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Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Emil Nava of Ammolite Studios Is Helping To Change Our World

No one really tells you just how amazing the creative process can be. How you can turn an idea or a concept into a piece of art, or in my case into a film or a video still amazes me. I can say that about every music video I have ever made. When I see a thought that started in my head end up on a piece of paper, and then come to life, it is remarkable. Now add to that the collaborative process of working with another artist. As you stand together in an empty space ready to create this huge thing that was once just a few lines on a piece of paper, you come to appreciate the creative process, even when things do not quite turn out the way you imagined, and they rarely ever do. But that is the beauty of it, the art you create can end up being more amazing than you ever imagined.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Emil Nava.

Emil Nava is a British-born filmmaker and music video director who now resides in Los Angeles, California. Founder of Ammolite Studios, a hybrid creative and production studio specializing in artist collaboration, Nava is best known as the director of the music video “Thinking Out Loud” for Ed Sheeran, with directorial credits on more than 100 music videos, commercials, feature films, television series, and other film projects. His work has been recognized with numerous awards including two MTV Video Music Awards for Best Male Video — in 2014 for “Sing” for Ed Sheeran featuring Pharrell Williams, and again in 2016 for “This Is What You Came For” for Calvin Harris featuring Rihanna. He has worked with leading artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Ellie Goulding, Nick Jonas, Camila Cabello, Selena Gomez, Ne-Yo, and most recently Calvin Harris and his collaboration with Dua Lipa and Young Thug.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I grew up in England — first London, then at age eight I was moved to the countryside, to a town called Dorset — my mum thought it would be better for me there because I was getting into trouble. In our household there was creativity all around me. My dad was a fisherman as well as a model, actor, and painter — just an all-around artist. My mum was a writer and an actress in stage shows. Growing up in that environment made school a bit of a challenge for me because the school system did not fit with me and what I was used to at home. I needed something hyper-creative, and school did not fill that need for me.

Before I discovered filmmaking, I thought I wanted to be an actor, then a musician. I guess I did not know what I wanted to do. The only options I thought I had were in the performing arts space, which did not feel like a fit for me either.

So, starting at about 11 years old I went to work in the kitchens. I worked in restaurants first as a waiter, then I was a spud boy, and then a chef assistant, until finally I decided to train as a chef because I knew I would always have something to fall back on. I was fortunate to train at one of the top 10 restaurants in the UK and I did well. I found a creative outlet there and I was good at it — good under stress and good with people. It also taught me a lot of life lessons.

I then had an opportunity to train at another very famous restaurant in London, and it was then that I was offered an opportunity to work on a film set with a family member as an assistant for a day. That is when I fell in love with film and being on shoots. It was so much fun. Compared with the restaurant business, which was incredibly hard work, the film set to me seemed much easier. I finally felt that I had found my wheelhouse as a creative, and so I came out of the kitchen and pivoted to film.

But I believe that the training I received in the kitchen was key because you had to produce a meal that tasted good, smelled good, looked good, and got out to the guest in time. That was hard work, and in a way, a lot like making videos. But as I made the move to film production, I realized there was a lot that I had to learn, but I knew that if I worked super hard, I would eventually move forward. I experienced that in the kitchen, and I saw it first-hand in the film industry and throughout my entire career. Hard work does pay off.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

When I started in the film business, I spent my time making tea and coffee, carrying bin bags, and just learning and training. Some days started at 5:00am and we ran until 2:00am. I worked my way up through the ranks, started doing video assists and recording the takes, until I became a second assistant director and then a first assistant director. All fairly quickly, actually. By age 19 I started making music videos for my friends. I actually paid $500 of my own money to make my first music video. But that led to another video, and then another, and then another.

I remember back in the early 2000s when I was working as an assistant on music videos there were days when we would finish our shoots at 1:00am. But one shoot I will never forget — we were in this massive location with these huge rain machines with big rain bands thrashing. We cut for the night at about 2:00am and it was just me and the other runners left behind with these little Hoovers, hoovering up all the water from the shoot. It took us about four hours, and I thought, “how did we just hoover up these gallons and gallons of water?” But I was up for it, and I learned how each person on set has an important role and an important job to perform to make it all come together.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

There was a point that I had a difficult time breaking through to make an actual career out of filmmaking, and so I fell back on my chef training and went back to the kitchen. But eventually, I was blessed and ended up doing a video for a young rapper and it ended up being a massive song and it went #1. I then did another video for the same artist — Jessie J, who had stratospheric success with multiple #1 hits. From there, I was lucky to meet another new artist who happened to be Ed Sheeran. I did his first video for a major label, and the rest is history.

Ed Sheeran blew up beyond anything we could have ever imagined and being able to watch his rising success at that moment of his career was huge. The same with Jessie J. For both of those artists, I remember the night before each of their videos was released, and within two weeks there was this insane wave of attention. So, that was an interesting time and an interesting experience. Ed (Sheeran) and I did 13 videos back-to-back (I think) and won a couple of VMAs. Actually, the first VMA I won was with Ed. I attended the awards with him that year, and he took me up on stage with him. It was utterly surreal to be a part of that world and see it from his perspective.

That brought me to Los Angeles, where I started working with a lot of artists. I work quite a bit with Calvin Harris and have worked with everyone from Post Malone to Justin Bieber to J. Lo to Eminem. Recently, I made my first film, and I now have a couple of TV shows in development as well.

Which people in history inspire you the most and why?

With every shoot, there are literally 100 people or more involved, and they are all an inspiration to me. There is so much that goes into making a music video or film and there are so many amazing people all in different roles — from craft service to set designers. When I work with people that are so passionate about what they do and want to give so much, that is inspiring to me. Also, anyone that gets in there and is not afraid to work hard inspires me. I think I find inspiration in everyone because I think people are amazing.

Of course, there are people in the film industry that I have always admired. For example, I have always been such a fan of Tim Burton as a director. I think that Edward Scissorhands is my favorite film because in some ways it is such a simple story and yet so complicated. He (Tim Burton) also has a fearlessness that he has shown from the beginning of his career.

Filmmakers Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are huge for me as well. I have a lot of respect for directors that have come from music videos and have gone into film because I know there is a stigma in the industry that music video directors cannot tell narratives. But some of our greatest directors started doing music videos. I believe you learn to be fearless as well as resourceful doing music videos because people want to make a statement. It is an amazing training ground to then go and make films with that same fearlessness.

But I would say the one person that inspires me the most because of his fearlessness is my father because it did not matter to him what anyone thought of what he painted or created. Material objects were not important to him. He was, to me, the ultimate artist and creative. It is hard to be fearless when you create, but when you are (fearless) you create your best work. My father never really understood what I did, but he loved when I cooked. I think he would have loved for me to have continued my career as a chef.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

For the past couple of years, as I have been working through things and getting sober and healthy, I have been motivated to share the positivity in my life and the things that I have learned with others, whether on social media or on the set. I like to give and put positive vibes out there whenever I can.

Eventually, that desire found its way into my work and the projects that I became involved in and pushed me to put more positive messages out there, like the importance of mental health awareness.

For me, mental health has been a huge thing that needs to be addressed and so I have found ways to work with a lot of people in the space to come up with new ways to speak about it and approach the conversation in fresh new ways. And it is not just mental health, but also the importance of self-care, both physical and mental. I have lived through it and wanted to do my part in putting positive vibes out there because I think the world needs that right now. Sharing my story to help others seemed like the best way to start.

I think that is what drew me to join the #MyArtStory movement in partnership with @mynumberstory because that is exactly what the campaign is about — how creativity and art can help bring healing and positivity from childhood trauma especially, and how sharing your story can also have a healing effect on others.

As I shared in #MyArtStory video, using the wonders and pain of life to create has always been at the core of what I do. For me, creating has always been not only an outlet but also a way to inspire. I truly believe that all the things you go through in life from the time you are a child make you who you are and that everyone has the ability to create anything they want for themselves.

My creations are unique to my story and have truly helped me through hard times. By sharing my story with my followers and fans on social media, my hope is that they will be inspired to create and share as well because the process of creating can do so much good for your mental health. And hopefully, one at a time, together, we can promote art’s power to heal from adversity. This was such a meaningful message for me and why I connected with it and was excited to get involved.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but don’t manifest it, but you have. Was there an “aha” moment that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that trigger?

Whether or not you are a spiritual person, I think that manifesting things is such a powerful thing to do. The idea that if you want something you can go and get it is such a clear concept for me and I believe in that thought process.

Throughout my journey, I came to understand who I am, and I got to know myself more. As I did, I started questioning my life, some of my decisions, and took a hard look at myself. Within that experience was the first of many ‘aha moments’ for me. It has been gradual and continuous and motivated by a constant feeling of wanting to make myself better.

One thing that I did not expect, is that as I felt better, I wanted to share what I had learned with the person next to me so they could feel better too, whether it was meditation, cutting back on sugar, or just taking an invigorating cold shower. And I have to thank the many amazing and supportive people along the way that have helped me throughout my journey.

About five years ago, I set up Ammolite Studios with a creative collective of directors, photographers, graphic designers, animators — so many talented individuals. Together we formed this network, a community really, where everyone shares that same feeling and desire to want to contribute something positive to this world, especially for kids. To surround yourself with others who share those same feelings really inspires you to do and be better.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The response to my video for #MyArtStory has been overwhelming. Someone within my company called me recently to say, “Hey, Emil, I just want to say thank you for sharing that.” It was touching. And on my social media, it has been nothing but thank yous and good vibes since it posted. One person posted the comment, “Thanks. I needed this.” Whether they had a bad day or a history like mine, the fact that they watched the video and took something positive from it, and it made them feel good, for me, is a massive win.

This is the true, positive power of social media and how it can be used for good. To share and to have open conversations about things like childhood trauma and mental health that are important for all of us. The reaction it has gotten and the response from people that it has been able to help, have inspired me to come up with other ways to do good in the mental health space. So just a lot of good vibes flying around right now. When you put good energy out there, it comes back to you.

In fact, we have a rolling counter at Ammolite where we keep track of the number of combined views of all our work online. We recently hit 25 billion views across all our videos. It makes you think, if we can put good vibes out to 25 billion people, that is a powerful opportunity and a tremendous blessing.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

The childhood adversity and mental health space needs as many voices as possible. Most people do not realize how powerful using your own voice can be. That is so key. There are so many people that I enjoy listening to online and that I observe; people who have so much knowledge and can provide so much guidance to others because of the lives they have lived. We can all learn from one another’s journeys.

I think we would all be better off as a society if we focused on striving for balance. We live in a world of extremes that forces us to lose our balance and become absorbed in things that may be negative. Finding our balance is something that we should all be more thoughtful about.

Lastly, we need to take better care of our bodies, which is something that should be a priority for everyone at every level. So much of how we feel mentally, physically, and emotionally is triggered by what we consume. It is so important to treat our bodies like a vessel that carries us through life, so we need to take care of it by drinking a lot of water, getting enough rest, eating right, avoiding the chemicals and other things out there that are bad for you. When you do that, you feel so much better, your mind is clearer, and so is your overall state of mind.

What are “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

No one really tells you just how amazing the creative process can be. How you can turn an idea or a concept into a piece of art, or in my case into a film or a video still amazes me. I can say that about every music video I have ever made. When I see a thought that started in my head end up on a piece of paper, and then come to life, it is remarkable. Now add to that the collaborative process of working with another artist. As you stand together in an empty space ready to create this huge thing that was once just a few lines on a piece of paper, you come to appreciate the creative process, even when things do not quite turn out the way you imagined, and they rarely ever do. But that is the beauty of it, the art you create can end up being more amazing than you ever imagined.

The spirit of collaboration is also something that young people starting out should embrace. I have been fortunate to work with so many different artists which I find so interesting and get so much inspiration from. To be able to work together to realize their vision for a song they have written that is incredibly personal to them is a blessing. Calvin Harris, for example, is a huge friend and collaborator, and being able to create with a friend like that at the scale that we do is amazing to me.

Also, when you are young, you do not think too much about your well-being. But it is so important to understand the connection between taking care of yourself — both mind and body — and how that makes you feel. If your body does not feel good, your mind will not feel good either. And the same is true in the reverse. I work with a lot of young people in my business, and I like to talk to them about that. They are our future and there is a truth to being responsible for your own health and well-being that is so important. Young people also need to understand the power of their imagination and unique point of view. They have a fresh perspective that I really enjoy and that I think brings a lot to the creative process.

It is important to always remember that there are going to be ups and downs in both your career and in your life and that these are all temporary. I remember the early years of my career and the feeling that there was always someone ahead of me or that someone was winning the job that I wanted. That feeling that you are stuck at the bottom is tough, but the truth is we are not stuck. Eventually, those moments pass, and you find yourself where you want to be. The same is true when you are at the top. Nothing is permanent. I remember watching an interview with Tom Hanks, and he said, “it will pass” — and I thought how that can apply to anything, good or bad. Knowing that as a young man might have helped me feel a bit calmer about my situation.

As an artist, making sure that we continue to evolve is something that I have learned throughout my career, but not something that I thought about or understood when I was younger starting out. We need to evolve as humans as well as creatively, otherwise, we get comfortable in one place and risk plateauing. So, you must keep evolving and trying new things. It is the only way to stay in it. And this is something you must continuously remind yourself of. For example, my company is self-funded, and it has taken a lot of years to build, and while I am grateful to work with such a talented team and for all the successes we have had, it can be difficult at times. But it is the people that stay in it and that evolve, that stick around. Seems simple enough, but it is easier said than done.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

When you are young, there is so much going on, so much in your brain to the point that you have a difficult time being able to think clearly about anything. And while it sounds cliché, the truth is you never really know what someone else is going through. For example, when someone is being unkind towards you, chances are, they are going through something. This is especially true for children. And it is then that they need more compassion and understanding, not less.

When I was young, I had a unique and different sort of childhood. For one thing, being Mexican and growing up in London made me a target. And my father, who was Mexican and had a hard life in Mexico, was the kind of person who could create just about anything with his hands, as well as paint, sculpt, you name it. He just embodied — for me — what an artist is. But my father was also a schizophrenic and though I loved him dearly, watching him go through his struggles was difficult because it made me fearful both of him and of myself, especially as I got older and questioned whether there was a part of that in me.

But I worked through my struggles and not only found career success, but also great inspiration in life and in people. I also found that the greatest satisfaction came from helping others.

So, my message to young people is to care for one another as much as possible. It is one of the most important things that we can do. I encourage young people to learn how to look at things from the other person’s perspective or point of view because we are all different and being different sometimes leads to being misunderstood. We just need to understand and show compassion towards one another. That alone would make such a huge and positive difference in our society today.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this.

At the moment, there is a brand — MadHappy — that I really love. They are a clothing brand but are doing some meaningful things in the mental health awareness space, so it would be amazing to connect and collaborate with them. They are doing podcasts and are speaking to the world through their brand on these important topics, which I think is so well done and so needed because it opens up the conversation beyond being educational.

That is a big part of what I would like to do more of. Within the mental health awareness space, I am working on some other projects that tap into pop culture and invite more people into the mental health conversation.

Meanwhile, I have had such amazing conversations with so many people through my DMs and I would love to do more of that — just chat with, connect with, and collaborate with more people. I’m really open to that.

Can you give us a life lesson quote?

Someone who I love and have worked closely with is a woman called Anasa Troutman who runs a foundation called The Big We. She is amazing, and she once said to me, “Our world today has been built on the imaginations of people many years ago and right now we need to build our future off of our imaginations.”

When I heard it, I thought what an amazing statement and it just summed it all up for me.

The youth of today, as well as our generation, need to use our imaginations to create our future.

And if there is one thing life has taught me, is that we need to look after ourselves — mentally and physically, because by doing so, we then can look after one another.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can connect with me on Instagram @emilnava and @ammoliteinc; Twitter @emilnava; and Tiktok @emilnava. I also encourage everyone to check out @mynumberstory on Instagram where you will find the video I did for #myartstory as well as lots of helpful content to learn more about how to understand and heal from childhood adversity.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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Yitzi Weiner

Yitzi Weiner

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator