For Rowland Hall alumni and brothers Chris Lee ’93 and Alex Lee ’03, a day at the office can be anywhere: a bluff in the Southern Utah desert, the shore of a mountain lake, the Rotunda of the Utah State Capitol, or even in front of a giant, white infinity stage in their downtown Salt Lake studio.
Chris and Alex are the founders and owners of TWIG Media Lab, an independent film production company/agency based in Salt Lake City. Established in 2011, TWIG has become a successful business in under a decade: last year alone, the brothers produced more than 50 short films, including a national commercial.
While TWIG’s impressive portfolio includes clients in a variety of industries, Chris and Alex have set themselves apart through powerful social advocacy narratives, which they are now known for. Today, they are a go-to resource in the Salt Lake community for organizations—such as Equality Utah, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and even Rowland Hall—that want to share their missions and stories through film.
Working for companies and organizations that have a bigger purpose—they want to make the world a better place—is so critical for us. It's so much easier to sleep well at night when you feel like what you've done is to really help people.
“Working for companies and organizations that have a bigger purpose—they want to make the world a better place—is so critical for us,” Chris explained. “It's so much easier to sleep well at night when you feel like what you've done is to really help people.”
The brothers began working on social advocacy films during the early days of their business, when many of the projects they took on—often through contacts within their social networks—were in that vein. They found that the work spoke to them, and that they had a talent for bringing clients’ passions and visions to life through film. Slowly, through word of mouth, more opportunities began to come their way.
“In a community like this, once you start producing work of a certain flavor, it promotes other work of a similar nature to find you,” said Alex.
It also helped that Chris and Alex, who view themselves as artists and their work as a reflection of their artistry, have always held themselves to a high standard. Additionally, each brother brought to the company a background that made it possible to offer clients a full-service experience: Chris, who taught dance and drama prior to earning a master’s degree in film, views TWIG’s work through an academic lens in the producer role, while Alex, who worked in video playback and lighting on movie sets, knows what it takes to get the right shot.
Today, TWIG works on six to ten projects at any given time, and though they do produce longer films and documentaries, the brothers estimate that 95 percent of their projects are three- to five-minute pieces. To ensure that their work is effective—that the films successfully tell their clients’ stories within that short amount of time—Chris and Alex explained that it’s imperative to connect with clients during early creative planning.
“It comes down to your ability to understand what their vision is, and to make that happen requires the ability to communicate with them in a very specific way,” said Alex. He and Chris are so committed to this skill, in fact, that even the name of their business reflects it: when used as a verb, “to twig,” the word means to understand or realize something—to find meaning.
“We like to think we engage in deep listening to what people are really trying to say, what they're trying to get across,” said Chris. They also liked the organic picture that comes to mind when one thinks of a twig: the roots of a network and community, the potential growth of an idea.
The brothers credit Rowland Hall for preparing them to connect with clients by equipping them with what Alex called “an incredibly well-rounded skill set.” “We draw on a lot of different aspects of our education,” he said.
The brothers credit Rowland Hall for preparing them to connect with clients by equipping them with what Alex called "an incredibly well-rounded skill set."
“We draw on a lot of different aspects of our education,” he said. “Coming from a role where I was doing one very specific thing—being a lighting designer—it’s very much like you’re a cog in this much bigger machine. When we created the company, suddenly we had to draw upon all these skills from other parts of life, like the ability to write, to correspond with the client.”
Rowland Hall helped the brothers discover their passions and begin developing their strengths. Chris, for instance, credits Carol Cranes for his love of writing and Tony Larimer for his love of theater and storytelling. “That was always where my strengths were—in literature and the arts,” he said. And he believes in the close relationships cultivated at Rowland Hall: “That kind of personal relationship really makes you feel special. It makes you feel like what you create is special, and what you do with your life is important.”
Chris and Alex don’t take for granted their ability to create meaningful work for a living. They keep things in perspective by remembering the early years, before they had the freedom to choose the purposeful projects they’re known for. They’ve also built in a safeguard to protect what drives them: passion projects, which keep them challenged and inspired. For the past three years, for example, they used free time to chip away at Traverse, an art-house-style film that mixes dance and documentary. It involved six days of driving a group of modern dancers and their choreographer to iconic Utah locations. At each site, the group created a new dance, which the brothers then filmed.
“It was intense,” Alex remembered. “You'd show up to a location, shoot like crazy, get in a van, drive another five hours, sleep for six hours, and then wake up and do it again the next day.”
The final film is made up of five polished vignettes of each dance, interspersed with a reality-show-style documentary of the time the group spent traveling between sites. It will be screened at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center on June 13 (more details can be found on TWIG’s Facebook page).
Whatever Chris and Alex create, they’re proud to have built a company that not only fulfills and challenges them, but, importantly, supports necessary work happening across communities and inspires viewers.
“Film is such a powerful medium,” said Chris. “It’s this amazing, ephemeral thing: you create it, it helps make the world a better place, and then it's gone. You made something that affected people's hearts.”
Photos courtesy TWIG Media Lab