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5 Steps To Realizing Successful Passion Projects

How do you tell a better, stronger, more compelling story through your photos or video work? How do you get booked for the work you want to do? Film makers and story tellers, Jared Levy and Justin Hamilton, will today share some secrets. Their new, beautiful, compelling mini-documentary entitled ‘Updating Philosophies’, helped them realize much of this, and we can all learn from their experiences. 

How do you intend to be heard and maintain someone’s attention through the noise of everyone else’s work? How do you shoot the work you want to do, rather than just shooting whatever jobs come up because you have bills to pay?

This is why I wanted to sit down with Jared Levy and Justin Hamilton, co-owners of film production company, Navigate.

A little on who these guys are: Jared is a director and cinematographer, with experience in documentaries, travel television, branded content, commercials and short films and has been a professional since 2008.

Justin is also a director and cinematographer, and has been working professionally since 2010. His experience is in documentary, travel, branded content, and short form narrative. 

Their new short, the sub-six minute documentary, ‘Updating Philosophies’, was a recent Vimeo Staff Pick. Check it out before we dive in, it's beautiful and engaging, and worthy of the acclaim they have gotten since it was released:


Updating Philosophies was a passion project, a way for them to play, finding a new and engaging way to tell a story in a way that they wanted to; free of the restrictions a client might impose.

What they’ve managed to do helps us see what we can all do to tell stronger stories and organize our ideas for passion projects. This stuff isn’t rocket science but it’s worth looking at because these key ingredients make projects like Updating Philosophies so successful.


1. Find Your Passion

We need to put the ‘passion’ into passion project. This might go without saying but it forms the basis for what work you like to create, ergo, what work you would like to be paid to create. Not only the subject, but in the way you would like to create it.

Jared explained:

Unlike all of our client work, this is a passion project, so whatever you see is a result of what Justin and I made, so in that sense, the vulnerability you see in Cern is our own vulnerability – our most clear expression as film makers, which is something that only comes out of passion projects. 

Justin emphasized the point.

Passion projects are essential. If you don’t have what you like to shoot in your portfolio or on your reel, you’re never going to get hired for the work you want to shoot.


2. Execution Is Key

Passion is a good place to start, but without solid execution, the project won’t come to fruition. A passion project should have all the makings of a “real” client job.

Jared explained the practical process for Updating Philosophies.

We’re constantly thinking of things we want to create, but also always thinking about the execution of these projects – what gear, locations can we use, who’s available. These ideas are very much rooted in a practical reality.

In September 2014 I had a meeting with Cern, a simple conversation with hopes of digging a bit deeper in order to figure out core concepts for the piece. I took the notes from this conversation and spoke to Justin about it. Through the notes, I developed a creative treatment. This treatment was as detailed and lengthy as what I would make for any client. This was a good solid week of work and while we didn’t completely need the treatment, this was a really good process for us to be clear on what we were going to do and how we were looking at doing it.

The whole point of passion projects is the freedom to create what (and how) you want. Jared continued:

With passion projects you get a final product, but you also get different ways to execute your ideas. For client work you have to often do things their way - sometimes that’s great and sometimes it’s difficult. With passion projects, we get to learn and develop what our preferred way actually is, everything from how we make up our call sheet, to how we work with our subject, to how we wrap out at the end of the day. All of this is a test bed for how you want to operate.


3. Being Professional

You might consider being a professional photographer or film maker someone who is paid for what they do. There is another side to being ‘professional’ and that’s down to delivery of the work, which includes planning, engaging with your client and managing the project through to a successful outcome.  

Jared set out their approach for the project:

Part of what we did was create a practical schedule for shooting. We shared this back with Cern, which helped because it put him in the right mindset. It showed the level of professionalism we were bringing to the project. We wanted him to understand the level of commitment we were hoping for out of him. Cern secured the permission for the wall, we took care of gear rental, car rental and so on.

Justin also mentioned how important the practicalities of locations were for them. Remember - locations must work both to tell the story, but, must also be suitable from a technical point of view, otherwise execution will be hard if not impossible.

We went on a location scout to get the right location. The locations were really important because they needed to be both creatively right and technically suitable.

4. The Importance Of Planning (And Knowing When To Deviate From The Plan)

Just because there is no client, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a plan. It’s also important to remember that nothing goes to plan perfectly, and knowing when (and how) to adapt is critical.

Jared explained how they began the planning process:

We had two schedules – one for shooting for when I thought would be best to ask questions, and another which was a pre-visualized edit as to where the answers might fit visually. We didn’t really deviate at all from this during production.  I had about 30-35 interview questions and the times I asked him these questions were at the times I’d planned for.

He also described the process for how they adapted as they went, based on the organic development of the project as they moved through it:

The one time things happened out of place was during the discussion on ephemeral art. Cern was in a groove and speaking eloquently about ephemerality so I didn’t want to interrupt him even though it was while we were shooting the balloon sequence (I didn’t want this discussion to be tied to only this artistic medium, but it happened that way and I had to roll with it) – so in the final edit, the part when you hear him talking about ephemeral art is actually during the balloon scene even though it plays during the truck scene, hence why you don’t see him speaking because the visuals didn’t work.

This adaptive approach applies just as much in post production as it does during the shoot, as Jared outlined:

Once we got to post, I initially tried making the ‘ephemerality’ interview visuals work for that section but I realized it was better to connect the answers to where I thought they might fit conceptually rather than force a pre-conceived notion of where they should go.

The production plan helped execute and chart the course but some of the biggest variables we couldn’t account for were the answers he gave. Once we had these, we let go of the assumptions we had around the preconceived order of how things should work.

Justin highlighted how these changes actually gave the production greater strength, something you can lose sight of when worrying about if / how things are deviating from the plan:

In the end we had this whole plan for production but in post, it definitely got switched up slightly. It came together much as we had laid out but ultimately it was a stronger message when we had it delivered in a way that was slightly less linear. We wanted to make it more conversational. We wanted to make it feel like it was him discussing his thoughts and philosophies in a more casual way. For instance, during interviews we removed the camera from his eye line. 


Jared agreed:

We thought this would help create a feeling for the audience of being privy to a private conversation. We didn’t want this to be like “60 Minutes”. 

Jared also mentioned how, when things don't go to plan (like the weather), it can be tricky to realize the positive benefit this kind of unforeseen, uncontrollable change can bring:

It ended up being really cloudy every day. At first we were annoyed but then started to use it to our advantage - we framed the art as the colorful part of the frame where everything else was dull and grey. The film is helped in this way as it showcases his art, demonstrating how impactful it is within it’s surroundings.


5. Changing Perspective

Updating Philosophies was never designed to be a video about graffiti or street art. The point is to portray the process of artistic creation, and to do so in a way that challenges how this is normally portrayed – it’s about changing the audience perspectives (and perceptions) as much as anything, and using the subject as a vehicle to tell the story you want to tell.

Justin and Jared were clear they wanted to use the subject matter in a way that challenged views on what the piece would ultimately be about. Jared talked a little more about the specifics of what they were aiming for:

During post, the colorist Phil Choe from color house Nice Shoes did a pre-grade for me to see. He had everything very high contrast with high saturation and colors popping. I knew he did this trying to emulate classic graffiti video culture but I basically said “make it the opposite of how it looks now”. We didn’t want this to be how “graffiti” or “street art” is typically portrayed. Once I explained our approach and concept, he understood the look and delivered a great grade. 

This approach to challenging the 'norms' of how their subject matter is normally portrayed was useful, particularly as Justin and Jared operate as a creative duo. While this aspect might apply to those of you who work collaboratively with others, it can just as easily apply to the 'group' vision of anyone on your team.

If you're trying to change perspectives that go against the norm of what most people think something should look like, then you'll also probably encounter much of what Jared and Justin experienced with other members of your team. Jared explained how this aspect positively reinforced the work he and Justin work on together:

(This whole process) was worthwhile because Justin and I learned so much about our aesthetic. We learnt so much about working together, even though we’d been working together for years. Tastes gets refined and as our individual tastes refine, its good to check in to ensure we grow together creatively.



Justin explained the concept further:

This wasn’t, and isn’t, a graffiti video. It’s not a street art video. It’s about the process of an artist, of creating. Graffiti is the medium we are exploring in the video but its not the main focus – it’s about how you deal with your own expression, and that’s universal.


What this comes down to is being clear with the concept from the outset, and using your visual message, style and expression at each stage - from image capture, through to processing and final output.

Final Thoughts

Both Jared and Justin provided some sage, final nuggets of advice to think about when thinking about telling a story succinctly:

Justin talked initially about just how important this project had been to them, and how - just through the process - they had both benefited:

Always make stuff – it’s the only way to strengthen your craft. I feel Jared and I learnt more in this one project than in a year and a half of client projects. It’s like learning to trust yourself again, and that can be tough. This was really a proof of concept for what we want clients to be able to see and understand about how we work and what we capture. At the same time proving to ourselves what we are capable of.

Jared chimed in, talking about how accountability starts and stops with you in a passion project, not a client, and how this is important:

In a client project you have someone to confirm or deny your idea. In a passion project when there is no one above you telling you how it should ultimately be done, you live and die with every decision as it’s down to you. Until you actually deal with that reality, there is nothing that compares to that in terms of the growth you get from being in that position.


The point of a passion project is to gain new skills and find new ways to deliver your message and voice; that a client might want to pay you to do for them. As we closed out the conversation, Jared reminded me of what the ultimate purpose of any passion project should be:

Hopefully if a client sees this, they’ll ask us to use our aesthetic for their cause. The whole point here is to demo to a client what we can do and let them buy into it.

Thanks to Jared Levy and Justin Hamilton of Navigate

Special thanks / BTS photos courtesy of: Julian Walter www.julianwalter.com

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David Geffin's picture

David is a full time photographer, videographer and video editor based in New York City. Fashion, portraiture and street photography are his areas of focus. He enjoys stills and motion work in equal measure, with a firm belief that a strong photographic eye will continue to help inform and drive the world of motion work.

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