“Trust your heart and listen to it. It takes you to what you’re good at.”
has worked on the cutting edge of numerous media and tech advances over the past three decades, so it’s no surprise that she’s involved in the developing world of Virtual Reality storytelling. From starting in music videos as they were emerging in the early ‘80s, to pioneering solutions for digital editing, multi-platform distribution, audio book recording, digital video asset management and encoding, video games and more, this musician turned film-maker turned creative executive turned entrepreneur continually follows her curiosity and passion to the next cool thing.
This is evident upon walking into the offices at Two Bit Circus, a company she helps to run with founders Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman, where they build robots, immersive interactive experiences, specialty cameras, VR experiences, motion platforms, and a traveling event called STEAM Carnival that introduces kids of all ages to the concepts of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math in an engaging and imaginative way. [steamcarnival.com]
Over the past year or so, the team at Two Bit Circus has built custom VR experiences using the Oculus Rift and Gear VR for Indycar, Verizon’s sponsorship of the NFL during Super Bowl, and the NBA All-Star Weekend; and at the time of this conversation, are working on a project for the Olympics (among other things). In her spare time, Nancy is also a professor at Boston University.
She implores you to watch, listen, learn, connect, be curious, and follow your passion.
PURSUE YOUR INTERESTS
Anything that you do as a kid is going to be part of what you do as an adult and through every phase of your life. Things just gets more interesting. I think the reason why I ended up doing all the things I’m doing is because I followed what interested me. I know it’s hard and not everyone can do that, because sometimes you have to work a job at McDonalds, or stay at home and babysit your younger sibling, or you have a lot of money and your parents expect you to do what THEY want you to do; but at end of the day, no matter where you come from, if you try to pay attention to what interests you and pursue that, all the cool things line up and it is really fun.
It goes without saying that you should be reasonably good at what interests you. Trust your instincts.
I don’t think anyone should get frustrated when they first start to explore something they’re interested in, and they’re not suddenly the “master of the universe.” It takes time to get down that path. It takes experience and practice to understand what it takes to do those things well, and that means, often, shutting up and listening. So watch. And listen. And learn. And do really well. Because you’ll get the attention of those around you. And they’ll give you that opportunity when they see that you are interested, and that you are showing passion. Because through experience, everyone who’s doing anything at any level of success, knows that passion is the catalyst for doing well. That is just the bottom line. You’ve got to follow your heart.
When you follow your passion, you open a door. It’s like Monsters Inc. You suddenly go down a crazy tunnel that leads you in all different directions, and you have no idea what you are going to encounter, but everything along the way is going to be part of your arsenal, and a tool in your bag that you will use–you just don’t know how yet.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF FAILURE
I don’t think there’s such a thing as failure. There are certainly mistakes and missteps. Sometimes you’re going to trip and bend your ankle, but it doesn’t mean you’ve failed at walking. It means that you are developing strength to navigate, and I think there isn’t a person in the world who succeeds at anything without making a lot of mistakes. Failure is part of it. In the failures you learn how to do things the right way Everyone has a body of work that is littered with mistakes and failures. I’ve made some very good and some very bad music videos–which I hope none of you ever see. But I learned so much about how to tell stories, to direct talent, how to position cameras, and to think about editorial in the process. I learned what you need to capture in camera to create a good and engaging story along the way. The mistakes we make lead us to informed places. Every bit of experience and pursuit of interest is what has led me to where I am now, which is directing Virtual Reality films in a totally emerging marketplace.
PRACTICE ARTICULATING WHAT INTERESTS YOU
Practice saying out loud what you are interested in to your friends, to yourself, to your parents, whoever is important to you in your life, because when you get in front of someone who has an opportunity for you, you don’t want to be tongue-tied. You want to be able to articulate your ideas, because that makes people turn their heads and listen to you.
“CONNECT, DON’T IMPRESS”
Connect with somebody. Share enthusiasm and interests. Share a commentary with someone, engage.
It’s a really important thing to remember. Because being understood, being supported, being creative, is about communication with others and resonating in that way. Whether it’s story-telling, or getting a job, or finding an opportunity, or whatever it is. Everyone should be grateful for the wonderful opportunities we all have and realize we can’t do it all by ourselves. It does take a village. I would not have been able to do the work I have done in VR without my team. And as I was writing the proposals I certainly consulted them. And they’ve taught me things, and invented things, and made things even better all along the way. It’s all about building trust, and it’s all about connecting with people–not trying to boast. It’s good to be humble.
TRY NEW THINGS & WEAR MANY HATS
Not everybody gets to direct all the time; not everybody gets to produce all the time, or be an entrepreneur. Or play the drums or paint or whatever, but one hopes that one gets to do a lot of cool things. What’s your bucket list? Try and do it.
DON’T BE A JERK
Another thing too, is that all of the people you meet along the way meet you again and again. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’m still talking to people I came up with in the ‘80s. Don’t be mean. Good company is born of interest and being true to yourself, being passionate, being curious, and connecting. And if people want to learn, give them the chance. Don’t be threatened. Encourage collaboration.
MUSIC HAS ALWAYS BEEN AN INTEGRAL ASPECT OF NANCY’S LIFE
Music is critical to our being “fed” (in many ways).
It was very important that we played an instrument. Our parents asked us at a very early age what we wanted to play. I asked if I could play the drums and they said absolutely not—too loud. And I said ok, well, the French horn. No. Too big, too loud. So I played the violin for many years, and through that learned some discipline because it wasn’t my first choice. I hated the way I sounded, but I learned a lot about music.
Back to remembering to “follow your passion,” at the age of fourteen I begged my mom to get me a French horn, and in 3 months I won a concerto competition. I think that if you trust your heart and you listen to it, it takes you to what you’re good at. If you’re interested, you’re going to be good at it in some way. In the pursuit of our interests we get to discover ourselves and our talents.
I never thought I’d be teaching. I really hated school. I couldn’t pay attention. I just was bored out of my mind. It was either A’s or F’s. I was really good at Chemistry and Geometry, and I liked to do a lot of Creative Writing, but I didn’t like to do it in class. I was really good at pranksterism.–I would write passes to get myself out of school.
I actually tasted every kind of school available. I probably went to like six different schools. I went to a private school, I was at a boarding school for the summer, public high school, day school, all girls school, coed school –hated all of them. But thank goodness for the Arts School that I got into.
I grew up in New Haven Connecticut where they had the Educational Center for the Arts, ECA. In order to attend, you had to be in the public high school. At that time, the public high school environment was challenging, chaotic and violent.. In the afternoons I would go down to the ECA.
The ECA was a converted synagogue that had the state-of-the-art of everything in it—it was unbelievable! It was like paradise. The theater had state-of-the-art lighting and sound recording and microphones. The animation department had stop-motion and cell animation. The music department had a mini-Moog synthesizer and a drum-set. I taught myself how to play drums there, actually; and also how to program a Moog. They had everything…a dark room, woodworking, jazz improvisation – It was amazing!
So that saved me.
MUSIC IN COLLEGE
I went to college as a musician, as a French horn player, but I wanted to be a drummer. The French horn was something that I was really good at, but while I loved playing in an orchestra I didn’t want to do it everyday. I loved that I was really good at it. Being good at something feels good.
I went to Northwestern my freshman year to study with the Chicago Symphony, but left there to finish my degree at Boston University, although I knew at the time that I really wanted to do something in the visual arts. I kind of suffered through the discipline of being a French horn player and graduated with that degree, which taught me an ENORMOUS amount of discipline which I don’t regret at all.
I do love what I know about music. It helps me in my film-making very much. Whether directing a composer, or sound design, or just thinking musically as an editor—those things are really important. Film and music have much in common. They are languages of space and time in ways that other art forms are not.
GRADUATE SCHOOL IN FILM / EARLY CAREER
I took a year off between college and grad school. I quit the French horn and went out into the world. I spent a year doing a couple of odd jobs to support myself, but I wrote screenplays, because I figured that’s how I was going to learn. And while I was working on screenplays I realized that I needed to learn more So I applied to graduate school in film and I got in.
I went to Boston University again. Doing very well in grad school came effortlessly . During that time I worked on or made every film I could. Music videos had just begun at that time around 1980, so I made music videos.
I made mistakes. I made some garbage along the way, but learned so much, and I started to do exactly what I said everybody should do, which is pursue what you are interested in, go and watch other people do it, be of use and help.
I edited, and tried every role on the set just to learn. I was a best boy in the lighting department, a camera assistant, an assistant director, a coordinator, a producer, and every one of those positions gave me insight about how films are made.
It’s curiosity. It’s “how do I solve that problem?” There’s nothing like a challenge. And curiosity has certainly been as critical as passion, because through curiosity and following that, you find out what your passions are—that’s REALLY important. Curiosity’s the chase.
So I’m curious, and I want to keep my muscles flexible so that I’m good at the sport. And I want to be able to pave new road. As I’ve said, I’m drawn to these moments where there’s an emerging piece of tech for content-making. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past twenty-five years.
The interesting thing about technology and media is that a new form of media always begets the freedom to explore. And the freedom and the enthusiasm and support that you get in the beginning of a new form of engagement is vast. It is open. It is without dogma and that is a very exciting moment to find yourself in. That moment in VR is right now.
Back to following your passions. Passions are about creativity. They’re about ideas, and the pursuit of passions, of interests, of emotion, and story is what will facilitate great content-making. I feel very strongly about that. Great ideas make the industry.
If you look at every successful spike in media history there’s some fantastic new piece of content that everybody wants to see. That wide-reaching, high impact project hasn’t hit the consumer market in Virtual Reality yet. I sure would like to be one of the people who makes such a project. I certainly intend on being in the community that facilitates the emergence of such a project or projects. The future is exciting.
As a video/music director and producer, entrepreneur, executive and ball of energy, Nancy Bennett’s talents have pulsed through the heart of the media world for more than 25 years. Not content to just create music projects for the likes of Tori Amos, Led Zeppelin, The Beastie Boys, Ringo Starr and Ray Charles; or to work with visionaries like Jimmy Iovine, Angus Wall, Marcus Nispel and Sean Penn; she has founded multiple businesses (among them, bitMAX, Two Bit Circus VR) that staked out the next wave in the confluence of technology, film, television, and advertising. She has held executive positions at Atlantic Records, MTV Networks / LOGO, The CW Network (consulting producer), and is currently the Chief Content Officer and head of Virtual Reality for Two Bit Circus, an interdisciplinary team of artists, inventors, engineers, educators and entrepreneurs passionate about reimagining all forms of entertainment. Bennett holds a B.A. in Music and a M.S. in Film from Boston University. She is a member of the Producer’s Guild of America, BAFTA and Grammy.org; has served as panelist for the NEA Media Arts; and is a professor at Boston University’s Masters in New Media and Business Administration Program in Los Angeles.
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