Through our “Day in the Life” short films, published for free on a platform with a reach of 155,000 subscribers, we’re able to show university life through the eyes of real students — students with a huge diversity of backgrounds, interests and passions, students who don’t fit in a single academic or extracurricular box, and students who are unafraid to speak their minds about their experiences. We see the good, the bad and the ugly of university life, and we see it lived out by students who are impressive and brilliant certainly, but are also humble and eager to share what they’ve learned and what they wish they’d known before attending.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Clark.
Sam Clark is a filmmaker, comedian, and writer from Denver, Colorado. He’s the Lead Video Producer for Crimson Education, and led Crimson’s free video platform from the ground up to 155,000 YouTube subscribers and over 22 million views, producing video series showcasing the experiences of students on college campuses around the world for high schoolers who may not have the opportunity otherwise to visit them. Outside of the education filmmaking space, Sam also has a stand-up comedy special on Amazon Prime’s LAUGH AFTER DARK, has written for Netflix’s MAGIC FOR HUMANS and the CBS Diversity Showcase, and has produced viral video content with millions of views, featured in TIME, USA Today, Forbes, Business Insider, Buzzfeed, and more. In recent months, Sam has also hosted Zoom and Twitch comedy and dating shows to fundraise for various causes, and helped raise 88,000 dollars for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and 42,000 dollars for Feeding America. Sam occasionally does drag and teaches children Taekwondo (not at the same time).
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
Absolutely! I was always a theater kid growing up, doing plays at school and the Denver Jewish Community Center every year since I was five. I loved the spotlight, I loved attention, and I loved making people laugh. Case in point: in 3rd grade, I wrote and directed a play called “The Crazy Castle,” and wrote myself the starring role of Princess Britney Spears, a pampered queen-to-be with lofty ambitions, who only spoke in Britney lyrics. In high school, I started doing improv, and in college, I started writing comedy, picking up a camera, and realizing that I could actually make a career out of comedy and filmmaking, and it didn’t need to just be a hobby that happened to take up most of my time. And beyond amplifying my own spotlight — which of course, I loved — I could pivot to behind the camera and let someone else be the proverbial Princess Britney Spears. I created a few viral videos in college with a YouTube comedy news show, “On Harvard Time,” and I was lucky enough to have those videos catch the attention of Crimson Education, which at the time was a young education company based in New Zealand. They were looking to build a free video platform that showcased life at colleges around the world for students who may not have the ability or opportunity to visit.
So after moving to LA in 2015 to pursue comedy and TV writing, I started to produce videos at universities with a small team of talented filmmakers, following inspirational, impressive students through “Day in the Life” videos, or asking students on campuses “Big Questions” roving-reporter-style, or profiling extracurricular clubs that provided communities for passionate students. As our videos picked up traction and views, we started to hear from students all over the world that our videos inspired them to apply to colleges they hadn’t conceived of, or cracked through information barriers to demystify applications, or showed an aspect of student life that they’d never realized existed. And I realized that I could produce these short free films for anyone and have an impact on kids around the globe, all while also following my own broader dreams in comedy, TV writing, and filmmaking.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
One of our most popular video series is called “Big Questions,” and it brings me from behind-the-camera to on camera to ask college students, on the spot, about their experience on their campus. I ask students about the best things about their school, the worst things, the fun weekend things, and to describe what they wrote about for their Common App essays. After we released the first few of these, we started to get recognized by students on campus everytime we filmed these videos. So for nearly all of these videos, directly off-camera, or just before or after filming an interview, we’d get approached by students excitedly telling us that they’d seen some of our videos, or were avid viewers, or that we were “those Crimson video guys!” A few of my favorite moments: At Columbia, a freshman who was absolutely elated to meet us after watching all our videos took a selfie with our crew and shared that we had made his week right after a particularly brutal calculus midterm. At Georgetown, a group of students told us how much they loved our videos, agreed to be in the video we were currently filming, and then proceeded to pick a very specific fight with me about Dunkin Donuts vs. Starbucks, since I had adamantly proclaimed my allegiance to Dunkin in a previous video (I maintain this allegiance). At Harvard, an entire gaggle of students surrounded an interview we were conducting just off-camera, filmed us filming the interview, and scrammed just as our videographer whipped the camera around to capture them (I think that one made it into the cut of that episode). Each shoot of this series was a fun rollercoaster because of all these excited students, nicely punctuated also by some calmer students gratefully sharing that they watched our videos while applying to college.
We also got kicked off of a campus that I’ll refrain from naming, when some campus security guards suspected us of filming some type of nefarious prank. This may have happened twice actually, on two campuses that I’ll refrain from naming. But don’t worry, we had good chats with their communications departments afterwards and worked it out!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
The best part of this education filmmaking job is being able to film inspirational, brilliant, and downright cool people. We find them in various ways — college newspaper articles, open submissions, etc. — and we film a day in their life, showing what they do both in and out of the classroom. We film them docu-style, but also ask them the types of questions that a high schooler looking towards college might want to ask, and the answers are always illuminating. We’ve followed a Dartmouth biologist-flutist-powerlifter who defies the expectations put on her by both academia and athletics. We’ve spent a day with a first-generation college student at Harvard, who is using his newfound computer science acumen to lift up other Latinx students interested in tech. We’ve filmed several videos with a Princeton mathematician who unwinds from math by playing the Indian Mridangam drum and squash. We’ve profiled student-athletes who’ve started their own companies, student-dancers who code, medical students who teach youth martial arts on the side, philosophy students who bodybuild, mechanical engineers who drum. So rather than a particular interesting person or story, I guess I more accurately have a glimpse into the lives of dozens of students who refuse to stay in a single box and are happy and eager to share their experience with the world, to inspire the next student.
We also spotlight student clubs and initiatives, which sometimes provide an even more intriguing glimpse into unique, inspiring, and often improbable communities built by students. I’ve spent an afternoon with the Solar Car Team at Northwestern, the Taekwondo Team at MIT, the National Champion Women’s Ultimate Frisbee Team at Dartmouth. I’ve interviewed members of the Black Wharton Undergraduate Association to learn about their experience creating a community for Black business students to thrive at UPenn, and sat in on meetings of the USC Student Government to learn how they set up events and advocate for the student body. These communities bring engineers and philosophers together to dance, or mathematicians and political scientists together to debate. Each time, we’re able to see how hardworking students pour their time and passion into endeavors outside of class, often spending more time than they’d ever spend on their academics.
I’d also be remiss not to shout out my team when answering a question about interesting people. I’m lucky to work with team members with such wide, deep and different filmmaking backgrounds, from music videos to travel vlogs. They each bring such a different perspective and approach to docu-style filmmaking, and are some of the most agile, flexible, creative filmmakers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. And they’re great friends! Shout out to Hak, Dan and Gus, and to some of our previous crew Elina, Robin, and Liam and occasional collaborators Zach, Devon and Aidan! I couldn’t be luckier being able to create with such a talented and passionate crew.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
A big challenge now, unsurprisingly, is figuring out what we can safely film during the pandemic. We used to travel to a different pair of college campuses every month or so to film with students, but we aren’t doing that anymore. So we’re launching some new series that we’ve planned to engage with our viewers around the world more directly. We’re inviting our viewers to submit their own content and to learn more about some of the most popular students we’ve filmed with before. So we’ve started to ask for submissions from high school students who have started new community service projects, companies, or other initiatives since quarantine and lockdown measures began. It’s a cool chance for students to showcase their own projects that they’re using to better their communities — be they socially distanced coding camps for girls interested in computer science, or artwork-selling initiatives to raise money for PPE for local hospitals, or more — in the hopes of getting some attention to their projects and inspiring other students. We’ve also started a “Where Are They Now?” series with some of our favorite “Day in the Life” students, where they film themselves answering some questions as we check in on what they’ve been up to since we filmed with them on campus, and what advice they have for younger students. I’m also starting to film at home. We’re launching a few new filmed-at-home series, including “Ask Sam Anything,” where I answer any questions students may have about college applications, trends in higher education, and more — and if I don’t have the answers (which I’m sure I often won’t), I connect with an education expert to find the answers.
Outside of my education filmmaking work with Crimson Education, I’ve been working on some other projects that I’m very excited about. Last summer, I filmed a mockumentary about a small-town City Council election in Colorado. I co-wrote it with my best friend, directed it, acted in it, filmed it with a group of hilarious and talented friends, and have spent most of 2020 slowly but surely editing it. It’s a project that’s been in the works for years. My best friend and I first wrote a version of it in 2016, and it went through a number of producing partnerships that fell through, so we ultimately decided to put together a crew and film it ourselves. It’s very funny and I hope a little poignant, and we’re looking to release a cut of it sometime this October! We’ll be submitting it to festivals as a film, and to studios, producers, and distributors as a proof-of-concept for a TV show. I can’t wait for you to see it!
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I’m most inspired by young people who step up to make change at pivotal times. Emma González, John Lewis, Malala Yousafzai. They inspire me the most because they defy the notions that young people are naive, or complacent, or self-centered, when the facts are really to the contrary. Young people drive change, they lead the world’s biggest movements, they overturn outdated oppressive systems. That’s part of why I love my job so much — I’m able to film and capture the stories of driven young people with massive aspirations.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
I think about this on two fronts. The first is my work with Crimson Education. I see our videos as digestible, entertaining ways to break down information barriers when it comes to higher education, and show what it’s like on the ground at universities all around the world. Every major university has a website, pamphlets and promo videos, but I’d argue that none of them really do a great job showing younger students — especially ones whose siblings or parents didn’t attend college — what student life is really like. Through our “Day in the Life” short films, published for free on a platform with a reach of 155,000 subscribers, we’re able to show university life through the eyes of real students — students with a huge diversity of backgrounds, interests and passions, students who don’t fit in a single academic or extracurricular box, and students who are unafraid to speak their minds about their experiences. We see the good, the bad and the ugly of university life, and we see it lived out by students who are impressive and brilliant certainly, but are also humble and eager to share what they’ve learned and what they wish they’d known before attending. I think this is also true of our “Big Questions” series I mentioned. It’s generally a lighter, funnier, less cinematic series where students tell me what they love about their school and what they do on weekends — but they also tell me the worst thing about their school, which is always an illuminating answer. We’ve learned about textbook and meal costs, negative experiences for marginalized students, toxic campus cultures, mental health issues, and more, all directly from the mouths of students. We also ask students what they wrote about for their application essays, which I think goes a long way in demystifying the often needlessly opaque college application process. Our viewers can learn directly from students about the Common App and more, and we’ve also more recently published videos sharing tips and recommendations about applying.
The second front for me lies in the comedy and live-streamed show world that I’m a part of. Live stand-up comedy effectively stopped for the time being in March, which was a pretty major blow initially to stand-up comics like me. But as live-streamed shows on Twitch, Zoom and Facebook Live became more and more frequent, there developed an opportunity to find larger audiences, and to tap into those audiences to draw attention to, and raise money for, deeply important causes. I was really proud recently to host a series of shows produced by the absolutely brilliant Maria Shen and Jean Yang, both tech founders who met via Zoom during the pandemic and were building lockdown dating services. I was the host for their “Zoom Bachelor” and “Zoom Bachelorette” dating shows, streamed on Twitch. These were funny, lighthearted, zany shows that acted as fundraisers for worthy causes. The first show we did, relatively early in the pandemic, raised 42,000 dollars for Feeding America, the largest organization of food banks in the United States. The next two shows raised over 88,000 dollars for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, which fights racial inequality and injustice through advocacy, litigation, and education. We delayed the second shows initially at the height of national Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, and encouraged our viewers and fans to use the time to protest, organize, and educate themselves, while we gathered and distributed valuable organizing resources from and to the Zoom Bachelor network. The huge fundraising totals really showed me the potential to use comedy and live-streamed entertainment to raise awareness and much-needed money for critical causes, from racial justice to food security, and I can’t wait to expand these shows and generate even larger impacts as we make people laugh. Stay tuned for our upcoming shows and fundraisers!
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
I’d say I had two aha moments, one being a bit more artistic, and the other more practical. On the more artistic front as I started to film in the education space, my aha moment was realizing that these stories of these unique students may not otherwise be told. No one was making mini documentaries about everyday students with quirky interests, no one was asking students en masse their opinion about their school, no one was soliciting advice for younger students from their peers only two or three years older. I realized I had a skillset and a team that could capture and tell those stories, pull back the curtain bit by bit on higher education, and fill an online information void.
The other aha moment for me was logistical, and frankly, financial. One of the hardest parts of breaking into the filmmaking, entertainment, and comedy spaces is maintaining a degree of financial stability while pursuing gigs that you know won’t pay much, if at all. Starting to work in the education filmmaking space allowed me to pay my rent while pursuing a parallel passion that built my filmmaking and storytelling skills. My education filmmaking work could financially support my other passions and dreams in comedy and writing, while also honing and practicing the skills I needed to make my own films and tell my own stories.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of my favorite results of the work we do in education filmmaking is the response and stories we hear from students who watch our videos. We get messages and comments everyday from students all over the globe about the impact that our videos have in inspiring them to apply to a school or program, in helping them get into their dream school, in demystifying a perplexing part of the college application process, or in showing them a school or a program they’d never heard of. The coolest and most impactful instance for me came from a student named Anthony, who started avidly watching our “Day in the Life” videos while he was in high school and applying to colleges. He reached out to us in high school to tell us about our videos inspiring him, and he reached out to us again after he’d achieved his dream of getting into UCLA — telling us both that he had gotten in, and that he’d love to take us on a “Day in the Life” tour of UCLA as a freshman. And we did! We filmed a day in Anthony’s life as a pre-med student looking to double major in neuroscience and computer science. It was an incredible journey to complete with him. He was inspired by our videos to apply to his dream school, he got into his dream school, and then he filmed his own video with us at that dream school, showing other younger students like him what it was like to study at UCLA. I look forward to the next student who’s inspired by a day in Anthony’s life, who may become our next video subject.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Having filmed with hundreds of students at dozens of campuses, I’ve definitely developed thoughts on how higher education — and access to it — ought to change.
First, to the government: make college more accessible. Public colleges should be tuition-free, student loan debt should be forgiven, and programs like Pell Grants providing tuition grants to lower income students should be massively expanded so that any student who wants to pursue a university degree can do so.
Second, to educators, mentors, and even older students: share your knowledge about the application process. Many aspects of applying to college are antiquated, murky, and far from intuitive. I’ll be completely frank: I largely knew what to do in my college application process because my older sister had done it 4 years before me. Not everyone has that smart older sister, and there’s a lot I think that older students who’ve recently gone through the process, mentors, and educators can do to equip students for applications. We hope in our videos to democratize access to information about college, and I hope that that widening of access can spread person-to-person as well.
And third, to university administrations: listen to your students. Listen to your most marginalized students, and listen to your students who speak up about unsafe spaces, toxic campus cultures, and a lack of belonging. Once students from underrepresented backgrounds get into major universities, they often feel like outsiders. Don’t dismiss the concerns of students who tell you they feel ostracized, unsafe, discriminated against, or persecuted because of cultures of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and more. They’re your students, they’re smart, and they count on you to make a safe and supportive learning environment. Also make required textbooks free.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
First, create with your friends! One of the first major projects I undertook after graduating was a documentary about safe spaces, free speech, and student protest on college campuses. I filmed it with some of my best friends after a Kickstarter campaign, and it was a huge undertaking coming from a small crew who didn’t know a whole hell of a lot. Ultimately the documentary didn’t come to fruition — it fell apart in a quagmire of financial limitations, editing hubris, and the 2016 Election making a lot of its content obsolete and flippant. But I learned so much working with that team of friends, and they’re the first crew I turned to to make the City Council mockumentary I mentioned earlier. This time, it’s going way better, we’ve all grown as a production crew, and they remain the first people I turn to when building a crew for any new shoot.
Second, you should know about every aspect of filmmaking, but remember that you don’t need to do every aspect every time. I’m a much better team member now that I’ve been an editor and know what editing our videos takes — but I also know that I’m not the fastest editor, my skills are used better elsewhere, and my team of editors can do a much better, much quicker job than I ever could. On the flipside, I stepped up behind the camera on a shoot when we lost a videographer, and discovered that I loved it, and am good at it (but always getting better!). Now I’m behind the camera for at least half of every shoot. Know what your fellow crew members are doing, and the labor and skill that goes into what they’re doing, but also trust them to do it — they’ll probably do it better than you.
Third, documentary/docu-style shoots will never go as you planned. Whether it’s a sudden thunderstorm (this happened on my very first Crimson shoot), a last-minute interviewee or talent cancellation, an unexpected filming restriction in a building, a lav mic malfunction, or a sudden influx of 25 six-year-olds on a field trip swarming the quiet quad you selected for your picturesque interview, something will always go wrong. It just will! And that’s okay. The biggest skill in this type of run-and-gun filming I’ve learned is flexibility. Be ready at the drop of a hat to take an outdoor interview inside, or an indoor interview outside. Be ready to have a chat with campus security while keeping your student interviewee relaxed and setting up your next shot. Be ready to completely scrap the perfect, beautiful interview setting you dreamed about on the drive over. And be ready to make all these sudden changes while maintaining your calm and your sense of humor. It’ll keep your crew at ease, your talent at ease, and it’ll ensure the smoothest shoot — while also keeping your blood pressure low.
Fourth, ask for what you’re worth, and get your colleagues and collaborators what they’re worth. Especially where industries overlap — in my case, education and filmmaking — there are often massive misconceptions about the skill, labor, talent, cost, and timelines required for filmmaking. Be prepared to explain exactly what goes into each step of the filmmaking process, often in excruciating detail, so that stakeholders in the adjacent industry know what they’re asking, and what they should expect. Ask to be compensated for what you know you’re worth, and advocate on behalf of all collaborators you bring onboard to make sure they get their worth as well. Sometimes you need to be the stickler or the hardass when it comes to rates and deadlines — so be prepared to be that, and do it with a smile and patience.
Fifth, be nice and easy to work with! Sounds straightforward, and I feel like there’s some version of this in nearly any industry profile I read. But it’s huge. I don’t work again with people who were mean or difficult on shoots. I do work again with people who were nice, who were easy to work with, who were simultaneously flexible and understood my vision but also pushed and prodded me to reconsider certain approaches. Be nice to fellow crew members, to interview subjects, to waiters and waitresses when we take a food break, to passers-by who ask what we’re doing. Be nice, and people will want to work with you again.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I’ll direct this to young artists in particular. Your art can have an impact. You can use your filmmaking to tell real stories that wouldn’t otherwise be told. You can use your comedy to lift up instead of punch down. You can use platformsthat you gain access to because of your art to raise funds, raise awareness, inform and illuminate. Take action outside of your art, yes — organize, fundraise, volunteer for campaigns, donate if you have the cash, listen, and learn — and, not all of your art needs to bear the weight of having a social impact, yes. It can be fun for the sake of fun, silly for the sake of silly, beautiful for the sake of beautiful. But also push yourself sometimes to find the center sliver of your personal art/social impact venn diagram. Push yourself to make art with an impact.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
My dream is to work as a writer, correspondent, and/or field producer for Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, or John Oliver. Their work on the Daily Show, Full Frontal, and Last Week Tonight strikes that balance of funny, informative, and thought-provoking that I’ve aspired to ever since I was a nerdy little theater kid religiously devouring Stewart and Colbert every night. There are also a few comedians and commentators who I’d love to see have their own show (and may very well be en route to one), who I think are ridiculously smart and funny and use their platforms to make unique and insightful comedy, and who I’d really love to collaborate with: Baratunde Thurston, Fortune Feimster, and Jessimae Peluso.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This isn’t the most poetic or deep quote, but it’s one that I’ve written on many sticky notes above my desk and told myself before every nerve-wracking shoot or show, and I aspire to have it engraved on a piece of driftwood in a home office or kitchen someday. It was told to me by an incredible director, amazing mentor, and dear friend of mine, Kelly McAllister. Kelly directed me in many plays I did at the Denver JCC as a teenager, and I worked for him as a stage manager and assistant director on many plays in a kids’ theater camp. Before an opening night of a play he directed that was fraught with last-minute cast switch-ups, technical glitches, and more, he gathered his cast of nervous, anxious teen actors backstage, looked us in the eye and told us: “Kick It In the Ass.” Beyond having a great, satisfying ring to it, it’s something I’ve stuck with when trying something new and challenging. It’s simple! Your enemy in a creative endeavor isn’t a person — it’s a challenge, an obstacle, a fear. It’s an it. And go kick it in the ass. Kelly told us this as a director, as a compassionate leader, as a mentor. He understood us as young neurotic creatives who were in our heads too much, who needed to be told to get out of our heads and do the thing. Do the thing, and kick it in the ass. Seriously try telling it to yourself or your team sometime. It feels good.
How can our readers follow you online?
For my work with Crimson Education, subscribe to our YouTube channel! www.youtube.com/CrimsonEducation. For my own work — some comedy, live-streamed show updates, life announcements — follow me on Instagram @theonlysamclark.
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!