KiKi Lams Interview

Abby: So I just wanted to talk a little bit about you today. I have some questions that are specific, and whatever you want to talk about is cool. I guess initially I just want to ask .... What's your story? How did you get into filmmaking? What inspired you to do that?

Kiki: Yeah so I guess I can start off with….ok I first started, I went to school first at rochester Institute of technology in rochester NY. And I actually was majoring in 3D digital design which is like 3D artwork for video games. And 3D modeling. And I realized within a semester that I didn't quite enjoy doing that so during the time between my first semester and my second semester of that school, I went back home. And In high school I had done a two year program that was called media academy and it was a combination of like a film class mixed with your history class and your english class and I really enjoyed doing that. And I went back to my teachers from there and in my first semester of college I had taken one class that required us to film like random stuff so that we could learn premiere pro as like, it was like a basic course for my major. And I showed them some of the work that I did and he asked me, he goes, “Why aren’t you in film?”. And it kind of hit me, and I was like, “I don’t know! I didn't think of it as an option”. I was so focused on tryna do video game art because I was an illustrator before, I drew a lot all my life and then videogames were always something that me and my brother really loved. So I went back to RIT which was my college before and the first week of school I dropped out of that college and was like “this isn't for me”. And I had actually already previously applied to Columbia breofer I just decided to not go to that school so I took a semester off and did some research and applied to Columbia and sort of ended up in film. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do when I got into film at Columbia. I thought I wanted to be a director of photography which I don't mind as much now, like I enjoy it. I think it depends on what I'm being a director of photography for but I mostly want to focus on my camera work. Even now today though I'm still mixed about it. Watching people do production design is really interesting and I like that as well. I kinda figured out what I wanted and that's how I got into film.

Abby: Wow. Yeah that's a really cool story. Especially because now, like I mean you can do all of those things and that's really exciting and that's what I've found. I'm actually in school for video production right now and so like one thing that i've noticed is that a lot of people do a lot of things. Do you really like chicago? Have you found that that's a good community for filmmaking?

Kiki: I have. I think it's hard coming back home because I'm trying to make sure that I stay in Chicago for right now because all of my connections are out there. Chicago is really good for TV shows and commercial work. There's a good amount of documentary work that can be done in Chicago as well. I'm into wildlife and food doc related things. That's kinda what I'm veering towards. I have been dabbling in narrative stuff and like music videos as well, but that's the end goal. I have been enjoying doing music video work as well. Chicago’s a really good network of people. It's just there's a lot of stuff going on in Chicago right now, even like, I think it's a better place to start off than LA. I’d say, growing up in California and visiting LA all the time, in my opinion, LA is kinda sad. It's just a lot of people that don't have enough money to actually be there, trying to make it. And because so many people are there trying to make it, and make it big, it's just a pool of sad people. You know, not everyone can make it. In Chicago, I feel like, you know, in Chicago no one is trying to be the next big thing. It's not hollywood or anything so people are just more focused on what they want to do and not becoming famous or anything like that. You know?

Abby: Yeah, that's really interesting. So, I know that you did a little bit of illustration and video game design, but when you're doing video, is there a specific thing that's your favorite part? What's your favorite part of the creative process?

Kiki: So I'd say that definitely depends on what I'm doing. For documentary stuff I enjoy connecting with whoever I'm doing the documentary on, or traveling for it, or just getting the shots in general. I really enjoy working hands on with the camera. So as long as I get to touch the camera I'm for the most part happy. For music video stuff I enjoy working with the artist and trying to achieve that vision and working with directors to achieve what they want. And then I enjoy seeing it come to life with all the visuals and stuff when it does happen. For narrative stuff I don't ever usually work with actors or anything. So it's more of just that I enjoy more of the lighting aspect of that. Same with music video stuff as well, because it's less. Like for documentary stuff I mostly just use natural lighting but for those things I actually have to light everything. So it's kinda fun to see how that turns out and things don't turn out the way you think they would, or they turn out even better than you thought they would. Or sometimes it's just shit and you're like “ughhhh”. Yeah I enjoy those aspects of just learning as you go.

Abby: Yeah I think learning is a huge part of it. I know that because I'm still in school I interned with intertwine and that's how I got connected to them. And then they asked me to help start this project, which I am so excited about. But usually, in all of my classes pretty much, and in high school I took a bunch of engineering classes. I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, which is out of this world, i would not want to do that anymore, but I was always the only female in the room and even when I've gone to chicago for some shoots, I'm pretty much the only female in the room and so I guess, because you've had more experiences and have been to all these different places, what has been either the best or the most challenging part of being a female filmmaker or a female filmmaker of color and just what have your experiences been?

Kiki: I for the most part have had really good experiences. Lets see, I think, I worked at Advanced Camera, which is a camera facility at Columbia where we rent out equipment. And most of the people that work there, except for like literally one other person is a guy. So a lot of guys. I don't think it ever really bothered me as much because i grew up with a bunch of brothers so it was kinda normal for me and didn't really bother me. But, I think, one day I was working there and we were helping, we were doing like a, people came in and were learning the cameras all at once because they were reviewing for their test. This black girl came up to me and she said that it was so good to see people like her there because there is like nobody like her here and it made me really happy. But i don't know I just never really thought about it that much before. I think, even though I didn't think about it as much because i was just focused on my trying to learn and be better, when I was working on the shot that's when it kind of hit me. Because I kind of assumed that film crews were going to be mostly male, mostly white, but when I got on the shot, the shot was a mix of all people. There were a lot of black people, like more than I thought would be on a crew. I was really surprised by that. Because I was like “Wow, I didn’t know we were out here!” and yeah i mean i haven't really had any negative experiences with like somebody thinking that i couldn't do something because i was a woman or because i was black. I think the biggest thing that I have encountered is people thinking that I can't lift heavy things. But usually guys are pretty cool about asking if you need help and if you say no, they're usually ok and will like let you be. And they will see that you're fine and leave you alone. I think there's only one instance where one guy like i don't know, i don't think it was because i'm a woman or because i was black, he just had some superiority complex of like hierarchy of like being at the school longer than i had and just you know was competing with me even though I wasn't competing with him. But yeah, it's been..for me it's been mostly positive honestly.

Abby: Good! Yeah. That's awesome. So you said you worked at the gear rental place?

Kiki: Yeah.

Abby: I know i've talked to some other people about the fact that that is a good route for a place to work if you want to end up working with cameras and being the cinematographer. Is that true for you,you think?

Kiki: I absolutely think so. I think one of the reasons why applied there and then ended up getting the job, I really wanted to be around the cameras as much as possible and the gear because the more you're around it, the more you remember, the more you learn. You learn things about them, you learn how to fix things. And being part of cameras, we get to see all the new equipment come in. We get to like troubleshooting everything and mess around with the builds and stuff, which like general people can't just come in and do that. Id say its a really good route if you're trying to, not necessarily be a director of photography, you don't necessarily need to know all of that stuff but if you want to be a camera operator or a camera assistant it's really important to know that stuff because you need to know the camera builds and the ins and outs of the cameras and just all the parts and sometimes how to fix things on the fly. So i'd say it's really important for that. I do know actually there's a couple people that work there that are directors or gaffers or those who are more focused on lighting but they enjoy it because they are able to know more about other departments, which is helpful in the whole process in general. Because the more you know about other departments, the more understanding you are about things that are not turning out the way you want them to or its taking too long. You know? So you're understanding why it is. So yeah i'd say it's a good route.

Abby: That makes sense. Have you ever wanted to do something that wasn't in the creative field?

Kiki: Yes, actually. Surprisingly. When I was first figuring out what i wanted to do for school I was, I think i was a little annoyed at one point because growing up, I had always been an artist, I had always drawn. So the gifts I would get were like sketch pads and pencils and you know, all that stuff and my brothers were interested in other things so they were given other things that were more math and science related. And I was really good at math and science but that was never necessarily pushed towards me. But I kind of, for a little while, wanted to do something in the science field. And I still kinda do a little bit. Especially going into wildlife. I would be very interested in doing things like zoology or biology. I like to be well rounded, I'm not, I know some art people that are like “eww” they hate math, they hate science and they hate all that stuff. And I am not one of those people, I actually enjoy those things. So yeah I've kinda always wanted to do biology, sciency stuff. And for you, I know another guy that went into mechanical engineering first. And it's helpful because he knows how to fix things that I don't know how to fix because he understands lil’ circuit boards and all that stuff.

Abby: Yeah, yeah. And what you do is especially creative work and also very technical things. Which I think is kinda the best of both worlds. You get to do it all. And that's really exciting.

Kiki: Yeah, yeah. I like the technical side of it. Which is why I would be totally happy not being a director of photography for anything and just working with the camera because I just enjoy the technical aspects of the camera.

Abby: I just have a few more things. I don't want to take up a bunch of your time. So part of what we are doing is we want to highlight some people's really unique and interesting experiences in film and so one of the questions we are going to be asking everyone is What has been the most surprising thing to ever happen to you on set? So if you had something come to mind that would be great. Maybe surprising or awkward, i don't know, like a good story about something that happened on set.

Kiki: I have to think about that. It's hard because some of the fond and funny things that happen on set don't make sense to other people unless you know who the person is. Huh. I can think of one story but I think i'm gonna not share that. It's like a little, It was just some drama that happened on set.

Abby: That’s ok!

Kiki: Because I know if I say that someones gonna read it and know exactly who I'm talking about.

Abby: That's totally fine!

Kiki: Yeah, I'm not tryna bring anybody down. Lemme, Lemme think. Let's see. What did you guys have in mind for that?

Abby: I know some people have some funny stories of things that have happened or of things you would never thought would happen. We are just gonna leave it open ended for whatever. And if you don't have anything or do not want to share anything that's totally fine.

Kiki: Hmm. Ok I can think of another one. Maybe if i don't name names no one will know who it was. There's always a lot of set drama. There's funny things, but again, it doesn't make sense if you don't know the people. Lets see the first thing I can think of was, I was on a set and I had already been working on that set once for one day. And one of the guys, super funny guy, super great, he's good at what he does and he definitely has some more learning to do. And I was working under him and I don't even know if this is appropriate to talk about, but he had taken adderall and he was super hyped up for a day that was way more mellow than any of the other days had been. So he had taken adderall and he was super focused and ready and like nothing was going on. I was doing my job and getting things done, and I looked over at him and he's standing there helping wrangling the cables for the camera and he's like falling asleep standing up because he had come down from his adderall high. And it was really funny. I think I just didn't expect to see that on set. I don't know, I wasn't expecting to see drugs on set or anything like that.

Abby: Yeah, that's perfect.

Kiki: I'm trying to think of another one that's better and more appropriate than that but. What else has happened. Most of the stuff that I can think of has just been drama of like things not working out or like camera teams not getting along.

Abby: Is that something that happens often?

Kiki: It depends on the set. There's been times. It's rare for Columbia students to have 2 cameras but the times that we have there have been issues between the two cameras. And part of that is because we just don't have adequate equipment. On bigger sets, like actual TV shows and stuff, there's not as much drama between camera teams because when stuff broken you get it replaces pretty quickly and like they pay for it, it's not a big deal. And people know the hierarchy of things and they're not tryna question it so it's not as big of a thing. There's a lot of politics that happen on TV show sets. Especially in the hiring process. But i think the biggest surprise stuff that happens on set is just lighting or the image coming out even better than you thought it would.

Abby: That's a good problem.

Kiki: Yeah or you just have set an idea and you set up the camera and it looks really good and the composition is even better than you thought it was going to be. And you're working with your gaffer. I always pick gaffers who know more about lighting than I do. I give them the base idea of what i want. I tell them the lights I'm thinking, and then let them work off of that. And oftentimes its like nothing like i said but it always turns out to be really beautiful. Yeah, I think those are the most surprises on set, good surprises, things coming out nicely.

Abby: So going back to your previous projects, and things that you've worked on, what has been your favorite project to do.

Kiki: Oo. I guess for my own projects… I've worked on a lot of other people's projects. I think, so I think I have two. One of the ones i enjoyed a lot, or i just enjoyed working with him a lot, is an artist called J Decco. I shot a music video for him that we are still working on right now. But I like, I try and keep my sets not super stressful. And I try, if I can , if we have the budget, I'll try and space them out between a couple days. Or a few days so that people aren't stressed out. Especially when they aren't being paid to be there. I think one of the best days we had was recently we shot something for him that was just one shot long piece that was for one of his songs. I don't know if he's released it yet or not. But it was, we took like 2 and a half to 3 hours to light because we just had the time because it was just one shot. And the shot is us pouring, he made this paint substance that was ok to pour on him. But it was goopy looking. It was nerve wracking because you've got one shot to do this. Once it goes on him you can't stop. So we set everything up, we were really careful about it. We were recording and as it was happening it was SUPERRRR cool to see and it came out just as we have wanted it to. And we had put a lot of time and thought into it for just this one shot and then we rewatched the playback of it in slow motion, cuz we shot it in slow motion, and it looked so cool. I think that was my favorite day because it was chill, everyone was having a good time, we were listening to music and just messing around. We took our time lighting everything, and we made sure everything was up and working and there was like no issues at all. Yeah those are good days. I think my other project, that I have not finished editing yet was, I recently shot a food documentary thing on a friend of mine and it was a very small crew. It was me, one other camera person, I had a gaffer and then i had somebody that was just helping out with lighting and also running errands, and then my friend who was the cook. That was a chill day, we took our time with it and we also got to pause in the middle and help him make the food, after we had finished filming a little bit. And then at the end we gotta eat the food so like that was, you know. Nothing goes wrong there. So that was yeah, that was one of my favorite days too.

Abby: That's awesome! So then obviously editing it and finishing it up, what are you most hopeful for in 2020 and what are you most excited for to come?

Kiki: Hopeful, hopeful that I get enough jobs to stay in chicago. Hopeful, that the work I've put in for the last, I guess i've been at Columbia for roughly 3 years ish , that that comes to fruition. That i'm getting jobs because of it and because of my reel, and the work i've put in. Making more connections with people other than just students that I know. Which a lot of my friends have graduated and we are all starting to help each other out a little bit which is nice. And I have goals for myself, like I need to edit things a little bit more quickly because I'm not a huge fan of editing although i do edit. And I have quite a few projects that I have not finished editing, which has been maybe a year now. And I need to finish editing them. A lot of those projects are my own projects. The ones I get paid to do I get done fairly quickly. And I hope 2020 is good for work and I get the ball rolling on my career.

Abby: That's very exciting!! Well I don't have anything else. Is there anything that you want to talk about or anything you want to say about yourself that we haven't covered?

Kiki: I'll say, since this is going up somewhere, Advice i have for people is, I learned this recently and it's a really good reminder to myself as i'm starting off my career. That you don't have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life and you can take things at chunks at a time and obviously being practical about it. Like you can't just, you know, throw yourself out there and not have a plan. You don't know what youre gonna be doing 5 years down the road because in film that's just not how that works unless you're joining the union or something, and that's a little more steady. But yeah, you don't have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life.

Abby: Thank you so much. This has been great.

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