Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

How Personal Work Can Further Your Career

My bread and butter comes from the commercial world. And I love what I do! I get the opportunity to travel, meet new people, and learn about a myriad of industries. However, as lucky as I am to be doing what I love for my profession, there have been times in my career where I have felt uninspired, or under-challenged by the work that I am doing. To get through these dry spells, I turn to personal work. And each time I do personal work, I find it pushes me and opens up new opportunities for my career. Here is how you can use personal work to further what you do.

Before we dive into it, you may be asking, "What exactly do you mean by personal work?" A definition is in order. Personal work is an endeavor that you pursue based on your own agenda as a direct result of the desire to create, experiment, or learn. It is not an endeavor that is based on turning a profit, or being financially successful. (If it is a financial success that is an added benefit). This can be just about anything: a short film, a documentary, an experimental film, a spec piece, a lighting test, or even stock footage.

Regardless of the form that it takes, the goal of personal work is to provide an outlet for creativity, experimentation, and learning. If you keep these values at the forefront of the personal work you do, then it will always be a beneficial experience for you and for your career.

Now here are some specific tips on how you can use this work to further your career:

1. Use Your Personal Work To Push Your Technique
In my own career, I have found that the bigger the budget the production has, the more that is at risk, and the more important it becomes to deliver predictable results. And while I enjoy working on properly budgeted productions, it results in less room to experiment and less room for failure.

That same pressure doesn't exist in personal work. This is why I highly recommend using your personal work to really push yourself and not play it safe. This is the time to really work on your technique and skills by going past what you are comfortable with. And it is also the time to try out new methods or approaches to how you work.
Experimenting With Key Side Fill
I have done this a lot in the stock footage that I produce. Each shoot that I do is an experiment, and an opportunity for me to try something new. Sometimes I am trying out a new lighting technique. Other times it is a camera movement, framing choice, composition, or experiment with blocking. The point for me is to push myself and my skills beyond where they are, and to fail without the pressure of a paying client.

Failure is important. At least it is for me, as that is when I learn the most. Success only reinforces what I already know. By pushing yourself when no one else is looking, you will be more confident, knowledgable, and experienced on future jobs. You'll be able to deliver when the pressure is on and the stakes are high.

The side benefit of selling the footage I create in my personal work is that I can generate income off of my experiments, off of my failures. This, in turn, helps to fund more experiments and more personal work. :)

2. Use Your Personal Work To Learn A New Skill
Working in this industry is a catch 22. No one wants to hire you to do work unless you can prove that you have done it. Personal work is the best opportunity to learn a new skill, and then to develop that skill so that you can prove that you have the experience.

If you are interested in adding a skill like grading or editing to your tool set, then spend time developing it on your personal projects. While the importance of having a mentor and getting training cannot be overlooked, there comes a time when you need to put knowledge into action.

Over time, as you develop your skills through practice on your personal work, you will get to the place where you can add it to your offering and start charging for that skill.

3. Use Your Personal Work To Collaborate With New People
One of the toughest obstacles to completing personal work is that there is little-to-no money in it. Without a budget, it is going to be tough to be able to work with your regular crew. Maybe you'll get lucky and everyone's availability and interest will align. However, the reality is, that will seldom be the case. So use this opportunity to collaborate with new people. But always give the people you work with regularly the right of first refusal- that is the courteous and professional thing to do.

As you are doing your personal projects, I highly recommend finding people who are of like-mind; find people who want to experiment and grow. If you can develop a group of people like this, then it will make your personal project that much easier to complete as you will all be helping each other out from time to time.
On The Set Of Blackstar Warrior
The more people you know, the larger your network grows and the bigger your base of referrals becomes. And, as you know more people, you'll have a larger pool of people to call upon when projects come your way- assuming that your regular crew is not available of course. :)

4. Use Your Personal Work To Reinvigorate Your Passion For Life
One of the quickest ways to put a dent in the growth of your career is to lose your passion. I would love to say that every job I take on is one that resonates with the core of who I am. But that isn't the truth. While I enjoy the commercials I'm shooting, and the people I work with, the majority of what pays the bills are projects that I am not deeply connected to.

As visual artists, it is important that we have a passion for life, as that passion, or the lack of, will translate directly through our work. This is where personal work is crucial. If your day in and day out work is not providing you with the inspiration you need to excel at your craft, then go out and create it on your own.

When you are invigorated and excited about your work, you'll not only produce better work on your personal project, but it will spill out into the rest of the work you do. And that will make you more marketable.

Do you do personal work? If not why? How has personal work benefited your career?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
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