In 1994 -1995, I attended Columbia College-Hollywood film school. The address was 925 North La Brea in Hollywood, CA. It’s the main corner of La Brea + Santa Monica Blvd. The area was a bit more run-down looking back then. There wasn’t this huge outlet mall with Target and a bunch of restaurants. Carl’s Jr. was actually still there on the corner as of the past year or so before they built some apartment building. (I wish I could take back half the cheeseburgers I had there.) Mole Richardson used to be across the street from the school. All of our school’s lights were acquired from there. And Mole Richardson is not there anymore. We hung out at the infamous Formosa Cafe which is still around. There’s too much Hollywood history in that place for it to go away. There used to be a little Mexican Taco stand on the corner too. Gone. And years ago Columbia College-Hollywood picked up and moved to the San Fernando Valley, Tarzana to be exact. The school moved into the old Panavision building.
When I went to interview on Thursday, June 26th, at Richard Photo Lab at 979 North La Brea, a few doors down from where Columbia College-Hollywood (CC-H) used to be, I couldn’t help but think back to those early days of working with film, 16MM film. Wearing thin white gloves, cutting on Moviolas, flatbeds, editing scenes of “Gunsmoke.” “Abby, do you want to go with him or stay with me?” I recall preparing some dailies from a short film I was producing, writing and directing called “The Turnaround.” The lead actor, Tony Assini, was meeting me to view the dailies. Not long before Tony arrived, I had done the ONE THING you never do when handling a film reel, especially larger ones. I held the reel up from its sides. So, if the film or work print as it’s known was tight I might have been okay. But this was not the case. The center DROPPED! Oye! The film unraveled EVERYWHERE in this maybe 10 x 15 foot room. It was probably a bigger room, but looked a lot smaller when filled with 16MM film. So, Tony arrived and was gracious enough to help me weed out the giant spaghetti bowl I had created.
“The Turnaround” was filmed in various locations including CC-H, a bar in Calabasas and on Romaine Ave. Romaine sits parallel in between Santa Monica and Willoughby. It is also where my cast and crew staged a ‘mugging scene’ for “The Turnaround“ near the school.
We filmed an additional scene at the end of this block of Romaine where Tony who plays aspiring actor Daniel Frenzy crosses the street without looking at the on-coming car. The black Eclipse you see in the mugging scene above was used for both scenes (my old car). My mother AKA Set Mom was the driver who mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.” So, I drove a black Eclipse and I wore my Alice In Chains cap. This was roughly February 1995. What a time capsule, huh? Oh, and I’m wearing my University of Hartford sweatshirt from the college I graduated from before heading West.
That photo at the very top of this blog was taken outside The Pelican’s Retreat bar in Calabasas. That place also closed. But that picture represents one of the happiest and most zen-filled moments in my life. I was in film school writing, directing and producing short films….on film I might add. And really thought I was making the film that would launch my career. That instant success never happened from this or any other film I’ve written, produced, directed or edited over the last twenty years. You can lose your mind over the ‘what-ifs.’ Although I haven’t made it yet, I am grateful for the people that have helped me along the way. I could not have made “The Turnaround”
without the exceptional crew I had made mainly of students and one friend, Sean Kinney, who plays Skunk in the film. I did have one project manager who was a tight-ass…so I kicked them off my shoot. And I am so honored to this day, over twenty years later how lucky I got with my cast. This was a student film. No one was being paid. I have worked with many great people on so many projects.
In my first ten years of pursuing a career as a screenwriter and director, I wrote many scripts and there was that traffic movie. “Rubbernecking“ was conceived actually on the 10 freeway on the way to pick up props for “The Turnaround.” Sean Kinney knew a guy who had gun and holster props. Sean and I got stuck in horrible traffic and that became “Rubbernecking.” A few years of us writing and re-writing. Some financing woes. Finally raising enough money. We filmed in the summers of 1998 and 1999. After working with various editors over the next few years, it seemed that “Rubbernecking” would itself never get out of traffic. It was never picked up for distribution.
I think the one regret I have about Columbia College was not mastering a specific skill like camera or editing early on. That way I could get continued work while pursuing my true passions of writing and directing. I did take up some Avid courses early on, but didn’t have connections or leads to work. It wasn’t until 2005 when I started learning Final Cut Pro that I took editing seriously. It was going to be my day job. Well, it was more of my day job to pursue editing work. I got some decent gigs in 2008, but realized my technical know-how was limited. I found it was difficult to learn After Effects. Companies big and small were requiring more and more of editors so I stuck to being a picture editor. I’m a storyteller! Give me a film that has issues in story and I’ll reassemble the pieces into an even better story.
Jobs have been very hard to come by. I’ve worked in real estate companies. I worked at a non-profit charity for the blind. In 2010, I landed in Las Vegas to stay with family and seek out opportunities there. I had some great article writing opportunities, but they weren’t consistent enough. I couldn’t find much editing work there either. I did leave Vegas with some interesting projects; Social Media Film Festival and a short film called “You Are What You Eat.” In 2013, I moved back to LA. I had to be where the real action remains. So, I’ve been working part time jobs because I can’t find a full time job. So, when I went into this job interview on Thursday, June 26th, I was seeking a full time opportunity.
They were offering a full time position that was only going to or through November. Bill, the guy interviewing me said, “You’re over qualified.” I told him that I know and that I can’t get hired anywhere because of that. He wanted to know what line of work I was pursuing and I told him editing, but that I was ‘under-qualified’ to get editing work. So, I’m a rock in a hard place. He hired me and I started the next day, Friday June 27th. Now, the job is prepping film after it dries from developing. Film. That’s right. I said film. Photographers are still shooting film. A lot of the film coming in now is weddings. So, when the film comes out on a tray I make sure the film is dry. I cut off the edges with a scissor to clean it up. I match up the numbers on the film with the numbers on the orders. Sometimes the exposure of the film is pushed or pulled so we add the amount on stickers and place them on the film. I really like this job. I love being able to handle film when I thought I’d never handle film ever again. Even though it’s twenty years later and I still haven’t made it as a screenwriter or film director, I am surviving. This job was a blessing at a time when finding work seemed bleak. I had been working at Barnes & Noble since February 2014. It was supposed to be a full time position at a certain pay rate. In two weeks B & N told me that they’re putting the position I applied for on-hold. With that, my $11.50 pay was going down to $8. As if that wasn’t bad enough, my hours quickly went from the 30’s and 20’s to 9 HOURS A WEEK!!!!! What? I looked at it as a paid internship. So, on Thursday night, I decided to go shopping at a bigger B & N store to purchase some books for my niece and nephew and two screenwriting books and some dark chocolate for Uncle Ross. I used my ’employee discount’ one last time and headed to my B & N store in Marina Del Rey to tell the MOD or Manager On Duty:
Don’t you love quitting a job you can’t stand? The job itself wasn’t bad, but I could not catch a break at this store. Of course it would be nice to make $15, $20, $30 an hour as I have before. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get that money on my next job. But for now, the Summer and this Fall, I will be happily getting paid $10 an hour to handle 135, 120, 220 color and black and white negative film. I work with these two older Thai guys who train me. They talk Thai to each other. And when I speak with them I often find myself guessing what they’re saying back to me. They’re great guys and the whole company seems like one big happy family and that’s how Bill described the team. Bill actually set up a BBQ grill behind our building today and cooked Kiełbasa sausages for the whole company in pre-July 4th celebration. And I made it through my first week. Who knows where this position will lead me? Right now I’m enjoying the work and the journey. I can’t think of a better $10 an hour full time than this one. In 1995, I was looking ahead to where the next 20 years would take me. Physically, I may be on the same street. Mentally and emotionally I am where I need to be. And I still hold on to those same dreams I had 20 years ago. Where will I be 20 years from this point? Hopefully, I will be filling my soul with what I hadn’t filled it with the 20 years before. Happy July 4th!
It’s never too late to go back to school. In today’s economy artists are looking to expand their knowledge and add an additional hat to their never-ending hyphenated areas of expertise. Does one become a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ or master one field? With technology today, it’s becoming easier for the average Joe to be a photographer. Digital cameras are becoming cheaper and more user-friendly. Unless you have a true fan-base and a leads machine after having lived in one place, one town, one state all of your life, it’s very difficult to break in to find your niche as an artist or photographer of any kind. Some creatives are switching from stills to videography and vice versa.
My enrollment into Skip’s Summer School at the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas, NV, was for various reasons. I had attended film school in Los Angeles years ago mainly for writing and directing. I somewhat regret not taking the film camera more seriously. I’ve come to terms that I’m a ‘jack-of-all-trades.’ I got into video editing after my initial exhausted pursuit of writing and directing. My editing career was taking off slowly. When I hit a wall, I left LA for Las Vegas to broaden my horizons. In LA, potential clients wanted editors to know motion graphics and effects. After living in Vegas, I found that potential clients are looking for shooter/editors.
While I am trying to learn both After Effects and Photoshop, I decided I should take my ‘point and click’ to another level. I wanted to improve my picture-taking skills. A year ago, I acquired a Nikon D-40. I’ve only taken it out a bunch of times. And now I’m looking to purchase a Canon DSLR camera to gain potential clients as both a still and video photographer. I also want to shoot my own projects. As much as I don’t really want to be a jack-of-all-trades, you have to be unless you can specialize in one field.
So, in adding an additional hat, I need to learn anything and everything about film, video and photography. Skip’s Summer School, in its 3rd year, was started by Skip Cohen. The event took place from July 31st through August 3rd and was championed by some of the best photographers in the business showcasing their work and sharing their knowledge, tips and experience. These photography gurus included Jules Bianchi and Joy Bianchi Brown, Clay Blackmore, Scott Bourne, Bambi Cantrell, Tony L. Corbell, Bob Davis, Doug Gordon, Kevin Kubota, Tamara Lackey, Bobbi Lane, Matthew Jordan Smith, Roberto Valenzuela and Jerry Ghionis. Vincent Laforet, long-time photographer, turned videographer, gave the closing keynote address.
Vincent Laforet’s photos and videos were stunning! Somehow he got into shooting from helicopters. Then his photos and later videography lead him to being strapped to the scariest and highest places on top on outside ledges of New York’s skyscrapers.
It was soothing for me that Skip’s Summer School came to a wrap with Laforet’s work as he is one of the trendsetter’s for DSLR cameras. He talked about using most of Canon’s cameras. He brought up how a videographer could make an amazing still image from a screen grab of the video. He put the thought out there that a videographer could be hired to go out and shoot video and get stills at the same time without knowing too much about talking photos. They wouldn’t have to shoot stills at all.
Canon – Sidenote
Even before this school started on July 31st, I had taken a seminar the day before sponsored by Canon and local camera store, Casey’s Camera, for a local Las Vegas photography MeetUp group, Photographic Adventures Vegas. The event took place at the Clarion Hotel and was an all-day affair focused on Canon DSLR cameras and PIXMA printers by Canon as well. Lance Folden, a Product Educator, shared his great knowledge about the cameras and what they can do for photographers and filmmakers alike. Stacey Foster, a Sales District Representative, was on hand with an array of Canon cameras on display for attendees to handle and answer questions. Kevin Wagner of iFocus Productions added tips on creating promotional videos.
Canon was scheduled to be at Skip’s Summer School as I could see by the list of companies mentioned at the event, but were nowhere to be found. So, in a sense, I was able to take advantage of something no one else could this past week. It added to my photography education.
As a part of Skip’s Summer School, the local Vegas MeetUp for SmugMug, held a meeting for 125 people on a first-come first served basis. People didn’t have to be enrolled in the school in order to attend. The guest speaker was Bambi Cantrell whom would be speaking at the school too. Cantrell, like all of the other photography gurus, shared what equipment she uses. She gave tips on posing subjects. Another tip was to not over Photoshop your images. Cantrell said photographers should ’embrace road blocks’ as they force ‘abstract ideas.’ Focusing on a subject’s best attributes is another good tip. If a woman has long, sexy legs, feature them. Cantrell stresses that the client needs to see themselves in whatever sample photos shared with them from a portfolio or magazine ads. Her motto is ‘Humility over ability.’
Tamara Lackey mentioned that photographers should meet with a family beforehand to discuss how to proceed if something goes wrong as far as a child’s behavior. If the child acts up during the shoot, try to get them alone and simply talk to them. Lackey told the tale of this one fussy boy who was upset about not having his cranberry muffin that morning. In addition, he was spending his last day of summer school on a photo shoot. After opening up and getting his feelings off his chest, the boy found his smile and was content for the remainder of the shoot. Lackey stressed to photographers to sell clients on the positive things about a photo when there are faults to be found. Perhaps the family members are not all still and leaning on each other perfectly. A boy’s hand placement on his mother’s shoulder shows affection. A little girl’s foot lifting sand up shows action, life, in the moment. And as photographers, look for the positives in your own photos. Learn from your mistakes, but celebrate the good attributes.
Roberto Valenzuela will drive you bananas! Well, he often practices with bananas when pre-lighting. He’ll throw a bunch on top of a tripod or stand and look for what shadows it creates. Then he imagines where his subject will be placed. That or he’s just BANANAS! Honestly, his seminar was awe-inspiring! Valenzuela tells the attendees to see things differently and develop an artist’s eye.
“A shadow is an opportunity.”
He had charts he developed that help him keep things in mind such as geometry, symmetry, balance, and color in addition to the typical elements; lighting and depth. I overheard other gurus wanting to start implementing Valenzuela’s charts.
That’s the beauty of this school is that everyone is attending to learn from each other including the gurus. The gurus can learn a thing or two from each other. They inspire the attendees and each other.
One of the inspiring things he shared was how he used dust coming up from a car to add an effect in the background of this rural road behind a couple.
He goes on to say that shooting and event is not practice. Photographers need to practice on their own time and be ready on location to be perfect.
‘Perfect practice makes perfect.’
Clay Blackmore’s lecture was more straight forward regarding how to light and pose subjects. He stressed how shoulder placement is the key to great portraits. Blackmore cautions photographers that the use of a flash flattens the face when used head-on. Blackmore tilts his camera to be slightly different. He poses a subject’s face before he sets the lights. He uses triangle shapes to pose people especially in group photos.
‘Application is the key.’
Matthew Jordan Smith
Matthew Jordan Smith often does a lot of exploring ideas before taking any picture. Smith comes up with very creative ideas and then sets up his subjects accordingly. Smith’s biggest advice is to master one light first. When a photographer feels comfortable using one light then they can move on to an additional light. Smith who’s worked with very famous clients such as Vanessa Williams and Oprah Winfrey does a lot to make his clients feel special before the shoot. He places flowers in their make-up room and plays music to soothe them. He does everything to make his clients feel beautiful. Direct! Don’t pose! Smith suggests not to shoot the same poses everyone else does.
Smith has a conversation with his clients making them feel comfortable and relaxed. The way a photographer speaks or even whispers to his or her client sets a nice tone. In doing so, those life capturing moments will be discovered. Let them let their hair down. He feels that a flash going off in a subject’s face takes them out of the moment.
Make the subject forget they’re sitting for photos especially if they’re dreading it. Smith, knowing ahead of time, told Samuel L. Jackson riddles because he knew he loves them. When Gregory Hines was showing little interest in sitting for pictures Smith told Hines to think about tap dancing in an elevator. And now we all have that visual.
‘Shoot images for yourself no matter what the job is.’
I didn’t have many notes during Tony Corbell’s session. He complimented me on the Who shirt I was wearing. It was a pleasure to watch him shoot various set-ups of that gorgeous model, Danica. Corbell seemed to enjoy shooting her as much as his audience enjoyed watching. Corbell mentioned that when working with ambient light, work to the edge of light.
When Scott Bourne spoke towards the end of the school session he quoted Corbell.
‘I may not be the best photographer, but I may be the nicest photographer.’
Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! shouted the crowd. Jerry Ghionis is a rock star in this industry as I found out. I kept hearing from people as the week started, ‘Wait until you hear Jerry speak.’ Ghionis is very inspiring. It’s one thing to listen to a photographer talk about his or her craft and then someone truly gets you worked up and inspired to go out and shoot anything.
‘Do you know who you are as an artist?’
Ghionis states the importance of knowing your own identity as it speaks volumes when taking on a shoot or project. He encourages photographers to be different, stand out and experiment. He often uses mirrors and rear-view mirrors. Ghionis says to think outside the box. He’ll actually blur out faces in photos if they lack expression. How brilliant is that? Ghionis says to learn the craft before you go breaking the rules. He uses action in stills to create an effect such as a woman shaking her dress. He’ll use natural smoke as an effect. Ghionis will actually underexpose for a dramatic effect. He’s got all sorts of tricks up his sleeves. Ghionis will ask couples or loved ones to hug each other as if it’s the last time. He says to photograph the subject through the eyes of a loved one. A husband may think ‘She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.’
‘If you want to be a better photographer…be a better person.’
Jules Bianchi and Joy Bianchi Brown
They were two cute fast-talking sisters who had to constantly tell each other to slow down as they spoke. Their session on stage was mostly about how photographers can further their business through networking, likeability and marketing. They had some very good tips. If you want to be in the dog photo business, hang out with dog businesses. Don’t eat alone! Meet a potential client or business contact for lunch. Be generous with your time and share your resources. When at an event introduce yourself and give your name. Don’t just say you’re a photographer. Meet people. You never know where it leads. The sisters say that you should be a connector. Help people out whether it forwards your business or not.
The sisters suggest that photographers can do creative partnering for effective targeted marketing. To do this you can hold free community events, do charitable work and teach workshops. Teaching workshops puts you in a position to be looked upon as an expert. Throw a party! You can offer to shoot free photos for their FaceBook profiles. Then follow-up with hand-written postcards. No one mails postcards anymore. Be different and personal. The Bianchi sisters also had some great tips on sales and closing the deal.
Scott Bourne had a lot of similar tips for photographers in his last speech on the last day of school regarding about helping others. Bourne’s main addition is the use of social media, mainly Twitter. Bourne says that just by helping others find what they need may lead to future clients. The example he used was that he read a Twitter post of someone seeking a printer for their wedding photos. Scott knew of a great printer in that area and shared his knowledge with this complete stranger. The hope is that the person will look you up and see your profile. By chance they still need a wedding photographer, they can see that you’re a wedding photographer from your Twitter profile.
I had wanted to sign up for this school months before the event, but didn’t have the money. It’s actually a very good price for what you get back out of it. I signed up a week before the one week school and am so glad I did. It was invaluable. If you know what’s good for you, you should follow Bourne on his Twitter account. (HINT: He gives away cameras. Shh.)
Jerry Ghionis says ‘What’s priceless tomorrow is priceless today.’