Tell us about what drives your work.
I’ve always been into music. I started playing piano before I can remember, I wrote music as a child, and I almost never stopped singing. My mom started me out on the good stuff…theater, old movies, lots of Lawrence Welk, Nat King Cole, Cole Porter, 1950’s classics and big band music (her mother had been a well-known singer in the ’40s before her early death). I still remember being the only child in the audience at Red, Hot & Cole and loving the show. I’ve always loved classic 20th-century Americana, both in music as well as visual elements, and you see that in my photographs a lot. Clothing, architecture, and materials that represent independence and timelessness are important to me. Growing up in the ’90s, we were learning about mounting environmental pressures in school and on TV, and meanwhile, around us, the prosperity of the ’90s brought with it disposability and the export of the mill jobs that built all the little towns we lived in. I was apprehensive about globalization and sustainability, even as a 4th grader. Meanwhile, I didn’t make friends easily in school, and coming home to this world of old movies and cartoons, books, art supplies, music, the hum of the sewing machine, and our piano was such a comfort. Dancing, singing, performing…this was how I learned to put my own expressions out there in the world. Creating with writing, composing music, and art was my way of constructing an ideal way of life I could live in my mind. There were things I wanted to close out, and art was a world where I could exclude them. I started drawing idealized images of childhood, even as a child myself, inspired by illustrators like Mary Engelbreit.
There’s always been a part of me that’s off in a fantasy world. And nothing takes me there faster than music. I have this thing called synesthesia, and when I hear music, I see–without effort and beyond my control–a rich and detailed play of events, people, and places in my mind’s eye. Most of my life, I’ve been hearing music and visualizing what could be mini-films with that music. The day I saw Fantasia in the theater was when I first felt like someone out there, making this movie, understood the way I thought and saw the world. A student of mine last year gave me one of the most meaningful thank you notes. She remembered that I mentioned this in a small group video chat, and she mailed me some film cells from the movie. I was so touched.
How did you get started?
Well, I loved art, too. I started oil painting at 12, was a prolific artist in high school, and at the same time, I was going through a secret struggle and depression. I picked up my mom’s camera and went out in the sunrise after a difficult night, and I photographed anything that I thought was beautiful. Pink roses catching the light, rusty bolts rich with texture, the sunrise. Anything to remind me there was good out there and I could still see it. I photographed landscapes, the human destruction of landscapes with development, and the inevitable decay and return to nature. Landscape photography took me many miles, and I have fond memories in our early years of marriage of venturing out by myself into the Arizona desert with nothing but a Jeep, cash, water, and a cooler full of film. I narrowly missed falling to my death at the edge of a deep canyon in a 50 mph gust of wind.
One day, my husband and I were rock climbing with friends, and I decided to show off by falling backward off a cliff (tied in). I demolished my camera, leaving me with nothing but an iPhone when our son was born 7 months later in 2010. As a baby, he was only happy occasionally and only at night. His happy moments were so rare that I jumped to capture each one. When he was 4 months old and starting to get wiggly, it was impossible to get a non-blurry photo. Then I thought, “Why freeze this motion? It’s adorable!” So I switched to video and never looked back. I had learned to make videos as a middle school teacher to raise money for my classroom a year prior, so I started making video compilations of our family life, then later invested in a DSLR. And finally, after all those years of living with a song in my mind — I was able to match what I saw in my own life to the music I felt accompanied what I experienced. For me, it was the ultimate Fantasia.
What were the challenges for you in the beginning, in your journey of figuring out films?
DSLR video wasn’t on the market until fall of 2008, so it was still an emerging technology when I got into it. There was no community around it, there was very little education out there on it, so I just figured films out on my own through making them. Back then people were still defining how it would be used, and it was kind of every man for himself because we all had different purposes. In 2013, I was hoping to find a buddy on the same learning journey as I was, but no one else was making montages of their lives to music using artistic tools. It just wasn’t a thing. I scoured the internet and got in touch with the dozen or so people I could find who’d made even one video along these lines. Every person who responded thought I was wasting my time, and I even garnered some criticism. But I just made them anyway because I loved them. I never imagined it would become a business. I kind of fell into making a workshop, when after releasing videos, I would receive dozens of emails over the following weeks asking how I did various things. Of course, I wanted to pour out my heart to everyone, but with two toddlers at home, I just couldn’t. I made The Film Workshop to tailor and standardize the technical side of things for photographers transitioning to video.
Can you share what makes you passionate about films?
Films are the closest thing to experiencing a memory. Here’s the thing about memories — they are influenced by emotion. Films work exactly the same way. I love being able to share not just what I saw, but how I felt, how I experienced life. The films I make are not self-contained, predictable stories with a story arc. They are stories of emotion. Emotion is the subject of each film, while the people, places, and events all work together with the elements of the film to convey that feeling. I love the unique power of film to use the magic of motion, music, and voices to say not only what it you want to say, but how you want to say it.
What are the tips you would share with anyone trying to work towards films? or learning anything film related?
I always tell my students, “Shoot what your heart sees.” I think there is a tendency toward perfectionism and emulation in this risk-averse, heavily social-media-influenced world. I say, forget that. Don’t shoot what you think other people want to see. Shoot what you feel and what you want to remember. In fifty years, none of what anybody thought will matter, and all you will want is to relive the memories that made you happy and be around people you love. Who cares what junk is in the background, or what the lighting is like — if it lights up your heart, you should shoot it. The light in your heart is more important than the light on your subject. Your camera works for you, not the other way around – you can make meaningful, well-composed video clips in any light and in any situation. Because remember, you’re not just shooting a 2-dimensional image — you are shooting a whole experience, an entire moment, a feeling. And I can tell you that even in the 7 years I’ve been shooting, seeing the whole picture brings back so many more memories and adds context and interest and character. Remember, even if it’s not visually stunning, the edit can give that clip a purpose and meaning in the context of your story.
Do you recommend any education on this topic?
Yes, because figuring out a video on your own, I can attest, can take years to master. (Which is why I made a 4-week workshop to teach everything I know!)
If you are a photographer comfortable in manual mode on a DSLR, I’d love for you to take The Film Workshop with me. The workshop assumes zero knowledge of video, and in each lesson, we work through a different layer in your final product: a completed video about your life. My class is tailored for photographers to make the most of their strengths as still photographers. Beyond The Film Workshop, we also offer The Birth Film Workshop with Monet Nicole Moutrie, who’s incredibly talented, and an equally skilled teacher. There is also a 201-level family films course coming out this spring with a team of amazing instructors. I’m very excited about it.
What’s in your camera bag?
Video entails a lot of tricks of the trade, including mics, lights, and stabilizers. There is a comprehensive list of gear I go over in detail in my workshop and when and why you’d use each tool. For me, though, I am a gear minimalist. I shoot my own unscripted life in the trenches with our three small children, so I have to be agile. I use one camera, a zoom lens, and a neck strap. Besides a battery & charger, and specific memory cards, that is all I use 90% of the time. Stripped down gear is essential to actually take shots. If I have to schlep a super-heavy camera, diapers, a wet bag, water bottles, sunscreen, bug spray, clothes, and what seems like 38 granola bars in my bag, there is no way I’m stopping to put down the baby, dig around in that, and change lenses mid-hike with kids. And if I do, I will miss that magic moment one of the children finds that perfect pinecone and brings it to me with that twinkly-eyed expression I want to remember forever. Because let’s face it, by the time I stop and change a lens, they’ve already either dropped the pinecone and asked if they can play Pokemon Go yet, or throw it at somebody. So zoom lens it is, for variety on the go. And sanity. But when I want dreamy detail with unequivocal quality, it’s always Zeiss.
Most of the time, I shoot with:
Canon 5D Mark III
Canon 5D Mark IV (for slow motion, but not 4K)
Canon 24-70 f/2.8 USM II lens
Zeiss 100mm f/2.0 lens (this is manual focus, designed for video)
I also have but only occasionally use:
a shoulder stabilizer
a Canon 24 mm f/1.4 lens
a Canon 50 mm f/1.8 lens
a DJI Mavic Pro drone