Denver based filmmaker Mike Shum has been a member of the StudioNow Creative Network since February 2012. As a filmmaker, Mike divides his talents between journalistic documentary work and commercial work. Mike is a contributor for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, The Weather Channel, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Economist as well as one half of Fox Tale Films.
StudioNow: Why don’t we start with what you are up to these days Mike. What type of projects take up the bulk of your time?
Mike Shum: It’s hard to say. I divide my time between working on developing, filming and producing feature documentaries, news documentaries, and commercial projects. I just completed 3 full days of covering Tropical Storm Bill for The Weather Channel in the Gulf Coast area and Houston TX. Before that I was in Sheffield and London, UK developing a feature documentary. So it ranges from week to week it seems.
SN: What would you say is your filmmaking style? What distinctly sets you apart from others?
MS: I like to think that my filmmaking style centers around intimate portraits of people. The space between camera and character feel almost like confessionals — sacred spaces for emotions to dwell. Whether this be an interview or following a character through a screenplay I make sure I do my best to feel the essence of the story I’m telling and then build from there. So I try to think like an editor when I’m filming. When I latch onto a compelling vehicle or character I film details both micro and macro that contribute to the intimacy of the story.
SN: What camera are you shooting on currently and why?
MS: I work with a range of cameras but I generally shoot on a Canon C300 and a 5D Mark III as a backup. Recently however, I’ve been working with DoPs shooting on the Sony series cameras: FS700, FS7 and A7. I like these kinds of cameras — the high quality, smaller body cameras. It’s because we live in an age where we can shoot the most awe-inspiring imagery in the most remote locations now. We couldn’t do this before. I enjoy how far we’ve come in quality video capability and our ability to take these cameras into interesting and more dynamic situations.
SN: Are you working on any projects right now that you are particularly excited about?
MS: I am very proud and honored to be working as a producer and the DoP on a feature documentary about famed war photographer, Chris Hondros. He served as witness to more than a decade of strife and conflict before he was killed in combat in Libya in April, 2011. I’m excited about this film because it’s a project that shows how the world can be approached in the media — with genuine empathy. I didn’t know Chris Hondros personally but being a part of this production has taught me about the meaning of global citizenry and the role that journalists can and should play in the world today.
SN: You have recently done some work for The New York Times, USA Today, and CNN. What is it like working for such prominent news outlets?
MS: I’m fortunate enough to have relationships with these institutions and moreover being able to contribute to the narrative these outlets are crafting. Admittedly though, these relationships can be complicated. On the one hand I enjoy knowing my work is being watched by thousands of viewers. At the same time, I don’t always agree with how the narrative is portrayed but as long as the stories I’m trying to get out there gets covered I’m satisfied. I feel honored to know these prominent news outlets respect my work. So it feels good to be working with these folks.
SN: You seem to split your talents between both journalistic documentary work and commercial work. What is distinctly different about shooting each of these forms of media? Is there any crossover between the two and has one influenced how you approach the other?
MS: I think the clearest distinction is the latitude in how I’m able to tell stories. In journalistic documentary work I have clear boundaries I set for myself to maintain the integrity of the stories I’m portraying. This is because I believe in journalism and the idea that it is our job to bear witness to what unfolds before us in this world. If I get a story right I do little to shoot the story in a way that would impact viewers because for the most part the story should be compelling as is.
That’s what I love about the commercial work. I’m able to bring a wide range of creative values to more or less test and experiment on the audience to see what works and doesn’t. However, the symbiotic relationship between working in these two realms clearly exists for me. There are times I can use some of the commercial creative ways of presenting a story and apply it to journalistic documentary work and vice versa. In essence I value both as ways of building and evolving both crafts.
SN: Your journalism efforts have taken you all over the world and put you in some crazy situations. What’s the most dangerous situation you have ever been in?
MS: It’s difficult to pinpoint the most dangerous situation primarily because I’ve been fortunate enough to make it out of these places alive and well and it’s hard to discern which event was the most dangerous. I can say being in Libya during the fall of Tripoli in 2011 was one of the more stressful and intense experiences I’ve had in my career.
SN: How has journalism and documentary work shaped your style as a filmmaker? In what ways does it influence how you tell stories?
MS: Journalism and documentary work constantly teaches me that I have to be adaptable to constantly changing situations and environments while filmmaking. While, it’s the role of a filmmaker and more specifically a director, to make decisions and take control, oftentimes I have to discern when I’m in control and when I’m simply along for the ride. Understanding these aspects have afforded me opportunities to tell incredible stories. In a way, this work reminds me that storytelling at its strongest is a symbiotic relationship between subject and storyteller.
SN: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to someone who is considering shooting a film in a hostile environment?
MS: Best advice is to simply don’t do it. Though, if someone is truly intent on working in hostile environments, I suggest making sure you do it for the right reasons and be honest with yourself. With this honesty comes incredible responsibility to understand the necessary safety that goes into this kind of work. Do your best to be prepared. Do ample research on these places. Take a Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT) course and battlefield medical training. Like I said before, sometimes you’re in control and other times you’re simply along for the ride. So make sure you’re prepared if the ride gets rough.
SN: What inspires you?
MS: This is also a difficult question. It’s easy and kind of a cop out to say, “everything inspires me” or “my family, colleagues, and loved ones”. I think filmmaking is invariably tied to feeling. There is no precise method to evoking emotion in a viewer. You simply have to feel the edit out to know when it works or doesn’t. So one of the simplest ways to feel inspired is listening to incredibly compelling music. Whether this is listening to the Temptations, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, or TV on the Radio, music is a B-line to my heart. So tapping into that while brainstorming can be incredibly inspiring.