Friction of Life: Building a Brand

“For the most part, we just get out there. We stay involved with the community and we don’t hesitate to give someone a card and tell them, ‘Check out our work!’”

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By David Feltman

Hayden Bryars was a freshman at Jefferson State Community College and headed for a degree in IT when he saw the ad. Cadillac, in conjunction with the makers of the film “Be Cool,” had launched a short film contest to help promote the new V-Series. All entries had to be exactly five seconds long and highlight the car’s acceleration. Bryars came up with a story about a man stealing data and being chased by bad guys. He got a group together, raided his friend’s father’s weapon locker for two handguns and three shotguns, and got to filming. Just as they finished shooting, the cops showed up to bust Bryars for stealing the weapons.

“As I sat in the back of the cop car, all I really thought was, ‘at least we got the footage we needed,’” said Bryars. “That’s when I knew this is what I want to do for a living. Make movies.”

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Bryars is now the Creative Director of Friction of Life (stylized as FOL), a production company he founded with his friends. Ryan Evans (PR), Dustin Gray (Art Director) and Shawn Owens (Sound Engineer) all graduated with Bryars from Erwin High School. Cinematographer Jon Whatley is the only non-Erwin alum in the group, having befriended Bryars on the set of the short film “These Foolish Things.” Though just a year old, FOL has created a niche for itself making music videos for local artists, while dabbling in ads and promotional videos.

Assembling a Team

“It’s all who you know,” is an old adage in the entertainment industry and FOL owes much of its existence to that premise. As luck would have it, Bryars friends were passionate and already pursuing careers in creative fields. Whatley has a film degree, is a technical director for Sidewalk Film Festival and edits for a TV station. Owens has a degree in sound production and helped hand build a recording studio in Tuscaloosa. Evans is working on his masters in business and Gray has a degree in graphic design. So when Bryars was first approached to shoot a video for a friend, he had a pool of talented connections ready to tap.

“A meeting was set [to discuss the video] and I started thinking about the crew I would bring in,” said Bryars. “I started listing off names in my head and I just thought, ‘This is who I’m always going to go to first.’ So I called them up and asked if they wanted to start a creative collaborative.”

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Watching them work on set, it’s easy to tell they are a close-knit crew. Bryars speaks with his hands, describing the shot he wants, and Whatley immediately starts to set up the equipment. When the lighting isn’t right, Bryars snatches a light and holds it at a lower angle so Whatley can get his shot. Owens and Gray move around the edge of the shot, alternately filming b-reel footage on a hand held. Everyone knows where to be and what to be doing. The video, a music video for the rapper Missle, is shot on top of a parking deck in downtown Birmingham. The crew has their footage and is packed up in about three hours, despite a tardy artist and their generator running out of fuel halfway through the shoot. On the way out Bryars expresses concern about some police cars parked on the deck’s lower levels and laughs, “Guerilla filmmaking. You got to get in and out.”

The Job Hunt

FOL has been able to keep a steady stream of clients and projects flowing in since its formation, mostly on the power of networking. By attending music festivals and working on the sets of other productions, the crew has continued to hunt new acquaintances. The group doesn’t shy away from less artistic work either. If filming a wedding can finance a new project or pay for a new piece of equipment, Bryars and his peers will be there.

“For the most part, we just get out there,” said Bryars. “We stay involved with the community and we don’t hesitate to give someone a card and tell them, ‘Check out our work!’ We actively seek out local talent. If we like what they do, we’re trying to get a meeting with them. We also pull from our personal network. All five of us bring something different to the table.”

It was Owens’ connections with Oz Records in Tuscaloosa that landed them the job producing a Record Store Day promotional video. The opportunity not only allowed FOL to broaden its filmography, but Bryars learned that the owner and the general manager of OZ are friends with Birmingham-based indie darlings St. Paul and the Broken Bones and RED, the firm that represents the band. This gave FOL the chance to use the band’s music and get its video in front of a lot of influential eyes. Outcomes like these help grow the brand so Bryars constantly looks to branch out and take advantage of new prospects.

“‘RSD 2014’ was our first attempt at a documentary style project,” said Bryars. “We had a real good time doing it and it seems be getting a great reception. We look for more opportunities like that, but we also want to work in commercials and advertising. We’re in talks with a fitness coach that wants to produce a series of online videos for her clients that have to miss a session. That may not be as cool as a rap video, but there’s a demand for this content.”

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The Gameplan

Bryars’ goal for FOL is to ultimately move toward producing short and feature films. He has a couple of scripts and story ideas tucked away, but he refuses to discuss them just yet. He refers to them as his babies. There is another script he is considering optioning for FOL, a project on which the crew can test the waters. But for now Bryars is more focused on honing his craft and making FOL as marketable as possible.

“Right now we’re using our skills to monetize and support our goal. FOL is still in its infancy and its business model could change in six months, said Bryars. “Our mission is to create a quality piece of visual media that makes your art stand out from the rest. We want to accommodate your vision for your work with fresh and original content that separates you from your peers.”

You can find more about FOL on Facebook and follow them on Twitter @frictionoflife.

Film School: Is It Worth The Price?

Film School: Is It Worth The Price?

By David Feltman, film columnist

 

After he felt he had learned enough, Kevin Smith dropped out of film school to write “Clerks,” the movie that launched his career. But during his Q&A session, “Too Fat for 40,” Smith tells of being berated by Bruce Willis on the set of “Cop Out” because he didn’t know the different camera lens sizes. According to Smith, Willis said, “You’re a fucking director, man! You have two jobs, knowing the lenses is one of them.” Smith, who was 40 years old at the time and working on his ninth feature film, could only communicate to his cinematographer the lens he wanted by spreading his hands to indicate the width of the shot. Something he would have learned about in film school.

 

Though many do-it-yourself and higher-learning success stories exist in the film industry, the question aspiring filmmakers should ask themselves is: “Will the crippling debt that comes with a degree be any more valuable than the knowledge I could have earned on my own? Is it worth it to go to film school?”

 

The short answer is yes. Film school offers a lot valuable and essential learning opportunities, but it isn’t the only or even the most important step toward a filmmaking career.

 

Dazed and Confused: Figuring Out Where to Start

Sometimes the most basic lessons are the most valuable, and sometimes the lesson can be so basic that you’d never consider it on your own. You may feel passionate about movies and feel certain that you want a career making movies, but have you ever asked yourself in what capacity? Do you want to direct? Do you want to write? Do you want to be behind the camera? Grip? Gaffer? Set designer? There are so many different jobs in the film industry that you may not see the trees for the forest. Filmmaking is a massively collaborative process, and film school can be just the place to get the scope and focus you need to find your niche.

 

“A career in the film industry could mean a vast variety of things,” University of Alabama Professor Adam Schwartz said.

“When people generally think about a filmmaking career, they think of the key positions: director, producer, cinematographer, but there are so many different jobs one could have and still have a career in the industry.”

 

Figuring out a need to fill in your local area can lead to a career in the film industry, he said.
“Start a casting service or an equipment rental house or a post-production house. Make-up, wardrobe, electricians, grips, gaffers, set construction are all things that one could do and there’s so much more,” Schwartz said.

 

Exposure to these aspects of filmmaking also gives you the opportunity to soak up a lot of information, becoming as well-rounded as possible. It may be impossible to become a jack-of-all-trades, but a makeup artist who’s knowledgeable about lighting design would be invaluable in a pinch.

 

“Learn to write your own scripts and how to use as much equipment as you can,” Mark Lewis, a film school graduate and director of two feature films, said. He said that the less dependent you have to be on other people, the more productive you can become. “Even if you have a full crew, you’ll want that knowledge in case a cameraman or an editor flakes on you,” he said. “I know a filmmaker who had to shut down a project when his cameraman quit, instead of being able to step right in and fill the gap.”

 

Funny Games: Honing Your Craft

Hunter S. Thompson once typed copies of “The Great Gatsby” and “A Farewell to Arms” in their entirety just to see what it was like to write those words. It was a simple exercise for the famed journalist; an attempt to crawl inside the heads of two of his heroes.

 

However, when indie director Gus Van Sant wanted to perform a similar exercise with Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” the undertaking required a $60 million budget and several years of convincing the executives at Universal Studios.

 

Playing and experimenting is a crucial part of the learning process, especially in a creative medium. But given the complexity and collaborative nature of the filmmaking process, such opportunities are extremely limited outside of the confines of a classroom.

 

Film school offers a safe place for the storyteller to practice, fail, and as a result, grow, while learning necessary technical skills, Schwartz said.

 

“Ultimately, if you want a career in something like directing, editing, cinematography, then you have to do it,” he said. “You want to be a director, then direct. That’s the only way.” Film school provides you with opportunities to take on different production roles, but a filmmaker could still raise money, put a crew together and do it on his or her own, Schwartz said, adding that film school makes the practicing part of the learning process easier.

 

The Social Network: It’s All Who You Know

Making a movie absolutely requires people skills. You have to be able to negotiate, take criticism, compromise, delegate and surround yourself with reliable coworkers. Developing a deep bench of contacts is a must to get a production off the ground, and film school offers a great chance to start networking.

 

“There’s a kind of ‘brand loyalty’ that comes with going through a film program, even if you didn’t go through together,” Schwartz said. You can use the knowledge of where someone went to film school as an advantage with potential contacts, he said. “At the University of Alabama, we keep up with our alums and have networks out in Los Angeles and New York that we’re able to hook our students up with if they move out there,” Schwartz said. “Film school also offers you the opportunity to do internships for course credit, which absolutely provide you with networking contacts. Master classes, guest lectures, workshops are also great opportunities to meet and talk to folks.”

 

Hayden Bryars, an independent filmmaker and a sophomore taking online courses at Full Sail University, films

Hayden Bryars, an independent filmmaker and a sophomore taking online courses at Full Sail University, makes the most of an education in filmmaking as well as the opportunities to produce independent films.

The Paper Chase: Sometimes School is Easier

Hayden Bryars, an independent filmmaker and a sophomore taking online courses at Full Sail University, said that though he hasn’t yet “gotten into the meat” of his program, his education has touched on simple industry concepts that every filmmaker needs to know, both professional as well as artistic. “It saves you the embarrassment of making these small mistakes when it comes time to be involved with a production,” Bryars said.

 

As a married man and a father of two, Bryars takes a pragmatic approach to pursuing his dream career. And a degree is definitely part of his approach.
“Taking off to Atlanta for every production assistant posting is unrealistic,” he said, but the security of a degree provides stability for his family. “A young student with only him or herself to take care of can and should be more aggressive with PA or intern opportunities,” he said. “But keep in mind, while working on a set, the professionals you’re trying to learn from are trying to make a production. They can’t always stop what they are doing to show you the ropes.” Involvement in a film is an obvious benefit to going to school. “Spike Lee said ‘don’t go to film school, just go make movies,’ but Spike has a degree from NYU, so…ya know,” Bryars said.

 

If…: Finding Alternatives

Though expensive, film school can provide incredibly useful lessons and experiences that you may not find elsewhere. But access to those experiences certainly doesn’t prohibit you from pursuing a film career the way, say, not going to medical school would prohibit you from becoming a doctor. Finding a job in the film industry is more about what you know more than how you learned it.

 

Starting a career in film requires taking advantage of every opportunity. Director Eli Roth graduated from New York University and took every job he could on a set: PA, assistant editor, assistant to the director and even filling in as an extra when needed. After graduating, it took seven years of generally unpaid work before he got a chance to direct a film.

 

“No one is going to care that you have a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree,” Schwartz said. “They’re just going to care about who you know and what relevant experience you’ve had.” Film school—as with just about any kind of formal education—is what you make of it. If you choose to coast by and do the bare minimum it takes to get the film degree, you’re going to find that you’ve wasted your time and have a worthless degree, Schwartz said.

 

In their book “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit,” Thomas Lennon and Robert Garant state the first step to getting a job is to move to Los Angeles to be where the work is. With significant film and television productions popping up in New York, New Orleans, Atlanta and Chicago, alternatives to L.A. exist. If film school isn’t an option, then working on a set in some capacity is a must. In fact, working on a set as a PA is pretty essential even if you do have a degree because it provides the sort of hands on learning that is absolutely essential.

 

“Can you learn what you would learn as an intern on a film set in film school? Most likely not, because film schools generally aren’t designed to emulate the large-scale production nature of a Hollywood set,” Schwartz said.
When you work on a film set as an intern, you get a first-hand look at how things run, he said, and Schwartz would compare internship versus film school to the different ways one can learn a foreign language. “You can go to school and study the language and practice in the controlled, meticulously-paced classroom environment or you can live in the country for months and learn the language by immersing yourself,” he said. “Both are extremely valuable experiences and certainly not mutually exclusive.”

 

Man With a Movie Camera: The DIY Career

Though many ways to make a career in the movie business exist, the first step is always the same. Ask established or aspiring filmmakers how they got started on their career path and you’ll always get the same answer: I picked up a camera, got some friends together and started making movies.

 

“I think the best way to learn filmmaking is to get a camera and start making films,” Lewis said. Equipment is much more accessible to people, so while Lewis said that education is never a bad thing, he qualified his statement by saying that it does come down to money, and asked, “What’s the best and most productive way to spend your money? With the amount of money it would take for a four-year education, you can make a series of films on your own.” Student or novice filmmakers can ask for feedback via YouTube or Vimeo. “The way social media is now, if you do something of quality the word will get out,” Lewis said.

 

Picking up a camera and making films is the best way to start, Lewis said, but a film school education is incredibly valuable if you can shoulder the debt. Education gives you the fundamentals and provides a space for you to create on your own with resources you might not otherwise have access to. Film school is definitely not a golden ticket to a Hollywood dream job, but it opens doors you wouldn’t expect. Networking at film school may give you the opportunity to start working on commercials or music videos if not on an actual movie set. If you’re passionate about making movies, but cannot afford film school, the expense shouldn’t hold you back.

 

Though he wouldn’t say he thought film school was necessary, Bryars said, “I think it could be a deciding factor when competing with other people for a job.”
He said that the industry is at a point where people with a “Basic Homemaker DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera)” think they’re filmmakers. “If you’re able to go to school, it certainly separates you from possible pretenders,” Bryars said.