It’s a moment that Diane von Furstenberg references often. As she considers talented young designers battling for the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund: “I love to watch people at the beginning of their lives. That’s the moment that you have that first juice. And that first juice will really have a major stand on your life.”
And as she discusses her own search for a Brand Ambassador for the House of DVF: “I remember so clearly that moment in life where you push the first door. That moment where you are in your early twenties and you don’t know what your life is going to be and what is going to be your door. It’s a very special, magical moment…”
It’s a moment of great possibility, and Paisley Smith is making the best of it.
Paisley grew up in Vancouver, did her undergrad at Queens University and – with a Fulbright fellowship in hand – took off to the acclaimed USC School of Cinematic Arts. When your Board of Councilors includes George Lucas, Sidney Poitier, Steven Spielberg and the CEOs of Twentieth Century Fox, Imagine, Paramount, Dreamworks, Sony and Warner Brothers, you know you are at a serious industry institution.
“The program is pretty unique in the film school world,” says Smith, “because you actually learn to do everything. You direct, you edit, you produce, you write. You work on movies every semester.” Despite all the lurking luminaries, “you’re not allowed to get outside help. You end up taking on so many roles and you have to adhere to industry rules.”
Smith’s first film creation at USC was Elvis Blues. “I have an interest in Elvis impersonators, for some reason, so I decided to make a movie about a female one. In it, she gets her Elvis sneer stolen. I was very fortunate to get an actress, Maggie, who was amazing.”
During that first year, Smith also started making films aimed at children. “I have always known I wanted to do children’s movies. You can be as creative and imaginative as you want and make a difference. I remember absorbing everything I watched as a kid.”
Smith’s own childhood was full of creativity. “Mum and Dad are both artists and architects, designers. We would paint together, make stuff. My Dad read us stories every single night and we would all play music together. My Mum put on pretty epic birthday parties.”
Arthur was one of Paisley’s favourite shows as a child. “I was obsessed with Arthur. I liked DW too. She was an annoying little sister, but she had her moments. Also Recess on Disney – kids living in an adult free world at recess.”
Planet Pretend is the title of the first short movie Smith made at USC. “It was based on an anxious kid with an imaginative dream world. Her name is Violet. I directed and wrote it.”
Paisley had to deal with some very adult problems as she was making Planet Pretend. “There was a death in the family. When someone dies, the last thing you feel like making is a fictional movie.” Despite the “extreme levels of chaos,” her professors and family encouraged her to keep at her film. It was an intense experience, she says, but she was pleased with the outcome and glad to have stayed on track.
Smith’s next child-focused project, Snoopy Sam and the Yard Sale Spy, is about a little girl who tries to spy on her adult neighbor. As it turns out, he is an international spy himself. ‘One thing’s for sure. You can’t keep your secrets from me.’
It was through this project that Smith won the Mr. Roger’s Memorial Scholarship. “That was the most incredible experience of my life, because it connected me with the television academy.” She was delighted to spend time with Mrs Rogers, as pictured above. The scholarship also came with a community of successful mentors from whom she can solicit career and project advice.
In her latest children’s initiative, Smith and two creative friends – Genie Deez and Julie Young – have started producing Hangin’ with Genie on YouTube. ‘Genie’s place is the perfect spot for hanging out and getting creative. There’s a Jam Space, complete with two keyboards, a guitar, and other fun instruments. Genie has all his neighbours over to hang out in the living room.’
Having worked with the real Genie on past projects, Paisley thought he would make an ideal TV kid’s host. “He grew up in a church, his Dad’s a pastor. He was traveling and performing every week.” The two of them started writing songs together and, along with Julie, are exploring the world of YouTube production. “YouTube’s landscape is totally different. If it’s too polished, it doesn’t work. You want to go into someone’s house like they are your friend, not their TV show.’
The Hangin’ with Genie theme song is up now and they are starting to make short episodes. “Our goal is to make it something that kids know. Right now it’s low budget content creation.” Over time, they are hoping to get funding, so they can enhance their efforts.
As much as she enjoys working in kid’s content, Paisley does not want to limit herself. She was particularly moved to return to Vancouver, with a USC student film crew, to make Peace, Daal & Partition. ‘It is about the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and how it has impacted three generations of women in my family.’
“We dealt with a lot of really intense issues that were not discussed. I had a fear that I would be shunned from the family after it came out. It ended up bringing everyone together.” Smith was thrilled to be able to watch the screening with family who flew down to LA to support her. “Not only was there change in the film, there was change in reality. Everyone opened up and started talking about these painful things.”
Paisley has also been doing exciting work in virtual reality with industry innovator Nonny de la Peña and the Emblematic Group. ‘We immerse our audiences in the story, making them feel like they are in the middle of the action..’ Peña has been a pioneer in immersive journalism. By using VR to actually immerse us in news stories – we are witnessing brutality, we are standing watch to a man going hungry – Peña’s team involve and affect we viewers in much deeper ways.
Working alongside Nonny, Smith has been to London for a VR project in the Victoria Albert museum, to Singapore for a Formula 1 experience and is just back from a screening of Project Syria at Sundance. “VR is the Wild West,” says Smith. “It’s the future of storytelling.”
Perhaps with the aid of time-turners, Paisley has also been involved with USC’s 5D Science of Fiction World-Building conference, where children and adults build stories about the future. “The kids are really unafraid to share really wild, kooky ideas. It’s liberating for adults to hear them.”
In the Hangin’ with Genie theme song, we hear: ‘Today is your day. It’s time to play. Let’s get creative your way.’ Smith is clearly taking her own advice and we can look forward to seeing where she lands next.
Written by Elizabeth Newton
Most photos courtesy of Paisley Smith