Creating A Movie By Picking Up A Camera – with Melissa Pierce

by Tim Jahn on April 15, 2011

Melissa Pierce is the creator of the film Life In Perpetual Beta.  She wasn’t a filmmaker before she created this documentary.  I invited Melissa here to learn why she created the film, how she funded it, and how she actually went about creating the film without knowing much about filmmaking to begin with.


Tim Jahn: So for those that don’t know, what is Life in Perpetual Beta? You want to give me that good old elevator pitch?

Melissa Pierce: I’m ready. Life in Perpetual Beta is a documentary film series, and interview documentary film series about how technology has changed our culture. And right now it’s focusing on how its changed people, its made them more creative, more spontaneous and able to express more authentically; you know be all of the parts of themselves that they are online.

Tim Jahn: And in a previous life, you were a life coach and I don’t recall any film making experience in your past before this project. How did you become a filmmaker all of a sudden?

Melissa Pierce: I picked up a camera. That’s kind of how it happened. I picked up a camera, I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t call myself a filmmaker until about a year and a half into it, I was like, “Holy crap, this is what I do for a living now.” So I was just interested and knew that people would give me the time of day if I said I was making a documentary. So I hoisted a camera up on my shoulder and made it happen.

Tim Jahn: That’s awesome. And just went out and do it. That’s my spirit, just do it. I always say, Nike was on to something, we don’t give them enough credit.

Melissa Pierce: Truth. That’s absolutely true.

Tim Jahn: When you decided to go out and do, you decided that I’m going to start interviewing people for this documentary about what I’m curious about here or what you were curious about, what was the first step that you did in terms of execution? What was that first action?

Melissa Pierce: Lets see, my — the first action for me is always to build the site. I have to really conceptualize something before I can put it out it there. So after I made the idea — and actually it was and idea with a lot of people and they just kind of dropped off after a while. They’re like, “Eh, this isn’t for us.” I said, “Oh I got to make the website.” And I think a lot of people do that. They buy a domain and they make the website before they put anything up. And I needed to visualize what it was going to be like and for me that’s creating either with my hands or on the computer.

Tim Jahn: That’s interesting. I mean, because you were creating something different. You weren’t creating like a tech company or anything, you were creating a film. And your first step was actually to create an outpost to almost distribute and inform about that film before you even started making the film.

Melissa Pierce: I — yeah I guess so, I guess that was. And I didn’t — at the time I probably didn’t see it as an outpost, just like anything, any project I do now I’ve got to make the website for it because I have to see what it looks like to be able to understand how to communicate about it. It’s just — you know it’s just the way I’m built. But yeah, I was.

Tim Jahn: So when you made the website to help you visualize what the film was going to be is that when you, like is that what you did with the website? Did you start like outlining maybe the different people you wanted to interview or did you use the website to source interviews and ask people what they would like to see in the film? Or I guess how did you use the website to visualize like you’re explaining?

Melissa Pierce: I used the website to visually put the ideas of the film in place. So the original website, which I’ll find a picture and send it to you. The original website was just a photograph of a piece of paper with a bunch of ideas scribbled out and erased and I just put them in order. So it just helped me put my mind in order. To source interviews, no, I did that, I want to say I did that old school but I did that by email. So I didn’t — I still didn’t know who I was going to interview or what I was going do or how I was going to even go about making the film, but I knew kind of what the film was going to be about by the time I was finished making the website, making the idea visually.

Tim Jahn: I’m curious, did you have any plans for how you were going to distribute it or where it would reside? Because I, you know back when I would do video production a few years ago for clients, it would always go to DVD, we would assume that there would have to be a DVD authoring process afterward. But nowadays everything I do goes straight to the web, it’s for someone’s website, it goes on YouTube. We don’t even think about putting it on DVD. When you were making this film, were you thinking ahead saying, “Okay, this is definitely just going online or I’m going to make DVD’s too or where I’m going to put this when it’s done.”

Melissa Pierce: I thought about making DVD’s. And I was like, “Where would those be? Where would those go?” I actually wanted to just stick them as like writers inside Entrepreneur Magazine or something. I thought that would be the coolest thing. Right, if I could just —

Tim Jahn: That would be, that would be.

Melissa Pierce: I just want — it still would. I mean I should just call them up and be like, “You need to stick these in your magazine and just give them to people for free.” But I really, I really focused mostly on just making the movie. I had no idea about distribution. And it scared me a little to think about it so I didn’t think about. I was just like, “I’m going to make this movie and then we’ll cross the bridge when we get to it.”

Tim Jahn: That makes sense. I mean, it’s such a — I mean, you were just learning this as you go along. I don’t imagine that you were going to plan out the whole thing from the beginning. So I, I was watching another interview with you and someone brought up a great question that I want to explore because I am a new parent, I have a kid that seven months old now.

And you have three kids yourself and they are you know not, older than seven months so I can only imagine what they’re going to bring down the road when they’re that age. But how did you start this? In my mind a pretty grand project with three kids around the house? Because you were homeschooling too? How do you even balance that?

Melissa Pierce: I made this film at what I like to call a work at naptime. So when I started making the film I was homeschooling my 14 year old who’s now turning 16 or was he, I don’t know how old he was, three years ago, 13? Great, now you can really see what kind of parent I really am.

Tim Jahn: Including the teenage years.

Melissa Pierce: Right. It was awful. But he had kind of lost his wonder. So I started homeschooling him and kind of you know I made the film with that thought that here’s a kid who’s lost his wonder, I’m going to find people who have and kind of show him what’s happening in the world. But he was pretty good. So when I was editing, he was doing homework or pursuing his interests.

But I didn’t do any of my work when my, well I do anyway, do any of my work when my other children were awake. So at the time, the two youngest were still napping so I had two or three hours a day where I could work. So really I like to tell people, I made this film in 12 hours of my time a week that’s all the time I had. Twelve hours a week about to make a film. So it wasn’t a huge project, it was just small step by small step by small step.

Tim Jahn: Did you find — this is something I found since having a child is that those two or three hours you have, you really learn to maximize that time. Like I think about before I had a kid, I didn’t — the same two hours, I wouldn’t get anything done. Did you find that even though you only had 12 precious hours a week to devote to this, that you got a really good amount of work done because you only had 12 hours?

Melissa Pierce: You look back and you see that’s a lot of work. But at the time, it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. You know it might take me two weeks to get up one interview blog post. And it’s like, holy crap, this is taking forever.

But yeah, you get a lot done. And you, you have to put in the ramp up time, the time where your mind is just getting ready to get things started knowing that you’re going to have this tiny amount to actually do some work before you have to close it down and try to remind yourself next time what’s happening. Working during naptime or during those tiny parts is a lot like “Memento” where you’ve got to spend half the time putting the tattoo on your body so you don’t forget doing the day before.

Tim Jahn: That’s such a great movie. I’m glad you referenced that. That whole idea just brings — because I always hear that the idea of constraint you know can actually improve and amplify creativity when you have these constraints on your project that you actually can be more creative. And there’s two sides of that argument. But, this idea of working during naptime really makes me think were you actually becoming more creative and really getting really cool more stuff done because you had that simple constraint on your environment?

Melissa Pierce: I would say yes. I mean, I even did this with my coaching clients. You know because the world was so big it stifled them, they’re like, where do I start, where do I start? I was like, well, start in this little tiny thing.

You know Twitter is a perfect example of that. It’s 140 characters and you’ve got to be able to shrink an idea down to fit there and get the whole essence of it. So it does help you be more creative in those constraints. Because it’s hard for people to envision what the, what to say when they have everything at their fingertips. And we really do, but we have to put ourselves in these tiny boxes to be able to bust out of them if that makes any sense.

Tim Jahn: I like that, I’m writing that down.

Melissa Pierce: You got it recorded on video.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, but this way I don’t have to go look for it. So you decided you’re going to make this film about like you said you almost find — I like how you said that finding wonder or you know you lost your wonder and you want to re-find your wonder. So you’re going to go make this film, you’re going to go interview people, you got a camera so that you have an excuse and they’re going to talk to you. But you interviewed people all over so I mean, you weren’t just here in Chicago, you had to fly places. I’m sure you incurred expenses along the way. Films are expensive even if you’re just distributing digitally. Films end up, you know the bill starts running up. How did you fund this thing?

Melissa Pierce: When I started traveling, people were like, “Well how can we help you because we know you’re making this on your own?” At the point where I just started traveling and stopping, catching people as they came through Chicago. You know at the point I started traveling, people were like, “How can we help you, how can we help you?” So I came up with this harebrained scheme where I was like, “You know what, you send me 20, 30 bucks, I’ll put you in the film credits as a production consultant.” Didn’t even know what that actually meant, it just sounded cool. And said, “And I’ll send you a T-shirt.”

So people started sending money to my Paypal and started joining me on Tuesday nights for what I call the Tuesday night edit where people would come through and I would edit whatever video I was working on, on Tuesday nights and they would come on ustream and hang out with me while I edited and tell me what they thought or we’d chat about something unrelated. But this is actually how I made enough money to travel. Later on when the film was in postproduction, we put up a Kickstarter, which was great and got just enough pay for some of the professional camera work that was done and pay for the audio editing, which was so necessary. It still doesn’t sound that good because it’s made by an amateur who had no idea that audio was such a big part of making a film. But it’s pretty good.

Tim Jahn: You mentioned — actually I was going to ask you that you didn’t use Kickstarter at first. Was it — I can’t remember how old Kickstarter is. Was it not around when you first started this or you didn’t even have the idea or were you just kind of thinking organically anyway that you were just going to do it through your network?

Melissa Pierce: I’m not sure it was around or not. But I wasn’t aware of it. I was just going to do it through my network. I had — you know all of the interviews were sourced through my network, some of the questions were sourced — and when I started I didn’t have a network. It was just people became interested in what I was doing and they were passionate about the same thing as I was passionate about. So after a time, I built up these friendships and followings and just all these people who were in my corner and I was in there’s.

And so we made this film kind of together. And they gave me money and I went out and interviewed the people that they said, “You’ve got to interview this person. If you want to interview people about creativity, you need to go interview these people. If you want to interview about technology, you’ve got to interview this guy.” So it was a pretty amazing co-creation of a film. You know my names on it as a producer side and you look at the credits and you see of the production consultants and the big thank yous.

All of those people helped me make this film. And I don’t think without even, without even one of them not helping how they did either with moral or monetary support, the film would have been made at all. It was pretty amazing.

Tim Jahn: That is amazing. You almost have to have like a giant like either in person or virtual party with everyone.

Melissa Pierce: You know I do. I do, we should set that up.

Tim Jahn: Yeah. I want to go back. You said that you would do Tuesday night edits where people, you would ustream live stream, you editing little parts of the film and people would come and chat and kind of watch you and just participate. Editing is not the most exciting activity to watch someone do.

I know from experience, it’s really not much fun. How did you get people to come and watch you and kind of interact in that activity? I mean, you had to have created something so cool or you’re just a really cool person, which we both know. But beyond that, what did you create there that had people coming every Tuesday night kind of hang out with you and watch you edit a film?

Melissa Pierce: Well sometimes they didn’t come on Tuesday nights. Let’s just be honest about that. It’s not like they came every Tuesday night and it was on their calendar. But if they had time, they came and hung out. But you know these were people who were invested in the film, they were invested emotionally or whatever. And they were interviews no one had seen before.

So they aren’t up on the blog or so it was you know when I edited the Seth Godin interview, no one had seen it. Only people who had joined me on Tuesday night edits would have seen that entire interview. It was just me, the cameraperson, Seth and whoever joined on the Tuesday night edit of that video. So they go something that no one else was getting. And still to this day, no one else has gotten to see that full interview. They’ve just seen you know two or three minute snips of it. And so that was great. And of course you know I’m a cool person and you want to hang out, but you know we talked about everything and a lot of times someone from the video industry would come on and they would be like, “Oh Melissa, you know you could do this in final cut and make this transition smoother.” See that was great.

Tim Jahn: You were almost learning and improving your craft at the same time.

Melissa Pierce: Right. It was very fun. I kind of miss doing that. I should probably do that some more.

Tim Jahn: Well yeah, so you’ve premiered the film in person, you have, it is now available online for people to view. What is your plan going forward? Was this a complete project and now you’ve moved on to a, or started a new project or is this something ongoing? What are you doing going forward with it?

Melissa Pierce: So the film part that’s out now, version 1.0 is, we’re calling it version 1.0, we being the royal me. Because I’m a little addicted to interviewing people. And you know as you see technology changes, people and just certain aspects of their personality then you see that its changed a lot of things. So right now I have four interviews in the hopper that I haven’t put up on the production blog. And I’ll just continue to interview and continue to collect interviews and collect stories and then edit them together when the time is appropriate.

Because you know I interviewed 45 people Tim and only 25 made the first film. That doesn’t mean that they are not amazing interviews, they just didn’t fit in that particular film but they might fit in the next one. So the next one is more on, much more based on identity, personal identity, gender identity, education and kind of how all of those things, how we’re changing, how we perceive ourselves as ourselves. Not certain aspects of ourselves but as a whole.

Tim Jahn: So, okay, so in a sense — okay, so you’ve already filmed a bunch of interviews. So I mean, a lot of the work coming up might be more post production related to editing and compiling the footage together. Have you noticed though — I’m curious, I’ve noticed with what I do with Beyond the Pedway over the past two years, I’ve developed so many systems to kind of what I call streamline my workflow of how I create the videos, how I create the content, how I source the content to the point where what used to take me five or six hours to produce, now takes one to two hours. Have you noticed through your past two years of doing Live of Perpetual Beta that going forward now with this next version 2.0 you’re going to have some systems in place where you can kind of accomplish more with a little less effort, maybe a little less time?

Melissa Pierce: I don’t know. Because those first interviews, I just like chopped them and put them up and they were easy and that took the least amount of time. I think I’m still in the middle of this process where it’s not more streamlined. I have much more attention to detail. You know I see the little things and I take time to fix them. So I don’t know if it’s taking less time.

It’s certainly going to look more beautiful. It’s fun to go back and look at the old interviews and go, “Holy crap, I cant believe I let people see that.” A little bit now even with the 40-minute film, I was just like, “Wow” because I edited that a year ago. You know I’m just like, “Wow, how did I ever let this be out in the world?” And then I have to remember, this is the part that people really gravitate towards.

It’s that all the luminaries and CEO’s and artists that interviewed were really amazing people but the part that they identify with is just this, this is just another person like them going out and making something regardless of the fact that she had no idea to (fades out) how to (fades out) and on that part that that feels genuine to them. So I try not to mess with that too much. But I’m sure the streamlining with come. Since that time, I found a virtual assistant company and they really helped me keep things on track. So that’s good. But I don’t think I spend any less time on it. I certainly spend a lot more of my attention on making sure that it looks good.

Tim Jahn: That actually brings me to my last question is you mentioned people really identify with that you’re someone that had no experience, went out and created this thing from scratch and created something really cool from scratch. What is your advice for a fellow creative entrepreneur who is looking to the same thing, they’re looking to create something, they have this idea and they don’t have any experience doing that specific creation. What’s your one piece of advice for them?

Melissa Pierce: Oh, just go out and do it. I mean that would of course be my one piece of advice would be just go, go out and do it. Don’t take too much time finding out everything you can before you do it. Start doing it and learn on the way. And find people who are interested in the same thing. This is the great thing about the web right, because you can find that one percent of the population who is interested in finding black cats with (fades out) ear or whatever it is that you’re interested in pursuing. You’re going to be able to find that one percent of the population that is as passionate as you are about it. So go out and do it, go out and find people that are passionate about the same things and just blaze a trail. It’s a fantastic experience.

(photo credit)

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