Ryan Hill is the co-founder of Still Life Projects, a film production company in Washington, D.C. that creates “new media for social good.” His growing team of cinematographers, photographers, producers and editors has produced work for clients like National Geographic, HBO and The New York Times.
Hill said he got the idea to start his company after producing a documentary show, Border Jumpers, about illegal immigrants crossing over from Zimbabwe to Botswana. Hill and his filmmaking partner Peter Hutchens traveled to Africa to shoot the film independently, and they eventually sold the film to the Wide Angle international documentary series for PBS.
“Our mission since the beginning has been to give a voice to people who don’t have one,” Hill says.
More recent projects by the team include a short 10-minute film for SisterMentors, a D.C.-based nonprofit that challenges minority women to excel in school and in life. After showing the film at a fundraising event, the organization raised far more than they had hoped, according to Hill.
“It’s largely because the audience connected with the characters,” he says. “That nonprofit will be able to help more people down the road because of the extra money they were able to raise. It got us very excited.”
Another project, filmed on the other side of the world in Calcutta, India, tells the story of a young boy named Arjun, the son of a rickshaw puller, who has benefited from a program called Project Rhino that provides education to children whose families cannot afford school. The films created by Still Life Projects were used to help raise funds to build more Project Rhino schools.
“Our challenge was to show that children’s dreams are the same everywhere and how Project Rhino is helping Arjun to reach his full potential,” the filmmakers say in the their “Behind the Scenes” blog post. Read the full case study to learn more about the particular challenges, approach, strategy and results of that project.
I spoke with Hill to learn more about his mission to use filmmaking as a way to inspire social change and support cause-oriented nonprofits, NGOs and other clients looking to share their stories of hope with a broader audience.
What makes Still Life Projects different from other media production companies?
There are a lot of nonprofits that do work that we really appreciate. Through our filmmaking knowledge, we’re able to find the characters and tell the story that connects with people in a way that’s different from a print piece or journalism piece.
We all come from a documentary filmmaking background and you need to look first and foremost for strong characters and story arcs. When documentary filmmakers meet up with people making a difference, then it really creates something unique.
How has your prior experience as a documentary filmmaker influenced your approach to storytelling?
Having worked in places where it’s very difficult to work, all around the world, it gives you confidence to pick up any story and not to worry about the logistics of it.
Also, we offer beautiful cinematography and beautiful imagery—not that we think it’s that unique, but it’s just always been expected by the clients who we’ve worked for.
On an emotional level, the beauty of traveling for a client or a documentary film is that you bypass all the tourist attractions and hotels and you’re in real people’s homes, having real interactions and hearing their stories first hand. I think that changes you. You’ll never see the world the same way.
What makes a film successful?
To know that the film you made, however long it is and whatever topic it’s on, you’ve connected with the intended audience—that’s our only job. A lot of people focus on whether or not something has beautiful visuals or nice music or good narration or these different technical things, but nothing belongs in your film if it’s not telling a story well.
Everything should be moving towards making a connection with the audience, and in a way that dignifies the people who are in your film, as well.
Do you have any requests for collaboration or support?
The biggest challenge that our company faces is distribution. The grassroots social networks are very significant outlets for our work. It’s not like you create a show and it’s up on television and you have your audience. It’s about expanding that network of people who care about the same things that you do. It’s not just about the number of people that see these pieces.
We already have an established network of filmmakers. We’re not really looking for people interested in video production or photography. What we really want is people with social media expertise who are really good at finding audiences for original content.
Still Life Projects will be contributing a regular blog post series of best practices, case studies and commentary to our site over the coming months. Stay tuned!
If you or your organization are interested in sharing content with our readers, please contact our Creator and Curator Erica Schlaikjer: erica [at] benevolentmedia [dot] org.