Tennessee native Marshall Burnette graduated from Film Production in 2011. He has since returned to his home state and is currently living in Nashville, working in the music video industry and shooting for the likes of Elton John and Sarah McLachlan. Earlier this year, he won Best Comedy Music Video at the Los Angeles Music Video Festival for Mind Control by The Kernel.
We spoke with Marshall to learn more about his journey to and from film school.
Why did you choose to study Film Production at VFS?
Marshall: I grew up in a small mountain town in Northeast Tennessee. It is a super conservative place and not many people find movies to have any lasting importance. I was always the kid watching obscure foreign films and gritty dramas that no one had ever heard of. I loved getting lost in movies but never really thought it was possible to make them. I had never met anyone that did.
I got a Bachelor Degree from East Tennessee State University in Park and Rec Management. I have a huge love for the outdoors and thought I could possibly work for a national park or resort. I raced downhill mountain bikes for my school for four years and would document the races and make a lot of videos of me and my friends riding.
After about two years of not having any real career-oriented work I decided “What the hell! I’ll move out of this place and see what this movie thing is all about.” I was already spending hours upon hours every week immersed in my own personal film school of studying films and reading any filmmaking book I could get my hands on. I was getting into the technical details of things like film cameras, production design, and screenwriting with no outlet to experiment with any of it.
I started looking at different film schools online. I quickly learned that most film schools were digital video schools. It was important to me to go to a school that would let me experiment with actual film, not just digital. All my favorite filmmakers swore by it, and that’s really all I had to go by. I also wanted to go to a school that would let me tell the stories I was interested in, and not force me to implement any sort of CG or VFX that I didn’t really care about. I visited Vancouver and VFS for a week and was sold. It was a beautiful city surrounded by the wilderness that I loved and thriving in film production.
What happened after graduation?
Marshall: After graduating from VFS, I moved back to my hometown in Tennessee. I took a little R&R, saw some old friends, went camping, started back at my old job… then I got really restless. I had hoped that when I went back, people would have changed and become more film conscious like me, but things hadn’t changed much.
I got in my car and drove to Nashville to visit a good friend, The Kernal, who provided the music for one of my VFS films, Ugly. I really needed to be behind a camera again so I thought I would make a music video. We talked concepts and started a Kickstarter campaign that raised $5,000 in a month.
Within a week of obtaining our budget, I met and recruited a team of passionate filmmakers in the Nashville area. I was even able to fly in a good friend from my VFS class to do Production Design. We spent four nights shooting in a closed grocery store with almost complete creative freedom. It was a blast. I had such a good time working with the crew that I moved to Nashville a few weeks after we wrapped.
Why music videos?
Marshall: Nashville is a great city. It is full of culture and almost every person you meet is an artist, in one way or another. I was really surprised by the size of the film industry in town. There were several good camera rental shops and a huge grip company. Everything I needed to make movies was here.
The only thing is, not many movies are made here. It is a music video industry. Nashville is the music capital of the US, so there is a lot of money in high-end music videos.
I got a job at a local outdoor equipment store to pay the bills and responded to EVERY Craigslist ad I could find for crew work. It was super slow for a long time. I was directing/editing music videos for small independent artists with budgets of under $500 each, often spending the whole budget on the video and not making a dime myself. It was a lot of fun though. I got to experiment with many ideas, both story and visuals. It became an obsession to create the perfect three minute visual to music.
I immersed myself in the music video world and started following the work of great video directors/production companies such as Romain Gavras, Canada, David Wilson, and Somesuch & Co. It is incredible the stories people can tell and the tone they can create in such a short amount of time. It is a sensitive balance of storytelling and band promotion that I don’t think I will ever master.
The first thing I do when directing a video is ask the artist what story they are trying to tell through their song. As long as you can tell a similar or parallel story to the song, than the video can really be whatever you want it to be. I like seeing irony in my music videos and not telling the literal story in the song but tell a parallel version of it in a completely different setting or world.
Of course, they aren’t all like that. I have made videos that are step-by-step the literal story of the song, but that is what the artist wanted and, at the end of the day, you have to pay the bills. So I embrace those projects for what they are and treat them as if I am adapting a screenplay from a novel. Every music video is different just as every artist is different.
It is a fun industry to be involved in, every day is something new and if a project ever becomes repetitive or boring, it’s a good thing it only takes about a month to make these things!
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you are working on?
Marshall: I have just finished directing/editing a video for Paul Van Dyk, a Grammy nominated DJ/Producer from Germany. I’m still swimming in the low budget territory of the industry, but I’m taking every project I can get my hands on and waiting for the perfect song to tell the perfect story.
I have been working as head Cinematographer/Editor for Yamaha Entertainment Group, a small record label/video production company in Nashville. We are a month away from finishing Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano, a two-hour BluRay concert shot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. We are also in pre-production of a full-length documentary called The 88 to be produced and narrated by Clint Eastwood.
Since VFS, I have had the opportunity to work with artists such as Vanessa Carlton, Hanson, The Rocket Summer, and Lovedrug.
What advice do you have for current or future film students?
Marshall: Don’t expect anything to be done for you in film school. If you want something you have to do it yourself. You have to really want something and fight for it if you want to see it on the screen. I think too many people expect to be given opportunities to excel but in reality, you have to make those opportunities for yourself. This industry is 80% confidence. If you don’t sell yourself as being the best at what you do, then there are a thousand other people that will take your job. That being said, don’t expect to be given work purely off your confidence if you can’t back it up.
Thanks for speaking with us, Marshall! To see more of Marshall’s work, visit his website.