Pass the Mic Interview Series, ft. Kesten Migdal

By Nathan Phan

We’re spotlighting cinematographer and storyteller Kesten Migdal for our Pass the Mic interview series. An alumnus of the Pixar story department, he’s crafted narratives for clients that include Salesforce, the Culinary Institute of America, General Mills, Sutter Home, HP, and more. We also had the pleasure of working with Kesten on some of our DoorDash projects last year. 

Since Kesten has been in the industry for over 16 years, we knew he would have a wealth of knowledge to share. We asked him about his filmmaking style, his favorite recent projects, and advice for future filmmakers: 

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What got you interested in filmmaking, and how did you get your start?
I was a server at a summer restaurant in New York right out of college. I met someone who was a 1st AD [assistant director] and thought it would be fun to PA [production assistant]. The thing I fell in love with was the energy and creativity that was put into making a film. It kind of felt like the ephemeral joys of childhood. A film project would come together, last a few months, then be over. It really suited my sensibilities. 

I bounced around a few film projects in NYC for a couple of years before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. I worked as a key location assistant on a feature, then got a job at Pixar when all of the live-action production work dried up. Pixar was a great place, but I wasn’t suited to working in an office and being a production coordinator. I took advantage of “Pixar University” and enrolled in as many filmmaking classes as I could. I learned a ton about storytelling, filmmaking, editing, etc. 

I eventually left Pixar in 2008 after six years and picked up a Canon 5D. I started shooting videos for social, and my career as a DP took off from there. I bought a RED Epic a few years later, and the rest is history. 

How would you describe your filmmaking style? 
After working on large productions early in my career, I like the juxtaposition of being able to film solo, or with a really small crew, and making something look like it has high production value. A lot of that is using the lighting and composition tools I learned from more experienced filmmakers. I also love documentary-style filmmaking and storytelling — handheld, human stories with interesting characters.

What motivates you? 
I’m motivated by new challenges. I love getting approached to do something that I’ve never done and figuring out how best to tackle the project. I’m also motivated by inspiring and weird human interest stories. I have so many documentary ideas, it drives me a little crazy 🙂  

Where do you look for inspiration? Any filmmakers you look up to? 
I love to watch the documentary Staff Picks on Vimeo. I get a ton of inspiration from new filmmakers trying crazy stuff with interesting lenses, b-roll shots, interview setups, sound design, etc. 

Tell me about your favorite project that you’ve been a part of.
I recently joined my friend/director, Josh Izenberg, for the last few days on a Patagonia-funded documentary called ‘Game Hawker.’ I love being in unique locations and filming people with interesting backgrounds and stories. 

What are some of the challenges you face as a filmmaker? 
Most challenges come from educating clients on how much work goes into making a short film, branded story, etc. There’s a lot of learning that needs to happen if you’re not familiar with the production process. Even though a piece could be 30 seconds and look simple, clients need to be educated on the entire production pipeline and the work (plus budget) involved in making something that they’re going to be happy with. 

What advice would you like to give to aspiring filmmakers?
Film and edit personal projects as much as you can. Walt Stanchfield said, “We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better.” It’s kind of the same for filmmaking. You don’t need to make 10,000 crappy films, but get the bad and awkward projects out of the way. You’ll learn a ton from your mistakes in the process. And never get complacent or stagnant in your style. Always look for inspiration and keep trying new things.

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