Meet Julian Williamson – a CO:Member who offers production for broadcast, streaming, and live events through his company Bluesland Films. After working as a freelance director of photography with Fortune 500 companies and international media publishers such as CBS and PBS for most of his career, the longtime Jackson resident has transitioned into the role of a producer in recent years, working primarily with regional clients and agencies. This week we're happy to share a conversation we had recently with Julian about what it's been like to live in Jackson while working all over the globe, along with how an unexpected change in plans can often result in the sweetest kind of satisfaction.
Describe your path to what you’re doing now. I’ve done a lot of things (laughing). My undergraduate degree is from Union (University). I left there and was in live sound reinforcement for a while; my mentor was Paul McCartney’s monitor engineer. I did a lot of local and regional sound reinforcement gigs–which was in the late 80s where they were still using massive analog consoles–before coming back to Union as the staff audio, video, and lighting engineer. I then went back to grad school for Film at the University of Memphis, which is where I first got into digital editing working on everything from ads, music videos, and even some smaller documentaries. That’s when I realized that I’m not patient enough to sit in front of a computer for that many hours a day, but that I’m more interested in the point in the creative process where the world meets the art for the first time. I could do that by filling the role as Director of Photography, and had the opportunity to work on shoots for some larger international companies like Walmart, Exxon, and Hewlett-Packard using a lot of the (at the time) new, high-resolution green screen technology that the company I directly worked for specialized in.
I’m currently moving more into a producer’s role.
Are you doing that independently? I was a free-lance director of photography for fifteen years or so, and what that means is that I was responsible for the crew (audio engineers, grips, etc.). Most of my work there was with Fortune 500 companies so I did a lot of traveling–pretty much around the world with that–which resulted in my being hired for bigger, mission critical events. Everyone I was working with had very valuable time, so my ability to secure good images, quickly, and have everything lined up ahead of time was really important. I felt like that could be parlayed into producing on a grander scale, which involved me taking a step back and producing everything on a larger scale.
Sort of what happened at the end of my career as a Director of Photography was that the Fortune 500 work turned into more broadcast work with productions like the CBS Final Four Basketball show. That experience helped me get a lot higher level broadcast tools under my belt (organizing lighting and crew aspects of the show), so that I could begin taking on that more administrative role on my own.
Was that the direction you intended on going in? The corporate-focused production? Oh, no! Not at all. Like anyone who gets into audio or film, I anticipated on doing something really creative, something that’s really fulfilling in the artistic realm. So of course I thought Nashville would be a good place to be with all of the music video work coming out of there, but it just didn’t turn out that way. Basically when you start rolling in a certain direction, the people’s clients you begin working with become your clients, and that's what happened with the corporate work. So no, I never set out to do anything corporate, but I don’t think anyone does. It’s not that it’s not fulfilling, but not all paths turn out like you expect. You have to be open to the ones that, quite frankly, are earning money.
Do you think there are particular aspects of the direction that you have gone in that have been satisfying in ways that you didn’t anticipate? Or maybe there are things along the way you’ve enjoyed that wouldn’t have been a reality if you had done something more artistically oriented? Yes, there are always those fulfilling projects that come along every once in a while that you feel really good about. For instance, I shot a green screen project for kids called The Mother Goose Club, which has gotten a billion hits on YouTube or something like that (laughing). I was working with a great group of people in a co-production between PBS New York and PBS Nashville and I did those shoots a couple of weeks every year for a number of years. I didn’t expect that to come along, so it became gratifying in a unique way.
At this point, I recognize that I’ve gotten to make a living in a way that interests me, and provide for my family and raise them here, which has been great for us. Hey, I have a really reach life here with family and friends that I’m not sure I would have had if I had always been pursuing an artistic avenue. I’m glad that we for the most part have been able to stay in this area.
Compared to others in the industry, how does what you do, especially given all of the traveling, look unique because of living in Jackson? It’s kind of interesting, as Nashville is a very mature market with lots of folks working in the industry; Memphis is also a market that’s growing. My hope is that being halfway between in Jackson will allow me to connect some of my vendors and folks that I like to work with in Nashville with projects that I have going on in Memphis.
When I was a director of photography I worked for agencies who had the end client, so basically they’d send me an airline ticket and I’d show up wherever in the world it was that they wanted me to shoot their stuff. Now it has sort of confined itself to a smaller area, more regional, because I’m trying to be the producer instead of a crew member. You know, producing is not being on set all of the time. Producing is a lot of planning. The last few things I have done, all of the pre-production planning has taken place here [theCO]. And really, that pre-production time accounts for 85-90% of the total project time regardless of where the show takes place. This place [theCO] has then enabled me to have a home base to keep in contact with those folks.
Looking back on the year, what grade would you give 2015? Well, there’s always room for improvement (laughing). I’d give myself two grades, the first being a ‘B+’ on the work for my current clients. Some of the things I’ve done here in Jackson have come out well, especially the scholarship banquet for Union that we re-worked this year. In the area of finding new clients I think I’d have to give myself a ‘C’. I’ve pursued some avenues that have lead to dead ends. New clients for producers are largely based on trust, and I thought some advertising would help, but it did not lead to nearly as much business as I would have hoped. One of the things I’d like to better in 2016 is making stronger personal contacts so that I could bring on new clients, and I think having theCO will particularly be beneficial there. One of the keys to Union’s [scholarship banquet] event this year was having a sit-down, pre-production meeting in the boardroom here so that we could give administrators a good idea of what to expect with graphics and video.
If you were to give advice to a young person just starting out in the video production world, what would it be? I would say to work harder and more dependably than anyone else. And don’t limit yourself to one avenue of work. If something is working out and is profitable for you, then pursue it. The work ethic aspect in this industry is really important, because that shows the client that you take the project as seriously as they do.
Interview and Transcription by Joseph Smith.