Jordan Oram Is So Much More Than Drake’s Trusted Cinematographer
We caught up with Oram to find out his creative process, collaborating with Karena Evans, and lessons learned from working in the film industry.
Image via Andrew Harris
If you’re team Drizzy, chances are you’ve watched and loved Drake’s iconic music videos for “God’s Plan,” “In My Feelings,” and “Life Is Good.” If you thought that the imagery was cool and truly told a story, then you’re also a fan of cinematographer Jordan Oram without even realizing it.
As the man behind the camera, Oram has been nominated for a Grammy for his work on “God’s Plan” but he’s much more than a dude who works with Drake. Aside from his many music videos for the likes of Coldplay, Usher, and more, he’s also worked on feature films such as Spiral, TV shows (check out Detention Adventure), and commercials, while finding the time to mentor BIPOC up-and-comers along the way, and also sitting down to write a book.
With all of that on the go, he was pretty much a no-brainer for the Prism Prize’s Special Achievement Award, presented by Slaight Music, which is awarded to a Canadian music video icon for their artistic achievements and exceptional contribution to music video art on a global scale.
We caught up with Oram to find out about his creative process, collaborating with fellow music video maven Karena Evans, and lessons learned from working in the film industry.
Hello! How are you?
How are you? I’m great, thank you.
Oh, I’m good. Glad that it’s almost the weekend.
Honestly, I have a long weekend. We surprisingly had to work yesterday. So they gave us the week early because Canada Day was a holiday that we had to work. So they gave us Friday, Saturday, Sunday, off I get to enjoy this extra bit of what is considered to be down time.
Nice, I like that. So first off, I obviously wanted to say congrats on getting this award. What does it mean getting something like this?
You know, I’m still trying to recollect what it really means because I’ve never won an award. So this acknowledgement means a lot, especially because it came from a place of complete hard work and dedication to the craft. But it just means that whatever I’m doing is working. And I’m continuing to try to change what it looks like to really work in this creative space as an artist. And acknowledgement from my peers means the world.
Yeah, for sure. And so obviously, you’ve worked with so many different artists from Drake to Coldplay on many different projects, is there one that has a special place in your heart, or one that really resonates with you?
I mean, all of the projects that I’ve collaborated on have a special place in my heart because they came at a time where I was crafting my story, crafting my voice and crafting my vision. So independently, I think the most important one for me was “God’s Plan” with Drake, because it signified my relationship with my belief, as well as whatever I was dedicated to at the time. It came after a slew of a lot of other music videos and projects that I collaborated on.
Coldplay also has a very special place in my heart, because we got to travel in South Africa and get to experience the world while creating. You know, working with Miguel, and Usher, and all the artists have definitely been monumental, but I wouldn’t give any independent projects. But I would have to say there was one that stuck out for me it was “God’s Plan.”
No, that’s totally fair. I mean, I feel like that was really iconic. Especially I feel like from the Canadian perspective, a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Drake.’
Yeah, like I had worked with Drake, maybe seven years before I was known to work with Drake. I ended up working on a music release for his Take Care album at HMV on Queen Street. And I remember having a micro conversation with him. And I said, “I’m going to shoot your music videos one day.” I remember saying that, you know, and since then it’s been beautiful to just remember those conversations with him like, “Yo, do you remember when I was telling you like 10 years ago that we were going to work together?” And then it happened. And it happened with Miguel. [It] hadn’t happened with Usher in quite the same way, but definitely manifested a lot of the things that happened to fall into my ecosystem.
“The biggest piece of information I’ve carried with me over the years was to lose my ego in all forms of creation.”
Wow. I love that. I’m a big believer in like speaking stuff into existence, so I think that’s so real. I know you’ve said in other interviews that you’re a lover of all things unconventional. So I guess how does that translate to your work?
I just like to challenge groupthink and the status quo of conformity. I don’t like to do things that have been done before; I try to go left when everybody’s going right, just to ask the question, why not? So creatively, artistically, I tend to take a step back from looking at it from my own perspective, and extract from my collaborators, directors and producers and working with just to see what they’re looking at it as. Because oftentimes, as artists, we step into spaces, and we try to influence them so much on our vision. But collaboratively, if you can just look outside of your own and see from another person’s point of view, you’re creating a whole new version of what both of your visions look like together. So it’s a compromise, but it’s also a form of sharing and sharing energy between two people. Also, I always find ways if someone says, “Hey, I want to do it this way,” I won’t say no, but I’ll [ask] why and say “what if?” And I’ll add something to the table just to just to open up the conversation of collaboration in that way. I think it’s very important.
I think, especially coming from Canada, we have to challenge what the bar is considered to be, as most people think they’ve reached a gap or a top ceiling in the Canadian ecosystem, but I ultimately just believe that’s because they haven’t gotten past it yet. There’s very few that have left the border and gone south and have come back and if continued to do so. I think that’s what I’m trying to ensure—that I open up the world and see it through a different lens.
That’s great. And obviously, storytelling is a really big part of what you do. Over the years, what are some of the most important things that you’ve learned throughout this entire process?
I think that’s something really good to reflect on. The biggest piece of information I’ve carried with me over the years was to lose my ego in all forms of creation. Because it kind of restricts what you’re able to see and what you’re able to receive. As well as just being an avid listener, more than a speaker of things, and a believer in other people. I think it’s very important that we acknowledge each other, collectively. And value time. Unlike money, it runs out.
That’s very true. And then so this is sort of a little bit unrelated to the music video and film stuff, but you’re also an author, and you wrote a plantable book, which, I’d never heard of such a thing before. What was the inspiration?
Yeah, it was an idea that had been mustering for the last 10 years, just to leave something that I could have, you know, after I passed away, or possibly left this earth or wanted something that was forever. And if it wasn’t going to be my work that was digitized, I wanted to I wanted to leave a product or something that would actually last lifetime and also help generations to come. So to kind of write the words that I sharedto myself going through times and [turbulent] experiences, I had to figure out a way that I could, you know, do something hadn’t been done before. By [doing] unconventional artistry, I wanted to [add a] different element to a book.
So initially, I’d been going through documents, and I found my family tree, and I was really inspired by what it would look like to have generational wealth. So this idea of leaving notes that I had written down in my phone over the last six years, and putting it into a biodegradable, printable book seemed impossible when that was conceived. But with further research in finding manufacturers in Nepal, the idea was possible. So the assembly line that was created was something that hadn’t existed until now. For me, it was just an idea that I could, you know, write something down on a piece of paper, give it to somebody in need, and instead of having a conversation that ultimately might not be received the same way it was intended to, I can leave them with a blueprint or a guide, in a way that they can say, “Hey, how did you do this in 10 years?” or “How did you achieve what many would consider to be overnight success?” And if you read my book, The Journeyman, it speaks a lot about manifestation and what it looks like to orient yourself in the right direction. When you’re consuming what the best version of yourself looks like. So it’s just another way for me to explore my creative abilities outside of the film and TV space.
I just love the whole idea of it being a biodegradable and zero-waste thing. That’s just, it’s gonna technically live forever. So that’s so cool.
Yeah, it has to be. Like environmentally, we have to look at the space that we’re in, right. Economically, I think when we take up space, we don’t realize that we’re taking—we’re not getting anything back. You know, during a time with COVID, and global warming, I’m very conscious of those things. So I try to make sure that even in my work of all what I’m filming, I’m always thinking about the budget, just because we don’t have the money doesn’t mean that the job can’t get done the same way. We just have to be resourceful in how we spend it. So I kind of applied that same belief from my film work into my actual life, and my actual work outside of the industry, and just try to apply sustainability to all my decisions.
That’s such an interesting thing to hear because I feel like sometimes when I talk to other artists, directors, musicians, whatever, it never really comes up. So that’s so interesting to me.
Yeah, you can thank COVID for that. [Laughs.]
I feel like we can think COVID for a lot of things that have shaped the way we live now. [Laughs.]
So I also saw on Instagram last year, you had put out a call offering mentorship for young BIPOC women looking to kind of get their foot in the door in the industry. What inspired that?
Yeah, a large group of mine, cinematographers directors, producers, over the course of quarantine, we’d all come together and said we need to do something different about this, and really bring BIPOC to the forefront of our evolution in the industry. So we registered a nonprofit organization called Hire Higher. It was meant to decouple and really create an infrastructure in the space. For BIPOC within the industry, I had learned over the time of researching that a lot of women weren’t seeing the opportunities that were being presented, at least, especially for men. They would be offered for other women, but it was very difficult for a lot of people, especially men to offer it specifically for women of colour. So I thought for me, given much of my experience collaborating with Karena Evans, it was something that I felt was a no brainer, I could I could reach to a demographic that I wouldn’t be able to reach. It wasn’t targeted. So I felt the need, the desire. I was working with Holt, Renfrew and they had a call for vendors, they wanted to bring on some women of colour because of the client. So it was a perfect timing for me to just launch this initiative and to see what the what the demand was, because I didn’t realize I had over 700 email replies. I immediately saw the demand. Like instantly, I said, “OK, this is a problem because there’s either not enough opportunities being presented, or I’m not using my platform correctly.” Because it was over 700 people across Canada, it wasn’t just Toronto, it was Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Calgary. And seeing all of that come to fruition in terms of, you know, being able to provide opportunity for up to eight women on a call [with] over 600 inquiries.
Building programming around this idea of what does it look like for mentorship, after the fact, you know, coming from where I come from 10 years ago, I never had someone that looked like me to tell me things, what to do, what not to do, on all aspects of it, you know, both on the Canadian side and on the American side of the border, and how to operate on the business side and financially, how to organize and structure your flow of interest. So it’s something that I’ve been really adamant [about] in the last couple of months, just refocusing my skill set to be more all-encompassing of what I’m actually gaining from this industry.
“If you don’t ask, the answer is no. This is the best piece of advice I could give every female artist looking to expand their range and reach within this industry.”
Yeah, no definitely. I think, like you said, the demand is definitely there, so I feel like that’s super exciting. And then as you mentioned, you obviously have worked with Karena Evans for a while. What’s something that you’ve learned from her? What has she taught you in the time that you’ve worked together?
Humility. She’s effortlessly who she needs to be in any given time, which is authentically her. She’s very hardworking, and she doesn’t take no for an answer. And I love that about her. We challenge each other creatively, which allows our collaboration to be world-renowned at this point. Just love, you know, like love is a real thing. She loves everybody as she works with her friends or family or collaborators. And I think it’s one to be said about a young female artist who’s living in her means, not above or below. She’s living at the point in her life where she is such a role model for so many people, both men and women. And I think it’s very important to acknowledge what that looks like, coming from men and coming from women. Humility, and collaboration.
She’s so cool. That’s great. This kind of just goes back a little bit to the mentorship thing, but for young women who don’t have any experience, and who are looking to work in the industry, what’s the best piece of advice you could share with them?
If you don’t ask, the answer is no. This is the best piece of advice I could give every female artist looking to expand their range and reach within this industry. Don’t be afraid to ask anybody a question. Especially me. I love answering questions about this industry. But what’s becoming more increasingly difficult just the amount of research that hasn’t been done before the questions are asked? You can Google every question that’s being asked. I, for one, understand what it’s like to get rejected multiple times before an answer is conveyed. To have that knowledge, of hard work and determination to get what they want is not going to just be, you know, coming into this industry and getting paid what you really want, to sacrifice what you want, what you need. What you need is not money. What you need is opportunity to learn and grow up until that point when you’re actually comfortable in the position that you think you’re deserving of. Only then will you see that.
I think sometimes it’s very hard, because many creative people have an ego. Right? We all have a creative idea. We all have our own vision of how we want things to be executed. But I don’t think we understand that it’s not all about your idea when you’re coming to the table with other people that are also looking to create a vision. You know, you’re not just going to start your career as a director, or you’re not going to start your career as a cinematographer. I started as a PA, I was picking up sandbags and getting coffee for like a day, you know, and then I made sure I was very attentive to the details that were happening on set. I was watching everybody else. I was asking, “Why are they doing that? Why this light? Why this way of blocking? What is blocking? Why are you doing it like this?” And the more and more questions that were asked, the more people started to see that I was determined to learn. So they just extended their hand and said, “Oh, my gosh, although you’re a PA, you say you know nothing?” The the questions that [I asked] because I had done the research prior to engaging, allowed me to have conversations with confidence, because I wasn’t just asking silly questions. I was asking questions from a point of view. And I think that helped. And that’s always a piece of advice that I share with women. So don’t be afraid to call me, email me text me, DM me questions, or share your work with me. Let me critique it and give you my honest feedback. But if you can’t do that, then you won’t get what you think you’re deserving of, in my opinion.
I guess we’re almost at the end here so I’ll just give you one more. What is inspiring you currently?
Information. I think just finding new ways to be reinspired. I just got into the crypto space. And the whole new form of financial information is really exciting for me. I’m reading a lot of new books now. So I’m learning a whole bunch of new skills that I hadn’t had before, or learning new stories that I hadn’t thought of before. And nature, and then it needs space. And it’s absolutely gorgeous. where I’m at right now. So I’m enjoying what it looks like to actually be able to be outside again.
The 2021 Prism Prize ceremony airs Monday, July 26, 2021 at 8:00 PM ET. Viewers can stream it live on PrismPrize.com, and on Prism Prize’s Twitter and YouTube channels.