Filmmaker Joel Wilson reveals his wisdom on achieving success in film

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Joel Wilson is an award-winning filmmaker, producer and director from Nashville, Tennessee. He travels across country on productions for some of America’s most exciting TV networks and brands. From working on the nationally renowned CMA Awards as a content producer to shooting behind-the-scenes with NASCAR, Joel’s unique set of talents in a diverse range of technical fields has made him a go-to expert on the production process from the inception phase through to distribution.

He’s worked on complex productions for clients such as E! Networks, PBS, MTVu and The National Guard and has also filmed and edited video for a host of events including the INFOCOM Expo, the CMA Music Festival as well as national comedy tours.

We sat down with Joel to get his perspective on the film and media business, how he’s navigated the world of live video production and the extraordinary, and unconventional journey he’s taken to get to where he is today.

Interview with Joel Wilson 

Iain: How did you get into the business and what have been some of the highlights so far?

Joel: I grew up in Nashville with lofty goals of being a performing musician (read: Rockstar.) I sang and played bass in several bands, owned my own mildly successful Karaoke business, and avoided any real “adult” decisions like saving for retirement or planning for a family. Determined to die young on stage, a martyr for creative expression, I moved to Los Angeles and joined a band. 6 months later the band had broken up and I was working nights in the sound-booth of a comedy club. I started spending some time at the local Cable studio, volunteering for public access discussion programs and carrying gear for their commercial production department, shooting local spots. After about a year and a half of “paying my dues,” I decided to move back to Nashville and attend university with a focus on Digital video production.

Upon my arrival, I met a fellow at a local open mic who worked as an art director on a number of Nashville produced music videos and commercials. He offered me an entry-level position on his team, building sets, painting psych walls and moving rusty farm equipment. This was my first actual job working in production. I was excited to work 16-hour days for $150. I met a lot of folks with whom I am still close. I got to work on some really cool music videos and with some really creative people.

Eventually I’d be offered a job at the Local Fox affiliate, accept the full-time position and drop out of school one semester before graduation. By this time I had a nice network of production minded people at my disposal. I assembled a team of “semi-pros” to compete in a few film competitions. There was no pay guaranteed, and the hours were often long and messy (especially with the retro zombie picture,) but we were having fun, being creative, and in some cases, winning!

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National Cornbread Festival Dixie Freeze Diner

And I was still attending classes, telling jokes at open-mics and hosting band practices in my living room. I was even allowed, every once in a while, to act as a “man on the street” reporter covering events like the Cornbread Festival and the Renaissance Fair. I hadn’t given up on my dreams of success in front of the cam, but I was learning about how much influence one has, working diligently behind the scenes.

These early years hold some of my fondest professional memories. I worked the Morning shift at the studio, so while I was there at 4am, my shift ended at noon. That meant I had the rest of the day to do pretty much whatever I wanted, and the steady paycheck kept the lights on. At the time I lived in a big old rental house right outside of the city and I built a 3-sided green screen in the dining room, and shot a lot of silly videos there. We also had a lot of karaoke parties.

Eventually I would move forward from the local daytime sales-driven morning show and into entertainment news coverage for a national website. That was my first taste of truly working freelance as a “one-man-band.” I was responsible for managing my time, which was a lot harder without a clock to punch and an HR department keeping me in check. I’d sometimes go weeks without work, then spend 5 days in a row producing a handful of packages. I became very aware of the “feast – or – famine” cliché.

I then transitioned into agency work, which was a little more “high-end” and taught me a lot about the corporate environment. The shift from “news-gatherer” to “Prod-Dir-Editor,” was strange, and a lot more political than I had expected. Working in an office, from 9 to 5, I learned to spend time on a project, making it just right, instead of trying to bang it out just under a deadline. This gave me the opportunity to strengthen my skill set in both pre-production and post-production. It also put me in front of bigger clients, with bigger budgets.

This whole time, I’m nurturing a side business with a friend who calls himself “TheAVProfessional.” He is a rapper, who works in Audio-Video installation, and crafts his rhymes to reflect that. It’s an admittedly niche market, but we made some killer music videos, video blogs, and trade show coverage videos. We also learned a lot about self-promotion and running an LLC. We are still great friends, but he’s traded his rap career for a director’s position at his AV Company. He is killing it and still gets recognized in the field. It’s an honor to think that I made him what he is today, an icon of his industry.

Eventually one of those (real) clients from the agency would cherry pick me and offer me a contract position working on a military base in Little Rock AR. By this time I had succumbed to the American Dream, Wife, kids, house payment, and so it made sense to accept this very well paid position in a city where I knew absolutely no one. I did manage to recruit a photographer friend of mine to come with me, though. That contract lasted one year. I ended up having a baby on the government’s dime and not shaving my face once. You can call me a sellout, but I like to think I’m a principled opportunist.

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I accepted the position of “Video Wizard” in Nashville working for an online music video service, (think Pandora meets MTV,) and had a great time working there for the next year and a half. I focused on my motion graphics, cutting mostly promos and handling any other lower thirds or special “sh##-hot” effects that were needed. I was also able to produce a few of my own projects, inspired by past experience. I ran a weekly topical entertainment news show and did a few mini-series road docs with touring artists. Eventually the company would fold and our entire team would be unemployed in the first week of December 2015.

I’ve been hustlin’ ever since. On my linkedin page I describe myself as a hired gun. I’m pretty versatile, and I have my varied experiences to thank for that. Sometimes I think I’m going to drop it all and start something new, like practicing law or becoming a tattoo artist, just because how exciting would it be to start completely from scratch as a fat, almost 40 year old with 3 kids, 2 car payments and a bunch of silly youtube videos?!?

Iain: What would you say are some of the skills that have been instrumental in your success as a filmmaker? 

Joel: Willingness and ability are huge factors. I’m hungry and eager to better myself by adding skill sets to my toolbox. So many folks want to specialize, be the best cameraman, or the best motion graphic artist. I’ve always just figured that if I need the best, I can hire them, but if I just need this lower third to slide in and out, I can do that my self and not hire somebody else. My training early on as a “One-man-band,” gave me a “can-do-attitude,” that has really stuck with me, and I think comes across when I’m pitching to clients or applying for a job. There’s no such thing, as “I don’t know,” just “I don’t know yet.”

Iain: When it comes to producing and directing live performances, what are the steps that you take to prepare a shoot?

Joel: I love brainstorming with the client. I want to hear them describe their dreams, whatever they’ve got in their mind’s eye. Sometimes I will meet them for drinks, open my laptop and just poke around the web for examples that I think might encourage them to shoot for something more than just what they think they can pull off. I got some advice early on from the art director I used to work for. He told me that everyone has the same first 5 ideas. It’s not until you get past those 6th, 7th, or 8th ideas that you start having original thoughts. I say “what if” all the time. Sometimes they are very receptive to that and I love working with clients that are willing to “go there” with me. Alternatively, there are some clients that aren’t interested in that. They know exactly what they want, and that’s great too. In those cases, I ask a lot of questions so that I can really have a complete vision that matches theirs. I’m a translator, so I also try to help them understand what it’s going to take for me to actualize their vision. I want them to either really get what I’m trying to do, or just give up and hand me the reins because they trust that I’m thoroughly competent. There can be so many things to coordinate with a live performance, and everybody should be on the same page.

Short answer? I talk a lot.

Iain: How do you approach live comedy in terms of putting together a crew, working with cast and planning the budget?

Joel: I have a handful of professionals that I’ve been working with for years. I trust their ability, and I know that they are reliable, and that they trust me. I like to “send the elevator back down,” as well, so I’ll try to include one or two less experienced team members as well. Not only are they cheaper to hire, but also usually they are eager to learn and able to see solutions that the more seasoned pros may overlook.

Cast wise, I make no apologies for hiring my friends. For the several years that I was producing my own narratives, I used a lot of the same cast members for different roles across each production. I’ve always loved how Jack Nance appeared in every David Lynch film, or how I can guess who produced or directed a TV series based on common members of the ensemble. There is an appeal to having a stable of talent that you’re comfortable directing, and who often knows right away what it is you’re looking for.

Budget is a tough one to nail down for me. My history is making it work with whatever budget we have, then justifying sketchy production value by calling it style. I think we are seeing more and more of that lately, so much so that even shows with huge budgets are requesting a “look” of low budget because it seems more “real.” In a perfect world, the project dictates the budget. Brainstorming happens, then there’s a proposal, then there is a period of negotiations and subtractions from the grand vision to get the price down to a justified level of affordability by the client’s standards. When I’m producing my own work, I am very simply limited to how much money I have in my bank account that day. I am not above buying work lights at Home Depot and saving the receipt so that I can return them the next day and put gas in my car. I wish I was made of money, but I’m not. I also don’t have any really rich friends or angel investors, yet.

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Iain: Recently you produced three performances of ‘Size Matters’ with Ray McAnally. How did you go about capturing the show, and editing it for a VOD release? 

Joel: Size Matters was a really fun project to work on. Not only is it just a great show by itself, but also Raymond is one of my oldest dearest friends, so working with him directly to actualize his vision was really just a dream come true. He is a super talented writer, performer and artist, and he’s just a funny guy in real life, so the hours and hours of pre-production that went in to this project was really just spending time with somebody that I consider family. He’s really a blessing for me and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to work with him.

The actual show, (now that I’ve covered the lip-service part of this interview,) is a little unconventional by theatrical standards, at least that’s how I approached it. In it’s essence, it’s a dramatic piece. There are moments when Raymond’s face and body language really convey the gravity of what he’s presenting. I had to be sure to capture that when it was important. However, we wanted to avoid an over-all “heavy scene” because (as he explains in the special features interview,) there is a danger of this piece becoming too “self-helpy,” and turning off a portion of the audience. Thankfully, Stand-up comedy is everywhere these days, and that type of production is immediately recognizable. Our decision to approach this like a stand-up comedy performance made sense because not only is it a one-man show, but also incorporating audience laughter, floating jib shots, handheld cut-aways and a stand-up “feel,” automatically disarms the audience and says, “it’s ok to laugh at this stuff.” (If that’s not the deeper message of his entire performance then I totally missed the point.)

Technically, I had to capture creatively because we had a very limited run of 3 shows over a single weekend, with only one tech rehearsal. While I had read the script, my crew and I were basically going in blind, because we hadn’t ever seen the show. Thankfully because Raymond is a real pro, and understands blocking for stage, his light and audio cues and his (sometimes manic) bouncing around the stage were pretty consistent across each performance. Because we were not working with a huge budget, I shot everything ISO (straight to cams with no line cut or com) across 5 assigned camera operators. I had one camera centered at Front of House, 2 slash cams on either side of the proscenium, a small jib that started in the balcony, then repositioned to orchestra level for the 2nd and third shows, and one “floating” hand-held operator who was told to grab audience cut-aways and extreme angles as he saw fit. Each camera op was given their assignments and trusted to capture the entire show. The reason it worked out so well in post when I merged all three performances into one was that in each show, the cameras tightened their frame.

So the first night, having never seen the show, I asked that they all shoot wide. This would give them an opportunity to watch Raymond, and get an idea for what he is doing on stage, without having to chase him as he darts from one side to the other without warning. So when you’re watching the finished cut, every wide shot you see is from the first night. Second show, everybody pushed into medium shots. I moved the jib (Bobby) down to audience left and suggested he shoot through some audience silhouettes, which seemed to work well. My FOH and slash cams carried most of the pressure, because even with medium shots, they would have to frame him accordingly.

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Ray McAnally on stage – ‘Size Matters’

The fact that they were able to watch the previous show helped a lot I think, because they did a great job covering the action. In following a pretty standard camera plan, audience right cam (Jeff) shot Raymond when he was playing on stage right, and audience left cam (Hank) shot across to the opposite side of the stage. Raymond’s conversations with himself really played here, because as he would assume another character, like Morgan, or his dad, I could switch to the other cam and after a while he almost seemed like two different people in those moments. On the third and final performance, everybody was told to follow as tightly as possible. The cams on each side held their cross-shot assignments, and really had to be on their toes to catch him in frame. I was so impressed by how quickly they adapted to his gate and timing. They nailed it. My straight cam (Mike) stayed right on Ray the whole time and I don’t think there was ever a time that I didn’t have a clean shot of him from the front. Jib did his thing and my handheld operator (Josh) got some really intense ECUs and hard profiles. There is absolutely no way I could’ve done this cut without these guys on my crew. Raymond’s great and funny and whatever, but from my seat in the edit bay, these guys are the real stars.

Our audio situation was interesting as well. We took a feed from the board, which included all audio cues and some ambient audience. We also mic’d ray and had his clean audio going to an ISO deck right off stage, as well as a second mic feeding an iphone in his pocket. (Redundancy is important when you MUST get clean audio without the option of ADR.) We also ran open mics on all cams, and fed two stereo audience mics to the slash cams, which gave us some great laughter and applause.

Once we had everything in the can, I collected and organized all the assets and started crushing. Editing in Premiere, I opted to sync each show and manually (not multi-cam) edit 3 separate timelines. I color coded each camera across all three shows, and cut a wide version, a medium version, and a tight version. This gave me the option to not only decide which performance I liked the best (as good as Raymond is, there was a slight variance across the three), but also decide how best to showcase the performance.

Once I had three separate edits, I brought them each into a common timeline, (not as multi-cam sequences, but as a five camera edit.) then I started from the beginning and built the show one bit at a time, often letting “the bit” determine which cam I used. If Raymond is broadly addressing the crowd, I’m wide. As he gets into the situation or starts acting like another character, I bump into the medium cut. Then when that moment comes where Morgan looks up at him and asks if Whitney loves Ray more than Uncle Ray loves Ray, I’m tight, right up in his grill so you can see those beads of sweat every time he pushed up his glasses. It’s exciting just thinking about it, really. It couldn’t have worked out better than it did.

Once I had the line cut finished, I did a little audio mixing, and outsourced the mastering. I had my good friend Bobby (jib op) do a color pass, and started working with Raymond on a few little fixes here and there. I think we may have swapped out 3 shots in the whole thing? It was kind of nice being limited to what we had, because there was less room to explore alternative edits. Clients can be so picky sometimes.

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The authoring and export was a completely different monster than the edit. This was my first time prepping a piece for mass distribution, so I had to do a lot of studying. Eventually I used an authoring service in town for the initial DVD menu, but ended up having some issues with closed captioning, at which point I took over and re-did the entire thing. We included a lot of special features, interviews with Ray and the audience, some promotional pieces and some of Ray’s other comedy gems, so the total package is definitely worth picking up, even if you’ve already seen the show live. After uploading an 86 gig ProRes file to the Amazon server, that I think took us 4 days to finally complete, we had reached our holiday season goal. So now go buy one!

Iain: I understand that there is talk of a documentary to go along with ‘Size Matters’. What is your interest in continuing that project? Do you feel there is more to be said on the subject of Body Positivity? 

Joel: Absolutely! As long as there are people with bodies, there will be things to say about those bodies. Raymond and I agree that we’d rather be the people saying nice things about those bodies than the people making fun of them. I’m not a small guy, but I’m stupidly confident. There are a lot of people who are much more funny looking than Raymond, or me and we want them to know that we think that’s awesome! No offense to all the attractive people out there, gym memberships are great and all, but how boring would it be if we all looked the same? I believe there should be a celebration of specialness every time you look in the mirror. I would love to sit down with some of the “non-traditional” bodies that have found success in their shape and discuss the challenges they faced, and how they were able to find the confidence to power through the type casting into the deeper roles.

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Ray McAnally performs to a live audience in ‘Size Matters’

John Goodman is one of my favorites, he is so good! (If you’re reading this, Mr. Goodman, please friend me on Facebook.) I also think Louis Anderson, Melissa McCarthy, Rebel Wilson, and Kevin James would probably have very interesting things to say about the subject. Frankly, I don’t think it has to stop at weight. Somebody like Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi or Vin Diesel may have had just as hard a time overcoming a casting director’s lack of imagination as Seth Rogen or Morgan Freeman. I mean seriously, why is Zooey Deschanel always cast as this stunningly beautiful, sweet, talented and funny girl that I’d really like to get to know both emotionally and spiritually? Talk about typecasting!

I think the more we can talk about appreciating our differences, rather than resenting or fearing them, the better off this world will be. It doesn’t have to stop with physical appearance, either. Philosophically, emotionally, there is a quiet strength that comes with being different, and we are all different. I know, and in that way, we are all the same. (So deep.. *eye roll emoticon*)

Iain: What are you looking to achieve in the future? Are there any particular companies or filmmakers you’d like to work with? 

Joel: I’d love to do more of this type of thing. I know Netflix does a lot of comedy specials as part of their original programming. I’d really love to be involved with them, showcasing some new voices in Stand-up, or even some of the fringe performance styles. The future is now and I’m so lucky to know some of the people doing some of the coolest stuff. I’ve got a good friend here in Nashville who I’ve been working with for years. He’s got a fleet of mobile TV trucks that can stream live multi-cam productions in 4k. I would love more than anything to put his crew to work producing the highest standard of live comedy for the top dogs of streaming content. It seems like a pipe dream right now, but I have faith that one day I’m going to have the opportunity to make that happen. Until then I’m doing whatever I can to prepare myself so that I am ready when it does.

I’d also really like to take my family on the road and visit state parks in all 50 states. I think that’d be really cool.

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Iain: What would be your advice to filmmakers in Nashville and elsewhere looking to break into the film business? 

Joel: I guess I could just list all the standard clichés like work your ass off and don’t burn bridges, but I think maybe instead I’ll just pass on a few nuggets of wisdom that have served me.

Nic Dugger told me once that it doesn’t matter if you’re a lion or a gazelle, what matters is that you’re running when the sun comes up. He also taught me that if you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re 15 minutes late.

Bernie Redding told me that the first 5 ideas I come up with are the same as everybody’s first 5 ideas.

Shano Reynolds (when I told him that I was going to study video in college) told me that no matter what the assignment, make sure that you can be proud of the thing you’re producing. Every piece is a portfolio piece.

Andrew House told me to say, “Yes, I said YES!”

To connect with Joel you can get in contact via Facebook or Linkedin.

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