It goes without saying that a young man’s professional pursuits are often influenced by his father. "Things started for me with my dad back in the ’80s," says Michael Gebben of Alton, Ill.-based Gebbs Total Video. "He used to make movies with Super8 film and he was a wedding photographer, so he had that in his blood."
In 2000, Gebben began co-producing short films with his father. "Then we made one in 2004 called The Vault that made it into some film festivals and won some awards," says Gebben. In high school, he filmed plays, produced a video yearbook, and shot his first weddings. After graduation day he set out in pursuit of a life as a professional event videographer. For Joshua Smith of Monroe, La.-based CinematicBride, receiving an early birthday present from his father (his first camera) and working with his local church got him in the game. "I basically began filming weddings at my church when I was around 13," says Smith. "I really enjoyed it and started shooting more weddings for friends."
At 14, Smith decided to start a business, shooting 2–3 weddings a year for $150 per wedding. Two years later, he began exhibiting at bridal fairs. "It was around that age when I finally knew that that was what I wanted to become and really started developing the business. I’ve stuck with it ever since," he says.
Darrell Aubert, the Allentown, Pa.-based founder of Event DVP and Aubert Films, also discovered his passion for event filmmaking while working with his church "filming ceremonies and doing video on events that were going on throughout the year," he says. "And people who had different organizations involved with the church had us do videos for them."
The "us" Aubert refers to is himself and his longtime friend Jordan Oplinger. Oplinger got his start in his teens when he borrowed money from his parents to buy a Sony VX2100. "I got a job as a busboy working at a diner for a couple of years to pay that off," he says. "Most people were saving up for cars. I was paying off my three-chip camera." He shot his first wedding at age 13 with his father as his second cameraman.
Working with Adobe Premiere, Photoshop, and 3D modeling application Blender 3D allowed Aubert and Oplinger to venture into the world of 3D special effects, staging epic battles in their backyards. "We were real fans of The Matrix and sci-fi movies in general. We tried to duplicate things we saw in those movies on our own, so we learned how to use 3D animation programs to put in bullets and light sabers," says Aubert.
Trying to start a videography business before you can legally drive a car presents some obvious logistical problems that most videographers (amidst all the other challenges of breaking into the business) don’t have to worry about. "Before I could drive, I think the biggest issue was just getting a ride" to an event, says Oplinger.
"When I’d shoot with Jordan, we used to go to these weddings, and we’d drive with his mom in this big van," says Aubert. "We had to have a constant chauffeur. It was really embarrassing."
Aubert got his driver’s license fairly early on, freeing EventDVP from parental transportation, but the support of a parent was something Aubert has for the most part had to work without. "I like to call what I do a business. My dad likes to call it a hobby," he says. "My father didn’t want to have anything to do with it. He felt that video production was a waste of time and that it would interfere with my studies."
Perhaps the most disappointing but least surprising hurdle these young videographers faced was age discrimination. In one instance, Aubert says, "Jordan and I teamed up for this one job at our high school. Prom was coming up. It was my senior year. We’d seen the prom video the year before and it was terrible, like something we did when we were 14. We put in a proposal to the student government that we would do it and create a video yearbook that we would fill with different events from throughout the year, not just prom. Like any bureaucracy, the school took forever to make a decision. The student committee wanted to hire us, but the advisors wouldn’t allow us to do it because they felt like we weren’t responsible enough, or wouldn’t make it on time. They couldn’t officially hire us to do the videos, which meant they couldn’t pay to preorder the full set of DVDs as they had in the past. So the students came to us privately and said that there’s nothing stopping us from creating the video and just selling the DVDs individually. So that’s what we ended up doing.
"We knew the people in charge of the morning announcements so we ran an advertisement for a month straight. We ended up doing pretty well. We totally got everything in on time. And I got to see the advisor who was against us doing this buy her copy. She had a terrible look on her face."
"It’s tough," says Oplinger, "when somebody says to you ‘we don’t think you can get the job done because of your age’—when we know full well that a lot of our work is on par with people who have been in the industry for years." Age discrimination comes in many forms. "I did have a couple of people who I thought were kind of weirded out by my age," says Smith. "I’ve also dealt with clients in the past who will come to me and say, ‘We know you’re new at this. We want to get you, but we want a better deal.’"
Discrimination from clients has only been part of the trouble for Smith though. "The main thing I’ve dealt with was some other vendors in this community who hate my guts. I’m known as ‘The Kid,’" he says. "I’ve tried to be nice to them." Thankfully not all encounters between young videographers and their more grizzled colleagues are negative, especially as the elders learn how serious these younger videographers are about their profession. "When I first joined the Greater Philadelphia Videographers Association (GPVA), I got a couple of ‘Are you here with your dad?’ comments," says Oplinger. "But once you establish yourself, actually talk to these people, and let them know that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re up on current issues, it changes."
What has helped Oplinger gain respect among his peers most effectively are the frequent show-and-tell sessions facilitated by the GPVA. "At our meetings, members are allowed to show content. And when you put a clip up there that you can really be proud of and know it’s on par with the rest of the group if not better, at that point people realize it’s not about age—it’s about what you can do," Oplinger concludes. And these young videographers have already proven their ability to accomplish many things.
They Got Skillz
Since filming his first wedding at age 13, Oplinger has shot between 20 and 25 events, including school plays and weddings, as well as 5 to 10 corporate/concept videos. He’s worked for the local branch of the Penn State Lehigh Valley Writing Project, covering a seminar and producing a 15-minute corporate video.
The first eight weddings Oplinger shot were under his first company’s banner—Cornerstone Video Production. Aubert had started his own company around the same time, and before long their friendship led to a formalized partnership. "We got to the point where we thought, ‘Why don’t we just join forces here?’" says Oplinger. "We did half a dozen weddings together, a real estate corporate job last year, and that high school yearbook."
The two have since gone their separate ways professionally, with Oplinger focusing more on the creative aspect of videography rather than the business side. "About a year ago I started working more with Dave Williams. I realized that I didn’t want to be in the business aspect of things. What I really liked was the editing, being able to make something from nothing," he says.
Oplinger met 2006 EventDV 25 honoree and Glidecam pioneer Williams at a GPVA meeting. "I started out as an intern for him, and am now doing a lot of editing and 3D After Effects work," he says. He’s also recently become more heavily involved with office and project management, as well as what he describes as "helping Dave keep his sanity."
Oplinger took his professional interests so seriously that when deciding how to fit his responsibilities as a working videographer into his senior-year schedule, he followed the advice of a guidance counselor and graduated a year early, skipping on to college, where the more flexible schedule could allow him to follow professional and academic pursuits. He’s currently an 18-year-old freshman at DeSales University in the film program, and he plans to transfer to Temple University to study broadcasting.
Aubert, on the other hand, has stayed independent, intent on building his business as a videographer with special talents that are gaining widespread notoriety. "I make pretty good money doing my own video productions, but I’m also shooting for other videographers," he says. "I’m developing relationships with a lot of videographers who want my skills. I’m pretty skilled with the Glidecam Smooth Shooter. That’s what I’m known for."
In fact, he’s held in high enough regard that many videographers have had him flown in to help on shoots and to teach videographers how to use Glidecams. Dave Williams also impacted Aubert’s career significantly, introducing him to the Glidecam and showing him the basics on his rig.
Aubert now owns his own Glidecam rig. It was actually the third piece of equipment he bought. His first, by necessity, was a camera, the story of which holds a special place in his heart. "I had the money to buy the camera on my own from working at a Boy Scouts camp during the summers, but my dad actually bankrolled me for my first camera," he says. "He knew I wanted to do this but he didn’t want me to go out and spend all my money and have nothing." So he bought the camera for his son and he offered an open-ended loan.
But unlike Oplinger, Aubert found that the business side of event videography held as much appeal as the creative. Currently a student at Temple University, Aubert says, "I’m not a film major; I’m in business. Something I’ve realized through the years I’ve been in this business is that some of the most successful people also have the worst video. People can be great at making video, but if they can’t sell it, they’re not going to make any money. To me, people who are going to film school are wasting their time. They’re learning how to make the product; I’m learning how to sell it. This industry is a natural-talent industry. If you don’t have it, you don’t get it."
For Gebben, the decision to forgo post-secondary education in favor of the school of life was an easy one. "I’ve always been an entrepreneur," he says. "I’ve had a job since I was ten years old. And the internet is just a plethora of information. So I decided I was going to give this a shot. If things didn’t work out I could always go on to school," he says.
Gebben’s first break came early on with a stroke of good fortune. "About six months after I got out of high school, a family friend who was really willing to help me out bought a building where I have a full studio set up," he says. "We opened in May 2006 and it’s amazing. I never dreamed of having a studio any time soon."
Gebbs Total Video now has employees, and despite its name the company is far from being a totalitarian operation. "I’m the main head honcho, but it’s really a team effort," Gebben says. "They’re employees but they’re really friends." Two of his cohorts work full-time, with a handful of others working on an as-needed basis.
Although its main focus is weddings, Gebbs Total Video has produced events as far afield as an Ed Hardy fashion show, and the company’s work has been acknowledged with a DV award for a same-day edit as well as a MarCom Creative Excellence award for a promo video the outfit did for a photography studio.
The biggest thing Gebben has pushed for is to increase the value he’s giving and receiving with his projects. "Before I had any type of rates for my weddings I did maybe three or four at $500. Last year I was only at $900, and this year I’m up to about $2,000. I’m trying to work smarter, not harder," he says.
And it’s paying off. In his third year in business, his revenue is already $10,000 over what he projected in his original business plan.
Gebben also prides himself on pushing the creative and technological envelope. "We’ve done something that we don’t think has been done before. It’s a 3D wedding. You can actually wear 3D glasses and see things in three dimensions," he says. They took two identical Digital 8s and shot the same event from two slightly offset angles, then combined footage from both cameras to create the 3D experience. "It was just a test but it came out all right, and I think we could go somewhere with this, offering it as an extra add-on to our packages," he says.
I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide
For Joshua Smith, business is booming. "We booked 45 weddings last year, and got the opportunity to do a lot of cool weddings," he says. Many of these weddings took them to faraway places. "I did a really neat wedding in Vancouver for the Prime Minister of Cameroon’s son," he says. "I did an Indian wedding in Arizona that went on for four days." And in his biggest coup to date, Smith found himself shooting video for a wedding in Maui that will be profiled on an episode of VH1’s My Big Fat Fabulous Wedding, a series covering extravagant weddings that cost more than $500,000. "I can’t explain how awesome it was," he says. When the episode airs, it will feature footage shot by Smith.
But VH1 was only his first brush with fame. Earlier this year Good Morning America ran a short feature on Smith on national TV. And he’s currently working with the Lifetime network on a wedding show in which they will give away a $100,000 wedding. He’s doing a lot of promotional work for this project, and when they shoot the wedding, Smith will be behind the camera as well as in front of it as they interview him about his work.
Destination weddings have been a particular area of emphasis for Smith. "I love traveling, so I really enjoy destination weddings. It’s really fun to experience the different cultures," he says.
Though he’s booked "only" 24 weddings this year after doing 45 in 2006, nearly every one he’s shooting is a destination wedding. Through all this he’s been able to find business at the price he felt his work was worth. "These days we start off at $5,000, and we’re doing well at booking many around $6,000–7,000, and some are even around ten grand," he says. What Smith feels has really supercharged his business has been his desire to follow in the footsteps of photographers and spend more time with clients through the creation of bridal elegance videos. "Everything has kind of exploded in the last year, and it really had a lot to do with our bridal elegance video that we won an award for at WEVA. For some reason that really broke the mold for our business, and people started paying more attention to us," he says.
"What I wanted to be able to do was spend some more time with a bride and get to know her. I see how photographers get to have a very personal relationship with the bride and groom. As a videographer you go to the wedding and that’s it," he explains. "What we’ve found is if we do a bridal video we’re able to connect with them before the wedding day, and get to know the bride’s personality, what she likes. Then when we go to edit the final video we’re able to nail it. Plus I really enjoy doing it because I’m able to be extremely creative and do things you can’t do at a wedding, like stage shots in a field or in a downtown area."
Smith markets one bridal elegance package that includes a plasma screen TV to use at the reception and 40 DVD copies to give out as party favors. Also noteworthy is the fact that Smith has recently opened up a second videography branch, focused on his local market. "Now that we’re in the destination world, we lost the local market, so we’re trying to take that back and get more business coming in," he says. "We’re going to be training different local people to shoot local weddings for lower budgets."
A few months ago Aubert began employing a similar strategy, splitting his business between high-end (Aubert Films) and low-end (EventDVP) productions.
Keeping Their Attention
With videographers like Gebben, Aubert, Oplinger, and Smith having accomplished so much at a young age, it begs the question: Will the event video industry—and the wedding video field in particular—be able to hold these men’s attention as they plot out their careers?
"I’d love to always do it on the side," says Oplinger. "But at this point in my life, I’m not sure if I’d want to do it full-time. I could definitely see myself in a studio environment, working in news or TV production. I’m not sure if I want to go into the Hollywood machine."
"I don’t know where I’m going to be in five to ten years," says Aubert. "My goal is to own my own video production company full-time, whether that be corporate work or high-end destination weddings. Maybe I’ll own two companies. I know I want to be in video production. That’s my passion, so I know I’m going to be involved somehow."
Gebben has begun pursuing entrepreneurial interests where he can provide his videography services in trying to get companies off the ground. "We’ve got a local website called RiverBender.com that covers my whole area," he says. "We film different local events and put them on their website[s]. We’re just helping the guy who started this out because we’re friends with him." And Gebben is helping another friend start up a production company in Hawaii, featuring a vacation package that gives travelers access to mopeds, a yacht, jet skis, a car, and a video package. When they film a wedding, it will be broadcast over the internet live for people who can’t be there. The endeavor is called Hawaiian Dream Productions, and Gebben plans to fly to Hawaii in January to help work on developing promotional materials.
But the current leader in the area of glamorous and diverse entrepreneurial exploits is Joshua Smith. "I try to add as much variety as possible because I don’t want to get burned out," he says. One of his passions is working for a New York clothing company as a fashion photographer. "I like doing weddings, but I wanted to do more," he says. And by learning the photo industry, he believes he will better understand the mechanics of cameras and the fundamentals of framing shots. He’s also stepped further outside the world of event video to create business opportunities for himself. "I’m a partner in a business where we’re creating a DVD series to teach mothers how to take better photos of their kids," he says. They want to partner with major companies like Microsoft, Dell, Wal-Mart, Costco, and ShutterFly.com to help with distribution. They’ve released their first DVD to moderate success and are now aggressively advertising their second release.
Smith is also in business to create tools for fellow videographers and photographers. "We hired a software designer to design some software to convert people’s videos to FLV files," he says. "People were constantly emailing us with questions about how to get their content into Flash, so we thought, why not invest in creating software that can do that for them? When finished, it will accept any kind of video, and after converting [the video] into an FLV file, [it] can upload directly into the appropriate folders via FTP. It will be a very simplified one- or two- button process."
Smith cites the opportunities he’s had to rub elbows with successful executives across the country as holding incredible potential for taking his career in a number of different directions. With all these different opportunities before him—and the remarkable success he’s enjoying as a wedding videographer right now—Smith isn’t trying to define too much of his future too soon, even if he does know where he ultimately wants to take all this. "My goal is to eventually go into the movie and music video worlds. That’s what I want, but I’m letting my business take me where I’m going," he says. Much like his fellow 21-and-under wedding video prodigies, Smith says, "I’m happy where I am right now. Even if I do move on, I’ll probably still be doing weddings for fun, but it just depends. I don’t know how far this market will take us."
Geoff Daily is a frequent contributor to EventDV and a contributing editor to Streaming Media.