Aspiring Filmmakers: To be it Frank, It Can Be Tough but It Really Can be Done
WORKING AS A PHOTGRAPHER/VIDEOGRAPHER FOR LAIKA
I, Delaney, enter the Longbottom Coffeehouse and do a quick scan of the room. Pretty confident he isn’t there yet, I snag the last remaining table-for-two that I can see and wait, hoping I will know him when I see him.
I have one photograph to recognize him by – my next interviewee, Steven Wong Jr: Unit Photographer/Videographer at Laika, shown in his LinkedIn profile picture wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses with a selfie stick in one hand and in the other, a…what is that? A walkie-talkie, I think. Through the second entrance door across the room, I see a few people walk in. I realize I may be looking at my interviewee, a man who now orders something at the counter and turns to look around and…yes, our eyes meet and I freeze in that silent, are you the one I’m looking for or am I just awkwardly peering into your soul moment before he waves and I, much relieved, wave back.
He comes over and we shake hands. He’ll be just moment as he waits for his drink, he tells me, so he sets something down on the table (hey, a walkie-talkie!) and goes back over to the counter for his drink. It’s only a few more minutes before we’re able to get started. “Do you mind if I record this?” I ask when we’re sitting across from each other, him with his mint tea and me with my clipboard and pen at the ready. No, he doesn’t, so I set my phone between us. Well. Better get started. I ask him my first question. “Umm, so I guess…What do you do right now?”
“I do all the behind-the-scenes video and photography for Laika,” he answers, adding, “the stop-motion animation studio.”
“OK, so what does a day in the life look like for you?”
He tells me it varies a lot. Now that Laika’s latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings, is finished, they’re working on a new film. Sometimes he’s working for Marketing or HR, sometimes he’s doing stuff for focus features, or for Universal – it all depends. If he has time, he’ll go around with his equipment and skill camera and take photos and videos of behind-the-scenes stuff, what people in different departments are working on: puppets, landscapes, sets, paint, everything. All this he does for the “database,” recording the process put into the making of the feature. Some of his work makes it onto YouTube, as well as into magazines and newspaper articles focusing on films or workers of Laika.
At this point, Steven slides a bottle of hot sauce front-and-center. Using it as a prop, he explains to me that if, say, there’s a feature film on Tabasco sauce, you can’t redo the process of making that feature film once it’s already made. So he’s the one who comes in to capture the process in film and photographs that will be added to Laika’s database.
There’s a lot of creative-license to his job, he tells me. Typically, he’s told the company needs coverage on something in particular and he can direct himself on how exactly to capture it, playing with camera angles, lighting, different types of shots, time-lapses, and so on. He illustrates this for me using his walkie-talkie as a pretend camera, rotating it around the Tabasco sauce. I ask him about his walkie-talkie and he tells me that almost everyone in Laika has one. It’s important that he has good communication with them all so he knows where to be and when. This keeps things pretty fast-paced for him and sends him all over the studio as he tries to capture what’s going on in each department.
As the only one in Laika who does this kind of work, Steven can be quite busy. When asked if his job gets stressful at all, he says that pressure and deadlines are put on him, but he works under the belief that the more relaxed you are, the better you can operate and ultimately the better your end result will be. The number of hours he works varies, but it’s typically forty a week. Sometimes it’s on the higher end, like sixty or seventy. He recalled one time when a movie was premiering and he worked for twenty-five days in a row, most of the time in Hillsboro, Oregon, but also flying out to Los Angeles, California, for the weekends.
Despite any pressure this puts on him, he loves his job and is glad to see all the things that are being worked on and to meet the people working on them. He tells me at first that it helps him as an artist, then immediately laughs and retracts with, “Artist sounds very pretentious.” But after seeing some of his footage on his Instagram account (which I’ll include below), I think you’d agree with me that his work is very artistic indeed.
This is probably accredited to the fact that Steven has had so much exposure to and involvement with the film industry. Before he worked for Laika, in a span of ten years, Steven worked and interned for Kwamba Productions, Oregon Zoo, Fox12 and Pacific University’s Berglund Center as well as did a lot of freelance projects. He gained experience in directing, filming, and editing. He produced a number of short films for his portfolio in addition to his forty-minute-long senior thesis. I asked if there was anywhere online to see his senior thesis and he shook his head, laughing, “You don’t want to watch it…It needs to be edited. It’s too long.”
Nonetheless, when I asked him what his greatest accomplishment was after all these years of working in the film industry, he – after much contemplation – answered that it was his senior thesis. Looking back on all the work he put into it, he recognizes he learned so much during the process of making it that it was a very important experience to have, despite the fact that it is “not his best work.” After all the things he had to go through to complete it, he feels he has a strong personal connection to it.
Steven recalls when he was a student asking workers in the film industry what their “secret” was on how they got to where they were. Now, having gotten there himself, he can say he knows of no such secret, even still. Those ten years of dedicated work were necessary, he believes, not only to build himself up in the industry, but to gain invaluable knowledge and experience as well. Had he been immediately hired by Laika, he thinks he wouldn’t have been nearly as capable in the job he holds now. However, while he may not have some “secret” to share, he does have a lot of helpful advice for film students. Read on to the section below if you’re interested in learning more.
INTERNSHIPS AND PORTFOLIOS ADVICE
When asked about his past internships and what they did for him, Steven responds, “I think it’s the best thing. I mean, in all honesty, it sucks for your personal life and your social life and your family life. I would sacrifice my summers…And my relationships with friends and family got really strained because I chose to stay here instead of go back home.” He mentions that he doesn’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go about this; he knows people who didn’t make all the sacrifices that he made. But he wanted to do everything in his ability to “get the edge” on people competing for the same positions as him. In addition to all his internships, Steven continued to bulk up his portfolio, something he emphasizes the importance of for anyone interested in working in the film industry.
Back when he was a student, maintaining a portfolio was much more cumbersome than it is for students today. While he had to make use of a lot of DVDs, film students can now upload their videos all onto one website, as Steven recommends they do. He advises that your portfolio be kept clean and simple, and that the website is mobile-friendly so it can be pulled up and shown to someone on a moment’s notice. Another thing he stresses is the idea of “quality over quantity.” Better to have a couple well-made videos to show than twenty poorly-made ones that don’t represent your best work. Steven says it is common for employers and other important viewers not to watch everything in the portfolios they’re shown, or they may just scan through them, so quality truly is the key when it comes to assembling your own portfolio.
Steven also notes that, when considering what to put in your portfolio, you should keep in mind that you may have some personal connection to your certain works of yours that could be negatively affecting your decisions. For example, you may feel obligated to include a video that you, say, sacrificed your very soul to make – but your viewer probably doesn’t know that. So rather than assemble your portfolio based on the backstory of each video, think about which works display your talents without any need for context, and also which works best reflect the job you’re aiming for.
Concerning the actual shooting and creation of videos for your portfolio, Steven recommends that you not just take anyone’s word for whether or not you can do something. For an example, he brings up a suspense action scene he wanted to film for his senior thesis. The scene called for a gun chase in a hospital. “Everybody told me I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. So I listened to everybody,” he says. “A lot of times people will tell you you can’t do it – and sometimes it’s true, but sometimes you should see for yourself because…[one day] I said, ‘Well, I need to try it,’ called up the hospital, talked to them, and they let me do it!” He elaborates, “A lot of times people tell you that you can’t do something, and a lot of times they say you can’t because they don’t think they can.”
Steven thinks that people are generally more willing to help film students – that if you tell them you are shooting a nonprofit student film, they are more likely to give you what you want. Knowing this, you should also do everything “by the book,” he says, by asking permission to film at every location you want instead of filming on the sly. He points out that this helps you later on, when you have a job, in understanding the legal side of filming and equips you with valuable knowledge of the rules in the profession.
As far as applying for a job goes, Steven recommends that you not wait. If you’re ready to work and you see a position you like, apply right then. “Spend the night, stay up late, apply for it,” he says. Never give up applying. But when applying to work for a certain company, apply for only one of the jobs they offer, the job you think would suit you and your abilities best. This shows that you have special interest in that particular position, rather than just having a position. He urges you to try not to look at the benefits of a job. Instead, focus on what you’d have to do in that job. As a last comment, Steven adds, “Oh also, cover letters suck, but you have to do them…Don’t ever send a resume without a cover letter.”
In conclusion to his advice, Steven summarizes, “But really – it sucks, I’ve been there, and I always wanted a shortcut, but it really is: working, meeting people, experience, being prepared, having your website, all these things.” While it may not be an easy journey ahead for aspiring filmmakers, Steven himself is proof that work and devotion really does pay off. “Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes. Don’t make really big mistakes, though…” he offers one last thing. “Or I guess you could make big mistakes, I don’t know. I made big mistakes. You always pick yourself up.”
SEE STEVEN’S WORK AND LINKEDIN PROFILE
I encourage you to check out Steven’s photos and videos posted on Instagram @ stevenwongjr and to reach out to him in LinkedIn @ https://www.linkedin.com/in/stevenwongjr if you have any questions. He gets asked questions from people all around the world, so don’t be shy. He’s happy to help.