Shannan Singletary ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Emertainment Monthly, as an extension of Emerson College, believes in bringing innovation to communication and the arts. As an entertainment journalism publication, we feel that we have an obligation to highlight when innovation, diversity, and inclusion are brought to the entertainment industry by Emerson alumni.
You may not recognize the name Zach Kornfeld, but chances are you’ve watched one of his videos. Kornfeld, an Emerson College graduate, is a video producer for Buzzfeed Motion Pictures and a member of Buzzfeed’s Try Guys.
Kornfeld studied video production at Emerson, earning his BFA in 2012. He was enrolled in Emerson’s honors program, completing his senior honors thesis project on a traumatic medical problem he faced as a young teen.
“I was an honors student, which was awesome and really important to me. I think a well-rounded education is important. You can’t make stories unless you have something to tell stories about,” Kornfeld says of his time at Emerson—though he does note that he actually forgot to hand in the DVD for his thesis before graduation. “After I graduated they were like, ‘hey, you never handed in this movie that was part of your thesis’ and I was like ‘yeah, yeah, I’ll totally do it,’ but like, I got the diploma.”
Kornfeld became interested in film at an early age, after having what he describes as an existential crisis around the age of eight.
“I was like, I don’t have any talents, I don’t have a value in this world….I hated sports, I hated all that stuff and that’s what the social structure is made up of in suburbia, where I grew up, in the New York suburbs. I just convinced myself that I was worthless at a very young age. Which is ridiculous; no kid should be thinking about that, but that’s what I was thinking about. And then I kind of found art, and I was like, oh, there are other things I can be good at.”
Kornfeld says everything changed when he got the LEGO Steven Spielberg Movie Maker Kit as a child. With the set, he began creating his own videos and learning to edit them with the software that came with it.
“It had an editing software, and it was kind of like an early version of iMovie. So I taught myself to edit on LEGO Studios, and from there I could figure out iMovie. From there I could figure out Final Cut. From Final Cut I figured out Premiere Pro. So I’ve never actually taken an editing class in my life, I just learned it from LEGO Studios. But when I got that kit, it was like, oh my god, this is what I want to do forever.”
When Kornfeld graduated from Emerson, he wanted to direct in a very conventional way.
“I came to LA because I wanted to direct and I wanted to direct in a very traditional sense because that’s all that I knew existed. I thought maybe TV would be cool, but I wanted to make movies. That’s what I grew up watching and loving. I’ve been making movies since I was 12 or 13 years old.”
His first job in the industry was at the commercial production company Caviar, which he had previously interned with during his time at Emerson’s LA program. He worked as a freelance Production Assistant (PA) with Caviar for a while, but increasingly became overwhelmed by how consistently he was working, the irony of which is not lost on Kornfeld.
“In theory, the best part about PAing is that you are freelance. So in between shoots I was making stuff, or I was trying to make stuff. To be honest, this is like the weirdest complaint ever, but I was working so consistently that I never actually had time to make anything.”
To solve this problem, Kornfeld carved out some time to make something he cared about.
“I wanted to make this web series that I was passionate about. Knowing what I know now, I did it all wrong. I spent too much on it. I spent too much time on it. I should have just made something in a weekend for no money, and got it in and out as quickly as possible. But I was like, no, I want to make something great,” Kornfeld says of the project, a series about a child star manager whose claim to fame was representing Jaden Smith.
It was this web series that led to Kornfeld’s job at Buzzfeed. When trying to create the series, Kornfeld reached out to the Emerson Mafia for assistance. He came in contact with Ella Mielniczenko, a Buzzfeed employee and fellow alum, who ended up producing the project with him.
“So I made this web series and she produced it. And at the time she was working at Buzzfeed, and I didn’t understand what they did here. She made two videos a week, which I thought was insanity. But I was just really sad at my job…I had done PAing for like two years, and I had started coordinating, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to do and it wasn’t what I was happy doing. Basically, through the alumni network I got in contact with Ella, who was someone I knew vaguely in college but not well. We became really good friends and she basically convinced me to work here.”
Kornfeld says that there are around six Emerson alums working at Buzzfeed Studios, including Gaby Dunn, Andrew Ilnyckyj, and Sarah Rubin.
“A lot of what Buzzfeed became in the early days was shaped by a huge Emerson influence, which I think is really exciting and cool,” Kornfeld says of the Emerson influence.
Kornfeld is a video producer for the website, though many people likely recognize him from the Try Guys series: “So I’m a part of this thing called the Try Guys, which people probably know me from. I don’t know if people realize I am a producer. Like, Try Guys is not my job. Being on camera is not my job, nor is it something I ever suspected or really sought out. It’s fun, but it’s not what I do.”
“Being a producer here means that you make content in the most broad sense,” he says of his job. “So any video that I make, I am coming up with the idea, I am writing it, if that’s something that’s necessary, or I’m doing pre-production. I shoot it. I direct it. I sometimes step on camera, and then I edit it. And we’re expected to do about a video and a half every week. Depending on what team you’re on, that kind of changes, but we make content fast.”
Kornfeld says the quick rate at which Buzzfeed produces videos has really helped him grow as a creator.
“I was very precious with my work before I got here, something I was working on was never good enough. I told you about that web series. I kept anyone from seeing it for about six months…where I knew that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be so I tried to tinker with it as much as possible. Now I’m here at Buzzfeed and there’s not time for that. You just have to make something, release it, and move on. And that’s how you get better. That’s the only way you get better, is just by releasing something, and who cares what it is. Just know that you learned from it and then move on and don’t look back. Or look back in a few months and laugh at yourself.”
Kornfeld says that within the time he has worked for Buzzfeed, he went from taking a year to complete one web series to producing around 70 viral videos in a year. “[It] is an unbelievable change. And I’ve become so much better because of it. Just like, learning to let go and move on, because nothing is ever going to be as good as you want it to be. You just need to keep trying and keep chipping away. It’s like, I always say it’s about the at-bats, not how many hits you get. And you’re going to look back in a year and realize, wow, I’m way better than I used to be. So that’s been a really cool and exciting thing.”
On the topic of viral videos, Kornfeld later goes on to say, “You can never really know how virality works, but I like to think I’ve gained an understanding of what makes things go viral. And that, at the end of the day, is what my job is. I’m not creating content selfishly, I’m creating content that I think people want to see, and more importantly, what I think people want to share.”
Kornfeld says he doesn’t think the friends he had in college would have expected this from him. “I think a lot of them would say that I would be doing something cool and fun and exciting, but certainly not, like, baring my [butt] for the internet. Like, if I stop to think genuinely how many millions of people, and I’m not kidding, millions of people have seen my bare [butt], and a lot of my body. There are probably people that could draw me from memory. And that’ll live online forever, so that’s something I don’t like to think about.”
He says the amount of people the Buzzfeed videos reach is astounding. “I had this moment where I was back in New York. I went with my dad to a New York Giants football game, and I’m looking around. It was, in recent memory, the most people I had seen at once. I want to say it was like 160,000 people. I’m looking around and I’m going ‘Wow, this is amazing. There are so many people here.’ And then I had this moment where I was like, wait, if my video got only 160,000 views in the first 24 hours I would consider it a failure. That’s the scale of views here, and I was like, oh my god. That was the first time I realized how many people see these videos.”
Buzzfeed’s wide reaching popularity and viewership is partially due to the way it presents identities that don’t often get equal representation in media. Kornfeld says it is often a conscious decision made by the Buzzfeed creators to give the individuals the voices they deserve.
“One of the most amazing things about Buzzfeed and the opportunities that our content offers is that….we’re giving voices to a lot of types of people who don’t have content for their voices. So whether that’s LGBTQIA content or allowing Asian characters to be the star and not a sidekick best friend character, we are allowing fringe identities to take the forefront and take the spotlight and that’s something really exciting.”
He says this can be seen in the people in the limelight of Buzzfeed videos. “I mean, you look at people that are the ‘stars’ of our videos and none of us are what normal stars look like. We’re normal people, who are telling real human stories. We’re giving voice to a lot of people who don’t have a voice within media and it’s part of what’s made us so popular. On Buzzfeed, the sidekicks of network TV become the stars.”
He says this can even be seen in the Try Guys videos. “Me, Ned Fulmer, and Keith Habersberg are like the idiots, and Eugene Yang is like the sexy, cool: a role an Asian male is never allowed to play within the context of a show or a group. He is our Justin Timberlake. And nowhere else is that an option, which is really exciting, that we get to tell those stories and allow those people representation. There’s that great quote that I’m paraphrasing: the way to make someone a monster is to not give them representation in media. So we’re doing that, giving people the representation they so crave. Telling stories that need to be told, that aren’t being told by anyone else.”
“At the end of the day, I like to think I’m making some cool progressive content, but I am a straight white male,” Kornfeld says of himself. “But there are amazing producers here that are pushing things in really cool directions and making content. People like Ashley Perez, Quinta Brunson, and Eugene….We’ve given this platform an opportunity for them to rise and it’s really exciting. There are a lot of people here who deserve credit for the amazing things they’ve done.”
On any advice he would give to Emerson students, Kornfeld says, “I can only talk to people who want to get into filmmaking or into media creation in general. One thing I would say is [to] realize there are opportunities now that didn’t used to exist. Open up your mind and realize that directing features is not the only way to be making content. To be honest, I never thought I would be creatively satisfied making online videos. I thought I would do this for three months, learn, and move on. And I’m dead serious. And it has been the most rewarding and eye opening experience of my life.”
The advice Kornfeld further gives can be broken down into three statements: make things constantly and don’t be too precious with the things you make; be nice to everyone—you never know who you’ll be working with or friends with later; and gain as much life experience as you can—if you want to tell stories, you need stories to tell.
For advice to students once they graduate and begin their professional journey, Kornfeld goes on to say, “There are a lot of paths to success. I know a lot of people who come out here and do the agency mailroom and try to get on a desk and I think that is a perfectly valid route and if that’s what you want to do, all the power to you. I’ve been fortunate enough to kind of find an alternate path. I’m going to recycle the line that was told to me. Find the job that pays you the most to do the least. You need a job when you get out here, so hopefully you’re lucky enough to find something cool, so even if you’re not doing what you want you’re tangentially connected to the industry.
“Really, what you want to do is keep making stuff, never stop making stuff. Don’t wait for the opportunities to fall into your lap,” Kornfeld says. “And then apply to Buzzfeed.”
You can check out Zach and the rest of the Try Guys in their latest Halloween themed video!