Recently a student at Brown University emailed us with questions about how to crack into the fields of video production, art direction, experiential brand work and advertising. Her questions were thoughtful and interesting to consider, and I found myself sharing long rambling anecdotes. It was one of those "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time" sort of scenarios, so I’m sharing my responses here in hopes they might be useful to other young creatives or aspiring digital nomads in search of advice or a new perspective.
Q: Did people ever think you guys were slightly insane for going out on the road like that? Obviously it turned out to be amazing, but what was the hardest challenge on the road & about leaving NYC—was it a decision that took you awhile to decide on or was it more spur of the moment? What were your families’ reactions?
In a word: yes, many people thought we were totally crazy when we left New York without a real plan. Not everyone was supportive, but we were following our intuition and knew it was the right thing for us. Luckily my family has gotten used to me traveling and being nomadic, so they thought it sounded like another fun adventure when I told them I was quitting my job, we were selling most of our belongings, moving out of our Brooklyn apartment and buying a car to allow us to road trip around the country with cameras, audio equipment and camping gear in the fall of 2014.
Since that decision to pull the plug on a stable life and a 9-5 job, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. The hardest part of our trip was probably the nights of winter camping—we woke up in a few places in huge snowstorms with no place to go, and in those moments I would have given anything to be back in my warm Brooklyn apartment. The decision to leave New York in search of a different way of doing things was something we thought about for months; a series of events made it clear finally that it was time for a major change, and we took the leap. It’s been an amazing adventure and I’m so grateful that we started this crazy journey instead of just accepting the status quo. We haven’t really stopped traveling since we first left on our road trip, but we’ve gotten more strategic about our movements. Now we set up short-term base camps, usually for 1-6 months at a time in different places, which allows us to follow projects while having a place to operate out of.
Q: My next question is, what was your career path before you became a senior copywriter–and Simon's too. Did you guys do a lot of filmmaking in school or after? I'm currently trying to figure out how to get a position at an ad agency or a production house and there hasn't been anyone I know of personally who has done that, so I've had to do a lot of research on my own just to try and navigate what seems to be a very tight-knit and closed off industry, even though I know I have the skills to be a part of it and it’s been one of my goals.
Filmmaking is not something I ever planned to do until very recently; I studied journalism and international relations at the University of Oregon and always wanted to be a writer. I grew up reading my dad’s collection of National Geographic magazines which created a desire to explore the world, visit and write about different cultures. I studied in Greece and Argentina, and moved to Ecuador after college to work as a travel guidebook writer throughout South America before moving to New York when my Ecuadorian visa expired. When I came back to the US, I got an internship at a custom-published travel magazine run by a publishing and advertising agency and quickly made myself invaluable there by taking on additional responsibilities and being reliable; I worked my way up to assistant editor, then an associate editor, and eventually I started writing and editing copy for other clients at the ad agency. As a senior copywriter I was working with strategists and producers and art directors to create digital, social, and broadcast content for TV shows and food and wine brands.
Simon and I started working together to create video content for several of our accounts at the agency. He had worked for years as an assistant to some of the top commercial photographers in New York. Several people he worked for started needing video content, and he taught himself how to shoot and edit in order to help them, and quickly realized he was more interested in creating stories through video rather than just shooting a single still image. He quickly landed a gig where he was the director and DP for several big international TV commercials.
We realized we had a complementary skill set and started shooting personal projects together on the road after leaving New York, which is how NORTH + NOMAD started. I recently took a really fantastic screenwriting class with Robert McKee, and we’re always reading and learning more about filmmaking since we didn’t come from that traditional background. If you’re looking to get a position at an ad agency or production house, I’d say get your foot in the door however you can (look for internships and other entry level positions; put together a resume or website with samples of your work, even if you have to write or create spec work, and then even cold call or email places you’re interested in working for and tell them you want an internship even if they’re not listed) and show that you’re eager to learn, helpful, and persistent.
Q: A more technical question, did you have problems running out of storage space for files on the road or did you have to delete things? You guys must have had a ton of RAM...it’s just so impressive that you were able to edit such high quality footage wherever you went!
This was tricky for sure; we were shooting everything in 4K and had duplicates of the footage. We soon had a huge number of hard drives in the car with us and sent the backups to a friend back in New York for safe storage. We tried to edit the first project we shot in North Carolina, a music video for an indie folk band, on a 15" MacBook Pro laptop, and the large video files crashed the computer repeatedly, and it took forever to get it done that way. We ended up capturing a lot of different projects on our trip but didn’t get around to editing the rest of them until we bought a new, much faster computer (a 12 core Mac Pro with 32 gigs of RAM) that could handle the footage when we finally returned to the east coast a year later. In retrospect, I would never recommend shooting so many different things and waiting to edit them for so long… you lose momentum on a project when it sits for too long.
Q: What was the best part about it all? Was it finding the story, was it the finished video, was it exploring new places?
It was really satisfying to find a story and create our own projects without having a boss to report to; we were creating just for the joy of exploring ideas and making things. More than anything, our trip gave us a new perspective, a new set of priorities, and a more adventurous lifestyle that we never would have developed if we’d stayed at home in Brooklyn. We’ve learned to go with the flow and be open to the unexpected, and our priority is now creative freedom—the ability to take on only the projects we’re actually interested in—and finding like-minded people to collaborate with.
Q: What are you working on now?
We’re in talks with several brands about creating a series of mini documentaries, a commercial video in a studio, as well as some livestream projects. We recently shot our first 360 degree video project for The New York Times’ The Daily 360 and are excited about the possibilities of that new medium; we’re working on our own personal project in 360 which has been fun to experiment with. I’m almost done writing a manuscript for my first novel about our adventures, and Simon has a couple musical projects he’s working on. We’re firm believers in the importance of creating personal work in addition to the commercial work. We recently submitted our first short film to festivals. We are also working on an ongoing feature-length documentary; it’s been really interesting to spend a couple years strategically gathering that story and getting to know the characters on a deeper level and see where it all leads.
Q: How do you promote your creative lab other than Instagram, or do you reach out to mostly people you already know? Do you ever say no to a project? And why?
We’re always hustling to meet new people and like to set up meetings with agencies, publishers, organizations and brands that we like in whatever city we’re in when we’re not totally slammed shooting or editing. It’s interesting to constantly be in contact with people who do things differently than us and share notes and ideas with others in the creative community. We have said no to a few projects for several reasons: if the budget doesn’t line up with the deliverables, if a client has unreasonable expectations, or if we already have a full plate. We try to be selective whenever possible; in an ideal world, we only work on projects that are exciting to us and line up with our vision of the world and how we want to spend our time.
More questions about starting out in the world of video production or advertising? Add them in the section below and I'll do my best to respond!