Smile Politely

The story of Chris Sotelo

When I asked Chris Sotelo for an interview he responded well. “It’s on like Donkey Kong!” I knew I was in for a treat. 

Sotelo has boundless vision and drive. His films are savvy and heartfelt, and he has all of the good humor one could hope for in a human being. I always say it’s a rare thing to find incredible talent paired with zero ego.  

Smile Politely: Where did you grow up? What’s your family makeup? 

Chris Sotelo: I am originally from Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago and, though I’ve been living in Champaign now for 14 years, Chi-City is where my heart calls “home.” 

My family (grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles) immigrated from the Philippines to The States in the late ’70s. My dad has two sisters and five brothers, and so I grew up with family around all the time. At any one time, we’d find ourselves living with three families under one roof, which was great fun for me and my cousins. I believe this is where I got my sense of “hustling hard” — my family sacrificed and put in blood, sweat, and tears; grinding it out to make ends meet. You have to work for it if you want to make it in ‘Merica, right?

SP: Right. Unless you’re Miley… 

Does your family inspire your work or did they simply inspire you to work?

Sotelo: I would say both. My family has always been in my corner, supporting whatever artistic endeavor I set out to do. 

In middle school, I used to collect comics and I was convinced that I would be heading into a career as a comic book artist. My parents bought me a drafting table, complete with one of those swivel lamps that had a magnifying glass built into it. When I started singing and acting, my parents would drive me to musical rehearsals and attend every performance that I had. I’m sure it made them proud to see a Filipino Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. When I joined a boy band in high school (True story; shout out to “STAGES.”) they were right there cheering us along. And when I decided to leave my career as a teacher to pursue a career in film, the first thing my mom said was, “We believe in you. We would have sent you to film school if you asked.” My dad even bought us one of the first cameras for our company to use. The fact that they’ve always been my number one supporters definitely inspires me to keep growing in my craft. They’ve even made it into one of my short films. When my sister was pregnant with her second child, I wanted to give her a gift. So, I created a short film and shot it from the perspective of her daughter meeting her little brother for the first time. It’s called Where Are You Little Brother, and it’s one of my favs.

SP: What a tremendous gift a supportive family can be! And what about your wife? Does she get on board with all of your projects? I support my husband for sure, but it’s hard to “lose” him when he’s in the midst of a production…

Sotelo: I’d have to put my wife into the “number one supporters” category with my family. Scratch that. Let’s create a new category and call it “High Supreme Supporter” and chalk it up to her! She believed in me so much that, during my final year as a teacher, when I was in the midst of making a decision to pursue filmmaking as my full time gig, she told me that if I decided to keep on teaching she would “kill me.” So there’s that. 

Marah and I have been married for five going on six years, but we have been together for 15 years. We know each other incredibly well, and we know how much art and creating something significant -or the notion of making an impact- means to each of us. So, naturally, we support one another in each other’s artistic endeavors. I think it goes beyond support though. We genuinely love to see each other excel in our “element,” so to speak. So whether it’s filmmaking for me, or singing/hitting the stage for her, we continually push each other to go for opportunities to create something meaningful.

That’s not to say we don’t have our difficult stretches though. Depending on the length and hours of a production, I may see her for only a snippet of the day. When’s she’s getting ready to leave for work, I may have just fallen asleep. And when we’re not shooting, I’m usually editing at my computer. We have a little joke that there are times when she has a better relationship with the back of my head than she does with me! That said, she’s the absolute best and I (and the back of my head) love her.

SP: Aw! I have to say… my husband and I have been together for almost nine years, and that relationship between artistic creation and marital devotion is one that must be constantly maintained. Marriage is a complicated friendship.

Sotelo: Yay for spouse-audiences! Yeah, I think that friendship built over time is definitely a huge part of a successful married life!

SP: What has the back of your head been working on lately? Music videos? Weddings? A short film perhaps?

Sotelo: I co-own and operate my own filmmaking company called Chris & Oliver. As you can guess, it’s run by me and my partner, Oliver Peng. We’ve got a lot of different projects going on these days. One of the things we try to do as a company is diversify our portfolio. So, to be honest, I don’t like labeling ourselves as “wedding videographers” because wedding videos have a reputation of being one of two things: 1) a shaky collection of random clips with bad audio and running commentary by the family member in charge of filming or 2) an overblown, glossy, cheezy music video reminiscent of Jarrod or Zales commercials. That [has] caused me to roll my eyes so hard that I wasn’t sure if I could get them back in place. 

We obviously aim to be neither of those. We are storytellers. As storytellers, we believe that it is the characters that drive the story forward. So our wedding films are actually not so much about the wedding day, but about the people in them. In fact, the work we’ve done in weddings is what led to documentary work and even commercial work. People and companies were wondering if we could bring that sense of realism and heart [that] our wedding films had to their businesses or their features. The answer? Yes, we can because it’s just a different story to tell.

We were recently featured by a national wedding magazine as part of their “A-List Destination Wedding Vendors”. This year we’ll be traveling out to Arizona and Hawaii for some destination weddings. Beyond weddings, we’re working with Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor network to create a series of videos to inspire high school students to sign up to become organ donors. 

Finally, the project that we’re absolutely stoked about is the premiere of Elsinore’s music video for “The Art of Pulling,” which is the first track off their new album PUSH/PULL. It’s our first music video, but, honestly, it felt like we were shooting a short film!

SP: A short film? How so? I mean. It tells a story, obviously…

Sotelo: Usually, when we’re filming a wedding or a documentary, there is little to no set-up involved. We use available light; often rely on nat sound (sounds produced by natural sources in their normal soundscape); and while we have a general sense of what will be happening on the shoot, we are filming things as they unfold. We refer to these types of shoots as “run-and-gun” situations. With “The Art of Pulling” music video, it was a lot like a short film because of the three phases involved: pre-production, production, and post-production. 

Our pre-production period actually lasted a couple of months. We would often meet at local cafes with our production team to figure out the story, plan out story-boards, cast roles, and cover general logistics for the shoot. During the production phase, with the help of production assistants, we would haul around lights and props and work for hours to set up a shot even before the actor(s) would arrive. Unlike a run-and-gun situation, we could do multiple takes and work until we got the best version possible. In post-production we edit the film, sifting through various takes and hours upon hours of footage. And while the storyboards were like a road map during our shoot, sometimes we have to veer away from them in the edit bay because it wasn’t working out for the story. Just like a film, we have visual [effects], compositing, and color grading work within this final phase.

SP: Any memorable or scary moments from the Elsinore shoot? 

Sotelo: There are actually a few memorable stories from the shoot! 

The first thing that comes to mind are the crazy hours we worked during the duration of the shoot. I remember doing a few consecutive 20+ hour days due to the operating hours of some of the locations where we filmed -one of those places being the amazing video rental store, That’s Rentertainment.

Rentertainment is open seven days a week and closes at 10 p.m. every evening. We would load in a 9 p.m., set up for our shots, begin rolling at around midnight, work with our talent until 3 or 4 a.m., clean up, and load out by 7 a.m.. And then [we’d] squeeze in what little rest we could before having to set up at the next location at 9 a.m., shoot all day, and then head back to Rentertainment to do it all over again. We did this for three days straight. Such is the nature of shooting on location! 

Aside from the crazy hours and the delirium that ensued, one of the shots at Rentertainment required the use of colored powder (like the kind used at those color 5K races). By the end of the shoot, our awesome production assistants, Ranae Wilson and Andrew Stengele, were covered head-to-toe in red powder. Watching them shake themselves out on 6th street when the bars were letting out was quite the sight. But we got the shot, and it was totally worth it! 

The most memorable incident has to go to Mike Prosise, though. If you want details, it’s probably best if we share the laughs in person as I don’t want to incriminate anyone in writing. But let’s just say the incident involved flames, a door, and Mike’s best impersonation of Smokey the Bear.

SP: 20 hour work days always feel like a huge artist medal, don’t they?

Sotelo: 20 hour work days are when I teeter the line between questioning my profession of choice and celebrating the artistic genius that is pouring forth at the time!

SP: Now that the shoot is over, what’s next? What can we look forward to?

Sotelo: Oliver and I are hosting a premiere party this month at Indi Go Artist Co-op. We will be screening a making-of featurette followed by the debut of “The Art of Pulling.” We’re looking forward to sharing the evening with friends, family, Elsinore, and everyone that has lent a helping hand to bring the video to life. I’ve seen the video plenty of times by now, so I plan on watching everyone’s reaction!

One of the reasons we’re excited to debut this music video is because of where and how it was made. We produced it right here in Champaign-Urbana with the help of many local artists, actors, business owners, businesses, and volunteers. We see it as an anthem to the creative pulse in this town and we can’t wait to share it! 

Soon after the local premiere, the video will debut online for the rest of the world to see. A lot of world-class talent has originated from these parts and we’re hoping to add to the canon.


“The Art of Pulling” music video will premiere at Indi Go Lounge this Saturday. Look for Chris Sotelo’s other work at his blog.

Related Articles