Jon Walley on Filmmaking, the Value of Passing Skills Down & the Traits of Craftsmen

Posted by Magdalena Georgieva

Jon Walley is a Boston-based independent filmmaker and video producer at Berklee College of Music. He recently launched a documentary series titled "American Hand" that explores the lives and work of local craftsmen. Take a peek into what Jon has learned from them so far and where he draws inspiration from.

How did you get into filmmaking?

When I was a teenager, 9th or 10th grade, I started riding BMX. I really wanted to film what we were doing. So I got a camera - which was crappy at the time; I think my first camera was a Sony Hi-8 Handycam. That was my first exposure to shooting anything, really. I'd take it home, and I'd try to edit it in Windows Moviemaker. I did an okay job for the tools that I had, I suppose.


That contributed to how I shoot now because I watched a lot of BMX videos with my buddies. Just seeing how those guys move the camera or chose to work the camera - that was a big influence on me. Everything was handheld back in the day and nobody used a tripod or any kind of steadycam. It just didn't exist or if it did, it was way over anybody's reach. So people would just come up with creative ways to film, like holding the camera while on skateboards.

That was another cool part about filming BMX and skating. You learn a lot about how to come up with solutions for problems right on the spot. Stuff would constantly break or you had to figure out how to get this one shot or shoot in the dark.

Screen_Shot_2014-06-03_at_11.26.03_PMThat was another cool part about filming BMX and skating. You learn a lot about how to come up with solutions for problems right on the spot.

It wasn't until I went to SUNY Binghamton that I got my Bachelor's in Cinema & Fine Arts. I partnered up with one of my professors whose name is Monteith McCollum and he was a really big mentor for me and helped me foster my filmmaking spirit. He was pushing me to try new things and do things differently, to always ask myself, "Why did I do this? Is this the right way? Could it have been better or different?"

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Picture Credit: Hacer

I did my senior thesis with him and the film that I did Hacer went on to getting some really good film festivals. It got into the Bicycle Film Festival. I was really proud of that because that was a big deal for me - I am such an avid biker. This was completely different from what I do now but it was the first step toward finding my style, the way I like to tell stories.

Hacer from Jon Walley on Vimeo.


How did your style change after college?

SUNY was very experimental and theory-based. And I was the opposite at that time, but I did soak a lot of it in. At the end of the day, I wanted to get out, get a camera in my hand, and go make something because that is the only way that you are going to know how to make a film. There is a whole other side to film than theory.

We worked in film, actual 16mm film, cutting and splicing and taping our own film. I thought that was really awesome, but it was expensive. Digital was more affordable and it was the medium I ended up going with. But for Hacer I actually mixed mediums. I used a little bit of 16mm and I used Panasonic DVX 100-b. There is certain aesthetic that only that camera has and it's pretty amazing.

Screen_Shot_2014-06-03_at_11.26.03_PMEverything is so fast nowadays, but there is something to be said for making somebody sit down and take the time to just enjoy a shot, think about it or just try to experience it and be in that place. That is what I try to do with a lot of my stuff.

Some of the projects [in college] involved going into a space and filming a space - giving people a sense of what that space feels like. That resonated with me. If you can take somebody into a space without actually having to go there, that is pretty cool. That is why a lot of my shots are slower and I take a little while to get into the story. Some people say, "Oh, hurry it up, hurry it up," and I am like, "What's the rush?" Everything is so fast nowadays, but there is something to be said for making somebody sit down and take the time to just enjoy a shot, think about it or just try to experience it and be in that place. That is what I try to do with a lot of my stuff.

What draws you to documentaries? 

The best part about documentaries is meeting the people and hearing their stories. I have met at least five really amazing people. Going to a total stranger and inserting yourself into their lives is pretty strange. It takes time to warm up to somebody. That is an interesting process but you get used to it.

Do you work by yourself on the American Hand?

As of late, I have brought people into the project. As the series gets more exposure, people are interested and want to work on it. For instance, I just collaborated with composer Richard Gould for episode five, the one about the Scrimshander. He sent me a message and said, "Hey, if you ever need somebody to do composing for your films, let me know." I said, "Hey, that is awesome. I don't make any money off of this, but if you are interested, I'd love to work with you." And sure enough, we collaborated and I was thrilled with the result!

American Hand Ep.5 from Jon Walley on Vimeo.


What does the music in your films usually sound like?

I do a lot of ambient recordings, trying to encapsulate the environment even more. In the first episode of the American Hand, for example, there is no actual music that wasn't coming from the environment or wasn't recorded live. All the bass stuff, that was recorded live.

A little Easter egg for you - in the very beginning you can hear seagulls, but it is not just seagulls. Michael actually showed me this thing - he can make seagull sounds on his bass. He dragged the bow in a certain way and it sounded like seagulls. I had a little sound of seagulls in the shots that I had recorded in the beginning, but then I combined that with the audio from him making seagull sounds on the bass, and I came out with something way cooler. I look forward to using more music - I think it's fun. But I also think it's a unique challenge to try and make a film with no music.

American Hand Ep.1 from Jon Walley on Vimeo.


What do you do for a living?

I work for Berklee College of Music as a video producer. Actually, it's Berklee Online, which is the extension school. We do externally and internally-facing marketing pieces. It's different from how I usually work because I don't script or storyboard anything. 

I also produce actual content for educational purposes. I did a whole course Developing Your Musicianship and it's a course that is geared toward people who are looking to come to Berklee. I am lucky I get to work where I work. We do all kinds of stuff.


Picture Credit: Berklee Online
Was that your first gig after graduation from college?

I graduated in Upstate New York. I was working at a TV station at the time as an editor and videographer on the weekends. Then my fiance got a job in Boston, so she accepted that and I thought, "Well, I am not staying here. I will just leave, figure something out."

So I get to Boston and I am unemployed and pretty depressed, and I think that's when the American Hand project was born for me because I needed something to do, to keep myself busy. I'd make little shorts here and there, and this is the one that stuck. I made one and people really seemed to dig it. I did another one, and people kept liking it, so I was like, "Alright, I'll just keep going."

I got a couple of freelance gigs here and there. I kept getting better gigs. I was doing a lot of things for Northeastern - they are a great client to work for. Then, I finally applied to this job at Berklee and I was an Assistant Editor. I was a contractor initially and from there I stepped up to full-time and now I am where I am.

How was the idea for American Hand born?

I've always been interested in people making things. My father was a tank mechanic in the army. I've always been interested in how things work - especially, riding bikes. Bikes break all the time and you have to learn how to fix things and how things work. What better way to learn how something is done without any previous knowledge than talking to somebody who is really good at it. And then, I wanted to do something that is very hands on and visceral.

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How you do find your subjects?

It's kind of a chain reaction because first I put an ad on craigslist and then I had something to show people. It's easy to say, "Here are the first two episodes. It's going to be like this." Now it's just word of mouth and what people want to see, really. I am able to crowd-source ideas and weed out the ones that I don't think will be good.

Why do you do side projects?

If I go long enough without doing something outside my normal work, I get fidgety and I feel unfulfilled. I have to do something, something cooler, something to show.

One of the most selfish reasons I do film is that I want to leave something behind. When I am gone, there will be stuff - things that will probably not go away and people can watch them forever as long as computers are around. It will occupy a space somewhere.

I like doing the series because it inspires people. I'd like it to reach a lot of younger people. I'd be sad if a lot of these skills get forgotten or nobody cares to learn them anymore. That is another big part of the series - the legacy factor, passing skills down. My father passed away when I was young so, unfortunately, the skills that he had, I didn't really get to take those away. So this is a way for me to see and learn from other people indirectly. Not like I am taking on each craft and becoming that craftsman, but just learning about people.

It's more about the traits of the people who do the crafts and their work ethics that makes them the way they are. You can take them and put them in any craft; they will excel because they have that drive, they have that itch - they have to create something. They just channel it into what they are doing now. And it's funny, almost every time I have asked somebody in the series, "What would you do if you couldn't do this tomorrow?" and, of course, being naive I expected the answer to be, "Oh no, I'd be devastated," they are just like, "I don't know - I would do something else."

Screen_Shot_2014-06-03_at_11.26.03_PMIt's more about the traits of the people who do the crafts and their work ethics that makes them the way they are. You can take them and put them in any craft; they will excel because they have that drive, they have that itch - they have to create something.


I asked one of the women I am working with now - she goes to vintage sales and finds old fabric and repurposes it and makes bags out if, and they are really beautiful - and she said, "I'd be a farmer." She wouldn't be sad if nobody wanted the bags anymore and she could just go be a farmer. It is really cool how adaptable these personalities are. I try to be that person.

So what would you do if you couldn't shoot video tomorrow?

I like making hot sauce so I'd probably do something with that hardcore. I grow a lot of my own chilis. You have to be more careful with the ingredients because you don't get that many. I have a patio where I am growing all these chilis; it's not like I have an acre of land.


What is the first thing you made as a child?

My lego creations. I'd build them once and then I'd smash them. I'd make my own crazy, whacky things. I don't know if I can build the stuff that I built then now. It was pretty intense.

I remember when I built my first bike in high school. I bought the frame and bought the parts, and put it all together. I felt a pretty big sense of achievement and then that bike got stolen, and I was devastated.

What do you draw inspiration from?


I draw a lot of inspiration from instrumental music. There is this one band specifically called The Redneck Manifesto and they are a huge influence on crafting emotions in my films. When I hear something, I always think, "What visual would go with this song?"

I rely on the Vimeo community for feedback. Beth Balaban brought me into this group called The Non Fiction Cartel. It's a collective group of documentary filmmakers and I'm fortunate to start collaborating with them.

What problems should we tackle next?

Trying to change people's minds going for smaller manufactured things versus mass cheap things - that is a really interesting thing to explore. Even I cannot afford to buy something that a craftsman makes - it can be really expensive. I want to, but I can't. It's a tough problem. If we want to keep jobs here and grow our economy, things need to be sustainable.

What music do you listen to when you work?

If I am not listening to a sound while editing, I am probably listening to music. I listen to a lot of Aphex Twin, a lot of electronic stuff (ambient, not club drum&bass), a lot of instrumental stuff that can be good background noise. There is a video game called Machinarium - it's an iOS game with robots, but the soundtrack is amazing. I listen to that soundtrack pretty often for inspiration and just to work to. It is soothing but also complex.


machinarium-005    machinarium-004

Picture Credit: Amanita Design

If you had entrance music, what would it be?

Tarzan Boy by Baltimora.

What is your process of filming & editing? What tools do you use?

For the interview portion, I make up questions on the fly because I adapt them to what the conversation is about. I find it helps the conversation flow more freely. As far as shooting, I walk in and ask myself what is interesting to me about the space. And that is what I show.

I use tripods, I use some sliders for motivated movement. I like to experiment with camera placement. My GoPro is one of my favorite tools. When I was shooting at the cranberry farm, I put the GoPro face up on this metal grate and had the people pour the cranberries on top of it. They were like, "Are you sure we can do this?" And I said,"Yes, it's fine, just pour it on top." It allows me to shoot in the rain, under water - it's a pretty flexible tool that I don't think enough filmmakers are taking advantage of. For documentary films especially, it can be pretty unique.

American Hand Ep.4 from Jon Walley on Vimeo.

I have a microphone that I built - it's called a contact mic. You put it on things and it allows you to record vibrations and pick up sounds that you can't hear with a normal microphone. For the first episode of the American Hand, I used that in a pretty cool way. When I was recording the actual playing of the double bass, I recorded the audio with a mic right in front of the bass. When I put my hand on the floor, I noticed the super strong vibrations the bass was creating, so I took the contact mic and taped it to the floor. And then when I combined them, there was this really bassy rumble. It was so cool.

Give some advice to your younger self.

Never eat crab meat from a can. Do more stuff. Try more things.

Topics: art

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