The RAY SISTERS are a directorial duo and, their name would suggest, sisters.
Austin (the younger of the two) and Westin Ray grew up on an aquaculture farm on the California / Mexico border. When they weren’t picking up tarantulas, they were, in their own words, “inventing stories of time travel to Ancient Egypt”, which seems to have served them pretty well in telling stories as a profession. As a duo, the RAY SISTERS are repped by The-Artery
and have shot documentaries in Iceland, North Africa and the Mediterranean, while their narrative and branded content films have picked up awards at the Directors Guild of America, Austin Film Festival and the Savannah Film Festival.
Given the fact that they met at the time of Austin’s birth and hung out pretty much constantly as babies, toddlers and kids after, the official start date of their collaboration timeline is pretty blurry. “We grew up really creative,” says Westin, “always combining our imaginations together to invent stories, write plays or music, and experiment with art and photography.”
"'Tides of Change' was an artistic and arduous environmental dance film that was pulled off against all odds, so it has a soft spot in my heart. Shot in the cold, windy cliffs of Southeast England, with a large cast of young dancers all under the age of 11, and only a few days before the country locked down for a global pandemic. It was a special experience seeing a choreographer design a dance around my music for the first time." Austin on a project she's particularly proud of
As such, they attended the same university for film and TV but, somewhat ironically, their chosen film school wouldn’t allow and actively discouraged co-directing. “It wasn’t until after graduation that we officially combined our talents to direct under our directing duo moniker RAY SISTERS,” adds Westin. “Also, there are a ton of brother duos in the industry, but where are the sister duos with weird, matching boys’ names?”
Their first project was a short film entitled ‘Like Home’, which started with an image that Austin had in her head of a retro, black Royal typewriter buried in the sand. Westin wrote a script and crafted a story around that visual, they cashed in some favour, borrowed a 1965 Mustang and transformed their own house into a 1960s set. “It was the first time we had full creative free rein,” says Westin. “Looking back now, that film shoot cemented our shared perspective and partnership as a directing duo. It was clear that with one look, we knew what each other was thinking. The ‘sister-speak’ was strong, and we each shared the same high standards for our work.”
“Ironically, it’s the only time we’ve done a period piece or shot in black and white,” adds Austin. “But there was a beauty in going back to the basics and focusing on what was important to tell the story. Driving four hours into the middle of remote desert sand dunes to shoot a historical film was ambitious, intimidating, and out-of-the-box, but we had so much fun making it. The process proved to us how seamless the filmmaking experience could be if we put our heads together. Someone once described us as 1+1=3. After working with each other on this project we finally understood what they meant.”
"This PSA makes a strong connection between our current covid-19 pandemic and the exploitation of wild animals in wildlife markets, leading to the increased spread of zoonotic diseases. Across three time zones, ten-hour Zooms, endless cinematography/projector tests, a covid-safe film set and a remote voiceover recording with actress Lucy Liu, this wild project came to life during this unlikely but incredibly relevant time. This project also won us our first Telly Award." Westin on a favourite project
So, what does ‘1+1=3’ mean in practice? Well, the pair admit to joking that separately they are both flawed but together make the perfect human being. Austin believes that Westin has a great nose for predicting problems and finding creative solutions for said problems. “She’s inherently gifted at screenwriting, reading people, directing actors and casting the right ones,” adds Austin. “I’d say I lean on her for her strength, decisiveness and gut instincts.”
Westin adds that her weaknesses are Austin’s strengths and vice versa. “Austin tends to be the more visually minded one, with a strong eye for cinematography. She is also the tech-savvy sister, so I would be helpless without her. File formatting, footage encoding, and exporting are a massive part of our work life. On top of all this, Austin is an incredibly talented musician and music composer and does all the scores for our projects, which is integral to the DNA of RAY SISTERS.” Indeed, Austin has scored films that have won Student Academy Awards and BAFTAs and premiered at Telluride Film Festival, and commercials for BMW and United Nations, as well as winning the 2019 Kinsale Shark Award for Best New Music Composer.
As anyone that has a sibling likely knows, it’s almost impossible to never be frustrated or annoyed at each other despite the love and blood that bonds you. Westin is right-handed / left-brained, while Austin is left-handed / right-brained so their “approaches are quite different” in the way they learn and communicate, Westin says. “Sometimes this can cause friction,” she adds, “but it also makes us complementary collaborators since opposites attract. We sometimes get so laser focused on the daily tasks such as, ‘Did you look at the location photos yet?’, ‘Have you answered the producer’s email?’, or ‘Should we use a drone shot in this scene?’ that we have to remember to take time to just be sisters and check in with each other.”
Austin adds that it can be frustrating when both sisters believe they are right, which reportedly is quite often. “But it’s OK to fight for an idea,” Austin says. “It forces you to defend it from every angle and visualise whether it’s actually going to work. Also being sisters we can go from fighting to laughing in less than two minutes flat. It is a freakishly fast turnaround.”
When it comes to creative disagreement, the sisters are “brutally honest” with each other according to Westin. But that honesty comes from a place of love for the idea or story. “Our guiding compass is to leave the egos at the door and let the best idea win,” Westin says. “Having years of trust and an ‘I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine’ mentality helps us see through the weeds. If you don’t already have that kind of relationship with your sibling, then starting a filmmaking career together probably isn’t a wise choice.”
Being female directors, Austin highlights the fact that having a directorial partner quite literally means that she’s never the “only woman in the room” and she feels like there have been occasions when they’ve been taken more seriously because there are two of them advocating for an idea. “The hard truth is that as women, there is also a safety in numbers,” says Austin. “The #MeToo Movement positively changed things in the film industry, but by simply having each other, we’ve frankly managed to avoid a lot of sexual harassment that our peers have experienced. It’s less likely someone will be inappropriate if we are both there.”
Recently, Austin and Westin shot two music videos back-to-back in Texas: ‘Feeling Indigo’ by Pat Byrne’ and ‘Long Long Road’ by Andrea Magee. “It was particularly helpful to have a co-director in this instance,” says Austin, “as one of us could research images for one treatment while the other locked a location for the other shoot. If you’ve ever wished you could split yourself into two people to balance the workload, it’s something we do all the time!”
At one point during the Andrea Magee video, Austin and Westin found themselves in the middle of an empty field with one chance - and one camera take - to capture a massive herd stampeding around them. “Choosing a lens (21mm or 50mm?), composition (locked off or moving?), and speed (real time or slow motion?) on the spot was nerve-racking,” says Westin. “But we rapidly ran through all the scenarios together and made quick decisions. Before we knew it, 27 horses were galloping towards us. Andrea (being a natural horse whisperer) was in her element, and we’re so glad the shot was in focus!”
Interestingly, the Duffer Brothers (creators of Stranger Things) were the first co-directors they met. “They graduated from our same film school and gave us relatable and encouraging advice,” says Austin. “Sisters Phoebe and Isobel Waller-Bridge (although they don’t co-direct) are an inspiring director and composer sibling duo. And the Coen Brothers…simply for putting co-directors on the map and making conversations with taxi drivers easier: “Oh, so you’re like the female Coen Brothers?!” We wish!” Meanwhile, Westin singles out Jane Campion, Chloé Zhao, Denis Villeneuve, Taylor Sheridan and Megaforce as particular inspirations.
“Shockingly, we’re not sick of each other… yet,” jokes Austin.
“Yes, we are friends in real life too,” adds Westin. “Just yesterday [at the time of speaking], we were on jet skis together in the New York Harbor uncannily close to the Statue of Liberty. Yes, this was legal activity and yes, we had an absolute blast.
“The best advice we ever got was, ‘If you want to make compelling films go live an interesting life’. So we pack a lot of travel and adventure into our personal time – often with shared friends who are also kindred explorers. We surf, hike, immerse ourselves in music – and order Taiwanese boba way too much.”