NYFA filmmaking alumnus Sam Jeremy Nieves has not only navigated the transition from military to civilian life, but also the transition from life as a film school student to securing a coveted spot as a Cinematography Intern with NFL Films.
Sam took some time out of his busy schedule to share with the New York Film Academy community about his incredible journey, and the determination to do “whatever it takes” that has inspired his hard work along the way.
NYFA: Hi Sam, congratulations on your upcoming internship with NFL Films! To start off, can you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and why you decided to study at the New York Film Academy?
SJN: I was born and raised in Philadelphia. It’s a very hard-working, hands-on type of city, which is how I learn best. I knew at about age 14 that I wanted to go to film school, while shooting mini-chase scenes with my hot wheels cars, taking classes for film photography and mass media, and doing video work for my church.
When the time came, however, I could not afford film school and was devastated, but still determined to take whatever detour necessary to get where I wanted to go. The “detour” in this case was the Marine Corps. I knew I could use the G.I. Bill to help pay for college, so I chose to become a Combat Photographer (turning down a $25,000 bonus offer for another military job, in the process) with the Marines, earning my G.I. Bill, and making my own way to college.
I was stationed at Miramar (where they filmed “Top Gun”!) in San Diego, and Camp Pendleton, which put me in California towards the end of my enlistment. Originally, I had my sights set on attending film school in Florida, but already living in California, I began searching for a school within the state that had a very hands-on type of bachelor’s degree program in filmmaking, and that also accepted the G.I. Bill. That’s when I found out about the New York Film Academy.
NYFA: What led you to choose a path in cinematography? What inspires you most as a cinematographer?
SJN: Cinematography, for me, is a deep-seated passion and craft that I’m always learning and pursuing.
I started taking film photographs around age 10, with my mother’s camera. I was bored with the traditional photos, taken at family BBQ’s and pool parties, and I thought I could do something a little different. My mother let me use her camera more and more, encouraging me to keep going. That was the beginning of my life-long passion for creative imagery.
Another moment I experienced, that further sealed my career choice, happened around age 17. I had been doing camera work and intro videos for my church for a few years, and one video in particular culminated with the illusion of a man being hit by a speeding car. I couldn’t wait to see what the reaction from the audience would be. When the moment came, it drew an audible gasp from the crowd of over 200 people, and it was the most incredible feeling, sitting among them in that moment, having created something that truly captured them for an instant, making them feel something. I knew, right then, that I wanted to keep on doing this for a long time, creating images, and experiences like that for people to lose themselves in.
Initially, I wanted to enroll in the cinematography program at NYFA, but it’s a master’s degree program rather than a bachelor’s. So, I chose the filmmaking program instead, seeing it as an opportunity to shoot more projects as the lone cinematographer in a class full of directors.
Inspiration, for me, comes primarily from music, or other people’s work. I love hearing a great piece of music, and translating the emotions of it into visual ideas. I’m also a big fan of Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki. I think their work is incredible, and innovative, and their attitudes toward their craft are very humble.
NYFA: As a veteran student, you’ve transitioned both from military to civilian life, and from film school to securing a competitive internship. What advice would you offer to fellow students facing similar transitions?
SJN: The transition from military to civilian life can be very different, from person to person, but I think the success of my own transition came from having a specific goal, a plan for that goal, and following through with it. Never go into a transition without some sort of plan, or at least an idea of what you want to do, especially when you have the advantage of knowing when that transition will happen.
My goal, even before enlisting with the Marine Corps, was to go to film school. My plan was to apply to my school of choice, set up my G.I. Bill, and find a new apartment, all within the last 12 months of my enlistment. I followed through with that plan, and ended up with a bachelor’s degree in filmmaking, that I am very proud of, and thankful for.
The next transition was much more difficult to navigate, but again, having a specific goal in mind was essential. I was about to graduate film school with a family to take care of (my wife and newborn son), no more G.I. Bill benefits (which paid for our apartment), and no income. It was the most challenging time of my life, and it deeply tested my passion, and career choice. I knew that if I was going to make it work, I’d have to get out of my comfort zone, and be willing to do whatever it takes. This seems to be where a lot of people get stuck and give up, but if you really want it, you have to be passionately stubborn, and push through the inevitable challenges. You really have to take advantage of every avenue you can, especially in an industry like this, where everyone’s path seems vastly different.
My wife and I decided to move back home, with my parents, who graciously prepared the whole first floor of their house for us to stay in until we could find a job and an apartment. This really seemed like an embarrassing step backward, but again, I knew I had to be willing to make difficult decisions, and do whatever it takes to make this work. You often hear “it’s all about who you know,” and this quote was always very frustrating to me because I felt as though I didn’t have a dad that was a famous Hollywood director, or a great aunt that was some famous executive producer. But sometimes, “the people you know,” aren’t that obvious.
One person that was extremely helpful was Chair of Industry Outreach and Professional Development at NYFA, Barbara Weintraub. Barbara incredibly makes herself available as a resource to the entire school, and can be that “person you know,” to help along the way. She helped me restructure my resume and fine-tune my cover letter when I was applying to NFL Films, and answered any questions I had about the process.
I also found out, through conversation, that my uncle had a co-worker who had worked for NFL Films in the past, so I asked my uncle if he could talk to him for me. He said “of course,” and also showed him my resume and cover letter, which gave him enough confidence to contact NFL Films on my behalf, referring me for the interview I was after.
It’s great if you have someone who can help you land the interview, but at the end of the day, they can only get you in the room, it’s up to you to get the job.
NYFA: Would you say your time at NYFA prepared you for pursuing this internship opportunity?
SJN: I know that my time at NYFA was very important in my pursuit of this internship opportunity. I also recognized early on that it was up to me to get the most out of my college experience, and not anyone else’s responsibility — including the instructors. I learned as much as I possibly could, asked questions, got my hands on every piece of camera equipment NYFA had to offer, got on as many sets as possible, and shot as many projects as time would allow.
During my interview at NFL films, I was then able to talk about my experience with a wide variety of cameras, and formats, and my versatility in learning new equipment. I graduated NYFA, having taken full advantage of everything their program, instructors, and staff had to offer. I had gained a new confidence in my craft, and in my experience, that became evident during my interview, and had an effect on the way I spoke and carried myself.
There were several especially great teachers that I had the pleasure of learning from at the New York Film Academy, and I made sure I learned everything I could from them, regardless of any previous experience or knowledge I might have already had, coming into the program. NYFA has a great program, for anyone who is willing to do the work, and really pursue their craft.
NYFA: Can you tell us a little bit about what will you be doing as an intern with NFL Films?
SJN: As a Cinematography Intern with NFL Films, I will be working and learning directly from the best cinematographers in the sports industry, seeing how they operate, firsthand, on and off the football field. I will also be assisting in many ways, including prepping camera equipment, running cable, driving camera trucks, filling out camera reports, and so on.
Interestingly, I’ve done all of those things many times on various sets during my time at NYFA, and was even asked about this during my initial interview at NFL Films. I’m looking forward to the experience because it puts me in close proximity to people who know much more than I do about the craft that I love.
NYFA: Are you currently working on any other projects you’d like to tell us about?
SJN: While looking for a job, or internship, I was also making myself available for freelance work. I recently worked with the Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, shooting video and photos of their Special Operations Group during an overnight, woodland training exercise. It was very exciting, and similar to the kind of work I did as a Combat Photographer for the Marine Corps. I also got involved with a local hockey charity event, featuring several players from the Philadelphia Flyers, during which I will also be shooting video and photos.
The New York Film Academy would like to thank Sam Jeremy Nieves for sharing a bit of his story with the NYFA community and fellow Veteran students.