Today we’d like to introduce you to Justen Key.
Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I’m a 1st generation Cambodian-American, and Colorado native. I grew up watching a lot of movies from the 1980s, mostly from my Dad’s DVD collection. A lot of these DVDs had “Extra Features” with behind-the-scenes footage and Director’s commentary, which is what introduced me to the world of filmmaking. Some of my favorite films from this era are: The Breakfast Club, Terminator 2, and Back To The Future 2.
As a kid, technology and mechanics always seemed to entice me, this eventually led me to pursue Aerospace Engineering for the majority of my time at Eaglecrest High School. By my Junior year, I was already burned out on Engineering classes and I realized it was far too competitive and I was in it for the wrong reasons. I decided to pursue a more creative avenue, one that I was interested in since middle school, Graphic Design. This route suited me a lot better, I was able to make art based on my interests (music & sneakers mostly) and I was even able to land my work in the school’s art show a few times. While I enjoyed it at first, Graphic Design grew a bit too monotonous and another hobby was taking up my creativity — making videos.
While I never took any of the video production classes at school, I supplemented my learning by making my own videos on YouTube throughout middle and high school. I was even able to teach myself programs like Adobe Photoshop & Premiere through YouTube as well, it’s been a huge factor in my work today and continues to be a helpful tool. On YouTube, I made content focused around Sneakers & Fashion, which was the trendy topic at the time but it’s also something I’m still passionate about today. As I made YouTube videos, I could see them begin to develop their own style as well. The b-roll in my intros & outros took on vintage and Super 8 film influences, I would also cut this footage together with my favorite songs at the time. Behind the lens would be my best friend/camera operator, Ryan. Usually, it was just the two of us making the videos. My most popular video, titled “The Nike Cortez is Underrated”, has reached over 100K views since it was released in 2019.
In my Senior year, I realized this hobby was something I wanted to pursue professionally. I thought back to those “Extra Features” I watched as a kid and seeing the crews working on my favorite movies. It never really struck me at the time, but now I was realizing filmmaking was a legitimate career path I could take. I remember sitting in detention surfing the web for film schools around Aurora, and that’s when I found the Colorado Film School. After graduating high school in 2020, I applied to CFS and was accepted!
Now I’m 19 years old and have just finished up my 2nd year at CFS studying Cinematography. I honestly cannot see myself doing anything else, and I believe I made the right choice to pursue my dreams. I’d like to make it into the industry as a 1st AC, as I enjoy building cameras and pulling focus. I of course wouldn’t mind being the Director of Photography either, but I definitely have much more to learn until then!
Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I’m really grateful for the support I have from my family, and my parents are proud that I’m chasing my dreams. Without that support, I’m not sure how smooth things might have gone. While it hasn’t been too much of a struggle to get to where I am now, I absolutely believe there will be more obstacles to face in the future. Filmmaking requires a lot of problem-solving, something I’ve learned firsthand working on school sets. I’ve had issues where I don’t feel as skilled as others in my industry, but I want to keep an open mind and continue to take in as much information as possible so I can further improve.
Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I consider myself a Cinematographer.
Nowadays, traditional feature-length narrative work isn’t my main interest in film, and I find most of my passion in making narrative-based music videos — a lot of this is influenced from my YouTube work. I love when my work expresses feelings of nostalgia, and I like exploring themes like love and self-care.
My visual style has been vintage/retro-influenced, with heavy uses of vibrant color through stylized lighting, I’d also love to incorporate more psychedelic imagery. Although, naturalistic lighting is still something I’d like to explore more as well — It really just depends on the mood of the piece.
What sets me apart is the personal experience and dedication that I apply in my work, I want to strive to make more relatable and personal films. I also want those that work with me to know that I am committed to the vision, and will go great lengths to achieve it.
As of late, I was focused on shooting my first music video with another Director in the area, Lincoln Byeoh. What we were able to create excites me, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it. I’m proud of all my work, and I aim to improve every time I make something — this latest music video is no exception. Stay tuned.
What do you like and dislike about the city?
I love the young creative community surrounding Denver, and the overall geographic location of the city itself. I also enjoy the atmosphere of walking around Downtown Denver, and I always feel like I discover something new whenever I am there.
What I like the least is the amount of film opportunities compared to other cities. In bigger cities like LA, Houston, Atlanta, and Vancouver you’re often times surrounded by the film industry and jobs, and there are also tax incentives that make filmmaking more enticing in those cities. Although there is a commercial industry here, I would love to see it expand in the future,
- $300 / day
Reid Sanders (@r3idsanders), Justin Olivas (@jolivasphotography_), Divine Ramazani (@divine.ramazani ) and Brandon Lamas (@brandonlamas)