Many of us have seen the riveting documentaries “HOLLOW” or “Heroin(e),” but we may not know the woman behind them, Elaine Sheldon. Learn more about the highly acclaimed, Peabody award–winning freelance filmmaker.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon teaches a Skillshare course entitled “  Create a Short Documentary Video Portrait  .”
Elaine McMillion Sheldon teaches a Skillshare course entitled “Create a Short Documentary Video Portrait.”

Who is Elaine McMillion Sheldon? 

Elaine McMillion Sheldon is a freelance filmmaker who bases her documentary work in rural America. She lives with her husband, the documentary filmmaker Curren Sheldon, in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is also a professional photographer, capturing moments in the lives of Americans living in rural areas. Sheldon is the founding member of All Y’all Southern Documentary Collective, and her current documentary projects are supported by Chicken & Egg Pictures.

She has been widely praised as an expert on character-driven documentaries and teaches a Skillshare course on how to create a short documentary, in which she shares the nitty-gritty details of her process and walks students through the making of a short documentary film. 

In a scene from Sheldon’s film “Forager,” a young woman collects fruits from around the city of Miami.
In a scene from Sheldon’s film “Forager,” a young woman collects fruits from around the city of Miami.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Work 

Sheldon’s work, which spans 11 documentary films (both feature-length and short) takes an unflinching view of issues and episodes in rural America. A later film, “Recovery Boys,” also looks at the opioid epidemic, following four men as they go through opioid rehab. In 2020, Sheldon produced a documentary short entitled “Tutwiler,” which examines the lives of women who are pregnant while incarcerated in one of America’s most infamous prisons. Elaine Sheldon also co-produced “The Lower 9,” which profiles residents of New Orleans in a post-Katrina world.

Sheldon’s documentary film “Tutwiler” profiles women who are pregnant while incarcerated.
Sheldon’s documentary film “Tutwiler” profiles women who are pregnant while incarcerated.

Her work is marked by fastidious attention to authenticity and artistry, focusing on storytelling. She is an expert in subject prep, and her editing skills are top-notch. Her work allows her subjects to tell the stories of their lives, rather than overshadowing their voices with her own narrative. 

Awards and Recognition 

In “Heroin(e),” Sheldon’s most acclaimed film to date, a small-town fire chief gives a tour of the devastating toll opioid use has taken on her town.
In “Heroin(e),” Sheldon’s most acclaimed film to date, a small-town fire chief gives a tour of the devastating toll opioid use has taken on her town.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon has won numerous prestigious awards for her documentary filmmaking work. She received high accolades for “Heroin(e),” a deep dive into the opioid epidemic’s effects on a small town in West Virginia. In 2018, “Heroin(e)” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject and an Emmy for Best Short Documentary. “Tutwiler” was a finalist in the ONA Journalism Awards. “Coal’s Deadly Dust,” Sheldon’s 2019 project that takes a hard look at black lung disease among coal miners, was nominated for a 2020 Writers Guild of America (WGA) Award and a 2019 Peabody Award. In 2020, she was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. 

Her 2013 documentary “HOLLOW,” which dives into issues in rural Appalachia, won the Peabody Award as well as an Emmy nomination. In 2015, Sheldon was named one of the “50 People Changing the South” by Southern Living Magazine, and she earned the praise of Chicken & Egg Pictures in 2016 when they gave her the Breakthrough Filmmaker Award.

An Interview With Elaine McMillion Sheldon 

Skillshare sat down with Elaine McMillion Sheldon to learn more about her career as a freelance filmmaker, her advice to other creatives, and what she wished she had known when getting started.

SK: What’s your favorite part about working for yourself as a freelance filmmaker?

ES: Freedom. I choose when and where I work and what to work on. I create my own schedule and am much more efficient when I’m working for myself. I also get to challenge myself by taking on new projects and adventures that allow me to learn new skills.

SK: What is the most common question you get about freelancing?

ES: Question: How do you make money? The answer: Not in any one specific way. I make money through consulting, filmmaking, teaching, presenting and producing. You have to diversify your skill set in order to thrive as a freelancer.

SK: What’s the best advice you have gotten about freelancing?

ES: Slow down. Stay focused. Don’t multitask. Find your unique voice and embrace it. Don’t be so precious about your work. Learn how to take, and embrace, criticism by separating yourself, and your identity, from your work.

SK: What do you think is the hardest part about working for yourself?

ES: Freelancers must hold themselves accountable on a daily basis. You have to answer to yourself and keep on schedule and deadline in order to accomplish short and long term goals. You have to be a self-motivated person who continues to work even when know one is watching or caring about what you’re doing. Endurance is key.

SK: What were you doing at 25, and what do you wish you had known?

ES: I was filming “Hollow,” which meant I was living in McDowell County, W.Va., living off peanut butter sandwiches (low-budget shoot), and exploring people’s lives on a daily basis. That documentary took me in people’s living rooms and even deep underground in a coal mine. I worked and filmed every day with no breaks and it was a totally gratifying process. I wish I would have known that six months later I would burn out—maintaining that level of intense work exhausted me physically and mentally. Now, I take more time to take care of myself on a regular basis: journaling, meditating, yoga, running, reading, learning new skills. You can’t completely neglect your mind and body and make meaningful work that will change the world. You have to be able to carry that work into the world with passion, and not be exhausted and spent.

Learn More From Elaine Sheldon

Create a Short Documentary Video Portrait