Gary Young gave up a career in drumming — and a gorgeous motorbike — so he could make movies. But with features, documentaries, music videos, a Sundance selection, and hundreds of commercials for some of the world’s top brands on his c.v., he has no regrets.
From drumming to directing
Although he didn’t pick up a camera till he was in his 30s, Gary Young has been drawn to film — especially its storytelling powers — since he was 9. After school, he drifted, drumming professionally for 12 years. But during that time, he started getting drawn back into film. “I wanted to make videos for the bands I was in. So that’s what I did.”
Gary left his band and enrolled in the film school at Bournemouth and Poole College, where he specialized in cinematography. In this hands-on school, students were encouraged to make as many films as they could, which was difficult. “So I sold my motorbike … it was gorgeous,” he remembers. That paid for a short film he wrote, directed, shot … everything. It did really well (for a short, he qualifies), getting picked up and distributed by Channel 4. By the time he graduated, Gary was 35 and had made five or six films.
His big break came with a call from the 18-year-old assistant to the editor on his last school film. They needed help with lighting on a couple of music videos. Gary offered to shoot it all. Ever since, the assistant and Gary have worked together on most of Gary’s projects — features, documentaries, and more than 100 commercials.
What feeds him
Gary’s portfolio includes commercials for Honda, MasterCard, McDonald’s, and Weight Watchers, among other major brands. He loves advertising work for how it challenges a filmmaker to tell a story in 30 seconds. “It’s quite hard. You can’t waste a frame, literally,” he says.
However, his work in advertising is mostly about affording him the luxury of passion projects, the ones that are “such good fun but very difficult to make money with.” Gary figures he spends two to three months a year on commercial work, giving him the time, and money, to work on the rest. “Commercials feed us,” he says. “Then we go off and do the rest of our work. I’m so lucky that way.”
Gary quickly discovered that the difference between a commercial and a feature-length film is massive. “I can’t describe the learning curve. It’s vertical,” he says. “The scale is huge — there’s nowhere to hide, so you’d better be good. Every single flaw is magnified by a thousand.” According to Gary, until you’ve made a feature film, you haven’t really made a film.
His current project has been four years in the making. It’s a documentary about the demolition of “sick building” schools for the blind and deaf in Finland and the process of rebuilding one school for both. He’d like to say it will be out this year, but expects 2017 is more realistic. Along with his own projects, where he’s allowed complete artistic freedom, this documentary is Gary’s favorite kind of project: “Doing real stuff where you get something back. That’s the thing I get a kick from.”
On poetic realism and cutting through the noise
Gary likes to recreate reality but “capture that realism poetically” — shooting real situations more cinematically. To achieve this, he aims to become invisible, so the subject forgets the camera, forgets the person behind the camera. This helps the performer perform and, more importantly, doesn’t distract the viewer with the camera’s movement. “With good cinematography, you shouldn’t be aware of the camera,” Gary explains. “If camera movement becomes more important than the action, you’ve failed.”
And at a time when everybody is an artist, a storyteller, a photographer, a filmmaker, how do you cut through that noise and rise above? “You have to be good. It’s that simple,” Gary says. “The competition has never scared me in the slightest because you have to be really good — but that’s the hard bit.”
On photography and the van factor
Gary is also a photographer, but it’s not a commercial endeavor for him. “Photography is purely a passion,” he explains. “It’s such a personal thing. I don’t take commissions for it. As soon as you start to think about making money from something, it becomes completely different.”
He has an exhibition coming up — a series on homeless people, shot in medium format. Because Gary likes to keep things real, he would simply approach them on the street, “guerrilla style,” spending about four minutes taking five shots of each person. He believes that orchestrating stuff just gets in the way. “It’s more important that you get on with people.” He calls this the van factor, something he learned at film school: Can you stand to be cooped up in a van with a person for seven or eight hours? If you can’t, why?
The “real estate” of stock
Did Gary ever see himself shooting stock footage? “Not at all,” he says, “but I stumbled upon Dissolve. It seemed to be more passionate, the footage more cinematic. I thought I’d try it.”
It’s working out nicely. Between jobs, he allocates three or four days per month to shoot stock. He likes to do the cutting and color grading himself, then he uploads the clips under the Liftoff program, where Dissolve’s in-house production team handles all metadata and descriptions — the nemesis of so many filmmakers. In a good month, he is uploading 100 to 200 video clips to Dissolve.
Gary thinks of his stock footage as real estate. “Once you’ve shot it and it’s done, you don’t have to do anything with it. If you keep doing it well and adding to it, it can become a nice little stream of revenue.” And, as one should with any investment, Gary is playing it smart, shooting content he knows people like. For example, a woman he once worked with is a dog walker. Figuring people like dogs, he took her and her dogs out for a shoot one day. She also has horses. Those are up next.
Gary often works with local models, making a showreel for their own portfolio.
The perils of shooting a music video in Nigeria
In 2000/2001, Gary headed to Nigeria to shoot a music video for Fat Cat Records. “It was insanity,” he recalls. They were deep in the jungle, which presented its own challenges, like when they needed a light tower but had none … until men pulled out their machetes and started chopping trees. Ten hours later, they had a 40-foot scaffold tower, sturdy enough to put a 100+ pound 18k light on it.
Other challenges included a team fraught with illness and a region fraught with corruption. Bribes were de rigueur. “We were getting on airplanes we shouldn’t be getting on.” Sadly, two people on the local crew died in a car accident heading home after a long night of shooting. “It was pretty scary,” says Gary. “I was glad to get out of there.”
- A camera
- A lens
- An idea — “The most important. Without that, you have nothing.”