By Tiffany Shlain | Indiewire May 6, 2013 at 11:01AM
But I did end up going to NYU for this 6 week crash course called Sight and Sound, where I learned to shoot and edit in film. Then I came back to Berkeley. Spike Lee had just done “Do the Right Thing” and I thought, “I’m going to make my first feature.” I started a film company, whatever that meant, called Flicker Fusion Film, and I was going to make my first film that imagined a world inside of the brain. As I told you, I was really into the brain. It was called “Zoli’s Brain.” This is footage of me very young, not even in my 20’s (left) with a way too ambitious film that took place inside of a sculptor’s brain and with this cast of hundreds. We had so many extras, we shot on Alcatraz, where forbidden thoughts are imprisoned. Your first film is supposed to be like four actors in an apartment and this was like way too big. I kept running out of money on multiple occasions and over a 3-year period I was $30,000 in debt, I was sleeping on a friend’s couch, I had too much pride to go back to my family, and I realized I had to stop the film.
I felt like a total failure, I felt like I had let everybody down in my life that believed in me. I got really depressed and it was one of those moments I’m sure we’ve all had in our early 20’s when you’re like, “What am I doing? How am I going to make a living?”
But really, this was one of the more important times in my career. I often think that resumes would be infinitely more interesting if you listed all of your accomplishments and then there was a special section that was like, “Big things I tried that I failed at and what I learned from them.” Because I think about that time all the time even today. I think it taught me how to be a good boss. I had hundreds of people working for free. I learned what I didn’t know and what I needed to work at. So it was a really good experience.
After that, the way I crawled out of debt was by working in CDROMs. Anyone remember CDROMs? I was working on a CDROM about the artist Sting and I was at the library doing research and someone said to me, “You have to see this thing called The Web! There’s a Website, and basically all these people from around the world that like Sting’s music are talking about it on a website.” And I was like, “this is that thing!”
I moved back to San Francisco and was given the opportunity to found The Webby Awards- from scratch. It was a crazy time. San Francisco in the 90’s was kind of like the 60’s, but instead of free love it was a lot of free Internet and young people. But the same kind of energy and Mayor Giulliani tried to bring the Webby’s to New York but we kept it in San Francisco and it was just all a wild time. Google had only been alive for a couple of months and The Google Guys won their first Webby and roller-bladed onto the stage in front of a 3,000 person, sold-out theater with press from everywhere. This was a surreal 10-year period of my life.
The cool thing about doing the Webby’s was honoring people, which is such a gift. So many people, their parents never said, ‘you did a good job.’ So what we got to do with the Webby’s was in a really big, dramatic way say, ‘Good job,’ and then you keep pushing the standards of the web. We could hold up this standard of excellence and it was like we were saying “now push against this.” It was a really exciting wonderful period of my life.
At the same time I would introduce each of the Webby’s with some 3 to 5 min film that felt like a music video of ideas about technology and the Internet, so I got to practice making movies with a budget. If you think about cloud filmmaking, technology and filmmaking were side by side at this time, but they were not intertwined.
Then 9/11 happened and I think everyone can attest to how much soul searching everybody did. I decided I really wanted to give back to society more. Bush had just come into power and the first thing he did was take away funding for women’s family planning all over the world. So I approached Planned Parenthood with a co-writer, who’s in the audience, my best friend, and we approached them and we said, “we want to make a hip short film for you with archival footage, ironic like my style, about reproductive choice and get it in for the election to engage our generation.” So they were like, ‘great we would love the help, we don’t have anything like that.’
So we made this film and it got into Sundance. It started playing around the world and Planned Parenthoods got to use it at their 30 year anniversary of Roe v Wade. It was this real ‘aha!’ moment for me, realizing that I can help nonprofits with film, combined with the power of the web, to make a true impact.
Also, I wanted to be a mom. So during the Webby’s I was working 100 hour weeks, I had just gotten married, and I’m like, how do I do this and be a good mom? How do I work less and have more impact? That was really something I was struggling with. At the Webby’s, not only was I work 100 hour weeks, every year you have to one-up yourself the next year. And here I made this film and it took 4 months and to this day, in 2013, that film still plays at reproductive rights events around the country. That is so much more of an efficient use of my creative energy to make an impact in the world.
I think a lot of women here can attest to that, it’s a real challenge. How do you contribute to society and be a very present mother? The Internet is what the feminists all over the world needed to be able to do both.
So I promptly got pregnant. We sold The Webby Awards to good people in New York and I stayed with it for two more years while it transitioned here in New York. Then I also started The Moxie Institute, to use film and the web to promote change in the world.
The other big development that was happening in that period, 2004/2006, was YouTube. So suddenly videos were available anywhere you had the Internet. It really changed the way that I made movies too. Before this, if I wanted to find a shot of a woman from the 50’s I would have to go through all these old dusty closets of reels to find that shot. Now, I go on the Internet and type in, ‘1950’s car, woman’ and I don’t even finish the word ‘waving’ and I have 30 shots to choose from. I was like a kid in a candy store, making movies with all this archival footage, it was so exciting to me.
I finally wanted to tackle a feature film again and I wanted to look at connectedness, I’d spent all this time on the Webbys and how technology is changing us, I wanted to go back to the Big Bang to the Industrial Revolution and where it’s taking us.
A few things were different for me making a film this time.
Remember when I was younger and we used films as such a trigger of conversation?
Well all of our films at The Moxie Institute come with these kits (right) because we view films as a moveable feast.
I want you guys to have the tools to have your own conversations that I used to have growing up. We develop these as we’re making the film, we provide discussion cards and all this stuff that makes the experience more rich. The film is the appetizer and the discussion you have is the main course.