On Making Viral GSP Videos, Landing Big Editing Contracts, and Being Paid to Travel to MMA Events
by Michelle Lopez
Ask any creative person and they’ll tell you the art of storytelling is one of the most challenging things to master. But what happens when you use video, music, and mixed martial arts to tell stories?
Enter Cynthia Vance – videographer, editor, and MMA fan known for creating some of the coolest fight videos out there. Cynthia started off as a freelancer, producing fan-made highlight videos and posting her passion projects (like this cinematic GSP: Way of the Warrior video that garnered over 500,000 views) on YouTube. Eventually she was discovered by Victor Cui, CEO of Asia’s largest MMA promotion, Singapore-based ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC).
In March of 2012 Victor Cui contacted Cynthia about editing a pre-fight promo for him. She completed the task with flying colors, was offered a contract, and became the lead editor for ONE FC. That was just the beginning. Cynthia was paid to travel to all of the company’s MMA events and create pre-fight promos and commercials for these events. For a videographer passionate about MMA, this was the ultimate dream gig. (More recently, Cynthia made the controversial History of Women’s MMA video on female fighters.)
What contributed to Cynthia to getting her “big break”? It was a combination of networking, tirelessly marketing her videos, and constantly putting new work on YouTube. In this interview, Cynthia shares the details of how she got started, what her journey has been like so far, and her advice to aspiring videographers.
1) How did you first become interested in film, sports, and the art of filming sports?
CV: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a passion for film. I was completely engrossed from a very young age. When I was 12 years old, I knew filmmaking was all I wanted to do with my life. It became an obsession and a dream.
In junior high school and high school, I began taking media and TV production classes, which forced me to create projects I would never have done on my own. But the real learning came from becoming an autodidact and experimenting on my own.
In high school, I was one of a few students to take filming sports to a completely new creative level. The first sports montage I ever created was a 30-second “leader” (an opener for the closed-circuit school news broadcast) on the football team. One of the coaches allowed me to get right on the field, practically six feet away from where the football players were running their plays. This enabled me to get some really creative, up-close and personal shots. Once the leader broadcasted, it created a lot of buzz among teachers and students, because no one had every created a sports montage like that before. I suppose that’s where it all began for me.
I’ve always had a passion for sports in general, especially as a spectator. Growing up, I often went to my friends’ games or watched the neighborhood kids shoot hoops. I was like the Spike Lee of my neighborhood – a serious sports fan who carried a camera everywhere. I made two mini-documentaries on the girls’ soccer and basketball teams and created countless sports montages that garnered a lot of attention. I don’t remember a time in high school where I wasn’t carrying around a camera.
All throughout high school I made fan music videos, splicing together my favorite songs and scenes from movies to create artistic montages. I uploaded these creations onto YouTube, but they never really received any views. These projects were done out of pure passion.
Once I graduated high school, I was lost. It seemed like everyone went off to college except me. I dreamed of going to film school, but couldn’t afford it. The only scholarship I ever received, I ended up cashing in to help my mom pay rent when we were going through some rough times financially.
Because of my situation I had zero ambition, no plan and no clue what the hell I was going to do with my life.
2) Was there a moment when something “clicked” that made you say, “I’m going to succeed no matter what”?
CV: One day, I was searching for Georges St-Pierre highlights on YouTube and remembered I couldn’t find a single one. I thought to myself, “Hey I should put one together.” So I created my first MMA highlight, simply titled, “GSP.” It got so much attention from fans, and the views started to escalate like crazy. That’s when I realized there’s something special to this.
I’d read stories about undiscovered talent getting their break through YouTube. That’s when I decided, “I’m going to be one of those people.” I told myself I was going to continue creating the best highlight videos I could make and market the hell out of them everywhere imaginable.
I posted my videos all over forums, practically spamming my work everywhere. I also made sure to reply to almost every comment on my videos, building audience interaction. I did all of this, while at one point, working three jobs.
Deep down, I really believed that it would happen for me through this avenue I was taking. I can’t tell you how many people laughed in my face when I told them my dream and how I was going to get there. People told me I was wasting my time, foolish and that I should just get a loan and go to school. But I believed so much that my dreams would become reality. And they did.
I never really planned to continue making MMA highlight videos after high school; I just wanted to make a video on one of my favorite fighters. Little did I know where it would take me.
3) What kinds of clients have you worked with as a freelancer? Has the majority of your work been MMA-related?
CV: The majority of my work lately has been MMA-related. In the past, I did a lot of oddball jobs as a freelancer, such as wedding videography and editing football college recruitment videos. My biggest freelance break actually came from working with MiddleEasy.com [a mixed martial arts blog site]. Their resident editor, LayzieTheSavage, randomly tweeted one day saying he was looking for an assistant editor. I replied to his tweet, and it wasn’t long before I was working on several projects for them.
Layzie was the first person to provide me with a real work opportunity in the MMA field, and I’m really thankful for it. I’ll never forget it. Working with the whole MiddleEasy crew was a great experience. Aside from that, I’ve done work for several MMA promotions, gyms and fighters. These work opportunities would never have happened if I wasn’t continuously putting out those fan-made highlights I’d been making on YouTube for years. By consistently putting my work out there, I gained respect from fellow editors and developed a following.
Due to the popularity of my videos across the internet, it became very easy for me to get hired. Once people saw my work, they were convinced I was the video editor for them.
4) Tell us more about how you landed the contract with ONE FC. Was it a “lucky break” or coincidence that Victor Cui discovered you? Or was there more to the story?
CV: When it comes to Victor Cui discovering me, all thanks goes to the guys at MiddleEasy, especially Zeus Tipado, the founder. He played a big role in sharing my work and talent with Victor.
I created a few MiddleEasy trailers to promote an event called ONE FC: War of the Lions. Soon after those began circulating the internet, I received an email from Victor Cui asking if I’d be interested in recreating one of my trailers as the opener and official trailer for the War of the Lions show. I couldn’t believe it. So I did that, and also ended up creating a pre-fight promo for the event.
At some point, Zeus asked me if I was interested in traveling with him to Singapore to cover War of the Lions. Of course I was! I immediately said yes. I felt like that was the big break I’d been looking for. I took off work from my full-time office job, packed my things, and hopped on a plane.
My videos were played in front of a live audience at the event. I can’t express how incredible it was seeing my work inside the Singapore Indoor Stadium in front of 7,000+ fans. I’m sure I got pretty teary-eyed. I know Zeus had a lot to do with it, as he and the rest of the MiddleEasy crew truly believed and supported my work and talent. I will forever be grateful.
(I’ll never forget an email Zeus sent me: “If you were in X-men, your mutant power would be making extraordinary videos. Great job!” Best. Compliment. Ever.)
5) Your videos tend to inspire an emotional reaction in your viewers, due to your usage of cinematic visuals and soul-stirring music. What actually goes through your mind when you’re creating a video? How do you know what to include and what to leave out?
CV: Before even touching a computer, I edit the video in my head. Once I find the song I’d like to use, I listen to it all day, sometimes even for a week. My mind gets lost in imagination as I ride the bus or walk – and it’s those moments when I can picture what scenes would go with certain parts of a song. I’m literally piecing together and creating the video in my mind before I do any editing.
As far as choosing specific shots, I’m not even sure how I do it. It all stems from emotion and feeling. I always want for there to be a connection between the audio and visual aspects of the video – because what’s the point of making a video if there isn’t?
As a kid, I always paid attention to film scores and their use in films. People really don’t understand how important music is in film. Imagine a film with no score… it would be lifeless and empty. Art is one of the few things in life where you can visually feel somebody’s emotion. I want people to feel the passion (or other emotions) of the song, the shots, the fighter, or even myself. I definitely put a piece of myself in every video I make.
6) What’s the most challenging part about editing and shooting videos of professional fighters?
CV: When filming, the most challenging part is being able to capture incredible moments artistically. You only have one shot. You can’t recreate the fight. You can’t recreate the knockout or the fighter climbing the top of the cage in tears over their win. It’s easy to capture a moment. But it’s difficult to capture the beauty and emotion of that moment.
In editing, I make sure I promote the fighter in a very pure way. I don’t want to give viewers a false sense of who the fighter actually is. When I create fighter highlights or promos, I really capture the essence (or at least a part of it) of who the fighter really is – their fears, desires, passions, dreams… all of it, if possible. I think that’s what made Pride, K-1 and DREAM promos so memorable and legendary. They went beyond ‘just fighting’ in their videos. It became more about who the fighter was as a person. I always try to bring out that personal story in all my videos.
7) Artists tend to be highly imaginative and different from other people. What dreams did you have as a kid?
CV: As silly as this sounds, as a kid I always dreamed of being the real life Lara Croft, discovering artifacts or uncovering the truths behind some of the world’s greatest historical mysteries… but instead of being equipped with dual pistols, I’d be armed with a camera.
Ever since I was 12, I’ve been dreaming of winning an Oscar. When I was young, I so desperately wanted to be the first female director to be a part of the RZA, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino circle of badassery. I wanted to revitalize the mafia movie genre. I wanted to create Terrence Malick visuals. I wanted to be the female Hitchcock.
8 ) What can we expect to see from Cynthia Vance in the future? What are you currently working on?
CV: For better or for worse, I never really plan for the future. I believe nothing is written. You can plan all you want, but sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you want – and that’s okay.
That said, I’d like to go to school and earn my degree in Anthropology (with a dash of Archaeology). I have a deep fascination with history, cultures and world religions. I’d like to somehow tie in my love for cultures and film. Perhaps I can become the next Lisa Ling, documenting the untold stories or journeys of cultures.
I’m open to whatever life has in store for me. At the moment, I’m very much enjoying the chapter I’m on. I’ve been able to work with so many incredibly talented individuals, like the All Elbows crew. I used to watch their videos, dreaming of the day when I’d get to make something even remotely artistic as their work… and now I’m working with them! How often in life do you get to work with the very people who inspire you? This life is crazy.
Now that I’m older, I’d also like to get back into screenwriting. I started when I was in high school, but didn’t have enough life experience to really go anywhere with it. To this day, I dream of making my own Hollywood films.
And of course, martial arts will always be a lifelong influence. When I’m not working, I’m training Kempo and Boxing. I train Kempo at Onipa’a Kempo Technics and Boxing with the same coach. We work together 5 days a week, so it sometimes feels like martial arts is my full-time job. It’s grown into a real passion of mine. Discovering and gaining a further understanding of martial arts culture has been an incredible journey.
9) What advice can you give to aspiring videographers and editors who dream of making it big?
CV: Never quit. Ever.
Constantly work at becoming a better version of yourself.
Constantly look towards how you can increase your talent and experience in your field, even if that means sacrificing. Every dream takes sacrifice. What will you sacrifice to make your dream happen?
Believe in yourself and your work, and promote the hell out of it. Now more than ever, it’s so easy to network and get in contact with people and professionals you would never have been able to contact without the internet. Take advantage of that.
And most importantly – be constantly inspired. Experience life and everything it has to offer. I can’t express how important it is to discover new things (whether it be film, music, art, etc). Being close-minded and limiting yourself to one genre or one slice of life offers nothing. Ignorance isn’t bliss. The more you know, the more you can understand and appreciate. This extends to all things in life.
To learn more about Cynthia Vance, visit: