Paper Sky Films
Wed, 17 Mar 2021 13:14:04 GMT
Adam Young is the founder and director at Paper Sky Films, a UK-based full-service production company.
Before starting his own company, Adam has produced and directed over 350 short-form projects ranging from campaign films, to documentaries, to music videos and other video-based content.
Since the inception of Paper Sky Films in 2018, Adam has since worked with a range of clients, including Virgin, Universal Music Group, Entertainment One, Island Records, Friends of the Earth and International Rescue Committee.
Here, Adam talks about his lifelong love of filmmaking, his professional journey as a producer and everything that he learned along the way…
I’ve been writing, drawing and creating since I could pick up a pencil. My fascination with the production side of things kicked off from the age of seven when I discovered an old unused camcorder under the stairs, from there I experimented with stop-motion animation and then learned how to edit by connecting the camera itself to our family’s VCR, learning-by-doing via trial and error. The evolution of that progressed to filming friends and family for my own home movies that I would write and direct, it became a hobby that no one else understood, but I was addicted to it.
Coming from a divorced working-class household just outside of Manchester, no one tells you that you can grow up one day to work in production because nobody knows anyone who works in that world; the typical career aspirations that people talk about are trade roles like: engineering, carpentry, plumbing, construction or ‘if you work really hard’ you might become a doctor, teacher or solicitor.
It wasn’t until I was eighteen when a college tutor told me that if I didn’t pursue a career in the production world of TV, film and media, then she would never forgive me. That totally blew my mind: “Are you saying that this thing that I’ve been doing for fun my whole life is an actual career option…?!”
After leaving university, I was waiting on tables and bartending thirty-to-sixty hours a week for two years, between shifts I would ‘work for exposure’, as I tried to build a portfolio of content, then I would endlessly distribute CVs and showreels in hopes that someone would offer me a job.
Around mid-2012, I landed a role as a creative producer for a nationwide charity production company - I spent the following six years as an all-rounder, someone who had to create two campaign projects a month from creation-to-completion, raising awareness for various social issues. It was my first job beyond making drinks and serving food, it felt like the first time in my adult life that I could afford to pay my rent, bills and eat properly all at once.
From there, I steadily grew my confidence as a producer and as a creative - I discovered that I couldn’t just go rogue like I used to, doing whatever I wanted back when I had no one to answer to; I learned that I had to follow a system and workflow, which disciplined me into reshaping how I handled my projects, it created a sense of structure and order that I needed.
I also had a chip on my shoulder and a problem with authority, so I got told off a lot (I've always been 'the naughty kid') so I got better at communicating and also learned when to shut up (still needs improvement), picked my battles where necessary and tried to understand where the other person was coming from, so there was a lot of growing up and maturing happening there as well.
Through my creative producer role, the value in those six years were worth their weight in gold; I made countless mistakes along the way that taught me how to fix and address problems on the go without losing money and time, I also got to witness mistakes and bad decisions made by others, too. I also learned how to navigate large egos and difficult personalities when it came to pitching concepts, discussing ideas and changes and all forms of problem-solving. The role also granted me a lot of creative freedom, so I experimented with ideas and concepts, along the way I found my voice and developed my style, crafting my own signature visual language that separated my work from everyone else’s.
I also had to be resourceful and efficient with every project I made; with the production company being a charity, the budgets were super low and the turnarounds were lightning fast, as the funding was depending on the number of projects we submitted.
After a couple of years, as much as the role shaped me as a producer, as a filmmaker, as a story-teller and as a person; I was totally overworked, underpaid and was completely outgrown in the role. It was time to move on and find some new challenges.
I have so many stories, almost every project comes with some kind of new challenge where I have to completely recalibrate a well-prepared plan and not lose momentum as the ground shifts beneath my feet.
As a producer and director, EVERYTHING is your fault - for better or worse - there are no excuses, it’s all on your watch and maybe with the except of an executive or any ‘higher-up’ authority, the final word ends with you.
One particular story that comes to mind pretty quickly was when I lost a filming location on the very morning of a production. The owner of said location wanted to us to feature his company’s logo in the project on the closing caption card, but we were at the mercy of charity guidelines, which meant ‘no advertising’ and to always remain on neutral ground commercially and politically. Long story short, he didn’t get to plug his company so he denied us access to his building and since it was a freebie from him, we had no real grounds to challenge him on the matter.
Yet, I still had a pile of hired shooting kit, actors, props and everything else that we had already paid for, so I weighed up my options and remembered that in our office building, there were some empty rooms that could be transformed into what we needed. Problem was, the corridors were humming with human activity all day-long and the only way to capture clean audio was to wait for everyone to go home.
With that in mind, I picked up the phone, called all the actors and asked if they were available to start and finish filming later than intended - four out of five said yes, so I had to put some feelers out and find a replacement for the fifth actor. Meanwhile, I ran back to my computer and rewrote the script top-to-bottom, keeping the key message and call-to-action in the material, whilst finding ways to accommodate the changes to suit the new filming location.
By the time the shoot time rolled around, I broke the script down into easy-to-digest chunks so the actors could easily memorise their lines, lit the new environment and framed the shots in a way that would disguise the fact that were in a disused office space and just went from there.
The project got completed on time, without losing money and the client was happy.
Yes, indeed - and I'll explain why: A good producer is a natural problem-solver, their job is to lay down tracks in front of a moving train - whatever happens, it’s their job to roll with the punches and not miss a beat, the entire production rests on their shoulders and they have to at least 'look' like they're in control because everyone looks to them for all the answers, so I think the rules apply wherever you go and whatever you create or work on, all of the same principles are there to be applied.
Now, I’m going to talk out the other side of my mouth and acknowledge that there needs to be some measure of mileage for a producer to put behind them before stepping up to take on projects that require some serious heavy-lifting. I don’t believe in the ‘stay in your lane’ nonsense that folks kept telling me - I love being able to switch from music videos to commercials to documentaries to short films - but I tend to creep into each area first before taking a serious run at something, so I'm not biting off more than I can chew. It’s very easy to be remembered as the person who royally screwed up a project because they took a whack at something they weren’t ready for, a damaged reputation is a long road to come back from.
Creative collaboration. There’s no greater buzz than working with a team of talented people and being able to riff off one another, bouncing around ideas and thoughts until something takes solid shape, watching a creative concept manifest in real-time is so much fun.
Anyone who works in this industry will tell you that there are fewer things more exhausting than a production day - as soon as you step on a set, you can feel the palpable exhaustion hanging over you like a fog of heavy energy; it’s something you can cut with a knife - yet, we’re somehow gluttons for punishment. Despite everything that can and will go wrong during a production, and the stress and tiredness can shave off a good few years from your lifespan, there’s an incredible sense of accomplishment, knowing that you achieved the impossible, by getting through a project and somehow making all of that chaos work for you.
I emerged on the scene during the ‘digital revolution’, which was changing the landscape of production forever; everyone could find ways to get their hands on a decent camera, like a DSLR or even their iPhone, and shoot their own content guerrilla-style with high-quality footage.
The immediacy of shooting, editing and uploading footage on the same day became an incredible luxury, and yet opened the floodgates of possibilities and opportunities for so many, I quickly realised that I had entered an already-busy market that was quickly becoming even more competitive than ever.
As a purist, I do prefer the look of 35mm celluloid - it’s got a texture and aesthetic to it that is hard to match with digital (I try my best to replicate it in post) - but the ease and accessibility of shooting digitally has offered opportunities for people like myself to shoot content independently; “creating the work to get the work”, as I could shoot spec projects to showcase my skills and talents, which could kick-start the next potential gig.
That's literally how I got where I am today.
The ideas and the processes, because all of the best equipment in the world will not compensate for a shoddy concept, poor script and uninspired visuals. If you ask anyone what their favourite advertisement, music video, film or documentary was, then follow it up with ‘why’, they’ll tell you that it’s because of how it makes them feel or how the idea inspires, resonates or moves them in some way.
There’s no substitute for that.
Is it something innate? Yes.
Is it something that can be learned? Also, yes.
Being a natural ‘people person’ goes a long way, since you do have to turn on the ol’ charm to get what you want from folks sometimes. Say, for example, you have a last minute shoot on a Monday and you’re calling around on a Friday evening, with an hour left before ‘finishing time’ and everyone wraps up for the weekend, searching for a location you can afford on a shoestring budget, you’ve got to be a genuinely nice and understanding person. I’ve heard a lot of angry producers unnecessarily tear into some sorry bastard on the other end of the phone for reasons beyond anyone's control, but I find that most individuals will go the extra mile for you if there is a genuine display of gratitude and appreciation for their assistance and expertise.
The stuff you have to learn, however, is how to out-think the problems that fall at your feet every step along the way, because each production brings its own set of problems that are unique to that particular project, and I find that developing the experience is very much like frequent visits to the gym - those muscles will build and strengthen the more you gradually work on them.
But more than anything, solid and intuitive instincts are what make a great producer, those traits sort of sit in the sweet spot between ‘innate’ and ‘learned.’
What’s kind of nuts is that when I started filmmaking as a kid, it was through experimenting with stop-motion animation and exploring my curiosity in how the craft of animation and illustration works, but I never saw myself going back to it as I'm much happier being on set with other creatives.
Yet, I kept seeing briefs that I would have loved to had produced or worked on in some capacity, which were specifically calling out for animators. So I figured, from an artist’s perspective, I’d find some amazing 2D animators who would impress me and have them on board for specific projects that caught my attention.
Given I never saw myself circling back to animation, I most certainly didn’t anticipate Virgin being our first client for animation - not only that, but it happened during a time when the pandemic had interrupted on-set productions altogether and work was drying up, as London clients were playing it safe with London-based production companies. It pretty much resuscitated Paper Sky Films and elevated it in a completely new and fresh way, which set it back on course to bigger and better things.
The challenges for me was the ambitious undertaking of tackling twelve animated short films, to be released throughout the oncoming months of 2021 and produce them remotely with an animator, whilst preparing and developing other projects on the side.
We’ve eventually found our rhythm but I’ve learned so much in terms of how animation has evolved with modern technology and the boundless creative possibilities that it brings. It also came with a new lesson in discipline, regarding how to mindfully write a creative script that accommodates both the animator, the story, the budget and the schedule - understanding that the more we put on screen, the more time and money it’ll take - it’s been difficult but I’m loving the process.
I just can't wait for everyone to see them, it's all very exciting.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to produce and direct feature films and TV shows - so that hasn’t left my line of sight, regardless of what I get up to as a producer and owner of a production company.
The way I see it, every single project I work on is an education for the bigger things that lay in wait further down the road. But for now, I’m just going with the flow, over the years I’ve gotten much better at just trusting the process and enjoying the journey, through all the lessons that I learn, the people that I meet, the projects that we make together and so on; as long as I’m creating, I’m a happy dude.
When I figure that out, I’ll let you know...
In all seriousness: I meditate every morning; I force myself to exercise; I spend time with my girlfriend; I cook; I watch TV or a film; I read, draw and indulge in other creative outlets that are just purely 'for me.'.
But I do find video games are a great escape for me, as it’s both escapism that requires me to interact in some way, so my mind is focusing on some sort of fun task - the only downside is that I lose track of time and have to keep checking the clock so I’m not staying up until 2am on a workday.
Despite all of those things, it is insanely hard to switch off - there’s always something on my mind, I’ve gotten better at accepting that there’s nothing to sweat about until the next day, if there’s no emergency begging for my attention.
I’m someone who loves learning - as a kid, I was a terrible student, I never paid attention in class, my grades and marks were horrendous, the education system had me believing that I was a dumb child that wouldn’t amount to much as everyone was smarter than I was.
But as I got older, I discovered that I was always curious, I just liked to absorb information in my own way and how I understand a complicated issue is through story-telling or interaction, which is what nurtured my skills in engaging with audiences on the same level.
Even if it’s something domestic, like fixing the washing machine, I’m curious to how each part connects to the next and why; the cause and effect of it all, how one thing can’t function without the other. Thinking creatively in a mechanical and technical kind of sense works wonders when a piece of kit fails on set - because technology loves to fail you when time is bleeding away - and you’re trying to work out why.
And if I can’t work out why something isn’t working, I will obsessively pore over the damn thing until I finally understand it.
1) Don’t be a dick. We can never have enough nice people working in this industry.
2) Don’t be cocky. You might be good at what you do, but there’s always someone better out there that you can learn from. Humility and confidence are good, but arrogance and rudeness is insufferable (see point #1).
3) Go out there and do the work, instead of waiting for someone to give it to you. No one likes unpaid work, but do it within reason - it has to be something that you can grow from and also point to as an exhibit for future opportunities to demonstrate your skills and abilities - and make sure that you’re treated fairly along the way. Free work can be beneficial if the project itself adds weight to your portfolio and/or you make some great contacts as a result - be sure that you're not being exploited for someone else's benefit.
4) Be realistic - the competition is tough, so be sure that you’re in the game for the right reasons. You’re going to spend a lot of time working your way up a greasy and crowded ladder, so come at it from a position of passion and love, as opposed to the pursuit of fame and fortune.
5) Keep your ‘B.S Radar’ on, since a lot of people come into this industry from a narcissistic angle; it’s a very glamorous and attractive business, which can pay well if you get where you want to be, but it also means there are a lot of deluded individuals who will tell you all kinds of crazy lies to lure you into a project that will ruin your life until you’re out of it. Be open to collaboration but just be smart about it at the same time (see point #3).
6) You can never learn enough - there’s always something new to learn and someone knows something you don’t. So be a good listener and observer, because every set comes with its share of new experiences and lessons (again, see point #2).
7) Be patient! This is a long, long road you’ve chosen and it’s going to take a lot of mileage to get anywhere that resembles any idea of ‘success’, this is a marathon, not a sprint, you’ll be a better producer when your dream project comes along because of all the hard work you’ve done up until that point (see point #4).
8) Don’t be discouraged but be realistic. I’ve heard a lot of naysayers growing up, whenever I told folks that I wanted to be a filmmaker - it was seen as a pipe-dream, an idea for those whose heads were in the clouds - and I’ve met a lot of people who gave up on their goals because their peers made them believe that it was unachievable. I won’t harp on the old and done-to-death clichés that we always hear, but if you really care about something that you do, then find a way to make it work and then make a living out of it, it’s not going to be easy, but your happiness will out-measure your bank account regardless. But also, be realistic, learn to recognise when something isn’t working and know when to walk away from it - that’s not to say you should give up on your dream altogether, just rethink your methods on how you want to go about it.
9) Don't be afraid to fail, because you'll face more rejections and criticisms than you will success and praise - take in both the negative and positive for learning's sake and building on your character as a person and a professional, but never let yourself feel defeated for not succeeding in something. Dust yourself off, reflect on the situation with some self-awareness, by all means you should wallow if it helps, but there's always the next opportunity and it's all valuable experience (see point #4, #6 and #7).
10) Don't try and be the next <insert legendary filmmaker name here> - just be 'you', your identity as a person and as a producer is like a fingerprint, there's only one version of you and you have your own life stories, experiences, insights, perspectives and flavours as a human being. Go out and make a ton of content, play about, experiment, try new things and then attempt to outdo your last effort to raise the bar in some way. Throughout that process, you'll discover more about who you are as a storyteller and as an individual, that will eventually be your trademark and what makes you unique as you stand out amongst the crowd.
In the production itself, the key ingredients for me are the ‘Three Cs’:
Communication - everyone needs to be on the same page, so clarity and conversations need to happen every step of the way.
Collaboration - the kind that brings out the best ideas in everyone, as David Fincher says to his crew: ‘We are here to participate, not spectate.’ Amazing moments can come from a random thought from anyone, whether that idea came from the actor or the runner.
Culture - this is main one for me, I want the people who work with me or for me to feel safe, heard, included, valued and happy. The job is stressful enough, so I always do my best to maintain a workflow where people aren’t riddled with anxiety and exhaustion because someone’s letting the team down in the someway. Plus, I have zero tolerance for bullies and assholes; I left my old job because I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes from stress, which was caused by a toxic work environment and I dreaded getting out of bed every morning, so I strive for a happy production where the entire crew are eager to work on the next project because they had such a positive experience.
With the client, it’s all about managing expectations and quality control - I’ve done wonders with budgets and time constraints, but I’ve also seen other companies overpromise on unrealistic terms, which then leads a lot of heartache and a soured working relationship, no one wants that - so I try to nip those problems in the bud very early on.
The only answer and the right answer: Communication.
If you’re not communicating clearly and with transparency, things are going to get super messy very quickly. I have witnessed so many problems unfold because the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing and I’ve been in helpless situations where the lack of communication from person A to person B has completely thrown a spanner in the works and the rest of us had to handle the fallout of that mayhem just because someone neglected to send a simple email or make a quick phone call.
Communication, kids! People aren’t mind-readers.
I’m a producer who loves to be behind the camera, but I’m also the guy who has to communicate with the clients, the crew and everyone else involved, so I’m constantly switching various hats suited to whichever role I’m needed for.
I know I keep circling back to it, but ‘communication’ and knowing ‘how’ to communicate is what makes or breaks a production company, let alone a production. If someone disagrees with me or anyone else on something, I want to hear why and I will do my best to listen and hear their point-of-view, then I work out a way to navigate everyone back to a common ground where all parties are happy. Of course, the client is the one we’re trying to please first and foremost, but now and again, sharing a creative perspective on why we make a certain creative decision can realign the client’s outlook and help them see what you’re seeing and then we're on the same page.
With the right approach, there’s always a way to reconcile all of those moving parts and keep a well-oiled machine up and running, but as I said before - everything is my fault, so what comes and what goes, I have to take responsibility for all of it, that’s the job I signed up for.
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Genres: PeoplePaper Sky Films, Wed, 17 Mar 2021 13:14:04 GMT