This week, we spoke with stellar VT Marketing alumni, Erik Nuenighoff.  Recently, Erik has worked on projects with the ESPN SEC Network, Jose Cuervo, Popeyes, and Jack Harlow. We discussed his life as a new dad working freelance in film and photography, the importance of building your network, and Erik’s advice for marketing students as they enter the real world.

When did you become interested in film? 

In my sophomore or junior year of high school, they offered a photography class and there was a film component to it as well.  I got the itch there, so I did it for 2 years throughout high school. Then, when I got to Virginia Tech, I was in the marketing program. I was sitting in class one day my freshman year and somebody from the athletic department came in looking for interns to work as camera operators for the football team. Everybody got an interview, you just had to sign your name, and if you got the job you ended up getting a scholarship. I was like, “A scholarship…okay…I'll put my name down and see what happens.” Two weeks later I had the job and that's how I got my foot in the door. Had I not shown up for class that day, I don't know if I would be doing what I'm doing now 

What does day-to-day look like as a freelance Director of Photography? 

It depends on if I'm working or not. I work a lot less than I used to. Even when I'm busy I still work less than I ever did when I had a full-time job.  So, I spend more time with my kid and my wife and I get to go snowboarding on a Tuesday if I want to, which is pretty sweet. I fill my days with outreach and networking. I coordinate meetups with people that I worked with on previous projects to see how we can work together more. I refresh my website and send it out to producers to see if anybody's hiring, and I try to stay top of mind and take time to refresh my skills.  I watch a lot of stuff on YouTube like learning new post-production skills and trying to figure out new revenue streams.  My daily task is just figuring out what's next, where I go from here, who I need to talk to, and what I can add to my arsenal of things to make myself marketable. 

What was the most fulfilling job/project you have accomplished thus far in your career? 

Things came full circle last year when I got to shoot a campaign for the ESPN SEC network.  It brought me back to where I started: shooting college football.  It was awesome!  I saw some awesome games like the University of Tennessee against Alabama; it was the biggest game of the year and I got to be on the field and run out on the T with the team. I was in pre-production meetings for their pregame show that travels the country, so I was with big former football players and celebrities I see on TV. We were presenting to them exactly what we wanted to do, and they bought into all of it. It was so cool. Having that type of access and being able to create something for a genre that I'm so passionate about was awesome. Being able to run out on the field again was amazing. 

You film a vast range of subjects.  Is there any common quality you look for or appreciate in a client? 

I appreciate a client who knows what they want and is specific in their ask but trusts you to add your flavor to it.  That is the most important thing to me.  I also appreciate clients who understand the process and the resources needed to execute things that they're looking for. A lot of times, people ask for things that are not possible given the budget they have. 

How do you deal with failure?  

I deal with it all the time. I had a tough time with Covid. The entire industry shut down, I didn't work for 9 months, and there was no way out of it until people were ready to start shooting again.  When it comes to something like that, I think “How do I remain productive? How do I learn a new skill? How do I make myself more marketable when that time comes?”  So, I learned a brand-new skill: color grading. When the files come out of the camera, they look a certain way, but there's retouching that has to happen to it in order for it to look the way that the director wants. So, I took that time to just sit at my computer and learn these programs inside and out. I worked on it every day and it’s become something that I do almost as much as I film. 

I color-graded a Little Caesars Super Bowl ad, I did the last Popeyes campaign that you see on TV now, and some work for Jose Cuervo. I reached out to people that I knew from my old advertising days who I knew always needed that type of work. Find something that diversifies you and try and figure things out from there. When it comes to failure, think about what went wrong and how you could have done better. 

If I had an issue with a client, I think about how I could have better prepared them or what was to come, and how I could have communicated with them better. Taking a step back and looking at things from a third-party view is how I deal with failure in situations like that because if things keep going wrong for you over and over again, it's probably you. You can only blame other people for so long until you have to turn it around on yourself.  Thinking “What did I do, what can I do better” is really how I deal with failure. 

What is your advice for any students graduating this year? 

Network. In my industry, your network is everything. The more people you know the better.  Even if they're not necessarily going to get you paid right now, some people are just good people to know, and they can connect you with other people. That's how I've made my living for the past 7-8 years: putting my face out there, meeting new people, asking them to introduce me to new people, and sharing my network with others.  When you're going out to network, you can't make it all about you. It's a two-way street. it's not “What can you do for me?” You have to give them something back. If it comes off as “I'm just here to get something from you,” that relationship is not going to go very far. You always have to be willing to give something back. 

Be willing to put in time outside of work. Work on your website, passion projects, side hustles, and networking.  I lived in New York City and worked in an ad agency and post-production house, and I got into the comedy community in New York City. On the weekends, I was shooting sketches for up-and-coming Comics for like 200 bucks and providing all the equipment that I had just to hone my skills and make a new connection and a couple of extra bucks. I found that the things I've done as passion projects, things with friends, or little things aside from my regular job are what got me to be able to work on these bigger campaigns.  They showed people that I had skill and drive. You can't just sit around and wait for things to come to you. You got to go out and get it. You can't be passive. 

Don't go to brunch every Sunday. Maybe go out one night a week. Don't waste your weekends, I know it's fun. I get it. I did it! It's part of being in your twenties, so I'm by no means saying don't do those things at all. I'm just saying be a little bit smarter about how you do it. Reserve some of that downtime on the weekends or after you get home from work to make yourself better, whether that be physically or mentally, so you're more marketable for your job.  That's how you get ahead.

Start your day with some exercise. It’s good for you and gets your brain going. 

What is next for you?

There is a writers and actor strike going on right now, which has sent shock waves throughout the entire industry. Scripted television is very little of what I do; I do mostly commercial work. However, when there's no show shooting or anything like that, a lot of television people end up taking some of the other jobs, so there's just less work overall.  

I also took some time off because my wife and I had a baby a couple of months ago, so we're slowly getting back into things. Right now, I'm just focused on trying to make more Connections in the sports world. I live in Denver Colorado and the University of Colorado Buffaloes are here. I'm working on finding some context within that and trying to do some work for them. The Denver Broncos are also right here in town so I'm really trying to find some more work there as well. 

I’m also reaching back out to my ESPN contacts to see what other stuff they've got going around the country. In the meantime, I'm just picking up little jobs here and there.  A couple of weeks ago, Jack Harlow came into town to shoot a music video. The night before, my friend hit me up and was like “Hey, I'm working on this Jack Harlow music video. Can you come and light it for me?” I was like “Yeah! Clear my schedule for tomorrow!” The next day, we were running all over town shooting the music video. [Jack Harlow’s “Denver” music video is now out on YouTube!]