The Canadian Women Behind Some of the Internet's Favorite Music Videos

Alyssa Pankiw and Nev Todorovic help run Young Astronauts, a sprawling digital media company best known for its iconic music videos.

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Sep 15 2015, 9:00pm

Image via Young Astronauts / Instagram

It is very hard to pin Alyssa Pankiw and Nev Todorovic down for a drink. The two members of the Young Astronauts—a Toronto-based "interactive and digital media production company" also run by technical director Tyler Savery—cancelled our first meeting because of a last minute trip to Seattle for a secret meeting at Starbucks HQ. Five days later a flight to LA at 4 AM got in the way of our late night drinks. Eventually, we gave up on an in-person meeting and settled for chatting on Skype.

This was, of course, understandable. At 27 and 26, respectively, they've created some of the biggest music videos of the past few years, working with Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea, Big Sean, Janelle Monae, Cody Simpson, and Justin Bieber, among others. Their video projects have a combined view count of almost 2 billion, but are actually only a small part of the Young Astronauts' work. The group also manages ad campaigns, runs media campaigns for TV shows, builds websites and apps, and produces and directs films. Recently, they added artist manager to their list of many jobs. Their first client, W Darling, has already signed a deal with Universal.

I talked to the young entrepreneurs about the multidisciplinary workplace, Canada vs. America, and starting a business with your friends.

Broadly: How did you guys start working together?
Alyssa Pankiw: We met at Ryerson University in Toronto. Both of our degrees were housed in the same building. I was taking journalism and Nev was taking radio and television arts. We were basically the Romeo and Juliet of new media studies, because the two faculties were meant to be rivals for some reason.

Nev Todorovic: One day I offered to help Ally in the computer lab—I think she was complaining about Final Cut or some other editing program. Now, years later, I'm still always happy to help her when she's yelling at her computer.

Alyssa Pankiw: Nev and her business partner, Tyler Savery, started the Young Astronauts in 2008 while they were still in university. I got there a little later. I had been working on The Next Star, which was like American Idol for Canadian teens. Then I joined up with the Young Astros as a freelancer to deal with some extra work, but we never really stopped being busy, so I stayed.

Was it stressful to start a company with a bunch of your friends?
Pankiw: It's always terrifying doing contract work, or starting your own business, or being your own boss in any capacity. I actually never even decided to do that—I just fell into it. I always thought for sure I'd need a routine to be happy, but now I don't know what I'd do if I had to do the same thing over and over again every day.

Just because we're young, our creative isn't free.

Did you ever have a hard time getting taken seriously as young people, especially when you were starting out?
Pankiw: People realize pretty quickly not to question our expertise just because of our age—a few people have made that mistake and I've had to set them straight and tell them, "No, just because we're young, our creative isn't free." That's sometimes a hazard—people telling you that working with them is an "opportunity"—but you learn to avoid those people and companies pretty quickly.

Pankiw: Also, in our industry, being young is an asset, because you're in touch with what's beyond the horizon, so if anything, we're sought out because we can help companies with terrifying things like interactive videos or "the Twitter."

Do you ever worry that you're casting too wide a net with your projects, or is this what working means now?
Todorovic: I think wearing a lot of hats is just the nature of the game now. We're always asked to pick one thing to focus on, but being stubborn has really helped us find success. It's really wonderful having such a diverse team of talented people who can really make anything we come up with.

Pankiw: You'll find yourself replaced by someone younger than you who knows more about computers if you aren't able to do more than one thing. It can be confusing for some people—my mom still sometimes tells her friends I'm a journalist because she's not quite sure exactly what my job is, because we do so many different things, so the Ariana Grande thing helped out with that. To her, I exclusively make Ariana Grande videos.

I don't know why women directors are so rare. We obviously produce cool shit.

What's it like being two women running a company in a male-dominated industry?
Pankiw: I could write an entire essay on this, but really, it's surprising how easy it is to be a woman in film. That might be a shocking answer because obviously the ratio of men to women, especially in directing, is terrible, but that's also why it's so, so severely disappointing that there aren't more women working in film. I really can't say what keeps women away from film, but it might just be the feeling of "Oh, I don't see myself represented in that field—it must be hard to be respected in that field." And that might scare some people away from elbowing their way in to the industry. It's a vicious cycle. I don't know why women directors are so rare. We obviously produce cool shit, so more executives and decision-makers should realize that it's really not a risk to hire more women and fund more of their projects.

Todorovic: We're also fortunate, because we're our own bosses--a lot of women aren't as lucky as we are. It doesn't matter if it's film, or design, or technology, in any industry that's male-dominated, I think the main thing to remember is that if you don't see opportunities presented to you, you have to start making your own.

You guys work a lot in America, but are based out of Toronto. What's the working climate like for you back home?
Pankiw: We are never at home, even when we're in Toronto, because our jobs always kind of happen at the last minute and we're constantly back and forth between two cities. It's strange in terms of video production, because you'd think we'd get more support—a.k.a. funding—in our hometown, but the music video industry here hasn't changed in years.

Todorovic: With the technology side of our company, there's so much opportunity and work in Toronto. We constantly have design and web projects up here and it's a big reason why this is our home base. It's what's made everything else possible and something that's so important to us.

When you think about the future of the Young Astronauts, where do you guys want to go?
Pankiw: Eventually, we'd love to be making our own feature films and funding more of our own content—almost functioning like a studio, promoting and funding more female-driven, -written, and -directed content.

Todorovic: We'd love to function like Pixar or Disney, like, a company where anyone's ideas can be made a reality in any creative field, whether that be apps, games, music, movies, toys or clothes. We'd love to be known for always being innovative and pushing the boundaries—also secret doors in our offices that lead to very fancy bars.