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As a sound mixer, Janet Urban has over 26 years working in the film industry, she has an Emmy under her belt, multiple nominations, and a resume full of impressive names like Darren Aronofsky, Damien Chazelle, and Peter Berg. But how did she get there? 

Many young filmmakers who move to Hollywood have no grasp of what it really takes to make it in the entertainment industry. Janet Urban has set out to help others break into the market and achieve their goals the way she did: by thinking outside the box. 

In 2010, Janet Urban founded Friends in Film, an educational organization that offers training from film professionals on how to navigate and build a career in the professional word-of-mouth film industry. She teaches an A-list Work-Study program that helps students start their career on professional film sets and move quickly into crafts like acting, producing, production design, and costume design. Friends in Film has students in major cities around the world, such as LA, Atlanta, New York City, London, Toronto, Vancouver, and Sydney.

In these programs, Urban encourages young filmmakers to carve their own unique path. Her own journey started in Wisconsin, where she graduated from UW-Madison with a business degree in marketing and international business. It wasn’t until later that she discovered her passion for film. She quit her corporate job and backpacked around the world for 2.5 years. In Kenya, she came across a film crew and realized that her dream was to work on wildlife documentaries. 

Rather than apply to film school, Urban flew to South Africa, the only country in Africa with a major film industry. From talking to the filmmakers, her sense was that the rules in film were different than in the corporate world: Since it was a gig-based business, she sensed that you found work by knowing people in the industry and impressing them with your attitude, skills, and work ethic. Instead of taking on debt from school, she preferred to get right into the action.

In Johannesburg, Urban called production companies and sent resumes, but eventually realized she needed to focus on her passion of wildlife filmmaking. Watching nature documentaries made in South Africa allowed her to identify major players, who she contacted and flew around the country to meet. This led to work on a documentary, The Elephant Relocation Project, and acting in a commercial shoot in Namibia. 

It was during her first foray into politics and news that she learned the value of documenting extraordinary moments in person. She flew with a crew to Bophuthatswana, a homeland of South Africa, to put on the local news. What they expected to be a simple job put them at the center of the 1994 Bophuthatswana crisis. Urban was able to complete the shoot and news reporting, but the crew was threatened and had to be rescued by mercenaries hired by the production company. Being there to capture history on film was an incredible experience that made her want to continue in working in documentaries.

Later, by reaching out to an American war photographer, David Brauchli, who was in Johannesburg covering South Africa’s 1994 elections, she met a group of photojournalists. Known as the Bang-Bang Club, they referred her to a job as a runner for ABC News. This unique experience covering the election of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid helped her get meetings at the BBC in London, meet wildlife filmmakers, and tell a unique story when she later moved to Los Angeles. 

Her continuous studying and networking led to her working with greats such as wildlife filmmaker Jeff Foott. Her connections snowballed, and she found herself in the career she desired. 

Currently, Urban works as a sound mixer for commercials and documentaries. Her most recent project was the Netflix documentary Taylor Swift, Miss Americana. She now teaches the methods she used to break into the industry at Friends in Film. According to Janet, it’s about courage. Be obsessed with your craft, do great work, and have the courage to go after what you want.

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About 

Lisa Smith is a freelance writer, critic and editor. Lisa researches and writes about film and television, fashion, books and ideas.