To Jason Carman, nothing matters more than quality. When you get to know him, this becomes clear; the complexity of each project and venture he leaps toward is incomparable with that of the average teenager — or just about anyone, for that matter. The 19-year old is producing movies and TV pilots under his own production company, XNihilo Films (whose name is under revision), shooting music videos as part of a local rap group, and working full-time as an editor and production specialist for 2K Games.
I’m not sure how you fit so much into 24 hours, but, for years, Jason has continued to find a way. Throughout high school, he had spent countless hours honing his craft, making connections with like-minded creatives and artists, and following a distinct path to becoming a renowned filmmaker. He sustains a tireless work ethic that puts quality, development, and command first. On a cloudy morning, I met with Jason outside of a Starbucks to pick his brain. We spoke about his current projects, career goals, and wide range of interests — from artificial intelligence to his Hedgehog Concept.
What projects are you working on right now?
Mainly, I have three things that are taking up my day-to-day life. Most of my time is spent at 2K Games, where I’m a trailer editor and production specialist. I spend time working on making these kick-ass trailers with a super-talented team of guys, or I’m taking pictures or filming stuff for Ronnie 2K (digital marketing director) to post on his Instagram or Twitter. I’m also the unofficial lead on a live room we’re building there. My boss, Kenny Crosbie, let me do a design for the room. He liked it and allowed me to head up the construction, planning, and creative direction for it. I’m super appreciative of my boss, by the way. He took a huge change in interviewing somebody my age, and I’m so thankful that I’m a part of his team. It’s a 10-or-12-hour job over there, and I love it. I’m also working on different TV shows and feature films, which has always been my biggest thing for years, but it’s taken a bit of a backseat because of 2K and the music videos I’ve been filming.
As far as music videos go, I finished “Splash” with Deep Ends, and it ended up blowing up more than I expected. I got a lot of DMs from a ton of local rappers, and while a lot of them were cool, the majority of them were not. I just flew out to Atlanta to shoot with Sonny Digital and Black Boe, and — just from that alone — I’ve been making connections and developing from there.
How do you emphasize quality over quantity? You can make a lot of money off of shooting quick music videos with small-time artists.
I like to get the full picture [before I work with them]. It’s my career, too. It’s not just about the money for me; if somebody asks me to shoot a music video, I want to make sure it fits my brand as an artist. What’s the artist’s rollout plan? Is the song a quality song? Is the artist going somewhere with this? I want to make sure that, if I’m associating myself with the artist, it works.
So you put a lot of stock into who you’re associating yourself with.
Right. It really depends on the person, too. If I respect them as a person, and I know that they’re genuine, even if I’m not a huge fan of the music, I can work with them. If I was asked to do a music video for 6ix9ine, I’d say no. I’m really opinionated, specifically, on artists who are just reckless and childish — I can’t stand for what they’re doing. I can’t put my name on that.
It also depends on what I’m bringing to the table with the video. If I don’t think I can bring something unique to the table to pair with the music, I’m not going to do anything. If I hear a song and think, you know, I can do something with this, I’d get to work.
Between all of the tasks and projects you’ve got going on — the filmmaking, 2K, music videos — which would you say has the most difficult challenges?
If I’m gonna rank them, it goes films, music videos, 2K. 2K is hard work, of course, but it’s fun, and it allows me to pursue films and music videos with financial stability. I have a great team there, and I honestly feel blessed to work there. Films are the hardest because of the whole process of everything; pitching, having the budget set up, you know. There’s a lot more than just shooting stuff. I’m working on this show that I would like to pitch some years down the line — and I’m not going to try to say anything specific given the chance it doesn’t happen — but it’s a really interesting process and there’s a lot going on. There’s so much to balance.
So you’re working with 2K, TV pilots, and some other personal projects. Where would you see your career going from this point forward?
I’m working on elevating at my position at 2K. I’ve never worked at a big company before 2K, and they’ve blown away my expectations on what I thought this kind of culture would be like. I had the idea that it would just be a bunch of old, corporatist white dudes making decisions on everything. It’s not like that at all. It’s a really diverse company, and they legitimately care about the games and the community. I’m also continuing to work my ass off with these music videos, making high-quality stuff. I have, like, seven artists waiting in line for their videos to get shot at the moment, and it’s exciting because I think I can make some really great content and gain some connections along the way.
Do you ever, at your age, feel some sort of chip on your shoulder when you work on something new? You’re placing yourself in positions that are generally suited for people much older than you.
At 2K, the next-oldest person in my department is 24, I think. So, I do feel the need to prove myself. I never want to force anything. They took a chance on me and I’ve been doing what I can, and I love the challenge. It’s definitely weird, because these guys hang around with me and I’ll work out with them after I’m done, and I tend to forget that these guys have full-on degrees and experienced so many things that I can’t even imagine. That’s another really good thing about my job; I’m learning a lot from my experiences with other connections.
Do you have any specific long-term goals? Five, ten years from now?
I’m still working on my company, XNihilo, although we’re going through a name change. I have the name tattooed on me, so that’s great. Anyway, I want to create one of the biggest film studios in the world. I want to make a small number of films per year, somewhere around five to eight — where they’re all really quality films and nothing is rushed or forced. The model that Marvel has — where they only push out a couple of films per year, but each one is well-marketed and everybody is waiting to see it — is what I want to go after, just with more original and unique stories, of course.
That reminds me of — with music, at least — how artists like Frank Ocean do things. He doesn’t release a lot of music, and stays relatively quiet, but when he does do something, everybody flips out. It’s a prime example of the power behind laying low and only doing something when it’s significant.
Exactly right. I make music sometimes, as well, but I don’t release it. It’s something I’m just learning to do, and it’s tough to make music with all of the time I’m spending filming. I’m not going to release anything unless I know it’s worthwhile. It’s something I’m looking at taking more seriously down the line.
What do you wish you would have known about filmmaking when you started out?
That’s a tough question. I’ve been making videos since I was, like, 9, and I’ve only started doing it full-time since I was 17. I suppose that what I need to remind myself of most often is this: your creativity is what big labels are paying for. They don’t pay for your ability to do things. They’re paying for your voice. Filmmakers get caught up with the technicalities of the craft, and it’s problematic because there are so many facets to making a video — budgeting, planning, filming, cameras. What kind of lighting can you use? How are you editing the video and audio? How can you fix mistakes?
In music, I think, you can stick to a niche that doesn’t require all of this extra stuff. At the most basic level, all you’ve gotta do is make music, make it well, and distribute it — hell, even then, big artists work with a ton of people to do that. Writers, producers, mixing engineers. With most filmers, you don’t have a huge budget, so you’re learning all of this stuff by yourself. When you start to get caught up in it, you start to lose the idea of what you wanted to do in the first place. You start to think, why did I even want to make movies? With filmmaking, along with just about any craft, you’ve got to remind yourself of why you’re doing this. You can’t lose your creativity; you can’t lose your personality. You’ve got to continue pushing yourself.
I see it like practicing math. If you just keep doing the same “2 plus 2” over and over again, you won’t learn anything. But if you’re challenging yourself by taking tough calculus problems and reviewing your mistakes, you’re going to strengthen your skills eventually.
I wish you told me that before this semester.
But, yeah. I think that’s just the most important thing I need to take away from it all. I’ve tried to rush stuff before, and every time I do, I have my regrets. You never need to rush things. Quality takes time.
Are you currently in school right now?
No, I dropped out. I took a few classes, like computer science and basic calculus. Obviously, my job at 2K was taking up a lot of my time, and I was having a tough time balancing school with my other goals. I don’t necessarily regret it, either. If 2K ever fired me, God forbid, I could find a job in filmmaking elsewhere. I’ve shown enough that I don’t need to have a community college degree to find anything.
I still believe that in ten or twenty years, artificial intelligence is going to change the landscape of our world, even in creatives’ lives. It’s astounding how A.I. is developing to write scripts, and write them well. Over time, A.I. will be able to replace actors with artificial models, write scripts with well-developed plots, and make full films. One day, I think you’ll be able to turn on Netflix and be able to watch a film that’s specifically tailored to your interests, all developed by artificial intelligence. The big movies — your Get Outs, Endgames, Black Panthers — I think those will stay, because they have a specifically-curated team of actors and directors that you just can’t generate, and there’s oftentimes a history behind the film that you can’t just find from A.I., as well. I’m continuing to study and figure out how to get there.
So, artificial intelligence isn’t just about taking retail and truck-driving jobs.
Right. It’s going to take over television, gaming, movies, all of that.
It’s hard to imagine, yeah. But artificial intelligence is becoming more and more “human”. It’s not just able to do math problems for you anymore. It’s continuously being programmed and developed to learn the subjectivity that makes people people.
I remember making my own player in the old “MLB 2K” games, back with the PS2, and you had to choose a specific face, and there were only a couple of hairstyles that you could choose from. With the NBA games now, you can literally scan your face into the game. I’m literally looking at myself when I play. I’ve got this 6'2" point guard who’s skinny with my haircut and some stubble. Kind of pale, but not super pale, you know? It almost looks like they literally just modeled me into the game. The rate of progression from just ten years ago with gaming is ridiculous, and I can’t fathom how quickly it’s moving forward.
Yeah, it’s exponential. I remember showing my parents the footage I edited for a [NBA] 2K19 test-edit trailer when I was trying to get hired, and they were all, is that real footage? Obviously, we would know better since we play these games and all. But the fact that people literally cannot tell the difference right now is incredible. Sometimes, I’ll walk by somebody’s desk and I could literally think that they’re watching an actual game if I’m not paying close attention. It’s unpredictable what this will look like ten years from now. Especially with the NBA games, I think it’s going to be extremely lifelike because the camera angle doesn’t require you to see every single player’s facial details.
We graduated around this time last year from high school. Obviously, since then, you’ve been able to free up a lot of time to go after filmmaking and 2K full-time. What do you think you’ve learned the most over this past year?
Man, a lot. I set a goal for myself on New Year’s. A lot of people are pretty pessimistic about New Year’s resolutions and dismiss the whole idea of committing to these New Year’s changes, because, you know, a lot of the time, they just don’t happen. I try not to fall into that. I think it’s a cool way to really emphasize something that you want to strive for, you know? Like, this year, I want to become a better writer; this year, I want to become a kind person; this year, I want to make a lot of money. It’s whatever you want. So, every year, I come up with a word that I try to make my theme for the year — this year is about “work”. I was thinking, as of now, I don’t know where I’m going to be in a few months. Anything can happen. I got into some debt issues, got a job at 2K, got out of debt, I’m working on music videos, and I’m maintaining my goals.
I guess the biggest thing that I’ve learned altogether is that your time on earth is very finite and small. You just need to remember that, I guess. I’m working from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, you know? And, even during my commute, I’m listening to podcasts or something that I think can help me with my goals. And, while I enjoy it all, I go to bed thinking if I’ve really done everything I could have done aside from work. If you died tomorrow, would you be content with what you’ve done? You never know what’s going to happen after all of this. You’re not a god, you’re not in control.
So you find your motivation from that.
Yeah, just about. Everybody has dreams from the time they’re young. That’s the concept of mastering something, you know? Some people find the idea of being a famous director sexy. Some people find the idea of being a barrier-breaking author amazing. Imagine going on dates and casually bringing up the fact that you wrote a bestselling book. When you hold on to your passion and master that specific craft from the ground up, you will learn how to set yourself apart. There’s a whole sea of people that want to be writers, filmmakers, actors, singers. The ones who make it are the ones who have stuck to that and have taken extreme measures to succeed. They’re selfish about it. That’s the nature of it. That’s what sets them apart.
A lot of rappers hit me up over making a video for them, and you can tell if they’re headed in the right direction when you get to know them. A lot of them aren’t fully committed there. I can see a ton of B.S. from artists on why they want to make something. “I want to inspire people” and all that. Their music and their character are far from inspiring. One of the reasons as to why I love Deep Ends is that it feels authentic. We’re a bunch of kids who have our own unique styles and personalities, and we tailor our work to that.
Any last words?
Yeah. I have this book called Good to Great, by Jim Collins. It’s my favorite book. It’s about what makes companies extraordinarily successful, and why most companies fail to make it to that stage. He researched the tendencies between these companies for years, from the CEO behavior, the upper management, all the way down.
What stood out to me the most was what he called the “Hedgehog Concept”. The idea is that a hedgehog isn’t necessarily something that stands out. It’s quiet, slow, not very fancy-looking. But it can make it through storms and defend itself from predators. It doesn’t need to be fancy in order to survive; all it’s gotta do is know how to survive through hard times. So, Jim Collins essentially figured out that each of these extraordinarily profitable and successful companies has this sort of concept to mind — something that they can stick to that will power them through. We’re at a Starbucks right now, and I’m reading this book by Howard Schultz, who was the CEO of Starbucks. His whole mantra is “People first, coffee second”. They’ve had to weather these really big challenges, obviously; you know, the financial crisis in 2008, controversies, things that will come with being a huge company. But they’ve stuck through it all, either way — and they’ve developed to branch out to helping people in other countries, and selling other products.
I’ve been trying to figure out my Hedgehog statement. I’m still trying to figure it out. It has to be something that you can commit your whole life towards, and it’ll keep you through those storms. You’ve just gotta keep striving for excellence and push through failure.