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Area cinematographer finds success through film festival circuits
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Gainesville resident and cinematographer Justin Stearns views footage from his camera on the set of his short film “First Kiss.” - photo by For The Times

With his binder of notes in hand and the the full attention of his production staff, Justin Stearns looks every bit the part of an experienced filmmaker. The Gainesville native has gathered his team together at an Atlanta coffee shop to go over their next project, “Who,” a mafia-themed short film he’s hoping finds the same success as his recent project, “First Kiss.” 

When the call came May 30 that “First Kiss” was accepted into the Atlanta Shortsfest film festival, the young filmmaker finally started to see his dreams become reality.

Stearns’ path to success has been one full of hard work and dedication to his craft. Beginning at an age when most kids are busy on playgrounds, he realized filmmaking was something he wanted to be a part of.

“My parents bought me my first video camera when I was 6 or 7 and I’ve been making videos ever since,” he said.

While receiving his first camera was the catalyst for his learning the filming process, it was actually a more mundane moment while riding in a car that reassured Stearns that this was something he would do professionally.

“I actually just caught my reflection in a car window in the morning on my way to work and thought I looked like a filmmaker,” he said. “That image sparked an idea for me and I guess I kind of became obsessed with it. Every day since then I’ve been living and breathing filmmaking.”

Having moved to Gainesville in 2001, Stearns dipped his toes into the entertainment industry after participating in theater at Chestatee High School. Following high school, he decided to focus on the filming aspect and gaining as much knowledge as he could.

“After high school, I went to Gainesville State College, before it was UNG, for media studies and that only furthered my interest in filmmaking,” he said. “I worked privately for a few years trying to hone some of my skills before I felt I was ready to move to professional work.”

After a few years at Gainesville State College, Stearns decided to transfer to Full Sail University in Orlando so he could focus more on digital cinematography. It was after his graduation in 2016 that Stearns first started working on “First kiss,” after discovering the script in October. He then began the fast process of turning it into a reality.

“I saw that it would be quick to produce, and presented a lot of opportunities for people in each of their fields to shine,” he said. “I contacted the writer, Anthony Cawood, who lives in the UK and we had a deal in just a few hours.”

With a deal in place with the writer, Stearns set to work on pre-production, including finding the cast and crew, and designing the set.

“I built the set from the ground up, and on our Facebook page, you can actually see the set construction once everything was loaded into the studio,” he said.

Once the set was complete, Stearns transitioned into his role as cinematographer, and he and the cast and crew completed the filming of the short film in less than nine hours. With production wrapped, finding an audience was the next step for Stearns and his team.

So far, “First Kiss” has been shown in several festivals across the globe. While the majority of the screenings have been in Atlanta, in May it was shown in Weimar, Germany, and the one this fall will be in Grand Island, Nebraska. 

Stearns says it’s currently been submitted for about 30 other festivals, so he’s hopeful the audience will continue to grow. Being selected for these festivals is one of Stearns’ prouder moments.

“Starting out at 19, it’s really easy to get discouraged. I’m 26 now and it’s taken me that long to start obtaining some of the goals I’ve set for myself,” he said. “Being selected for a film festival was one of those important career goals for me so it felt really good.”

While good things have come for “First Kiss,” Stearns isn’t one to rest on his laurels. Following his meeting at the coffee shop, the wheels are set in motion for the production of “Who.” This one takes place in Las Vegas and is shooting in Atlanta this month, so Stearns is finding new ways to get the right atmosphere for filming.

“We drew out set designs and talked to a few crew members,” he said. “I’m excited about that. It’ll be a fun challenge.”

For those looking to begin their own filmmaking careers, Stearns offers solid advice that he’s received over the years.

“It’s just like they always tell you: Don’t give up. Work hard and keep trying and it will happen in the way it’s supposed to happen,” he said. “There is always someone who will say yes, it’s just a matter of finding that person.”

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