Studio Time: Take 1 Productions
Posted Jun 1, 2008

Don Pham always plans to lose. The creative force behind Take 1 Productions’ dramatic wedding cinematography certainly doesn’t want to lose, nor does he think he’s going to lose. But he plans for it nonetheless. "I need to know what I’m going to do if I fail at something," he explains. "I always plan for the worst and have countermeasures in place for it." It’s a logic that some videographers might consider self-defeating, but for Pham, there’s no other way.

In his mind, he’s chosen not one profession, but two that could be doomed to fail, because they "make something out of nothing." And he loves them both. From 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., every Monday through Friday, Pham is a senior manufacturing engineer for General Motors. During his 21 years with the company, he’s become the resident expert on aluminum hood assembly processes and systems. His troubleshooting prowess has even earned him the nickname "the Phaminator"—a tribute to the apparent ease with which he "terminates" problems. "As an engineer, I am very detail- and goal-oriented," he says. "Being in charge of designing the processes that make car parts includes purchasing the right equipment; designing the manufacturing process itself; overseeing the building and installation of a manufacturing line; and troubleshooting the line." From all that work, he adds, you get "a car part that was once only a piece of steel."

Filmmaking, he reasons, is its own form of engineering, albeit a more artistic one. "I make a movie with a storyline out of an event that’s [basically] controlled chaos," he explains. "When a client books me, it’s up to me to produce a movie with the storyline I choose to create, with the music I feel enhances the moments captured, and with visuals and audio that complement each other."Indeed, he readily admits that "the rewards of filmmaking are more satisfying. There’s nothing like seeing a bride full of joy after she views her movie in my studio. In what other profession," he asks, "can you meet total strangers, be part of one of the most important days of their lives, and create something that will affect them emotionally and that future generations will cherish forever?"By his own admission, Pham goes "from GM mode straight to Take 1 Productions mode" and back again with regularity, but he thrives on the duality. In fact, he expects to keep up the multitasking until he retires.

Under the Hood
Some 8,600 miles separate Pham from his native Vietnam. Born in Saigon, Pham was 8 years old when his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1975. Following stays in various refugee camps, they settled in Michigan, "starting a new life from nothing."

From the experience, Pham says he learned that "life is what you make of it. No one owes you anything, nor are you entitled to anything. You may have to work twice as hard as the next guy because you’re different, but if you don’t, opportunities will pass you by." He put those observations to good use early on, starting his own band (and playing three instruments) when he was in high school. He also wrote his own music and dabbled in photography and videography, "filming family events and even a friend’s wedding."

He met Joanne—the woman who would become his wife on Nov. 8, 1991—while pursuing an engineering degree at Wayne State University. She conceived the idea of Take 1 Productions and encouraged him to pursue it. "I had always wanted to have my own business," Pham recalls. "We were about to purchase a TCBY franchise, but my mother-in-law, who owned two TCBY stores at the time, discouraged us from doing it. Joanne then suggested that I get into the videography business."

They launched Take 1 Productions in 1993, with Pham handling the primary shooting, editing, production planning, and administrative tasks (including website maintenance and blogging), and Joanne handling the PR, assisting clients, and providing secondary camera support. Like her husband, Joanne has another gig, working part time as an occupational therapist. They’re also raising two sons and a daughter.

For 10 years, Take 1 Productions operated from a rented studio space, but eventually the couple decided to bring the company into their Waterford, Mich., home. "The nice thing about having the studio at home is that I can always stop what I’m doing to spend time with my family," Pham says. "We sit down together for dinner at least four times a week. I try to attend most of my kids’ events. My wife and I try to have date nights. Sometimes, my daughter will just sit and watch me edit. They all look at my work and critique it. And they all want to try it."

figure 1 Outtakes
Pham markets his work as "stylized movies," using techniques such as music overlays, natural audio, and voice-overs to enhance the story and capture special moments "in a dramatic and artistic fashion." His target audience, he says, are "brides who usually value video more than the typical bride and are willing to pay for it." (His rates begin at $4,200 for 6 hours of coverage. "As the number of hours goes up, I add more options," he says, noting that the average client books an 8-hour package.) "I make sure clients have viewed the samples on my website and blog to get a sense of my style and that they know I only do shortform," he continues. "I also make them aware of our starting price before we set up a demo. Once clients come to see me at my studio, I know they’re looking for more than just a typical wedding video."

Over the last 15 years, Pham estimates he’s done 15–20 weddings and 3–5 corporate jobs annually. When asked if working part time has hurt his business, he says, "For our clientele, there’s no negative effect. It doesn’t stop our brides from booking us, nor does it have any bearing on the relationships we have with many of the vendors we work with. The brides view the quality and uniqueness of our work, and that’s all that matters to them."

The industry, on the other hand, isn’t always as open-minded. "Unfortunately, certain videographers do look down on the studio that’s part time," he says. "They automatically perceive [part-timers] as weekend hobbyists who don’t take their work seriously. I definitely don’t consider myself a weekend hobbyist; I consider myself an artist who’s true to the vision of event filmmaking."

At the same time, he can appreciate the challenges full-time videographers face. "Their success or failure dramatically affects their livelihood," he says. "If you have a day job that provides a steady income with health insurance and benefits, you can take more risks in developing style and be aggressive in your pricing. My hope is that our achievements will help other part-time studios gain the respect and credibility they deserve."

figure 1 Re:Birth
Pham is certainly no stranger to industry honors, having been named to the EventDV 25 all-star team in January. To date, his studio has earned 10 Artistic Achievement Awards from The 4EVER Group and a Creative Excellence Award from WEVA, as well as Telly and Aurora awards for outstanding video production. Pham is also a member of the Re:Frame Collective, and will be presenting a seminar on his process of shortform editing at Re:Frame 08.

Yet another new venture competing for Pham’s attention is Don Pham Films (DPF), an extension of Take 1 Productions he’ll launch in late August. Available by referral only (at least initially), DPF will offer a mix of high-definition and Super 8 film formats. Pham says the venture will also use different shooting techniques and provide a higher level of client interaction. He envisions it for high-end clientele and will charge accordingly, with prices starting at $10,000 for 8 hours of coverage. "I don’t know if it will be successful or not," Pham acknowledges, but "being a part-timer allows me to be more aggressive in my business decisions."

Regardless of what happens with DPF, Pham expects to keep one foot in "the corporate world" for at least another 10 years; his other foot likely will remain firmly planted in videography far longer. Ever the problem-solver, he’s determined to elevate the profession. "I want to do my part to advance the industry to where video is considered a ‘must-have’ rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ for all brides," he enthuses. He’s committed to his own improvement as well: "When I was starting out, I didn’t view my creative skills and time as commodities," he says. "Now I view myself as an artist and am willing to charge for my services as such. I also thought, at one point, that I’d learned all I needed to learn to be a successful videographer. My work was good—or so I thought, until I came across some other studios’ work."

He calls that discovery a "turning point" for Take 1 Productions. "I realized then that I had to be willing to learn, to change, and to view things differently," he explains. "To stay ahead of the game, one has to keep moving. I haven’t arrived yet—nor will I ever, really—as there are always new things to learn and implement. You have to keep evolving to become a master of your trade."

Marla Misek Clark (mjmno1 at aol.com) is a writer and editor based in Alexandria, Virginia.