Glamour. Money. Power. Success.
LOS ANGELES. IT’S WHERE STARS ARE BORN. THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE SILVER SCREEN AND THE WALT DISNEY EMPIRE. WHERE ASPIRING ARTISTS ARE PULLED WITH MAGNETIC LONGING. WHERE DREAMS BECOME REALITY.
Molly Zachmeier ’15 (film production) always knew she wanted to make it big in Hollywood. She dreamed of working in the movie business. LA called to her, even as she was told to set more realistic expectations for future career plans.
“I didn’t know anybody who worked in the industry when I was younger. I just liked running around with my camera and making my friends do silly things.”
As she approached college, Zachmeier considered more realistic career options, looking into theatre, writing and photojournalism. Still, Los Angeles and the film industry called. She wasn’t sure how she fit there, but she knew in her heart it’s where she wanted to be.
“At MSUM was the first time I saw myself in the entertainment industry and figured out how I could have a place in it,” she said.
After making connections while working on the local film Supermoto, she took a leap of faith and moved to LA.
Ben Stommes ’08 (film studies, graphic communications) was also drawn to LA, where he could pursue a career in visual effects. His love for movies turned into reality when he landed a role at a stereoscopic 3D conversion studio. There, he worked on high-profile titles like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World and Mad Max: Fury Road.
He’s since transitioned to pursuing his passion at other studios in the LA area. As a digital compositor, Stommes stretches limits of the imagination—replacing green and blue screens with breathtaking scenery; adding muzzle flashes, explosions or atmospheric effects; integrating CGI into scenes and finessing the often-overlooked details.
Though the film industry was also attractive to Jake Reeder ’16 (film production), moving to Los Angeles was never his intent. The City of Angels was last on his list of locations to live and work. He felt it was tapped out—oversaturated with hopeful directors like himself. He considered Portland, Ore., or even New York. Yet when a friend moved to LA and found work with Lifetime Movie Network, he decided to give it a shot.
Networking is the quintessence of life in Hollywood. The connections you make can quite literally make or break your career.
“It’s such a community-based industry, weirdly,” Zachmeier said. “Everybody wants to work with people they like and create with different people. If people don’t like you they’re not going to fire you, but you won’t get hired again.”
Zachmeier’s MSUM acquaintances put her in touch with LA producers who hired her onto her first big show. She’s since worked in production on Disney holiday specials, low-budget thrillers and several prominent series, including Netflix’s Love and GLOW, and Vida on STARZ.
“Once you get that foot in the door, if they like you, you keep getting hired,” Zachmeier said.
It’s the same for most behind-the-scenes roles in the industry.
“When studios look for new people to hire, they’ll reach out to the current people who work there and ask for recommendations,” Stommes said. “It’s a huge help to have a lot of connections in the field you want to work in.”
Reeder likens the relationship-based hiring process to the Olympic rings. One connection introduces you to others. That relationship moves you into a different social circle, providing new opportunities for networking and growth. Meet, connect, repeat.
This cycle initiated several high-value relationships for Reeder. The freelance industry grip works on commercials and Top 40 music videos for artists like Ariana Grande, Kendrick Lamar and G-Eazy.
“Relationships are everything,” Reeder said. “I could send you a list of all the jobs I’ve worked on, but that doesn’t tell you that I know how to set a flag or how to work a dolly. More than anything, you’re getting hired off of the people you know and their word for you being a competent technician.”
Because the vast majority of film production work is contract-based and built on references, it’s trial by fire. If studios like your work, they’ll keep you on. If they don’t, you’re gone. The volatile nature of the industry is worth it though, especially when each gig is potentially one step closer to fulfilling a dream.
Out of the Spotlight
Though Stommes adds, enhances or alters the visual effects on many high-profile productions, context—like sound—isn’t usually necessary for his role.
“It’s interesting when you’re isolated to working on one little part of a movie, because we just get our individual shots and then sometimes we have to wonder what the shot was about,” Stommes said. “When we see the finished movie later, it all becomes clear.”
His minute attention to detail may go unnoticed by those watching on televisions across the country, but in Stommes’ realm that is equivalent to success.
“When most people think about visual effects, they think about CGI monsters or the flashier stuff. But when people see TV shows and movies, there are so many effects in them they don’t even know are effects. It’s fun to see what you can get away with without people noticing.”
Removing reflections or rogue crew members in the shot, combining takes, once even replacing an actor’s attire with computer-generated clothing. Stommes works his magic on what many never realize has been manipulated.
Likewise, Reeder’s work requires ingenuity. When working on set of Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” practical illusions and camera tricks helped bring the creative music video to life. It’s strenuous work—he often walks more than 10 miles per day carrying heavy equipment—yet the manual labor is more glamorous than one might expect.
“The jobs (grips) do are so technical, it often puts us right there with the talent, whether we’re lighting them with a bounce, supporting them, getting up on a ladder or whatever,” he said. “It’s a much more intimate job than if you were just hanging out on set.”
Reeder’s career as a grip may have started as a quick way to make money, but he doesn’t intend to alter his course anytime soon. The demand is nearly nonstop. And making directors’ dreams come to fruition has surpassed all expectations of life in the film industry.
“It’s very creative and super rewarding, both financially and as a support role, so you feel very important on set. It’s a great feeling,” Reeder said.
The recipe for success in LA is far from simple. Experience has helped these alumni gather several ingredients to bolster their careers: form symbiotic relationships, observe and learn from the experts, take initiative, put in maximum effort, stay tenacious.
“People certainly notice that sort of Minnesota work ethic,” Reeder said.
Despite 12-hour days and a volatile industry, passion for their work and the connections they’ve formed make it worthwhile. Dozens of Dragons help each other find work in the lean times and generously extend moral support—often in the form of tater tot hotdish.
“There are a lot of MSUM alumni out here. It’s nice to have a familiar face to go get a beer with and talk about how thankful we are it’s not snowing here,” Zachmeier said. “I’ve found a community here faster than I thought I would.”
Most of all, they know steadfast determination will someday make their dreams come true.
“It has to be your passion that drives you because there is a lot of uncertainty in this industry,” Zachmeier said.
This story was first published in Moorhead Magazine, Spring 2019.
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