Faculty Spotlight

Faculty Spotlight: Nick Hector

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Faculty Spotlight - Nick Hector

After a successful career in the film industry spanning decades, Nick Hector felt the need to pass on his accumulated knowledge learned from industry mentors to the next generation of filmmakers.

According to Hector’s IMDB’s biography, he has edited or produced more than 150 documentary films and programs across North & Central America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. He began his career in television journalism before specializing in long-form documentary, particularly cinéma-vérité. Hector has been nominated for 37 national film awards, winning thirteen; including Canadian Screen, HotDocs, Directors Guild of Canada, Canadian Cinema Editors, and Gemini Awards. His creative works have won 48 national and international awards.

In an interview on May 17, 2023, Hector talked about his early life, career, and how he ended up teaching at the University of Windsor, as well as his transition from working professional to teaching his craft.

Early life and career

Hector grew up in Southern Ontario, moving over 20 times by the time he was 20, mainly due to his mother’s career as a bank executive. His mother, Patricia Hector, started as a bank teller and worked her way up to an executive role, all with only the equivalent of a high school education, which she obtained while growing up very poor in England. She considered herself a second-wave feminist which helped shape his views and teaching philosophy later in life.

“Having a hard-core working-class feminist mother as the head of the household at a time when that was a rare thing indelibly shaped who I am,” said Hector. “[She] was a fighter who boldly and actively stood up to injustice. She shaped my worldview and my desire to serve the public good by teaching students to become engaged citizens and ethically responsible artists.”

Hector’s career interests began in high school while taking a film class. He suggests his teacher at the time must have been doing something right, as five out of the approximate twenty students from his class proceeded to have careers in the film industry. Like his mother’s career trajectory, Hector started his career in film in an entry level position and through dedication and hard work moved his way up to leadership roles, becoming a well-known name in Canada’s film industry.

Hector found an unpaid position working as a production assistant on a show called City Lights after hearing about the opportunity from a friend. He continued in this role until City Lights eventually hired him as a researcher, in part due to his knowledge of film history.

He remembers that one day the producer of City Lights had a looming deadline approaching after a previous director/editor had been let go.

“The producer just walked into our open concept office and began asking if anyone in the room could edit,” recalled Hector. “I just happened to be sitting there and he pointed to me and asked, ‘can you edit?’ I said ‘Yes’. He said ‘good, you’re the editor now.’”

Hector said the pay at the time was equivalent to being on welfare, but he learned a lot and gained valuable experience before he eventually moved on to freelancing. His big break came while renting an editing room for his freelance projects. A representative from CBC had come in with a tight deadline needing an editor, so he joined their team.

“We basically had a weekend to shoot and cut a 30-minute documentary,” said Hector. “We didn’t sleep for three days, but we managed. After that, they kept coming back with more projects, and so I ended up working at the CBC for the next 15 years as a freelancer.”

While working at the CBC, Hector became interested in working on cinéma-vérité documentaries in the late 1980s after watching a few documentaries, including A Married Couple, directed by Allan King.

“The films were so real, visceral, and impactful,” Hector said. “I had only really seen the traditional, journalistic kind of documentary, and seeing these observational films that unfold like a drama was very meaningful. It had such a huge impact on me, I just felt like that’s the future for me, and Allan King became a hero to me.”

King made documentaries from the 1950s to the 1970s but switched to making dramas since documentaries were difficult and expensive to make. However, King returned to his true love of making documentaries in the late 90s with The Dragon’s Egg. King needed an editor for the film and reached out to Hector who at this point had a national profile and had won his first Gemini award.

Hector jumped at the opportunity to work with his hero, and did so over the next 10 years, until King’s passing. During this time, the two became good friends. Their collaboration included Dying at Grace, a film Hector said he was most proud of, and which earned him another Gemini Award for Best Documentary Editing. The film became part of the Criterion Collection, and Stacey Donan, Programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival described it as “one of the greatest films ever made in this country.”

Hector said King’s method of working was very unorthodox compared to the traditional method used by most, which involves building a film from the ground up in an additive way. King’s method does the opposite: start with everything and then pull things out.

“That was a radically different way of working on documentary films. It blew my mind and I still do it to this day,” he said. Hector is currently working on a doctorate focusing on King’s documentary filmmaking method.

At about the age of forty, Hector decided he would pursue a master’s degree in film studies at Bournemouth University in England, which he finished near the top of his class.

Teaching future filmmakers

Hector said he felt fortunate that he had the opportunity to work with a golden generation of great filmmakers who gifted him with a treasury of knowledge, and he wanted to share that knowledge with others. In addition to Allan King, Hector said he is also lucky to have worked with other major influences, including Matt Gallagher, Yvan Patry, Naomi Klein, and Sturla Gunnarsson.

He started guest lecturing and giving talks about filmmaking at York University, the University of Toronto, the CBC, the Film Board, and a few other places. He mostly scheduled these lectures on a Friday to not interfere with his work.

“My wife said one day, ‘you always seem happier on a Friday, you should think about that.’”

When he heard about an opportunity to become a professor at the University of Windsor in the Spring of 2018, he decided he wanted to pursue teaching the craft he loved on a full-time basis. He applied, got the position, and made the move to Windsor. Hector came along at the right time when the film program at Windsor was undergoing some changes.

Part of the reason Hector wanted to teach came from his past experience hiring assistants. He recounts working as an editor around the time digital technology was changing the filmmaking milieu. He said he felt students were ill-prepared to work upon completion of their schooling.

“What I saw as an employer, because over the years I hired around 60 assistants, was that film students were often the worst candidates to select as an assistant because there was so much focus on technology being taught, they weren’t learning critical thinking skills. They didn’t know enough about the art and history of filmmaking.”

He said he is proud that the University of Windsor has really embraced the idea of having an arts focus. “It’s still very practical, very hands-on, but in year one we start with ubiquitous technology. We just use cell phones and laptops, we don’t even talk about technology at the start. Let’s focus on the art of filmmaking.”

“The challenge to teaching film is that if you don’t know a lot about it, it just seems very easy and intuitive, but then there’s that moment when you realize, oh my goodness, it’s so much bigger than I ever imagined,” he said.

Filmmaking is broken down into components that are taught step-by-step. To do this, Hector said he uses a lot of practical exercises as opposed to one large project in early program courses. “There’s usually one theme per week. We do sort of a historical basis, unpack the theory and art of whatever the lesson is, and then apply a practical assignment to it. It’s a lot of work for all of us, but the reaction from the students is strong. They’ll say it’s a lot of work, but at the end they learned so much and it was really helpful.”

Hector said assignments were a lot of work to help prepare students for the reality of the film business. “You must have a strong work ethic to be successful in the film business. If we don’t give students a sense of that, I think that is a disservice to them.”

Hector said he fosters professionalism, critical thinking, and analytical skills needed for success in the arts – and in life. He said he wants to help students grow as thinkers and intellectuals, to prepare every student to be able to have a successful life working as a creative artist or technician in the film business.

Despite his previous teaching experience, Hector said he found the transition to teaching full-time a learning process. He said he found getting advice from colleagues was beneficial, specifically, Johanna Frank, Kim Nelson, and Vincent Georgie were very helpful, as well as Erika Kustra and the CTL. Some advice he said he got was to think of teaching as an iterative process: after a course is done, do a comparative analysis to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and over time your course will improve. “There’s a lot of merit in terms of teaching something many times so that you can get very good at it.”

“I’ve learned so much about teaching every day. For me, it’s very much like filmmaking, you learn something every day. There’s so much more to it than I ever possibly imagined in every way.”

For his efforts, Hector received the Kathleen E. McCrone Teaching Award in 2022 awarded by the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. The award considers teaching performance, availability, and the introduction and successful application of innovative teaching methods.

Since filmmaking is the research component of his job, Hector said he still works on films, albeit with a caveat: teaching comes first. “I always make it clear to anybody that I work with: unfortunately you’re not going to be my top priority – my students and the classes I teach are. Luckily, because I’m an experienced person, and have a good reputation, people are okay with that.”

Some of the films Hector has worked on since becoming a professor, include Sharkwater Extinction, Prey, and The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain.

Filmmaking and teaching are Hector’s life. He said he can’t imagine what he would do otherwise, and he would only stop if he was incapable of doing good work. He works 60-80 hours a week, but not in a way that is worrisome. “I get that it doesn’t look like it’s healthy, but if it’s fulfilling, and you love it, then I don’t see a problem. It’s my whole life. I met my wife making films, my social world is made up of film colleagues, I have academia friends who are filmmakers. For 35 years film has been my life.”

He’s reminded of a conversation he had with King a month prior to his passing. “Allan said something like, ‘I can’t go yet. There’s so much more to learn’. You think, ‘yeah, this is like a 74-year-old filmmaker. He’s been making films since he was 20, and he’s saying that.’”

Which brings Hector back to his goal: to help people develop that lifelong love of learning, which is essential for everyday life, but especially for filmmaking.

Peter Marval
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Peter provides expertise in the area of multimedia in support of CTL programs, website design, and special events. He has been doing graphic and web design for about 20 years. He is a graduate of Print Journalism and Digital Media from Conestoga College, and Communication, Media and Film from the University of Windsor.

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