Red Gaskell on striving for creative satisfaction through collaborations with friends
Meet Red Gaskell, a Filipino director and photographer based in Los Angeles.
Meet Red Gaskell, a Filipino director and photographer based in Los Angeles. He runs RG Studios, a production company focusing on branded content, commercials, feature-length films, and documentaries. He shares how he got started in the production world by diving into freelance and sharing his learning process with others. Along the way, he's found satisfaction through the ability to collaborate with friends and hopes to continue to do so as he explores the world of directing further.
Interviewed in December 2022
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell us a little about you. My name is Red, and I'm a director in LA. I'm also a photographer. Short and sweet.
Can you share any career-defining moments of how you got to where you are today? There were several moments.
My first career-defining job was doing social and making all the content at Everlane. When I was there, what I was doing was mostly just on the phone, so it wasn't "real production." But I got to do a lot of the behind-the-scenes on set. I would learn from photographers, directors, or people they hire to make things for the website or the campaign. And I thought, "I could do this." But there wasn't a path for me to do it internally [at the company].
So, I started freelancing [full-time] to figure out how to get into production and get hired for that type of work. But instead, when I started freelancing, I would get hired for social media content.
It took me going back to [in-house] full-time work but negotiating that I would get to do something so that I'd be able to put in my portfolio that shows actual production. So, even though I got hired for a social and marketing role, it helped me get that first piece of work I could point to when I started freelancing to show, "Yeah, I can do this."
Often, people in their careers want to transition to something else, but it's tough to do so. How did you get your new job to agree to give you that chance? Or how did you help the team see the potential in you? It's a little biased because I had such a good run at Everlane that I got lucky. I had a lot of leeway in choosing the next opportunity. I couldn't go straight into production, though. Or I wasn't confident enough to ask for that. Maybe more people would have given me the shot if I had asked for it, but I didn't.
People were impressed with the run I had [at Everlane] and what I did while I was there, so they were willing to give me opportunities, even though sometimes it felt like I was pigeonholed to social content. Or I’d be recommended for something where they described the ideal candidate as young and hungry which is a nice way of saying someone desperate that they will underpay.
I also had a good relationship with the founders at this new company. They believed in allowing me to pursue other creative avenues while doing this other role, so it worked out. I think a lot of people wanted me to succeed though, and felt like there was always someone looking out for me. And there was a lot of luck.
There's always a lot of luck. However, I want to touch on the other point you mentioned: you could have gotten more production work earlier if you had asked. What do you think held you back? It was myself and not having the audacity to ask. I could have, but I just didn't. And I think I was probably afraid of not making money. I didn’t want to be broke again and start from zero.
I was [still] pretty audacious because I interviewed with a fashion company: an Amazon-owned, direct-to-consumer brand trying to do basics and stuff. I had quoted them a crazy amount of ~$60,000 for three months of work for just strategy or something like that. And they were considering it, which was shocking to me. But the person I was talking to left the company, so that didn't really pan out.
Through those conversations, I thought it was interesting and couldn't believe they didn't straight up say "no." But yeah, I was staying in my comfort zone of social-related things versus trying to make commercials and stuff at that time.
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So from this full-time role, you went back to freelance afterward? Yes, I went back to freelance afterward. I was in that full-time role for about eight months. But I did try to quit the first day.
What happened? I was already hesitant about joining a company full-time. I was doing a lot of freelance for Airbnb and some other companies, which was really fun. I just returned from a trip to Mexico City, where my friends and I filmed an Instagram story about some Airbnb experiences and all this cool stuff. So I was like, "oh, this would be really cool to do around the world," or something like that which they were discussing potentially.
But, the full-time role offered stability, predictability, and really high pay. This was the first job where I negotiated for a lot of compensation that I felt I wanted and deserved. So I was like, "maybe I should do this." I also wanted to freelance, but you can't do that at a startup because it'll take all your time.
When I got there on the first day, I opened my laptop, fired up slack, and I thought to myself, "What did I just do?"
Next, I contacted the HR person or the person who helped hire me, and I was like, "I think I made a mistake. I'd like to quit." laughing Oh my god! So they contacted the founder, and since the founder was on his way to the office, he asked, "Can we just talk real quick?" The conversation turned into three hours.
He convinced me I should stay for three months through the launch, and then we could revisit my decision. And, I guess I folded. I don't know what would have happened if I had quit, but I decided to stay full-time for eight months. I got all these things that felt important at the time like a nice salary, benefits, options etc. I started making friends at work and just began falling back into the full-time routine.
In hindsight now, what kept you going in those eight months? What kept me going was that I would be able to shoot all the e-commerce and launch videos because the company hadn't launched yet. With the big launch, they said they had all these relationships with magazines and editors, and the videos would be released as part of that. I figured it would be a good opportunity to make something with some substance in terms of the campaign, launch, and everything—which was enticing. And to be real a full-time salary and benefits is hard to leave.
Were there other decisions or factors you considered as you transitioned to the next thing after this full-time role? More opportunities for actual photo shoots, like editorial and styling, would have probably made me want to stay more. If we were doing a lot more conceptual things and videos but those things weren't happening. In hindsight I probably should have joined a company with a strong production team already in place or an agency or something where I could learn. But this was still a startup that just launched, so we were figuring out tons of things meaning we had to switch focus a lot. I couldn’t go deep on production even if I wanted to.
By October I was pretty burnt out and hit my tipping point and, one of my closest friends, Dinesh, told me that his friend's family winery wanted to do a documentary about the harvest they're doing in the fall. And I was like, "I'm so in!" They also had a good budget that allowed me to quit almost immediately and take on this job. I had saved money, too, so I was in a good position to be like, "I think my time is more important than anything else at this point." And it was now, or I'd be [at the full-time role] for the next three years.
The winery project gave me a lot of confidence. They were also a really good client because they paid the 50% advance and paid on time. They treated us so well. And they set a high bar for any future client.
Aside from that, I was filming anything with any friend who wanted to do something cool.
My homie Chris aka Honorroller built these wooden sculptures for a skating competition and asked me to film his process and record a short interview. But he said, "you don't have to edit any of this; hand over the footage to the skate company hosting this competition, and they'll edit it together." So all this footage and his interview were sitting on my hard drive, and I wanted something for this because it was cool and I had a lot of built up creative anxiety at the time from not making anything. So I cut it together into a one-minute episode, added music, and just a fun little edit showing his process. And people really liked it.
And it's something I want to revisit because I want to do more of that: short video portraits of artists and friends.
[The video portrait is] what got me an opportunity with Square, which led to two documentaries—one of Chinatown in New York and one on a Filipino family in New Jersey. [Square was] focusing on small businesses, and they wanted to film a couple of these video portraits of small businesses in New York and New Jersey. But, the initial conversation was happening around February 2020 when I released the initial [woodworking] video portrait.
My friend Nick [from Square] was like, "This [video portrait] is cool; how much do you think it costs to film something like this?" And honestly, I had no idea. But I looked at the company Square, and I was like, "they're a bank!" laughing They have money. And I was like, "I guess one or two of these videos will be around $40,000 for the production budget." And he said, "Sounds about right." And I was like, "Holy shit."
I later learned that a production budget that's $40,000 is not very much money since it gets divided very fast because of fees and other things you have to consider. So that was February 2020 when we had that initial conversation. And two and a half, three weeks later, he said, "Hey, we're shutting down [because of the Covid-19 pandemic]. So we're not doing any production for the rest of the year."
So even though in , I did a lot of filming at home in my apartment, like product videos and stuff, it was strangely good because many companies couldn't have too much overhead. And I had no overhead. So I filmed stuff in my apartment and started doing self-assigned homework, like recreating movie scenes or an image I liked. For each, I gave myself limitations. Those also did well; people thought they were good, so they'd later hire me for a client project.
Could you walk us through some of these self-assigned projects? The first one I did was a scene from Parasite. I was binging movies and had a bunch of food and booze on my coffee table. And I was like, "This already looks like the scene. So let me adjust a few things." And I had a dark gray couch that looked like the one in the movie. So there's a little production design to that.
For the next one, I tried recreating the scene from In the Mood for Love, where Tony Leung is smoking a cigarette in his office. I went out and bought clove cigarettes. I burned incense to add more atmospheric smoke.
Then, I did another one where I recreated a scene from La La Land that looked pretty damn close to a scene from the movie. I already had a piano since I was trying to learn to play during the pandemic, so I was able to use that in the scene.
I also tried recreating an Apple iPhone unboxing commercial. The entire [original commercial] was shot in an apartment, so I was like, "this is perfect." That was interesting because I learned how to do the visual. I got close to doing it like the scene. There was one scene I couldn't do because they used a robot and a special lens. But I did everything else. I also learned that sound and music are so important because that was half of the video and what sold and made it feel like a really good commercial.
So those were some of the projects that got people's attention and made them think of me for stuff. I’d get hired and it kept me going throughout the year.
What did you focus on next? After doing stuff by myself, I started doing things with my friend, Keith. We wanted to recreate this sketch that Kevin James did of a simple interaction where someone is waving in your direction, and you think they're waving to you. But it was meant for someone else behind you. And there's this misunderstanding, like, "oh shit, that wasn't for me, and I'm embarrassed."
So we recreated our version with some friends who acted in it. We did that in a day, but didn’t release it for almost a year because we couldn’t get the right music for it. Until I asked my friend Yuri and he turned something around in 1 take and it was perfect. When Keith posted it, it got a ton of comments saying how good and funny it was. And I realized, "oh yeah, I like doing this stuff." We didn't get paid for it, but it was the quality that people thought was good. And so we wanted to do more of this.
Then, a few weeks later, he was producing a couple of videos and a photo series for Nike. The people he was originally going to work with had to drop out. So he's like, "I guess the universe is saying we should work together again."
At the time, there were two markets for video creation. One of them was a DSLR where you're filming like Casey Neistat or shooting a lot of concerts with fast editing. It felt very competitive. So, I had to find a way to separate myself from it, and I thought, I'll get a cinema camera and enter more of the production world where there is a team and more people that'll give me a competitive advantage.
So around the same time [that Keith wanted to work together], I had just bought a new camera. Initially, I was looking at the camera and thinking, "Can I afford this? Is it a good idea?" I had really good credit, so Sony gave me 0% financing over the next four years, which was ~$200 a month. And I'm like, "Okay, why not?" And I can also rent the camera out, so it'll pay for itself. You know how when you want to do something, you'll figure out a way to rationalize it to make it make sense even if it doesn't? So it made sense.
I got the camera and felt like, "Okay, cool. Let me do production stuff now." And so he hit me up, and it felt like a good opportunity to start down this path. We made a couple of things, but honestly, it was too soon for me to start using that camera because I didn't fully grasp how to use it to its full potential yet. We did good and filmed a lot of really good, beautiful images. But, I think it might have been better for me to use the camera I already had and knew well because this production was still pretty much figuring out a lot on the fly from location to location.
There were some things I was really excited about, but there are definitely some things I wish I could have done better.
This was also when I was still really afraid and not confident, but my big bet was to say "yes" and figure out how to be as helpful and useful as possible. What will make my friend look good to Nike or make this a really good production? And if I bring really great equipment with me, like the camera, drone, and accessories, it'll be really useful. But, I was a one-man camera crew, and the technology and gear ended up getting in the way versus having a simpler setup. Now I know better.
As someone who has been following your journey, I found that not only did you share the final work you've done, but you also invited your audiences and friends to be part of the process with you as you figured out how things are made. Were you conscious that you were doing a lot of sharing to get more visibility, or were you like, "I'm just going to do this and see what sticks?" More of the latter where I'm just going to do this and see what sticks because there was nothing else to do [during the pandemic]. And I get creative anxiety if I sit around too long. So I needed to do something, and for some reason, it felt like the right thing to be working on. And then I would see feedback and be like, "People are into this, cool. Let me do more." I also spent a lot of time answering questions in my DMs about this type of work. But then, one of the reasons I stopped doing it was that I didn't want to be known just for that.
Some people have really good work but have no social media at all. And I used to think that my social media would create opportunities for me, but I realize that doesn't need to be so true anymore. And I wanted to avoid getting caught in a cycle of doing self-assigned projects and answering questions in my DMs. Instead, I could be doing something else to pursue more opportunities.
Some people have really good work but have no social media at all. And I used to think that my social media would create opportunities for me, but I realize that doesn't need to be so true anymore.
What happens next? It's the end of 2020, and I'm starting to think about what I need to do in January, who my clients will be, and putting together a reel to reach out to folks. Then as January is about to end, Nick [from Square] hit me up about budgets rolling over from this past year, and that we could work together on something. That was exciting.
We got started at the end of January . That project kept me busy through June. I'm so grateful for that project because that was my first step into a big production. It was the biggest budget I had worked with at the time. I got to hire a crew. I also got to work with another production company showing me the ropes. I got to work with an incredible producer that my friend had also worked with.
This was the turning point. That was the first project I started to understand, and I can keep talking about this for years. The shelf life of it is so long. Before, when I worked in social, you were only as good as your last post. And it doesn't stand the test of time. Some things may go viral, or people like to look at them, but it's short and few in between. Yeah.
I still get to point to it. And even this year, I'm working on something because of that project. But all in all, the Square projects went further than I could have imagined. They got into several festivals and won awards. We got into Tribeca X, the advertising part of Tribeca, where we were finalists. I was shocked by it, and it was super cool.
With this turning point and the time then till now, have you started accomplishing what the past you set out to do when you started this journey? Yes and no because, honestly, I thought, "Oh shit, this is it! I'm going to be doing this all the time now." And that didn't happen.
I've been bidding a lot, getting considered for opportunities, but they'll fall through, or clients pick a different director. I've talked to other directors about this, and they say, "Welcome to the life. That's just part of the process." One director, Ryan Booth, who’s helped me a ton, shared that if you're batting 300, you're killing it. If you get 30% of the opportunities you're considered for, that's a good thing. Someone else clarified it for me: most people will get one really cool project a year. And then the rest of the time, they're doing projects that'll pay the bills, but they'll probably never share that.
There are a lot of comparisons and anxiety because, on socials, it always feels like someone is on set doing something really cool and you're not. I also try to balance it out because there's more than enough work. After all, these brands and companies are constantly making stuff. I try not to fall into that trap that much and remind myself that I need to be patient since I only really started in 2019. So, I'm doing pretty well in that regard. Many people I know doing the work I want to do have been in the game for ten years or more, so I can be patient.
Why do you need to bid for projects versus creating your own? Could you share that process a bit more? For commercial directing, clients want you to audition yourself and convince them why you're the right director for the project. They're going to hire people based on something other than just their previous work, like applying for a job. The process usually includes the client sending you a brief, and they want you to create a treatment and a document that is personal and creative and tells them why you should be the one to do it. You have to be very charismatic on a call where you present this deck and tell your story.
So there is a lot that I'm learning about because I presented a couple of times earlier this year and got feedback on needing to work on a few more things. For example, I'm good off the cuff, but then I tend to ramble sometimes, so I need to cut down here and there. I even took acting classes because I'm trying to figure out how to speak more confidently, especially when given a question I'm unsure about.
I'm working on those skills now, too, because it's not just about my technical skills. In the past, it was figuring out the technical parts, like how close I could get to what the big leagues were doing, and I could get 80% of the way with limited resources. Now, it's more soft skills and a sales game. And knowing myself, my story, and how to present myself is a new challenge.
You also mentioned you're a photographer. You've recently been focusing on a personal project of doing more portrait photography. Why is that important to you? As a director, I'll work with actors, but it's hard to do video scenes every day. So photography is a shorter, faster turnaround way of working with people to direct them and create the image and feeling I want. There are a lot of soft skills in photography—clicking the button to get the shot is the last 5% of it. The bulk of it is communicating with people and making them feel confident in what they're doing as you're about to photograph them. It feels like a good skill to develop for filmmaking.
It's also something I'm personally interested in. There are a lot of photographers I admire and want to be able to shoot photos in the same sort of way. I want it to be a skill that I have. I've always been naturally okay at interiors, still life, and objects. People are scarier because it's more than just sitting there taking the same photo of a corner or chair and adjusting the lighting. It's doing that with a person who is present, and you have to consider them and their energy, emotion, and feelings too.
People are scarier because it's more than just sitting there taking the same photo of a corner or chair and adjusting the lighting. It's doing that with a person who is present, and you have to consider them and their energy, emotion, and feelings too.
Now that you're a few years in—why is it important for you to continue what you're doing? It's creatively satisfying. I like the collaboration in filmmaking. I also enjoy the solo work, so it's a bit of both. It has to do with being in the creative process for yourself. We talked about this earlier. It's not so much about the result but knowing that I can do this or the process of figuring it out together.
Earlier today, I did a portrait shoot with some of my neighbors in my building. It was really fun because they were like, "We've never actually had our photos taken before." This was a new process for them. And I was like, "This is my studio's third or fourth portrait session so I'm learning too." And there were a lot of things we wanted to try together. They pulled some images they liked, and I had some references in my mind and what I thought could be cool. And so, we were just figuring it out together. There's just something about the craft of it that was really cool.
Even recently, I went to an improv show at the UCB Franklin Theatre, and it was really fun seeing people go through the process of getting on stage to perform. I got drinks with some people after and learned about what they do, why they do it, and how. I'm just drawn to that sort of thing.
There's a lot of satisfaction in it too. My friend Tiki and I did a project earlier this year for a mental health startup. We came up with some reference images, and there were a lot of things I wanted to do. We had a limited budget and team. Tiki recognized an opportunity while filming on the beach as the sun went down. He said, "If we go up on this hill over there, we could get something close to the thing we wanted in the mood board." And it was spot on.
I was so happy because it looked just like the thing I wanted to do. I was like, "Thank you. This is amazing because I was so focused on what was in front of me that I wasn't even looking around the area." Having a solid team of people that are looking out for you is so important. And it’s mad nice if they’re your homies too.
Switching gears, any misconceptions about you, the work, or the industry you're in? As an outsider, when I think of directing, I think of this lucrative career to be a director, and it's super fancy! Film production is the least profitable freelance career possible because there's so much overhead. People think that if we charge $100,000 for something, we're making $100,000. But you have to pay the crew. Then, if you pay everyone on payroll, 23% of that is going to fringe and taxes.
And then, I also pay myself a salary now. When I pay myself, for example, $10,000, it will cost me $11,000-$12,000, and $4,000 is already taken out for taxes. When it goes from the business bank account, $11,000 gets taken out, but only $7,000 ends up in my personal bank account. So, it's not very lucrative. But then again I guess I’m doing okay if I can pay myself $10,000. Don’t get me wrong though I’ve set up a salary so I’m basically at $75k a year.
I figured out a way to make it profitable enough for me that I am running a healthy enough business. Much more planning is involved, especially if you're a business owner because I have a production company. I'm not just a freelance director. I think I could be, but it’s scary. I have a lot of good direct-to-client relationships and that's kind of my comfort zone right now.
I’m definitely doing more work now than when I was a full-time employee and I have to do more of the work I did not like but it’s different here since it enables me to work like this.
Are the direct-to-client relationships what you'd rather be doing? I don't know. It's only been two-ish years, and so far, they've been really good because that provides a lot of stability. In the next two to three years, there's probably a future where I don't do the infrastructure and overhead. It would maybe be better for me to work with a bigger production company where they have relationships with agencies and brands for these bigger budget projects, and then my day rate increases. Right now, it's more financially incentivizing to work on direct-to-client relationships. And that's what works for you right now.
Another misconception is that people often think being a director is a creative role. But there is a lot of admin, management, and spending a lot of time in Google Sheets and meetings. There's a lot of that. Of course, you're running a small business by yourself!
What advice would you give to the past you if you had the opportunity? I don't know because it all worked out pretty good. It's like the butterfly effect; I don't want to jinx things. And have a solid group chat, shoutout to Bag Talk.
Okay, maybe not actually go back in the past to say it, but general advice for yourself? One would be patience. And then I wouldn't have quit my first job at Everlane so soon. I did give them three months' notice, but I may have tried to do more projects on the side.
Another thing could be calming myself down. Probably spun my wheels a lot unnecessarily. I was anxiety-ridden all the time with what I did. I felt like each opportunity would be "the thing" that changes everything. It isn't. It's an accumulation of those things. It happens fairly gradually. There isn't an overnight thing. And I'm still in the process of getting there.
I felt like each opportunity would be "the thing" that changes everything. It isn't. It's an accumulation of those things. It happens fairly gradually. There isn't an overnight thing. And I'm still in the process of getting there.
I have the project with Square, but I'm still struggling to figure out my next major directing thing, which I'm getting now I think. I just signed a contract for something new to go to Argentina, Brazil, and the Bay Area next year, which I'm really excited about.
I didn't get a lot of these other opportunities this year [in 2022], but it's fine. I survived. Actually I did more than survive. I did work I'm really proud of, and now I have a project that instead of four, five, or six projects to complete in a quarter, this is the one project I will work on for the next three or four months. And that's okay. And that's okay, and it's exciting!
Give us a list of 3 things that you’d recommend; you choose the topic.
Tsubaki in Echo Park, LA. It's a Japanese restaurant that does yakitori. They have this short-rib dish with carrots and potatoes (short ribs nanban-style) that's really good. The chicken oysters (soriresu) are also really good.
Pizzeria Bianco in LA. The chef was in the first episode of Netflix's Chef's Table Pizza Edition. The pizza and they have these mortadella sandwiches that I've been craving since I had one in this place in New York. It's just so good.
Two things: Ryan Booth's podcast, The Process Dispatch, and Off Camera Show with Sam Jones. I've been listening to and watching the interviews that are so inspiring. You get to hear about the early stages before these filmmakers blew up who are riffing on their entire careers. It's been helpful in giving me the context of what I'm doing now in these early years of pursuing this path. It's made me feel less like comparing myself to people who are already working at a high level. Learning that they have to do these things too! And that I shouldn't feel bad that I'm losing all these jobs. They went through these slow periods or whatever too. And it's just like, "Okay, like, it's not that bad." There was a point where they didn't give up and it got better.
What song do you have on repeat right now?
Tops, which is a Canadian band, my studio mate, showed me that I've been listening to all day. That, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Red is also passionate about giving back to Heart of Dinner. Heart of Dinner’s mission works to directly address food insecurity and isolation experienced by Asian American seniors in New York City. As part of this Conversation, a donation was made to Heart of Dinner.
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