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Another Online Tutorial or Another Semester; More Than One Path to the Director’s Chair

Jonathan X
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I woke up this morning feeling a little nervous. After six weeks of prep, my advanced studio video production students are beginning their first studio projects at California State University Northridge (CSUN). As I enter my 32nd year as a freelancer in Los Angeles, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to pay it forward — sharing my knowledge and experiences with the next generation of creators.

I still vividly recall the first film project I ever shot: I was 13-years-old, living in military housing in Butzbach, Germany, when I shot a Kung Fu epic on my Kodak Super 8 camera — “The Boys of Butzbach.” I shot it in sequential order, because I had no clue about the art and craft of editing. And yes, I have a digital copy of the film to this day.

My life experiences started me out on the path that’s brought me to where I am today. I remember listening to American Forces Network Radio and messing around with my Super 8 in Germany; seeing a stage production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at Clowes Memorial Hall back in the states; going on a school field trip to the local television station in Indianapolis, Indiana.

At Wichita State University, I had wonderful teachers who encouraged me to volunteer at the local PBS station during pledge week as a camera operator, and led me to my first job at KARD Ch.3. From there, I went from entry-level jobs in small market America, to broadcast technical directing in Washington D.C., before finally ending up in Los Angeles, working first as a TD, and then segueing into directing and producing for television.

But this isn’t the only path into directing, just my personal example. Today, new creatives have multiple paths they can take into a career. I emphasize to my students the revolutionary advancements in technology that have democratized the creative process. With the tools available today, there’s never been more opportunity to become a storyteller. One of my students showed me the progress he’s made with his term project: it was shot entirely on his cell phone in 4K, and edited on his laptop, all using consumer-grade hardware and software, and the project looked polished and beautiful.

I see this as a blessing for new creatives who are following a DIY path into the business. For the DIY, learn-as-you-go approach, the current set of technical tools is 100% in favor of content creators and storytellers with no professional training to speak of.

In my lifetime as a creator, I’ve gone from the joys of my ‘67 Chevy AM radio to a flash drive with thirty-thousand songs plugged into the dashboard of my car, from my Kodak Super 8 camera to shooting random high speed footage in 4K on my cell phone — plug and play, edit, delete while still saving my original footage.

Today, we have access to such a variety of digital cameras, graphic and editing software, sound design tools, and low cost LED lighting, not to mention user defined virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) and projection mapping technologies, all available and not cost prohibitive, all your footage available to manipulate in a non-destructive edit mode for your masters. I remember shipping my 8mm footage stateside from the military base PX and waiting for weeks to see if my footage was exposed correctly. In this way, times have changed for the better.

I wish I had had access to a search engine instead of the Dewey Decimal System when I was growing up.

Another benefit of today’s technology is that it makes freely available the knowledge that could only be found in the academic setting or, maybe, at the local library. Today’s creators have access to online tutorials, master classes offered by icons of the industry, DIY how-tos for building your own jib or poor man’s steadicam, tracking rigs and a variety of tips and tricks for both hardware and software discovered by a global and collaborative creative community.

This is not to say that the next generations of creatives and storytellers have nothing to benefit from the more traditional, academic path of learning the trade. A classroom setting gives students the freedom to experiment, learn, make mistakes, ask questions, and benefit directly from their teachers and professors, just as I did when I was in university.

An idea of mine that I impress upon my students is what I call, “The Art of Collaboration”: the power and joy of working with skilled professionals in all of the disciplines that are necessary in creating and executing a great project. Like Mickey Rooney exclaiming to Judy Garland and all the extras in the old MGM musicals, “Let’s put on a show!”

I believe academic community can be a perfect introduction to this ideal, the opportunity to experience, “The Art of Collaboration.” The academic setting gives young talent exposure to the fundamentals of their chosen craft, and access to resources that they might not otherwise have. During my time as a student, that meant access to the equipment and tools of creation.

It was in the classroom where I began to value the shared knowledge of those who came before me, as shared by my teachers. This interaction is what I found to be the most valuable part of the academic experience as opposed to figuring things out on my own.

Over the years, I have had the good fortune to work with many institutions of higher learning, from California State University Fullerton, Pasadena City College, Columbia College Hollywood and now California State University Northridge. Through many sessions, workshops, and classes, I’ve been able to share and teach the applied principles and expectations of the workforce in relation to what my students are learning from their teachers and textbooks.

This balance between the DIY-creative and academic path is one I will continue to follow and preach. Real world application (practical experience) and shared knowledge and access (academic) combined make a well-rounded professional.

My journey is its own; from the early days of “ignorance is bliss” creation to the halls of academia, followed by entry level jobs in small market America to Washington D.C. to finally ending up in Los Angeles. Fifteen years ago, I crossed over from (a term I loathe because it is the antithesis of the spirit of collaboration) “below-the-line” work and into the director’s chair. Could this have happened without my university experience? Forty years ago, I might have said yes, but today I know it took two paths to get me where I am today.

To the Youngbloods on the block, I say: The tools are in your hands. Research, create, and be what you want to be. Learn from others, and never forget to have fun while you pursue your dreams.

Love & Peace

Jonathan X

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