ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT - Ballard Boyd '00
I grew up loving movies and stories. When I was in third grade, I even tried writing my own novel, but I didn’t really have that much of a grasp on storytelling yet. Soon I was re-enacting and videotaping sketches and routines from SNL and David Letterman at sleepovers with friends.
I joined FRA in seventh grade and was there through high school. I made my first “official” short film for my sophomore English class (instead of writing a paper on The Catcher in the Rye). It was terrible, but I had to start somewhere. I was active in the arts: I played trumpet in the band, sang in chorus, and acted in almost all the plays and musicals. I spent a fair amount of my afternoons and weekends making videos with friends. I made videos for multiple English classes and even a physics class. My early film projects were edited by hooking two VCRs together, playing one and hitting record and pause on the other to stitch the footage together.
During my time at FRA , I was lucky that so many teachers were open to my experimenting with videos for my projects. I’m still grateful for that. In my senior year, enough students had taken an interest in filmmaking that the school let us design our own screenwriting course for one of our class writing requirements! That same year, a short film I made on the side was selected as a finalist in the National Children’s Film Festival and aired on HBO Family as part of a program of student made movies called 30 by 30: Kid Flicks.
After graduating from FRA , I attended Emerson College in Boston, where I graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production. I wrote and directed films during college, but making the leap to move to Los Angeles or New York was super intimidating. Plus, even with training, I had no idea how I would get a job.
Emerson taught me the basic building blocks of movie making, but my craft still needed to be honed to be up to par with those being paid to do it. So I moved back to Franklin, Tennessee, and scooped ice cream at the Ben & Jerry’s on Main Street for almost a year. At the end of 2004, I got the opportunity to move to Boulder, Colorado, to work for a non-profit in their video production department. I leapt at the chance.
The non-profit video work wasn’t that challenging, but the silver lining of Boulder is that I started doing comedy on the side with a friend from college named Dave Burdick, who was a comedian, comedy writer, and journalist. Dave convinced the program council at the University of Colorado at Boulder to pay us to put on a new original comedy variety show every six weeks, featuring stand-up, sketches, sometimes a musical act, and original videos, which I was directing. Over the next couple of years, our show, “Secret Circus,” added a third Emerson comedian to our team, and I began to perform in the live sketches. Soon we had built a following.
After living in Colorado for three years, I knew I still wanted to make movies and that would necessitate making the jump to LA or NYC. I visited friends in both cities before eventually deciding that I felt relatively at home in NYC. I made the move to Harlem at the top of 2008 without a plan for a job.
Moving to New York was terrifying; I had friends but no job. It was up to me to make something happen. Even though friends welcomed me and helped me move in, the first night I had no air conditioning, my lofted bed took up pretty much the entirety of my 8’ x 12’ room, and it was so hot that I had to resort to sleeping on the floor beneath my bed with a fan just to sleep through the night. Luckily, the terror and worry I had made a terrible mistake only lasted four days.
It took me about a year and a half to figure out how to consistently pay my bills, and I did a lot of odd jobs, including catering, data entry, hosting trivia-based scavenger hunts, and making yoga videos for people on Craigslist. But despite this, I continued to use almost all of my free time to make videos.
My friend and roommate at the time, Dave, introduced me to a comedy troupe at Pace University started by one of his best friends from middle school. The group was just starting to make a name for itself in the early days of YouTube with weekly sketches online. I offered to direct their videos (which meant I would shoot and edit their videos for free), and they agreed. It ended up being one of the best situations I could’ve imagined. Within that first year and a half, we made about 40 videos in all manner of styles (music videos, commercial parodies, character pieces, list videos, etc.), and I now realize, that early time just making a TON of videos with a team of comedy writers and performers was a tremendously formative time for me because it got me in regular practice honing my craft.
As someone who loved all kinds of movies and directors, such a big part of my time with this troupe was attempting to lampoon or rip-off other people’s styles, in order to best sell parodies. And making a new video every week got me less protective about my work. If I messed up something and it wasn’t perfect, instead of beating myself up, I’d just say “What can I do differently next time because we’re shooting again on Saturday.” Iterating over and over and getting regular feedback from audiences radically transformed my skills. Slowly, I even began to develop techniques and tricks to make our productions look like they cost more money than they took to make.
The whole time I was continuing to dive further into the comedy scene, going to improv and stand-up shows, meeting other comedians, actors, writers, and performers and starting to build a network of other like-minded friends. When we did work that we were proud of, we’d share it with each other. Then, friends of friends started to ask if I would help them with some of their videos. I was more than happy to do it, knowing it could help build my portfolio. Through these projects, I got the opportunity to direct, first, a series of short commercials for Mountain Dew to accompany a web series; and second, a series of sponsored sketches with Captain Morgan for a sports blog leading up to the Super Bowl. I did both for incredibly little money, going so far as to actually shoot all of the Mountain Dew commercials (with the bottles moving like puppets) in front of tiny sets built in my dining room, and recruiting my roommate to voice some of the characters with me. I barely broke even, but it turned out that making comedy on the internet translated well to commercials.
Over the next few years, I developed relationships with several ad agencies to take on writing as well as directing spots for companies like Wild Turkey, DICK’s Sporting Goods, 3M, Bounce, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Ace Bandages. In the middle of that, I helped a friend who worked at Google make a comedy sketch with some of his department colleagues for a company contest. I didn’t expect much to come of it, and the worst case scenario was that I could include Google as a company that I had “worked with.” The video didn’t win the contest, but it did end up getting passed around Google, and within a couple of weeks, it had been viewed by 30 percent of the entire company staff worldwide! It even got me an interview and led to me working for Google for two years, writing and directing commercials in-house for Google products.
While commercial work was paying the bills, I used a portion of that income to subsidize other creative projects that I might not otherwise have been able to raise money for: a web series featuring Jim Belushi, a few comedy sketches that aired on Comedy Central & Logo, and a handful of music videos, both comedic and not. A surprising/not surprising fact: there isn’t a lot of money out there for music videos since everyone started streaming music, but they can still be fun ways to visually experiment if you can make them cheaply! In 2014, my music video “Runaway” for the Middle Tennessee-based band Self made it on Rolling Stone’s “Top 20 Most Awesome Music Videos of 2014” list as number 10 for the year.
Then in 2015, I had brunch with a couple of friends, one of whom was a production assistant at The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Stephen Colbert had ended that show a few months earlier to take over The Late Show from David Letterman, and the new show was just starting to gear up and hire folks.
As I said, I was a huge Letterman fan in middle school, and he was a big part of my early comedy influences. In college, I had become a huge fan of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert while watching them just about every night with friends in our dorm.
I had met this particular friend at an Emerson College alumni mixer a few years before. The morning of our brunch, she shared she was moving over with Colbert’s new show on CBS and let me know the staff was looking to hire a “digital producer” and encouraged me to apply. The job wasn’t clearly defined, but I felt I didn’t have anything to lose by applying! I sent over a smattering of different samples of my work. The interview went well, and I was hired as one of three digital producers on their digital and social media team for the new show.
I started at The Late Show in July 2015, two months before the show premiered in September. Immediately I got to direct Stephen in promos for the internet because he was just itching to get back in front of a camera leading up to the show’s launch. For the first two seasons of the show, I worked as a digital producer, shooting, directing, and editing over 140 videos (being promoted all over the internet) just in the first six months of the show. Even though these videos were initially supposed to only be used as promotional material for the web, our sketches started to catch the eye of Stephen and our head writers, who begin updrafting some of them onto the TV show itself.
Over the first two seasons of the show, more and more “digital” videos started being put on air, to the extent that by the end of season two, I had almost 50 segments that had aired on TV. So in season three, I moved to the field department, where I now direct full time for broadcast.
The field department covers all of the comedy pieces that don’t happen in front of a live studio audience, including traditional “field pieces” that are unscripted comedy bits filmed on-location (like “Stephen Visits NASA” or any Daily Show segment with a correspondent). These are almost like comedy documentaries. You go into the field with a plan, structure, and some jokes, and then improvise based on what arises, and the piece is largely constructed and “written” in the edit. Additionally, we produce the “scripted pieces” that include written sketches done with celebrities, commercial and movie parodies, and music videos (like most of SNL’s “Digital Shorts”).
Because we’re an hour-long nightly comedy talk show on five days a week, we always have a need for field pieces. Sometimes we have a good amount of lead time to produce, shoot, and edit a segment, so we could take several days or a week to put together an elaborate and involved segment. Other times we’re responding to something that just happened that day in the news, and for those situations, we sometimes have to shoot a full commercial parody in a matter of hours, then tape it in front of a live audience that afternoon at 5:30 p.m. in order to air it at 11:35 p.m. that night.
We’re now in our fifth season and currently the #1 rated late night show in America. I’ve directed almost 100 segments for the show, and in 2018, I joined the Director’s Guild of America. I’ve gotten to direct pieces not only with Stephen, but with Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson, Tony Shalhoub, Bryan Cranston, Keegan Michael-Key, Bob Odenkirk, Whoopi Goldberg, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a whole mess of others.
I still mostly shoot and edit my own sketches, so how I work is incredibly reminiscent of what I used to do in the afternoons in high school: grab a camera and make funny videos with friends. Now, I just have more people to help, scripts from some of the funniest writers in the industry, and access to famous people to work with. But even now, with all these resources, the speed at which we work still necessitates that I use the tricks I’ve learned over the years to make our sketches look like they had more time and resources than they do. The fact that they air on CBS is still bonkers to me!
Almost all of the opportunities I’ve gotten have been built through connections with people and relationships that I’ve developed over the years combined with the dedication to continually make more and more work, not just to get better at my craft, but because it’s essential and always exciting to do — whether it’s crafting an elaborate one-of-a-kind paper pop-up book for a commercial for Google, or directing a sketch about time travel in someone’s basement in Colorado.
My time in Colorado also led me to meet my wife Kelsey, who is an educator and writer. We live in Queens in New York City about a 45-minute commute from my office in Manhattan. Even now, a little bit of our free time is reserved for personal projects because we’re always looking to stretch ourselves or scratch our creative itch a little bit more. In addition to her day job as a movement specialist at a nursery school in Manhattan and a private practice in educational kinesiology, Kelsey teaches several online workshops throughout the year and is working on a new book. As for me, the last couple years I have been writing a script for a feature film to direct. I attached a producer to the film this past July, and we just began pitching the project to production companies with hopes to go into production this spring in New York.
Going from watching David Letterman as a kid to standing in the wings of that same theatre and watching Stephen and a live audience reacting to things that I directed, is still surreal and very, very cool.