Dave Culligan is a filmmaker and entrepreneur based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Over the last few years, he has shot and edited countless travel videos, started a production company, and journeyed around the world for his work. But producing travel films is not an easy endeavor. For this reason, we asked Dave some questions about the realities of life as a traveling videographer.
Who and what motivated you to get where you are?
I was never into photography or video growing up. Instead, I played sports, and even participated in varsity football through university. When I quit in my last year, I had no idea what I was going to do next. I got caught up in a pretty toxic lifestyle and wasn’t in a good place. But that’s when I discovered Casey Neistat, this maniac running around New York City with a camera, preaching the value of hard work, focus, and determination. After watching those old-school vlogs, I was like, “That’s what I’m gonna do.” His videos basically became my bible.
What was it like to finally realize you were a full-time videographer?
I can’t necessarily nail that realization down to one definitive moment. But there have been many moments when I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude by the fact that someone paid me to travel to a new place, meet new people, and create videos for them. So much so that, during the first couple of trips, I was brought to tears.
I started making videos on my iPhone less than three years ago, with a vague dream of someday being able to travel and create videos for a living. About two years after that, I was being regularly hired to shoot around Canada, and have even had the opportunity to go New York and Australia. I never really traveled while growing up, and I made a lot of sacrifices to make these opportunities happen, so when I saw my hard work starting to pay off, it was a pretty special feeling. It still is.
Where did your desire to travel come from? And what drove you to incorporate that into your occupation, instead of just saving for holidays and vacations?
Like I said, I didn’t travel growing up, so after graduation that was all I wanted to do. But I was up to my eyeballs in student debt and felt trapped. So, I decided I’d put every ounce of my being into paying that off and finding a way to get paid to travel and shoot. Since then, I don’t really know if I’ve ever been on a “vacation” without my camera. I’m sure it’ll sound cliché, and maybe I’ll get tired of it at some point, but as long as I’m seeing new places and working with great people, it doesn’t feel like work. I think, at this stage of my life, I’m just trying to maximize the amount of new experiences I can have, and this seems like the best way to do that.
To what extent do you feel thankful that travel is part of your job?
I know that it’s an extremely privileged position to be in. I know what it’s like to not have the means to travel at all, so I make a real effort to remind myself how fortunate I am to have these opportunities. There are a lot of people around the world who work a lot harder than I do and will never get that chance. I don’t ever want to take that for granted.
Is it difficult to enter a new place and immediately start filming people with a story in mind?
This is kind of a double-edged sword, but I’m a terrible planner. I usually pack just a few hours before I fly somewhere, and I’ve gone into some shoots having little-to-no idea what I was trying to make. It can be limiting, because great stories and films require proper planning and preparation, but it’s also allowed me a sort of valuable ignorance in some situations.
I once sat in on a director while he interviewed a group of teens in a small Canadian community. Before talking to any of them, he had basically decided which “character” each kid would play in his vision of the film. I understand that certain types of film require more structure than others, but it’s not up to the filmmaker to create someone else’s story or way of life.
What are some things you tell yourself during your lowest of lows while away from home?
The hardest thing I’ve probably experienced in this line of work is being on a trip that’s supposed to be fun and just feeling plain low. New York is one of my favorite cities in the world, but the last time I was there, I felt depressed and had no idea why. I felt a real sense of guilt because I knew I should be having the time of my life, but I just couldn’t kick the funk. It was weird. In those moments, I just try to remind myself that in the grand scheme of things, things could be a lot worse. This is part of the gig I signed up for, and I have to deal with it.
In contrast, do you try to keep yourself grounded when everything seems to be going right?
Definitely. My left arm is littered with tattoos that are basically reminders of how lucky I am to be living the life that I am. I’m not the “backflip off of a waterfall and skydive with Instagram models” type of traveling videographer. A lot of the work I travel for has nothing to do with adventure — or even travel. It’s often just a corporate gig that happens to be in a different place, but if it means I can spend a day or even a few hours checking out a new city, I’m always stoked.
How do you approach the topic of over-sensationalizing travel?
This seems to be a huge topic of conversation for our generation right now. I think it’s super important to talk to your audience about the fact that this lifestyle requires a ton of hard work and sacrifice, and that it can downright suck sometimes. This doesn’t always equate to more likes or followers, but I definitely feel like it makes for a deeper connection with people. Not only is this more fulfilling on a personal level, but I think it’s starting to hold more value for brands and potential clients who are insightful enough to recognize when followers are actually interested in someone’s messaging and values.
What comforts do you miss most when you’re away from home? Do you ever try and bring them with you?
I can’t sleep without a pillow between my knees. I recently tried to bring a second pillow on an overnight kayak trip and it got soaked with ocean water. I really missed my knee pillow. On a more serious note, trying to charge batteries for my phone, laptop, camera, GoPro, drone, etc., can be absolutely brutal while traveling.
I also begin to lose my sanity when I don’t exercise. I rely on my road bike a lot for this mental clarity, and those are hard to get on planes.
Where’s the best place you’ve been and what did you like about it?
Cape Breton Island is just a few hours from my front door, and it might be my favorite place on Earth. I remember camping there with two friends one night, and my friend John said something like, “I’ve had the chance to see a lot of the world, and this might be the best trip I’ve ever been on.” It’s one of the first places I’ve ever felt a real sense of escape, and it showed me that you don’t necessarily have to fly across the world to get that feeling.
What are some tips besides “just do it” for people trying to grow their videography brand if they’re just starting out?
The best decision I ever made was to create a video every day for a year, and to make my hometown and province the focal point of the project. YouTube and Instagram are saturated with so many extremely talented creators that it seems almost impossible to stand out. I think the biggest opportunity right now is for people in small- to medium-sized cities to carve out a role for themselves in those places. People are generally proud of and interested in the places where they live, so if you can give them the type of content they’d typically expect from New York City or Los Angeles, and make it relevant to that place, it’s only a matter of time before people start to notice.