The Filmmaker: Aaron Palabyab

I started off pursuing a conventional filmmaking path, which in Manila means apprenticing on film sets, starting with indie films then moving on to TV commercials. In 2012, I was lucky to get my big break as a TV commercial director at 26 years old, which was young for that time. It was like making it to the “pro league” of my field.

Back then, being in film and video for a living, comfortably, meant working in TV commercials. But then less than two years after becoming a TVC director, I realized I was unhappy. People usually think it’s because you’re not making art, but it wasn’t that. I’m the type of person who’s motivated to do really well and be one of the best at whatever I’m pursuing, but in that job I was indifferent. It must have been partly my age and also some of the people I worked with, but I felt isolated, disengaged, and unmotivated to excel.

So, long story short, I “quit” and decided to use the money I’d earned to spend two months in South America, and life’s been a big adventure ever since, as challenging as it is rewarding. It hasn’t been easy, but when I think of all the ways in which I wouldn’t have grown had I stayed on that path, I have no doubt that I made the right long-term move.

In order to live a unique life, you have to take uncommon risks.

Entering college, my ambition was to be a writer, broadcaster, or even a musician. But after a year in Communication, I felt so out of place that I was considering shifting to Economics. Then I took a basic video production class in my sophomore year and I enjoyed it. It was an interest that I’d always had, but I had no talent for or background in any visual art. Taking the basic class allowed me to take the Cinematography class, and that’s where I met my mentor, who set me on the path to filmmaking and photography. Come to think of it, I’d never even thought I could be a filmmaker or photographer before that class.

Fast forward to 2012, I achieved my goal of directing TV commercials, but just two years later, as I’ve mentioned, I had a quarter-life crisis and left to travel in South America for two months. Since then I’ve been pursuing all kinds of interesting passion and professional projects, many dealing with travel and time-lapse, while still working as a director, cameraman, and editor on smaller projects. I’m enjoying myself, and instead of wishing I had less to do, as I did back then, I’m always looking for projects to throw myself into now!

I think I’ve always been driven by a desire and determination to prove that we - Filipino artists in particular, but all of us in general - can aspire to be so much more. Everywhere I’ve gone in the world, I’ve never felt inferior to anyone in terms of ability. And in everything I do, I always aspire for world-class, even if I don’t always achieve it.

I just want to help prove we can think bigger, to dream of competing with the world instead of just amongst ourselves. There are countries in the world like Iceland, New Zealand, and Armenia with not even 5% of our population but they produce artists, athletes, etc. that are world famous. I’m sure the explanations are varied and multifaceted, but at the end of the day, it’s like others have said: we have so much going for us, but can’t seem to get it together. I don’t know how to fix it, but the main thing I have control over is the quality of my own work, thoughts, and conduct.

I had no idea going off the beaten path would be so hard. I thought you could follow your passion and let everything else fall into place, but that hasn’t been my experience. It was a big reality check to find that setting up a financially sustainable unconventional life could be so challenging, and I realize now that I crave security as much as novelty.

When you could be literally anything, and you’re interested in so many things, how do you choose one thing?

One of the main struggles isn’t even money, though that’s a huge part of it: it’s the wealth of options. You have to commit for periods of time to see if something sticks, and sometimes you’ll put in a year or more of your life and it’ll seem to be a dead end. It’s easy to constantly stay indecisive out of fear of that, but the irony is that without deciding to commit to one thing, you can never be successful in pursuing this kind of life.

For any aspiring or emerging artist, the best wisdom I can share is to prioritize your growth. Don’t be in such a rush to “make it” and think you know everything. As Ryan Holiday says, ego is the enemy, and you’re not too good to do anything. I still wish I could apprentice with different masters because there is so much I still want to learn.

With all these famous online creators still in their early 20s, the pressure to be noticed right away is much more intense than it used to be. But filmmaking isn’t like the NBA, you don’t have an age window beyond which you can’t be your best anymore. Take your time. If you get too big, too soon, you won’t enjoy the freedom to just get lost in the world and find out who you are, or make yourself into who you are.

Experience as much as you can so that when you make things, you actually have something worthwhile to say.

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Story and Photos by Aaron Palabyab


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