Thoughts on Virtual Reality


Back in the 1990s, I was one of the very first professional VR creators. We used Apple’s QuickTimeVR and then other technologies to create virtual tours of spaces like the Major League Baseball stadiums, the Olympics, and for some nifty ‘Matrix’-style work for Sprite. Early VR was so cool and unlike anything else back in ‘flatland’.

Funny thing. It was really effin’ hard to make money doing it, because except for a few ad agencies and forward-looking companies, nobody saw much need for it.

And then a decade later, Google’s mapping vehicles implemented a not-very-good version of this first-generation VR for their ‘street view’ on Google Maps. I mean, part of me was like ‘yay! VR for anyone!’. But boy the quality was and is, even in 2016, pretty crappy.

So now we have a few new flavors of VR being ultra-hyped by the electronics makers and the press. Well, they aren’t exactly new flavors at all. But they’re arguably slightly improved from the early 2000s versions of 360 degree video I used to do. The resolution’s a bit better, in some cases, at least. And the 3D aspect’s cool if you can get it to work. And Google Cardboard’s pretty bitchen’.

So VR is back, bigger and badder than ever. What can we do with it? Well, first the obvious- people love to see places they couldn’t otherwise visit in person. As always. Since forever, like when the picture postcard was invented.

One of my friends who is trying to get a VR business off the ground has been posting about how VR will overtake the ‘dying’ art of the movies. I think he’s being a little disingenuous, because he’s not a dumb guy.

What VR is good for is showing us real-life (or 3D worlds), and giving us choices on ‘where to go’. Movies are anything but real-life, and the tools cinematographers use are intended to absolutely force you to experience the story the way the filmmakers intended. VR and movies are two very different things, tied together by some shared tech and the idea that possibly you could use either for telling a story.

Short-form stories can be neat in VR, sometimes. Very, very sometimes. Just don’t think VR is an upgrade to movies. VR is something entirely different, and it needs time to develop its own rules and conventions to get the most out of it. We’re not there, yet, and most stories can’t be told nearly as effectively in VR as they can using the oldschool filmmaking ways.

Some people say movies were once like this- short little clips, no real story except ‘get the eff out of the way of that train!’. And they’re right! So, yeah, I’m excited (a little) to see where VR goes. It’s still as cool when you first see it as when I first got involved.

But cool isn’t enough, and I’m not onboard for the hype and BS. If VR is to become something more than a sideshow, we need to figure out how to use its unique strengths. One of the worst ideas in VR is using it to try and ape what works for another medium.

Will we get enough of a push and enough time to make VR mainstream this time? I hope so, because I have clients who could use VR today to help sell their products and services- if there were a big enough audience to justify the expense creating the VR and promoting it. But my clients mostly say that right now VR feels like what we got with 3D TV a few years ago. And we know how that turned out.

Still, a guy can hope.

Nobody Cares About What Camera You Use (Mostly True)

I constantly read the video production forums, from to nofilmschool. Sometimes I learn things, but mostly, lately, it seems, I’m learning not about technical things as much as I’m learning about human nature. In particular, there’s an overwhelming number of posts by newbies and (usually new) pros alike, talking about which camera they should buy for their movie/short film/commercial work/corporate work.

I used to be that way. I used to think the camera mattered more than anything- and it hurt my work. I’ve since come around. I think once you get to a certain level of technical/production values level with your work, what clients hire you for isn’t that expensive camera. It’s your creativity. It’s your work. It’s how can you solve their problems, and do that on budget and on schedule. And I’ve noticed that, at a certain level of success with your career/business, if your client is asking about your camera package, then, well, they’re not a very good client.

For me, I’ve found that the process of getting hired by a brand or agency goes like this: they somehow find out about you, and then they check out your work. If they like your work, they’ll contact you. And then it’s up to you to do the dance of “are we compatible”. If it turns out that you are both compatible, and you’re in-line with budget expectations, and the job is real to begin with (a whole other article), you get the gig.

In the past two years, I have had exactly one potential client ask me about camera packages. And they were a very green iOS app developer in Hollywood who didn’t know what they were doing, and the job wasn’t real after all, and they went out of business two weeks after I figured that out. All the real clients I’ve worked with? They don’t care what camera I use, as long as I kick butt on their videos.

I think a lot about why creative people care so much about this stuff. I think part of it is an insecurity, a worry that they are not enough somehow. Part of it’s probably also wanting to give your clients “the best”. But it’s important to remember: they already want to work with you, from your work. You are enough. And that very expensive camera? If your project really needs it, maybe consider renting the thing, unless you can pay it off with the profits from your work in the next 18 months.

Now for the “Mostly True” part of this, the disclaimer: Of course I don’t think you should shoot on a crappy camera. Use the right tool for the job.

Apple’s El Capitan Update Bricked our LG 4K Cinema Displays- UPDATED FIX

UPDATE: After many hours of trying many different things, it came down to this: by first downgrading the MacPro’s software to Yosemite and then re-upgrading to El Capitan (both as clean installs), the display was again detected, and is now working fine. I think the trick is, as much of a pain as it is, when you’re running higher-end pro apps and odd displays with the MacPro, do a clean install every time you upgrade. Or risk a brick.

It’s true. I took it upon myself to install El Capitan on our 2nd edit bay this weekend, and our 4K LG Cinema display immediately stopped working with the edit machine (MacPro). The display works great with our 1st edit bay (still running Yosemite OS). And with my laptop (same).

After quite a lot of head-scratching, I’m down to this: it’s possible- not for sure- that the LG display shipped with non-VESA-compliant display port cables. So, after spending time on the VESA website, I ordered a third-party cable that IS certified.

I’ll update this as I learn more- this is a big deal for anyone who edits with these gorgeous monitors on a Mac.

Amazing Customer Service

Today I want to spotlight two recent customer service interactions we’ve had that have been amazing.

First, Tiffen- the makers of the famous Steadicam system you’ve seen in hundreds of movies and commercials. I was in New York, and TSA thrashed my luggage. They broke the top stage of my Steadicam. So, when I was back in Los Angeles, I brought it to Tiffen to see what they could do. Tiffen inspected it on the spot, and said they’d be back in touch. A week later, I was surprised by a package on my doorstep- it was my fixed Steadicam! They did the repair for free. Amazing.

Next, Kessler Crane. I use their products a lot. Kessler makes good stuff. But I was on a shoot in Los Angeles, where their Second Shooter system wasn’t working properly for our motion control shots. It was very embarrassing, as I was not able to get the shots I needed for the project. Until I called Kessler in a panic. They dropped everything, on their lunch hour, and walked us through solutions until one took. This saved my shoot. Also amazing.

I think about companies that deliver this kind of amazing customer service, and they inspire me to make sure my video production company also amazes our clients.

The Most Important Thing to Bring on a Video Production

The most important thing you must bring to each of your video production projects:


Because without a strong vision for the project, including all phases of it, you’re doomed. It doesn’t matter if you bring the latest RED Weapon or Alexa cameras, if you’re rocking the Steadicam, or packing the latest digital cinema lighting gear. If you do not have a killer vision for the project, it will not turn out well (and may not get finished at all- which is a huge problem in our industry and I’ll talk about that at a later time).

Yes, of course we always bring the best tools for the job. And our pre-shoot checklist is pretty insane. Technique does matter, as does technology. But the truth is, the longer you do this, and the better you get at it, the more clients will hire you because of your vision. They just assume you have your other shit together, already- and in any case, a quick watch of your reel will demonstrate that.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes. Of course! But those exceptions aren’t the kinds of projects that can support you, long-term.

A Lovely Post-Production VFX Day

Ah, visual effects. I love them so. Most companies in our weight division avoid VFX. I embrace it. Why? Because, honestly, having a kickass visual effects pipeline and the experience to take advantage of it absolutely can elevate the stories you’re telling.

My favorite type of VFX work is that which most people will never notice. What do I mean by that? I mean things like removing markers and wires. Adding completely new environments that are photo-real. Removing things from shots and adding things to shots that make the story pop more. Basically, the kind of stuff that makes people think the project at hand cost millions of dollars.

Today I did some moving camera tracking in 3D, object removals, and object retouching to make a client’s product promo pop (yes, I said it like that on purpose). This, after spending the morning in DaVinci Resolve, taking our RED 5K Raw video footage and making it look absolutely magical in the technical color grade. The tech grade is done before VFX work, then you do a big beauty pass grade- which in this case will mostly be power windows to highlight things I want people to notice in frame, since the tech grade looks so magical on its own.

Last week was the edit, and this week is finishing for this project. I still have a few tough VFX shots to do, including some screen replacements, but I am pretty thrilled with how good this little project is looking. I hope the client realizes how great it is turning out, too.

What’s Your Mission, Stan?

I co-wrote and directed a short film a number of years ago called ‘Headhunting, Inc.’. Its hero was an everyman named Stan, who was in a rut, career-wise. He had to break out of this rut and figure his shit out, or be stuck in his unfulfilling life forever.

It was a cute little short, well-written, with my talented (and weird as shit) writing partner at the time, Rick Bourn. The film was a little surreal and strange, of course, as well. Wouldn’t be one of mine, otherwise.

And there was this character in it, who was a former postal worker with a grudge. Stan has a vision of this character accosting him in the shower, and demanding “What’s your mission, Stan?”.

This helps jolt Stan out of his complacency, and that day he makes moves that get him on a new and better path.

This morning, I was thinking about our postal character, and how it’s so fucking easy to get caught up in the bullshit, feeling like you’re busy and going places, when you’re really not. It’s easy to get off course with your mission.

I think a lot of the world counts on and hopes that you stay on your current path. The vultures profit from your complacency.

For instance, Bank of America just sent me an email that said from now on they won’t be automatically waiving the $25/month fee for one of my accounts. See, complacent me would just deal with that. I’m sure BofA is praying everyone does nothing, and they make their additional $XXX millions of dollars in fees this year.

Me? I fucking went to (yay Betterment!) and initiated a rollover of all my BofA investments, and I’ll be headed down to BofA on Monday morning to close every single one of my accounts, and opening an account at a credit union (yay credit unions!) that actually wants my business.

Fuck complacency. And while we’re at it, let’s get back to our mission, shall we?

Some Days You Eat The Bar(Bear)

Apologies to The Big Lebowski’s cowboy character. But it’s so true. Some days you can’t do a damn thing right. Then, sometimes, you have a day like mine today:

First, I got to the airport early for once. And my shuttle was literally waiting for me as I arrived. Then, check-in went very easily- no lines. At TSA, also no lines. And a TSA officer flirted with me. Seriously. He and I did not share a sexual orientation, but, I was flattered. Then, I noticed that my long-awaited TSA pre-check status had gone through. So I got to keep my shoes on and go through the metal detector, instead of the Rape-i-scan nude body imager. Yay! My flight, while full-ish, was pleasant, and I got a sandwich onboard, while watching a fun indie film (Grandma, recommended). I got off the plane (which arrived early), walked right out of the terminal and directly onto the rental van. And then directly into the “Elite Gold” member counter, just ahead of 30 other people. Got in my car, and drove away.

While on the road, I got a new lead from an agency back east. And the sunset was absolutely beautiful.

It’s hardly ever this easy. So, wow.

Demanding Doesn’t Equal Asshole in Video Production

I’ll say it: almost all of my clients are intensely demanding. And I love them for it.

I expect a client to be demanding when there’s high-five-to-high-six-figures at stake. I expect in-person meetings. I expect many calls, as we go from concept into pre-production and casting. I want my clients to be very involved in the process, I want them to care.

It’s the ones who don’t give a fuck that you have to worry about.

I’ve gotten up at 3am for conference calls in the UK while I’ve been in LA. I’ve taken calls from our studio in NYC coming from clients in Asia, at 12am local time. I’ve gone through multiple rounds of casting when my client’s vision for their spokesperson hasn’t quite been met. I often get up at 4am so that when the client walks on set at 8am, we are ready for them.

I love doing this stuff.

I’m not even against spending money not in the budget, if I can justify it, sometimes, for items that’ll up the production value of the video we’re doing for a client. For instance, on a recent financial services company commercial, I made arrangements for the lighting truck’s contents to be upgraded. I had a feeling that we’d need bigger lights than they usually carried. It cost me an extra $750. Guess what? We needed those lights, in the end.

I didn’t even tell the agency people how we went above and beyond for them with these add-on lights, I just did it. Because I know they had so much on their minds with their client already.

Because the secret is, as demanding as the most demanding client is, I am more demanding of myself and my team. We care.

I’m not telling you this to brag. I’m just showing you how one guy and his little production company has been successful with big and small clients over the last few years. A demanding client is awesome. They help you rise to the occasion, and most importantly, it means they care about the project, too. That’s a good thing.


Sometimes I Screw Up. Not Often. But Sometimes.

I love my clients. I get a thrill every time I connect with a client, and I love over-delivering to them, exceeding their expectations with the videos we make. But once in a while, this bites me in the ass. It’s why we have good (but simple) contracts. Yes, it’s fair to consider our contract “ass protection”.

Recently, we’d been working on a project for a company that’s a small player but could do great things with their neato tech products. But things started to unravel with their project last fall. First, they told us they would handle some of the production tasks in-house. That ought to have been a red flag, but I liked the people, and they really wanted to save money (that ought to have also been a red flag), so we went with it. Of course, they did not deliver their side of things. At all. And it made for a very, very difficult shoot. We, of course, over-delivered on our side. My team worked their butts off- and so did I- to make up for the client’s fails. Because that’s what you do, you try to make your client look good, and failure doesn’t look good no matter whose fault it is.

Sadly, this client’s fails continued to where we could not film a scene in the script. So, production stopped. We took a breather to reevaluate the project. The client came back, and said, essentially- “Let’s rewrite the whole thing, using the stuff you shot, to make it work”. Red flag, because if you work in production you know that one does not rewrite the story after filming. That’s bananas, even for the most skilled storytellers among us. But I, being a game kind of guy, said “no promises, but yes we’ll work with you to see if we can tell your story without that final scene, and despite all the compromises we had to make due to the things you promised to perform and did not. Sure, let’s try!”.

So, we tried. It was all work that was beyond the scope of the contract, and we did it at no additional cost. I was aware that both of these points were red flags. And, well, going the extra mile for these guys bit me in the ass. Instead of being appreciative, this client started pushing for more, more, more free work. When I delivered a rewritten script to them that expertly avoided that final missing scene yet still told their story, and asked for feedback before we incurred the hard costs of a voiceover artist and re-edit, they essentially told me that they just wanted to see a whole lot of story options as fully-completed videos, and they’d just choose the one they liked best.

I mean, fuck, not even I could ignore that big honking red flag.

So, I sighed a long sigh that you could have heard from a block away in New York, and pulled up the contract. I examined it. I showed the client that we’d exceeded all the parameters including time we’d promised to commit to their video. And as nicely as I could, I explained that we want to help them get out of this mess (which I clearly showed was a mess of their doing, not ours), but that they need to honor their side of the contract, which, after all, they’d signed, too. And that part of this is to not take advantage of my company’s good nature.

I hope the client starts treating their project- and us- with the respect deserved. They do make a cool product, that could be a big deal if they let us do our jobs with the video, and then properly promoted it. No matter what, though, our simple contract served its purpose.

Wrapping up, I don’t usually go around set with a copy of the contract, screaming when we’re asked to do extra stuff. If it’s small, we’ll do it. If our out-of-pocket isn’t large, we’ll do it. If it’ll make the client happy, generally, we’ll do it. But having a great, simple contract has proven to be very, very useful for that small percentage of clients who don’t respect their vendors.

ps: I thought long and hard about posting anything “bad” about a client. But after long and careful deliberation, I noticed that the de-facto way of dealing with the 2-5% of problem clients that agencies have is to pretend they do not exist, that you never have to deal with clients who let you down. I think that’s dishonest. And it’s not how I want to be. The facts are, over 95% of the clients I’ve worked with in my career have been good to great relationships, and I’ve enjoyed them and they’ve enjoyed me. But it’s not all wine and roses, not even for the best vendor-client relationships. Having simple things in place to protect everyone is important even with the best relationships. And when you deal with a not-great client, these things become even more important.