Loving Life In Film With Director Matthew Harmer

Welcome everyone to another Monday morning here on The What Now Blog and an exciting new addition to my interview series. Today I chat with Matt Harmer, a film Director from the Creative Agency, Nice and Serious.

Photograph: Matthew Harmer

Photograph: Matthew Harmer

Nice and Serious are an ethically driven agency using a multitude of media, design and film to produce creative and engaging content that is designed to be nice but to also tackle serious issues that we should all be made aware of. Tackling subjects that cover society, the environment and the economy in a creative and influential way.

Having built a career in film production and TV, working his way up through various roles whilst learning his craft, Matt has now been with the company for over five years and today shares his story, some tips for getting started in the industry as well as his thoughts on the importance of maintaining a good work-life balance.

 

Hi Matthew, could you begin by letting us know what is it that drew you into the world of film and cinematography?

This is something I often think about myself,  because I actually started out in a very different field. In hindsight it was more of an evolution than an active decision.

From a young age I loved David Attenborough nature documentaries, which meant I naturally leant towards biology at school and found it to be my favourite subject. At university I studied Marine and Environmental Biology, with the idea that I’d become a researcher and live my life working on a beach! Sadly, the harsh reality of what a career in science can be like really changed my mind. As I approached the end of my degree, I realised I didn’t want to spend my life in a lab, climbing the academic ladder.

Looking back on my younger days though, I definitely always had an obsession with Hollywood films and a passion for photography, even if it was taking pictures with my little compact camera. At the time I just considered this as a hobby rather than something I could do for a career. I guess because my school was very academic, and I was stronger at sciences, I was never really encouraged to pursue an artistic career path. On reflection that seems odd, when I consider that both of my parents work in creative professions.

How did you set about training and getting involved in the work that you do?

Around the time I was finishing my Marine Biology degree, and having a rather cliche crisis about what I wanted to do with my life, two friends, who were also on my degree course, were the having the same dilemma. I’m not sure who spotted it first, but one of us noticed that Imperial College London was offering a Masters in Science Media Production. This seemed ideal since I was still really interested in marine biology and liked the idea of using my scientific background in some way, but needed some extra training or education to open up different career paths.

The course was a real mix of subjects; varying from the history of science and communications, to radio production and, of course, filmmaking. It was structured in such a way that you could really tailor it to what you wanted to get out of it. Of course, I mainly focused on the filmmaking modules.

One of the main benefits of taking the course was the contacts it had within the media industry, allowing access to valuable work experience opportunities. I managed to get some work experience in a few television production companies, and then started to climb the TV ladder from there working in various roles, starting out the usual way as a runner. I then joined Nice and Serious as it was starting up and have worked here for over 5 years now.

Photograph: Matthew Harmer

Photograph: Matthew Harmer

Could you tell us a little more about the work that you do at Nice and Serious and the idea behind what the agency do?

I now work as a Director but my roles have varied over the years, simply due to the nature of a growing company. At some stage I’ve done most things; producing, account managing, editing, photography and camera operating. I’m actually pretty glad I got to experience all of this, as I think it gives you an appreciation of how the whole process works and what your colleagues do on a day-to-day basis. I occasionally still pick up the camera and shoot films, but nowadays I’m trying to focus on just directing. As the company grows, and people’s roles become more specific, I want to make sure I’m really focused on my role and making the best films possible.

Nice and Serious was started by two people I met on the Imperial course; Tom Tapper and Ben Meaker. They had studied environmental biology, and at the time felt sustainability wasn’t being communicated in the right way in order to engage the public. They thought that people were being turned off by the way climate change and sustainability was being portrayed, so they started Nice and Serious to change this. To communicate serious issues in a nice way. At the start we only made films, however 6 years later, we like to use many creative means to make people care about important issues from film to animation, websites, infographics and design.

You've spoken about having a real passion for your career - that it doesn’t feel like a job as such because you love it so much, something a lot of us would love to emulate. What is it that you love so much about your work?

It’s true, sometimes I wonder how I managed to get paid for doing something I enjoy so much!

I don’t think I’ve ever had that feeling of not wanting to go to work. Every Sunday night I look forward to coming in on Monday morning, and when I go on holiday (which is rare!) I get excited about coming back to catch up on my projects again.

It’s hard to identify why I feel this way. I’ll be honest, this sector isn’t the most well paid in the industry, but then I’ve never really been driven by money - more by creating the best work possible and using this to have a positive impact on the world. Whilst working in TV, some of the shows I worked on felt a bit shallow and pointless. Now I feel like the effort I put in has a direct impact not only on the quality of the final film, but also a positive impact on the audience. It’s a very motivating feeling, but it can also be frustrating when things don't go to plan.

The other reason is the people. I’m lucky to work with some of my closest friends, who I’ve known for many years, as well as an incredibly fun and passionate team. There’s a great culture at Nice and Serious, almost like a family, which is unlike anywhere else I’ve worked. Making it an absolute joy to come into the studio every day.

Overall I have quite strong feelings when it comes to work. Even at a young age I always tried to look at it quite rationally. It’s something you spend the majority of your day doing, for the majority of your life, so why would do something that you don’t enjoy?

Photograph: Matthew Harmer

Photograph: Matthew Harmer

Are there any particular challenges and difficulties that you face in the work that you do and how do you handle this?

Don’t get me wrong, while I love my job, it’s not without it’s challenges. There are long hours when deadlines are close, tough shoots working under extreme conditions. Such as filming on a tuna boat in the pacific, or in a sweaty Ivorian Rainforest. Plus we’ve had some pretty hairy situations in countries that aren’t what you’d call 'secure'. However this is all part and parcel of the job and when you know you’re making exciting content, it doesn’t really bother you too much!

One of the main issues can be the budgets we have to work with as they are generally lower in this industry. This can get pretty frustrating when you’re working on ambitious concepts and want to make the best films possible. Sometimes you have to accept that you can’t make the film you’d like to, but more often than not it just means you have to work harder at making the film to compensate for the budget constraint.

On the plus side, sometimes this has lead to us trying some new techniques which have been a real success. Techniques we probably wouldn't have tried if we’d had more money.

What is it that really drives and motivates you on a daily basis and how do you keep this momentum when feeling under pressure?

100% it’s the work, the films I make. I’m obsessed with films, and if I’m not working on films, I’m watching them or reading about how to make them better.

I think this is the case with most people working in creative industries; it’s not about a desire for money, lifestyle, or power, it’s about being inspired by an idea and working hard to see it come to life.

Of course it’s easy to take it a little personally sometimes, because you’ve put part of yourself into the work. This can be difficult when your client wants to change things that you don’t agree with. But generally, when you’ve got a good concept, everyone gets behind it and your desire to produce a great final product keeps you going.

The other big factor is the people that you work with. It’s motivating to work with a great team that want to create exciting content, it makes a real difference. We’re all working towards the same goal, pushing each other to make something fresh that will engage people. These are the things that keep me motivated.

Do you believe in maintaining a good work-life balance and if so how do you personally try to achieve this?

I really do believe in having a good work-life balance, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed with your work.

There are times when work takes over my life, like when I’m away on a multiple day shoot, but then it’s important to take some time out when it’s all over. Step back and reconnect with your life, whether it’s catching up with friends, your hobbies, or just getting some exercise. It’s not just for your own health - it’s easy to burn out and make yourself ill - but it’s also because it gives you better perspective on your work.

It’s easy to get buried by projects, become obsessed by the little things and lose perspective on what you’re trying to achieve. When I take some time to do something completely different at the end of the day, like sport, yoga, or even just watching TV, I often come back to my work with a much clearer head and have the ability to think about it more creatively. Particularly for what I do. I find that the other things I experience in my life often provide inspiration for work, keeping me in touch with what’s happening in society and modern culture.

Most importantly though, I think maintaining that balance is the key to enjoying your work. If I was in a position where my career was stopping me from doing other things I enjoy, I worry that I’d start to resent it.

Photograph: Matthew Harmer

Photograph: Matthew Harmer

For anyone interested in following such a career path can you offer any starting advice that perhaps you wish you’d been given early in your own career?

Figuring out what job you want to do is one of the hardest challenges in life, and something you really should take your time with. In fact it’s something I’m still trying to figure out myself as my role at Nice and Serious evolves.

  • My first piece of advice would be to try as many different roles as possible. Work out what you enjoy and don’t enjoy. When I started out in TV, I had no idea which particular role or genre would be right for me, so rather than trying to progress in one company, or on one type of show, I tried a variety of roles. While this meant I didn’t progress as fast, it meant I soon found out what part of the industry interested me the most and stopped me from going down a career path I would’ve been unsatisfied with.
  • Secondly, the old cliche is most definitely true;  it’s who you know, not what you know. There isn’t really any education that can truly prepare you for working in TV and media, the mixed skill set you need and the hours you have to work. Everyone starts in the industry with no clue about what they’re doing. People tend to hire you on personal recommendations, and re-hire you on your work ethic and attitude. A Director once told me everyone messes up and makes mistakes when they start out, but your team will always forgive you if they like you and the attitude you bring to the job. Therefore my advice would be make sure you’re the hardest working person on the job and the most positive - no one likes a moaner! Take the time to get to know everyone.
  • Thirdly, and more generally, it’s important not to panic and succumb to the pressure of needing to have a certain job at a certain point in your life. Do your own thing and find your own way. Just because parents or friends have achieved certain career goals by a certain age, it doesn’t mean you have to. The key is finding a job you’re happy to do in the long term, because you’re going to spend most of your life doing it. Plus don't be afraid to walk away from the wrong job. There were a few times early on in my career where I was doing a job I hated and knew wasn’t going to take me in a direction I wanted to go. So I decided to start looking for a new job that would suit me, even if it meant dropping down a role or earning less money. At the end of the day, it’s better to be at the beginning of the right path, than half way down the wrong one!
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and do some manual labour to pay the bills. At the start I did some pretty low paid (and sometime unpaid) jobs in the TV industry  because I knew they were good for my career and would give me the skills I needed. This also meant doing part-time bar and restaurant jobs to get by at times. It can feel a bit soul destroying. You have to have faith that one day you’ll have climbed that ladder and be getting paid to do a job you love.

 

Thank you to Matt for such great advice and an intriguing look into the world of film and media. There are many points here that ring very true especially when it comes to pursuing work that you love and remembering to balance it with life to ensure you never come to resent it. I hope, like me, you will take away a lot of positive inspiration from todays post and many thanks for tuning in and reading.

 

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