Chet Tilokani, 26, is a filmmaker, photographer, entrepreneur, and visual artist. Chet works hard to surround himself with creative and passionate people, keep his work interesting, and make a living from doing what he loves. He took some time out of his hectic schedule to tell me what it’s like to be a full-time freelancer and how wearing his heart on his sleeve has helped his career.
R: What are you currently working on?
C: Right now I’m working on several things. I am directing a documentary that covers a workshop for young women that takes place here in Toronto. I’ve become extremely attached to that particular project and it’s very important to me. I also run a video-production equipment rental business called The Gun Factory. I work freelance so I never really know when my next cheque is coming. This business is designed to be an ongoing source of revenue. I also just completed a project in which I did video production for a real-estate mogul to help build his brand. It’s a very docu-style series of branding videos to show what sets him apart from his competition. He was very inspirational and very positive. It was a real pleasure to work with him. On top of that I’ve been working production for a series of web shows. For me every day is different and I wear many hats, I do photography, I shoot, I do lighting. But at the end of the day, all of my work is an expression of myself.
R: How do you find clients?
C: I don’t really find clients, it’s almost like they find me. It’s not like I have a name for myself. When I’m out on a shoot or out on a gig, my mentality is that my passion is people. I take any chance I can get to interact with and connect with people, especially when working on a shoot. Those relationships often lead to work in the future through various connections. There’s been a bit of a snowball effect and I’ve had steady work. However, I’m aware that it might die down. So I’ve been trying to figure out what I should do next. I’ve been researching what types of projects I want to work on, who I want to work with and connecting with them.
R: How do you reach out to people you want to work with?
C: I normally just talk to people and say, “Hey this is what I want to work on do you know anyone who’s involved in that kind of project?” That often gets me a phone number and I’ll just cold call them and let them know that I’m interested. Even if they don’t have work for me at that moment, they can at least keep me in mind for the future.
R: What did you study in school?
C: I wasn’t a great student ever. If I’m not passionate about something I’m not going to do it. When I graduated from high school my average was pretty low. I don’t like institutions, I don’t like rules, I prefer to follow my own moral compass and work on something that excites me. Originally I wanted to go into architecture because my background was art, mostly drawing and painting. But when I thought about the amount of paperwork involved in architecture I figured it wasn’t for me. So I thought about film, I had never used a film camera before, (this was before smart phones). I wasn’t accepted to university the first time I applied, so I did another year of high school and boosted my average a lot because I was really able to focus. I got into Ryerson University’s film program the second time I applied. I liked it a lot. It was very hands on, and it’s the type of program where you get out what you put in. The first two years I didn’t put in a lot of work and my electives didn’t interest me. In my fourth year I got serious. I did my thesis film, I started to get to know myself and see what I needed from my environment in order to do well.
R: How did you get into freelancing?
C: I was sort of freelancing throughout school. I started out on commercial sets as a production assistant (PA). It sucked. The PA is responsible for making sure that people on a film set have food, cleaning up after them, it’s a really tough role. But I learned a lot and I got a dose of what this industry is all about. After that I transitioned into doing camera work. I got hired as a driver, and ended up helping out a director of photography (DP). I ended up becoming a camera assistant for that DP for a year or so on a number of different projects. After a while I reached a point where I just hit a wall and I wasn’t happy. I was grateful that I was able to support myself, but I was not fulfilled. I had to walk away. It was tough because I was worried that I was burning a bridge. I would have had steady work as a camera assistant, but I was sick of the role. I needed to challenge myself more. I needed to find out what I wanted to do, it was hard. I felt like I had to rebuild myself from the ground up, spiritually, mentally and physically.
R: What did you end up learning?
C: I woke up one day and I felt so different. I opened up, let my guard down. It was as if a facade I was carrying around with me disappeared. That’s when I learned that I’m passionate about people. I learned that my biggest fear in life, is if people don’t understand how I feel. And then I figured out that my calling in life is to communicate with people and express myself. Everything I enjoy doing: painting, art, photography, filmmaking, writing, is a way for me to express myself, an expression of how I’m feeling. Ultimately my life approach changed, I became very positive, started smiling more, trying to connect with people more. The new mentality helped me with work because I put everything about myself out there. Everything is on the table for me now. This has allowed me to make genuine connections. Now, if someone offers me a gig, I take it. Unless I’m morally against it or I’m booked that day, I take work. Whether it’s paid or unpaid, whether or not I feel I have the skills or experience for it, I see it as an opportunity to connect with more people which is all I want to do. This past year has been all about soul-searching, finding out who I am inside, and starting to love that person. I feel really happy about what I’m doing now. I look forward to going to work. Everything I do is a reflection of how I feel. I used to think that showing your feelings made you a sissy, but I can’t live like that.
R: Any advice for other freelancers or artists?
C: You need to figure out who you are, what you want out of life, and what makes you tick. You need to find what works for you. What worked for me won’t work for everyone. Know that the present moment is very transient, everything in the now is leading to the next step, and we don’t know what that is. It makes it tough to set long term goals and figure out what you want to do professionally. You need to figure out who you are in order to figure out what you want out of life. Then start shaping things up to fulfil you. Finally, make sure you’re not chasing someone else’s dream. Be true to yourself about what you want.
I look forward to seeing what other projects Chet has in the pipeline. He’s got a lot to offer, and being honest with himself and others, he’ll be doing what he loves for years to come. As a young professional, know that the best thing you can do for your own professional development is to make strong connections with people.
The best way to connect with people is to show them who you really are.