By Theodora Chan

Emily Dean

“A career in film and animation is fun, scary, exhilarating, hard work, adventurous, exhausting, thrilling, frustrating, and absolute pleasure.” – Emily Dean

What are the ingredients needed to spark a creative spirit? Drive, determination, and an unwavering belief in oneself are crucial. A dash of passion and dreaminess certainly help. And a household filled with love, music, and stories complete the mix.

So it was for Emily Dean.

“I began drawing at age three and writing short stories and poetry as a child. I would consume images in books with a voracious appetite – everything from fairy tales, myths and legends, and comics like Herge’s Tintin, to diagrams of deep-sea creatures and illustrations of solar systems in outer space. I spent countless hours designing characters and worlds in my mind.”

Unlike some of us who couldn’t tie our own shoelaces let alone know what we wanted to be when we grew up, Emily found her calling early.

“From as young as age six, I knew I wanted to be an artist because the word ‘artist’ gave me permission to keep drawing, writing and imagining. It was a label that shielded me from doing things I didn’t like.”

Emily’s family loved and embraced her creativity. Her childhood was spent in a house that sang with Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. Instead of crowding around a television, lazy Sundays were spent listening to the sound of Dad’s voice as he recounted the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Robinson Crusoe.

“During school holidays. I hosted weekly plays and puppet shows for the family – recruiting unwilling ‘actors’ to dress up and act in stories I would improvise. I was always the ‘Director’ of these little performances, much to the chagrin of those unfortunate enough to participate.”

Once she entered school, Emily’s talent and passion flourished. At age 10, she created her first ever comic strip (a retelling of explorers Burke and Wills) and had a drawing selected for exhibition in the Children’s Gallery of the Australian National Gallery. At age 12, Emily received a DV video camera and the floodgates opened.

“It was the first medium I discovered that combined all of my creative interests. My first film was a documentary on Australian flora and fauna for a high school science project. From then on, I became fascinated with all aspects of producing a film, and spent countless (and tedious) hours editing footage on the computer. I volunteered to make films for any reason possible – from high school class projects, to dances, trivia nights, weddings, and family holidays.

In Year 10, I landed an internship at an advertising studio in Sydney. I began freelance storyboarding professionally for television commercials with many high-level clients – all the while cramming professional work between my high school exams.”

And yet, even though she had years of professional experience under her belt, moving to Sydney and living in a university college was still daunting for a young girl from Bungendore.

“The first year [at Wesley College] was a big learning curve for me. Up until then, I’d been a somewhat independent and socially awkward kid who squirreled herself away making films and drawings.

Living on campus changed a lot of that. College life is by necessity a social life, so I had to put away my creative social anxieties and learn to communicate and grow out of my shell. At its best, college life is about teamwork, and by my third year on campus I really came to appreciate that. I participated in sports, organised social activities, edited the End of Year Journal, and performed in the Palladium Cup. In 2007, I left Wesley with a network of tight-knit friends, colleagues, collaborators, and a whole bunch of life skills.”

Her experiences at university gave Emily an edge when she entered Hollywood.

“To speak plainly, Sydney University alumni often graduate as high-achieving, educated, well-informed, articulate, hard-working, ambitious, stress-resilient, and generous team players capable of independent thought. I cannot tell you how important these qualities have been in my career – particularly in a highly competitive environment like Hollywood.

For example, how articulate you are in written communication like emails will make or break whether you land that big meeting. How well you deliver criticism and collaborate with team members will determine whether or not you are invited into a room to be part of a ‘notes’ discussion. And your research or ‘diagnostic’ skills – how informed you are of issues affecting the world generally and your industry specifically – will help you see what is coming down the road in a year, five years, and 10 years. And finally, having a spirit of generosity, responsibility and true self-confidence will set you apart as a leader.”

At barely 30 years old, Emily has a resume that can only be described as… well, cool. As a graduate of the University of Sydney, the California Institute of Arts (co-founded by Walt Disney), and Pixar Animation Studios, she’s worked on The Lego Batman Movie (2017), The Lego Movie Sequel (2019), and Scooby Doo (2018) as a Story Artist. Her work has been screened at the California Institute of Arts, the Melbourne Fringe Festival, Dungog Film Festival, the National Film and Sound Archive, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney).

What’s more, she’s done this all as an Asian-Australian female working in a typically white and male-dominated industry.

“I believe the best way to combat problems of toxic culture is through workplace education. This is why I advocate strongly for outside speakers like Geena Davis and Madeline di Nonno, of The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, to come and educate executives and the crew. It is very important for executives to understand that a toxic workplace culture is bad for business – it hurts the creative process, breaks crew morale, and erodes success in the long term.

I’m thankful to say it feels like Hollywood is turning a corner on issues of gender and race, but change is slow and can be haphazard when it comes to entrenched practices. That being said, I’ve had some bad experiences, but overall, I’m optimistic.”

Emily might have traded the bright lights of Hollywood for the comforts of Australia, but she certainly hasn’t stopped pushing the boundaries of how little sleep the human body can handle. Writing, directing, and producing content for film and television under her company Year 8 Productions, the next stage of Emily’s career is set to be an exciting one.

“This point in my career is my favourite of all. I am now establishing myself as a live action Film Director and TV Show Creator working in the genres I love – science fiction, fantasy, drama, thriller and action adventure – to tell the stories I care about and find interesting.

I am currently in post-production on my live action ‘proof of concept’ short film - a sci-fi drama called Andromeda, which I am prepping for festival submission. I am also working with Actor/Producer Chris Hardwick’s production company, Fish Ladder, on my own science-fiction drama TV series. And, I am in development on my first feature film, which is a female-driven Australian ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fantasy film that takes place during the Australian Gold Rush.”

Despite all of her success, Emily Dean remains humble.

“I don’t think I’ve had my ‘big break’ yet. I used to ask myself what the future holds but I don’t worry about it anymore. I can’t be anyone else but me. I’ll just keep working on my craft and see where life will take me.”

Now, without further ado, here are Emily Dean’s 23 tips for surviving in Hollywood:

  1. Work hard on your craft.
  2. Keep your ego out of the work.
  3. Tell stories that mean something to you.
  4. Don’t let your creative voice be diluted by other people’s standards.
  5. Improve what you consume and you will improve your taste.
  6. Be someone who solves problems, not creates them.
  7. Take criticism well and give criticism well.
  8. Manage stress well. Learn to perform well under extreme pressure and deadlines. Do great work and always hit your deadlines.
  9. Develop meaningful relationships with your creative collaborators; they will be with you for life.
  10. Be a good person to work with – that means being on time, doing good work, and being a generous, good-spirited co-worker.
  11. Be patient. You will have to tolerate a lot of frustration. Don’t let that frustration make you bitter.
  12. Read the room – saying the right thing at the wrong time gets you nowhere. A great filmmaker always says the right thing at the right time. You don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to be heard. If you say the right thing at the right time, that will set you apart from the noise. For introverts and those who lack confidence - practise engagement.
  13. Stand by what you say. Follow through on your word. Don’t be someone who talks a big game and doesn’t walk it.
  14. Pick your battles! Some things just aren’t worth planting your flag on the hill for. If you don’t pick your battles, you’ll develop a reputation for being obstructionist.
  15. Be good with money. Understand what things cost and why. Film is an art and a business.
  16. Know your worth. Don’t allow yourself to be paid less by an employer than what you deserve. If you do, you will devalue yourself in their eyes.
  17. Understand what ‘professionalism’ means and when someone is acting ‘unprofessionally’. Don’t be afraid to walk if a situation seems suspicious or makes you uncomfortable.
  18. Keep updated on the industry landscape. This means reading the industry news. Get to know who is doing what.
  19. Have your future in mind but manage your expectations. Life will work out but not always in the way you plan. If you plan too tightly, you may suffer the cost of not being open to unexpected good fortune.
  20. Open doors for others. Doors were opened for you so don’t be selfish. The film industry is a community and we all suffer when opportunity isn’t passed down the chain.
  21. Most importantly, value your family and friends; they will be your safe harbour when you come home. If you have to relocate from family, your friends will become your family.
  22. Protect your own time to care for your mind, body, and soul.
  23. Finally, don’t forget to dream and love what you do. Keep a sense of joy and childlike wonder always. Your heart will thank you for it.