Have you heard the popular advice, “find a niche and stick to it?”
Max Lapointe had heard it too.
But his success as a creative freelancer has proven that this particular piece of advice should be taken with a grain of salt.
As someone who was always willing to say yes and learn on the go, Max has attracted global freelancing opportunities in film, photography, and cinematography. In this interview, Max shares his secret for staying relevant in the eyes of clients and agencies, plus his top tips for succeeding as a creative freelancer. Don’t forget to check out his page and watch his videos.
How did you start your career as a freelance producer, director and cinematographer?
I graduated from Montreal’s Dawson College in professional photography in 2009.
After spending 5 years as a Photo Assistant, especially in the fashion & commercial industry, I stumbled upon a peculiar Serbian ex-pat who would soon become my mentor. Luka had had a very successful career as a cinematographer in Europe and was developing new film & cinema ventures in Montreal when we crossed paths in 2010.
I came onboard one of his projects, not having a very concrete idea what being a cinematographer was at that time. Now, while I had some knowledge and considerations for aesthetics, the learning curve was steep on the technical side: within a week we had developed a stereoscopic time-lapse rig for a National Film Board 3D documentary he was working on, tested 3D rigs with the then very heavy and cumbersome Red ONE cameras and made a whole bunch of pre-production related tasks that fast-tracked my apprenticeship.
The documentary shoot went well so Luka referred me for a music video gig he had lined-up and couldn’t make time for. All of a sudden I found myself managing a crew of 10 on a budget of $20,000 for a 2-day shoot, still not knowing my hand from my foot on set, but learning quickly.
At the end of the 2 days, after 36+ hours of intense work and intuitive decision making, I came home and had an epiphany. I was going to work in the film industry and make my way up the ladder, no matter what. Such an amazing job and creation experience was worth all the risks and gradually making the transition from a photographer to a cinematographer.
Now that’s no small feat to make the switch on a whim like that. Soon enough you confront the reality of having a new network to build, a ton of knowledge to acquire, a gazillion mistakes to make before you can get comfortable. It also meant the scale of production I would tackle in my beginnings would be very small and DIY. Then, I gained knowledge as a director of photography, I lined up gigs, and soon enough, I realized that within a year, I’ve produced, directed, shot, edited, colorized and delivered a string of projects.
To make a long story short, this unbeaten path made me appreciate the benefits of producing, directing & shooting my own projects as it kept my vision intact and ensured unity from “ideation” to creation.
What’s your favorite type of film/project and why?
I’d say fiction shorts & features. It’s not every day you get to create a universe, develop characters with lives, inner struggles and obstacles to overcome. Maintaining the delicate osmosis between themes, tone, what is being said and shown or not, tension and rhythm, all while keeping your audience engaged is what truly consecrates cinema as the 7th art and makes film-making all the more inspiring and worthwhile as an artistic endeavor.
What’s the biggest source of inspiration that drives your creativity?
The Internet is an endless source of inspiration: your co-workers’ work, Vimeo Staff Picks, A & B-List festival picks for fiction, music videos, and fashion films are also always a sure shot to get your creativity jump-started.
Who are some of the key influencers of your work?
In fiction, definitely Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, Fellini, Antonioni, Kieslowski, Hanneke, Roy Andersen, Bela Tarr (for his phenomenal cinematographic sensitivity), and Hayao Miyazaki (for his capacity to create universes, his strong female leads and extraordinary soundtracks)…there are so many!
In documentary film-making, Quebecois Cinema Direct pioneers such as Pierre Perrault & Michel Brault
For music videos, Hiro Murrai, Emily Kay Bock, Luke Gilford, Anton Corbin and Spike Jonze, CANADA
For fashion, Gordon Von Steiner & Marc Gomez del Moral
Why do you love what you do?
Where to begin? Creation as a job never feels like work, ever. Even if it involves making pick-ups in a 10-ton truck, waiting for sunrise by a freezing cold winter morning, editing until sunrise, or pitching my ideas and making myself vulnerable in front of agency creatives and clients.
Freedom of being my own boss. And sleeping in on a Monday if I feel like it.
Working in this field also allows me to merge talents and combine key people in very interesting ways. These people eventually become my friends & a new-found family, on top of teaching me a trick or two…or a million!
Traveling … if my heart desires it, I have a job where it’s relatively easy to go halfway around the world for a project. I spent less than a month at home ever since the beginning of 2016 and it’s a thrilling sensation to always be on the move.
I could go on forever about the benefits & perks!
As you travel all over the world for work, what are some challenges you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?
The language barrier is obviously obstacle #1, but that also depends on where you are. I remember landing in China in 2011 for a month-long residency in Beijing feeling completely disoriented and isolated, like a 4-year-old child, as nobody spoke a word of English and a simple trip to Chaochangdi (a few kilometers away from my apartment) could turn into a very real headache.
The key is not to let it get to you.
Put a smile on and get ready to have to pantomime your needs and wants to bewildered locals. In my experience, it works every time and helps in creating very interesting bonds with locals.
What’s your greatest achievement so far?
It’s currently in the making! I’m working as a cinematographer on my first American feature film which is expected to enter its first phase of production in June 2017.
What are the most important steps you took to build your successful career as a freelancer?
Ever since I was in school, people kept drilling in our heads that we need to find a niche and stick to it. Hone a more specific craft rather than going broad at large.
My personal experience has been diametrically opposed to that idea.
I’m an avid shooter and always found that sticking to “what I knew” or “what I was good at” was the best way to render myself irrelevant and obsolete sooner than needed. What is good for fiction has its applications in a documentary. What works in making a music video can definitely be applied to fashion films.
It’s important to have the guts to go head first into uncharted waters and be willing to learn from there.
Years later, one of the recurrent reason why I get to work with other agencies, clients and directors, and continue upping the scale of the projects I work on, is because they think of me as polyvalent and eclectic.
Other than that, I think it can be crudely put this way: “Be tight.” In your quality standards, in communicating with your crew, in your expectations and the projects you deliver. Apply this very simple concept vertically to everything that you do and people will respect you and hire you for it. It’ll become a standard for your collaborators, crew members and clients as well.
Could you share 3 key tips for others who hope to take a similar path?
We could go on forever, as far as advice is concerned. But simply put, I can’t stress this enough:
- Inspire yourself every day.
- Keep track of your ideas and processes. Document everything that you do, make notes, and keep a journal.
- Become a facilitator in other people’s lives. This is more of a general philosophy and approach to society. Think of it as enabling Occam’s Razor in the positive spectrum of “life.”
For instance, step out of bed happy and grateful in the morning. Find qualities in people that think differently than you do, that strike you as antagonists. More likely than not, these people will sense your openness to their difference and respect you for it. Genuinely love people and go towards them, shake their hands, use their names, and take interest in their lives. Hand out favors and give a helping hand without counting. Have others benefit from your knowledge, connections, resources.
Put even simpler: Be an agent of everything positive in this world. Life will unfold before you and make you better as you go. You’ll attract people and circumstances that are in tune with what you project.
But hey, maybe you think this is wishful thinking that’s not anchored in everyone’s reality; fine by me. Don’t take my word for it, but before giving up on the idea, how about giving it a shot and seeing where that takes you?