Director Rajneel Singh: How I Got Started in the Industry

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In some ways, the story of how I got into the screen industry really shows my age.

While I’ve wanted to be involved in the film and TV world since age 14, when I snuck into a screening of Oliver Stone’s hyper-violent Natural Born Killers and subsequently had my mind blown by what I was seeing and feeling, I had never taken the plunge into the business due to…well let’s call it cultural pressure from family and community to not engage in ‘lowly’ arts industries. Indians become doctors, lawyers, accountants, not filmmakers. And despite the fact that I had had a decent break in the acting industry by age 21 when I got to play a featured villain on Xena: Warrior Princess, New Zealand’s acting scene in the 1990’s meant that roles for Indians were practically non-existent outside playing dairy-shop owners. Even theater was out of the question; these were still the days where even stage work was cast for largely around skin-tone ‘authenticity’.

Director Rajneel Singh on the Xena: Warrior Princess set / Photos: Supplied

I had given up by age 22, armed myself with a degree in Psychology (no, parents were not impressed by that) and decided to slug it out in the world of corporate IT. I did, however, keep up my hobbies and one of them was an interest in Chinese martial arts. My particular Kung Fu school, by sheer coincidence, had a flock of students who were junior stunt people and word got around the class that I had access to my father’s video camera and some editing software. So when you’ve got day-job money and free weekends, what does a frustrated creative person and a bunch of young stuntmen get up to? Zero budget, shot-on-handycam, Kung Fu shorts.

One year later, the shorts had become increasingly more polished, the filmmaker skills had started to emerge and the world was in the middle of Matrix-mania as the sequels to The Matrix were just around the corner. It’s the early 2000’s, so of course we all had the same dumb idea at the same time: we know Kung Fu. Let’s make a Matrix fan-film! Our most ambitious project to date, shot for a gigantic budget of $900 NZD over nine freezing cold winter nights, The Fanimatrix: Run Program was a 13 minute action extravaganza that we released online in 2003.

The film, hosted secretly on a server at Internet provider iHUG, became such a viral phenomenon that it caused bandwidth problems for the company and was downloaded over 3 million times in the buildup to the release of the actual Matrix sequels. It became the most widely seen short film in New Zealand history prior to the birth of YouTube and is still being distributed today as the world’s oldest, still running, torrent file.

That’s when the filmmaking bug sank its fangs and released its brain-altering poison into my bloodstream. I had to be a filmmaker.

I had to be a director.

I was fortunate enough, at the time, to have a fellow hobbyist filmmaker confront me and basically dared me to put up or shut up. He said he would subsidise my income for six months if I quit my nice, comfy, corporate IT job and pursued filmmaking full-time. Specifically a job I had stumbled upon – from the popularity of The Fanimatrix – as a behind-the-scenes camera-operator on the Back of the Y feature film called The Devil Dared Me To. Terrified, but knowing it was now or never, I took the plunge into the film industry at the very late age of 26. Yes, still lying to my parents the whole time and insisting I was working in the IT world.

Director Rajneel Singh on set / Photo: Supplied

Working on that film and seeing the process gave me the confidence to chase the idea of doing something more legitimate and I had come across a short story – a parody of Reservoir Dogs – about fairytales that I had really wanted to make. Before the age of Kickstarter, myself and my producer friends went to every single person we knew and crowdfunded $13K NZD to produce a short film that became known as Big Bad Wolves. Shot on video, but with very high-end production values for the time and budget, one of the actors in the film was a producer at a post-production company and offered me a job as a junior offline editor. My first paying gig and a job that I did for over 4 years at his post facility while dabbling in directing TVCs, music videos, short films and filling out hundreds upon hundreds of funding applications.

Forbidden by family and culture, corrupted by youthful Kung Fu shenanigans, elevated by a Matrix fan-film and a Quentin Tarantino parody, there really are no two identical paths into this business nor really any identical paths to success.

That’s my story.

Oh yeah. One more thing. Years later I found out from Barrie Osborne that the Wachowskis absolutely loved The Fanimatrix and that it’s their all-time favourite fan-film.

This business is weird, man.

 


About Rajneel Singh

Rajneel made his directing debut with 2003 fan short The Fanimatrix: Run Program, which was downloaded millions of times in the age before YouTube. He followed it with Reservoir Dogs meets fairytale Big Bad Wolves. In 2010 his film Blank Spaces was one of five short films chosen for a Tourism NZ ‘Your Big Break’ competition. Rajneel is also part of directing duo The Unkindness.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out.

Last updated on 25 August 2022