Even when you’re not sure where you’re headed, creativity coupled with drive will lead you in the right direction. No one knows this better than Charlene Bagcal, who has jumped from designer to photographer to director over the past two decades.
You grew up near LA in Orange County. What was your attitude towards LA?
I was definitely drawn to LA. I felt like I could have more fun creatively here. I didn’t have a lot of artist friends growing up in Orange County, so I felt like a little bit of an outsider.
So when I was looking for colleges, I considered UCLA. I ended up going to Cal State Long Beach because there’s a lot of diversity there and they have a really great art program and graphic-design program. I fell in love with it. We always say that Long Beach is a transition point for Orange County because it’s similar to LA.
The halfway point…
It is. And when you’re ready, then you’ll make the leap to LA because there’s not much to do, work-wise, in Long Beach.
So how did you start, work-wise?
I started out doing graphic design and photography. I would integrate graphic design into a lot of my photography. I started doing web design and I really loved that, but I was getting bored. I also worked as an editorial photographer, but that became a little boring for me, too.
I was working as a photographer, mainly in fashion, and then I started shooting musicians. I ended up really liking shooting musicians because I felt more of a connection with them as an artist. Fashion is still very much a part of my work because I do fashion film now, but its charm wore off.
Fashion photography wears on you; there’s not a lot of pay unless you’re shooting covers. I made most of my money doing lookbooks and campaigns. Editorial work doesn’t pay that much, either. For me it was more just about exposure, but after a while I was over that.
I stuck with it for ten years. One day I had a meeting with my team, my glam squad, and I was saying how I could tell fashion film was going to become really big. So we did a test shoot together. We took video of a model and we cut it together and made a fashion film out of it. It actually did very well and I was like, “Oh, this is really cool.” It caught the eye of a really big commercial production company here.
I started to make more fashion films on my own, and then I would submit them. Thankfully everything got published. From there I was starting to get commissions.
That’s how I got into directing, through making fashion films. I worked with this magazine DRESSLAB in Spain. I’ve done three films for them.
What is fashion film exactly?
It depends. For me, fashion film is really about making clothing the protagonist in the story. I get really inspired by the fashion. Sometimes I like to see the clothes first, before I even write the story for it. I love fashion films as a director, because there’s a lot of room to play around. It’s still a pretty new medium so you can really experiment. That’s where I usually do a lot of my experimenting—fashion films and music videos.
The films themselves are usually pretty short. We try to keep them under four minutes.
It’s like a moving piece of art.
Definitely. I have more creative freedom with my fashion films and music videos, compared with my narrative work. With narrative work, there are set boundaries.
And now you own a production company, REMA. How did that happen?
It is a little daunting. I’m still building it with my boyfriend, who is a cinematographer. We started working together three years ago. Everyone in LA has a production company, so we just thought we should start one together. We’re slowly building our team. We have a producer now. It’s slowly getting to where we want it to be.
When I first started directing, I was a little nervous because I didn’t have a proper crew and I worried, “How am I going to be a director? I don’t have a DP [director of photography]. I don’t have this or that….” So in the beginning, I was doing my own cinematography out of necessity. It would just be a hair-and-makeup stylist and me, and that was it. Then I worked with a couple DPs and we just built from there. Thankfully my boyfriend had a ton of resources to pull from, so now we have a full-blown team and three to four backups, which is great.
Ten years ago, did you think this is what you’d be doing?
No. Honestly, I was never interested in being a filmmaker. I always knew that photography was just a small piece of the bigger picture—but I didn’t quite know what that bigger picture was. I felt that even when I was in school.
I did do some video art while I was in college. I was really inspired by Bill Viola’s work. I was just blown away it. So I always had it in the back of my mind to explore that.
When I was studying photography, I would watch movies and freeze the frame and study the composition. I see that’s also the designer in me. I am very detail-oriented. I’m definitely glad it’s taken this turn. I’ve found my calling after two careers.
I feel my past careers have only made me a stronger director. My design background definitely comes in handy when I submit treatments for commercial projects, because there’s a lot of design involved in that. Actually, it’s common for art directors and creative directors become directors.
It sounds like it just helps to be well-rounded.
Definitely. I love cinematography. Could I see myself doing that? No—it’s very difficult. But I love collaborating with my boyfriend. Because I have an understanding of photography and camera operations, it’s easier for me to communicate with him and my team. I also have experience doing production. That’s actually where I met him, working on a horror film.
I think it’s important to know all the different departments. It’s easier for people to respect you because you know where they come from. I’m very conscious of how I work; I just try to stay very organized and talk to my department.
It’s taken years to amass all this experience!
Definitely. I am very, very grateful. I’ve designed a few movie posters for filmmaker friends, too. I love helping everyone. It’s great to have this community, especially in the film industry. It’s such a difficult industry, so you have to really love what you do—especially being a woman.
Is it difficult being a woman in the industry?
The studios I’ve worked with have been very supportive. I don’t feel like I’ve experienced prejudice, thankfully. But I do know friends that have dealt with it. I felt that as a photographer, too, at least. When I was starting out, it was very much a male-dominated industry. All the photographers I assisted were male. I was just dying to work for a female photographer, but I couldn’t find one.
I never let that hinder me. I think it just made me stronger. I’m not going to let something like that hold me back. I let my work speak for itself. But when I’m on set, there are a lot of men so I have to act a little different. I have to speak a little louder. I’m very soft-spoken, so a lot of times I’ll lose my voice after production.
How do you separate the “work” part of your life from the rest of your life?
I definitely have my hands on many parts. I used to have a jewelry line, wooden jewelry with really cool gemstones. I don’t make it anymore, but that was something I was doing for awhile on the side. I also love to paint.
I think it’s important to have something on the side, something to be interested in. I really miss just getting my hands dirty. I definitely feel that now, because when I’m not on set it’s me behind the camera or behind the monitor, and editing, working in post-production…
How do you approach something that you’ve never done before?
I’m definitely big on reaching out to people. I always say I’m a sponge. I never want to feel like I know everything because that’s when I’m going to stop growing as an artist. I’ve watched so many things on YouTube. I read a lot of books. I read books on directing. I read books on photography. Just everything.
When I studied photography, our school didn’t have much training to offer in lighting. So I taught myself. I would study editorials and I would try to figure out where the light source was. I bought my own light kit and just started experimenting.
I think you have to take the initiative out of necessity. Just reach out to people. There are a lot of people in the same boat as you, so it’s great if you can find that and tap into it. I’ve definitely reached out to people and not gotten responses. You just have to have a thick skin because they’re busy and you can’t take it personally. Then you’ll find people that are very open. I try to be that way, too. When I was shooting more, I would get emails from people asking me questions and I felt I owed it to them to share as much knowledge as possible.
I want to see people succeed because I know how hard it is, especially as a creative. I don’t have a full-time job, so I have to make it work. Before this, my full-time job was as a photo editor at American Apparel, and after a while I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to be creative for a company anymore. It was taking all my creative energy from me, so I just quit. It was a little scary. I was living in a loft at that time and thought, “How am I going to afford this now?”
I threw myself in that situation to force me to hustle. So I just worked really hard. I used the first two years to get my portfolio the way I wanted it. Jumping from full-time work to freelancing is very scary. You give up your medical insurance, your stable income. But if it’s what you want to do, you have to do it. Give it 110%.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Just don’t look back. You’re going to get discouraged and that’s part of the process. But I take everything as a positive, even if it feels negative. Those “no’s” are going to lead up to a “yes.”
I’ve had many projects fail. It hurts, but it is what it is—and then something better comes along. Just be strong and stay determined. The second you get too emotional about things, that’s when it’s going to become harder for you.
What does LA mean to you?
I don't want to sound cliché and cheesy, but for me it means opportunity. I lived in San Francisco and it was definitely harder. I was a photographer back then, but it was really hard for me to do fashion photography there, so I found myself in LA a lot for work.
I feel there’s a big community here. There are so many people that want to help each other. You’re definitely going to deal with the egos, but you just have to learn to work with them.
You really can do anything that you want. Every single one of my friends is doing what they want—and that means everything.
Learn more about Charlene's work.
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©