I quit my day job five years ago to pursue photography. That said, my dream has always been to direct commercials and photography was the best way for me to pursue this goal. It allowed me to rely on my creativity while forcing me to learn how to build and grow my own business in a space that was more forgiving than the broadcast motion world. I recognized that it's far easier to spec work and build a stills photography portfolio than it is for motion. There are of course exceptions to this line of thinking - if you're in film school or have a large network of friends interested in filmmaking, crewing up and directing work will be easier. Neither of those scenarios applied to me so I decided to start with photography and climb the ladder.
WHAT STEPS DID YOU TAKE TO GET TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?
At first, I assisted on photography and commercial sets as much as I could. A friend of mine put me in touch with two producers who would bring me on as a PA. I floated from job to job and absorbed everything. I started to see the world I wanted to ascend to and it gave me enough confidence to keep going. Once I knew the industry a bit more, I started to zero in on the artists whose work I wanted to emulate and agencies that I wanted to work with. Then, the unexpected happened - I had met a very talented photographer named Mike Schwartz years before, when photography wasn't even an option for me, and I reached out to him for advice about assisting and getting work now that I was freelancing. We stayed in touch and I eventually ended up assisting him on a job in Los Angeles. At that time, I had just assisted for a photography team - two shooters working on one set. I thought it was a fascinating set up and pitched my photographer friend on the same idea, but instead of photography, for motion work. A directing duo of sorts. He mulled it over and agreed that it sounded like an idea we should pursue. From there we started making work as a team, calling ourselves The Five Nine. It started with motion work but the immediate challenges of limited resources and crews in the motion world still existed. So we decided to shoot still photography as a short term outlet for creativity and a way to build our brand and client list. After we built a small portfolio of photography work, we started cold calling and emailing ad agencies in Los Angeles. We landed a few meetings, got great feedback on our work, which let us know we were on to something. A friend connected us to a photo rep, Tim Mitchell, and we submitted our portfolio to him. He agreed to sign us pending the outcome of a test shoot we told him we had planned. We shot the test and he loved the work and signed us. From there we started booking agency work and have since shot for a number of national automotive and athletic clients. But there was still something missing. While we'd found success in the stills world, we both longed for directing work. That was why we formed the partnership in the first place. The biggest obstacle facing photographers who want to direct is that agencies and clients only see you as photographers. It's hard enough to be a working director or photographer, but trying to be both at a high level is damn near impossible. So rather than trying to declare ourselves as one or the other, we decided to turn The Five Nine into a creative advertising agency. This allowed us to work with clients directly, help shape their needs, and executive the creative as we see fit. There are times where we direct, times where we shoot stills and times where we just oversee production. The ad agencies are bombarded with insanely talented creatives vying for work so we felt like by becoming an agency, it would allow us to be even more flexible in our creative endeavors.
How do you stand out in your field?
The first advice I got when starting out was to shoot what you love. Make work that YOU care about. It was the first advice and the best advice. It's the north star of being a creative. You will get lost more than once on your way. You'll try to please everyone. You'll try to copy work you love and fail. You will have bad ideas that will make you think all your ideas are bad ideas. But if you can re-center and remember to pursue what you love, I think that's your best chance of standing out. As an individual, that's exactly how I try to stand out. I asses what I'm good at, what I'm not good at, and how I can get better. I make myself take risks, despite it being damn near the hardest thing in the world to do. But the payoff for taking a risk and failing is incredibly rewarding. As a company, I think our visual aesthetic is a wonderfully unique combination of our individual tastes. Clients are drawn to this combination and recognize our drive to apply our aesthetic to their brand.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW?
I'm working on a couple different motion projects. One is a music video I shot in London and here in LA, another is an athletic profile of a professional golfer for a clothing company based in Sweden. As a company, we're pitching to a few new clients soon as well as finishing up a motion project on a Los Angeles area high school basketball team.
WHAT'S YOUR STYLE/PERSPECTIVE/TASTE? DO YOU HAVE A PROJECT THAT REPRESENTS THIS?
My taste ranges from a sort of minimalistic yet graphic aesthetic to an authentic and gritty one. I understand those are two vastly different spectrums but I tend to gravitate towards one anytime I'm creating work. It seems the prevailing school of thought is that you need to be defined by one look in your career - that you need to have a definitive calling card. I don't disagree, but I feel like I'm leaving too much on the table if I just focus on one. I would rather lose work and have a diverse style than get pigeon-holed as the person who rim lights everything really well.
WE ARE ALL SLASHIES WITH MULTIPLE SKILLS, WHICH ONE DO YOU WISH YOU COULD DO MORE OFTEN?
I'm enamored with colorists and the job they do. Color is a massive character in every story you tell, yet when it's done well most people don't even notice. I would love to dive further into Davinci Resolve and take projects through the color transformation phase on my own.
WHAT IS FRUSTRATING YOU RIGHT NOW?
The balance between comfort and discomfort is incredibly hard to manage at times. You work your ass off, find a modicum of success and decide to revel in it for a minute. But then you become comfortable which basically inhibits your desire to take risks and get uncomfortable, which is how you progress as an artist. Progress then usually leads to more success, which of course starts this damn cycle all over again. It helps me to at least being aware of it. There's no sense in never being comfortable or relaxing or enjoying your hard work but remembering you must get to that next phase of discomfort always helps me.
IF YOU COULD HIRE SOMEONE FOR $20/HR, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE THEM DO TO MAKE YOUR DAY EASIER?
Make treatments for incoming projects! It's also nice to have a database of agencies and clients to reach out to, so there's always work to be done in that area.
LET'S BRING OUT THE TIME MACHINE. WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU COULD HAVE TOLD YOURSELF, WHEN, AND WHY?
That you have no idea how hard this career path will be at times. I would've said this the day I quit my day job and repeated once a week for the next year. That's not meant to dissuade younger me from pursuing the same path - I truly believe this is what I'm meant to do - but the lows can be lonely and crushing, especially during the building years. I'm also not sure the low points ever go away so rather than assume they will, learn how to manage them and find your pressure release valves early on.
IF YOU COULD TALK TO AN EXPERT TO GAIN MORE INSIGHT ON SOMETHING, WHAT WOULD IT BE ABOUT?
I'm always curious how the people at the very top stay hungry. What motivates you to keep going? What if your interests change? What if you want to change careers or make a drastic shift in another direction? That, and in relation to the time machine question, what advice would THEY tell their younger selves and why?
WHAT KIND OF OPPORTUNITIES/PROJECTS ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?
I really enjoy music videos as an outlet for creativity and risk taking. The process of directing them is stressful and enervating because there's never any money or enough time, but if you can cut your teeth making creative decisions in stressful environments, it will make you better at your craft. So I'm always looking for music video opportunities, but on the other side, I love working on athletic-oriented ad campaigns. I grew up playing sports and still play way too many to this day. I love watching people push themselves to their personal limits and see if they can go further than they have before. Competition brings out instincts and mannerisms that are so interesting to me. And above all, so many of us can relate to our experiences as athletes, it's a fun challenge to try and create authentic environments and scenarios for these campaigns.
DESCRIBE YOUR IDEAL JOB/CLIENT/COLLABORATION.
I think my ideal job is one where all parties involved are passionate about the project and the lines of communication are open and honest. Every job has its own set of unique challenges but when you have people who are as vested in solving them as you are, and can communicate their needs and desires effectively, it reverberates throughout the process and really helps drive the project successfully across the finish line.
WHAT IS YOUR HOURLY RATE, RETAINER, OR SALARY RANGE?
My agent typically handles the estimating on projects so it's a tough question to answer. Advertising rates are much higher than editorial / music video rates, but often times the lower paying jobs offer fantastic creative opportunities. I've worked on projects with budgets north of $500k and then recently shot a music video for $483.
HOW SHOULD SOMEONE APPROACH YOU ABOUT WORKING TOGETHER?
I love information! The more info that's available about the project, the easier it is to move forward and get things moving. That doesn't mean you have to spray the budget in the first email, but details like dates, talent, dream shot list, mood boards, etc. always help move things along.
HOW DO YOU STAY CREATIVE?
Enjoy your discomfort!
This member profile was originally published in July 2018.