Caught between two camps. The self-inflicted war between my photography and my videography.

Not angry, Just a bad case of RPOF (resting pissed off face). 

There's something disturbing about being stuck in the middle between two disciplines. From one side I feel the comforting tug of having done something for decades, with all the security that implies; and from another side is the lure of something different and new, along with the enjoyment of mastering new information, new techniques and new hand/head skills.

I started the year out by shooting five video projects for three companies and I'm currently in the pre-production phase of another big video project for February. Things are going well and I've made only a few, non-fatal, missteps. In the realm of photography the year is off to a slower start with only a handful of portraits, along with some still photographs taken during video projects to round out a campaign.

There's a lot to love about video. The process can be much more complex. From scriptwriting to editing there are just so many details to keep straight. The projects take more time to finish but this also means more time to bill. And each facet can be a profit center for a creative content business; from the rental of my gear to the charges for auditioning music for music beds.

Photography has its own, different attractions. It's so much easier to do the pre-production. And the post production. The projects don't last as long, which plays to my attention span. Most still photography projects are shot, post processed and billed in the space of 48 hours. A nice, steady cash flow stream.

But juggling both is hard work. Harder work than just knuckling down and choosing one over the other.

I spent a quality hour and a half at our local U.S. Customs office. I was getting my form 4457 stamped. But I was waiting behind a man who was hellbent on arguing with customs about something I could not quite understand. He was angry, they were angry and by default, I was angry. I've never had to do this before. I usually just drag along a couple of camera bodies and three or four lenses when I head out of town. When we worked out of country in the 1980's and 1990's it was a time when major companies had in-house travel departments or contracts with big travel agencies and things like visas and forms were handled by brokers and third party suppliers who had accrued some expertise in working through the system. Not so now. Everyone is on their own and scrambling to get their receipts uploaded to Concur.com. Now you get your own form 4457 filled out. Part of the production.

This push and pull between photography and the moving arts isn't some new religion I picked up on my way home from Costco.com one day. I've tumbled in and out of it for a long time. It all started when I was the creative director in an ad agency. I would come up with a creative concept and write a script for a television commercial and it was expected that I'd be at the shoot to make sure the production matched the concept, and that the talent read the words in the same way I intended them.

In those days most of the commercials I worked on were filmed on 35mm film which would be timed and transferred to two inch tape which would be edited and color graded and transferred to our distribution (tape) media. It was mostly analog back then so you started big so as not to lose too much quality on the way down the stream.

Somewhere in the late eighties or early nineties I got bit hard enough by my fascination with the process to buy a Bolex Rex 5, 16mm film camera along with an Angenieux 12-120mm lens. I used it mostly to shoot black and white Tri-X movie film. We shot several commercials with that camera before I lent it to a young film maker, from whom it was stolen.

By then I was interested in Super8, which was going through a nice resurgence. We used it for anything we could. My favorite project was for a company called Tech Works. We shot a beautiful talent, (Lou Ann Lofton) in an office, being demonstrably bored waiting for her computer (which had too little memory -- remember, the client made memory) to finish rendering something. Lots of dramatic black and white clips, close ups of clocks ticking away in slow motion, beautiful girl drinking coffee with a look of angsty disgust, a mean boss who kept looking at his watch....

I shot the entire first half of the project in black and white Super 8 with the Nikon R10 and then, after the (fictive) installation of ample memory, we shot the last half in glorious color, using a Sony Betacam. You know, like the Wizard of Oz movie; we're in Kansas so it's black and white. We're now in Oz so it's all in color.... The film was a big hit at one of the annual Apple Developer Conventions they used to hold.

My next plunge down the rabbit hole came when Canon introduced the XL-1 video camera. Interchangeable (big, white) lenses. Incredible zoom ranges. And the then current rage amongst enthusiasts: Hi-8 videotape.  Had to have one. My favorite project with that camera was my Coffee film which I did in conjunction with then "nobody", Rene Zellweger.  I had her walking down a steep hill downtown in five inch heels, in a tiny black dress, along with heart shaped sunglasses and a flowing leopard print scarf. She navigated along the sidewalk, down the steep grade, toward camera, all the while carefully balancing a white coffee cup on a saucer. And every once in a while she would stop and sip coffee while amused passersby stopped to gawk.

We also did a short film with that camera for my director friend, Bruce. Very dark. Very dramatic.  We did a couple of weeks of 10 hour days and got our money's worth out of the camera. Assisted by a very battered Sony ECM-55 lavaliere microphone (along with a very eclectic assortment of other, even older, microphones).

For about a year I taught a class about cinematic lighting on a Saturday, every six weeks, for The Austin FilmWorks. Director, Steve Mims ran the school in between film projects. He liked the way I lit projects for our mutual friend, Bruce, and we had a good run. But that was back in the 1990's and I was so busy with our high technology corporate clients that I went into photography only blinders mode for years at a time. The last project that Steve and I worked on was a music video called, The Hottest Thing in Town, for country legend, Billy Joe Shaver. On that project we actually built lighting instruments that hung over a pool table to provide even, motivated light for the pool game that was central to the narrative. We  modeled the lights after the big rectangular light boxes with beer logos that normally light the tables - the difference was that ours had two different 500 watt Totalights inside with their power cords running to separate dimmers...

That's the first big project where I really practiced with moving lights as well as moving cameras. The video went on to win a Country Music TV award in the year we produced it. Our camera operator was using an Arriflex super 16mm camera along with the new Zeiss 10-100 f2.0. Juicy stuff at the time...

But all through this string of motion stuff the photography seemed like the best shot at earning a good living, and the draw toward a well practiced discipline was strong. Lately I've been feeling the gravity from the motion side of things. I presumed I might just ramp up the number of projects we would go after this year but now I think I have a new intention. I want to go all in on video and continue offering photography to existing and referral clients who are interested. It's a sudden and big change for me but it feels right. Mostly because I love the control of sometimes getting to also write the scripts.

All the gear is so good now. Doesn't really matter which field. Lights are lights and cameras are multi-lingual now. When I talked to a nice lady named, Angela, at Customs today she pulled each one of the cameras I had listed on form 4457 out of the case to confirm their serial numbers. At some point she said, "I'm kinda surprised at all the different cameras you have. Do you really feel you need them all?" I laughed and asked her if there was some sort of limit. She smiled and said, "We don't care as long as you bring em back in legally." I was already thinking about the specific things I'd be using all four cameras for....

At any rate, that's what I'm thinking about today. Out running errands before everyone else gets out of work and hits the road... KT


George said...

Start doing "cinematographic portraits" like Dylan Patrick? I make light, but seriously, just don't do anything that would lead you to lose touch with any of your clients?

Kurt Friis Hansen said...

Welcome to the crazy world of customs and borders (I grew up in a border region, and I tell you... naw... no need to scare you ;-)

Alas the weirder than weird and completely illogical and bureaucratic world of the custom officers can make "catch 22" seem like a wonderful, relaxing and sane recreational vocation.

You have handled the business of exporting your gear from the US and safely returning the goods legally into the US again. I may have overlooked something, but how are things on the Canadian side? Are there any rules and regulations regarding duty free imports of goods you plan on returning again?

I'm not familiar with Canadian rules. Some countries have the most "wonderfully psychedelic restrictions" imposed on the unsuspecting traveller - not only value, but also restrictions in number and type of gear allowed to bring into the country (without special permits). One country I have visited fairly recent specified a maximum of two film cameras, one video tape recorder, one audio tape recorder and one typewriter. As a maximum per person. This was late in the year 2013, so there probably would be the added excitement, that a custom officer had to assess equivalence and conversions and whatnot, had my luggage had been checked.

Let's hear all the horrors of your full import/export story - and do not forget to tell us, what then happened in reality. In most cases things go relatively smooth, but... when you enter the realm of customs, weirder than weird suddenly becomes the ordinary behaviors and solutions emanating from the bureaucrats desks.

Have fun while insanity creeps into view as you approach... ;-)

Anonymous said...

To be clear, I would never advise to do something illegal.
I live in Mexico and bring things from the U.S. often.
Especially personal cameras and computers.
Maybe with your Canada thing......
Have yourself to one or other friend legally bring in a Camera or two whatever Canadian and U.S, allow and travel them as tourists. Ship a few things that under the limit to ship, or a small customs fee, all billable.
Have your client rent or purchase some small things to your site.
Sometimes consulting with the experts needs some loopholes to be found.

Wally said...

It's Interesting that the theme of the article is disruption of traditional businesses. While your "focus" is on moving to video the theme you bring up can apply to any business. You work for a Billion dollar software company- as i do- selling to fortune 500 companies and you find yourself running out of elephants what do you do? Put resources to new products try mid market? Evolution is constant and relentless.

BruceA said...

Back in the 1980s I traveled overseas extensively for work and always took photo equipment with me. I remember the first time I had to get a Form 4457 -- it was at JFK airport in NYC. The office of the customs service responsible for processing the form was well-hidden within the airport but I found it, to the surprise of the agent inside. I got the form done but in all the years I had it attached to my passport I cannot recall anybody ever looking at it OR even asking to see the photo equipment. Granted, I traveled with a body and a couple of lenses, but I seem to recall that the photo magazines at the time (Popular and Modern Photography) made a big deal out of having the form or being stuck paying duty upon return.

Michael Matthews said...

All in? Woah -- that's a big plunge!

Actually, it's also a logical extension of what you've been doing and what you enjoy. Unlike a lot of still photographers who might entertain the idea, you have that background in depth of working as a writer/producer while an ad agency creative diector. Add the interest and experience of working with everything from 16mm and Super 8 through the Hi-8 video era (I dropped out when the metal oxide on my recorded cassettes began flaking) on through all of today's gear. Top that off with the fact that it's really all about lighting, lens choice, and the ability to direct people -- you're golden!

Plus you get to work wearing black T-shirts (or sweatshirts, depending on the weather) and sneakers instead of neckties and wingtips.