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Healthy Filmmaking with Liz Cash

  • June 1, 2021
  • Hurlbut Academy
Healthy Filmmaking with Liz Cash

For most filmmakers, managing your health while on set seems downright impossible. Especially when it’s easiest to grab something sweet and sugary to keep you from crashing. And with early mornings and long days, finding time to stretch, meditate, and exercise is quite the challenge. However, in reality, it’s not nearly as difficult as you might think to be a healthy filmmaker. 

As artists, we sometimes get so lost in the project that we forget about our own wellbeing. Fortunately, more and more, productions are supplying healthier snacks and meals. Plus, more health-conscious trends are evermore popular throughout the industry. 

Liz Cash is a growing voice of healthy-living for industry professionals, most notable camera operators. So, if you want to learn how to be a healthy filmmaker, you’ve come to the right place. 

Below, we’ll learn about Liz’s background in the industry and she also shares some insights to enhance your overall wellbeing. 

From Martial Artist to Filmmaking Health Guru

Liz Cash has worked on many productions with industry leaders, such as the Cohen brothers on No Country for Old Men to The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. (Cowabunga, dude!) So, she comes from a place of deep knowledge when it comes to the demands of set life. 

But, Liz wears many hats and has had quite the journey. Martial artist. Boxer. Cyclist. Filmmaker. From a young age, Liz learned how to simultaneously balance multiple interests and to leverage her hard-earned skills to her advantage. 

In the case of Liz, she started young as a martial artist, throwing punches at the age of 5. And even when she went to college in Santa Fe, New Mexico to focus on her filmmaking education, she did so while balancing her progression as an athlete. And naturally, her life as an athlete would inform the healthy decisions she made as an Assistant Camera (AC). 

Women's cycling race

While at school, Liz boosted her fitness to the next level, training as a boxer. And this experience had a profound impact on her. She says:

“All of the things we do on a daily basis can change you, and they have the ability to influence those outcomes…. especially when it comes to things with the body. When people have the opposite experience, it’s very disempowering…. With the work I do now, one of my hopes for everyone is that they get that [advice and] realize that all these little choices add up.” 

Changing Winds to Healthy Filmmaking

After she graduated, Liz pursued a career as a cinematographer. Again, as an athlete, she showed unique discipline and her professor helped her get started in the Local 600. She began working her way up the camera ladder from Camera PA. 

“I kind of got ruined early on,” she laughs, “because my first real gig as a Camera PA was on No Country for Old Men which was an amazing experience. It’s like, if I got to drive a Ferrari when I turned 16, you know, you’re working with the best of the best. And not only that, they are so nice. So I mean, Ethan Cohen introduced himself to me on my second day as the Camera PA. And I was like, wow, this is crazy.” 

Liz worked in New Mexico for a few years, still training as an athlete, until 2008 when she moved to New York City to continue to grow her career. She began working with Eric Swanek, a legendary first assistant, who trained her the ‘right way.’ 

Filmmakers posing on set of No Country for Old Men

“I had many hard, good lessons from [Eric] in the art and craft of being a good camera assistant. And actually, it’s funny how the lineage of camera people works out. When I was Camera PA on No Country for Old Men, Andy Harris was the A Camera first. So my very first job in the business is with Andy Harris. And Andy Harris was also a student of Eric Swanek.” 

Years later, this relationship would pay off. While working on the second unit for Ghostbusters, Andy Harris was brought in to take over the second unit on A Camera. This is when Liz was bumped up to First Assistant. 

“And I was just like, you know, this is the martial arts nerd in me… I’m like, wow, the lineage here is so awesome!” 

Training to be a Fight Choreographer 

While working consistently on second units in New York, Liz took particular notice during fight sequences, especially the style of martial arts. And immediately she thought, “I can do that, too.” 

So, while talking to a fight choreographer, she gave him her spiel about doing martial arts for 15 years and being an amateur boxer for three. Then, he asked for a reel. When she said that she didn’t have one, he simply told her to make one so he can see what she can do. 

“Funny if there’s anything I learned from the movie business, it’s who you know opens all possible doors, right? So, I go to the gym that weekend. I’m talking to my trainer, Chris, like, ‘You know, man, what should we do? I need to make a video.’ And he said, ‘Oh, well, I know a guy who’s a stunt man. Let me introduce you.’ So he introduced me to his buddy. And little did I know some people are always down to shoot a video, because they’re always trying to expand their reels.” 

Simply Go For It!

Liz and the stuntman friend planned out an entire fight sequence and a week later five stuntmen showed up at her Brooklyn apartment, ready to shoot. Up until that point, they had no rehearsal or anything. She had one of her friends shoot the sequence that took 2 hours of rehearsal and 6 hours of filming. 

Woman tapes fingers
Photo by Gabriela Bhaskar, New York Times

“There was a guy who was six foot, 250 pounds. And at some point, we were rehearsing this thing where he was going to throw two punches and [I’m] supposed to block and then he was going to throw a knee and I thought he was gonna throw standing. The next thing I know, he jumps. I wasn’t expecting him to jump. And he knees me in the face. They’re like, ‘Oh, are you okay?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ They’re like,’ Alright, this girl, she’s tough.’”

After slamming around her tiny apartment for hours, Liz eventually received a phone call from her landlord. She recalls the conversation, “What’s going on in there? I’m getting complaints from the neighbors. And they’re saying I should call the cops.” 

Healthy Filmmaking Starts By Recognizing Your Limits

Unfortunately, the encounter also left Liz with terrible whiplash. She didn’t tuck her head when she was supposed to due to a training mishap, and her head snapped back on three occasions. 

“Whiplash can destabilize your spinal stabilizers all the way up and down the spine. Whiplash eventually led to two different shoulder injuries and some sciatica. It basically just caused all kinds of chaos. And that was really when I started having to go back to the drawing board and realizing like, okay, I can no longer just put myself into shape, I need to figure out what’s going on and how to get to the bottom of it. And that was really what opened the door to me thinking really seriously about changing careers [to] PT school. Because there were just so many things going wrong at that time.” 

A Healthy Turning Point

Misfortune struck in 2010 when Liz injured her back, a combination of pushing herself as a competitive athlete and working long hours on set. She was forced to step back from work for a solid 6 months until she sought help at an osteopath in Brooklyn. 

“It was the first time in months that anyone had been able to give me any relief. And I was so amazed and curious, like, wow, what did he do? And also like, how did he know to do that? I started asking all these questions. And that really sort of sparked my curiosity and wanting to understand more about the human body. [Just like] my first experience in boxing where I realized, wow, the human body is adaptable and changeable, malleable. Same thing now in the opposite direction. The human body can get better…. you can really start to put the pieces back together. And I felt like, ‘Wow, I would love to do that for other people.’”

Instructor teaches proper technique

Liz was amazed by what she had learned from her osteopath — so much so, that she decided to switch career paths to help others. In 2015, she received certifications as both a trainer and a nutrition coach. Then, she began turning down work in the movie business. 

“The one, I suppose, advantage of being a little bit older is being able to think back to what you would have done differently if you could go back and do it again. So I decided, if I was going to pursue another degree in physical therapy. Then, I wanted to really learn by doing because I knew that I wanted to open my little facility and work for myself one day.

“And I also knew from the motion picture industry that learning by doing is a really great way to pick things up. So rather than just intending to day play, and take classes, I decided to day play when I could, and train people when I could. So, I could start learning by applying everything I was learning, and therefore come out of physical therapy school really ready to rock.”

Working with Filmmaking Professionals

It began as a happy coincidence when Liz began working with filmmaking professionals. In actuality, it wasn’t her initial intent but because of her network, filmmakers either sought her out or referred other filmmakers her way. After all, word of mouth is the best way to grow your business. 

Female camera operator

“It was a very clear indicator for me that I was on the right path. So as I kept getting more and more positive feedback from the world around me, it just really made me feel like I was on a mission. And also, it was fascinating to see that suddenly all of these seemingly disparate elements of my life up until then, [such as] the athleticism, my experience with injuries, pursuing the Motion Picture world, all these things came together.

“Because, you know, as soon as I started working with camera people, there was this added piece of the puzzle where we’re not just working on the injury, we’re not just getting stronger, we can also really strategize about what gear they should use, how should they set up their hand grips on their camera. All these things that I can speak to them specifically about that no other physical therapists can write.” 

One thing in particular Liz notes is how doctors will tell operators, “Can you just put the camera down more?” And this lack of knowledge for how sets actually work wasn’t helpful to their long term health goals. Liz, on the other hand, advises camera operators based on the realities that are unavoidable. 

Proper Health is Not One-Size-Fits-All

One of the major gripes about the healthcare industry is how advice and treatment doesn’t necessarily consider patients on an individual basis. This is doubly the case for filmmakers, who live a pretty harrowing lifestyle throughout production periods. 

Fitness filmmaker

“When I started teaching my in-person 4-hour workshop, up until that time, I didn’t know that there wasn’t really much education out there for camera people. Other than traditional talk about ergonomics, like, sit up straight, and keep your head over your shoulders and all these things, right? But anyone who’s been on set knows that you can’t always do that.

“I have a client right now who’s six-foot-five on a peewee Dolly. And we’re strategizing about how we can take some tension off his lower back in that situation. He’s too big for the dollies, too big to be in a neutral spine position. That’s where we can now start to talk about the reality. Okay, this is a sub-optimal situation. You cannot be ergonomic in the traditional sense. So now what? That’s what people really need solutions for. So anyway, it’s nice to be able to address the reality people are up against, because people out there are getting hurt in all kinds of preventable ways.”

Liz also points to practical life choices we can make to boost our body recovery time. These include good decision-making in the gym and getting an appropriate amount of sleep.  

But, we should not confuse exercising with overtraining and overworking out. This is a problem that Liz had where she would run 5 miles just before going to the gym and overwork her body with little down time. And she was frustrated about getting in shape and then going on set and losing all her hard work. 

Healthy Filmmaker: Starting Out

To match her well informed philosophy, Liz starts by lowering the barrier to entry by setting a timer for just 10 minutes. That way, whether focused or unfocused, the idea is to get into the habit of doing something without being so intense. She doesn’t feel that it’s constructive to get too caught up in weight and metrics. 

“Weight comes off your shoulders when you just move consistently and you realize, “Oh, wow, I feel really good that I just did that. Cool. The other piece that I know for me was a game changer. And I tried to encourage my clients to think of it this way: Think of movement as an exploration. When we can take the constraints away, now it’s more fun.

“Now you can just sort of tune in. ‘What do I feel when I go that way, what happens if I let the [resistance] band pull me this way while I go that way, or when I go backwards. And just sort of begin to be a little more inquisitive about the process. I think that can be very transformative, and begin to help people be their own best advocate.”

A Healthy Filmmaking Lifestyle 

An issue for some operators who go to Liz struggle because they just want to go, go, go. They want to ride their bike to work, be at work 15 hours, ride their bike home, eat only 1300 calories, sleep six hours, and then go to the gym, and hit it hard again. 

According to Liz, sometimes she has to Jedi-mind trick some of her clients who want to still stick to an unmanageable schedule of 6 hours of sleep, 15 hours of working, on top of exercise. Part of that entails starting small, like getting an extra hour of sleep. Isometric training is also challenging but it targets the brain in very specific ways. 

“For those who don’t know what ‘isometric’ means, here’s a short description. Concentric is the shortening phase of a muscle. So if I do a bicep curl, while lifting the weight, that is a concentric movement. Isometric is when I don’t move. So if I put my hand underneath my desk, and I cannot move the desk, I continue to drive force as if I’m trying to pull my hand towards my bicep. This is an isometric bicep contraction.

“Anytime you hold a sustained contraction, particularly for more than 60 seconds, you will be waking up the part of the brain that has a map of the body. So this is a nice way to improve proprioception, because it’s going to enhance your ability to feel that area. Now, your brain knows where your bicep is, like, assuming it didn’t before.”

healthy fitness for filmmakers

What are the benefits of Isometric training?

“[Isometric training] reduces the sort of adaptive demand on tissue because it’s less inflammatory. So, there are alot of nuanced pieces of the puzzle that I realized quickly I was going to have to start to implement. 

“Another one would be to remove visual feedback. Obviously, we rely heavily on our eyes to perceive that we are upright relative to the horizon. So by removing visual feedback, you’ll be forcing yourself to tune in to what you’re feeling in your body, which is going to potentially improve proprioception. Now, look, some of these are not going to be appropriate for everybody. That’s where you know the devil is in the details. Isometric contractions are super safe. 

“For instance, I had this woman come to me once who had back pain. Lower back pain for like three years. She told me that she had gone hiking on the Great Wall of China. Her back flared up from all of the hiking…. Most tissue damage would heal in like six to eight weeks. So someone who’s had pain for years, probably no longer has tissue damage, they just have disrupted communication from the tissue to the brain and back. Because to put this in perspective, your brain gets sensory inputs from the world around it. And then from the brain comes back motor signals, which means when the sensory piece is missing, the motor piece is going to be disrupted.”

fitness for filmmakers

“So, my assessment includes some hands on stuff. I see how you can react to pressure from different directions. She’s really tense, she’s clearly very guarded and afraid. So I immediately was like, Okay, let’s stop. This isn’t gonna work with her. So I put her face down on the table, which is for most people a very relaxed position. We do some breathing work, because I know that breathing is going to calm her down. And I proceed to do a little bit of this thing called feathering. Feathering is where you make very light contact with the skin, you’re not pressing into muscles, you’re not trying to move the tissue, you’re just basically super light contact.

“Feathering helps to wake and awaken the part of the brain that has the map of the body. So I do some feathering on her back, like anything that she says hurts. And remember, she’s face down and actually can’t see what I’m doing. So I do this for a few minutes. And she says, ‘Well, wow, did you just put numbing cream on my back? It feels so much better.’ And I was like, that’s why I know you don’t have tissue damage. Because this is a neurosensory change. Pain disrupts her ability to feel something so I basically just helped her to feel something else and she no longer had pain. Now we can take her upright and begin to help her use it to better know where she is in space.” 

The Four Hour Body & Proper Nutrition

A solution came in the form of The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. This book had a lot of solid nutritional recommendations and novel approaches that spoke to Liz. For instance, unilateral training has a positive effect on your sleep. Plus, your nutrition is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. 

Photo by Gabriela Bhaskar, New York Times

“Therefore, it enabled me to break away from this idea that I’m going to burn X number of calories to lose X number of pounds. Or that because I did X activity and I burned 1000 calories. Now I can eat 1000 calories worth of junk, which was sort of my mentality until then. Once I had the nutritional foundation, it helped me to consider that my exercise could really be about exploring movements and capacities that I wanted to get better at. And that my nutrition was just a completely separate category about how I want to field disease prevention, just completely separate them two different concerns and focal points. That was really helpful. I was tired of chasing my tail with going so intensely on exercises between jobs, and then not being able to sustain it. 

“Once I sort of was able to step back, just enough to consider maybe there’s a workout I could do in the morning for 20 minutes. And maybe that can continue to inch me toward my goal of let’s say, doing 10 pull ups. Plus, my nutrition plan and program is actually what’s going to help me stay lean.”

The Liz Cash Workshop

All this knowledge was put to use when Liz developed her workshop. She formulated a system to help others, working one-on-one. 

“When I started teaching my workshop,” says Liz, “I had a really great opportunity, which was to step back and ask myself, if I had to learn these things again, what would I prioritize? In what sequence of learning does breathing matter? Why does joint mobility matter? How do hips and shoulders influence spinal tension? So, when I started teaching this workshop with Local 600, it’s funny, the Actors Fund had reached out to me and we had this conversation where they said, ‘You know, we’ve heard about you, and we’d really like to work with you. And you could start teaching this workshop on strength training skills.’

“I was like, here’s what we’re gonna do, we’ll teach people deadlifting and squatting and this and safe lifting skills and all these things.”

filmmaking fitness instructor

But, when Liz studied the on set ailments affecting filmmakers, she decided to switch up her approach.

“Local 600 did a survey about work related injuries of operators. When I got the results, I realized how many people have chronic pain and injury. Chronic pain and injury needs a very different approach. Tissue damage also is going to change the way the brain receives information from the area as well as the individual’s ability to feel the area, which is a problem. How can you use something if you can’t feel it? It’s basically a missing link in your brain.

“So when I saw the results of that survey, I said, Okay, new plan. We are not going to teach these people about deadlifts, and squatting. I’m going to give them the most fundamental knowledge that they need to go forward making better choices. And also to be informed consumers when they go to the gym, or to the physical therapy office, or whatever. So they don’t know whether or not the person they’re interacting with is actually giving them what they need. So, that was when I really formulated this new system about what are the most important things people need to know? Why does it matter? And now how can we begin to address this in a minimum-effective dose approach?”

Heart Rate Variability 

According to Liz, heart rate variability is an indication of how parasympathetic your body is. There are two aspects of the nervous system. Sympathetic, you can of as active, say, if you need to run for your life, or be highly alert. Parasympathetic is the part of the body that is responsible for down regulation. So at night, you should be parasympathetic when you’re digesting food. 

“Heart rate variability can tell you basically how well you are recovering and how restorative your sleep is. Heart rate variability is a nice metric for people in the motion picture industry who are Type-A [and who] are willing to respond better to data. We deal with cameras. We’re used to thinking about things in sort of numerical ways. So heart rate variability is a nice tool I like to have people use. That way they can see in the morning how well rested am I. And therefore, what is my next best choice? Would I be better off to go for a walk? Or am I ready to do an intense workout? And that way, we can start to temper this inclination to go hard all the time.

“The piece that I think people don’t understand is that your brain and your body don’t know the difference between beneficial stress, as we often think of exercise. And detrimental stress, like your 16-hour day on set or your five hour night of sleep last night. Your brain doesn’t know the difference, which means we can only adapt to what we can recover from. And so the exercise piece has to be fit in such a way that we’re not tipping the scales so far towards your whole life being stressful. And we’re talking about emotional stress, financial stress, like all of these things count.” 

Consistency is Crucial to a Healthy Filmmaker

Now, there are some outliers who can handle the stress and not feel pain and still have an effective sleep. But this isn’t the norm as Liz emphasizes when referring to a long term solution. It’s important to engage in practices that allow you to be consistent. That way if you end up with a really busy nine months of work, you’ll still have options in place to keep your body moving and feeling good, rather than not doing anything. Because if you stop cold turkey, it affects your movement, capacity, quality, and overall health. 

“Exercise is catabolic. So when you exercise, we are not getting stronger. When we rest from our exercise is when the anabolic process can happen. That’s when we get stronger. This is why when I was boxing, and my coach had me seven days a week, twice a day, it led to me feeling like I didn’t want to box ever again. And I couldn’t sleep and my body’s like shutting down. You know, it’s too much.”

You Can Be a Healthy Filmmaker

Living a healthy lifestyle isn’t out of reach for film industry professionals. By making the right choices from your nutrition, to exercise, and understanding your body’s needs, you’ll enjoy more energy and happiness. But it all begins with retraining your brain. Remember, a healthy filmmaker is a happy filmmaker! 

Liz also encourages her clients to rethink what exercise means to them. Rather than think that you always need to push hard, what if your exercise was just a way to stimulate adaptation rather than continually stressing the body? 

“Think of it as a stimulus, what is it that we want to stimulate? Do we want to prioritize skill based training, or do we want to prioritize strength training? I would suggest that efficient movers are very skilled movers, and especially as an operator.” 

If you would like more advice on how to maintain a healthy filmmaking lifestyle, we recommend following Liz Cash on her socials.

To learn more about Liz Cash, her philosophy, and workshops, check out her Instagram for tips and videos or visit her website

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