TAR Productions Origins
This is a special post for the TAR Productions Blog. A short exposé on how I turned my childhood hobby into a career and the wild road that got me there. I like to keep these posts relevant to storytelling, the video industry, and knowledge I’ve acquired over the years, but I’m taking a break to share my personal journey. These are some of the ups and downs in the story of how I built a company from the ground up.
Building a full service video production company or creative agency is a lot of work. It takes years of persistence, trial & error, wins and losses. While that’s the nature of the beast in hindsight there was a better way to go about it.
It’s not something I recommend for anyone. It’s not for the faint of heart. There will be sleepless nights in cold sweats when you’re scared of everything. There will be times when nothing is going your way.
There will be magical times when you feel like you’re on top of the world.
I’m sure I’m far from alone in these experiences and the impetus for this blog was to help educate and spread knowledge. Be sure to let me know about your experiences in the comments below.
ORIGINS: THE VHS SHOULDER MOUNT
I started TAR Productions as a hobby when I was 13 years-old. Over the years it matured into a full-service, award winning production company but the lines are blurred as to how and when that transformation took place.
As a kid, I was a geek. I was enthralled with technology and tinkering with wires, cables – anything with an on/off switch. My Grandmother had given my parents a shoulder-mount VHS camera to record the childhood memories of my sister, brother, and me. It mostly lived atop their closet in the plastic case it came in, but dad got it out for a few soccer games here and there.
I remember the very moment I climbed up above their closet and pulled it out, charged the battery, found a dusty VHS tape, and hit the red Record button. The neighborhood kids and I skated down the street to our neighbors driveway where we did power-slides repeatedly until she kicked us out. We were making a skate movie and I was a bona-fide filmmaker, booya!
I started taking that camera to the beach and filming my friends surf. In the late 1990s there weren’t many kids who would rather sit on the beach with a camera than be out in the water surfing with their friends. I was an anomaly, a dork.
That was pretty much the story of my teenage years, always tagging along to video my friends surfing. I got so lost in the act of filming that years flew by and it was suddenly time to go off to college. I took three Video/Film courses in high school and that’s where I learned you could study film in college; sign me up.
I didn’t know this at the time, but my parents’ influence on me was already there in terms of running a business. They were self-employed for their whole careers and I grew up watching them work 7 days a week, sacrificing family vacations and weekends. This was the norm growing up.
My foundation in film is all self taught. I would put together a short movie and would constantly analyze and iterate on my productions. I always wanted better quality shots, angles, lighting situation.
My production started to include short drama pieces that I would cast my friends in. After seeing Snatch I wanted to make a gangster-like film with gambling and guns. Using a utility light and a card table, I cleared out some room in my parent’s garage and built a set.
I went to the bank and pulled out $400, made up of two $100 bills and two stacks of $1.00 bills. Placing the $100 on top of the $1 it stacks it made it look like a few high schoolers were gambling with $10,000 in cash. No biggie- this was Hollywood.
Because of my parent’s work ethic my parents were adamant that I get a strong formal education and go to college. Although I cringed when they told me this, I knew it was coming. I wasn’t all that excited about college until I learned that Film Production was something I could spend my time studying.
My first year of college was a complete shock. I wasn’t expecting so many general education classes like World History and Mathematics 101. This was not what I signed up for. I protested these classes and found a way out of them and into more film classes.
I was becoming fast friends with several professional surfers and began tagging along with them on surf trips all over the world between classes and on school breaks.
A professional surfer named Dylan Graves was my biggest supporter and the one who introduced me to a lot of other guys. I would sneak away on trips at every opportunity. Spring break meant work for me. Winter vacation meant going to Hawaii and grinding it out, shooting all day in the hot sun getting sunburned.
I was enthralled in the surf scene, and what a scene it was. I met great people who I’m still in touch with today and – unknowingly at the time – expanded my network beyond what I could have ever imagined. A lot of the people I work with today are from relationships I developed this time.
Halfway through my studies I realized I should be getting more out of my formal education and started dropping in on classes that interested me like Entertainment Law, Business Law, and Entrepreneurship. These were the classes that interested me. I was teaching myself the in’s and out’s of film production on my journeys around the world but business and marketing alluded me.
I graduated only a handful of classes short of a double major in Film Production and Business Administration from Loyola Marymount University.
Contrary to the suggestions of my advisors, by the end of school I was taking two additional classes per semester. It was out of pure curiosity and interest, and had nothing to do with my chosen ‘career path.’
Throughout my classes in Film and Business I made some of my best friends that I still love very much to this day. These are the relationships that count and when I look back on my time in college, I wouldn’t be where I was today had I not spent 4 years in a very social environment.
Not only did it help me work through my shyness, but it opened my mind to thinking about the world in much broader terms.
I finished film school with a one track mind: make surf movies.
GRAD SCHOOL (AKA World Travels)
After graduating from the film program at LMU, I continued as a freelance videographer full time. I remember telling myself at the onset of everything, “Get a freelance gig. Travel. Learn. Have fun and make enough money to pay for the next round.”
I quickly racked up an impressive roster of clients in the action sports industry, videoing surfers I idolized growing up and had since become friends with. The invitation alone was enough to get me to accept the work, even if the pay was below the poverty line (if at all). Ignorance is bliss, they say, and I was flying around the world without a plan or a place to stay just to see how it all worked.
I was able to see the world. Most of my friends from college were sitting at desks all day and I was out living. The list of countries I experienced were incredible and halfway through my 3 year tour I remember thinking to myself that this was the equivalent to Grad School for me. Where else could I get an education like this, something that was so different from my formal education, yet just as valuable.
I learned a lot of life, the pursuit of happiness and myself. I grew so much as a person during this time and my limits were tested time and time again.
It wasn’t always easy. I made mistakes, damaged camera equipment, slept on sidewalks, went broke more than once, got denied access to countries, and approached by men with machine guns but I never got down on myself. I always took these as learning experiences. Looking back on it, some of the situations I got myself into were pretty bad and could have easily been worse. But I was able to travel, see parts of the world I would have never seen otherwise, met beautiful people, and made close friends I’ll have for the rest of my life.
When I shot the Quiksilver campaign I was asked to pack my bags less than 12 hours before my flight- that’s less time than it takes to fly to Thailand from California. I could have never done this with a conventional mindset. Not having a plan can be scary at times, but believing in yourself will trump any doubts in front of you. I didn’t make any money doing this, but I gained a completely different education than what I was taught in school.
Luckily I was in my 20s at the time and lived a pretty carefree life. I was a sponge, soaking up every opportunity I could. I tried to learn something from everyone – even the accounting department.
This meant not knowing where I was going to sleep at times, not knowing where my next job was coming from, but none of that mattered to me. What mattered was the opportunity I had and was chasing.
I actually slept on the sidewalk in Paris, France with all my gear a couple of nights because I couldn’t find a hotel or anywhere else to stay. On the second morning a baker dropped off a bag of baguettes and day old bread for me. He thought I was homeless and felt bad, I guess.
During this time I walked into big media companies and convinced people to hire me. I was put in charge of productions with budgets up to $250,000. Had I been shy I would have never had the guts to do this. Looking back I’m actually surprised it worked, but had I not been a combination of hungry and ignorant I wouldn’t have done any of it.
With my combination of education, experience, and drive, I always over delivered. Everything happens for a reason, and none of my hard work went unnoticed. I knew it would all pay off one day, in some way, shape or form, but you never know how until you put yourself out there.
The culmination of this 3 year graduate program on life arrived with the ultimate opportunity. I was invited to join two friends on the trip of my dreams: make a surfing documentary as we travel across Europe by train.
ON A RAIL: EUROPE
I had been dreaming of traveling Europe via rail for a long time. I have always been drawn to the slower pace and the ability to soak everything up. I had spent so many years going to places on strike missions with limited windows to catch a swell and with little to no time to explore our surroundings. That was the nature of the beast when shooting action surf videos.
However, This always left me wondering what life was like in the places I would visit. When On A Rail: Europe came about I knew this was the opportunity to blend my passions: surfing, filmmaking, culture, and storytelling. I was excited to travel by train, talk to strangers and have a home base in each country that would allow us to live more like locals even when home base meant the sleeper train.
The trip came up pretty quickly and I this was right when HD was becoming mainstream. I was pretty indecisive about the trip until the last minute and ended up buying a new HD Sony camera on credit, purchasing the plane ticket via saved airline miles and packed within 48hrs of leaving.
The waves were good, the times were magical and, again, I did it totally on a whim. I didn’t have a whole lot of money at the time and budgeted 20 Euros a day for food and accommodations.
Through the journey I made great friends who I’m still close with today. I slept on the same sidewalk twice, weeks apart from each other. Once with our group and once all alone, camera and belongings in tow. We partnered with Surfing Magazine who ran a cover story and 12 pages of editorial, and distributed the documentary internationally.
Unfortunately, the music licenses have mostly expired and with the status of the independent movie industry these days I can’t seem to justify the expense to renew them.
The year was 2008 and about halfway through filming On A Rail: Europe the stock market lost about 600 points in a day and the speculation about a vast global recession had arrived. I needed a new plan.
THE CAR OLLIE
I’d like to tell you that this video we shot for less than $400 that went viral and ended up on the homepage of all the major websites at the time racking up millions and millions of views changed my life. I’d like to tell you that when Nike and Axe copied my idea that they called and looped us in but they didn’t. I’d like to tell you that more inquires came in than we could handle but that’s not true either.
It was late 2008 and the recession had settled in and gained the attention of my dwindling pocketbook. My freelance work and travel opportunities had vanished almost overnight and I knew better than to try to keep it going. The good times were great but they never last.
I was editing On A Rail: Europe and hustling video leads in the San Diego area and instead of marketing myself as a freelance videographer, I began positioning myself as a full service production company targeted towards small businesses who appreciated creativity. I needed some pieces to market myself by and gathered a few friends to create something that would catch people’s attention: a “viral” video.
My college roommate had been playing around with Adobe After Effects, a video effects program, and was doing some cool stuff with cars. I told him I thought we could do something similar with a skatboarder ollieing over a car. We created this video with the intention of it going viral and being able to immediately gain millions of views. I was so confident in this that I agreed to pay for everything. The total costs came to a whopping $354.
We created it, put it on YouTube, and waited for the views to stack up. An hour later, they didn’t. A day later? Nothing. Damn, my idea sucked and we have nowhere to go. I decided to upload the video to SkateOrDie.com, a now defunct website dedicated to skating where users could vote on the content.
By accident I hit the “Flag Content” button and immediately thought it would be removed. I shrugged my shoulders and went surfing. When I came home two hours later we had 25,000 views. It was happening. Every time I refreshed the page the view count stacked higher and higher. The editors of the site recognized Zach Miller, the skater in the video, and decided to promote it on the homepage.
Then it started popping up everywhere. View counts were going through the roof. In one day we received more than 600,000 views. By the time the fire died down we had more than 4 million views! Wow! The only problem? The video was ripped by Internet users and reuploaded to their accounts. We were never credited for our work and therefore never gained any traction for it.
Nike and Axe body spray didn’t seem to mind though since they copied our campaign for their own. Of course, the greatest form of flattery is imitation, and I was indeed flattered. The love was fast and short-lived, and there I was again: still in need of a plan without any money.
I finished editing On A Rail: Europe in the spring of 2009 and was ready to have a party to celebrate. I gathered friends in my hometown and took over a local bar and all 26 TVs. Being at that bar watching everyone experience my project on screen was one of the proudest moments of my life.
I finally felt I had achieved a life-long goal: make a surf movie. The following night I drove up to LA and gathered all my college friends, their friends, and the friends of their friends. It was a typical house party with the addition of a big projection screen to show the film. Exposing yourself and your work to crowds even when you know them can feel overwhelming, so I as soon as the film began I walked outside and straight into an old friend from college: Kelly. We struck up a conversation for the rest of the evening and I couldn’t stop thinking how beautiful and wonderful she was. Then, just as suddenly as she had shown up, she was gone.
I was slowly growing my production company as I picked up clients all around town. The growth took its time but it was steady and I had goals just like when I was traveling: make enough money on one job to keep going and build upon what I’ve established.
Over the years I’ve had several employees. I’ve had good times, great times, hard times, and impossible times. But I always keep in mind that with each day and each challenge, I continue to gain experience and valuable lessons.
Today, I finally know that TAR Productions is at a place where we know who we are, what we do best, and how to maximize value for each of our customers. We proudly operate under what’s known as the Hollywood model, with two full-time employees (myself and an Account Manager) and bring on specialists for each unique job. Our shortlist of go-to freelancers are people we’ve met along the way who have greatly impressed us with their talents and are a pleasure to work with. This is why following my curiosity in school and traveling for 3 years like a chicken with my head cut off was so valuable in the long run. It all comes back to the amazing people I’ve met along the way.
A FAILED EXPERIMENT
At one point I was approached by an agency to merge our businesses. They were focused on a similar niche with consumer products and lifestyle brands and they had a lot of experience in print. The idea was to serve current clients with a more complete offering and bridge the transition into the digital world, something I had a lot of insight to.
We had some great wins, and I learned more about the agency side of things, albeit print and traditional advertising. It was fun and I grew in new ways, but then I realized something: it wasn’t my focus. I had set out to build a company that created media and branded entertainment for companies living in the digital age. Our creations live on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and others networks.
The match ultimately wasn’t perfect and created a lot of confusion. I had to reeducate our friends, clients and fans as to what we were doing. And when it failed I had to revert back to TAR Productions and do it all over again.
It was a setback, but like any I took the experience for what it was and moved on.
ADVICE FOR MY 21 YEAR-OLD SELF
Looking back at more than 12 years of experience in video production I’ve learned a lot. That’s one of the reasons I got this blog going: to share my knowledge and better the industry as a whole.
If I had to do it all over again would I do anything different? Probably, hindsight is 20-20, right? But my experience and my struggles have led to my competence and success.
Although I have many hours logged in the classroom, my most valuable lessons and experience have come from doing. In the beginning, I put my hands on every opportunity I could just to get the experience. It wasn’t about the money. Most of the time I was underpaid, but the experience I took home was was invaluable.
Had I been working a traditional job, tasked with doing the same thing every day, I wouldn’t be pursuing my dream and been able to accomplish what I have thus far in life. I’m not saying this is a bad route to take, but I feel the flexibility and versatility has outweighed the drawbacks.
Toughing it out when you’re young and learning as much as you possibly will pay dividends for years down the road. There were tough times when I had credit card bills that far out numbered my bank account balance but it always seemed to work out. There were costly learning experiences but with each of them a takeaway and opportunity for growth.
A FEW NOTES FOR THOSE JUST STARTING OUT
- Learn everything you can. Don’t limit yourself.
- Pay attention to lighting and sound design. These will increase your production value more than shooting on the “best” camera.
- You’re a video editor/storyteller, not a Final Cut Pro editor or Premiere Pro Editor – don’t limit yourself to the software available today. Undoubtedly, it will change.
- Rent gear instead of buying it. Unless you’ll use it for years to come or every single day for several years (such as a computer), it’s not worth it.
- Build your network. Meet people and keep in touch.
- Only start your own production company if you really love admin work. Otherwise, be an employee or freelance in a specific field.
- Specialization is becoming less important as barriers for entry decrease. Areas of specialization are reserved for big budget features, commercials, and branded entertainment.
- Explore and exploit new mediums/networks.
- Everyone started somewhere (usually the bottom). You are not alone.
- Don’t let haters on the Internet deter you from your end goal.
- Have fun, but be prepared to work your ass off without so much as a “thank you” (and don’t take it personally).
- Remember, there’s someone out there who genuinely loves the work you’re doing. Keep it up.
Full Service Video Production Company
I share with you my journey in hopes that it gives you some insight into your own. I certainly didn’t take the traditional route but it worked out in the end through hard work and willingness to learn and understand. I tell you, it’s been an incredibly fun journey that I wouldn’t change for the world.
What does full service mean? It means we dive deep into understanding the uniqueness of the customers we work with. We take the time to understand who the audience is and then come up with creative that speaks to our targeted audience. It means we handle strategy, casting, distribution and everything in between.
The viral video we did for PacSun received over a million views the first week we released it. Was this by chance? Definitely not. We took time to learn their goals and created a plan that would lead to our success.[tar_mailchimp signup_source=”Built TAR” form_title=”Get The Free Budget Templates” back_color=”#18b4ea” font_color=”#ffffff”][/tar_mailchimp]
I would like to thank all of those who have helped me along the way and made a difference in my life. Without you I wouldn’t be where I am today: have a successful production company, a great and fulfilling life and live near the beach. The best part of my journey? That pretty girl I ran into at the On A Rail: Europe premiere is now our account manager, my beautiful wife, and the loving mother of our children.
TAR Productions is now running on all cylinders and is truly a full service video production company. We’re very lucky to work with great people on our team and on the client side. We tried and tested our process in virtually every production scenario possible and are able to consistently produce great work because of the awesome team and companies we partner with.