Read as Tiffany Shlain talks about her career as a Filmmaker. Find her at www.tiffanyshlain.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview. @TiffanyShlain
What do you do for a living?
Simply said, I’m a filmmaker. But really, I’m a storyteller, a conversation maker. I’m lucky to have been able to combine my two passions –technology and filmmaking — to help trigger conversations about important issues of our day.
How would you describe what you do?
My work is very collaborative. I work with a great team that I’ve worked with for years. We use all the new technologies available to push boundaries on the ways that we both communicate, collaborate and participate.
We have a feature documentary Connected that premiered at Sundance and was in theaters last year. We are now making it available to people in many new ways – schools, companies, conferences, and home use. We love triggering conversations about “connectedness in the 21st century” in new ways.
Right now at my film studio The Moxie Institute, we’ve created a new short film series called Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change. We started to experiment with a new way of making films by inviting people from all over the world to contribute. We call it Cloud Filmmaking.
Our first step in making a Let it Ripple film – once we’ve chosen the focus – is to send a call-for-submissions to those that follow us on our social networks. For our latest film Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks we asked people from all over to send us artwork and graphics of how they envision the human brain. We also asked to receive video of parents doing their favorite activities with their children and their children running into their arms. My staff and I review all the submissions and edit them into the film we are creating. That includes a lot of original animations and images that we have found from archives — editing them into one film.
We customize our films for nonprofit organizations that want to use them to engage and inspire their supporters. We include a custom call-to-action for each film based on the organizations mission and goals. It’s great and we do this for free for any organization that requests one.
What’s a typical workweek like?
I’m a working mom. I have a film studio in San Francisco right on the water, which is very inspiring. I love going in. Three days a week I work from home and pick my kids up from school. I’ll often schedule back-to-back meetings on one or two days a week so I can squeeze all the work I can into a very focused period of time and environment.
I look at every week like I’m designing a week. I enjoy looking at it in a creative way. I know when I like to have calls and when I don’t. I know that my most focused creative time is in the morning. I schedule my weeks based on those understandings of myself.
I feel so fortunate. I have a lot of flexibility and I really get to be a mother. The Internet was the tool the feminist movement always needed to be able to both be present at the important events for your child and also contribute and participate in society.
How did you get started?
Well, I did a lot of internships, which I always recommend. I have a lot of great interns at our film studio right now. But when I was in college – actually in high school — I did an internship at a technology company, one of the first laptop companies. I also interned at film studios. I was always interested in both technology and filmmaking. The earlier part of my career I worked in technology to pay for my films, and then I was given the opportunity to found the Webby Awards when I was very young. I ran it for nearly a decade of my life.
I enjoyed establishing the Webbys but I always yearned for filmmaking and so in 2005, I founded The Moxie Institute. It was then that I understood that I could combine my love for filmmaking with what had been, a decade before, an amazing new invention called the World Wide Web.
It’s very exciting to finally be making a living doing exactly what I want to do with the people that I love working with on projects I really believe in.
What do you like most about what you do?
I love collaborating. Right now I’m really enjoying giving back. Through our Let it Ripple series, we’re able to make free movies for non-profit organizations all around the world. I feel like we’re filling such a need. There are so many non-profits doing important work and yet they don’t have media to match the work that they do.
Is there anything that you dislike about your job?
Production can be tough at times. I’ve had a pretty intense production period recently.
How do you make money?
Some of our films are funded through grants and others are made with the support of investors. Each project is different. For my feature documentary Connected, we work with organizations, conferences, and schools around the world to host special screenings of the film for their supporters. Depending on the type of individual or organization (e.g. for-profit, nonprofit), a one-time flat licensing fee is required to screen the film. We also generate revenue from ticket sales of theatrical screenings and the sale of DVD and video on demand purchases. Right now we have a “limited edition” version of the Connected DVD and Home Discussion kit available. I also am paid to speak at events. I have been doing public talks for 20 years now.
What kind of education, schooling or skills are necessary to do what you do?
I think its always important to keep learning. People think when they graduate that’s the end of their formal education, but there are so many opportunities, especially with the Internet, to constantly learn more.
I have a BA from UC Berkeley, but I’m really a lifelong learner. I’ve completed executive education at Harvard. I am a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute. And I’m always interested in taking intense new classes. Each time I make a new film actually, I feel like I’m learning about a whole new issue or topic.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Sometimes it can be challenging to articulate the vision I see in my head for a particular film to others. Luckily I work with such a great team and I’ve worked with them for so long that they’re great at picking up my vision and bringing it to life even when I feel that I haven’t communicated it verbally as well as I’d like.
What is most rewarding?
Audience reaction! I truly enjoy hearing someone laugh from a moment in one of my films or to learn that one of my projects has moved someone emotionally or into action. I’m always delighted when we release a new film in our “Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change” series and the requests for custom versions start to roll in from nonprofits. It lets me know that others see the value in what we do and what we’re providing and that it not only resonates with them, but they think it’s powerful enough to resonate with the individuals, organizations and partners that they work with.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in filmmaking or in technology?
There are so many opportunities you just have to find them or make them! For film, interning is so important. I hire a lot of people that start as interns. And I do believe in the intern model because I believe that you can really see a lot of different types of companies.
And then in terms of working in technology again, it’s so easy to be able to just try new technologies and new ways of doing things. So many of the tools are free right now. We can really do a lot with what’s available right now. Have the gumption to try something on your own and show people what you can do.
Are there any misconceptions around technology or filmmaking and working in that field?
I think a lot of people say there’s no money for the arts so you have to really struggle, and I just don’t think that’s the case. I think if you don’t treat filmmaking like a business I think you’re going to struggle. I think a lot of filmmakers don’t realize that any artist needs to also be a businessperson. It’s so important to take that seriously. A business course can help strengthen those skills.
A lot of artists will just throw up their hands that they aren’t supported financially, but they need to present themselves and their projects in a real business-like way to get that kind of support.
How much time do you get/take off?
I take off every Friday night to Saturday night for what my family calls “technology shabbats.” We turn off mobile phones, the TV, iPads and any other electronic device that could distract us from spending good quality time together. I recently wrote about our Technology Shabbats in our newly released Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks TED Book. An excerpt focused on this can be read at http://www.good.is/posts/connecting-broadly-won-t-replace-the-importance-of-connecting-deeply. I also make sure that my husband and I take a good amount of family trips with our two girls and one romantic trip for just the two of us every 2 months.
What are your goals and dreams for the future?
My goal is to keep pushing myself creatively and to continue to collaborate with my husband. My dream would be to someday collaborate on a creative project with my children.
Is there anything else that you would like for people to know about you, to know about Let It Ripple, or about pursuing a career in technology or film?
Well, if you’re interested in the kind of work we do, join our Facebook group or follow me on Twitter (@TiffanyShlain). I engage with my community a lot on experiments and filmmaking projects.
You can also watch all of our films online at www.letitripple.org. Our latest film Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks was released with an accompanying ebook published by TED Books. It’s the first time a TED Book and film have been released together. The ebook features embedded video, graphics, special talks and other multimedia elements that elaborate on the focus of the film.
About Tiffany Shlain
Honored by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century,” Tiffany Shlain is a filmmaker, artist, director of the Moxie Institute, founder of The Webby Awards, co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and creator of the Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change short film series. Her films and work have received over 50 awards including a Disruptive Innovation Award from the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Her last four films premiered at Sundance including her feature documentary Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology which The New York Times described as “Examining everything from the Big Bang to twitter.” Connected had a theatrical release last fall and The US State Department recently selected it as one of the films to represent America in the 2012 American Film Showcase. Shlain’s films are a fusion of documentary and narrative and are known for their whimsical yet provocative approach to unraveling complicated subjects like politics, cultural identity, technology and science. For more information, visit www.tiffanyshlain.com. Follow Tiffany on twitter @tiffanyshlain