I met Isaac at Lecrae's Higher Learning Tour in Abilene, TX. As he was taking photos around the venue, I walked up and introduced myself. Rather than just shake my hand, force a grin, and stifle through awkward small talk with a stranger, Isaac was instantly welcoming, easy to talk to, and passionate about his craft.
Most people who have been paying attention to the Christian Music industry in the last decade may not have heard of Isaac before, but they most certainly have seen his work. From TobyMac's "Feelin' So Fly" music video, to directing, shooting, and appearing in Family Force 5's "Really Real Show" series, and most currently as the director of Lecrae's "Welcome to America" video, Isaac has has just about done it all.
And so I was thrilled when he agreed to catch up and share a bit about his story. What was supposed to be a quick 45-minute phone call, turned into an hour-and-a-half long conversation about Isaac's journey through filmmaking, his faith, and his future.
Hey Isaac! Thanks for taking the time to chat. How’s it going?
I'm good! How are you?
Doing great! Thanks for doing this. Ok so right off the bat, tell us how you got started in film? What’s your story?
Well, when I was 8, I wanted to make a film called Jurassic Shark. I had the trailer written out and everything. Then when I was 10, I got a Tyco camera. It was this little toy video camera that you would hook into a VCR and press record, and I would record my friends doing skits.
Wow, so did you always know filmmaking was what you wanted to do?
Yea! I knew I always wanted to be a filmmaker..
Who are the some of your influences?
You know, I have a lot of close friends that disciple me. I’d say they’re my peers, but they walk with me and I really look up to them. As an artist, I try to just get around other artists. I feel like my art is shaped by what I see in the world, and not just by watching films. I try to pay attention to the details of life - the conversations, people’s actions - that’s what’s influential to me.
But I’m also a huge fan of CS Lewis. My middle name is Clive. I read Mere Christianity in like 3 days and remember thinking, “This guy is speaking in analogies, and that’s how I think!” He’s basically my spirit animal.
So you’re a filmmaker, but when I met you, you were shooting photos for Lecrae’s Higher Learning Tour. How did that come about?
It’s funny because I’ve done a bunch of videos for Lecrae. I literally live a mile from Reach Records, so I’ve been a friend of theirs for a long time. One day they asked me, “Hey do you want to go on tour and shoot some video?” After I bought the plane tickets, they called me and said, “Hey, we need a photographer.” So I told them, “Well, I think I can translate video philosophy into images.” So I called my photographer friends and asked for their top 3 pieces of advice. I was familiar with the technical stuff like shutter speed and aperture, so that helped. But I asked them all the same questions, and got all different answers.
So how was that experience?
It was really fun to tell a story in one frame rather than 24 frames per seconds. A camera has always been a cool way for me to be a fly on the wall. It’s allowed me to be a part of really cool conversations with some really cool people.
For example, when I shot Lecrae’s “Welcome to America” video, I spent time in jail cells, crack houses, and with prostitutes.
And that was all real? Watching that video, I was curious if those people were genuine, or actors.
All real. The only direction I gave them was, “Act like I’m not here.” Even the couches under the bridge were already there. I basically would just show up with my camera and shoot.
We went on a real city bus. We went under train tracks where the homeless guys sleep. We went everywhere.
So not only did you film them, but you got to interact with these people.
Exactly. I got to sit with a prisoner and talk with him. I’ve been in these peoples' homes, or what they call their home, and got to show them the footage I shot. There was one time when I was sitting with this prostitute, and I just tell her, “Do what you do.” And she reaches for this broken VCR and for a screwdriver and tries to fix it. That really put her in 3D for me. Most people just think “Whelp, she’s a prostitute. And that’s that.” But nobody thinks of these women as having a hobby and being a human being.
What affect did that have on you?
I believed this when I was making the video - we don’t work on projects, but projects work on us. Whether you’re an artist, Christian, shoe maker, or floor sweeper, if you really try to go in and do it well, I think God teaches you about Himself, yourself, and the world around you. After “Welcome to America,” I just grew an immense sense of empathy. Me and the prostitute still talk often, and she was actually a vital role in the behind-the-scenes aspect of the video.
So going back to the Higher Learning Tour, your images have been making the rounds on Lecrae’s Instagram page. Do people want to follow you and find out who you are?
No, it wasn’t like instant fame or anything like. It would have been great as an artist to get really well-known, but it’s been fun just having people enjoy my stuff.
I think your work is incredible. And I was watching a lot of your videos on YouTube. Is it crazy to think that literally millions and millions of people have seen your work?
You know, you have to step back a bit, and just tell yourself, “Don’t waste this.” I remember after I got the green light to do “Welcome to America," I thought, “I have this footage on my hard-drive, and millions of people will eventually watch this. But I’m the only one who can right now.”
Looking back retrospectively at what God has put me in, I think, “What are the odds that I live a mile from Reach Records? What are the odds that Family Force 5 toured with the band I was traveling with at the time?” It’s just been cool to see how God lined things up over the past 20 years.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
Probably what most people on the internet don’t know is that I run an Artist Residency for Christian filmmakers. I started it 5 years ago, and since then, 15 guys have moved in or moved out. It’s been my answer to the call to disciple people. I believe Christianity was supposed to be set up by a community of people learning, growing, pouring out, and I wanted to apply those principles to filmmaking. Our core values are: Film, Faith, Friendship.
Most of the guys are young, and you know, will eventually be married. So I’d tell them “Let’s practice right now how to live selflessly, communicate expectations, and you know, take out the trash.”
How do the guys get connected to it? Do they apply? Or do you reach out to them?
Well the conversation mostly starts with something like “Hey Isaac, I like those Really Real Shows. How do I do that?” Then after a few conversations, I’ll ask them if they’d be interested in the house. We call it the “Thunderdome.” It’s actually where I first met Lecrae.
Yes! Ok tell me the story about first meeting Lecrae. He came over to do a shoot for “Cray Button,” right?
Yea, so I was shooting “Cray Button” for Family Force 5, and they said “Hey, we’re going to try to get Lecrae to be in the song. Do you think you could get him in the video?” He didn’t have much time, so I said the easiest thing to do is film it in my garage. The lights were just Home Depot clamp lights we hung on the walls. He walked in, did the verse 10 times, then basically said, “Alright cool. See ya around.”
That’s unreal. By that point, I’m sure Lecrae had been a part of some pretty high-production shoots. How does he react when he sees clamp lamps hanging on the walls?
Well fortunately, Kyle Dettman, director of Reach Records who was living with me at the time, told Lecrae, “Whatever Isaac’s doing, just trust him.” Luckily he did.
You’ve shot music videos for TobyMac, House of Heroes, Family Force 5, and Lecrae among others. How did this come about?
I was on tour with TobyMac and Family Force 5, and TobyMac says “Hey, you want do a music video for me.” So I tell him, “Yea, that’d be fun.” And he responded, “Well, I’ve got like 3 hours.” So we recorded it that day. It was supposed to be just a promo video, but we uploaded it to his channel and it became his most seen video at the time. So he ended up putting it on his DVD. And then when he got a Gold Record for the album, I got one too.
Wait, you have a Gold Record? Like the ones you see in the movies?
Yea! When you contribute to a project that goes Gold, or Platinum, you get one. So I have a Gold and a Platinum Record hanging in my house.
That's unbelievable. I need you to send me pictures of those immediately.
I was watching the “Making Of Family Force 5’s Zombie” video, and it’s crazy to me to see all the details that have to go on behind the scenes of a shoot. How did you learn to how to direct and lead a production like that?
Funny thing is, I never went to any school. I was homeschooled and I never went to college. I was a Production Assistant (basically the bottom rung) on a lot of people’s sets. So I held the reflector, or the light. And then I moved up to actually moving the lights or moving the reflector. And I started taking mental notes on what I thought worked and what didn’t work. That was a lot of it.
And I think everyone has this moment where they feel most alive and comfortable. For me, that moment is when I’m directing a set. I’m not thinking about directing in that moment. I’m just doing it. And when you’re doing what you want to do, you feel alive and it just feels second nature. It’s just been an incredible journey that God has taken me on. I'd do it every day if I could.
It was cool to see your approach in that video. In my mind when I think of "Director," I think of some jerk behind a camera yelling at people. It’s refreshing to see someone in that position being kind, laughing, and being relational.
You know, “Industrial Christianity” is so concerned about the end, that we don’t think about the means. We’re not thinking, “How am I treating the people that help me get to the end?” I’d prefer the process to be saturated with the Gospel, and if the story is just about a guy walking down a street, that’s fine. I want the Gospel to be presented in the process of what I do. Not just wait for the end result.
For me, whatever your job is, that’s your opportunity to love people. It’s just daily practice and opportunity for living out the Gospel.
Along with music videos, you’ve shot documentaries, commercials, short films, web series, and on and on it goes. What do you enjoy shooting the most?
Narrative films. Scripted films. Films where you get to create the world.
Has that always been the case?
Yea, the end goal has always been Narrative Films. Any music video or anything else I shoot, I always treat them as if they were a narrative film.
I can see that. Even in your photos, I can see that you want to tell the story, not just document it. I love it.
Out of all the work you’ve done. What work are you most proud of?
You know, I look back at all the different moments in my journey, and I think “Man that was a milestone.” So it’s hard to pinpoint a single moment. But I’m really proud of “Welcome to America” because of how much it changed me. I did 4 months of work for 4 minutes, and God really worked in me.
Another one was the Abandon Kansas video "Marching Around Me." That was the closest I’ve gotten to putting myself in the video in the sense that it’s vague and poetic, but it’s symbolic of how my spiritual life was at the moment. We filmed it in California, and that time was really memorable for me. It was the first video shoot that I lost money on. We nearly didn't have a boat for the video, my camera broke, and I got a gun pulled on me. Just those two weeks of shooting were so dense with growth.
Then I got nominated for a video award for the Abandon Kansas video, and I had people approaching me and telling me they’ve never been affected emotionally like that before through a video. I had never experienced that before.
So one of the things that struck me during our talk at the Lecrae show was how genuine your walk with Jesus is in regards to your craft. In so many cases, artists dilute their craft because of the pressure to present an overtly Christian message. How do you find the balance between being true to your Faith, while still creating work that is relevant and engaging across different cultures?
Great question. I think that art should always should be an overflow of your heart. You can’t hold it in. When people see art that is flowing from inside you, they know it. If you force it, people can detect it from a mile away.
And beyond that, I’ve always thought you have to have a pursuit of Jesus that’s not a means to make art, if that makes sense. Jesus has to be top rung. It’s just like a ladder. You’re always using the lower rung to get to the higher rung. So if money is at the top rung, you’re going to use Jesus to get more money. Jesus has to be top, and you have to submit everything to that. For me, art is on the lower rung. I don’t want to force anything out, or have an agenda. I just want to pursue Truth. And when you do that, it will show up in your art.
I love that analogy of the ladder — That when you put Jesus on the top rung — at the throne where He belongs — that trickles down and saturates whatever is on the lower rungs.
Exactly! When you start living in the overflow of Jesus being at the throne of your life, your love for your kids, or your mom, or whoever becomes genuine.
Ok last question: Any cool projects in the works?
The biggest one right now would be a short film I directed that I'm finishing up. It should be out in like 3 months. We’re figuring out how to release it. But beyond that, I’m working on a script I just wrote for a feature film.
Have you done a feature film before?
Doing this for 20 years, I’ve been bummed out that I haven’t. But you know, Jesus started his ministry at 30. Then I looked up at every director I respected, and a majority of them started at 30 years. Then I looked up random directors. And again, 30 years old. Everyone was doing these crazy things at 30. So I really believe that with the growth that’s happened in me the past 5 years, I feel ready to produce a feature film. I’m really excited about this. Hopefully it’ll be out within a year!
Isaac, thanks so much for chatting with me. I had a great time!
Me too! I really enjoyed it.