Finding an Oasis
People often think of me as a still photographer. And although I am that, I actually make a living as a director / cinematographer... which then leads to the question "well, how did that happen?"
This is the backstory.
Everybody has to grow up somewhere… and for me that was Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
When I was in 4th grade, I sat next to a kid named Eric Goldberg. Eric could draw like a man possessed. At that time, his claim to fame was decorating our schoolbook covers with Disney characters and drawing animated "flip" books. Eric went on to be a huge animator at Disney. You've seen his work. I could "sorta" draw as a kid, and my feeble attempts to mimic Eric's work were my first steps towards a career in motion pictures.
For as long as I can remember, I have been a storyteller with an odd creative mind.
I was fortunate to have an uncle who worked in Hollywood as an art director. He would become a huge influence on my future career. He worked on cool TV shows like Gilligan’s Island, Wild Wild West, Get Smart, and Gunsmoke. He also did a lot of movies that have become classics. The first time my family went on vacation to California, he took me to work with him. An 11 year old, I spent the day running around on the lagoon of the Gilligan set, shooting pool on the train they used for Wild Wild West with Robert Conrad and, during the studio lunch break, running around the streets of Gunsmoke with Buffy and Jody from Family Affair (we were about the same age). Yes, I got to play with that shoe phone that Maxwell Smart made famous. Although I remember very little about going to Disneyland that summer… I do remember everything about that day in Studio City.
For college, I went to the University of Montana, mainly, I think, to ski. When I couldn’t afford a ticket home to the East Coast for spring break or Christmas, I headed south to Los Angles to stay at my uncle’s place. I remember standing in the darkness of several studios where my uncle was working, just watching movies being made. It made a huge impression on me. But when it came time to choose a college major, my uncle actually discouraged me from getting into the movie business. -
At that time, the motion picture business was going through a metamorphosis of sorts. It was changing from an industry where everyone worked for one of the major studios to an industry where everyone was becoming a freelancer. You'd "crew up" for a movie or a commercial or whatever, and work there until it wrapped. Then, hopefully, you would move on to something new. For the old guys, my uncle being one of them, this offered no job security. It was the beginning of the end, or so they thought. So, after a brief stint as a Pre-Law major, I decided to get a business degree. The thinking was that you could always get a job with that (yea right… as a supermarket manager perhaps). The problem was, I hated business school. That is, everything except the advertising classes. I took every advertising course I could. They fascinated me and I was good at them. Then, one day at registration, they told me I couldn’t take any more advertising and media classes unless I became a Radio/TV/Film major.
So I said, “I’ll be right back... and in 20 minutes... I had a new major.
For graduation, my uncle gave me a gift… a job in the Art Department on the original Hawaii Five-O. It was shooting on location in Maui. A dream job. Believe it or not, I declined (yes, a girl was involved), deciding instead to try to make it on my own. I still think about that from time to time. I don’t regret it, but my life would certainly be different now if I had gone to Maui.
Instead, and it took a while, I finally got a job -- in Charlotte, North Carolina -- with a 16mm film production company that made sponsored films for Fortune 500 companies. They paid me $8,000 a year. That was the early 80's and even then you couldn’t live on that kind of money. I called my Dad for advice and he told me to look at it as if I were being paid to go to graduate school. It turned out to be extremely good advice. And I became a Southerner...
We worked on some cool stuff for some really big clients. It was my first introduction to working with celebrities. I got to wear a lot of hats. I was hired as a writer but quickly learned about cinematography, running sound, lighting, directing and editing. We shot on film and later edited on Moviola flatbed edit benches… we actually cut the film with scissors like it was done back then…and we were making movies!
As life happens, I met a girl, got married, and started to raise a daughter, Ashley. To this day, she makes me smile and is one of the things of which I am most proud. Watching her develop into an accomplished still photographer is something that gives me great pleasure.
Eventually, I outgrew that production company, and quit and then joined another one across town. They were "higher end" and specialized mainly in TV commercials. That interested me. A lot. Being able to make someone laugh, or cry, or buy something they probably don’t need in 30 seconds takes skill... and I wanted to master that.
During that time period, I had an opportunity to shoot and direct a music video for a relatively unknown band called the X-Teens… for a new network called MTV (am I really that old?). At the time, MTV didn’t even have enough material to stay on the air past midnight, but its popularity was growing. The music video I shot was competing for something called “The Budweiser Golden Guitar Award”. Each week, a winner was chosen, and if you won they put your video into regular rotation on the network for a while. For a band, this was the holy grail.
The X-Teens are long gone, but I used that experience to bootstrap myself into the music video world and for several years I worked the Nashville scene shooting videos for country music stars. It was a new, up and coming way for artists to get noticed, using MTV and CMT (the country music channel) as their vehicle. I wanted to be an overnight success… and was pretty sure I would be. So much for being young, stupid and cocky. It just doesn’t work like that in this business. You have to put in your time. So I worked for another production company or two, and with the help of some great technical people and some very loyal clients, I began to establish a following.
In 1989, I was working for a production company that was brilliantly creative but poorly run. So poorly, I was afraid I’d show up for work one day and find the doors boarded up and the owner in debtor’s prison. By then I had a wife, a kid, and a house, and I was feeling the weight of that responsibility. I had never really wanted to run my own company but the time had come and Oasis Films was born.
Born, but sort of on life support. I had no money, no gear of my own, no studio, and no guaranteed business. And I was scared to death. I had visions of living with my family in a car. Luckily, that never happened. I opened the company with $2,500 and set a modest goal -- to make enough money the next month so I could be in business the month after... and to never take any of it for granted. I tried to never lose the fear that it could all go away tomorrow. Fortunately, that never happened. And Oasis Films took off. Each year we got a little bigger than the year before. As our work matured, our client list grew. Eventually, we had staff, all of the toys you need -- cameras, lights, mixing boards, editing suites, etc... and we built a studio to put it all in.
My accountant was smiling.
As a company, we were never really great at the "shotgun sales approach" to gain business -- the one where you fire off a broad shot and hope you hit something. I was always envious of the companies who were good at that. They wound up working for a lot of different, unrelated clients, whereas we seemed to latch on to a few choice ones. We were more precision-oriented, and in the long run, it was the better way to go. Our success came through long- term clients who kept coming back. We cut our teeth for 10 years on Chevrolet, all over the United States, and with Coca Cola for 13 years. When Chevy went away, we started shooting for Ford with J. Walter Thompson Advertising…. a relationship that has lasted 20 years. We also did retail for Belk Department stores and several others for over a decade. We shot for Food Lion and stayed with them for 15 years, even as they bounced from ad agency to ad agency. For Harris Teeter supermarkets, 17 years and still going strong. Along the way, we did our share of banks, lotteries, credit card companies, NASCAR, music videos, sports teams, and everything in between.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe.
Here in the South, it’s tough to specialize so out of necessity, you have to get good in several areas. For me, those areas have been dialog, lifestyle, automobiles, celebrities and kids. But I have done just about everything you can think of. I am what is known as a Director/Cinematographer. I typically like to shoot my own work. Some agencies want directors who just direct, and although I can play that role I typically shy away from those projects. At my core is a love for photography. And whether it’s still photography for my gallery, cinema for a movie, footage for a music video, or something wild that an advertising agency brings to the table, I like seeing it first through my own viewfinder… the one in my head. It’s a passion. Hopefully you will see that in my work.
That brings us to the here and now. A few years ago my brother died in what many would consider the prime of his life. His death shook me to my core. All of a sudden, everything that seemed so important... wasn't. I had made some money during my career and along the way I miraculously saved some of it. Money can't make you happy... but it can create opportunities that can make you happy. So I decided to make some changes, see the world, and create some stories. About a year ago, I decided to sell the production studio and equipment that Oasis owned. Basically... I cashed out. You can rent that stuff when you need it and in fact, most production companies do.
Oasis is still a viable production company and I still run occasional jobs through it. But now I work only on the jobs that interest me, with people I find interesting. For example, I struck up a relationship with a company in Africa and have done several projects with them, with another on the horizon. Fun stuff. My second documentary has been sitting on hard drives for a few years and now, long overdue, I just restarted the editing process on it. . I've also established informal agreements with several production companies that I work with, either as film director, director of photography, or both. It has opened up some interesting opportunities. It lets me do what I like without having to wrangle the responsibility of a full-blown production company.
And so the story continues.