Hurlbut Academy: Interview with Film Educator Lydia Hurlbut

Hurlbut Academy
Hurlbut Academy is a professional filmmakers platform and community that fast tracks member’s careers, while they master their craft. Photo credit courtesy of Vince Taroc.

Hurlbut Academy is an online school and a professional filmmakers platform and community that fast tracks member’s careers, while they master their craft. CEO Lydia Hurlbut is proud of the platform’s reputation for delivering the highest quality education and mentorship to its members. She and her husband, legendary director of photography Shane Hurlbut, launched the platform as a way of giving back to the industry that they love. Lydia is determined to support women and diverse voices in the film business. To this end, she is expanding the range of the platform’s offerings, including instilling brand-new health and wellness options. These new initiatives are simply the latest in a number of efforts Lydia has made over the past 12 years, as part of her mission to grow the business to cater to a wider range of industry innovators, while encouraging filmmakers to find greater work/life balance.

Lydia recently discussed her education company and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): You started out as a nurse, so how did you decide on that career path?

Lydia Hurlbut (LH): A theme of fearlessness and pivoting has played out again and again in my life. My mother suffered from mental illness, which is why I initially took up nursing — an attempt to better understand her. And my interest in the art of healing is a result of my mother’s incurable diagnosis. I moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles the summer after I passed my nursing boards. I worked at Children’s Hospital LA, UCLA, Providence St. Joseph Medical Center and my husband worked in the film industry as a cinematographer. But I wanted more education, so when I was waitlisted for medical school in the early 1990s, I flew to Chicago to meet with the Dean (without an appointment) to convince him that they made an error by not accepting me immediately. I was given a slot for the following year, which I ultimately turned down as I realized medical school was not my passion. My interest had turned to forensic pathology, but when my application to the FBI was put on hold in 1995 due to a hiring freeze within the Bureau, I pivoted and joined the California Sexual Assault Investigators Association’s Board to bring all of my forensic knowledge to California and help systematize the way sexual assault exams were done in the Emergency Rooms.

MM: When did you first realize that you wanted to be involved with movies and how did you break into the industry?

LH: My dad was a local priest for both the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches and was the first Presbyterian minister ordained as an Episcopal priest. He was very progressive in both his parenting and ministry. He constantly questioned the status quo. My husband’s career in the film business grew consistently and as it did, I watched and learned everything about how one becomes a healthy and successful filmmaker. As a result of my dad’s influence, I truly believed I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. Yet after years of working in medicine, studying business and life coaching, my dad looked at me and my husband one day and said: ”You’re a terrific businesswoman, why are you helping others to build their businesses and not starting your own with Shane? That way you could spend more time together, as you clearly miss each other more than you need to.”

My mind shifted focus and I realized we could simultaneously share our expertise and create a successful business. In 2009, I was told by many that my idea for educating filmmakers would fail and that making a business out of it was insane. However, we just fearlessly forged ahead with a free blog (the Hurlblog) and tried a variety of ideas from in-person workshops, to funding and producing our own content with “The Last 3 Minutes”and “The Ticket.” Our customer number grew.  In 2014, we launched the membership platform Shane’s Inner Circle, then rebranded in 2018 to the Hurlbut Academy and put all our efforts into making it the best online education and mentorship platform it could be.

MM: How did you get into movie making education and, specifically, online classes?

LH: My husband is not only an award-winning director of photography — he’s a natural teacher. We are both passionate about mentoring other filmmakers and educating people so they can fast track their careers. Sharing his expertise via the Hurlblog, quickly turned into an opportunity to create “evergreen” educational courses. At that time in 2010, we were also running a production company and had access to gear, so it was easy for us to create content together. As time passed, our blog followers would ask us to cover more subjects, so we responded to their needs. Providing our courses online meant people who aspired to work in Hollywood, or at least at the level of Hollywood filmmakers, could access the highest quality education, which became our heartfelt mission. Our platform is membership based and services the needs of thousands of professionals around the globe at present. And we now have a variety of gifted educators working alongside us. Our members often end up working together and finding their own perfect filmmaking partners within our global community.

MM: How do you select which classes to run, and which are most popular?

LH: The professionals who take our courses determine which classes we should create. Our most popular courses are:

  1. Blocking & Lighting A-Z
  2. How to Light High Key Commercials
  3. Cinematography Day Interiors Volume II
  4. Commercial Cinematography: US Cellular
  5. How to Master Moonlight
  6. Cinematography – Mastering the Image
  7. Learning to Light Night Interiors
  8. How to Light Horror
  9. Blocking and Lighting Super Course
  10. Advanced Commercial Directing
  11. Learning to Light Day Interiors

MM: How do you teach a very hands-on topic like filmmaking entirely online?

LH: We teach the very hands-on topic of filmmaking by having mentors who deeply understand the process of film production and show footage or recreate scenes to explain certain concepts. Each instructor is working in the trenches of filmmaking, which they combine with their natural ability to educate, entertain and engage our members. Our courses and membership platform actually mentor our members, demonstrating real-life filmmaking practices and providing endless access to follow up questions and Hollywood connections via our members-only Facebook group. We built our business just like a film family. Intention is everything. I was determined to find a better way than the old divisiveness and competitiveness that existed among filmmakers. We built this platform around sharing, elevating everyone’s skillset with curiosity and new opportunities for members to refer to one another within the community. Our 10 core values for the business are: family, curiosity, fearlessness, compassion, adventure, creativity, generosity, fun, integrity and inclusivity.

MM: What is it like to work with your husband who is also established in the movie industry?

LH: I met Shane when my dad brought his grandmother communion. We went to grade and high school together and started dating in high school when we were dancing partners in the school play, Oklahoma. My family was determined that I date other people in college, but Shane followed me to Boston. He did his last two years at Emerson and proposed my senior year in a very dramatic fashion. So, I am blessed to work with my childhood sweetheart. Shane is a cinematography pioneer, innovator and educator, who has consulted with the leaders of filmmaking technology throughout his career. I have a passion for business, marketing, life-coaching and wellness. And I have a unique understanding of the artistic mindset and how to leverage networking, communications and optimal health for maximum results. My ultimate goal is to inspire people in the film industry (or other professions) to understand the ripple effect of healing and health. Meditation makes you a better leader on set, regular exercise helps your brain function better and to be more efficient at work. Together, we try to be a powerhouse of inspiration to our family, staff and fellow filmmakers. Despite Shane often being away for extended periods, shooting films, I am kept busy with our business, our kids and two of our parents, who are still living at home with us!  We speak every day and he is my guinea pig for supplements and things to try. He lost 30 pounds, meditates regularly, inspires his crew by making the set fun and caring about them, exercises whenever he has a chance and is a patient, phenomenal leader.

MM: What are some of the most interesting films that your members have gone on to make?

LH: Our members are young filmmakers and established professionals who are mastering their craft with great artistry and technical skill. When they connect with our education platform and its talented film community, they manage to get hired onto jobs they never thought they could access. We are so proud of their consistent work and massive success. We have winners from around the world in the following categories: multiple Emmy winners; a South African Society of Cinematographers award; Telly Awards; Best Cinematography at various film festivals; a 2017 Innovation Entrepreneur Award for Small Business of the Year; a “Golden Lola” for a short titled “Die letzten fünf Minuten der Welt,” which is the German award for short films; 2nd prize for Best Film and winner of Best Director and Best Actor at Machafest, the most coveted film festival in Kenya; a Wrangler award; a U.K. award for a short film; the Gold Prize for Young Directors in Cannes; a UNICEF awards for one of three films chosen from across all categories at the Prix Jeunesse International Children’s Film Festival; a Sci-Fan Film Festival award; an award that helps domestic abuse survivors from the South Asian community; Best Musical Score and a IIFC Excellence in Filmmaking Award at the 2017 Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema; an award for a documentary at the JUSTICE Film Festival; and the 100 Hour Film Race winner for Best Film, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. We have had members who have worked as directors at Michael Bay’s production company, who sell their own production companies for mid seven-figures and who double their day rates. The inspiration and mindset it takes to be successful in Hollywood — and for doing what you love for decades — is our passion.

MM: What has been the best thing about working in the movie education industry so far?

LH: Equipping our members with the knowledge they need to thrive in the industry, while providing information about the nuances of the trade, useful tips and relevant terminology. I love that I can learn, meet like-minded creatives and we can all grow as both individuals and a community together. The age old idiom: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach — could never be further from the truth for us. Each and every day we get to work and learn with the superstar filmmakers of tomorrow and that is enormously rewarding. Knowing that we’ve made some small contribution to another person’s artistry is incredibly uplifting.

MM: How would you like to see the platform expand over the next ten years?

LH: We plan to expand our slate of courses to offer more health and lifestyle content, designed to specifically help filmmakers create the best kind of work/life balance they can. This means not only eating, exercising and sleeping right, but exercises developed to improve one’s mental health. Working in the film and television business can be one of the most stressful lifestyles a person can choose as a career. But there are ways to manage those 14-hour days and still have something left over for yourself afterwards. We also plan to make our content more relevant to diverse communities. Beyond recent film school graduates and professional adults working in Hollywood, there are thousands of professionals who are building careers for themselves in smaller filmmaking communities around the world, i.e., not in Los Angeles or New York, where there is a film set on every corner. They may never have the opportunity to work on the high-octane sets of Los Angeles or London, but they want to learn from the creme-de-la-creme in order to push themselves to a more advanced level in the market they inhabit.  We will continue to reach out to those communities to teach them new techniques and inspire them to aspire to work on world-class projects.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?

LH: The most exciting project on the horizon for us is that we are changing the name of our business to Filmmakers Academy. This will likely take place in November 2021. This rebranding of our business reflects our growth and desire to reach a wider audience. We’re developing a slate of new health and wellness content, featuring me as an instructor. And we’re signing up new film mentors, (many are friends of ours with unique talents) each who has a specific area of filmmaking expertise, which our members are asking to learn more about. Additionally, we are partnering on a number of exciting B2B opportunities, supporting and working with our friends at well-known industry companies and organizations such as The Light Bridge, Tiffen,, Infinity USA, NABAmplify and more.  I am so excited and grateful for the bright future we have in front of us. There’s nothing more rewarding than being part of the ripple effect that occurs when talented artists collaborate with each other in our Academy.