Quick Take:

Chris McGilvray owns Santa Cruz’s Nomadic Bear Productions, a film company that creates short films as promotion for companies and causes. The path that brought him to his current role has been anything but a straight line.

Chris McGilvray has known he wanted to be a filmmaker since he was a child, making short films for fun throughout high school. “I grew up watching Indiana Jones and Star Wars films and I absolutely fell in love with the world of cinema and the ability to create an entirely unique vision,” he says.

McGilvray originally aspired to be a narrative filmmaker. But as he came to better understand the film industry, the Los Gatos native realized there was another path that could be just as fulfilling and even more financially sustainable. Today, the 42-year-old is the founder of Nomadic Bear Productions, a production company in Santa Cruz that works with businesses to create branded films — short documentaries designed to help market a company and its products and services through creative filmmaking.

A day on the job is never the same for a filmmaker like McGilvray. He directs, produces and occasionally operates cameras. Most of McGilvray’s films center around client interviews, so he spends a lot of time preparing for and conducting lengthy interviews. McGilvray likes to speak with his subjects in a conversational manner, jumping around to various topics, which allows the subject to be relaxed in front of the camera.

One of McGilvray’s oldest clients is Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Instead of simply promoting its wine, McGilvray speaks with individuals from the company to showcase their stories, such as the approach to winemaking.

McGilvray senses his clients’ passion for their businesses and lets that guide him through his films. He says that while editing, he looks for “the most human moments” and says he can feel himself most engaged in those heightened times.

“I don’t necessarily like to make branded films that feel like the brand is talking at you — it feels inauthentic,” he says. “So one of the first things that we do is figure out who the people are who embody the brand and its mission and then work out how to tell their story in a manner that aligns with the brand’s message.”

Chris McGilvray (left) on the job.
Chris McGilvray (left) on the job. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

McGilvray originally intended to follow a more traditional filmmaking path. He enrolled in film school at the University of Southern California — but didn’t last long.

He felt the program was designed to feed students into Hollywood. McGilvray was discouraged after finding out he likely wouldn’t have been able to even touch a camera for the first two years of the program, and instead would probably be focused on the business and technical sides of filmmaking.

McGilvray opted to leave USC and, having loved Santa Cruz as a child, moved here to attend Cabrillo College, later transferring to UC Santa Cruz.

McGilvray discovered a passion for traveling spent while studying abroad in Barcelona. He traveled throughout Latin America, inspiring him to pursue a Spanish linguistics degree at UCSC. “If I wanted a college degree, I wanted it to be in something that I could learn about and it would further my ability to go out and find stories,” he says.

Although McGilvray doesn’t have a degree in film, he still is grateful for his degree in linguistics. He says it gave him the skills to film and edit conversations for his projects, and he developed contacts that helped him grow professionally — a benefit he feels to be universal with any college degree.

After college, McGilvray tried to pursue what he says is the traditional route of film production — that is, make a short film, submit it to film festivals, hope that it gets into a top-tier event and then find a distributor or producer who likes the film and wants to invest in making it into a feature. Though he tried several times to follow that path, McGilvray never quite made it, simply because of the extreme competition in narrative filmmaking. So he looked for other opportunities.

It was then that McGilvray found a Craigslist ad from a documentary filmmaker, David Hoffman, looking for a personal assistant in Bonny Doon. McGilvray worked with Hoffman for about a year, but business declined with the 2008 recession and McGilvray lost his job shortly after.

Though McGilvray had never envisioned himself a documentarian, he found himself appreciating the art form after working with Hoffman.

Jobless, McGilvray and his wife decided they needed a change of scenery. So they moved to San Francisco, where McGilvray took up odd jobs around the city, ranging from substitute teacher to working at a catering company, to make ends meet while waiting for his career to take off. All the while, McGilvray never stopped making narrative short films in his spare time.

Chris McGilvray (center) has taken a winding road in filmmaking.
Chris McGilvray (center) has taken a winding road in filmmaking. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Then McGilvray found Scary Cow Productions, a film co-op in San Francisco. It turned out to be the steppingstone that McGilvray’s had been looking for. The co-op consisted of around 200 members who each paid $50 a month and would band together in production crews to make films with the purpose of being affordable and educational.

One of the cinematographers McGilvray worked with at Scary Cow was Scott Krinsky, a fellow filmmaker with experience in the tech industry. The two of them decided to create a branded film production company, Six Finger Films. Although McGilvray didn’t have much experience with this kind of filmmaking, he knew Krinsky had good contacts and good marketing experience.

Six Finger Films launched in 2010, a time that coincided with the trend in marketing toward doing something other than typical corporate commercial videos. The goal was to use different aspects of design to create an emotionally moving piece of film that felt more sincere than the corporate videos of the past.

For the next eight years, McGilvray and Krinsky took on projects across the spectrum of filmmaking, from working with tech companies to music videos to videos on hiring. Eventually, the two realized there was not enough revenue to support having two business heads, so Krinsky left Six Finger Films to work with a tech company, leaving McGilvray to rebrand Six Finger Films into Nomadic Bear, where he now makes his films.

McGilvray believes the perfect person for the branded filmmaking industry is someone who is not only creative but can also visualize their results while being adaptable to unpredictable factors like creative notes or clients with different ideas. “In filmmaking, you can have your perfect vision of how it’s supposed to go, and the only thing you can guarantee is that it’s not going to go that way,” McGilvray says.

Artists often have very specific visions of their craft and do not wish to stray from them, making it hard to accept notes from people they work with, McGilvray says. He was once like this, but has spent years over his career learning the value in hearing feedback: “It is a really unique challenge figuring out how to take notes from a client and decipher them and understand where they are coming from, then really thinking about whether it’s worth fixing or not fixing.”

McGilvray says it took years to really find his style. When he first began his craft, McGilvray says, he would make anything for anyone in any style — just as many young people do when looking to break into an industry. Over the years, McGilvary has figured out what he does best and uses that as his signature style.

First, McGilvray starts with the key message of the film. Then he finds a handful of people within the client’s organization who have the best story that fits within the client’s intended message. Finally, he finds the best and most aesthetically pleasing filming location

Branded filmmakers can start out making $50,000 to $60,000 a year, McGilvray says. But he adds that there is plenty of room to grow and make more, especially for those who choose to work on the more corporate side of filmmaking.

McGilvray says companies will likely continue to ask for branded films that use innovative techniques with the ever-changing technology available. On the other hand, McGilvray believes that there will also always be a desire for films rooted in human interaction that tell stories and share experience rather than focus on high-tech effects.

“One of the interesting things about being an artist in a corporate world is that there are so many different people out there to hear stories from,” says McGilvray. “And if you can develop something that you do really well and you know how to be able to replicate it, I think there’s always going to be a space to do that.”

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Gabrielle Gillette joins Lookout as a newsroom intern for the summer of 2023. A recent Cabrillo College graduate, Gabrielle looks forward to moving to Los Angeles in the fall to finish her undergraduate...