Want to be a Freelance Filmmaker? Elaine Sheldon Shares How She Found Success

Want to be a freelance filmmaker? Filmmaker, media artist, and Skillshare teacher Elaine Sheldon shares how she found success.

Elaine Sheldon is a Peabody award-winning freelance documentary filmmaker. She has been widely praised as an expert on character-driven documentaries and has a wonderful class on how to create a short documentary in which she shares her process. We were lucky enough to sit down with her and learn more about how she found freelancing success.

SK: What's your favorite part about working for yourself as a freelance filmmaker?

ES: Freedom. I choose when and where I work and what to work on. I create my own schedule and am much more efficient when I'm working for myself. I also get to challenge myself by taking on new projects and adventures that allow me to learn new skills.

SK: What is the most common question you get about freelancing?

ES: Question: How do you make money?  The answer: Not in any one specific way. I make money through consulting, filmmaking, teaching, presenting and producing. You have to diversify your skillset in order to thrive as a freelancer.

“I make money through consulting, filmmaking, teaching, presenting and producing. You have to diversify your skillset in order to thrive as a freelancer.”

SK: What's the best advice you have gotten about freelancing?

ES: Slow down. Stay focused. Don't multitask. Find your unique voice and embrace it. Don't be so precious about your work. Learn how to take, and embrace, criticism by separating yourself, and your identity, from your work.

SK: What do you think is the hardest part about working for yourself?

ES: Freelancers must hold themselves accountable on a daily basis. You have to answer to yourself and keep on schedule and deadline in order to accomplish short and long term goals. You have to be a self-motivated person who continues to work even when know one is watching or caring about what you're doing. Endurance is key.

SK: What were you doing at 25 and what do you wish you had known?

ES: I was filming "Hollow," which meant I was living in McDowell County, W.Va., living off peanut butter sandwiches (low budget shoot), and exploring people's lives on a daily basis. That documentary took me in people's living rooms and even deep underground in a coal mine. I worked and filmed every day with no breaks and it was a totally gratifying process. But, I wish I would have known that 6 months later I would burn out -- maintaining that level of intense work exhausted me physically and mentally. Now, I take more time to take care of myself on a regular basis: journaling, meditating, yoga, running, reading, learning new skills. You can't completely neglect your mind and body and make meaningful work that will change the world. You have to be able to carry that work into the world with passion, and not be exhausted and spent.

Want more freelancing advice? Check out the rest of the freelance section of our blog.

Looking to diversify your skillset and earn more as a freelance filmmaker? Join Elaine Sheldon and teach on Skillshare!

Elaine Sheldon Bio:

Elaine Sheldon Freelance FIlmmaker and Media Artist

Elaine McMillion Sheldon is a Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker, visual journalist and media artist who brings classic expertise to intimate and character-driven storytelling experiences. Her work explores the themes of identity, roots and survival, through a timeless lens.

In 2013, she released HOLLOW an interactive documentary that examines the future of rural America through the eyes and voices of Appalachians. Hollow received a 2013 Peabody, 2014 Emmy nomination and 3rd Prize in the World Press Photo Multimedia Awards. She’s also the co-producer of "The Lower 9," a feature-length documentary about The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

She is the co-creator of She Does, a bi-weekly audio documentary series that documents creative women’s journeys. She Does won a 2016 Communicator Award of Excellence from The Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts.

In January 2016, Chicken & Egg Pictures awarded her with the inaugural "Breakthrough Filmmaker" award. Sheldon was a 2013 Future of Storytelling Fellow, and named one of the "25 New Faces of Independent Film" in 2013 by Filmmaker Magazine and one of "50 People Changing The South" in 2015 by Southern Living Magazine.

Sheldon is available for producing and editing audio and video content, as well as non-linear productions including cross-platform consulting, storytelling workshops and training, content strategy and photography.

She serves on the WVU Media Innovation advisory board, Looking at Appalachia video and advisory board and is currently in-production on several documentary projects supported by Chicken & Egg Pictures.

She's a founding member of All Y'all Southern Documentary Collective