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So What Do You Do, Tiffany Shlain, Filmmaker and Founder of the Webby Awards?

'I know how to do things with no budget! I'm a filmmaker!'

- December 4, 2013
Tiffany Shlain, vibrant and charming with her bright lipstick and snazzy fedoras, has catapulted her series, The Future Starts Here, to the top of AOL On Originals' list of most-watched shows. She talks candidly to the viewer, punctuating her concerns about society with humor and anecdotes from her own life. But Shlain is much more than the onscreen talent: She is an award-winning filmmaker, the founder of the Webby Awards and a popular lecturer and advocate for social change regarding technology and work-life balance.

With her high level of productivity, Shlain seems to squeeze 25 hours out of each day, while deeply enjoying both her work and relaxation time; her whole family completely unplugs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday for a "Technology Shabbat." Both Shlain's colorful films and the woman herself are like a tonic to our digitally saturated minds.


Name: Tiffany Shlain
Position: Filmmaker
Resume: Founder of the Webby Awards, co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Shlain has had four films premiere at Sundance including her 2011 documentary "Connected," and her films and work have earned 60 awards and distinctions, including the honor of having a spot in the U.S. State Department's American Film Showcase.
Birthdate: April 8, 1970
Hometown: Mill Valley, Calif.
Education: UC Berkeley
Marital status: Married (for 16 years!)
Media mentor: The actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith
Best career advice received: Elevate the conversation. Use whatever platform is available to trigger societal change.
Last book read: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. "It talks about daily practices of famous writers and artists throughout history, and what their day and creative process were like."
Twitter handle: @TiffanyShlain
How did you discover your passion for filmmaking?
Every Sunday growing up, we would go to the movies, then dinner and ice cream. After, we would sit and wrestle with the ideas [from] the movie. It was very much a part of my upbringing -- to use films as triggers for important conversations. But I never thought I could actually be a filmmaker because I was supposed to be a doctor. Everyone in my family was supposed to be a doctor!

When I went to Berkeley, I took this wonderful class, the history of film. I had a great professor, who had this infectious enthusiasm about how technology had changed filmmaking and culture -- I was so inspired by her. That's when I knew I was going to be a filmmaker.

After graduating from Berkeley, I kind of went back and forth between making films and working in technology to pay for my films. At one point, I had been working on a CD-ROM for the musician Sting, and somebody said, "You have to see this thing called the Web." When I saw the Web I was like, "That's going to change the world."

I came back to San Francisco and I was given the opportunity to create the Webby Awards from scratch. They had no budget, and I said, "I know how to do things with no budget! I'm a filmmaker!" So we created the Webby Awards in the early days of the Web, which was very exciting. We used to make a lot of films about how technology was changing our lives, and those films would kick off our show for the Webbys. As soon as the films were able to be shown on the Internet, I wanted to get back to filmmaking combined with the power of the Web to trigger important conversations. So it was kind of full circle from when I was a kid.

"It's a very exciting time to be a filmmaker. You can make films from your cell phone, you can raise money on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you can broadcast on YouTube… the world is yours."

Is the fusion of technology and culture where you primarily get your inspiration for your films?
I think I'm very curious about a lot of things, and usually [my] films are based on something I'm wrestling with, or trying to figure out, or something I hope the larger public will discuss and try to figure out collectively.

You're a writer, director and you're on screen -- could you tell me about how you do so much, and what your days look like?
By no means do I do it alone. I've worked with the same team for years -- my favorite part of doing anything is the collaborative aspect of it. I usually write with three or four people and we're passing scripts back and forth, so that part is really exciting. Doing the AOL series on top of [another] film we're finishing was really an exercise in efficiency: getting up at five in the morning and writing until seven, being with my kids before they go to school, going to work, working while [my kids are] sleeping.

Right now I'm making a lot of things, but there's also a period where I do have to travel -- for example, the U.S. State Department is sending me to the Middle East to show my films as a cultural ambassador. Every couple months I go to screenings and events.… To be a mom the way I want to be a mom, and to live this wonderful life as a filmmaker, I can only [go to about] 2 percent of the film festivals I'm invited to. When I [do] go, I go for a crazy short amount of time, and in my mind I think, "To do both, that's what I have to do."

In your AOL series, you talk about having one day a week when your family unplugs -- your "Technology Shabbat." What's that like, and does it help you with your work/life balance?
I'm a mother who's very into being with my kids when they come home from school, but I'm trying to maximize my creative time, which has been a big focus in the last couple of years. I have been so on fire creatively, and I also love being with my kids, so I unplug on the weekends. I feel like I've gotten a lot more productive… when I really give myself a full break.

There's a point where I need to do something so I keep a pad of paper and I just write down things I'm worried I'll forget. It's almost like I'm emptying my anxiety. Usually, it will be three or four things I'll write down, and then it goes away, and that whole next day I feel awesome. Time goes very slowly, which is what you want on Saturday. And it's not like we wait for the sun to absolutely drop before we go back online. I love technology, but everything in moderation.

What career advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
There are so many tools available to experiment and play. It's a very exciting time to be a filmmaker. You can make films from your cell phone, you can raise money on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you can broadcast on YouTube…the world is yours. Episode five, Participatory Revolution, talks a lot about the opportunities that are available for filmmakers today.

"I feel like the Internet was the tool that the feminist movement always needed."

I believe good films find their audience. I think really special and unique perspectives always work their way out. That's what I love about the Web, really amazing stuff floats around and everyone hears about it. You get 20 tweets and emails the same day about the same thing -- there are so many ways for people to communicate something exciting.

Any advice for working parents?
Make your own schedule. Or talk to your boss about a more flexible schedule. I think that what the Internet has given our generation is this kind of flexibility to work in new, creative ways that our mothers did not have. I have friends who work for corporations, but most of my friends work from home as consultants or own their own business. I feel like the Internet was the tool that the feminist movement always needed.

With the corporate structure, you're [still] not going home until 6 p.m. When your kids get to fourth grade, they really need you for homework and emotionally after 3 p.m. So I don't think that a corporate structure that was built by men, coming home at 6 p.m. or later, works.

I work as much as anybody else but I do it in a creative way. I don't watch a lot of TV. I do get up early in the morning, and then when my kids get up, I'm with them, I take them to school, I work. I'm with my kids after school, and then I work when they're sleeping. Collectively it's the same amount of hours; it's just different hours than normal. And, two of those days I'm working straight through. But it's important to have creativity and flexibility with work, for both men and women.

Amanda Layman Low is a freelance writer and artist. Contact her on Twitter @AmandaLaymanLow.


NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Tracey Edmonds, Award-Winning TV and Film Producer?

© Mediabistro Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.



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