Earlier this year, while rubbing elbows at Variety Magazine’s Entertainment and Technology Summit, Skype in Media launched the Shoot the Future contest for content creators. Searching for the latest in innovative digital material, we called for film buffs, social media gurus, storytellers, producers and editors alike to send us what they believed to be the next big thing in content. Never ones to stifle creativity, we intentionally left all possible interpretations of “content” in the hands of eager participants—and the projects and pitches that poured in over the months that followed blew us away.
The grand prize awarded to the Shoot the Future winner included a hefty $20,000 to fund their creation, and one-on-one time with the whole panel of our judges, including Ice T, YesJulz and Game of Thrones producer Oliver Butler. While sifting through some 500 submissions from over a dozen countries was as inspiring as it was enjoyable—it was James Rath, a legally blind filmmaker and accessibility activist based in LA, who we felt best captured the criteria we were looking for: creativity, innovation and inclusivity.
It’s been a whirlwind of action for James since receiving word of his winnings. From plotting the production of his pitch ‘Playback,’ to receiving industry tips from our celebrity judges, it was just last week that we were able to sit down over Skype and catch up on his happenings.
“I feel I have a unique appreciation for the camera,” James explains via Skype. “Not only is it allowing me to storytell, but it’s enabling me to see the world around me. Being legally blind allows me to tackle topics that I know most filmmakers would find hard to understand—because most filmmakers are sighted.”
While James’ dedication to his craft, and recently attuned filmmaking focus — to alter Hollywood’s portrayal of those living with disabilities and increase awareness around disability rights — carries impressive intention given his 20 years of age, his initial introduction to film was sheer happenstance. “I was eight years old when I stumbled onto my parent’s camera, and realized I could use it as a tool for accessibility,” he explains. “I’m legally blind, so my eyes can’t be corrected with glasses or contacts. But as a kid, I discovered the zoom features of the camera and was able to view things across the room that I normally can’t see.”
Likely noting their son’s newfound passion, they gifted him with his own equipment a year or so later. James laughs, explaining “I went from using their VHS player and editing on the VCR to owning my own camera, which shot on the Mini VHS but was still able to convert to digital. So I started learning about Windows Movie Maker, and did everything on that.”
Coinciding with James’ growing hobby, the launch of YouTube—aka every budding filmmakers’ soon-to-be best friend. From there, James started his own channel, and began shooting and uploading weekly content spanning tech reviews to short-film projects. While his experimental mindset has yet to dissipate, James has since settled on his filmmaking niche. “It wasn’t until last year that I started realizing how my love for storytelling via film and my participation within the disabled community could really overlap and enhance one another,” he smiles. “I love doing documentaries and I’m an accessibility activist, so disability rights are a huge passion of mine. On my YouTube channel, I talk about accessibility culture and why it matters. It’s important to everyone,” James continues, “even if you’re born able-bodied, you might not always be able-bodied, be it because of aging or disease or some freak accident. You never know when you’re going to lose your vision or hearing or the ability to walk. And it might sound scary, but there’s this narrative in Hollywood right now that living with physical or mental disabilities is worse than being dead, and that mindset absolutely has to change.”
After finding Skype’s Shoot the Future competition online James decided to pitch an idea that had been simmering on his creative backburner for a few weeks— the pilot for his project ’Playback.’ “I want to share my story, being legally blind,” he explains, “but I also plan to highlight others living with different disabilities. I plan to include friends who are living with disabilities, and very much involved with disability rights and accessibility activism, and celebrate them.” James pauses, “that’s really what I want to do on the show. Celebrate our diversity. Celebrate our differences. Celebrate our community.”
Skype’s A-lister judges were both touched and thrilled by James’ concept. While James was able to sit down and glean each of their unique insights on the industry, it was Oliver Butler who left James especially inspired. “They were all so knowledgeable and encouraging,” he explains, “but hearing Oliver’s background and story as a producer was pretty cool. Really, I didn’t know what to expect, but all of them imparted such great advice for moving forward. Oliver from his behind-the-scenes film background, and digital influencer Julz for her tips on expanding my social media following, and Ice T with his guidance on acting and being in front of the camera—everyone left me with invaluable advice.”
Since his celebrity pep-talks, James has set off to get ‘Playback’ rolling. Already having sketched his potential story arches, scouted his location, and conducted several Skype calls with his cast, crew and support network, James is aiming to wrap up the project by the end of the year. From there, he plans to shop his pilot to distributors, and see who’s interested in continuing the project. Ecstatic to witness his journey from ideation to implementation, we plans to keep tabs on James’ progress, and hopefully report back right here on the Skype in Media blog.