In the 5 years since Kristen Souders began Bliss* Video Productions in West Hollywood with the bluntly stated goal of creating wedding video "that actually doesn’t suck," her self-described "couture" approach—heavy on film—has earned her top dollar and attracted an elite clientele. Couples arrive at Bliss* exclusively on referral from event planners with an average budget of $12,000 for a classic "art film" of their wedding day.
With formal training in photography and filmmaking from the Academy of Art in San Francisco (where she later opened a second boutique), Kristen* (her nom d’art) shoots the majority of her weddings on sync-sound Super 8 and 16mm film, hand-selecting film stocks and tailoring each piece to her couples’ distinct "vibes."
Her clients’ musical tastes play a vital role in their resulting wedding film. That’s fitting, as it was music—music videos, in particular—that inspired Kristen* to pursue filmmaking. After watching her first music video, a-ha's "Take On Me," Kristen* says her fate was sealed. "I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’" she remembers.
As a senior, Kristen* shot for a Bay Area wedding video company part time, a job that fit her like a hand in a white satin glove and—she would realize later—seeded the idea for Bliss*. She explains, "I had been maid of honor in three of my girlfriends’ weddings and a bridesmaid in four. I knew weddings."
After graduation, her planned migration to Los Angeles stalled, so she thought, "I’m really good at shooting weddings, and I feel like I really get the clients." So she took a job at another wedding video company for about a year and a half. "They were still editing on Casablancas," she recalls. "I was an Avid editor, and Final Cut had just been released," so she updated the company’s postproduction system. But the directing bug bit harder, and she finally packed her bags for L.A. to begin work on feature films and shooting music videos for MTV.
Bliss* Is Born
In 2002 Kristen* started Bliss* as a side business to supplement her income, a common practice among artists. Her experience shooting for two Bay Area wedding video companies lent her a firm grasp on the task at hand. As for the name of her company, she explains, "I knew I wanted the asterisk, and I kind of had this visual look … and the word just popped in my head." Bliss* perfectly reflected her goal for her productions: "ultra hip, yet still timeless and real." In that first year she booked five weddings. She recalls thinking, "Oh, this is cool." What happened next was even cooler. "My name got passed through the industry like wildfire. Here was this girl who had a film background and who came at it a different way. My phone has been ringing off the hook ever since." The very next year she booked an impressive 53 weddings.
That overwhelming response is a testament to Kristen*’s "different way," which combines her particularly feminine approach, the artistic flair she and her editor bring from their tenure at MTV, and her cinematic expertise. Whether her clients want a fast-cut video documentary with a "unique edge" or a romantic, slow-motion, "decadent wedding film," Bliss* brides can expect "visual excellence, discreet professionalism, and modern sophistication."
No Cupid’s Arrows
While Bliss* offers video packages starting at $7,000, nearly three-quarters of her productions are film-only and more pricey. These pieces are less literal than the video productions and more "atmospheric, nostalgic, and surreal." The majority of Kristen*’s film work is 8mm. Although a handful of clients have expressed interest in 35mm, the cost is quite prohibitive, not to mention the logistics of securing completely different equipment. As an alternative, Kristen* suggests Super 16, which she says is "a much better option because it can be blown up to look like 35mm."
She begins by selecting film stocks based on the location of the wedding, usually a mix of slow grain stocks and 500-speed film for greater latitude. Kristen* works closely with lighting and event designers to ensure that natural light is used whenever possible so that she can capture events as they are seen by the naked eye without having to wash them out. As for the camera noise you get with film, she says her brides (most of whom probably have a few family memories captured on Super 8 gathering dust in an attic somewhere) find the purring of the old cameras calming. "Couples love the sound of film," she says, "because it reminds them of their childhood."
This retro quality is part of what makes her pieces timeless. But authenticity is paramount to Kristen*, and she believes that imposters such as fake film effects stand out like a Kodachrome sailboat in a sepia-toned sea. Kristen* is adamantly opposed to shortcuts that strive to emulate the look of film. NLE filters or effects packages and plug-ins that mimic film’s frame rate or add "damage" are too obvious, she says, and a sure way to date your video (and not in a good way). Most of these filters go too far to prove the point, she argues: "Film isn’t that scratchy; it isn’t that messed up." For a comprehensive comparison of film and film effects, see the June 2006 article Reeling in the Years.
"I equate these fake film effects to the exploding cube of the ’80s," she says. "I want to create a video that’s timeless, regardless of the medium. Film effects are going to be looked at like Cupids and arrows opening up a video, or the storybook opening. They’re a bad gimmick."
She demands the same caliber of film expertise from her freelance shooters and editors, hiring only those with film backgrounds. She says with a laugh, "This is a double-edged sword though, because you deal with a lot of attitude toward the wedding video industry."
But when she tells them, "No, that’s not acceptable. Don’t make it look like a wedding video," they can take it to another level. "I can say, ‘I want you to shoot this and I want it to be very Virgin Suicides’, and they immediately know what I’m talking about."
In postproduction, Kristen* often sits in on the telecine, which she does through Spectra Film & Video. "It’s here that I do a lot of creative transferring. I can really work with the film." Kristen* believes the quality of the telecine can make or break the look of the film.
Depending on the mood she’s going for, she might create a super-saturated or blown-out look, or play with the frame rates. "Many times I will be forced to shoot at 18fps in low-light situations and will specify to Doug (my transfer guy at Spectra) that that part needs to be transferred back at 18fps. Otherwise, it’s going to look like a Charlie Chaplin movie!" Sometimes, though, she intentionally speeds or slows the motion. Since she can switch to B & W during transfer or apply selective coloring to the flowers or the bride’s lips, for example, Kristen* shoots primarily in color. "I prefer to switch to B & W in transfer rather than in FCP. For me, film color correction is more of a polishing tool than a style tool."
Raising the Bar
"Hey look, we’re not lame and cheesy!" has become a mantra of sorts for Kristen*. She combats that common perception of the wedding videography industry by networking with photographers and other talented event filmmakers such as same-day editor extraordinaire Jason Magbanua from the Philippines, Bruce Patterson of Cloud Nine Creative, Inc., Walter Chelliah of DeFiNiTiVe ProjX, and Darrell Aubert of Aubert Films, through WedFACT, the Wedding Filmmakers Alliance of Creative Talent. WedFACT is a collaborative of "people who want to learn how to grow and do really sophisticated work, as opposed to being a video factory."
These are Kristen*’s words of wisdom for videographers who want to raise the bar in their own work: "Wedding videographers are too crafty. They want to create their own DVDs, make their own effects. To go after high-end you have to open yourself up to hiring great artists who can help make a more sophisticated product," she advises. "Doing that costs money. If you want to get into that market, you have to be able to invest."
Still, she laments the fact that there are many creative couples who can’t afford high-end. This winter she is launching a sister company, Get Hitched Films, which offers couples with modest budgets a sophisticated wedding film shot on Super 8. In the coming year, Kristen* also hopes to get back to her roots and open up her schedule to make time for nonwedding film work in Hollywood, while simultaneously following her Bliss*.
Elizabeth Welsh is a freelance writer and editor based in Madison, Wisconsin.