Field Notes #99: Ray Tsang, Filmmaker

Invest in yourself.

Craving a career that would help change the world, Ray Tsang uprooted life as he knew it and made the switch from finance to filmmaking.  Despite this unconventional entrance into the film world, Tsang has trail blazed the industry, along with his wife Joyce, and made a mark for himself as an extremely successful filmmaker.  In the hopes that some of his wisdom would rub off on us, we asked h Ray to speak to developing relationships, making films you’re passionate about and how he spreads compassion through storytelling with his new film company, Only Today.

Think back to the beginning of your career. How did you get into the filmmaking industry?

Ray Tsang: Filmmaking was a big career change. I have a background in finance, and my wife and business partner, Joyce, was an engineer. But both of us craved careers that would let us use our creativity to make a larger impact on the world.

We serendipitously stumbled upon filmmaking as a means to do that. While searching for videographers for our wedding, we found a production company called Stillmotion, and were struck by their captivating work and dedication to always putting story first. We thought, “We want to do that, too.”

After returning from our honeymoon in 2009, Joyce and I were ready for a change. We immediately left our careers and jumped into filmmaking with no formal training, but a lot of passion and a willingness to learn anything and everything we could!

What’s the most valuable self-taught skill you have? How did you teach yourself to do it?

RT: Over time, I’ve taught myself how to connect with people. I’m a natural introvert. But if you want to tell stories and make a living as a filmmaker, you have to engage with others. I pushed myself into uncomfortable scenarios to grow, doing everything from leading filmmaking workshops, teaching at universities and speaking at large industry conferences.

Challenging myself to do those talks and workshops made me a better filmmaker, because I had to make sure I knew my stuff and practiced it regularly. In the process, I developed my communication skills, which are invaluable for building businesses and developing relationships.

What challenges do you feel filmmakers are often faced with? Do you feel you’ve successfully determined a method to overcome them? If so, what is your method and how did you come to this conclusion?  

RT: After meeting thousands of filmmakers around the world, I find that most face one of two challenges. There are those with the skills and drive to excel, but they can’t find work. And there are others who are great at finding work, but they aren’t interested in the projects they’re landing.

If this rings true to you, here’s my advice: First, determine the stories you want to tell. Make a list of your dream projects. Second, share those dreams with the world—let people know what kind of work you want to do so you can attract the clients and projects you want. Third, know your numbers. If you’re going into filmmaking full-time, learn what it takes to run a business, from knowing your bottom line to making solid contracts. Fourth, invest in your clients. Landing the rates and projects you want comes down to developing a relationship with your clients. That means setting clear expectations about the filmmaking process and being an excellent communicator. If you fail to do this, you’ll get resistance on your bids and proposals.

Lastly, invest in yourself. Film school and workshops can only take you so far — you need to get your hands dirty and shoot, edit, fail, and shoot again. Find stories to shoot and work on as many productions as you can. Seven years and more than 300 projects later, I wouldn’t say I have it all figured out. But applying these principles has helped me consistently work on meaningful projects and keep our pipeline full.

Tell us a little more about Only Today. What inspired you to start the company? What surprises did you come across when starting your own film company?

RT: Only Today is a result of refocusing my purpose as a filmmaker. About two years ago, I was burnt out from a  four year run of non-stop shoots that, even though they earned our team over a dozen Emmys, just weren’t fulfilling. I left my career in finance so I could use creativity to help make the world a better place, but I wasn’t working towards that goal. I saw and still see the social problems that surround us: poverty, inequality, lack of healthcare and so many more.

To try and tackle these global challenges, I started Only Today with my co-founder, Alex Alvarado. From the very beginning, I was taken aback at how many people, brands and companies connected with our vision. In fact, Facebook was one of our earliest clients and they trusted us to produce a series of films that focused on spreading social good. To date, we’ve filmed over 30 stories for them that very much aligns with our mission and goals as a company, which is pretty amazing.

Just Say Hello: A story about the power to create change with just one word. 

What’s your one most important company values?

RT: We place a huge value on the people we bring on board. It’s important to us to work with people who believe in our mission and care about authenticity. In this industry, the team you send out to interact with your clients and talent is the strongest representation of your company values.

In your opinion, what makes a good story? How do you find new stories to tell?

A good story hooks you with a conflict to get the audience invested in your characters. It might sound cliché,  but it’s the key to all of the great stories of our time. It can be really difficult to identify a conflict -- they don’t have to be negative, but they should at least pose a question to the audience to get them rooting for your characters.

Finding a good story starts with knowing what kind of stories you care about in the first place. Are you inspired by a social issue? Maybe you want to share a personal struggle and triumph? You can even concoct a fictional sci-fi narrative. No matter what story you want to tell, figure out what you want to say to the world. And when you find the right story, go after it! Tell an amazing story, share it and it will increase your chances of finding more projects along that line.

Thinking back to when you started all this, is there anything you wish you would have known? What advice would you give to someone who is starting their own film company?

Looking back, I wish I had put myself out there more often. I’ve realized that no matter how talented or gear savvy you think you are, it’s really difficult to continue learning and running a sustainable business unless you can share your ideas, work and passions with a group of like-minded filmmakers.

To build up a great network, find two or three forums or online groups and join in on conversations. Attend in-person meetups, and invest in workshops and conventions. You don’t have to make 300 friends, but you might make five or 10 -- and those people will help you grow your craft and your business.

What’s coming up next for you and Only Today?

RT: Only Today is just six months old, but I’ve spent the last seven years working to get to this point. Now, we have a great team, amazing clients and a clear company mission: to create and share stories that will make a significant impact in the world. This is also guided by two of our principles: Put people first. Use storytelling for good.

Brands such as Facebook, Lyft, CBS Sports, Apple and Showtime have believed in our work and mission early on, and we love working with them to spread compassion through through storytelling. Moving forward, we’re excited to connect with and work with foundations and initiatives that are tackling pressing social issues domestically and on a global scale! We think that if we can make even one film that changes a life, then all that effort is worth it -- but our goal is to help hundreds, if not millions, of people around the world.

Posted on October 3, 2016 and filed under Field Notes, Filmmaking.