Local Spotlight: Craig Downing

Working in the film industry is an ever-changing business that we learn to adjust and advance with stages of production. Local filmmaker, Craig Downing, has helped produced a variety of recognized films for a mixture of eclectic clients. While accomplishing different roles with different projects, Downing has become well rounded in different categories within the film industry. Some works include music videos (Björk–Mutual Core), television (HBO’s Game Of Thrones), and commercial productions (Subaru). He also was the director of the film department at Iceland’s Sagafilm production company supporting feature-length production The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Downing has taken opportunities to travel internationally such as Haiti and Central America, producing documentaries for NGOs. Settled in Seattle for now, Downing has produced commercial content for well-known companies like Amazon and The Discovery Channel, to name a few. He also founded and served as director for Couch Fest Films and is a short film programmer at SIFF. Downing gives us an image of what it’s like attaining experience with different projects and knowledge about the industry. 

 While working with different project, filmmakers can open unique senses and creative ideas to those specific projects. Many people would think the film industry is a certain category – but surely all those sub-categories like feature films, docs, festivals, commercial work, music videos, etc. are diverse forms of creative deliveries. 

Q: From the many types of videography you do, like commercial work, NGOs, music video, which do you prefer to focus on and why?

CD: They all have their benefits… for music videos, I can focus on the creativity as I don’t have to worry so much about having a perfectly quiet set.  For commercials, I like the challenge of trying to emotionally motivate the viewer within 30 seconds. For NGOs, I like using my skills to make a difference in local and international communities.  If I had to pick, NGO work has some of the hardest challenges but is for, potentially, some of our most important causes. I never tire of seeing such a direct impact from my work as I do while working with NGOs.

Q: What notes would you give to a fresh filmmaker when trying different genres within the industry (like commercial work, documentaries, shorts, music videos, etc.)?

CD: Trying different genres is a good plan. But, also, if all your footage in and around Seattle looks like everyone else’s footage, it’ll be harder to have your work stand out.  I took a year off. I left the country with some compact film equipment to help push myself as a filmmaker but also to produce images that weren’t as common for Seattle filmmakers.  Even my mediocre footage I shot in Central America looked way better than the stuff I previously was proud of in Seattle.

Overall, my advice is contradictory. On one hand, I’m saying it’s about proximity–working to network for more work. On the other hand, I’m saying go far from Seattle to challenge yourself to shoot something radically different. Hopefully, somewhere with this there is some useful advice 🙂

Q: How involved are you with the film festival scene? Why would you say festivals are important? 

CD: I’m the founder of Couch Fest Films, a shorts programmer for SIFF and I’m currently on the jury for the Oaxaca film festival.  I’m failing at hiding how important I think film festivals are.  I’m partial to shorts and shorts film festivals.  So, while we stumble on to buses watching shorts on our phones, I like that festivals provide a richer experience and context for shorts.  Festivals provide an opportunity for filmmakers to have a film-centric targeted market and audience experience for their film. Also, if anything, having a festival deadline gives filmmakers a goal and just the right amount of anxiety to finish their piece.

Traveling to new places for roles in production can be a great opportunity that could help you adapt in new environments and learn from challenges you face. Every place is different and it’s up to you and the crew to adapt to the weather, landscape, local population, time difference, etc. The set could be familiar, but perform in various ways. Traveling for film and working on other sets could bring new insights and lasting experiences that will stick with you. 

Q: You’ve filmed in multiple states and countries – what are some of the differences compared to filming in Seattle area?

CD: When I’m filming outside of Seattle, I have to be even more self-contained.  When I was shooting in Haiti, I couldn’t ask to borrow some AA batteries or assume I could just plug in a charger somewhere.  In Iceland, it was shingle-producing stress knowing I just prepped a grip and camera truck for a huge-budget car commercial that is shooting 8 hours up on a glacier. They are so far out from the warehouse; it’s not an option to have a runner send a cable that I forgot. There was no room for error. The wrong cable for the large HMI light meant the shoot was over.  It was an expensive mistake I never wanted to make. It was like these small missions to mars. Everything was tripled checked. But, even then, I dreaded anytime my phone rung.

Q: What are some differences working with a big TV show like HBO’s Game of Thrones and your freelance work?

CD: While supporting bigger productions, it was amazing to see so many professionals with such complicated equipment seamlessly working so hard to make the beautiful image possible.  It’s also amazing to see how many different colors of gaffer’s tape they have on set.  For freelance work, it’s more common to have a smaller team with the same dedication but being responsible for so many more departments.  On a smaller set, you are more likely to see a production assistant also be the sound operator and make up artist than you would on a larger production. Ultimately, it’s about getting it done. But, it’s nice when you can just focus on one task at a time.

When approached with a new project or idea it’s important to keep an open mind and research the heck out of these new becomings. Be familiar with the data and create a plan to see the goal you need to achieve. Being aware of big obstacles and little snags along the way are just as important. Things will feel more natural and smooth when informed and organized. The trick is to seem effortlessly knowledgeable while thinking of the hundreds of different things that need to be done in the stages of production.  But calling it like it is, things will go wrong and it’s how you carry yourself and your crew by overcoming and learning from these troubles. 

Q: What kind of research strategies/methods do you use when prompted with a new project?

CD: For any project, words are great to describe the end goal but in a visual field, I just ask for a pile of examples and then search out examples to present to the conversation.  This way I have a visual receipt for what the plan is for the project.

Q: What are some complications you’ve had in your production work and how did you overcome them? Scheduling, budgets, postproduction, etc. ?

CD: It wouldn’t be filmmaking if I didn’t have any complications.  A lot of the time, in the beginning, with new clients, it was clarifying the goals within the budget.  If the commercial is 30 seconds long. It doesn’t mean it’ll take us 30 minutes to shoot and edit the final product.

On location, it’s fighting to get good sound.  I remember on the day of a shoot realizing that we were shooting on the day that the Blue Angels were practicing over the house.  Every 60 seconds, a jet plane would make an appearance.  It got to the point where I told the actors to not wait for my call for action but rather to just start as soon as the jet plane had passed. That was their call for action with the small window of time we had to get a good take.

Networking is a filmmaker’s favorite game. These days we want to know everyone and what the new project they’re working on is. Which is a great thing because we should be aware of our surroundings in what’s new or what’s been done. It’s been known we can acquire gigs or get help for personal projects by knowing the right people. It’s about developing relationships for the creative ideas we share with each other. 

Q: How did you get involved with well-known companies like Slate, SXSW, Discovery Channel, Amazon.com? 

CD: It’s funny that you list all those companies. I become involved with these companies all in different ways. For Slate, a journalist saw my pictures in Haiti and was kind enough to ask permission to use them instead of just poaching them for an article.  For SXSW, a friend and I won a local film challenge and SXSW asked us to make their festival bumper.  For Discovery Channel, a friend recommend my work for a project. And, for Amazon, I was temping as a glamorous data entry athlete when someone in my department asked if I knew anyone who did film production.  So, overall, to be honest, for me it has been proximity and networking.  My camera was being as promiscuous as possible.  Sometimes a basic gig lead to something else.  I was working to network and networking to work.

Q: With social media at an all time high, do you think campaign sites are challenging to support film projects? How do you and your production work grow within the media?

CD: It’s two fold… Social media sites need, well, media. So, that means more need for content.  And, I’m happy to help contribute to that need. On the other hand, it’s so accessible that the noise floor is high and I have to work hard to be sure that the quality I produce stands out.

As far as campaign sites, I think it’s empowering that we can have more sovereign choice in what gets produced because we have the chance to help make projects happen that we like. Ultimately, more people can be apart of this stressful and amazing process of making film. I can’t fault people for wanting to be apart of making worthy film projects.

Q: What advice would you give about the film industry?

CD: I don’t know… in a weird way. I’d recommend learning to say ‘no’ more often.  No that budget isn’t realistic.  No I won’t work for free.  No that script isn’t ready.  Well, that sounds kind of terrible.  I suppose I should flip that. I would learn to say ‘yes’ more.  Yes, I will work with realistic budgets.  Yes, I will work for a slightly discounted day rate.  Yes, I think after lots of rewrites that script has a chance. Yes to working where ever you can.  I have discovered lots of opportunities for work while on other projects. It makes sense since you are then surrounded by people that are actively working.

You can find more about Craig Downing here!