An Interview with Jill Gilbert

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We chatted with Jill Gilbert, Head of Creative Affairs at Luma, to talk a little about how she got started in her career and her current role at Luma. Jill’s impressive career spans two decades specializing in the development and production of animated content, including over 60 live action and animated feature films like SpongeBob SquarePants in 3D and Grandma’s Cats are Trying to Kill Her. She joined Luma in 2016 and prior to that held key leadership positions at Psyop, Disney and Paramount Pictures.

Here, Jill tells us about the mentors she's had along the way, her work + life philosophy and much more!

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started in your career?

 When I left Chicago to come to Southern California for college, I had no idea I wanted to be in the film industry.  One of my professors had a sister who worked at a casting company and she needed interns.  It sounded like an interesting opportunity, so I took it.  That internship led to three more while I was in college, all of which set me up very well for when I graduated and needed to find my first paid job.  The internships were like my grad school because they gave me the chance to learn about how films are developed and the way the movie business worked.

How did you segue into becoming an executive in animation?

After being an assistant for three years, it was time to look for an executive job.  One of my former bosses suggested I apply for a Creative Executive (jr executive) job at Warner Bros. Feature Animation.  This was during The Iron Giant and Space Jam years. She said I would love the artistic integrity of animation, the process, the storytelling, the people, and the fact that there is much less Hollywood garbage than live-action. The job offer was rescinded due to the Turner and Time Warner merger. I was devastated, but it was a wake-up call to show me that I really wanted to work in animation. I was later offered a Creative Executive position at Disneytoon Studios, where I worked for 9 years, was promoted 3 times, and worked on over 20 films. 

Did you have any mentors throughout your career? Who were they and what did they teach you?

 I’ve been fortunate to have mentors throughout my career.  My first mentor was my boss at Disneytoon Studios, Sharon Morrill.  She taught me how to have a vision for your business, how to run a division at a company, how to balance a slate of projects, how to cast talent and resources accordingly, and how to pitch a story.  Another mentor was Steve Ryan who hired me to produce theme park attractions for Universal Studios Singapore when I knew nothing about producing theme park attractions.  Steve showed me how important it is to look at what I call “the tools in the toolbelt” for a potential employee. Finally, I consider Tim Sarnoff, Deputy Co-CEO of Technicolor a mentor as Tim has guided me in my career choices starting in 2011, teaching me how to make smart decisions and choices to manage the trajectory of my career.

The risk is fun; that’s how you discover new stories, new talent, and new ways to work.

You previously worked at Psyop as an EP and Paramount Pictures as VP, Production. What was it like working on big projects like Grandma’s Cats are Trying to Kill Her and Spongebob Squarepants in 3D?

 It was quite a contrast working on those two projects.  One was a multi-thousand dollar production while the other was a multi-million dollar production.  Lots of stakeholders were involved with SpongeBob while there were only a few decision makers for Grandma’s Cats.  I feel fortunate that I’ve gotten to work on projects of various shapes and sizes because it provides me with a bigger picture understanding of the types of content in our business and how each are produced. 

Ultimately, I like working on projects that fall in between these two paradigms so that there can be a good balance of resources to produce a piece of quality content but also an opportunity to be nimble and scrappy in what’s being produced.  The higher the dollar amount, the less risk content producers are willing to take.  The risk is fun; that’s how you discover new stories, new talent, and new ways to work.

 Why did you decide to join Luma?

 Payam’s vision of marrying Luma’s story mandate with Luma’s VFX/animation pipeline to create sustainable art was intriguing to me.  It’s one thing to have the vision and it’s another thing to be dedicated to bringing that vision to life.  Payam has both, which I believe is a rare find in the film business. I’ve been a part of building new endeavors many times during the course of my career and coming to Luma was a chance for me to leverage all of my knowledge and experience. 

Luma is embracing the change rather than running from it.  And I’m excited to be a part of it.

What excites you most about your work at Luma and this industry?

 The film industry is going through a massive evolution.  Anyone can be a content creator thanks to technology.  The audience, rather than the distributor, has the power to determine what, when, where, how and if they watch. We have a unique opportunity at Luma to create compelling, provocative, and visually enticing content in a thoughtful and cost-effective way with the movie magic box that we have at our fingertips. To me, Luma is embracing the change rather than running from it, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

What is a typical day in the office like for you?

I spend the bulk of my time in all types of meetings. My role involves thinking about the big picture for content, which means I’m responsible for setting up infrastructure and protocol for how we want to work and who we want to work with. 

Do you have a particular philosophy around how you approach your work and daily life?

Working in content (and living life, for that matter) is like pushing a boulder uphill for the length of a marathon.  Every day, I push the boulder bit by bit up the hill.  It requires hard work, patience, innovation, flexibility, and a sense of humor.  And when we push together, it makes reaching the top ever so much sweeter. 

You are a co-founder of BRIC Foundation. Can you tell us a bit about what it is and why it’s important to you?

I co-founded the BRIC (Break, Reinvent, Impact, Change) Foundation with Alison Mann and Nicole Hendrix because we felt there is a significant need in our industry to find and nurture upcoming talent from diverse backgrounds.  The audience is global and so the creators should represent a diverse array of points of views and experiences.  The problem we have found is that this diverse talent doesn’t have access into Hollywood nor the proper training to try to break in.  Our mission is to break down those barriers and find productive methods to integrate this young talent into our business and show them and their families that there is a real career path here for them. 

 What  has been an invaluable lesson you’ve learned in your career?

 Keep an open mind about every opportunity that comes your way – you never know where they can lead.

 Now for the fun bits. What is your favorite movie?

 Raiders of the Lost Ark – hands down!

 What do you do for fun when not working?

 Besides Ubering my kids around, I love yoga and stand up paddleboarding.

 Who was your biggest Hollywood crush when you were growing up?

Jake Ryan (actor Michael Schoeffling) from SIXTEEN CANDLES – so easy on the eyes!