Creative Growth with Ryan Booth
Looking for tips to break into—and succeed in—the film industry, even without a traditional film background? Just ask Ryan Booth.
Booth, who got his start as an audio engineer, transitioned to film after winning a contest sponsored by Canon and Vimeo. After a showcasing at Sundance, Ryan catapulted into the industry and hasn't looked back. He’s done just about everything since. From shooting live music events through SerialBox Presents to commercials with 150+ member crews to filming a documentary, A World Unseen, about making Academy Award-winning film The Revenant, Booth has established himself as a powerhouse.
Ever gracious, Booth was willing to share his insights and wisdom with the greater creative community. Read on below for gems from Ryan Booth on how to grow as a maker, find stellar teammates, and overcome on-set obstacles. And be sure to check out our free eBook with Booth about bringing a music video concept to life below.
Although Ryan Booth’s name now draws knowing nods from filmmakers around the world, Booth didn’t always share his work. He entered the image-making realm as a photographer, and was at first overwhelmed by the challenges of video. “Trying to take a still and translate it to a motion environment where you have to add another dimension, which is time, is incredibly complex and daunting,” says Booth.
How did he learn the nuances of managing all the moving parts? He learned on-set and on-site by diving into the craft. “For the first two years, I basically said yes to every single project,” he says. Confidence came slowly to Booth, who says that for the first two years of his filmmaking practice, he shared his work with no one.
Slowly, as Booth built his skills, his final projects began to reflect his original ideas. He started putting his work out to the public. “Ira Glass talks about the gap between the thing you can see in your head versus what actually comes out when you’re working,” says Booth. “I’ve been closing that gap over the last few years, and as that happens showing more and more work.” Now, Booth says that his yearly reels reflect about 75% of the projects he shot in the past year.
But Booth didn’t get to where he is all by himself. He’s built up a team of trusted on-call filmmaking pals to support him—and some of them even started out working with him for free. When Booth was a novice filmmaker, he says, “The first thing I did was call all my filmmaker friends—I live in Houston, Texas—and say how in the world do you shoot video.” They banded together to conceptualize and film SerialBox Presents, a live concert event series. The personal project took off, leading to professional development for Booth, and to lasting relationships. “I’ve worked with [these guys] on literally dozens and dozens of projects,” says Booth. “It took me 3 years to find guys that I really clicked with, but once you do, that’s it.”
Those strong bonds frequently come into play, especially when a project has high stakes—like when Booth worked as a DP on the documentary A World Unseen, a look at Alejandro Inarritu’s process of filming The Revenant. “Once you get in a situation where Alejandro Inarritu is going to be watching the stuff that you’re making and you have 5 people driving around North Dakota, jumping out and seeing what you can pick up, you need to know that the guys you’ve got with you are going to help you look your best.”
How does Booth successfully and gracefully manage a team, even under pressure? “Learning how to work with people and manage expectations is a big part of being a filmmaker,” he says. “At the end of the day, the stuff that we all watch that we’re really inspired by is generally made by the directors and producers that had to keep 50 or 70 people on the same page at any given time. Learning how to manage those relationships is a huge part of progressing as a filmmaker.”
Although Booth has experience leading all kinds of crews, even ones that are a hundred people strong, he doesn’t want the team’s size to affect a film’s quality. “For me, my goal would be that when you’re watching everything you have no idea when it’s a 100 person crew versus when it’s a 5 person crew,” he says. Achieving consistent quality and high production value despite crew size pays off, too, and will have a positive snowball effect. “That is one way you get hired a bunch, especially when you’re starting out,” says Booth. “Even the cooler jobs will have smaller crews. I think if you can find a way to make something look very expensive even if it wasn’t necessarily very expensive, that leads to bigger and bigger jobs and bigger and bigger crews.”
Plus, if you’re just starting out, being responsible for a large team can be stressful. “Big crews are really exciting for a moment, but they’re mostly terrifying,” Booth points out. Luckily for Booth, he has what it takes to direct a team in setting up and flawlessly orchestrating a large-scale production, like on a recent project with 6 different sets that had to be lit and filmed in just one day.
If you’re just getting your feet wet and aren’t quite at that level, you can get a crew to work for free, says Booth. Just make sure you reward them with something for their time and efforts—whether it’s tangible or experiential. Before starting a personal project, make sure everyone is on board. “You as a leader of a project have to cast a vision that people are interested in and want to be a part of,” says Booth.
Providing a takeaway will motivate people to actually do their best to bring your project to life. “There has to be something for everyone that’s on set that they can take away, whether that be shots that can go on their reel that will look amazing or watching a private concert,” says Booth. “Whether you create an experience that’s tangible or something for them to take away, there has to be some kind of mutual exchange.”
Booth has other advice for up-and-coming filmmakers, especially those like him who took a non-traditional path into the industry. “I always joke around that I paid my dues in the wrong industry,” says Booth of the 5 years he spent working at a recording studio before moving to filmmaking full-time. He is completely self-taught. “I didn’t come up with traditional film school,” says Booth. “I found out that a camera that I was shooting stills with had video. So I basically reverse-engineered my way into building and creating things.” The filmmaker says the learning process was difficult, but by constantly doing new work, he was able to grow and learn.
Ultimately, says Booth, filmmakers have to strike a balance between finding projects that will pay the bills and projects that will motivate you to keep creating. “It’s hard to start out,” Booth admits. “It’s hard to find the right projects to push things forward and not just be paying the bills. Because if you’re just paying the bills all of the time, not only are you burnt out, but your career stalls because your work doesn’t have the thing that people can look at and say ‘Whoa, this is incredible.’” Booth has been able to find a happy medium, taking on commercial work without sacrificing his commitment to creative shorts, narratives, and features. His work, undoubtedly, always has a “whoa” factor.