#2- David George - Transitioning to Freelance

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

What happens when you're going freelance in the midst of an economic crisis?

Tanya Musgrave chats with David George, a university professor going freelance in cinematography.

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Full Transcript:

Tanya Musgrave: 00:00 Welcome to There to Here, an educational podcast where industry professionals talk nuts and bolts, and how they got from there to here. And I'm Tanya Musgrave, I am the creative director here at CoLab Inc., and today I have David George here. I am going to let you introduce yourself and what your job is and your role in the industry.

David George: 00:24 Well, my name is David George. I currently work here at Southern Adventist University, where I helped start the film program back in the year 2000, so 20 years ago. So I've been a teacher for a long time, but concurrent with that, I've stayed active as a cinematographer and shot a couple of feature films, including Old Fashioned, that had a theatrical release just a few years ago, 300 screens here in the United States. And so, that was sort of the realization of something that's one of those goals that you hope you get in life is to shoot a movie that gets theatrical release. At the end of this semester, I'm actually transitioning out of education to working in camera work full-time. And so, I don't know, does that answer your question?

Tanya Musgrave: 01:22 Yeah, yeah, yeah. And in fact, it actually leads me to one of the main questions because concurrently, there is a lot going on in the world and a lot going on in our industry, where the landscape has changed drastically in the last couple of weeks. And so, I was really just curious how you're holding up, how it's affected your plans for that transition. Let's start where it's affected your day-to-day routine, how your mindset is transitioning to that.

David George: 01:56 Yeah. So that's a big question. I'll do my best to answer that, but I guess one little nugget I think that maybe kind of illustrates it, on this Sunday, two days ago we just came back from spring break yesterday. The university extended spring break from one week to two, and decided that all the classes would go online. So it sort of gave us a little bit longer to retool our courses to get them ready to go for online, but on Sunday, the night before classes actually resumed, it kind of hit me that my favorite part of teaching is being in the classroom, and that was a thing of the past essentially, at this point. It sort of hit me all at once that I've taught my last in-person class already, and-

Tanya Musgrave: 02:56 Oh wow, that's so true.

David George: 02:57 Yeah, so that's certainly one big change. As far as... it's actually been kind of fun getting up to speed on Zoom and a lot of these other technologies. One of the things that for a long time, I've told producing students, is when you run into unexpected circumstances or things that really are threatening to make your train go off the tracks, there are opportunities there to make things even better than they were. Not always, but more often than you might think. It's surprising how often a problem can actually kind of vault a project into an even better place than it was. And so, it's taking a lot of extra work, I would say, to switch my classes over to being online, but I am finding opportunities I think to make the classes stronger, even though it's just the last month and a half or whatever of the semester. There are ways, there are a lot of tools there, and that's been interesting and that's been exciting. So it's not all crying and moping, but yeah. So I don't know.

Tanya Musgrave: 04:11 Yeah.

David George: 04:12 That's part of an answer, anyway.

Tanya Musgrave: 04:13 No, that's good, because I remember chatting with you before, and the prospect of having taught and created your workflow and your lesson plans for how you've done things for the last 20 years, and you're almost home free, almost, like a month and a half, two months, and having to retool everything, but it is pretty cool to think of how much more effort people are making to connect more so than I feel like it was before. It's definitely a changed landscape, so I was curious how your landscape of the industry has changed, not just this one as a teacher, but going into the next landscape, what your thoughts are of that to transition?

David George: 05:08 Yeah. That's a really good question. I mean, I think it's important to point out that anything I might say is speculation, because we just don't know, right? And I suppose everybody already knew that before I said it out loud, but I mean, who knows? But when I try to figure out what the future holds, I mean, I was having a conversation with another filmmaker the other day, and he was saying that there will probably be new opportunities on the other side of this, and one of the reasons that may exist is that there may be some people who are in this space, who decide not to be in this space after this. And so, for those of us who are still there, there may be more opportunities. Is that true, is that going to happen? I don't know, but I think there are reasons to be hopeful. I think that of the things that were on my calendar for camera work before all this started, at least at present, they're still on the calendar, and-

Tanya Musgrave: 06:12 That's surprising, because I feel like everything's just come to a halt.

David George: 06:16 Right, so they're-

Tanya Musgrave: 06:17 That's fantastic.

David George: 06:18 ... a little ways off on the calendar, so who knows? Time will tell as things change, and as we get deeper into understanding the nature of the fight that we're in. Everybody's at home watching Netflix or doing all these other things. We're going to need some more content. People are going to... I don't know. Will people run out of content? I don't know, but... Oh, here's one thing. I think the whole world is getting a crash course in the importance of camera work, because suddenly, that's the way we see each other all the time. Like right now, you have this CoLab background behind you, and I'm in my office, and I've converted one of my monitors at to use it as a soft light. It's just my monitor, right? But-

Tanya Musgrave: 07:06 Front three-quarter lighting. It's good.

David George: 07:07 Yeah, exactly, and I can control the color of it, and everything, so. Here, watch this. I can change my key light here. I can wrap it here, change the... controlling the ratio here.

Tanya Musgrave: 07:24 What?

David George: 07:24 How much do I want to wrap it? Anyway, but yeah.

Tanya Musgrave: 07:28 And I have overhead fluorescence. Awesome.

David George: 07:30 Well, that's what I have too, but I took a big piece of poster board and taped it up over the... I've got one of those four foot fluorescent troffers up there, and it looks really terrible on me, so I used a piece of a black poster board as a flag.

Tanya Musgrave: 07:51 That's fantastic.

David George: 07:51 Maybe it looks a little better the way I just adjusted it. I don't know. One of my big problems is I'm constantly DPing my Zoom meetings to try to make my shot look better, like make it go, how's the head room? Where's my eyeline? Anyway, it's a problem.

Tanya Musgrave: 08:12 Well, I think it's great that you're not discouraged. Right now, I know that especially last week, I know that there were, especially before the stimulus bill kind of was coming up to the forefront, I mean, people were quite understandably panicking about their job security, what was going to happen, whether or not everyone was going to be really just okay, especially for the day players, the freelancers. I started to see a lot more of my friends posting up saying, "Hey, all of my March and April gigs dropped through. Is there any way somebody could buy a gift certificate, or put something on the calendar, so I can put food on my table?" kind of thing. So what I'm curious about is how you are using your final time as a salaried employee to further your business on the other side of it, or how to sustain yourself. How are you using your time to prepare for that?

David George: 09:23 Well, to be honest, I have less time for that now than I did, just because retooling my classes to switch over to online, it has gone front and center, and I still have a salary with the university, so I'm not sore about that. I'm grateful that I have a couple months worth of a salary to look forward to. Maybe ask me in two months, and we'll see how I'm feeling.

Tanya Musgrave: 09:54 We will.

David George: 09:56 But in some ways, it's almost like I've been preparing for this for a while, with a sense of uncertainty, and I feel like with what's happened in the last three weeks or whatever, suddenly, everybody else is in the same boat with me.

Tanya Musgrave: 10:16 It's kind of nice, honestly.

David George: 10:17 The not being alone-

Tanya Musgrave: 10:21 Yeah, yeah.

David George: 10:22 ... part of it?

Tanya Musgrave: 10:22 Like the company in your misery. No, I completely understand. It's not just the freelancers that are dealing with it. I mean, there are several people that I know in, you would think very, very solid salary jobs, and the trickle down effect happens, and they're facing layoffs too. So, I mean, and it's not just a US thing either, it's not just Great Depression, this is us. This is global. So, yeah.

David George: 10:51 Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, one of the things, and this isn't very film specific, but I think it's relevant. I feel like all of us, regardless of our career, it's just, if you give worry the space to let you worry about everything you might worry about, it's just totally unmanageable. I currently have a paycheck and that's teaching, and I'm teaching. I'm trying to do my best to make good on the obligations that I have to the students I currently have. I've been shooting lighting, demos, migrating things over to online tools, really trying to not just sort of make this a throwaway semester, but to make it a good outcome for everybody.

David George: 11:38 So, it's hard. There are some challenges there, but does that mean I'm not worried about the future? I mean, yeah, I am. There are plenty of things to worry about, but I'm choosing not to worry about the things that haven't happened yet too much. I think there's reason to be hopeful. There's reason to be concerned and there's a reason to take our situation quite seriously, but yeah, I'm just trying not to worry about what might happen, because anything might happen if you start on that road.

Tanya Musgrave: 12:10 So I mean, a good bit of that is words of advice that I was already going to ask you about, but I would like you to expand on that, particularly for people who are out in the industry that you do see on how the landscape is changing. What advice or thoughts would you have for them in how to utilize their time, things that if you had the time, what would you be out there doing?

David George: 12:40 Yeah. I think those answers are obviously going to be specific to different people, but cutting your reel, working on your website, activating your network, having conversations with people maybe that you haven't talked to in a while, or people that you know a little bit that you'd like to get to know better. I think also fleshing out your ability to do more aspects of your job, more of your paying work online. The latest release of DaVinci Resolve has really impressive remote collaboration tools. So getting up to speed with that, so you can be color grading and editing collaboratively with somebody who's not in the room.

David George: 13:22 I think that's just jump-starting stuff. I think a lot of stuff is getting jump-started now that there just wasn't momentum on. Stuff is getting pushed where it was already going to go, a lot of stuff, and it's just, there's a catalyst now to speed that up and for people to prioritize that stuff. So I think the virus isn't going to be totally behind us anytime super soon. It's going to be at least some part of our lives, I think for a long time. And so, I think it's going to be valuable for quite some time if we can find ways to do aspects of our job remotely.

Tanya Musgrave: 13:58 Awesome. So how has your perspective changed and evolved as more and more things get put in place because of the coronavirus, and the more results that you start to see? Because the creative community is starting to wake up, you're starting to see a lot more online endeavors that are... You have the Jimmy Fallon, you have the Some Good News from John Krasinski. You have all of this stuff starting to wake up, and creatives are starting to create. So do you have any additional thoughts, I guess, on how that particular landscape could be changing things for the better and how people could be involved?

David George: 14:41 Yeah, it's interesting. I watched John Krasinski's show yesterday, and one thing that we're seeing across the board, whether it's in news media or an entertainment, suddenly, we're able to see people without professional camera crew and professional makeup, and all these things, and it's really interesting. It's just a totally different thing. I still haven't processed what to make of it all. I wonder if it's going to make that more socially acceptable to set aside production value. I hope not in one sense, because production value I think is, it's something I care about, making things look good and making things polished. I don't know.

Tanya Musgrave: 15:26 You are definitely the second person that I've talked to who has had that concern of production value kind of being... I mean, it is fascinating to see them in that particular light. It's like the expanded Instagram where, oh yeah, Instagram was kind of the first window into all of these celebrities' personal lives that we got to see, but then even as we keep on going and you're seeing the watered down home sessions of Jimmy Fallon," and you're wondering if the executives are going to be like, "Well, hey, if we can get just as much viewership for a lot less money."

David George: 16:03 Yeah. It's something I've thought about, but I think there's also a chance that a lot of people are going to realize the value of production value too. It was interesting looking at John Krasinski and Steve Carell, John Krasinski's camera work and lighting were much more polished than Steve Carell's. Steve just looked like there was a mismatch between the color temperature setting on his camera and the color of the light he was actually under, which made him look super magenta, and by contrast, John looked pretty good.

David George: 16:39 And I just thought that was kind of funny, because some people are going to figure out how to get better at that on their own just because it's there, they have an aptitude for it, and some people are not, and I think that people's egos are probably fragile enough that people are going to still care after this, how they look. So anyway, I think that a lot of people, a lot of CEOs or people in positions of leadership with organizations who end up forced onto these cameras a whole bunch, I don't know, maybe they will care, maybe they won't, but I think a lot of people are going to realize, you know what? It'd be nice to have some people that know what they're doing to make things look nice, so.

Tanya Musgrave: 17:34 So are there any other companies or sources that you have heard of in your particular area of industry that would be helpful in this present thing? For instance Adobe allowing all the students to have their Suite for free, that kind of thing. Are there any other companies or helpful sources that you could think of ?

David George: 18:01 What are my hot tips? So I don't know how broadly some of this will apply to filmmakers, but I can certainly can say for educators, this has forced me into the world of a product called Panopto, and it's really quite impressive and robust. I can send a stream from a video camera or two video cameras, and then I can send a stream from my phone, and the end users can toggle which view they want to see. So I can walk around doing a lighting demo, I can walk around set and show people where this light is set, so show them where I have the camera set up, take them through the menu on the side of a camera with my phone, so they can see all that, like a BTS cam that I'm just walking around set with, and-

Tanya Musgrave: 18:53 Essentially, a multicam set up that you're...

David George: 18:55 Yeah, it's like multicam streaming.

Tanya Musgrave: 18:59 Wow.

David George: 18:59 And one of the things that I was doing, I was taking both the Rec. 709 output from an Alexa, and then also the false color output, because it'll output both at the same time off different SDI ports, and I can take those in and actually put them side by side on the screen for students, like they have a virtual DIT station.

Tanya Musgrave: 19:19 Oh, wow.

David George: 19:22 And I was pretty impressed with the power and refinement of the tools that are available for some of these things, and I mean, to top it all off, all that stuff goes online immediately, it's actually recording into the cloud. So as soon as I'm done basically, I mean, it has to process for a couple of minutes, but then I can make it available to students immediately. Between Zoom and Panopto, man, those are powerful tools for teachers. I think this is going to send us-

Tanya Musgrave: 19:53 And creators, honestly.

David George: 19:54 Yeah, that's true. That's true. I could foresee... I'm just thinking about this right now, Tanya, but I could imagine using some of these tools to minimize the number of people on set pretty dramatically. Obviously, you're going to always have certain people that just have to be there, but it allows intellectual participation in a way that in some ways, is better than being there in person. People talk about going to a sporting event versus watching it on TV. They're different beasts, you know? And I think that you have to be on a film set to do certain things and experience certain things about working on a film, but you can actually be present in an almost more omniscient way through some of these other tools, you know?

Tanya Musgrave: 20:52 Wow. Having the possibilities of new... I don't know, I was talking with Tom about this because we were... I mean, this is going to change things. It's going to change how production companies do money, where they end up putting the money, especially if say, those home sessions are really popular, we'll do half and half of each, what kind of thing, what is that going to trickle down to when it comes to the day players? How is that going to affect even big budget films? I mean, you think of 1917, they're not going to do that online.

Tanya Musgrave: 21:29 Obviously, you're going to have some of these people and some of these projects that will continue in the same direction, however, this bringing everybody online has created a new creative space where people haven't yet... I mean, it's a completely blank canvas almost. I mean, yeah, the possibilities were there before, but usually the old fogey's just kind of like, "Oh, like people are on TikTok, and that's just something for the kids," but the more that possibilities come up, I mean, even theatrical release on Amazon happening, what's that going to change? And obviously, it's all speculation right now, but that's a very interesting bit of insight having possibly fewer people onset, that would change a lot.

David George: 22:20 Yeah. I mean, that's a trend we've already seen coming, but I think that one of the things that I believe in pretty strongly is that we have to find ways at getting better at being productive while staying safe. We can't not work indefinitely, and we also can't afford to... When you risk your own health, you're risking the health of your family and your co-workers. And so, it's not just about being brave and waiting out there to do your job, because it's not just you that's at risk, you're waiting out there with your loved ones, you know? So I think we've got to find ways to get better at really minimizing the risks as much as possible, but still getting our work done, and finding new ways to adapt to do that. And I think having a smaller number of people on set is one of the most obvious ways that you can help reduce some risks. Obviously, there's still some risk there, but taking the number of people down is one of the most basic things that you can do, as far as the people that have to be physically present.

Tanya Musgrave: 23:24 Yeah. So what is your advice for the people who aren't necessarily technologically sound?

David George: 23:34 Yeah. Well, that's a really good question. So a couple of interesting anecdotes. I don't want to sell out my colleagues at the university, but everybody just got thrown into having to know how to use Zoom, just boom, like that. And so, one of my colleagues at the university invited whoever wanted to join, an opportunity to join a Zoom meeting and kick the tires, and try to figure out what's going on. And let me just tell you, a bunch of university professors trying to figure out Zoom together, it's an amusing experience, let's just say. And I will say that one thing that has made it, coming from a technical perspective and the perspective of somebody with camera skills, and so on, I'm not saying I'm a wiz at all this, by any means. I still look dumb to my students, I'm sure, but it gives you a real advantage, I would say, to using these things, because you can do it. Anyway, it just gives you an advantage.

David George: 24:42 I would say to people who are not technically savvy or not technically savvy yet, I mean, I would say that all of us have to gain proficiency in areas that were not the best, and I think we're just living in a world now where back at some point in history, we decided everybody needed to read, right? And not everybody's great at that, right? And maybe that's kind of unfair in some ways, but what it meant is everybody really needed to try to learn how to do that thing, because it was an important tool towards having a career and being a productive person. And there's some interesting outliers, people with dyslexia and so on, who have been able to be real successful even though they couldn't read, but it was because they were hardworking enough and smart enough to be adaptable around it.

David George: 25:40 And I think that the kind of meeting that you and I are doing right now, it's obvious that right at this moment in time, it's important to be able to know how to do that, and I think it will continue to be important. I think this is going to implant it in a way that doesn't just vaporize when the threat goes away. I think this is going to be something that will continue to be used. I have helped some people who are not great at it, and I think a common reaction is to become angry with technology, and there's definitely a direct correlation between people's emotional state and how successful they are at troubleshooting technical problems.

David George: 26:25 Getting mad at the problem doesn't fix it, and usually, it does exactly the opposite. The technology doesn't really care. It doesn't care what mood you're in. It's going to do its thing, and if you can calm down and take a step back and take a breath, and look at the problem, you'll probably be able to solve it, right? But yeah, approaching it with a level head and just being willing to keep learning, and realize there are going to be setbacks, there are going to be frustrating parts of it, and I think if you can keep an even keel about that, most stuff just isn't that big of a deal. I mean... Anyway.

Tanya Musgrave: 27:07 Yeah. No-

David George: 27:07 One other interesting piece is that, I don't want to name any names here, but I've been peripheral to a project where someone in a position of leadership within an organization is working on creating videos that look sort of like what we're doing now, sort of impromptu and not highly produced, but doing those things with the help of a team that could make things highly produced, and that's such an interesting world. I think we're going to see growth in that area where there are people who want something that looks like they're just Zooming, or Skyping, or whatever, but from people who don't have a lot of facility with those tools, so they kind of hire people to produce it, and it's striking this fine balance where they don't want it to look obviously produced, but they still want it to turn out well, which-

Tanya Musgrave: 28:08 It's the humble brag, the humble brag.

David George: 28:11 Yeah. Yeah, and I honestly, I think there's going to be more and more of that.

Tanya Musgrave: 28:14 Yeah, yeah.

David George: 28:16 Yeah.

Tanya Musgrave: 28:17 Well, it's something that had hit YouTube, well, and Instagram actually, too. I mean, hashtag iwokeuplikethis kind of thing, but where they have web series that were made to look just vid blogs, video diaries kind of thing, but they have three point lighting, they have actors, it's the exact same thing, but it's just put into a different space. Yeah.

David George: 28:43 Yeah.

Tanya Musgrave: 28:44 Nothing new under the sun, I guess.

David George: 28:46 Yeah. I think more and more, we're seeing things that are designed to have the appearance of reality, but are completely constructed.

Tanya Musgrave: 28:54 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David George: 28:55 Yeah.

Tanya Musgrave: 28:56 Well, if John Krasinski is still in his house, but with the whole entire crew, then I'm going to be upset if he [inaudible 00:29:02]. [inaudible 00:29:04] But-

David George: 29:04 And he might.

Tanya Musgrave: 29:05 He might.

David George: 29:06 Probably not, but who knows?

Tanya Musgrave: 29:07 What if it gets picked up, though? What if SGN becomes a major thing, like an actual news network? People would subscribe, especially in these days, people really need it. But in any case, do you have any additional thoughts, just in the broad spectrum of things [inaudible 00:29:24]?

David George: 29:26 Well, we're in this interesting place in time where it feels like almost all we can talk and think about is what's going on with the virus. And so, and I think that's very understandable because it's impacting us in every way. You can't do something and not be reminded that that's going on, and I know that sometimes we just need that break. If we're going to go watch a show, or this or that, we need it to not be about the virus.

David George: 29:57 And so, I think that this is maybe not real specific to film people or anything, but it kind of continues on what I was saying earlier, is I think we just, we got to keep looking one step ahead instead of 10 or 20 steps ahead, because we don't know what those steps are going to be. And I think that there's reason to be hopeful, there's reason to be concerned too, but right now I feel like that's the easiest thing. I don't know, people are at different places with this, but I feel like most people have realized this is a serious crisis that we have to take seriously. It's very easy to go down a worst case scenario. Yeah, you need to plan a little bit, you need to try to figure out your life, but for a lot of us, that's very unclear. Yeah, I think we just got to keep it a day at a time.

David George: 30:54 Again, this is very general advice, but during the two weeks of spring break, I was working on getting classes ready and stuff, but I was getting stuck in these loops of just consuming news media and other content related to everything going on in the world, and it's like this slow motion train wreck that you don't want to look at it, but you can't not look at it, and it consumes your thoughts.

Tanya Musgrave: 31:19 Because you're on the train?

David George: 31:20 Yeah. You're riding the train that's going off the tracks, yeah. And I've found when I was able to get some exercise, I started sleeping a lot better, and my mood about the whole thing got better, and I know some of us are on lockdown or in situations where it's hard to get exercise, but try to think about other stuff. Work on your reel, work on your website, reach out to people for real, rather than just social media. Give somebody a phone call, do a Zoom meeting with somebody, because we really do need human connections.

David George: 31:58 And one thing I'll tell you for sure, the way that you're going to have work when this is done is because some person hires you. It's not going to be social media that hires you, it's going to be somebody that hires you. So make sure that you're ready to go to work if and when the time comes for that. Hopefully, I'm going to be shooting a movie late summer, early fall, and this is a perfect time to be talking about all that heady stuff, what the look of the movie's going to be like, what are reference movies for that movie? Let's watch those, let's talk about those movies, let's figure it all out. So when it's safe to work, let's be really ready to work. So anyway, those are some thoughts.

Tanya Musgrave: 32:45 That's fantastic advice. Fantastic. Well, thank you. I appreciate your time, and thank you for joining us.

David George: 32:53 Yeah, for sure.

Tanya Musgrave: 32:53 If you enjoyed this interview, you can follow us right here, and we will see you next time.

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