Photo by Melanie Acevedo

With 25 years of experience as a creative director and now making her mark as a filmmaker, Chalkley Calderwood is a storyteller extraordinaire. Recently working with Space for Arts on their LUX & ASA studio video, her clients include National Geographic, Maven and Hearst. Her film making ranges from documentaries about lobster men to commercial work with hotels to a DIY series for Popular Mechanics that will have you gearing up to get hands-on. Calderwood not only has an eye for the visual, but for the heart of the story, emphasizing the narratives of the people they belong to.

What are your favorite stories across your career?

One of my favorites when I was a Creative Director was a story for Green Guide, a magazine that I launched for National Geographic. It was a kind of consumer guide for environmental living. We did a story on the impact of carbon emissions that are created in your home and it was just a blast to put together. We used black balloons as a quantitative visual metaphor and built a living room set in the photo studio. It was really gratifying to work with a magazine that endeavored to help readers live lower impact lives.

One of my favorite experiences with film making was shooting a documentary about Congolese refugee women in Providence, which is helping them to get their story out there and potentially get them funding. My connection to the refugee women came through my friendship with a Congolese social worker who assists the women and families to make their lives and resettlement easier in this new life, because everything is new. By making this film and shooting it right in their homes, I was able to tell their story in a very real way. It was a joy knowing that their voices would be heard and that getting them “out there” might actually help them to get funding and exposure. It made me feel the value of what I do in my ability to reach an audience for such a good cause.

Additionally, working with video, an absolute favorite story of mine is my documentary DIG on metal detectorists in England. That was something right from the heart, because I have to admit I am a metal detectorist. I had been seeing fellow club members in England and how passionate they were about history and what they were finding. I knew I wanted to share this story and shed light on this secret society in documentary form. When I attended the National Film and Television School (NFTS) for their intensive documentary film program, it was the first film I really wanted to make. I had been detecting with them for years, so I was in the club and I was friends with many of them. It was fantastic, and I had unusually good access to them and already had their trust.

You have a personal connection with the DIG story – is this the case with a lot of your work? What else inspires you?

I have two tracks with my motion work. One is my purely documentary film work and that will most likely have a personal connection to it. For the commercial video content work, that’s not usually the case, but I very quickly make that personal connection to the subject I am filming. For example, I did a brand video for a virtual women’s health clinic called Maven. I immediately bonded with the mothers sharing their health issues and that helped them feel comfortable to share their stories. In all of my films, I become connected to the subject, whether its new mothers, glassblowers, or entrepreneurs.

Along those lines, especially with these commercial pieces you capture, how do you infuse the project with your style and vision when you are collaborating?

I think it relates to the previous question. My personal style is to be very connected to my subjects and to really build trust with them, so they open up enough on film to really let the story be revealed. When you don’t connect with someone on that level, the story becomes stilted.

One of the threads through many of my commercial videos is humor – that’s something I try to bring to a project when it is appropriate. I feel that it is a strong tool in engaging people, especially when shooting food or objects like the DIY series I created for Popular Mechanics. The screwdriver isn’t going to open up for me. I thought this has the potential to be so dry and I really want to make it as entertaining and as informative as possible. So I throw in a little twist, a sense of play, and some humor. That is what I like to bring into projects.

You work with such a range of subjects, objects, topics, people – how do you start to tackle a project? What is your creative process for pulling together content?   

Every project is so different. I am thinking about the boutique hotel pieces that I have shot. What I always do first is to sit down with the client and listen to their story. So, for instance, before I started a brand film for a hotel in Maine recently, I sat with the manager and talked at length about what it is about that hotel that makes it unique. What are the talking points they would really like to focus on? Then, I add in my own take on what is important visually, and what will make an interesting film. I then go into the typical process which is a shot list, shaping the story in the edit, and then shooting and then shaping the story through the editing. I find it deeply satisfying to sit down with a client, find out their needs and what they want to convey, and really work on bringing that to life with beauty and clarity.

Is the photo industry still relevant?

The photo industry is more relevant than ever. We are living in a time where there is an insatiable demand for imagery, both still and motion. I don’t think there is any question that creating custom photography and video is far superior to depending on the endless parade of stock and library images. It strengthens the visual identity of a brand, supports their messaging and helps to engage a targeted audience. To be visually distinctive is absolutely critical today in the midst of audience saturation.

What is it like being a woman in the industry?

I think it’s a good time right now for women filmmakers. I think that there’s an awareness that there needs to be more of us and we need to be represented. I am part of group called Free the Bid, which asks brands and clients to bring in certain percentage of female director bids on films and video jobs. I think women in film is having its moment and I hope it continues.

What about your own stories? Are they well balanced in terms of people whose stories you are sharing?

There was a time with my own documentary work where it was male heavy. I was at a film festival in Ireland where my film “The More I Draw” was screening, when I realized it was my 5th film with men as the lead. So I made a conscious effort to rethink and bring in female characters for newer films, many of which are coming out soon.  

You put together the LUX & ASA studio video for Space for Arts. How did you tackle that project and what was it like to work with Space for Arts?

Working with Space for Arts was absolutely wonderful because of how open Betsy Davison and Van Gothner, co-Founders, are to the creative process. They really embrace the idea of giving the creative the space to do what they do best and that brings about the best end result.

In terms of creating the LUX & ASA studio video, I was really excited that we could pull together a story from fairly disparate assets. We essentially only had  stills, a little bit of video and their written story, but it all came together really nicely. With a background in graphic design, I love the play between words and images. I love marrying words with just the right imagery. Because Jan and Max had written up their account of restoring this amazing space, it was a lot of fun to pair the images to their words. Sometimes I altered it slightly to add a little bit of humor, and some nice reveals. The edit built a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It all came together. As an editor, there’s always so much to wade through. You need to have a keen eye for what shots will tell the story in just the right way.

What do you think the value/role of SfA for the community is?

The role that Space For Arts plays in the creative community is that it truly bring us all together. Through talks, events and content sharing, SFA connects the photo community and strengthens bonds that might have remained only virtual. We all belong to various nice professional associations but SFA serves as a sort of umbrella association for all photo and video industry professionals.

A huge thank you to Chalkley Calderwood for taking the time to share her experiences with Space for Arts.