Webby Award Winning Filmmaker Sarah Verstraete: “Why you should surround yourself with people you can learn from”

Surround yourself with people you can learn from. It is a great mindset to try and figure things out by yourself, but never forget to also learn from other people’s experience. It will make you better at what you do. As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct […]

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Surround yourself with people you can learn from. It is a great mindset to try and figure things out by yourself, but never forget to also learn from other people’s experience. It will make you better at what you do.

As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sarah Verstraete. Born in Paris, France, Sarah has been a producer in NYC at Neymarc Visuals since 2011. She has produced award-winning short films, TV and online commercials for renown brands (Pepsi, BB&T bank, Volvic, Chevrolet, Nestea), and has produced the prototype of a Super Bowl commercial for Dannon, which aired in front of 100 million people during the third quarter of the Super Bowl in 2012. Recently, she produced “Happy Valentine’s Day”, which won 2 Webby Awards, received a Vimeo Staff Pick, got shortlisted at Cannes Lion 2018, and received awards from multiple international film festivals. She has an uncanny ability to scale to projects needs and is experienced in complex productions requiring 360 green screens, rain, light and wind gags, special effects and visual effects.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Sarah! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Thanks for having me!

I was raised in a small town right outside of Paris in France, and grew up with an older brother, and generally around boys. The reaction you usually get from most women when you mention growing up with a brother is that “it must have been rough”. But I never felt that way and I believe growing up with a brother made me a stronger woman. Though he was and still is very protective of me, he always saw me as a partner and not as “the little sister” which encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone, and to feel accepted and part of everything he was invested in. And even if sometimes, I should have spared myself of some activities that I was way too young for and got hurt, it taught me to know my limits & improve on my weaknesses, that I could have a place wherever I wanted it too, and most of all, it taught me how to adapt & be versatile. Though I always had a very “girly side”, growing up with a brother encouraged me to try new things and to not necessary do what was expected of me as a girl, which shaped me into the woman I am today.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

As soon as I saw my first movie (Free Willy) in a small movie theater in Joinville le Pont, France, at the age of 5, I took an immediate interest in the world of storytelling and became fascinated by the magic behind creating a movie. I always loved the arts and created small plays with my friends from age 8 to age 16, in which I acted as well. At the time, I didn’t think I could make a living out of my passion in the arts so, when I graduated high school, I decided to go to law school to become a lawyer. But my passion for arts could not stay dormant for that long. So as I was working towards a PhD in International Private Law & Assets Managements in Paris, I was also producing content on the side, with my best friends from my school.

A crucial part of my early career in producing was the alliance formed with the Neymarc Brothers, and Michael Tan, all childhood friends that went to the same high school as I did in France. Together, we started creating spec commercials for big brands, and secured several awards, including 1st place for Dannon Super Bowl Competition, and 1st & 2nd place for our American Red Cross commercials at the Mofilm Competition in Barcelona.

After the commercial for Dannon aired in the third quarter of the 2012 Super Bowl, with celebrity actor John Stamos, it was listed as “The Top 20 Most Effective TV Commercials since 2005” by the independent news magazine Daily Beast. Before I obtained my French PHD in Private Law in 2013 (and passed the bar that same year), I had worked on digital and TV commercials for numerous brands, most notably Tropicana, Cadillac, Pepsi, Linak, J&B Whiskey, Chevrolet and Toyota.

And from there, we kept on creating quality content and getting recognition for our work. Our content is regularly broadcasted on Times Square’s screens in NYC, including commercials for the city’s largest office landlord, SL Green Realty Corp. and the One World Trade Center.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When you work as much as I do, your most interesting stories often end up being about some of your projects, especially the crazy ones!

We’ve recently released a short-film I produced called “Happy Valentine’s Day” (written and directed by The Neymarc Brothers), which won 2 Webby Awards (honoring excellence on the internet), received a Vimeo Staff Pick, got shortlisted at Cannes Lions 2018, and received awards from multiple international film festivals. The film was well received online and has 1.2 million views on Facebook and 300,000 views on Youtube.

“Happy Valentine’s Day” is the story of how the downfall of a couple triggers the birth of a new love between two strangers. Told in slow-motion, in one unique camera sequence, and in reverse. What makes this film so special is its combination of incredible complex elements: the one unique camera move, the reverse, the slow motion and the fully created digital world. Due to budget constraints, we could not afford to block an entire New York City intersection so we decided to completely create a New York City street in CG. To properly integrate our real actors into this virtual environment, we custom built a 360 degree green screen arena that enabled us to control all aspects of the lighting and of the background elements. We knew it was going to be a technical challenge so we established all the details down to the millimeter at the animatic stage during pre-production. The entire CG New York City street, was modeled, textured, and animated from scratch over the course of six months, with only three artists, including Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Tan. An amazing technical feat that got noticed as the film was selected to be screened at the electronic theater of Siggraph Los Angeles, the biggest annual computer graphics conference in the world.

There is also the story of when we shot in a chocolate shop in Soho in NYC for 17 hours, one can only imagine the amount of chocolate we consumed that day, but that’s for another time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

On the first day of my first big shoot, I didn’t really think about comfort and practicality…and I wore a dress. (Being a lawyer from France, I’ve always paid attention to how I dress. It’s in my DNA!) Not only was I clearly overdressed (and looked way too French) but it is definitely not the smartest move when you’re a producer and need to have your walkie on you at all times. So I had to be creative and keep my walkie in my handbag all day… which is clearly not convenient when you have to move around and be everywhere on set. Lesson learned: don’t wear a dress on set again!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am heading out to Boston to shoot a commercial for Body Armor featuring the famous Red Sox baseball player, Mookie Betts. I am also producing some cool content for the Oculus in NYC, a mind-boggling glass and steel structure designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to look like a dove ‘in flight’. And my team and I are developing creative concepts for a commercial for the observatory of Midtown’s soon to be super-tall skyscraper, One Vanderbilt.

I’m very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Film and television have an incredible power of influence and thus have a responsibility to feature those who are underrepresented in film. Though people do not determine which movie to see based solely on the diversity of the cast, audiences internalize and normalize the world they see reflected on screen. Therefore, having more diversity in film can help create less-stigmatized ideas of others based on their skin color/sexual orientation/gender/languages & help build a better understanding of each other. A more diverse industry will actually benefit the studios in many ways: the more a movie speaks to people, the more likely they are to see it, so having more diversity in the cast and themes will expand target audiences for a specific movie hence making more money at the box office. Lastly, diversity will create countless opportunities for greater content and performances, regardless of ethnicity or cultural background. The pool of talent will expand!

From your personal experience, can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address some of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?

Studios should also be compelled to hire more diverse corporate executives, producers and directors, and to welcome more unknown and diverse talent. And that starts with the content watchers. We should utilize our purchasing powers as audience members to incite studios to finance more innovative and thought-provoking content instead of prioritizing old franchises or typical Hollywood movies with the same stale formula. So we need to speak up and show them that we want stories that are different, new and diverse.

Audiences have already forced changes in Hollywood by shifting where content is watched and giving life to streaming services. So it’s time that audiences demand content that reflects the world they live in, and to see stories that make them think and question their beliefs.

Productions should partner with change-makers such as the Evolve Entertainment Fund, Women in Film, the Sundance Institute Diversity Initiative, etc. to boost those diversity efforts.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Expect rejection and learn from it instead of dwelling on it.
  2. Not every job is meant to happen. Learn to say no.
  3. It will take longer than expected but it will be worth it. Challenges and detours are to be expected — do not give up, have a ‘whatever it takes’ mentality.
  4. Surround yourself with people you can learn from. It is a great mindset to try and figure things out by yourself, but never forget to also learn from other people’s experience. It will make you better at what you do.
  5. Build your network and foster your relationships.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Setting goals is by far one of the most important things to do to accomplish anything in life. If you do not have any specific idea of where you want to be, then life is what happens to you. Instead, I like to take (a bit of) control over it and try to be in the driver’s seat of my own plan.

So start by setting clear goals of what you want to accomplish in your career: aim high but also set strategic intermediate goals that will lead you towards the ‘big one’ and that you can achieve within a short timeframe so you get some gratification out of the work you are doing. Any big goal must be broken down into steps to not only become achievable but to also make the journey worthwhile. Because sometimes, when you are reaching for something big, it is easy to loose sight of where you want to be and what you actually need to do to get there. So be focused, strategic, and break it down into steps.

It is also important to always keep learning, growing. Make sure to challenge yourself, to surround yourself with people that inspire you, and find the learning experience in any mistake you make or even if you think you are doing the same thing over and over again: there is always something to be improved or to grow from.

And obviously, make it a priority to take time for yourself to recharge. Take breaks and spend quality time with people who inspire you.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, it would focus on encouraging empathy. Empathy is a capability we all have to a certain extent — we all crave connectedness and our brains are hard-wired to mirror others’ experiences. But we live in a society that sees empathy as a ‘soft skill’ and rewards individualism. I truly believe empathy can be the pathway for success, growth and an overall better world. Empathy facilities cooperation which is critical for anything or any team to function effectively. It can also expand your way of thinking — by understanding an unfamiliar point of view, you can test new perspectives and ideas which is a key element for successful innovation and breakthrough content. Perceiving the world from different viewpoint is also essential to put an end to stereotypes and to create a world that is not afraid of each other’s differences. Lastly, people may forget some of your actions but they will always remember how you made them feel, and that’s priceless.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am obviously grateful towards my parents who have always supported me in my endeavors, even and especially when it was not convenient for them. But also, working so tightly with my team (and close friends) has made me stronger in so many ways. When it is just you, it is easy to get stuck in a routine and not push yourself hard enough. But when you’re part of a team, you hold each other accountable and inspire each other to give the best of yourself, to get out of your comfort zone. Inspiration is like a wheel when you have the right amount and I am so grateful to have a team that have a drive to accomplish the impossible, together.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door”. I try to apply that to every aspect of my life. It is especially relevant to me being a foreigner trying to build a successful career in one of the most competitive cities in the world. Do not dwell on people telling you that is going to be hard or impossible. Do not focus on what is out of your control and limits you, find a way around it. Creating opportunities for yourself is the door. And if you fail, just try again, or look at it from another angle.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are a lot of inspiring people out there that I would love to meet and learn from, but if I had to choose I would say Emma Thomas who produced most of my favorite movies (Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Night etc.). I would love to learn some of her magic tricks and find out how she managed to sleep while producing some of the most challenging movies ever made!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/neymarcvisuals/?hl=en

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NeymarcVisuals/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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