Part of the reason we started 2 East 8th Productions was the fact that we saw so many talented creators fleeing Chicago for California and New York because they felt they had to in order to find steady work. We hoped to play a small part in changing that. The recent boom in broadcast television, acclaimed network shows, and independent movies filming here has only solidified that hope. With shows like Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, and Chicago PD making their home here, as well as Lovecraft Country on HBO and Showtime’s The Chi and Shameless filming here, some of that talent has returned and new talented creators are beginning to realize that they can make a living here, including some extraordinary women filmmakers.
From the beginning of our correspondence with Sarah, it was clear she’s a go-getter. Chicago is full of self-starters like her. But Sarah brings a refreshing humbleness to her hustle game. She’s focused on conquering the corporate side of our industry as a cinematographer at XVP Studios. However, she was almost one of those talented creators that we lost to New York, as she had a five-year plan that included leaving Chicago.
“The idea of New York always enticed me! Upon graduation, I started immediately working in the industry in Chicago, and just kept getting hired. It grew to getting hired locally, then nationally, and eventually internationally; Chicago was just such a great and thriving hub to be based out of. So, here I am ten years later, still working in Chicago.”
We Chicago filmmakers should count ourselves lucky to have kept her here. “Everyone knows everyone and that midwest charm helps cut down ego. Chicago is one of the best cities to live and film in simply because of the people that keep it working.” This sentiment becomes a running theme throughout this article as many of the creators I spoke with echoed these words.
Sarah recently had the privilege of being one of the first to capture footage of the Pfizer vaccine arriving in Chicago, for United Airlines. In fact, she’s often at the forefront of people’s minds when it comes to capturing footage of life-changing events. In 2019, while working as the Senior Videographer at Newsy, her boss walked up to her and asked if she could fly to Paris that day. A few hours later she was on a plane to capture footage of Notre Dame Cathedral that had caught fire. You can see some of that footage here.
Sarah is full of stories like this but one, in particular, shows the passion and determination she has for this business. In 2016, while filming a documentary in Uganda, the crew she was working with was involved in a fatal bus accident the day after Christmas, in which the Director, David Steiner, tragically lost his life.
“I am so lucky to have been able to walk from that experience and also assure myself that if asked, I would definitely go back to Africa to finish that documentary. This is what I was meant to do with my life. I am a filmmaker. I hope to continue to share my perspective of life and culture through the lens of a camera.”
If this doesn’t convince you to hire Sarah Giroux for your next corporate video, you may be in the wrong business. Or maybe her shiny new demo reel will do the trick. For those looking to make industry connections, she says her door is always open. She is the co-founder of a free networking event called the Martini Shot where she loves introducing like-minded people.
I have to be honest here. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was not aware of Jennifer or her work before tackling this article. I naively reached out on a whim and consider myself very fortunate to have her respond so generously with her valuable time. She is the director of two feature-length films, Signature Move (2017) and Knives and Skin (2019), which “got people from either coast very curious about Chicago-based filmmaking, which is impactful as New York and LA are too often considered the only cities in the US where real films get made.” Her films have played in front of crowds at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Rotterdam, London, and SXSW and nine of her short films are now available to stream on The Criterion Channel. Needless to say, she is a powerful force in the Chicago Film Industry.
“I love the general tone of Chicago. There is intent and purpose here. Chicago has always been a city of great creative production (Theater, Music, Poetry). I have watched the TV/Filmmaking landscape change robustly over the past ten years and it is only going to build momentum. I see us on the same track as Toronto and Atlanta.”
Jennifer has a defining voice and clear intentions when writing and directing films. She focuses on “personal fiction films about relationships, trauma, and coping.” She has plans to launch a TV series and help produce films for first time BIPOC and women filmmakers. In fact, Jennifer subsidizes her filmmaking income by teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Education and mentoring is a huge part of my personal mission.”
Jennifer’s advice for filmmakers is simple. “Take some risks. Be prepared to say YES. Tell stories that are important to you. Don’t be a jerk.”
Chan C. Smith
There is a joyous energy that is infectious with Chan C. Smith when she speaks about filmmaking. She proudly boasts of her roots as a Chicago-based Filmmaker and Content Creator, but with a humility that makes you trust her creativity completely. She is a creator that easily loses herself in her work because of her devotion to the craft. She seems to have no limits to the kind of videos she can pull off. Whether she’s working on a narrative, doc, lifestyle, corporate, or music video, rest assured, she’s putting her whole self into it. Quite simply, she is everything you look for in a collaborator.
She has no problem admitting that she loves Chicago and that it has made her into the filmmaker and person that she is. “I feel this city has molded me in ways that can be transferable to any physical location. I’ve filmed during our beautiful summertime Chi season, down to the blistering winter season, all for the purpose of creating and telling our stories. We have a unique perspective and nothing makes me happier than to share that perspective with the rest of the world.”
It’s that perspective that likely helped her land the “America the Beautiful” Biden campaign ad, which she shot and directed. You likely saw the ad during election season. I personally remember seeing the ad for the first time, not knowing that Chan was behind it and thinking, “wow, this hits all the right notes.” It still gives me goosebumps when I watch it now. “It was a great opportunity to share stories that spoke to the heart and soul of the country.” It spoke to the heart and soul of the country because it’s clear that this is yet another example of Chan C. Smith putting her own heart and soul into the project.
Chan did not always believe in herself or even recognize filmmaking as something that was attainable. “Growing up, I was not exposed to the world of filmmaking, so I did not think it was attainable. It wasn’t until I heard about the journeys of filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, John Singleton, and others, that I believed I could also do my part to contribute to the culture with my art.” We are so thankful that she found her voice through these heroes.
“Be resilient and get involved in every aspect of filmmaking. Have a hustle mentality with a dash of charm and take your talents seriously. Create the art that you want to see.”
Okay, so Erica isn’t technically a local, but we will embrace her as one of our own, as she has embraced Chicago. “My film career started in San Francisco, but it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that it really met its full potential. Chicago’s culture and community are what allowed me to step into an industry to take risks, be innovative, and launch into who I am today. I can say with full confidence that I don’t think any of this would have been possible, on this level, in any other city.”
Erica owns and operates Camera Ambassador, the nation’s only equipment rental house solely owned and operated by a woman and a favorite resource for Chicago filmmakers featured on this very list. She is also the Executive Director of The Midwest Film Festival, a Chicago Filmmaking staple in the community. It should take no time at all to recognize Erica as someone who cares deeply about the filmmaking community that she loves being a part of. Her company and all of her endeavors strive to not only facilitate filmmaker’s goals but also to educate them in creative ways.
Erica believes in taking the time to reflect and celebrate your successes because there are no shortcuts. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get to where you want to be. She considers her collaborators essential to her growth.
“The Chicago creator is just a whole other breed of filmmaker. We’ve cut through all of that entitlement and image-focused fakeness to just make great art. I respect my co-creators and clients on a deep level because I am truly just a huge fan. I love their work and love them as people. Relationships are everything. Filmmaking is a team sport, and my philosophy is to build together. At Camera Ambassador, our slogan says it all…if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
We can only hope to partner with Erica and her team someday soon because we have no doubt that she will elevate any project that she’s a part of. We always preach the power of collaboration and Erica Duffy shares that sentiment tenfold.
To say that Jennifer is a determined filmmaker would be a vast understatement. When I first approached her about being a part of this article, she immediately asked to speak to me on the phone and provide me with the reasoning for why she should in fact be a part of the article. Little did she know, I needed no persuasion as I had already made the decision to include her. That can be attributed to her background in sales. But, she is a producer in every sense of the word. She gets things done. Case in point: She’s spent the past three years working on the Conrad Series, which she also stars in, and is now meeting with and pitching to various networks.
She is a quadruple threat: a writer, director, producer, and actor but worries that this makes it tricky for others to market her. “I feel I can be an actress and producer and still find success. Just like many others out there. I also feel having the knowledge of the crew part of the industry helps me as an actress and vice versa.” With her short psychological thriller, The Nest, as well as her upcoming feature film, The Curse, Jennifer is certainly doing her part in making her voice heard loud and clear throughout the Chicago Film Industry.
Jennifer is the co-founder of Lakefront Pictures, which focuses on untold stories by voices normally unheard. She is very open about being an artist on the autism spectrum, which only makes her story more inspiring. “It was hard for me to pick up on the nuances at first, and understand all the factors that are involved in the filmmaking process. I had to learn the hard way in many instances and I’ve grown so much. I learned what most people learn in film school in two years through trial and error. I’ll say it like Aaron Burr in Hamilton did; ‘TALK less, SMILE more.’ And I do!”
“You really have to be flexible. You bring people on your project to ADD value, so let them be that value. It’s amazing what comes of this.”
“There’s so much that my team has brought to me knowledge-wise, and so much I’ve been able to bring to them with my Sales background and my go-getter personality, it’s been an incredible balance AND fun. I was lucky to have such wonderful and patient people educate and work with me to help contribute to our overall success.”
We have no doubt that Jennifer will continue her mission of shattering glass ceilings and we can’t wait to be witness to it!
Atara Wolf began making films at the age of ten. She’s not afraid to do her own thing, which includes staying in Chicago even when others may say she needs to be in LA or New York. In fact, she argues that location means little these days with the powerful advances in technology. She’s in pre-production on a film that she is collaborating on with a filmmaker from Israel. Her composer lives in Vienna and she sends much of her visual effects work to a friend in New York. She is what every micro-budget filmmaker needs to be; resourceful.
She also balked at going to film school. “I’m not a fan of picking up and moving someplace just because you hear it’s what you’re supposed to do and what other people have done. In filmmaking especially, there’s a lot of room to go your own way and I don’t think it’s necessary to simply do what’s been done before.”
“Some people might see Chicago as a stepping stone to LA, but for me personally, it didn’t make sense to pick up and leave because I’m not chasing something, I’m creating.”
While she is working towards the day when she has a suitable budget for making a movie, for now, she is thriving in that world of microbudget filmmaking, having just completed a short film called Dolly, which she co-produced with her brother and also served as cinematographer and editor on. Her visual style is undeniable and often makes itself comfortable in an observant role capturing moments of triumph, heartbreak, and vulnerability, which is what distinguishes the great cinematographers from good.
Atara urges filmmakers to get out there and find collaborators. “Chicago has a very friendly and supportive filmmaking community and it isn’t hard to find good people to collaborate with. Give people a reason to bring you back and work with you again.”
We are so excited to see more from Atara Wolf. Be sure to check out her cinematography reel.
Layne Marie Williams
Okay, so Layne Marie is one that Chicago lost to the West Coast but we couldn’t not include her in this list because of the fact that she built the foundations of her directing prowess right here in the Windy City. “I have every intention of making movies in Chicago forever. Some of my all-time favorite collaborators, rental houses, and post houses are there! It is a wonderful place to create and cultivate. It’s such a powerhouse community. ”
Whether it’s narrative, commercial work, or music videos, a quick glance at her IMDB profile will show you how busy of a director she’s been over the past five years. Her short films Golden Voices (2018) and SCUTLY (2019), in particular, have received wide acclaim for their unique worlds and the fantastic characters that reside there, which is the introductory quote on her website. She admits though that there are no shortcuts in the world of independent filmmaking. “I think being an indie filmmaker takes an enormous amount of grit. There’s never enough funding. We’re always hustling.”
Layne Marie has been spending some of her quarantine life writing an Irish horror feature, which she already has the leads attached to. She is also the founder of Legacy Marie Pictures, a production company committed to honoring the legacy of women past, present, and future. Speaking of founding companies, she also formed Women of the Now, a 501c3 organization that provides training, resources, and community to womxn and gender non-conforming filmmakers. Finally, she co-founded The Women’s Film Festival to create artistic platforms for work by and about women, which is an annual event in Philadelphia, PA.
So yeah, that hustle she speaks of is real and quite present in Layne Marie. You can’t help but be inspired by someone like her. She walks the walk and in so doing, has built a powerful entourage of creative women to walk along beside her. “Support one another, create opportunities to grow, and celebrate one another’s work. It’s why being an artist around other artists is so much fun.”
Layne Marie also appreciates the art of self-care and taking time to slow down.
“Take good care of yourselves, especially in these times…in whatever way that means to you. Burn out is very real and it’s so okay to prioritize your own well-being.”
With all of the work she does, we’re not sure where she finds time for her own self-care but her words are quite frankly advice that you don’t hear enough as an artist. So take this breath of fresh air from an unstoppable force, like Layne Marie Williams. With all of her momentum, we are excited to see just how unstoppable she becomes in the world of filmmaking.
Maria Brenda caught our attention because she shares a devotion to mental health awareness, a cause that is near and dear to our hearts. Her unique fantasy horror film, MAYA the Sacrifice, is the story of a mother and daughter’s journey to end evil for good and was inspired by her daughter’s own mental health struggles. The film enjoyed a powerful run on the festival circuit with Maria at the helm as writer, producer, and lead actor.
“MAYA the Sacrifice is my baby. It is a film for a cause, dedicated to Mental Health Awareness. This project is based on my life in the fantasy world. It’s the project that got recognized around the film-festival circuit and put me and my production company in the limelight.”
Maria is also the driving force behind The Maya Movement, a Reach Out & Listen Project, which is a documentary series dedicated to Mental Health Awareness and focuses on person-to-person connections and interactions. Finally, No Small Potatoes Foundation is a non-profit organization that she formed to help with mental health in communities everywhere.
Her selfless devotion to the craft of storytelling led to her founding Zatori Films, which she hopes will someday become one of the most sought after film companies in the country that will help and mentor up-and-coming female filmmakers and give them a chance to express their creativity and talent regardless of their age and ethnicity. She feels Chicago is the perfect fit for that mission. “There is no difference between those cities (LA and New York) and Chicago. In my opinion, the level of talent here is abundant because we have more creative, talented, and diverse people.”
Because of her own struggles to get to where she is now, Maria doesn’t mince words when giving advice to aspiring filmmakers.
“The truth of the matter is that filmmaking is a brutal career, but at the same time, it is so beautiful. Your talent, dedication, perseverance, and patience will likely earn you success. Believing in yourself is what sets you apart from everyone else. Start your journey now. Whether it is in the filmmaking industry or in any other industry that you are passionate about. There is no set date or time to start. Don’t let anyone hold you back. Don’t let the negativity or nay-sayers stop you from accomplishing your dreams.”
Thank you Maria for being an inspiration not just as a filmmaker but as the caring and passionate artist that you are.
Grace is a Producer, Director of Photography, and Editor at Gold Point Studio, which she founded in 2018. She sits on the board and is the Technical Director of Women of The Now, Chicago’s 501c3 for providing film training and resources for womxn. She was named Midwest Filmmaker of the Year in 2019. Finally, Grace is a photographer and Getty contributor. Some of her work can be found at gracepisula.com. Phew! Need we say more?
Grace was one of the creative forces behind Golden Voices, a film we mentioned earlier and in which Layne Marie Williams directed. Grace served as Producer, Cinematographer, and Editor on the film that took home many awards on the festival circuit and is now available to watch on Amazon Prime.
Grace did not attend a conventional film school. Instead, she studied Interactive Media at Bradley University after already having started a career in photography at the age of 16. She spent a semester in LA but ultimately decided that Chicago was where she wanted to be. She doesn’t put much thought into the opportunities that may be available elsewhere. “I’ve always lived and worked in Chicago. I love this city. It’s my hometown and where I have a lot of roots. I can’t compare filmmaking here to anywhere else – at least not from personal experience.”
Grace has several projects in the works, ranging from a television series to animated shorts and she hopes to be able to finance these projects in the near future while she works towards PGA membership. Along the way though, you can rest assured that she will be doing everything she can to empower other women filmmakers.
“For other women, I want to say that in order to make it in this industry you really have to embody the entrepreneurial spirit. Speaking from my experience, no one is going to hand you the opportunities you want on a silver platter, or any platter for that matter. You have to work hard every day to create your own opportunities for creative expression, and personal and professional development. Find people you trust and start creating work together.”
Like all the filmmakers on this list, Grace inspires us to be better in all walks of life. We’d be thrilled and humbled to work alongside any of them.
Update from the Filmmaker: “Sweat Local started in 2017 as a wide net to catch all the free work I was doing as a filmmaker for community groups and non-profit organizations. Today Sweat Local is run by a team of creatives all equally passionate to give back to the community by producing films for public good. We produce community feature videos, documentaries, and connect art-activism by collaborating with artists to put on our annual pop-up art event Garden Gallery. Garden Gallery couldn’t happen in its old form this year but that’s okay. Like many creatives, we were forced to pivot and put our energy into finding a new way to share stories. So, I edited an hour special full of videos from the last three years. That’s currently available on our YouTube channel. It was amazing to see how this body of work developed over the years and is still changing today. This year, Sweat Local is exploring topics around environmental justice and helping communities document their stories of change through film.”
– Grace Pisula
We didn’t want this article to be about “Women Filmmakers” because of the simple fact that they’re women. Rather, we wanted to showcase their talent as filmmakers, period. We can only hope to be fortunate enough to collaborate with them someday as we are in awe of their abilities. Reputation is huge in this industry and these filmmakers certainly deserve to be acknowledged and appreciated for theirs.
We know that there are many Chicago women filmmakers that we could not include in this list so if you’d like to recognize one of them now, please drop their name in the comments below!