Hey everybody! Welcome back to this week’s episode of Brand Your Passion. This week, I’m very, very excited to be joined by documentary filmmaker, Henry Thong. Welcome to the show, Henry!
Thank you so much for having me, Hollie.
Thank you for joining me, I’m very excited to hear your story. Henry and I actually work together via ConvertKit, we’re both involved in the brand and marketing process, so it’s really great to be able to selfishly hear Henry’s story today and I can’t wait for others to hear it too. To kick us off, do you want to introduce yourself and tell us a little about what it is that you do?
Sure. I was born in Malaysia, grew up in Australia, and now I’m living in New York. I’m a documentary filmmaker, so I produce short films, documentaries and web content about creators, different types of artists, different types of creatives - really, anyone who inspires me and whose work I’m a fan of.
Amazing. I love that we have a very similar type of people that we love to work with. We’re all about talking to, meeting and helping creatives. You’re obviously a very worldly person too, you’ve been all around the world, which is very cool.
Have you always identified as creative or felt creative, even from a young age when you were growing up in Malaysia?
I feel like I have a thread of interest in the creative arts and creative expression going back quite some time. I can trace it all the way back to my uncle showing me his comic book collection when I was around 7 or 8 years old. I really got into collecting and reading comic books, and I always enjoyed drawing, so those two things fed into each other.
Both when I was living in Malaysia and then when we moved to Australia, my house was always covered in pieces of paper that I had been drawing on, whether they were full pieces that I was trying to create or just doodles. I was always drawing, so I was always into visual arts and visual creative expression.
I guess it’s not a surprise that I ended up going into filmmaking because there are a lot of similarities between the two of them, especially when you compare shot listing and storyboarding for film to the panels of comic books.
I was always drawing, so I was always into visual arts and visual creative expression.
Yeah, the storyboarding of video is such a great comparison to comic books. It’s all about telling those stories through different shots and different perspectives. I love that way back then when you were younger looking at these comic books, that’s something you might have never thought would lead to video, but retrospectively it makes a lot of sense.
Yes, it’s funny how everything connects together.
Yeah, all those little things that make you who you are as a creative now are really interesting. I love asking if people were creative when they were young because even if it’s completely different, it feeds into what we’re interested in now.
What has your journey looked like since then? How did you get to video from there?
I guess the first time that I really threw myself into video production and filmmaking was in high school. I remember I was in Year 10 in Australia, and that was the first year that we could pick elective classes in high school. I chose media studies because I thought it would be a class that I could bludge or slack off in. And I almost didn’t take this class because I was worried about having to be in front of a camera, which is something I’ve always felt a little bit uncomfortable with, but I decided to do it anyway.
I almost didn’t take this class because I was worried about having to be in front of a camera... but I decided to do it anyway.
I found that I really, really enjoyed making films. Obviously there was a lot of theory involved in that class, but a big part of our assessment was actually making films as well. I was lucky that my school had a media lab, so they had a fair amount of gear, computers and cameras to work with, and that exposure and hands-on experience really turned me on to filmmaking.
That exposure and hands-on experience really turned me on to filmmaking.
I remember there was a poster up in the classroom for this film festival that was running for the first time in Adelaide, which is where I’m from in Australia. It was advertising a $1,000 prize if you entered and won. I was around 15 or 16 and thought, “I wouldn’t mind winning $1,000”. It’s a lot of money even now, but at the time it was like, oh my god, I can’t imagine having that much money in my bank account.
So I incorporated that competition into one of the assignments we had to produce for that class. I made this film, entered it into this festival, and was really fortunate enough to win. That festival took me to the US because that’s where it was founded, this was the first time that it was done in Australia. So I ended up competing in the US and won. I made a lot of friends here, kept coming back here, and it’s all flowed into where I’m at now.
I incorporated that competition into one of the assignments we had to produce for that class. I made this film, entered it into this festival, and was really fortunate enough to win.
Wow, that’s amazing. Congratulations to 15-year-old you for deciding to enter that competition, see how it went, and that led to so many other great things. That’s amazing, well done past you.
You mentioned that you had been coming back to the US. Is that what led you to ultimately move to New York?
Yes. New York has always been a very special fantasy place to me because I grew up watching Spider Man movies and reading the comics, and grew up on a lot of American TV and movies. I always imagined myself visiting here, so when I had the chance to come here to compete in that festival, I seized that opportunity. I knew I had to come and visit and see it for myself, and because that went well, I enjoyed it and made friends here, I just kept coming back.
I came back every year. I didn’t have work here, I just came back to make my own films. Everything I was doing here was a self-driven project as part of the Makers Who Inspire series that I was producing, so it was just excuses to come back to the US. With every trip, I would come to different cities, and I ended up coming to New York a bunch of times.
One of the last times I visited before I moved, a film I had made premiered at Lincoln Center here in New York City. I had made a short documentary about a principal dancer at New York City Ballet and I was also making a film at the time about Ronny Chieng, the comedian who was in Crazy Rich Asians. That trip went really well and I met a lot of cool people who said, “Why don’t you just move here? You’ve got enough under your belt that you could probably qualify for the visa.” So I gave it a shot, it worked out, and I moved here in 2019.
I always imagined myself visiting New York, so when I had the chance to come here to compete in that festival, I seized that opportunity.
Amazing. I love that those people were like, “Just come here, you’re here all the time already!”
I find New Yorkers and Los Angelenos always say stuff like that. I think they’ve lived there for so long, they don’t realise how difficult it is.
I don’t know what Australia is like compared to New Zealand, but I know that in New Zealand, there’s a lot of tall poppy syndrome. Don’t dream too big, don’t dream that you could make it in America, and things like that. If you do, it’s like, whoa. So maybe there’s a difference that it’s no big deal to them. But I love that you did in the end.
I admire the cultural differences between America and Australia, and it sounds like New Zealand as well. There are great things about Australia, but there are also not so great things when it comes to the type of work that I want to make, so I knew I had to come over to the US and I was lucky enough that it worked out.
Was it when you moved over or once you’d graduated that you decided you wanted to make filmmaking your full-time career? How did that come about?
That came about during high school, so around the time I entered that film festival and started taking those classes. Up until that point, I was obviously doing every other subject at school. It was an IB school, International Baccalaureate. It’s a different type of diploma and you have to do one subject in every subject group.
I was doing all of that to keep my options open, but because I was making these films, really enjoying them as part of the film classes, and also winning awards in the US and Australia, I decided to keep chasing it further down the rabbit hole to see where it went.
I was making these films, really enjoying them as part of the film classes, and also winning awards in the US and Australia. I decided to keep chasing it further down the rabbit hole to see where it went.
Slowly, as I went into senior year in high school, I dropped IB and all of the other subjects, and by the time I finished high school I was doing five film-related subjects and one in English. I was a student that had decent grades, so my principal and teachers were concerned that I was going in this direction, but with every film class I picked up, I used the assignments for that class to make a new film to enter into a new festival and win a new award. The media started making articles about these developments in my career. So my school was like, well alright, it seems like it’s working out.
With every film class I picked up, I used the assignments for that class to make a new film to enter into a new festival and win a new award.
As soon as I graduated, I applied to a few film schools in Australia but ended up deciding not to go to university at all. I pursued this career as a freelancer right out of graduation until I moved here to New York. So I think that decision to make this my career was made before I even left high school.
That decision to make this my career was made before I even left high school.
I was very similar. I discovered design at school and by the time I left, I was pretty much doing all design-adjacent topics. I knew exactly that I wanted to go and do design, but it’s incredible that you took the leap and decided you weren’t going to study, you weren’t going to get another job, you were just going to dive straight into the freelance life straight out of high school.
Do you think just jumping straight in helped you get to where you are now? Looking back now, how do you feel about that decision? Hopefully pretty good!
I feel good. But actually, it’s funny you bring it up, because now with the benefit of hindsight and being older, I look back and think, “Why did I think I could do that?”
When you’re younger, it feels like you can do anything because you haven’t had as much perspective or things to compare yourself to. To be honest, I think I was a little bit deluded in the thought that I could do this. I’m also just a really stubborn person, so I just made it work. Anytime someone threw doubt my way, I just used that to fuel myself to keep going.
Anytime someone threw doubt my way, I just used that to fuel myself to keep going.
I don’t know whether it’s as much a bravery or courage thing as it is just self-delusion. But it did work out and I’m glad it went that way because a lot of my friends who ended up going to uni, whether they were doing film or something else, by the time they graduated, I had already made enough of a name for myself through making many expensive mistakes as a freelancer figuring it out to be a little bit further ahead in my career. It felt like a bit more of a head start.
I don’t know whether it’s as much a bravery or courage thing as it is just self-delusion. But it did work out and I’m glad it went that way.
That’s awesome. It’s interesting to hear from different people’s experiences with or without school. A lot of people ask whether they should go to design school or film school, or what to do when they finish or want to start their career, so it’s really valuable to hear from somebody like you who just dove straight in. I love that it was because you believed you could and you were stubborn enough to make it work.
It sounds like you had started your Makers Who Inspire series in high school, is that right? Tell me a little bit about how that series started.
Not in high school actually, it was after high school. The story is that I graduated high school and had been making these films for my classes that were winning awards. I knew that continuing this path of entering films into festivals and winning awards was a good way to build my brand and get known for what I was doing, so I kept making these films.
But as I kept making films for festivals, I realised that the types of films I was making that would get into festivals were not the types of films that I was personally as interested in anymore. I graduated in 2014 and by 2016, I was in this funk where I was like, what am I doing? I knew that this was helping my career and building my name recognition, but I wasn’t making the types of films I wanted to make. So one day I was thinking, what kinds of films do I enjoy watching that haven’t been made or aren’t being made in Adelaide at the time that I was living there?
I realised that the stuff that really interests me are the films about artists, their creative processes, how they make work and the experience that they have when they’re putting together a body of work or starting their career. Being 20 years old at the time, I wished that I could ask for advice from different types of artists that I looked up to, but make it productive so that other people could hear their answers as well and get the advice for themselves.
I realised that the stuff that really interests me are the films about artists, their creative processes, how they make work and the experience that they have when they’re putting together a body of work or starting their career.
I started to make this little series that ended up becoming Makers Who Inspire by approaching some friends in Adelaide who were artists. I made short films about them between 2-5 minutes long, really ground-level small stuff. I made it in a documentary format, because I do love the documentary genre, but I was also very aware of my limitations and capabilities. I knew that documentaries were cheap to make and I could do it all myself. Being stubborn and a bit of a control freak, I knew that if I could just rely on myself to do everything, then I could get it done.
Being stubborn and a bit of a control freak, I knew that if I could just rely on myself to do everything, then I could get it done.
That’s why I made all those decisions that ended up becoming Makers Who Inspire. I just kept putting out the films. I think I made 10 episodes in Season 1 and 10 episodes in Season 2. That consistency was good motivation to make the next one, because this weekly release schedule kept me accountable.
I made more films about people in Adelaide, then I started branching out to interstate artists, and then I started making films about the Americans that I was coming across here in the US. With each successive episode, each successive season, the profile and the types of artists and creators that I was making films about grew and grew and grew. That’s the quick overview of Makers Who Inspire.
With each successive episode, each successive season, the profile and the types of artists and creators that I was making films about grew and grew and grew.
Incredible. I can really empathise with what you were saying at the beginning of your answer, about the balance between things that have worked in the past but feeling this misalignment or burning desire to follow something else. It’s like a fork in the road. I think a lot of creatives struggle with that balance between doing the things that making money and are “successful” in the eyes of others, but maybe not fulfilling you as much inside. I’m really thankful you shared that part of the decision-making and that you decided to follow something that you were really passionate about.
I’m curious to hear more about the profile of people and how that expanded with you filming more prolific people now. Has that come from doing the videos consistently and getting that recognition and reputation for what you do? How have you been able to get some of those bigger people on your series?
That’s a really good question. I think the answer to it will kind of lead into the ways that I built my brand, which I know you wanted to talk about.
For me as a creator in the film industry, I feel like people can easily be divided into one of two different categories. You have the director, who is very much the artist and very creatively focused, and then you’ve got the producer, who is very organised, on top of the logistics and thinking about the business side of things.
I feel like I’m directly in between those two archetypes. I was making the decisions to do my series because I was fascinated by these people, I was a fan of them and I wanted to push myself creatively, which is the director mindset. But my producer brain also knew that working with different artists and pairing our brands together would be mutually beneficial. I was happy that I could make films about my friends, but I was also happy that those films could elevate both of our careers.
I was happy that I could make films about my friends, but I was also happy that those films could elevate both of our careers.
With how I started to grow the profiles of these people, it was a combination of two things. It was proof of concept - the fact that I had made so many films up to the point when I approached the US-based creators helped, because they could see that there was consistency. I’d made films about other artists and they could see what they looked like.
It also helped that I had been very intentional about my networking, which is the producer side of my brain. I don’t like to say the word ‘networking’ because it conjures up images of men in suits exchanging business cards. For me, networking is more like making friends with the people that you’re working with. The art community is very, very small, even between Australia and the US. A lot of the first US-based artists I made films about were actually Australians but they had been living here for a long time. Because I made films about people that they knew or friends of their friends back in Australia, they’d already heard about me and they’d heard from people who could vouch for me. That’s how I started to increase the fame and profile of the people I was making films about.
For me, networking is more like making friends with the people that you’re working with.
Very smart. This podcast is very similar. I started with people that I know and then when I reached out to you, you could listen to all these episodes of people that you know who have been on the podcast. Like you said, it’s definitely all about the consistency and showing that you can do it, and that there’s also this connection of people who can vouch for you or say that it’s worth doing.
Other than the networking and that consistency, what have been some other ways that you have built your brand and what people know you for, and grown that over time?
Good question. Before we started this interview, I told you that I’m not so sure my visual branding is necessarily the best example, but I feel like I’ve put a lot of thought into the storytelling side of a brand. The way that I’ve branded myself was by being very intentional about the subject matter of the work I was making and the genre of the work.
The way that I’ve branded myself was by being very intentional about the subject matter of the work I was making and the genre of the work.
I learned early on that it’s very beneficial for your career to be known as the person who does this thing, especially when you’re starting out. I knew that by making Makers Who Inspire, I was positioning myself to be known as someone who makes documentaries, but also who makes documentaries about artists and creators.
If I was successful in building that brand for myself, then anytime someone wanted to work with an artist, or was an artist who wanted to work with a filmmaker, or was a brand who wanted to make a film about an artist, they might think of me or my work and end up hiring me to make their project with them. That was the thinking behind how I built my brand.
It’s great that you thought about that from the beginning. That’s what a lot of my content and what I teach is about, because when people think ‘branding’, they do think about things like a logo, colours, fonts, patterns or whatever. It’s funny that you said that wasn’t your best thing because what I always say is - don’t worry about those things. Those things are great, if you can do them then that’s awesome, but the most important thing to think about is your brand strategy.
That’s what you did by saying this is the niche, this is what I want to do, this is who I want to do it for, and this is what I’m all about. As long as that’s really clear, then that’s how I’m going to get known for doing what I do. Then your work can speak for itself to help to build and grow that brand.
Exactly. And for me as a filmmaker, what you’re saying relates to me. The way I think about it is that if you’re watching a film, the story is the most important thing, right? You can have the most amazing VFX, great music and great cinematography, but if the story isn’t there to hold people’s attention, then all of those bells and whistles don’t really serve anything.
If the story isn’t there to hold people’s attention, then all of those bells and whistles don’t really serve anything.
In the same way with branding, if you know what your core message is, then you can build around that with all the visual elements to effectively create a brand around and about yourself.
Yeah, definitely. I think the cool thing as well about being a visual artist especially is that your work builds your brand on its own without having to think about things like colours or logos, because your style of videography, photography, or whatever it is you make builds that visual side of your brand anyway. You have that on your side, which is awesome.
As we’re talking about storytelling, that’s obviously a huge part of what video does and what you do. I would love to hear your thoughts on why video is so good at doing that and about video as a medium for storytelling for creators and brands.
Oh, so many ideas here. Well, I think you can trace it all the way back to 1896, when the Lumiere brothers projected the very first film of a train coming into a station. It was super basic. But moving images just capture people’s attention in a way that still images or the written word doesn’t. It was true then and it’s still true now.
I feel like video is so effective at building a brand or getting your message across because so much can be said in such a short amount of time that can’t quite be conveyed in as brief a piece of work as a still image or a written paragraph of text.
I feel like video is so effective at building a brand or getting your message across because so much can be said in such a short amount of time.
Video is the closest thing that we have at the moment to really translate and transmit someone’s personality and overall vibe. When you watch a video, you can really get a feel for someone’s personality, how likeable they are, how effective they are at speaking or conveying their message, how likeable their brand is, and what their brand can do for you.
Take away all of the special VFX and potential animation and stuff that can be put into a video, if you strip that all away and you just have someone talking to a camera, I think that alone is more effective than just audio or the write word. You can see someone, you can make eye contact with them, and you will leave the experience feeling way more connected to what it is that they’re trying to tell you. That’s why I think video is much more effective.
Obviously, now social media companies and brands around the world are tuning into that. Instagram announced last year that they’re pivoting away from still image content to video content now, which is crazy to me still because I always think of Instagram as a place to share photographs, but clearly it’s a sign of the times.
Video is the closest thing that we have at the moment to really translate and transmit someone’s personality and overall vibe.
I’m a big Instagram person and I feel like everybody collectively freaked out when they announced that! But I love what you said about how video is so powerful in creating connection, in that you can get a feel for somebody’s personality, you can look into their eyes and connect with them. It’s something that I say and is said online all the time, which is that people connect with people. That’s why people love personal brands and brands that inject personality. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Duolingo bird on TikTok - people love that! Because it’s not a person, but it’s a personality behind a brand that otherwise is just an app.
At the moment, a lot of us are also separated from people, so having that video connection is really important. Video is really powerful in being able to connect us and help us feel like there’s people on the other side of the screen or the other side of the world.
What advice would you give to people who are maybe freaking out about having to inject video into their brand? Do you have any tips or advice on how you can use video as a creative?
Wow, that’s a big question. It’s funny - I’m a filmmaker, I make films and video content for my living, and I was still one of the people like you who freaked out when Instagram said that! I was like, I want to share photos, I don’t want to make videos to post on social media when I’m doing that for work already. That being said, it is the more effective way to get your message across.
I found that the best advice someone can take for getting into video for the first time is the knowledge that it’s easier now more than ever. It’s a very famous saying in the photography world that the best camera is the one that you have on you, and the cameras that we have on us now are the most incredible pieces of technology anyone has ever had before. So the barrier to entry to start making quality content is very, very low. I would say it’s the lowest it’s ever been.
The best advice someone can take for getting into video for the first time is the knowledge that it’s easier now more than ever.
We’re also more media literate now than we ever were. Look at everyone who’s making stuff on TikTok - it’s just so smart the way that they’re going about it. They’re exercising all of these different muscle groups that we were trained to identify in high school when we were 16, 17 years old. These are like, 11, 12 year old kids doing all of that in one video.
Oh god, I sound like such an old man now. But it’s true.
Back in my day!
Yeah, legit. But everyone is more media literate. I think it’s much easier than you would imagine it to be because once you get started, you’ll find that a lot of that is already within you and a lot of stuff is already available to you.
Another piece of advice is to embrace the imperfections to begin with and just be yourself. I see this a lot with visual artists I have worked with in the past, and maybe it’s because they operate in such a visual medium and the art world can be so cliquey, but they always second guess themselves whenever they need to produce a piece of video content. But the thing that people love to see is vulnerability, because that’s what we connect to as humans. People love to see the mistakes and see people work through challenges.
If you’re just starting out on video for the first time, the advice that I give to a lot of visual artists is just to lean into those imperfections. It doesn’t need to be a perfect video. It’s actually more interesting for people to hear you talk about the challenges and to see you grow over the course of one or two different videos, whether they’re on YouTube or Instagram or TikTok. That kind of growth is very inspiring for other creators to see, so I would encourage people to lean into those mistakes or perceived imperfections.
Embrace the imperfections to begin with and just be yourself. The thing that people love to see is vulnerability, because that’s what we connect to as humans.
That’s brilliant advice. I can totally relate because I look back on my first vlogs or reels and I’m like, oh my god, how embarrassing!
I know, me too.
But just doing that first one is what I needed to be able to get to where I am now. Now, I can pretty easily turn on my phone camera and film a reel in 5 minutes, whereas it took doing that first one that was really embarrassing and not very good to get me where I am now. I think that’s amazing advice, and I totally agree with what you said about the tools because you can so easily overcomplicate things and think that you need to have a DSLR or whatever. I used to vlog with a DSLR.
Oh wow, Casey Neistat style.
Yeah, it was a) awkward in public, and b) just huge. Then I switched to my phone because it’s so easy and almost as good.
Well it can be if you know what you're doing.
It’s good enough to upload a vlog or whatever. You can totally just pick up your phone camera and go.
Something I’ve seen on social media that can be a really good tip is turning an existing piece of content into video to just get you started, instead of trying to think of how to create a video. Say you have a checklist as a graphic on social media, you could list those things in a video or do them differently on video. There are a bunch of ways to ease your way into the video life.
To wrap things up here, you’ve obviously built your own brand and you’ve also worked with a lot of other creators who have been branding their own passion and building their own brand. This is the big question - what do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about branding your passion that you would love to pass on to somebody else?
I think there are two parts to this.
Here’s part one. The biggest lesson that I’ve already lived through at this point is that when you’re starting out, the most effective way to brand yourself is to get known for doing one specific thing. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do a whole bunch of things, but it really helps to narrow down onto one genre or subject matter, like I did with making films about creators and artists. That opens the door to other opportunities that help you build your career in that field. Obviously, it’s important to choose a field, subject matter or brand that is something you’re passionate about, because you’re only going to get the work that people see from you.
The most effective way to brand yourself is to get known for doing one specific thing.
The second part that I’ve just recently learned or am still in the process of learning is that once you’ve gotten to the stage where you are getting that work and you are known for that thing, which is where I’m at now - it’s okay to start branching out and expand your brand into different things.
I have yet to figure out how to do that, but I look at some of the artists that I’ve made films about, especially Poh Ling Yeow, who is one of my close friends back in Adelaide. She’s known for being a celebrity chef because she was on the very first season of MasterChef, but she was always an artist before she was a chef. She’s written cookbooks, she’s a television host, she acts, and even in her art, she doesn’t just paint. I’ve seen works that she’s made with bird feathers. It’s so incredible to see how she’s not tethered to just one thing and she’s known for many different things.
Once you’ve gotten to the stage where you are getting that work and you are known for that thing - it’s okay to start branching out and expand your brand into different things.
I’m in this weird transitionary stage at the moment where I’m realising that it’s okay to grow beyond the one thing that people have known you for and to start expanding into different areas of interests that you might have.
I think those are the two things I’ve learned the most about branding in my short time doing this.
Thank you so much, I love that. And I love that it sort of reflects back to when you were deciding to make your series and had been doing this thing that had worked, but were being pulled to do something in another direction. It feels like you’re going through that cycle again a little bit and feeling pulled to try some new things. Maybe it’s a cyclical thing for you.
I think for everyone. As creative people, we’re interested in so many different things. I guess the takeaway from that long speech is just that nowadays, everyone wants to put people in boxes. You need to be known for doing this thing or fitting into this archetype. But now more than ever, perhaps it’s a good reminder that we are able and free to experiment and try different things, and grow beyond the boundaries that we’ve already built for ourselves.
Now more than ever, perhaps it’s a good reminder that we are able and free to experiment and try different things, and grow beyond the boundaries that we’ve already built for ourselves.
That’s what creativity is all about, right? It’s learning, experimenting and trying new things. That’s what keeps your creativity alive and growing.
Thank you so much for sharing that advice, and for just being here and telling us your story. I think everybody is going to find it really, really valuable, and really appreciate your story and the things you’ve learned along the way. I’m very excited to see what you do decide to do as you figure out what’s pulling you and where you want to go!
Do you want to let the people know where they can find you, and anything you’re promoting now so they can keep up to date and see what happens going forward?
What I’m most excited about that I’m working on right now is the Creator Session series that I make at ConvertKit, which is where I’m working right now with Hollie. I would encourage you to have a look at those because we’ve been doing a lot of work with singers and musicians that have been really inspiring to me and a total vibe. I was never into that live music scene, but now after filming and working with musicians, I want to lean into it more.
Every time I’m designing the graphics for them, I find a new artist and hear their story and I’m blown away by how inspiring they are. The calibre of creators on Creator Sessions is incredible.
Oh yeah. It’s good fun.
It’s next level. Definitely check those out.
Thank you again Henry for joining us. I can’t wait to hear what happens next for you!
February 16, 2022
Brand Your Passion