Susan Armstrong, Documentary Filmmaker

Susan Armstrong, Documentary Filmmaker

Susan Armstrong is a motion graphics artist and a documentary film maker living in Parkdale, Toronto.

What is your morning routine?

It’s always rushed because I have a six year old. I don’t really have a routine – it’s pretty much: get the child dressed, make lunch and get out of the door. But I do like to sit down and read for about 20 minutes, look at online newspapers like The Toronto Star, Guardian, BBC and Al Jazeera. Every morning I try to make time for that.

What was your career path?

I went to school for interior design and worked for about six months in the field before I decided that this career path wasn’t for me. I worked a few jobs waitressing and ended up in London, England. While in London, I started working as a runner at a post house in Soho. At this company I had access to some of the early motion graphics software that was just becoming more popular at the time. When I came back to Toronto, I saw an ad for a Post Production house that worked mainly in advertising and music videos. I got the job and ended up working there for almost 10 years. During those years, the highlight was working with the director, Floria Sigismondi. She made a real effort to work with women as much as possible. This was the 90s, and it was unusual at the time. So many of my creative women friends got their start working with Floria. Through Floria, I worked on a bunch of amazing music videos, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Sheryl Crow. She ended up moving to New York and soon after a number of that group of women moved down to New York or LA. The best thing about NYC was the diversity of people who work in Post Production. Toronto in the 2000s was still pretty much white guys. After my child was born I moved back to Toronto and began to focus more on documentary filmmaking. I had already made a film with a friend of mine, Christy Garland. I decided to do more short documentaries, working with The Globe and Mail, local community groups and my own personal work.

What challenges do you or women face in your industry?

There still isn’t a critical mass of women on the creative side. There are a lot of women in the background, but not doing the actual creative work. It creates a disadvantage because it means you are always one or maybe two creative women in the room, and it would be a lot easier to pitch ideas with more women in creative. Certainly for documentaries, there aren’t enough stories told by women. That has a lot to do with how many women are in the field. I hope that there will be more value put on women’s stories and perspectives in the future. It’s also a young industry – especially motion graphics. The demographic that advertising spends the most money on remains the under 30 demographic. Therefore, young people are in high demand to create the next big thing. Budgets used to be a lot larger in 2000s and certainly since the financial crisis budgets have decreased even further. There’s this feeling that web should be cheaper than broadcast even though there are more people watching/reading on the internet than there are on television. Everyone has been waiting for the dust to settle but I think this is the new normal. There is still a lot of great work being done despite the lack of budget. But how long will that last? There isn’t enough value on content, and experience.

What advice would you give to young girls who want to be the NEXT you?

I would say, if you have the means, just start making, and if you have enough money, start with something short. If you can spend time, go for something larger. You have to keep at it, even if halfway through it doesn’t seem to be anything – just finish it, work it through. You will learn skills along the way. I’m a procrastinator, as many people are, but keep working, keep telling the stories, and eventually you’ll hit upon something that works for you. Try as best you can to be honest with your voice – it’s hard to do that.

How do you separate work life from your personal life?

There are a couple things I wont do anymore now that I have a child. In advertising, the hours are long and unpredictable, a lot of that work I’ve had to cut out of my life. You can do it without kids, but when I was younger, my work was my social life and that is no longer the case.

What inspires you?

Living in Parkdale inspires me. I love Parkdale. Some of my best ideas come from walking around in the city, I love Chinatown too, or Kensington market, and every so often I’ll go into the suburbs and find something amazing. I used to get a lot of inspiration from movies and books, but now it’s really about experiencing the city.

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