Armed with a camera, a PC or Mac, and a commercial software package such as Adobe Premiere, anyone with ample reserves of creativity, vision, and skill—but not necessarily cash—can start a videography business. Here's a look at a half-dozen who've succeeded, their business models, the markets they serve, and the tools of their trade.
July 2003|Videography is a popular business these days, and with good reason. From wedding videos to corporate training and marketing videos and all the way up the ladder to broadcast production, there are a variety of opportunities available for videographers to drum up business. Digital production takes many forms, from high-end Avid editing suites to PCs customized for video production to Mac G4s or off-the-shelf Dells. What machine a commercial studio uses depends not only on the taste and the budget of the business principals, but also on the types of video production they intend to do.
Today's tools put the video business within reach of the one-person shop. Armed with a camera, a PC or Mac, and a commercial software package such as Adobe Premiere, a person with creativity and vision (but not necessarily deep pockets) has the ability to start a business. That's not to say that anyone can do it. Videography still takes great skill and talent, and editing is an art in itself, but off-the-shelf tools open the door to a segment of the population that once might not have been able to afford the price of admission. Yet there are plenty of players competing in the corporate video market and some companies try to straddle the line between consumer and corporate.
This article looks at six video businesses that cover a range of styles to give you a sense of the different faces of commercial videography, as well as the types of work afoot in today's digital studios, and what it takes to make a go of the videography business.
Atlantic Video Productions
- Market: Broadcast Video
- Editing Tool: Apple Final Cut Pro
- Workstation: Mac G4
- Camera: Sony UVW-100
- Web site: under construction
Kevin Weyl has been in the broadcast business on and off for over 30 years, and his company, the Amherst, Massachusetts-based Atlantic Video Productions (AVP), is a full-service production agency geared toward broadcast media and offering a full menu of services including production, editing, duplication, and placement. He has clients all over the world, including Fortune 100 institutions, government agencies, and individuals, and his deliverables span the spectrum from infomercials to training pieces to content for the Web and Web design and programming support.
Even though AVP often takes on projects that require a large crew, Weyl keeps costs down by keeping his staff streamlined at a single full-time employee—himself—and picking up a crew for each shoot. "I feel like the company needs to reflect a flexible approach to production," he says. "Money is always an issue, so rather than create overhead to pass on to customers, I stay as lean as possible so I can be where I need to be in the budget process."
Weyl understands that in his end of the video trade, he has to be proactive about generating business. Unlike wedding videos, where a proprietor may have a Web site or advertising budget, Weyl explains that companies looking for his services aren't going to take this route. He says, "The work I get, I get by being proactive in trying to get work. I provide an expensive product and customers aren't going to buy the product off a demo reel or brochure or ad in the yellow pages."
For each project he undertakes, Weyl likes to invest in new equipment. "I am a firm believer in having your own gear," he says. "When I got involved in production on a full-time basis, I was renting at the beginning because I didn't have the money to make a substantial investment. Every time I have a substantial project, I buy stuff that I need, so I can own as much gear as possible." This way the work pays for the equipment, Weyl says, and he doesn't have to incur substantial debt to keep his equipment up-to-date.
Weyl does his own rough cuts in-house using Final Cut Pro, but he farms out final production because of the significant investment involved in purchasing a high-end editing suite such as an Avid system. His deliverables vary from DVD to VHS to Betacam (for broadcast stations) depending on how the final product will be distributed.
In a time when most video producers are using digital cameras, Weyl continues to shoot using Betacam because, he says, "I have a wonderful camera that I know how to use and I get great images with it. I would challenge almost anybody to tell me the difference between digital video image and an analog image if it's properly shot, and as far as I'm concerned, I much prefer a warmer image, which is more of an analog look, in video especially, and if you go to film there is nothing better."
- Markets: Business, Family, Wedding, Duplication Services
- Editing/Post Tools: Adobe Premiere 6.5, Canopus DVStorm2, Sonic ReelDVD, Adobe After Effects 5.5
- Workstation: Customized PC workstations designed by 1 Beyond in Somerville, Mass.
- Cameras: Canon XLS1 and JVC DV500
- Web site: www.diginovations.com
You could say DigiNovations founder and CEO Michael Kolowich came full circle when he built his fully digital video production studio in Concord, Massachusetts in 2001. Kolowich began his working life as a broadcast reporter and after successful stints in high-tech, publishing, and consulting, he sold a high-tech publishing company he had helped found, and began gravitating back to video production.
"After we sold NewsEdge Corporation about four years ago, I decided to start thinking about going back to my roots," Kolowich says. "During that period of time, I had always had something going in video and I was getting more and more gear in my house. I was doing a lot of things for not-for-profit organizations who couldn't afford video production." People began encouraging him to start a "real" video business, and about a year and a half ago he started DigiNovations.
DigiNovations is really two businesses. On one side of the business, they offer services such as family memory preservation, tributes and biographies, weddings, and other family-oriented services. On the other side, they provide high-end digital video production for businesses, such as documenting customer success stories or producing introductory videos for businesses and institutions such as one they did recently for MIT's newest lab.
When he shoots a video, Kolowich says he tries to create a documentary feel. He cites as an example a wedding video that's available on the DigiNovations Web site. "The story was that it was an outdoor wedding on a cliff on Martha's Vineyard, a mile walk from anywhere, and the day before the wedding, there was a tropical storm bearing down on the island." Kolowich explains that the video used a documentary style to capture the tension everyone was feeling and the superstitious rituals they undertook to keep the rain away. The storm never materialized, but Kolowich applied his documentary skills to make it part of the story.
Kolowich says that DigiNovations does most of its own videography, working entirely in DV format, and they do all of their own editing on digital video PC workstations developed by 1 Beyond, Inc. in Somerville, Massachusetts. They run a Windows 2000 network with Adobe Premiere 6.5, Canopus DVStorm2, and Sonic ReelDVD. Kolowich handles most of the script writing himself. They farm out work that requires special skills, such as running the remote camera mounted on a 35-foot crane for a video they did for Trinity Church in Boston, or the 3D animation used in the MIT lab video.
For non-linear editing, Kolowich believes it's best to use effects in moderation. "I feel that we have a much bigger special effect toolkit than probably should be used," he says, referring to Adobe AfterEffects 5.5. "I tend to go for a cleaner, more classic style unless there is a specific segment that calls for it. Generally, with the exception of classic effects like slow motion and slow dissolves, I don't use the effects palette to the extent I could."
Gabriel Solomon Productions, LTD.
- Markets: Wedding, Family Events, Business
- Editing Tool: NewTek VideoToaster
- Workstation: Custom-build PC from Videology of Ossining, New York and optimized to work with VT
- Camera: Sony DSR 300
- Web site: www.gabrielsolomon.com
Gabriel Solomon has been in the video business for more than 12 years, the last 10 on his own, and he knows how to keep his business growing. "My bread and butter is weddings and other social events," he says. "I pick up additional work by doing a little bit of corporate work through my Web site or through other sites I post my work to."
Solomon is the only official employee, but he has a small, dedicated team that he trusts and works with on a regular basis. "I'm not really working with a list of videographers and photographers," he says. " I have a team of people I feel comfortable with and I focus on marketing with them only. If I can't handle the job, I don't want to rely on an unknown and potentially jeopardize having a satisfied customer."
Solomon counts on word-of-mouth to generate a lot of new business, but he also gets work through his Web site, advertises in newspapers, and has several caterers and country clubs that recommend his services. "Some of them actually fax me a list of leads, as they have customers booking their services."
Most of his customers still want the final product delivered on VHS tape, but he has a Panasonic DVDBurner he uses in-house to make a straight copy to DVD. He farms out anything fancier to a DVD production shop. Solomon says a shop that specializes in this type of production can produce the DVD a lot more efficiently than he can.
Solomon's been shooting weddings for so long that he says has an idea for the story before the event even begins, so he doesn't have to think about scripting in a strict sense. When shooting a video for a corporate client, though, things are more structured. "If I do a more business-style video or more corporate project where you have a five- or ten-minute video, every second has to have a reason," Solomon says. He always works from a script for a corporate client, then gets approval, after which he builds a shot list before shooting the video.
When he prices a video, whether it's corporate or event, he usually has a set fee in his head, based on experience, as to how long it will take him to shoot and edit. By talking to his clients, he can get a feel for what they want and how long it will take him to complete the production, but he says he usually tries to price it so that there's some room for negotiation.
Magic Wedding Videos
Tired of life in the corporate world, Fred Hickler decided to pursue his passion for video and start his own business, the Chicago-based Magic Wedding Videos. "I've been doing video all my life and about a year ago decided to do it professionally," he says. He chose to concentrate on wedding video, saying that its "documentary feel" appealed to him.
He started by doing one wedding for free to get a demo reel, then began to build a business by designing a Web site, contacting wedding planners and photographers, and going to an occasional wedding trade show. He's reached the point where he is getting word-of-mouth business from satisfied customers and has added a "testimonials" page on his Web site. So far, he's satisfied with the results, and the business is still growing and developing. In fact, he is almost completely booked for weekends this summer, only his second in the business. He says that he is just getting to the point where he doesn't have to do other types of work to support himself. Says Hickler, "They say any new business takes a year to get profitable, and I think that's true."
He currently books only one job a week because, he feels, between shooting and editing, that's about the most he can handle as a one-person operation. Hickler tells his clients that the video will be ready three weeks after the wedding day, but he usually gives them a preview before the final cut just to be sure it's going in the right direction. He says, "I just want to make sure they like it and it's not going in a direction where there is a serious problem."
Hickler tries to stay away from a fixed pricing list because he wants to be as flexible as possible. "I like to treat the whole thing creatively," he says. "Talk to them. Find out what they want and find out what their budget is. I try and fit in what they want to spend. I don't have a menu of packages and prices."
When all is said and done, Hickler is happy with his decision to start his videography business, even though he made more money in his corporate design job. "I think it's worth it because I enjoy the creative freedom of the wedding work."
A Moment in Time Video Productions
Although David and Susan Lewis officially launched their wedding video business in 2002, David had been working in the video business for 12 years. When he was looking to launch his own videography business, weddings seemed the logical way to get started, and his wife seemed a logical partner. Susan Lewis says her husband wanted a business where he could use his full range of skills. "It was where his passion was," she says. "He was trying to find a way to get into this business and he decided weddings was the way to go because there was a lot of creativity involved, and he wanted to use his creativity."
During the week, Susan Lewis is a kindergarten teacher at a private school, but on weekends, she joins her husband for video shoots and acts as his assistant running a second camera. David does all of the editing and sets up most of the shots. Although the business just launched a year ago, it's already been a tremendous success: they're already booked every weekend from May through October this year.
They promote the business via typical channels including setting up their own Web site, advertising in wedding magazines, and attending bridal shows. In addition, they are listed in several online sites such as the Wedding & Event Videographers Association (www.weva.com; see Sidebar. page 4) and Massachusetts Wedding Guide (www.mawedding.com). They work off of a set price list for their products and services, offering a range of packages to suit different budgets. For example, they begin with the ceremony, and then people can add pieces such as the rehearsal dinner and reception. They also may include a photographic montage with background music.
David uses Adobe Premiere and Digital Juice Jump Backs. He has also developed some effects from scratch. In general, he likes to use soft fades, dissolves, and wipes. Most of their customers want delivery on DVD, although they may have to make VHS copies for family members. They prefer to deliver the DVD in the DVD+R format and report no compatibility problems with customers' DVD players. Lewis says they rarely outsource, providing full services including creating custom artwork (made from wedding shots) for the DVD case inserts.
- Markets: Corporate, DVD Production, Duplication, Equipment Rental
- Editing/Post Tools: Avid DV Xpress, Avid Media Composer
- Workstations: PC and Mac
- Cameras: Betacam SP with Sony UVW 100 for Betacam SP; Sony DSR 300A DVCAM for DV; Sony VX1000 and Sony VX2000 for MiniDV
- Web site: www.peopleproductions.com
People Productions in Boulder, Colorado, employs eight people, working mostly with local corporate clients developing videos for training, marketing, sales, and other purposes. In addition, they allow their customers to rent equipment for editing and also provide DVD production and duplication services. "We've been moving toward the philosophy of being a full-service vendor," says Rosalie Sheffield, who's in charge of business development. People Productions has been in business for 17 years and over that time they've seen the business change. "We started as a traditional film and video production company, and we were one of the first, over ten years ago, to get digital editing equipment in-house."
Sheffield explains that corporate sales and marketing are the core of their business, and they can work with a client through the entire process from script writing to shooting to final production, or they can take somebody's raw tape and produce it for them. They will also transfer finished VHS tape to DVD where they author the DVD, breaking the story into chapters, producing the final product, and providing duplication services. When they talk to clients, Sheffield says, they need to look at how people will receive the finished product—whether they will be at home, at work, or offsite at a company meeting—to determine whether the final delivery will be on VHS, DVD, or streaming video on the Web. "The production side is still the core side of our business," Sheffield says, "but the delivery methods have been changing over time."
With a staff of eight, the firm has most of the skills needed to cover every task in-house, but they will contract out specialty tasks such as animations or DVD duplication runs of over 500 copies. In addition, they work with a list of local freelance talent when they need additional staffing for a shoot. Sheffield says their goal is to do as much as possible in-house where they have maximum control over timing, but that's not always possible.
Sheffield says that they try to create visually rich pieces when they produce video. They like to use layering as a way to add a lot of information and make the video more visually interesting. While they may use quick cuts or a moving graphical background, they tend to shy away from conventional effects. "It's more about layout and balancing the visual elements," she says, "but I wouldn't say it's about using kooky and crazy effects." Sheffield says the company confines most of its marketing to the local Boulder area, promoting business through the yellow pages, their Web site, local trade shows, and advertisements in online and print business listings. "My focus is that there is a lot business right in Boulder County," she says, so there's not the need to look elsewhere.
WEVA: Guild by Association
Event videography, which encompasses weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, and just about any noteworthy personal event you can think of—and several business equivalents, like groundbreakings, conferences, and the like—is one of the hallmarks of small-shop videography. As these small shops proliferate in virtually every locale imaginable, event videography has become a big enough business to support its own trade organization, the non-profit Wedding & Event Videographers Association (WEVA).
WEVA runs an annual conference (WEVA Expo; this year's begins on August 25 in Las Vegas), but its true reflection of the localized nature of the business comes in its multi-city "Town Meeting" tour. The association's Web site includes everything from membership information to forums to a "Find a Videographer" service to industry news, featuring product announcements on video tools and the like. WEVA also boasts a newsletter and a video-on-demand component called WEVATV, with features like a members-only "Battle of the Editing Styles" piece.
Other member services include local chapter development, as well as topic-specific committees on camcorders and NLEs and the like that seem to act as lobbying groups with the vendors of relevant products. Like other industry organizations, such as the DVDA, WEVA is partly comprised of businesses that compete with each other; thus, members can also avail themselves of the intervention services of an Ethics Committee designed to settle member-to-member disputes. WEVA also sponsors an annual Creative Excellence Awards program.
Studios and videographers can sign up for membership at www.weva.com.
—Stephen F. Nathans
COMPANIES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
1 Beyond, Inc. www.1beyond.com
Adobe Systems, Inc. www.adobe.com
Apple Computer, Inc. www.apple.com
Avid Technology, Inc. www.avid.com
Canon, Inc. www.canon.com
Canopus Corporation www.canopus.com
JVC Americas www.jvc.com
Sonic Solutions www.sonic.com
Sony Electronics Co. www.sonystyle.com