Sean Donnelly is a well-established filmmaker and has directed music videos for Bo Burnham, MC Lars, We The Kings, and a concert film for Billy Joel. He also did the animation for the feature documentary Waiting For Superman. His commercial list is lengthy as well including AOL, Scion, VH1, MSN, and many others.
Sean moved from Northern California to New York after high school to pursue filmmaking and animation as a career. He attended NYU for their film program and currently lives in New York. Read on to hear about how Sean got to where he is today starting from grade school all the way through his college years.
Rob Marcacci: When did you first know you were interested in the arts?
Sean Donnelly: I think a lot of people, when in school, just like to doodle a lot. There was this kid in my class who was really good and he was always drawing. I wanted to get better so I could draw stuff like him. Then when I was in middle school I started to make these interactive projects.
When I was in eighth grade I asked my parents for a video camera for Christmas. I got a video camera that was a high 8 camera and I used it like crazy. I know a lot of kids get video cameras when they are young and barely use them. I would do little stop motion animation along with filming random stuff with friends. It would usually be plots that were really silly. We filmed everything. I have just tons and tons of tapes of old high-8.
I kept doing that until high school and got much better at animating. After that I went to film school and just kept improving.
RM: What made you decide to go to film school in New York as opposed to Los Angeles?
SD: I used to live in Northern California and we would always have a No Cal/So Cal thing going on. LA seemed very different, like a whole other world to me. It seemed fake and mainly dealing with the Hollywood business. And New York seemed like a really cool place to be. I do think there is a difference in the mentality of NYU versus USC or somewhere near LA. I think USC, because it is near the film industry, has a lot of people that want to get out and work on studio movies. Their teachers probably work in the industry and it’s geared more to make a sellable screenplay. I feel that the people that come out of NYU are more auteur like Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese. It’s people that might not be as commercial at first and then maybe sometimes they get picked out. The school is more open for people doing there own thing and less of the student being a success or sellable.
Also, USC owns your films when you make them. I don’t think it matters too much because student films don’t make much money but it seemed weird to me. I think I was just attracted to being in New York instead of California. I started out not even in the film school. I think when you talk about people getting their start I can tell you a small anecdote that might find its way in there. I went to a prep high school that was not focused on the arts but more of getting into big colleges. So I took art class there and got really into it. I took AP Art and made an animation for the class. I knew I wanted to go do that kind of thing in college in a film school or something. But my college councilor said, “NYU is a really hard school to get into and you shouldn’t apply because your grades aren’t good enough. But they do have this other program that you can apply to.” Then he said “I wouldn’t apply to film school because that is really hard to get into. I would apply for the regular school and just secure a major later on and then maybe transfer if you still want to.” So I applied. But I think it was really bad advice but listened to him because he was my advisor. Then I ended up getting into a part of NYU that is called General Studies. You just take liberal arts classes and then you can transfer to another part of NYU after two years.
After being in that school, the time came to transfer over and I still wanted to go to film school. They told me I had to submit a film, art, photos, or something artistic to show them my talent. I submitted the animated film I made in high school for my AP Art class. It was already two years old at that point but I submitted it anyway. I was the first person from general studies to be informed that I got into film school. I think most people hadn’t done a lot of filmmaking or animation. I had a two minute animated movie that wasn’t anything amazing but it was not too bad.
It made me realize that if I had used that in high school I would have gotten into film school for sure because they seemed to respond to it. I think it is the age-old lesson of not listening to people. Once I did learned that lesson and I was at NYU, there were these two classes that you take that are the higher end film classes. One is called Narrative and one is called Advanced. If you get a spot in the class you are not guaranteed to make a movie; the teacher picks only half the class. The other half of the class has to pick another class and is unable to make a movie.
My advisor at NYU told me to take that class because a lot of people do not get to make their movies while at the school. I was more fired up from my other advisor and listening to him. That made me want to take the class anyway. I guess it is a good lesson to learn. If you are that easily persuaded by one person telling you not to do something and you don’t do it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it anyway. But if you are passionate enough to ignore them its probably good. I think in a way it was a good lesson to learn. Now when people tell me I cant do something or I shouldn’t do something it just makes me want to do it even more.
RM: Did you start out doing a lot of animation in school and when did you start doing live action?
SD: I was always doing live action and animation as a kid even before film school. Back in high school I was always doing both. In NYU it was the same major for film and animation. I took all the film classes. I was mostly a film major but I took only two animation classes. I was in between. I wasn’t quite like all the kids that loved animation in that group. I was doing my own thing. And then the people into film history that loved seeing every film ever, I wasn’t really there either. I was in no man’s land in between the two.
That’s when I started making music videos that were mixed with live action and animation. I guess animation just seemed like a more employable skill. To get paid to direct live action is pretty hard but to get paid to animate something is not as hard. I fell into that and started doing more animation because it paid more. I’ve gotten jobs directing live action too. I like to keep a balance. I don’t like to do one or the other more really.
RM: After you graduated, what was your first project?
SD: Basically, I think I learned a lot of things later on. NYU is very much about spending a year or more on one short film. That means spending a lot of money on a short film. The kids there spent about one hundred thousand dollars on a short film. They would shoot them on 35mm film, include all these crazy jib shots, and fancy lighting. But then the scripts would be really bad. So they would look amazing but be very boring.
It just seemed like a bad plan. They were grooming everyone to be a superstar director but a lot of these people were not going to be superstar directors. It seemed that focusing two years on a short film, there’s a good chance that short film is not actually going to get you a job. Then what are you going to do?
I realized that after my junior year spending a long time on my short; I learned a lot but my short wasn’t great. It played at some random film festivals but I realized that I wasn’t sure what kind of job I wanted when I got out of there. Then I realized my perfect realistic job would be to direct music videos and commercials, along with animation.
Then I immediately made a music video to show that I am capable of doing that. My friends were in a band and I made them a music video. I spent about a month on it. After that video, I saw a bulletin on the NYU campus for some reggeton band looking for a music video director. I then made that video.
After that I became friends with the guys that started Waverly Films. They have done a lot of bigger music videos, including a couple Fatboy Slim videos. I sent them the two smaller videos that I made. They liked the reggeton video, and even though it was completely ridiculous, they hired me to do a video with them for Son of Abraham. Then I worked with John again on a Spinto Band video for the song “Oh Mandy.” And it got nominated for an MVP award.
One thing leads to the next thing, leads to the next thing and so on. I do think that I realized earlier on that I wanted a job doing music videos or animation. So I started at the very beginning of my senior year building towards that. Instead of making one big short film I made smaller music videos and more so test projects.
Then when I got out of school I started getting these jobs just to pay my rent. I never wanted to get a real job and to have to work 9 to 5. I think some good advice for people is to live as cheaply as possible if you want the same thing. I got the most ghetto apartment in New York and lived with a school teacher and another girl. My rent was about $150 a month including utilities. Especially for New York that is not too bad. I would get a job for animation or some basic job doing titles and I would get paid $1500 to do it. Then I could pay my rent for two months. I was living very simply, eating a lot of bagels. But then I had a lot of time to work on music videos. I was making other films too. It was more important to me to have time than to have money and a job.
The most important thing to land a job is to show your reel and to show things that you’ve made. I think it is more important than making connections or schmoozing to get a job. The work speaks for itself. Make as much stuff as you can. Most of the months I was able to work for a week and then pay my rent. I worked a lot on music videos.
Then one thing lead to another and we started getting bigger jobs. We randomly got a documentary animation job because someone had seen our music videos. It was a movie that ended up being nominated for two Emmy’s. It was called Resolves about high school debates. The people I worked with on that kept hiring me again and again so then we became a little company because we kept working on animation and music video jobs together. We called the company Awesome and Modest. We did another documentary. Then after that one we did a Billy Joel documentary called The Last Play at Shea. After that was Waiting for Superman. Now that we have done that, there are more people that have found us.
We just finished a new documentary and the filmmakers just called me because they saw Waiting for Superman and we did all the animation in that movie. Now I’m in a position where I get jobs like that.
I think it’s important to always be developing your own projects. We are now developing a TV show. It was based on a short we did just for fun called Basement Gary. Whenever there was downtime for the music videos I was making, I decided it would be fun to make my own thing. So we spent some time on that and ended up winning a Playboy contest, which was $10,000. Then we got an agent and pitched the show to Fox. We then made three shorts based on that one.
Right now I’m writing a feature and developing a new documentary. It definitely is overwhelming because whenever a job comes up you have to put all personal projects on hold. As long as I am able to support myself I can try to keep my expenses low and work on my projects as much as I can.
A lot of people I see out of school and they get a nice apartment that costs $1000 or $1200 a month and they want to go out to drink and get dinner often. So then they have to make at least $3000 a month. And it’s hard to make $3000 a month when you are just freelancing and doing random gigs. Then they have to get a full time job and before you know it you don’t have any freedom or any time to create anything. I think it is better to just make whatever you want and not go out and spend money all the time.
RM: Could you talk about your first feature documentary I Think We Are Alone Now.
SD: It’s really hard to just finish a movie. I Think We Are Alone Now, we shot it for so many years and we didn’t really have a story and before you know it I have 65 hours of footage. I felt like I would never finish editing it. I had other stuff to do and no one was paying me to make it. I neglected it for a couple years and then worked on music videos. In those couple years I was filming once and awhile but I could never really bring myself to sit down and go through all the footage and edit it. It was such a huge job.
I decided for a few weeks I would just sit down and work on it everyday. My friend Phil helped and edited different parts. You need to be self-motivated. You need to find the time and make things happen. You need to give yourself deadlines. You cant just put everything on the backburner and take other paid jobs because then you will never make time for personal projects.
It started when I was a sophomore in college. I was using a crappy handycam. By the time I finished it I had matured a lot and think I got a lot better but I couldn’t fix the movie because so much of it was already done. I think that if I made a movie now I could make a much better film. But I think a lot of people are holding out to make perfect things. So they hold out until they finish the script and make it perfect. But that movie now exists and people can see it. It’s not a perfect movie, it has problems and flaws, but I’m proud that it got finished. Now I’m trying to make the next film.
I think it’s important not to be too much of a perfectionist and drag things on for too long. Finish something then move onto the next thing.
It helps to collaborate. My friend Phil wasn’t really involved in the beginning but he jumped on because he was interested in the footage I showed him. He helped edit a lot. And he had the idea to go film in California certain weeks. It is hard to do things all by yourself. Editing is easier because you can get their input then go back and forth.
I Think We Are Alone Now is a movie that was made purely because we wanted to. We never thought we would make any money. We haven’t made a ton of money but we made back what we put into it which is nice.
RM: Did you self release the film?
SD: No, it was released by a company called MVD in America and Kaleidoscope in the UK. The DVD has bonus features that the Netflix streaming doesn’t have. Kelly from the film has a commentary track which is really interesting.
That’s another cool thing. To save money, I had already met Kelly and knew what we needed. I found this guy on craigslist and told him I would pay him to go film some interviews. He did a great job and used the HVX. A lot of stuff ended up in the movie. Anyway, that guy I had go over and record while she watched the movie and did a commentary track.
If you try to make a movie that is really expensive, you are going to be really stressed out with trying to make that money back. Figure out a way to hustle a movie a cheap as possible and you have nothing to lose. That way if it does make any money you are happy and it makes your money back and a little more hopefully.
I think that’s what cost a lot of money too was sending digibetas to film festivals and getting all the DVD materials. That ended up costing more than the movie. Then when it played in Europe we had to make PAL transfers, which cost more.
I’m happy with it in the end. It made me want to make another movie. This movie we finished in 2008. I have been focusing more on the Animation Company and TV ideas and things like that. But I would love to make another documentary and I know how to make it better next time.
The point is that you are always learning and it doesn’t mean you should not make things and wait. You should constantly be creating something new. Learn as you go. All my favorite people are artists that always make new things. They aren’t people who make a film every ten years to make it perfect. People that are always trying new things maybe write a book, make a movie, and then try to do a show.
RM: Who are some of the artists that inspire you?
SD: Michel Gondry. He just made a documentary, and does music videos, commercials and weird short films just for fun on the Internet. You can tell he has fun and is creative. Sometimes he has something to say and other times just wants to mess around.
Spike Jonze. He has made some cool documentaries on the side that people have probably never seen but just made them because he wanted to. Short films, music videos, features. I like that.
Tim Burton. I like how he can switch it up and do animation and live action.
I like when filmmakers try something new instead of making the same thing over and over again.
RM: What would you recommend to kids if they were trying to decide to go into film school or not?
SD: IF you are going to go into a really expensive film school and go into debt you might want to consider not to. But if it is a reasonably priced film school or your parents are going to help pay for it I would consider it. I had a good time and met a lot of good people but at the end of the day it’s not about whether you went to film school. It’s not about what your grades were. It’s all about what you make. At the end of the day it depends on the person and what you are willing to put into it.
Its not like if you graduate from NYU film school anyone is going to give you a job. I think a lot of people I went to school with are a little bit delusional about that. They thought that they were in a good film school and they would get out and have a lot of possibilities. People have unrealistic expectations and it is really hard to make it as a filmmaker. If you know that upfront it’s good because you can work really hard at it and focus on it. As long as you know it’s a battle and you are going to have to fight for it you can accomplish a lot. If you get lazy and think everything will be handed to you, you wont get very far.
Buy Sean Donnelly’s feature film I Think We’re Alone Now here.
Trailer for his film:
Waiting For Superman Trailer:
Animation commercial Sean did for Scion:
Music video he did for Bo Burnham: