UNC track and field student-athlete and new grad Armanni Portee '21 connects with alumnus and former football player Jonathan Martin '11 to discuss his experience as an alum, insight and current work on The Confrontation Project.
Portee: How did you get into filmmaking?
Martin: When I was at UNC, I played football, and then in the summer we would have our speed camp and everything else. I'm the guy that likes to get things done early, so I was always in the AM sessions. And then in the summertime it was like, "Well, what am I doing with the rest of the day?" So the house that we were renting at the time, in the basement I found a camera, and I just started making stupid skits just to do something. I would shoot it with some of my roommates who were also on the team. And the skits kept going up and up from there. I would show them to people around campus, and everyone was like, "Oh, we liked these," so I made a little series. I called them Chronicles of Boredom, and that just kind of grew.
Once I graduated, next thing I knew it was like, "Hey, can you do a highlight tape for me?" Some of the football guys that wanted something cut up. And then one referral led to the next, then I was doing a music video one day, then I was doing a wedding. Once I kind of had some of that stuff under my belt, I was like, "Maybe I should do this full-time." So I quit my nine-to-five six years ago and I've been working for myself. I've done everything now from, like I said, music videos to corporate, short films and anything in between.
Portee: Why did you choose UNC?
Martin: I always wanted to go there. I was originally born in Colorado Springs, and when I was in high school, I moved up to Castle Rock and was going to school there. And for a D lineman, I was pretty undersized. I think, as athletes, we have to be somewhat realistic with ourselves. A lot of my family's from Ohio, so I'm like, "Oh, as a 215-pound D lineman in high school, maybe Ohio State's not the place." But I liked UNC.
I actually started off at a Division II school in North Dakota. Two of my really good friends were at UNC – one was at the Monfort College of Business, and one, who was a year younger than me, started playing ball at UNC. And my buddy was like, "Hey, I think you could get into the business school here," and my other friend was like, "Hey, I think you could make the team here." After a couple of years in college, you start putting on weight and you learn college systems and stuff like that. So I went back as a walk-on, and by the time it was all said and done, I was on a scholarship. From high school, I just always wanted to go to UNC. I also had an older sister who went there, so to have some familiarity and have some family on campus was always nice. To this day, I'm a very proud Bear.
I always say everyone is a result of everything that happened to them in their life, and who knows what happens if I don't go to UNC. I might not be renting the same house. I might not find that camera. I might be doing something completely different now.
Portee: How has UNC prepared you for your career and the current project you are working on today?
Martin: It's funny. Like I just said, the reason I went to UNC was like, "Oh, I'm going to get into business school." And I got in. I don't remember how many semesters I was in it, but Business Stats was not very kind to me at all, and Accounting II was even less kind to me. So I ended up switching to a communication degree.
I think the biggest thing I learned from having a communication degree is essentially what communication is, is getting a message from audience A to audience B, whether that's an interview, marketing, or advertising. And that is exactly what I do in my business now, and it's kind of ironic because I started my own business after being like, "Oh, a business degree is not for me at all." But that's what I take from UNC a lot. And it doesn't matter what the project is, there's a message. What I pride myself on with the videos that I do is there's a story to be told, and I find out who this story is for, and what's the best way that I can get it from audience A to audience B.
With the most recent project that I'm working on, it's called The Confrontation. It’s a film that is about the relationship between police departments and African American communities. There have been a whole bunch of tension and turmoil and a history there that, after last, you can't not be aware of it now. Because it's such a sensitive issue for so many different people, I was like, "This is something that I really have to take my time with, and more than ever, it's important to be able to communicate effectively." I think that's one of the things that gets lost with a lot of these issues is that communication's a two-way street. A lot of times people are only saying things, they're not listening, and hopefully I can help with that.
Hopefully, I can say this project will resonate with a whole bunch of other people as well.
Portee: What makes you get up every day and choose filmmaking? Because a lot of people make a decision like, "Oh, I'm going to do this," and they say it, but there's no action, there's no steps, there's no implementing anything behind it. So why are you so passionate about filmmaking, and what makes you get up every day and choose filmmaking?
Martin: My company is called Black Sock Productions, and the motto that I have for the company is "Life is a movie, film it like one." I've always been a very visual person. As a kid, I would have a big imagination and I would see things, I would get lost in daydreaming about things. I remember in middle school I was in band, and they would have a CD that you would play first so you'd know how it at least is supposed to sound, because you can imagine how good middle school kids might be. And anytime I would hear the music, I would always imagine it like a movie. I'm like, "Okay, I hear this music, but what kind of scene am I seeing?" Or when I hear music with anybody – Apple Music, Spotify, whatever – visions always come to my head. And I've always liked making really cool things. I like making things that look cool, and so for me, that's what it is. Because if I believe "Life is a movie, film it like one," any moment that happens in life, something cool can be made of it.
I was going through my Instagram the other day just to see things that I've posted in the past, and I remember it was just a stoplight. I was at a restaurant, and the stoplight was right outside the window so I was able to see it go over and over and over. I just waited to capture it where it went from red to green. And that was it. It was just a little snippet, but there's so much stuff that happens in life that as long as it's captured in a cool way, you don't know who it could speak to. For me, it's getting up, and that's film. I can't imagine, no knock to any accountants out there or anything like that, but I couldn't for the life of me imagine waking up and being like, "I can't wait to crunch numbers today," or "I can't wait to fix a sink today." And again, I love a properly working sink and I like not getting audited by the IRS, but for me, because I am such a visual person, when I wake up and I'm working on something, it's like, "How can I make what I see visible to everybody?"
Portee: What does your day-to-day schedule look like?
Martin: I actually don't necessarily have a set day-to-day. I mean, some things are changing always a little bit here and there, and for me, that's one of the beauties of being able to work for myself. There are some staples that I have.
So, a little backstory… I claim to have a really good memory, right? So I don't write a lot of stuff down, if it's like, "Oh, I have a meeting at this time," or if I have a wedding to shoot next year on August 3rd, I'll just remember it. So I don't write all my stuff down, but I wanted to get better at it and just put some things into practice. So last year I got a day planner. And of course the one year that I actually get a day planner is the year that the world shut down and everybody was at home the whole time, and I'm like, "I'm never buying a planner again." But my friend was like, "No, keep going with it."
Now, every morning I wake up and I structure my day in time slots. The best advice somebody gave me is: We always hear time is money, but time is like money in that if you don't budget where your money is going, you don't know where it goes. And so similarly, for me, if I don't know where my time's going, I end up wasting and losing a bunch. The next thing I know I've lost 45 minutes on YouTube rabbit holes, or I spent way too much time doing something that didn't matter.
So, first thing I do is wake up and schedule out my day. Any meetings I have, I allot time for that. I work out pretty much every day. I try to get that done early in the morning. Some things from college haven't changed. Once the workout's done, I'm right back and I'll work depending on what I have, anywhere from maybe 10:00 to 5:00 or 10:00 to 6:00. Sometimes if I'm doing something creative, like a music video, the creative juices aren't flowing in the middle of the day, so I'll take the freedom to work for myself, and maybe I'll go do something else. Maybe I'll go outside. Maybe I'll do this, that, or the other. Maybe I'll research something online about some project that I'm working on. And then when I have an idea at 9:30 at night, I might be editing a music video from like 9:30 to 1:00.
I try to structure things, but there are those creative freedoms that I give myself as far as what works best for you. Somebody told me, "If you're clutch, be clutch. If you do your best work under pressure with two days left, then why are you stressing yourself out and trying to get it done six weeks early?" I don't recommend the same for any college kids that might be watching this with work, but I may have done that when I was in school too.
That's one thing I would pass on to everybody: Budget your time, because you'd be surprised how much stuff you can get done. I'm looking up at my whiteboard over here, and I have a whole bunch of stuff that needs to get done. I feel like sometimes I can be a space case and I work on this, and next thing I know, "Oh, I need to work on this music video. Oh, but I don't have enough space on my hard drive. Let me clear up some space." Next thing you know, I'm going through and I'm looking at all the stuff on my hard drive, and it's like, "What was I supposed to be doing again?" So there are times now where it's like, yeah, that music video might need to get done, but it's not time for music video stuff. I'm still in this block. I'm only going to work on stuff for this block right now, and then do it that way. At least that's worked for me.
Portee: How did you meet the poet (Ahmad Pasley) of (The Confrontation) script to be able to develop that piece?
Martin: It was God-sent, honestly. I was right place, right time. So the poet, Ahmad, he happened to be in Colorado at the time. I currently live in Toronto, but because my business is still based in Colorado and that's where I'm from, pre-pandemic I was coming back and forth a lot more often. But I happened to have a job in Colorado at the time that Ahmad was there. He had this idea, and he said he specifically wanted to work with a Black filmmaker, so he Googled it. He reached out to me, and I was like, "Oh." At first when he sent it to me, there wasn't great detail about what he wanted. I was in the airport, trying to get to a rental car, so I was just like, "Oh, yeah, let's talk on Monday." And in between then and Monday, he sent me a full breakdown of what his idea was, and I saw it, and I'm like, "I got to call this dude." And we were able to meet because both of us, we had about a week overlapping where we were both in Denver, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Portee: What advice do you have for future students? Whether it's about filmmaking, whether it's general advice, just college student advice, student athlete advice, any advice that you have for future students, what would it be?
Martin: One is, you have to take a risk. Take that leap. There will always be a thousand reasons why you should or shouldn't do something, but there's never a right time. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and you have to take a leap. I wasn't getting very much time at a Division II school. It would have seemed crazy that I would try to go walk on at a Division I program, but I took the leap. When I quit my job, I had a pension, great health insurance, and I was like, "I'm going to give this up to try to make my video company." Again, you have to have that faith and you have to take the leap.
The second thing I would say is you have to bet on yourself. You have to believe in yourself. The world, unfortunately, will be very good at telling you who you are or what you're capable of, and if everybody listened to the world, some of the greatest things that have happened in history would have never happened. You have to really just trust that you know what you're doing and go for it.
And lastly, don't be afraid to ask for help. I don't think there's any such thing as a self-made person, so whether it's trying to find a mentor or somebody, find someone who's smarter than you in certain ways. When I started my company, I thought I had to be the dude. I'm going to make my own website, I'm going to shoot the video, I'm going to direct it, I'm going to edit it, I'm going to do the sound, I'm going to light it, and it's just like... There's a reason when you watch movies or TV shows that there's a bunch of names that come after it. It's because there's a lot of people that go into that, and there's a lot of people who are a lot better and smarter at certain things than I am. To go to my earlier point, I’m not a fan of the business running side of the business. Get an accountant. Find somebody who's done some things. I think one of the issues that a lot of people have is that they're afraid to ask for help. And the end of the day, it's like, nobody did it on their own.
The fourth thing is kind of two-fold, which is don't be afraid to fail, and if you're going to fail, fail fast. When you go to take the jump, you just got to jump. You have to do it. A lot of people are afraid of failure, but if you fail fast, you know what isn't going to work, and now you can grow from that and you can get onto the next step with whatever you want to do. But if you're kind of sitting on the fence, now you've just wasted a whole bunch of time and you still might fail. So get out there, jump into it, fail fast, learn from it, and go from there.
Portee: That is amazing advice. Being a college senior and a college student in general, sometimes it's nice to hear confirmation from other people that it's okay to ask for help, and it's OK to not be OK, and that it's okay to fail as long as you don't sit in that, right?
Martin: Absolutely. I remember when I graduated UNC, what did I do? I went from a bank to a call center to being a food and safety inspector for restaurants and grocery stores to doing what I do now. I think a lot of people can kind of are intimidated. You've spent all this time in school and getting a degree in one field that you think you're supposed to go out, but life is the best teacher. If you have some experience, don't be afraid to get out and do things. It might not be what you necessarily have your degree in, but there's going to be something that you can learn from it. And you're not stuck in there. Life is not a comic book or a movie where it's like you only have these little boxes in which you can live in. There's no limits. Think outside the box, you know? I remember going out of college, if you would have told me, "Oh, your first job out of college is going to be a Wells Fargo teller," does that mean that I'm going to be in banking for the next 20? No, but I learned something from it. Like I said, everything that I've done up to now is why I am and who I am today. So fear not, any and everybody. Just get out there and start doing stuff.