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Meet Sherman Oaks Photographer, Filmmaker, and Actor: Charmaine Cruz

Today we’d like to introduce you to Charmaine Cruz.

Charmaine, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I can describe my career in arts and media as a journey of soft knocks. I ended up in the hallway many times unsure of which door to open but instinct would lead me to knock softly on one and it would open.

My passion for the art of storytelling began early on when I began snapping photos of anything and everything and kept a daily journal documenting life as it happened. I wanted to make movies but didn’t have the resources to make them so I chose the next best thing…acting.

I acted in school plays, won regional competitions, and did community theatre in high school. Then Cosmopolitan Magazine conducted a beauty search and I appeared in their magazine. This began my modeling career, which I cut rather short because I found it unfulfilling. My goals were still to make movies.

I was accepted into UCLA headed towards the theatre track and quickly left to study acting. I was impatient and couldn’t wait the four years. I studied with some amazing people: Cinda Jackson at The Lost Studio, Howard Fine at Tracy Roberts, William Traylor at The Loft, Herbert Berghoff and Joann Baron in New York. I worked in plays in New York, Philadelphia, and all over Los Angeles at The Lost Studio and many other theatres with critically acclaimed, prolific playwrights and directors who I met while studying at The Lost Studio: Sharon Yablon, Wesley Walker, Guy Zimmerman, Michael Farkash, John Steppling, and Cinda Jackson of course. I continued to work in television, independent film, commercials, and commercial print.

All of the above was preparation for the next voyage.

My teenage dream of making movies came true when I made my first short movie; a feminist revenge comedy entitled “Pissed”, about mammary gland worship and poor women’s public restroom etiquette, and starring the late actress/comedienne Wendie Jo Sperber. I wasn’t nervous as most first-time directors because I had spent so much time on the other side of the camera on sets, and had watched directors work for so long, that I felt at ease. I could communicate with the actors on the same level…one actor to another, which made it easier on the actors as well. The short screened and garnered awards in film festivals around the world including the Asian American International Film Festival, Cinemanila, San Diego Asian Film Festival, VC Filmfest, Chicago Asian American Showcase, Screening Filipino, CMJ Filmfest, and Cinemafest.

I wanted formal training. I applied and got into the UCLA School of Film, Television, and Digital Media. I stopped acting since I could no longer make auditions and worked in accounting and marketing while putting myself through school. I wrote three screenplays and wrote, directed, produced, and edited four short movies. I earned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award for writing and directing, and the Peter Stark Memorial Award for my body of work. My plan upon graduation was to sell my screenplays written while in school and embark on my writing and directing career.

However, the universe had other plans… the year of Enron and the country’s financial crash took place. No one was hiring. I needed another solution. Utilizing my learned skills in lighting from cinematography in film school, I picked up my still camera and began to shoot. I started with landscapes and fine art then shot anything and everything that caught my eye. Then upon the urging of gifted artist and jewelry designer, Wendy Griffin, I began to photograph people. My first client was Wendy Griffin and next Native American horse stunt actor Cody Jones. I went on to shoot many working actors, artists, and business professionals. Again, my years of experience in front of the camera lent itself to my position behind the still camera. My many uncomfortable memories of photo shoots allowed me to relate to my subjects in a way that made them feel comfortable and relaxed.

Then life took me on a whole other unexpected adventure… I gave birth as a single Mom to my boy with Down syndrome.

Having been given the gift of a child with Down syndrome turned out to be the biggest blessing beyond any career success in my life. It changed me for the better, made me even more optimistic, with a deep and enriched understanding and compassion for our species. His entrance “Into (my) Life” sparked my current movie project, the documentary “What’s Up With Down”,, and my involvement in the community of individuals not only with Down syndrome but all special abilities. Our crew on “What’s Up With Down” consists of two individuals with special abilities: Blair Williamson, our still photographer, also a working actor with Down syndrome, and Christopher Chapman, our B Camera operator who has Aspergers Syndrome and who currently works with Marvel in post-production at Disney Studios in Burbank.

As I have always been “Into” the stories that make up “Life” it seemed fit to name my businesses entities Into Life Photography, Into Life Productions, and Into Life Films.

My plans are to carry on growing creatively in these multiple artistic disciplines, weaving a tapestry of work as they cross over into each other. My photography has expanded at a fast clip, and as I continue to shoot headshots and portraits, I have added to my portfolio weddings, events, commercial photography, fashion, pregnancy photos, kids, and families. I plan to begin to exhibit my fine art stills collection as well.

Some of my photography can be viewed at and I will continue slowly but surely to add new images from the thousands I’ve shot to the website. This month we are embarking on a special photography project, which will also involve our documentary “What’s Up With Down”. I will continue to work as well as an actor and write, produce and direct movies, television, as well as theatre projects.

Although life today flows through avenues of photography, acting, writing, and movie production, all the while I stay true to what binds everything together, my position of Mom to my son and our Lhasa Apso dog, Scottie.

Has it been a smooth road?
Sometimes smooth, sometimes not so smooth. The early years were quite a struggle before I began working. I worked as a waitress off and on, worked in catering, and other odd jobs like telemarketing selling law books to people during the dinner hour. You had to have pretty resilient ears for that job. I worked as a proofreader, sold coffee in the grocery store, I made sandwiches at one point and sold them to the businesses around the acting studio where I studied, worked as a courier, post production telecine supervisor, movie trailer tester…and dipped in and out of the corporate world as administrative assistant both in and out of the entertainment industry. It’s all been a climb – sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal but always forward. Being a single mom is difficult. Period. Being an artist is a difficult period. Being a single mom as an artist to a child with special needs has been quite a challenge. There’s a lot to learn in the beginning. I was lucky to know ahead of time so I prepared myself as much as possible before my son was born. It took some time but I’m finally getting my bearings.

What’s your outlook for the industry over the next 5-10 years?
With technology going faster than we can click “Like” on Facebook the future of the moving image in film, television, and new media is growing like a tornado. Virtual Reality is becoming virtually real.

Soon movies will be interactive wherein viewers will become the storytellers as movies will allow them to choose the path the narrative will take simply by pushing or tapping a button. Viewers will soon be able to enter the picture and become part of the movie. Viewers will be able to choose which way to look while watching a movie as some movies are being recorded in a 360-degree format.

Some think going to the movies will be like going to an event where tickets will cost as much as live events. Before television, going to the movies was a big deal. People dressed up and theatre owners created movie houses that were like palaces. Then the attention went to television and the movie industry adjusted to its next phase. These days the small screen: Television, internet, and mobile devices are stealing the show again. There is a multitude of new media distributors creating a plethora of web series viewable on the internet through whatever medium you choose, wherever you choose, not just in a movie theatre or in your living room.

I think movies are going to need to make a big comeback in the next 10 years and that may be where Virtual Reality comes in.

There is the ongoing discussion of digital vs. film and the death of the film camera, the death of cinema, or movies as an art form. Museums did not die with the advent of the photograph. Live theatre today remains despite the birth of movies. Live music is still around despite the introduction of vinyl. I think the people who appreciate art in cinema will continue to seek avenues to enjoy cinema and we will still have art houses for alternative movies and cinema as an art form.

In terms of growth, with the advent of all the new technology, there will be more opportunity for producers, writers, directors, actors, and crew to create and to work. I think it will be both exciting and maybe painful as we watch our understanding of the movie going, and television watching experience change. As we know, humans usually resist change…at first.

Now, there’s the downside of all of this in that there is so much content being created, I wonder if it is all being seen. The amount of new media shows out there and cable movies is astounding. However, inevitably, the cream will rise to the top and there will likely be a lot of short-lived projects. But that’s show business!

In terms of still photography, exciting things have been happening, seemingly at lightning speed with the birth of digital. Everyone is taking photos now and the ability to create professional looking photos with your smartphone is incredible. There are all kinds of apps out there now to edit and create amazing looking photographs, and the ability to show them to the world has exploded. People on the other side of the world can see your works of art on Instagram, Pinterest, your business page on Facebook, your website, etc., etc., etc. It used to be that a photographer’s work could only be viewed in museums or magazines or if you were lucky enough to be able to sell your work.

This is exciting.

Smartphone cameras are being continually upgraded. Soon there will be multiple and dual lens cameras on smartphones that will have wide angle and telephoto lenses. There will be more moving still photos and 3D still images. There will be more photographs swirling around the web than can be imagined.

However, in the same way, there is worry that the art of cinema is dying, there is worry that the art of photography is dying as well. Many photographers refuse to own or use a digital camera and prefer to take their time creating a shot using their knowledge of lighting and composition with a 35mm camera rather than a DSLR camera and developing in a dark room on paper rather than relying on the quick draw of a digital camera and the manipulation of the image through various filters and photo editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom. We will still have our purists so I don’t think the art of photography in that sense will completely disappear.

For actors, opportunity is abounding. There was so much frustration in recent years with the outsourcing of productions for tax incentives in other states, and in Los Angeles, we had a lot of out of work actors. Now with new media and all the new web series popping up everywhere, and the increased ability to market through the internet, the amount of opportunity is going to continue to grow for actors everywhere. There is a lot of frustration about the amount actors are paid for work on internet series, but again it all depends on the series and the contract. The union base rate is undeniably very low for web series players, however, the amount of jobs an actor can get due to the abundance of projects being created may balance things out. I think the amount of content out there is only going to increase as digital has made it easy for anyone to make a movie. Good or bad, of course.

The time saved on submitting for projects has changed things for the good as well since actors can submit themselves for projects from their smartphones wherever they are and can also create audition tapes on their smartphones and submit them from their smartphones rather than having to drive across town, get through security at the studio, and walk through the meandering streets on the studio lot to the casting office. The digital age has made things so much easier for the studios, casting directors, agents and actors alike.

In short, I think there will be more working actors out there. There will be less celebrity as more regular people are making themselves famous on YouTube and social media, and the star-making machine is becoming something that can be run from one’s desk at home. People are becoming brands and this is happening everywhere. What will this do to the quality of projects? It will be more quantity and less quality for sure, and so once again the cream will rise to the top.

Marketing has changed in all these industries as the ability to market through internet networks and social media has cut marketing costs to sometimes nothing. The internet, social media, YouTube, and Vimeo and marketing platforms like these are a dream for anyone who has been working in their industry and needing a way for people to see them or their work.

Things are moving faster and faster.

How will all this affect us as a people? That remains to be seen but what I am seeing is that technology is going faster than we can handle it and people are spending less time with those they love in order to keep up with how fast everything is moving. If only time could be bought those who could buy more. If time seemed short before, it’s only getting shorter. Will there be a happy balance at some point? That will be up to each individual.

Has there been a particular challenge that you’ve faced over the years?
Trusting my path. I am a perfectionist. I never think I’m doing enough and have many times fallen into self-doubt. It always takes someone else to point out the things I am accomplishing and the things I have accomplished in the past. So there have been times where I have dropped out temporarily. However, I do believe the universe has a plan for everyone, and in the times I have stepped out of the stream for awhile, I have gained a better perspective, gotten more grounded, stronger, and learned more that I can contribute to making what I create next all the more rich.

What would you tell someone who is just starting out?

Start. Just start with what you have. Get clear on your goals. Surround yourself with people who possess the personal qualities you respect and admire and who will morally support you in your hopes and dreams. Stay away from naysayers. Study your craft, learn as much as you can, look at other people’s work but don’t compare yourself to them. Trust in yourself, your individuality, and your talent. Give yourself credit for what you are doing and how far you have come. If you fall, it’s okay, we all do. Take a breath and resume. Help and give to others when you can. Stay humble, never give up…and have fun!
Industry Advice

Filmmakers: Got to Film School or not – there are many other programs out there for learning. Or learn by doing. Depending on your goals, get a job that will allow you to reach your goals, so you can write, direct, or produce: getting an assistant job to a producer or writer, applying to be an assistant director with the Directors Guild of America. Make time to work on your projects and goals. Create them!!

Photographers: Go to a visual art school or film school or not – plenty out there to learn on the internet. If you don’t have a camera, borrow one. Use your smartphone! Experiment with apps. Start posting on social media and building an audience. Become a photographer’s assistant and/or get a job that will allow you to create.

Actors: Study. Find a reputable acting school and study technique and scene study. I recommend Cinda Jackson: (818) 720-8168. Otherwise, there are acting coach books at Samuel French Bookstore in Hollywood. Next…get good headshots. (by me, of course, ☺) After you’ve got some training, sign up with LA Casting and Backstage West online and begin submitting yourself. Audition for a theatre group. Then get an agent! Agent books at Samuel French as well. Get a job that will be flexible and allow you to audition and rehearse and act in plays.

For all: Do something every day towards your dream. Network, study, research, attend events related to your industry.


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