Simon realized the impact filmmaking has had on him while in the forest one day with a friend. While they stood just 10 feet away, a group of 20 hikers walked by, oblivious to the two men. He understood then how myopic people can be — and how filmmaking opens up a person to what’s going on around them.
Timelapse, for instance, showed him that the things we consider constant aren’t. “Movement, change, is going on all the time. With timelapse, you see time at work,” he says. His macro work has taught him the wonder of looking more closely at things — like the time he filmed ants for a few days, watching them fight. Both this large-scale vision and macro-level sensitivity have guided Simon’s philosophy, in his life and his filmmaking.
Wasting no time
Simon’s filmmaking career started early. At 14, he was on his way from home in the Black Forest in Germany to New Zealand to join an international conservation program. Since then, he’s participated in the Global Changemakers Summit and the Google Zeitgeist Young Minds Program and won the German Conservation Award. His filmmaking has taken him to Serbia, Romania, South Africa, the Amazon, Ethiopia, Japan, and South Sudan. Simon is also in the Class of 2017 for Forbes 30 Under 30 — Europe, The Arts.
And he’s only 23.
After graduating high school, Simon wasted no time in founding his own film production company. While that sounds like a bold move for a teenager, he says it was the best time to do it. “It’s the only time in your life where you have nothing to lose. As you get older, you build up more: a house, children, family, people to care about … responsibility,” he reflects. “The more pressures you have, the greater the necessity to make money, and the less risk you take.”
So, still living with his parents and with no financial burdens, he set up his business. “My mindset was that if it didn’t work out, I could just stop after two years and go study anyway.”
Simon’s biggest challenge in building his business has been time management. In the beginning, he was doing a lot of things himself. “It was a nightmare one year — just work work work. I took too many jobs. I worked endlessly to get them done on time and to a high quality.”
Four years later though, he’s learned what he’s capable of doing and how to say no, confidently. “To learn to say no is the biggest thing.” That and the fact that although Simon thought he could spend more time on his art than the business, it’s the opposite: he’s learned that to have a good business, you must spend more time on the business.
So what did he do? Started another business, of course.
The camera as a tool for change
In May 2014, Simon co-founded FairFilm Productions, a film and photo production collective that makes inspiring films that will change the world for the better. “I came to filmmaking through social and environmental projects,” explains Simon. “It’s all about making a difference.” The camera has always been the tool with which Simon makes that difference, helping organizations share their message. “There are so many NGOs doing great work, but because they aren’t focused on communicating that work, they need help.”
FairFilm donates time for one or two projects a year, making films for NGOs at cost and forfeiting the team’s own salaries. The team of 15 decides which they’ll do, selecting the ones they believe they can help to make the biggest difference. So far, they’ve produced about 40 short films and photo series.
Righting the wrongs
In the last two years, Simon has been working with Greenpeace photographer Markus Mauthe on a long-term documentary project profiling seven tribes around the world. Markus has opened Simon’s eyes. “At first I didn’t take Markus seriously when he told me all the things that go wrong,” says Simon. “But the more I travel with him, the more I realize how messed up things are in so many parts of the world.”
In 2016, Simon and Markus traveled to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, where tribal land is being sold to foreign investors, while water is being taken from the river for industrial agriculture, destroying people’s lives in the process. “It was super crazy. There was more military than civilians,” he says. “They are trying their best to keep the bad news from getting out of the country.” Simon had smuggled in a drone, but with military around the dam for 10 miles, they could barely fly it. The crew also routinely got stopped and questioned. “It was hard to film anything,” Simon recalls.
Despite the challenges and risks, Simon knows it’s all worth it. “There are so many stories that need to be told, and I want to go as far as I can to tell them.” His goal is to get people talking about the issues. “A lot of companies that we support here at home contribute to the destruction of the planet,” he points out. “Consumers could make a difference, if only they knew what was going on.”
He’s always broadening his own horizons too. On a 2016 trip to the Amazon, Simon lived with indigenous tribes for four weeks. This is a culture that’s been in touch with the rest of the world for only 30 or 40 years, so it’s a unique mix of traditional and contemporary. “It was inspiring to interview these people and get to know their culture,” says Simon, “and awesome to experience how they live and feel about the world.”
On stock, and taking risks
Simon got into stock footage because of Dissolve’s Liftoff program. “I had ‘stock footage’ on my to-do list for two years. I’d make appointments with myself to do it. But other things always got in the way.” Recently, he had only two weeks between a shoot in Japan and another in South Sudan. “I couldn’t have dreamt up the metadata and done all the trimming and color grading in that time,” he says. “So the first thing I do when I’m back from a shoot is upload it to Dissolve. It takes an hour or two, then I’m done. They do all the rest.”
While most of Simon’s stock still comes from client projects, his stock footage business has changed the way he shoots. Now, when he’s working on a client project, he’ll go with stock in mind and shoot more than he needs. Eventually though, he’d like to do more exclusively stock shoots. He likes the creative freedom it allows. Without expectations from a client, Simon takes more risks. “I have a feeling my videos are better without that pressure.” And being able to take risks is kind of a big deal when you’re an adventure seeker like Simon.
What adventures lie ahead …
In his career, Simon has had the opportunity to work on many projects in faraway places, “crazy places.” Whereas he once felt that the farther away he was, the bigger the adventure and the greater the story, he’s starting to rethink that. So while he wants to make more films and tell bigger stories, he doesn’t think they need to be so far-flung.
“It sounds odd, but even with all the traveling, my adventures at home are as awesome as the ones far away,” he says. For example, this winter, he made three ski trips close to home with his girlfriend. Each day, they were up the mountain before sunrise. “You’d think it would be the same each day, but every morning was totally unique and amazing in its own way — it was the best way to start the day.” Simon felt happier in those moments than on some of his faraway adventures, reminding him that the biggest adventure can be right in front of you.
What’s in Simon’s gear bag?
His bag is an 18-L backpack, so his gear list is getting shorter all the time:
- Sony A7S II, Sony RX 100 Mark IV
- Lenses: 18mm f/2.8, 35mm f/1.4, 70-200mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4
- Zhiyun-Tech Crane
- DJI Mavic
Simon licenses his clips on Dissolve under the name Black Forest Collective. See them here — it’s exclusive to Dissolve. Check out his website, and follow him on Vimeo, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.