Student in Motion SPOTLIGHT: Tommy Butler (MFA ’23)

Student in Motion SPOTLIGHT: Tommy Butler (MFA ’23)

Sep 13 2021

Interview by Zach Vickers

Tommy Butler, currently a second-year graduate student in Temple’s MFA in Film and Media Arts Program, is already an accomplished director, theater performer, creator and filmmaker.  Specializing in new and devised works and ensemble generated projects, Tommy’s latest film, Everything You Owe Me (which was developed in his first year at Temple) has been selected for several national festivals.

Temple’s Film and Media Arts Program was lucky enough to catch up with Tommy recently to talk about his life at Temple, and how he balances creative and commercial work, which includes his direction of two brand new music videos.

Phoebe Schaub – Under (official music video) 
Tommy was also the sound engineer and music producer for the track

Tough Luck Pluto - Home Sweet Home (official music video)

Check out his interview below:

Why Temple’s Film and Media Arts Program?

Temple’s FMA graduate program offers both the opportunity to learn and practice production skills (I’m mostly focusing on working behind the camera) as well as the ability to develop as an instructor and teacher at the university level—two things I was looking for when considering graduate school as a next step. I’ve also been living in Philly for the past eight or nine years and I love it here. 


Talk about Everything You Owe Me. What was it like making this film during the pandemic with social distancing and virtual classes?

It was tough. But I knew that as a professional, I would have to navigate unforeseen circumstances, so I took the challenge as an opportunity to learn.


When I filmed Everything You Owe Me in the fall of 2020, there wasn’t a vaccine yet, which limited production possibilities. We followed FMA’s safety guidelines and Temple’s health and safety standards. I leaned on relationships I had developed in the city (in film and theater), like two incredible professional actors (Matteo Scammell and Lee Minora, TFM ‘10) who are also a couple (so they were already exposed to each other). As for the crew, it was just myself and my partner. So, it was the four of us on set. We figured it out and made some sacrifices here and there in order to remain safe (which was a priority). Fortunately, Temple’s FMA equipment office was still up and running and had a very strict cleaning process for everything that came in and out of the building, so I knew the equipment that I was handling was safe to use.


I’m thankful that I was still able to film during the pandemic because Everything You Owe Me has apparently overcome some of its flaws and went on to win Best Graduate Film at Temple University’s Diamond Screen Film Festival last year, was an Official Selection at the Reading Film Festival (screening the first weekend of October), and was selected as a finalist for the Miami Film Festival and the Mountain Shadow Film Society Short Film Competition.


What is your favorite equipment that you have access to at Temple?

One of the major advantages to studying at Temple is that you get access to a range of equipment (not just cameras), where, as a professional, you’ll have to spend thousands of dollars per day to rent this same equipment. We have so many great resources—from introductory equipment where you can learn the fundamentals of filmmaking, to more advanced professional cinema camera packages.


Everything You Owe Me was shot on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (4K). But my favorite cinema camera at Temple right now is the Sony FS7. I shot two music videos this summer with it: Phoebe Schaub’s “Under” and Tough Luck Pluto’s “Home Sweet Home.” At Temple, the FS7 comes with either the Zeiss ZF.2 Classic lens kit (25mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm) or the 18-55mm Fujinon Zoom Lens. Both options are fantastic (the Zeiss lenses offer a better image, but the Fujinon gives the cinematographer more flexibility). I would strongly recommend this package for any student that is ready to start working with professional cinema cameras, but maybe still feels a little intimidated by the Arri Amira or the Red cameras (which are the higher end camera options at Temple).


How do you balance your creative and commercial work?

Personally, I view the commercial work I’ve been doing as artistic endeavors. I treat them the same way I would treat my narrative work—especially music videos. What I love about directing and shooting music videos is that they have forced me to expand skills to meet the needs of the format. Music videos force me to expand my imagination, develop a more cinematic eye, and encourage me to articulate and execute a concept in collaboration with others. What more can you ask for? It’s flexing all the muscles I care about as a narrative filmmaker. Plus, you get paid decently!


What’s it like working with the faculty?

Our faculty are not only master instructors but many of them have worked—or are still working—professionally and have received a lot of recognition in the field. So not only are you learning how to be the best filmmaker you can possibly be at Temple, you’re also learning how to navigate a career in this industry after graduation.


For example, if it wasn’t for Professor LeAnn Erickson, who strongly encouraged me to submit Everything You Owe Me to various festivals, no one would’ve ever seen it. The film would’ve just lived exclusively in my mind, cutting off potential career opportunities and future collaborations.


What are you currently working on?

I’m currently in the research phase for a new short film (tentatively called “Scabs”) that’s exploring a specific aspect of OCD that I struggle with. I’m feeling a little anxious (and excited) about this project—a nice place to be for generating new material!

Film stills courtesy of Tommy Butler. Artist portrait courtesy of Steve Sachs.

Interview by Zach Vickers

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