoza:         You make a really good point about how to keep the well full, because even if it’s one project that you’re pouring yourself into, at what point does it get unhelpfully obsessive? I had this uncle who was a composer and he had a very… let’s call it a darker approach to creativity. He made his best work when he was a starved, tormented artist, so he almost did not want, did not aspire to have money, because he made his best work when he was on the brink of losing it.

 

Kelly Murray:           Yea, I think that dynamic is so interesting. I once had a friend say to me, “I don’t think I could be a writer, because I only wrote the best things when I was depressed, and I don’t want to be depressed.” And I remember thinking, Damn, is that what we associate with the creative life? The idea that we must be depressed to create compelling work? But, I know I’ve certainly dealt with that. The relationship between the artist…creativity…and success can be very complicated. I have to actively remind myself that struggling doesn’t always have to equate to creating great art. You have to fight to take yourself out of that mindset sometimes…you can get lost in there if you’re not careful.

 

Kris Mendoza:         Yeah, and that’s when a seemingly straight path is revealed as winding, when the artist is lost internally.  There wasn’t really a straight path in what they’re doing, nor are they really at a point where we ever feel like we’ve made it.

Kelly Murray:           Yeah.

Kris Mendoza:         I think as an artist you’re constantly evolving and constantly trying to figure out what’s next. So I don’t know if there’s a project or a collaboration or an award where you’re like, “You know what? I think I’m done, and I’ve done it, here I am.”

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Kelly Murray at Playhouse West

 

Kelly Murray:           Yeah, I think that’s so true. And I don’t know if there’s really a benchmark of success or finality for artists. Even at the highest level of one’s profession or success, there could always be more to do…more to improve…to create…to experiment.  I read somewhere, “Even at a Hollywood level, or very large-scale production, the process is still the same. It’s still long days, and it’s a lot of problem-solving, and you have to really love the process.” And I think that goes for any medium. Even after you’ve “made it”, you still need to do the work.

There’s a quote by Ray Bradbury that I like where he says, “You have to stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you”. I’ve interpreted that as you have to remain enchanted by writing. You have to love the process. Writing can be such a difficult, solitary medium, but even though you are, as one, single, solitary person, kind of creating on the page… you have the ability to connect with so many people at one time with your work. You have to really love the grind, be committed to it, and be willing to stay with the work until it’s published on the page…or performed in front of an audience..whichever form it takes shape.

Kris Mendoza:         This is leading very well into the next question here, which is – How do you handle vulnerability? This is something that a lot of artists experience, and I’ve been working with someone that’s writing and producing something loosely autobiographical… with that work, whether it’s autobiographical or not, you are kind of making yourself vulnerable and putting a part of you out there, right?  I’m sure there are artists who are relatively bold, saying, “Take it or leave it, I don’t care what you think,” but really no one is putting it out there without the understanding that it is now open to other people. What’s that notion like for you in terms of your perspective as an artist, of spending months and hours on something, and taking a chance? I’m not talking about comments on Facebook, or likes, or anything like that, but just the sheer vulnerability of sharing a piece of yourself and then kind of putting it in an unknown space. And now with the internet, it’s forever, right? 

 

Kelly Murray:           Oh God, yeah. So like, what are my thoughts [on vulnerability]?

Kris Mendoza:         Yeah, are you conscious of that as a creator while you’re creating, and does it embolden you or is it something that makes you anxious or that shy away from?

 

Kelly Murray:           That’s a really good question. I’ve done projects that have been semi-autobiographical, but I think that I was so focused on the creation of the project at the time that those personal tones didn’t emerge until later… 

Like, for example, Your Wreckless Heart is a short film in the festival circuit right now. It’s a five-minute drama that we did, about a painter who is dealing with a creative block after a really bad breakup. This project came to be originally as a music video submission for a contest by singer/songwriter Glen Hansard for his song, Wreckless Heart. Which is basically a break up ballad. 

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Kelly Murray on the set of Your Wreckless Heart

So when I stumbled upon this Wreckless Heart contest, I listened to the song, and wrote a treatment involving a painter who is trying to make it in her career… but she’s having trouble balancing her relationship and her creative ambitions, and her relationship ends because of it. But it isn’t until she realizes that her own agency and power is within herself, that she is then able to break through the creative block. 

We shot this project in one day, in a really beautiful studio location owned by Robert C. Jackson, who’s an oil painter in Kennett Square, PA. His daughter Becca Jackson was our lead actress, and we had worked with her on The Astronomer. But to your point, I remember thinking, “Let’s make the deadline and let’s enter this video contest.” And it wasn’t until after shooting, when I was putting the edit together, that I realized, “Wow, I pretty much wrote my breakup into the story.” 

Kris Mendoza:         Ha, Inadvertently!

Kelly Murray:           Yeah (laughs). So I guess my point is you talked about vulnerability…and well, that project was definitely an exercise in vulnerability. We ended up not winning the contest, which was fine, because I thought, “Hey, all right, well, we have this beautiful piece, let’s make it its own thing.” So we adjusted it a little bit, added some original poetry by West Chester poet A.E. McIntyre, and emerged with this really beautiful standalone piece. But, it took me a really long time to edit.

During the secondary post-production portion of it, Hillary kept asking, “So, how’s Wreckless Heart coming along?” And I would say, “I’m working on it.” (laughs) But really, I think I was putting it off a little bit, because I was dealing with watching that breakup over and over again. But even now when it’s in festivals…the audience doesn’t know that they’re watching “my” break-up on screen. They don’t know that deep, autobiographical part of it, but they can appreciate the story. And they can relate to it. That’s where vulnerability is so key…and that’s the beauty of art — creating that connection through the presentation of our own experiences.

I usually tell people when they’re working on a script that might have autobiographical tones [and they’re questioning whether or not they should include a personal detail], “Try to ‘go there’. Try to go to that painful, uncomfortable place, whatever it may be, and see what comes of it.” The goal is not to be a whistleblower. You’re not making a reality show, you’re not just going to put everything out there. But if there’s something in your story that’s pulled from a life experience and it’s not quite leaving you, try revisiting that experience and see what you can pull from it to weave into your script. Because more often than not, people will relate to that personal struggle more than you’ll ever realize.

A lot of the narrative projects I’ve worked on, like Block with Carrie Brennan… that was a beautiful story of coming to terms with her own sexuality. That’s not an easy topic for anyone. Halfway to Fifty with Amanda Mazzone, dealt with themes of self-acceptance, and her relationship with her mom… again, a very personal thing. These stories are beautiful examples of vulnerability, and the response I’ve seen to these projects is incredible. 

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Block Crew

So I definitely think that when it comes to vulnerability…you know, we’re in the business of connecting and sharing emotions with people…so if it’s something that you’re really afraid of sharing, I guess just explore it, and see what comes of it, and then express it artfully. More often than not, people will relate to it, and you’ll get that connection. Because when we make a film or write a story, we’re trying to move people emotionally, right?

 

Kris Mendoza:         That leads me to my last question here, and it’s a perfect segue, what’s next for you? Anything you want to tease, anything you’re working on that you are able to talk about right now?

 

Kelly Murray:           Absolutely. So, I’m in post-production for a documentary called The Openers. Hillary and I are co-producing. We followed our friend Karol Brehany, an aspiring Philadelphia-based comedian, for about a year and a half while he pursued stand-up comedy. It’s really a story about beginnings. We often discover comedians, either they’ve been on the circuit for a while, or they might have a Netflix special, or we see them at the top of their game. But what Karol wanted to do was really show what it’s like to break into it from the ground up. 

In late January, I’m directing a short film written and produced by Becca Jackson. It’s currently untitled, but it’s a drama that explores the dynamics of emotional abuse in relationships. We’re currently in pre-production now and have some great talent lined up on both sides of the camera, so I think it will be a really powerful project.

And then later this year, I’ll be directing a short film called Ligeia by actor/writer John Reshetar. It’s an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe short story by the same name. I wasn’t really familiar with the story until John brought it to me. It’s a story about a young writer who is taking care of his ailing second wife, while being haunted by his first wife’s ghost. It’s like a horror love triangle involving a ghost… so yeah, very gothic and very Edgar Allan Poe. 

Kris Mendoza:         That sounds cool.

Kelly Murray:           Yeah, I love period film. So those are the next projects that I’m focusing on, and other than that, just working and taking a day at a time during this pandemic, for sure.

 

Kris Mendoza:         It was great to hear a little of your story… I think these are the things people connect with the most, to hear you be so honest about your journey.  I’m excited to see all the stuff that you’re working on, and also see how that has evolved over time into bigger, better things. But yeah, I see you staying busy on the production side of things and continuing to learn… any final thoughts for us?

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Kelly Murray: Yeah, definitely… I think looking back, what I’ve learned is don’t be afraid to fail, keep going, and that there is no clear path to success. I kind of see this film journey as a marathon, not a sprint, right? I still feel like I have a lot more to contribute and I hope I’m able to continue to make films.

We’ve talked about themes of entrepreneurship, and kind of…the approach to business or approach to the industry, and I think it’s important to maintain that professional mindset in this industry. It’s about building relationships with people…whether it’s strengthening your network, or really focusing on how you can help people. And on the creative side of things, you can’t be afraid to express yourself. I don’t know if this is corny or not, but I’ve always liked the quote, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”  

Usually something that you’re really nervous about, usually you have to get over that mental block. And you find that it just takes a little bit of courage to go there. And whether it’s telling a tough story, applying for that gig, or even just saying you want to pitch something to someone…just push yourself to try, and just keep going.  More often than not in the creative community, there are like-minded individuals and plenty of opportunity. There’s plenty of room for you and your story — so trust yourself, be true to yourself, and focus on creating.

 

Kris Mendoza:         Absolutely. I think that’s a good place to end there, because I firmly believe, like you’re saying, Creativity happens on the edge of comfort.. where comfort ends and your fear begins. Thanks so much for the time!

Kelly Murray: Thank you for having me!

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Lagos Jewelry – Designer Series

We recently collaborated with Lagos Jewelry, whose global headquarters happens to be right here in Philadelphia. Our crew is on hand creating a campaign of videos, but this one captures the essence of the company’s signature inspiration line, Black Caviar.  We are revisiting the old-world craftmanship that creator Steven Lagos first incorporated and melding with it state of the art technology used to develop each intricate piece.  From the design floor to the workshop, we follow the process by showcasing systems and artistry leading to incomparably beautiful jewelry. Charles Morabito directs, combing over hand-drawn sketches and carefully illuminating diamonds, gems, and precious metals.  This deep dive explores the treasure trove of Caviar’s rich history.

Happy Birthday, Maestro Filmworks!

 

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Photograph by Max Grudzinski

We are celebrating our thirteenth year as a full service production company and couldn’t be prouder of our team and our history!  Established in 2005, we’re proud to say our creative house is now a teenager!  Just so, we are ready to take on more of the responsibilities that accompany such a rank.  Maestro’s key initiative is supporting our local communities in education and art by using our resources to buttress their missions while honing our passions.  Most immediately, it is our collaboration with Stay True Philadelphia.  A seven-year long relationship so far, we are gearing up for another successful summer program teaching students photography through our subsidiary Philly Photo Studio.  It’s a fantastic way to kick off our 13th year, developing further as a leader of visual arts by supporting the promising young minds of our future.

DSC08342[ featured left to right: Kris Mendoza, Edward Cippola, Weston Fahey, Katie Feher, Joanna Shen, Andrew Czudak, Max Grudzinski]   Photograph by Max Grudzinski

   We’re also looking forward to rounding out the second half of the year with Philly-Forward creative content.  Extending from the corporate scene, we’ve set some creative goals toward features and shorts that will build on our pride for this city and its communities!  Be sure to tune in to the current manifestation of that: our ongoing Long Story Short program through Instagram @makelongstoryshorts

Happy Birthday, Maestro!

 

Long Story Shorts

Maestro Filmworks presents “Long Story Shorts,” a team creative endeavor with an aspiration to build awareness, experience, education, and exploratory traditions into our process.

LSS BTS 2Photograph by  Max Grudzinski

The parameters bracket a short film featuring up to two characters, one location, and one minute of thought provoking, digestible story-telling, all completed in one day and strictly for distribution on Instagram.

“There is an underserved audience on Instagram with an appetite for short form content that no one is really tapping into,” says Kris Mendoza, Executive Producer at Maestro. “Our aim is to produce fun, digestible short films and passively bring them to your feed for your viewing pleasure.”

KAT 1640Photograph by  Kate Feher

For Maestro, these exercises keep the creative juices flowing.  We invite you to witness our progress, as we showcase our projects monthly!  Shown above is a Behind the Scenes vignette into the world created by Max Grudzinski, a talented photographer working with Maestro across multiple platforms.  Here, he is flexing his Directing muscles for the first time, kicking off our series with gusto!