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Studio Time: Howard & Sam Neill's Cape Video
Posted Jun 13, 2007 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Cape Town videographers Howard and Sam Neill aren’t South African natives—they were actually born in Zimbabwe (née Rhodesia) and met and married there in the late 1960s—but they’ve called their adopted country home for 31 years. "We have a great love for Africa and its people," Howard explains. "If we were ever to leave this place, it would be as though a part of us had died."
 The 63-year-old videographer is no stranger to change: he’s witnessed dramatic changes in both countries he’s called home, and he’s gone through professional changes, too. A former member of the British South Africa Police (the national police force of Rhodesia, which he left before Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister and it was renamed the Zimbabwe Republic Police), Howard says he "stumbled into videography, totally naïve in all respects" in late 1994, when he bought a Panasonic RX11 VHS-C camera, a cheap tripod, and a 50-watt camera light and "put the word out amongst friends that I was ready to shoot weddings." He concedes that he "took up videography comparatively late in life" but says "the seed was planted" when he was a teenager. "Showing a natural aptitude, I was given full control of the family video camera," he recalls. "I also studied books on the subject. That was the 1950s, so the books were very conservative in what they taught. That tends to be my style to this day."

The larger political and social changes in southern Africa over the past several decades affected its citizens profoundly, and the Neills were no exception. "We moved to Cape Town in 1976, because it was becoming obvious that Mugabe and his henchmen were going to become Rhodesia’s future government," Howard explains. But South Africa was going through its share of changes, too. "South Africa has been changing ever since I have known it," he says. One story from his first visit to the country, in 1965, illustrates the point. "I was living in Rhodesia, which was a multiracial country, and I had come to Cape Town on holiday to visit my folks, who had retired there. They had a black maid, Felicia, who needed a ride. When I said that I could take her, my folks replied, ‘You can’t do that! You will both be arrested.’"

At the time, he continues, "Sex [between people of different races] was against the law and would result in imprisonment for both parties. The fact that Felicia and I were riding in the same vehicle would lead to the assumption that we were about to break or had already broken the law." By the mid-1970s, he adds, "things were changing, but each step forward was dismissed by the government of the day as ‘window dressing.’" Black South Africans endured brutal segregationist laws and battled back via countless resistance movements, both peaceful and violent, but the end of apartheid, in 1994, helped usher in an era of multicultural diversity (spawning the "Rainbow Nation" nickname the country enjoys today). Other socially progressive policies would follow, including the recent legalization of same-sex marriages. (The country is one of only five in the world that allow such unions.)

figure 1Learning Curve
Howard launched Cape Video a mere eight months after South Africa’s first democratic elections. His first booking, in January 1995, was at a wine farm in the Paarl Valley (less than an hour from Cape Town). He was paid 400 South African rand (roughly U.S. $50–60 in today’s market). "That’s what we get paid now for one hour of overtime," he marvels, "but I loved the experience and the excitement of covering a once-in-a-lifetime event. The clients were delighted with their video. When I look at it now, I think I didn’t do too badly."

Even so, the experience taught him a lesson that changed the scope of his business. "At that wedding, I could see the need for B-roll footage," he says. "After that, Sam joined me as a second shooter. Twelve years later, we are still a team. Each of us knows precisely what the other is going to do at any given moment. We work with a precision that comes from many years of practice."

Indeed, their roles are well-defined. "Being a husband-and-wife team has advantages. You have both the female and the male perspective," he explains. "Having been through the weddings of our two children, we can relate to the bride, the groom, and the parents. Sam covers the bridal prep while I am at the church. As a rule, there is no coverage of the groom getting ready. This is a South African thing and is not just confined to us. We team up for the service in a three-camera, two-operator shoot. After the service, I cover the hugging and kissing while Sam packs the gear in the car. It works best this way, because I have a height advantage when working in a crowd. At the reception, I cover the photo shoot and the guests mingling. Sam covers the reception venue and table details and shoots the toasts. I also have the third camera on the speakers as a backup and use the second camera as a roving camera to get reaction shots. I sleep better knowing we have that backup footage."

The Neills function as a well-oiled machine these days, and their business model has changed very little since Sam came on board. Their first joint project came up unexpectedly just two weeks after Howard had shot that first wedding. "Some friends were getting married and their videographer had taken ill," he recalls, "and we were asked to step in, as a paid job, at the last minute. The groom lent us his video camera and it became our first two-camera shoot." In their first year of business, the duo shot 14 weddings—three of them "freebies for family and friends." Of the remaining 11, Howard says most were referrals—friends of friends "who had blind faith in our abilities."

The following year, the Neills partnered with a brand new venture in Cape Town called Celebration House. Considered a "one-stop shopping" resource for area brides and grooms planning their weddings, Celebration House has been one of Cape Video’s leading sources of email inquiries. Another year would pass before the Neills shot their first multiracial wedding. "We had been booked for that wedding for a while, and it was only when the bride and groom came to meet with us, a week before the wedding, that we discovered it would be multiracial," Howard recalls. "Another followed fairly soon after that. We now do perhaps one or two [multiracial weddings] a year." They’ve yet to shoot a same-sex wedding, "but if we did," he says, "we’d approach it the same way we do all our other weddings: conservative old-fart style."

Though "other work has crept in by stealth" over the years—including school concerts, funerals, corporate events, and birthday and anniversary celebrations— Howard says Cape Video’s bread and butter is weddings. "We just gravitated straight to them," he says. "When we started, I didn’t even consider that we would shoot anything else." By his estimate, they now do approximately 30 weddings a year. Their standard fee is currently 5,400 rand (roughly $750, depending on market variances) but will rise to 6,000 rand (roughly $850) in December. "These prices seem low by overseas standards," Howard explains, "but it’s in line with the going rates here."

Both partners have learned to edit, becoming more proficient through practice, networking, and research. In their first year of business, Howard absorbed as much knowledge as he could by reading industry magazines; in recent years, he’s become a frequent Video University poster and an active member of both WEVA and the Digital Video Association of South Africa. "Our strategy, if you can call it that, is to always strive toward self-improvement," he explains. "Watching [our old work] now, I can see how our shooting style has been influenced by Video University" and certain industry veterans, though he declines to name names for fear of inadvertently leaving someone out. "Through their guidance and encouragement," he says, "our art form has been taken to a whole new level."

Howard Neill

In Retrospect
Of the historical shifts he’s witnessed in his lifetime, Howard is fairly circumspect. "The changes in South Africa have not affected us personally," he explains. "We still live in the same house. We still have the same friends. Within our circle, the younger people have been leaving to start new lives overseas. This is because of the lack of employment opportunities here and the perceived threat of crime."

Still, there isn’t much he would change. "We are fortunate to live and work in Cape Town, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world," he says. "Everywhere you look, you have snow-white beaches with crystal-blue water and stunning mountain vistas. If I had to do it all over again, I would have become a wedding videographer many years before I did."

Marla Misek is an Alexandria, Virginia-based editor and freelance writer.

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