CullyBuzz – Q-A Freelance Filmmaker: Mara Whitehead Claim

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A creator of music videos, Mara Whitehead has been attuned to the rhythm of freelance filmmaking for three years. Her films and photo diary showcase her experience and passion within every frame of her work.

She dispenses the details of her professional growth to Artist 365. So dreamers, take note.

When starting out, artists tend to start with small rates. Or they complete low-paid labor and/or start out in film school to build a portfolio and a standing in their art community, in your case, a film community. Did you start out doing low-paid/free labor to build your portfolio and reputation? How did you start getting paid for your films?
I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between music and visual expression and started making videos for my friends or anyone with a song that would give me a chance. It was often low to no budget; there were a few times where I paid out-of-pocket to fund something simply because I was passionate about the concept and wanted to see it to completion. Once I started to find my voice and style, I felt more grounded in my work and more confident to pitch my concepts. It takes time to get paid in a creative field; but once you build a strong network and portfolio, you can pitch more concepts which can lead to more funded projects, which ultimately leads to getting paid.

Some mistakes that starting filmmakers make is to overwork themselves for low-pay. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you overworked yourself for something so little or a dissatisfying outcome?
When I first started freelancing in film, I took any entry-level job I could get. Once, I had gotten an online posting job and ended up getting paid $80 for a 14-hour day on a random music video set. By the end, I was drained physically and spiritually and had little to show for it. Of course, when you are starting out, you have to be willing to try new things to see if it’s a fit, but I slowly started to look for these types of jobs:

  1. Passion projects: Whether it be an inspiring concept or a chance to travel, these jobs you will do because you love and they will fulfill you on a deeper level.
  2. Paid projects: These jobs pay your rent.
  3. Projects for friends/colleagues: This is a great chance to support and collaborate with people that you care about. Whether for a dear friend or a respected colleague, taking favor jobs (paid or unpaid) helps you stay involved in your creative community and create a network of people who support each other.

This may not be the right model for everyone, but in general, it’s important to reflect on what you gain and what value you add to a project.

As a director of music videos, you do have a cast and crew to look after. How do you calculate your rates to accommodate your equipment and cast and crew and you need to pay the bills?
Budgeting is managed by the producer and I work closely with him/her to make sure my creative goals will be met within the budget. With low-budget projects, I always want the creative and the crew to come first. This is why I try to find a variety of jobs that meet my needs in different ways. Some jobs I do because I love, and some jobs I do because it gives me income. I think there is a very organic cycle in the freelance world. Sometimes it gets slow, but right when you think you’re broke, something comes along.

As an artist slowly gain footing in the community, they can increase their rates as their worth grows. How did you calculate your own worth over the years?
I’m actually still trying to figure this out, but I have learned that the most important thing you can do is value yourself. If you don’t value your own worth, then other people won’t. This doesn’t necessarily mean putting a dollar amount to your name but rather, exploring what it means to really honor your work and yourself in your daily life and interactions. It varies for every project, but it really is about weighing your added and gained value. You have to be willing to ask for what you need and be willing to walk away if it doesn’t feel right. Before you accept a job, really understand the time commitment and make sure that there is a mutual understanding of the trade.

Did you encounter any client disagreements with your rates? If so, how have you negotiated? Have you ever done any discounts?
People look at photographers and think “Hey! I have a camera, I can take pictures too. Why should I pay this guy?” Many people don’t understand that those who work in a creative field have dedicated their lives to studying, understanding, and manifesting content in their medium. It isn’t just about picking up a camera. It is about intuition, your eye, your perspective, your understanding of the world around you and the origins of an art form. Every video I make feels like a piece of a puzzle, and every moment in my life has been leading up to that story and creation. I approach each job with an understanding and willingness to be transparent. It’s important to have honest conversations about the parameters of the projects and your own needs to come to an agreement. I don’t really consider them “discounts.” Rather, I’m fluid and willing to work with a client to meet all needs if my heart is really in the project.

Have you ever crowdsource funded your films? Have you ever had a project where you felt under-budgeted? If so, how did you work with it?
Haha. I feel under-budgeted all the time. But I trust that if this is the work I’m supposed to do, it will grow and expand. I crowdsourced a few films when I was in school and it was really successful. It is cool to see the ways in which your community will support you. There are many funny tricks to cut costs and that really is what low-budget projects are all about. Sometimes, I would spend days driving around to places to see if we could film for free or collect bags of day-old bagels so I could feed the crew. One time, we couldn’t afford a dolly, so we used a skateboard. Low-budget projects are totally doable. People do them every day. It just requires more time, energy, and creative producing.

What are your financial goals in the future of your film making?
Ultimately, my dream is that the projects that I love and fulfill me are also the projects that pay my bills. I’ve got to observe really talented directors at work and I’ve noticed a trend: When a director is being paid fairly, they are able to commit themselves full-heartedly to their work and be totally present in the creative process. It is very physically, mentally, and emotionally draining work, and when they are done, they can re-energize without having to worry about figuring out another way to make ends meet. To me, that is what success looks like.


Artist365 Scriber Caroline Cao

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