Been There, Done That

July 13, 2017

Words & Wisdom From Industry Trailblazers

Veterans of Atlanta’s film and video industry have seen it all over the years. They started out small serving the needs of clients in multiple markets: bread-and-butter commercials and corporate production and the occasional visiting film and television project. They worked hard and fueled Georgia’s explosive growth as a production powerhouse. Now, as they share in that success, leading Atlanta-based veterans tell their stories and look ahead to the “next big thing.” 

 

GARY DUNCAN:

President, LongShadow Productions, Inc. (Picture Car Supplier)

 

What it was like then:
We started in 1973 as a fabrication shop painting racecars and rebuilding and selling wrecked Corvettes. My introduction to film came through my Yellow Pages ad: I got a call late one night from someone who needed three cars painted overnight for a movie. It turned out to be Smokey and the Bandit. Then my name got passed along to the transportation coordinator for The Dukes of Hazard.

 

Between Burt Reynolds, Kenny Rogers, a lot of independent commercial houses and Turner we started to slowly build business. We kept the shop until 1978, when Doug Smith and I began designing and building camera insert cars.
 

What it’s like now:

It’s so different now due to the success of the tax incentives. Georgia is number three in film production behind LA and New York. There’s so much more infrastructure here and a local talent base. It’s a true industry now.

 

Mistakes I won’t make again:

I was very fortunate to get that lucky phone call and start in the business almost at the top. I haven’t made any major mistakes. Everyone I worked for taught me to watch and listen, which was great advice, especially when we started building camera insert cars and wanted people’s input.

Advice to those starting out:

If you  have the opportunity to go to film school you should take advantage of that. But what you learn in school is minimal compared to the reality of being involved in the industry with people who have been around a lot longer than you. The best teachers are industry veterans – listen and learn from them.

 

If I was 22 again I’d go into visual effects. I believe it’s the future. We just worked on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and I was amazed at the final edit.

 

Your business milestones:

My first opportunity, Smokey and the Bandit. Then, in 1983, I was involved with Burbank based Mitchell Insert Systems and Brianne Murphy, ASC, in designing a completely new style camera insert car, which won an Academy Award for technical achievement.

 

Georgia’s turning point:

The incentives and everyone who had the forethought to lay the groundwork to bring incentives before the state legislature. It was a grass roots effort.

 

Georgia’s future:

We need to make sure that the incentives are always advantageous to producers and studios. They will always go where they can get the best deal and are treated fairly. 

 

Haven’t been there, done that yet:

We’re in the preliminary planning stages of opening an automotive museum in North Atlanta with a section dedicated to famous movie cars. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for the past few years.

 

REBECCA SHRAGER:

President & CEO, People Store, Inc. (Talent Agency)

 

What it was like then:

The business was completely different! I didn’t realize what I was getting into. I went to art school, then into advertising, was a stylist for six years, then started hiring models and coordinating photo shoots for big companies.

 

A commercial print firm hadn’t been able to find the talent they were looking for; they needed more diversity. There was a demand for something different here, so I went out and found real people. When I decided to open this company it was me and a phone in an office. I had a book of headshots I took myself and used couriers to deliver them. We became a franchised SAG-AFTRA agency from the beginning, and now we are ATA. Film work started to come in, then the series In The Heat of the Night and I’ll Fly Away.

 

What it’s like now:

We’re the oldest, original-founder agency around. We do film, TV and a lot of commercials throughout the southeast and represent actors in different markets. It used to be that when [local] actors reached a certain level they all wanted to move to LA. But we began to get LA to look at our actors, and now LA is calling us every day.

 

Everything’s digital now, and casting directors can easily reach out everywhere. It’s an exciting time because so much is going on, but it’s challenging, too.

 

Mistakes I won’t make again:

I can’t think of many, but I’ve learned from everything I’ve done. I originally thought I’d do this for ten years and then do something else. But it’s been 34 years now!

 

I’ve always tried to make good decisions for our actors, to be there for them. I’ve created a nice environment to work in every day—all the employees like each other and our two resident dogs. Brenda Pauley, who runs the film and TV department, is my right hand. We’re like sisters and give each other a lot of moral support.

Advice to those starting out:

You have to be passionate about this business, it has to be something you absolutely love—it’s not for everybody. And it is a business on all sides, for the agent and the actor. Actors have to take responsibility for their websites, tapes, email—there has to be constant follow through. You can’t have old headshots and be non-responsive. Actors compete against more people today, but talent does win out and persistence pays off.

 

Your business milestones:

My first [TV] series regular was the five-year old who played Sam Waterston’s son on I’ll Fly Away. I’m still excited when we book people as series regulars—in Stranger Things and The Walking Dead—or in movies.

 

Georgia’s turning point:

There’s been an ebb and flow of business over the years, but all the tax incentives—and the infrastructure that happened because of them—have been the big change for sure.

 

Georgia’s future:

The challenge now is to have content created and produced here — it needs to be more than producers coming from LA to shoot in Georgia. There are no writers’ rooms here, except for Tyler Perry’s. More Georgia-created content will provide bigger and better opportunities for actors throughout the southeast.

 

Haven’t been there, done that yet:

Our VP, Rick Estimond, and myself are working with a small group of actors who are also writers to help them create content. We want to be more involved in that.

 

GARY LEWIS:

President, Lightnin’ Production Rentals,Inc. (Transportation Rentals)

 

What it was like then:

Our first movie was Little Darlings in 1979. We were just a small truck rental company. Production companies brought most of their gear from California. But that opened the door for us to become a local vendor [of hair/ makeup and wardrobe trailers, star trailers, honeywagons, camera trucks]; we built equipment so they didn’t have to bring it from LA.

 

What it’s like now:

The first four months of 2017 had the most business we’ve ever seen in Georgia. We now have 80 employees, a 20-acre facility, more than 24 service bays and mobile service technicians. We’re capable of handling 30-40 projects on the East Coast at any given time, but we’re fortunate that a lot of projects are in Georgia.

 

Mistakes I won’t make again:

It wasn’t a mistake, but in the beginning a lot of equipment was makeshift for the movie industry. That’s just the way things used to be. Now, we design and build our own equipment from the ground up, so we’re able to cater to all kinds of needs. Everything is totally customized.

 

Advice to those starting out:

Always follow through with what you promise. Stand by your word. That’s overlooked sometimes. But if you do what you say you’ll do people will respect you for it and keep coming back.

 

Your business milestones:

We were able to service In the Heat of the Night for multiple years. It was our first big project; we built our first production van for them and provided motor homes, honeywagons – we grew with enough equipment to handle all the different departments. Then, we did Driving Miss Daisy and Forrest Gump, and, recently, we’ve spent eight years with The Walking Dead.

Georgia’s turning point:

The tax incentives put Georgia on the map even though we’ve always had a film business and crew base able to handle four or five projects at a time. But the incentives made us one of the premier states for production.

 

Georgia’s future:

We need to continue to cement the tax incentives with the legislature for the foreseeable future. We also need to continue to build the crew base and to get the whole state involved in the business. Beaches, mountains, cities, farmland – Georgia can provide most of the locations needed.

 

Haven’t been there, done that yet:

This is a truly exciting and engaging business. We’re always trying to innovate by talking to crews so we can build equipment that meets their changing needs. We’re now a third-generation company: My mom and dad started it, and my sons are very involved in all aspects of the business. It’s great to see multiple generations of crew in the industry, just like we’re doing in our company.

 

RANDY NAPPIER:

Operations Manager, PC&E Atlanta (Lighting, Grip, Camera and Stage Rentals)

 

What it was like then:

When I started working here more than 30 years ago it was me and gaffer/DP Doug Smith, 20 lights, a generator and a truck. We were doing commercials or business meetings because there were few features or TV shows in town. Then, other freelancers wanted to chip in and purchase equipment, so we formed a co-op. That went by the wayside a year or two later.

 

What it’s like now:

Business is booming in Georgia! There are features galore and competitors galore, so it’s a double-edged sword. We do bits and pieces of features with cameras, some dollies and expendables. But our mainstay is still commercials, which fluctuate month to month but have remained steady the past couple of years.

 

Mistakes I won’t make again:

There haven’t been that many. We bought mister fans that squirt water and event generators for parties and outdoor events, and both did not go well. A real learning experience happened years ago when there was a pyro shoot on one of our stages. Nobody noticed that some pyro landed in the insulation. Fifteen hours later it caught fire and set off the sprinklers. No one was notified, even with our fire alarms. So the water ran for hours and gutted the stage, offices and some of the warehouse. It took eight months to put the stage back in order. Now, we make sure everyone takes proper precautions with pyro.

 

Advice to those starting out:

It’s really smart to learn as many different jobs as you can without stepping on people’s toes. It helps you down the road to know what everyone else is doing. The Georgia Film Academy has the right idea: putting students on set to show them what others do.

 

Also, listen to the veterans. They can give you tips you won’t learn elsewhere.

 

Your business milestones: We made the move with CPT to start renting cameras, which have become a vital part of the company. And we relocated to a big enough building where we could build some soundstages. Our deals with vendors such as Arriflex, Fisher and Chapman made us feel more legitimate – and we no longer had to go to our competitors to get dollies.

 

Georgia’s turning point:

The tax incentives. We feel part of that since some initial meetings of the group initiating the incentives were held here; we were on the ground floor with that. 

 

Georgia’s future:

Studios are popping up, there’s a huge amount of equipment here, people are moving in and buying houses, new people are being trained. I understand we lack post production facilities, and that would be the thing for us to get into in the future.

 

Haven’t been there, done that yet:

We’re looking for other avenues of growth so we’re looking to expand beyond this building and collaborate on post production. In a few years we will be fully employee-owned and operated, or ESOP, with more funds available for expansion.

 

MICHAEL CHASE: Owner/DP, ChaseLight (Video Production Company)

 

What it was like then:

I started in Atlanta in 1993 primarily servicing national news outlets and syndicated shows. I was shooting Beta SP for the most part. There was a smattering of production companies, but they were mostly in the commercials business.

 

What it’s like now:

Technology has come a long way in 25 years. In some ways it’s made business a lot easier and enabled us to deliver a far superior product. We also serve a more diverse client base today: the film industry, Fortune 500s, documentary filmmakers. The corporate sector set the tone for us to ramp up and move to digital around 2003.

 

Mistakes I won’t make again:

Mistakes are all learning experiences. We’re still here so I must have blocked them from my mind! We’ve been smart about equipment purchases, but I probably should have skipped Digital Betacam and gone straight from analog to HD. Digi Beta didn’t lead the pack as I thought it would.

 

Advice to those starting out:

Always bring your A-game, because you’re only as good as your last job. Read your call sheet and go in prepared. On the equipment side, being very meticulous is key.

 

Your business milestones:

We won a 2015 Emmy Award for the documentary, Hank Aaron: Still Hitting Homers, produced by Andrew Young Presents. It’s nice when something you have a passion for is recognized by your peers. Andrew Young Presents is an ongoing series; we produce and shoot four a year for national syndication. We just finished the episode, Strong Medicine, comparing traditional African medicine with western medicine.

 

Georgia’s turning point:

When the recession hit things slowed and corporate business almost dried up completely. But when the new tax incentives kicked in people discovered Georgia, its good crew base and great locations. Now, corporate is growing—companies with an international presence, like Home Depot, State Farm and IHG, have helped boost Georgia.

Georgia’s future:

It’s important for Georgia’s business and residential communities to share our traditional southern hospitality with companies coming here. Conversely, production teams need to be mindful and respectful of property and be cordial with neighbors. When this happens production does only good things for Georgia.

 

Haven’t been there, done that yet:

“I’m a gear nerd, so I’m excited about technology advancements like 8K, drones, and camera stabilization. On the production side, we are ramping up our in-house documentary production and hope to have our first ChaseLight release

in 2018.

 

DAN PHILIPP:

Gaffer, Danny Boy Services (Lighting and Grip Rentals)

 

What it was like then:
When I bought my first truck, a three-ton grip truck, in 1994 it seemed the big movies had gone, but we still had the odd movie-of-the-week and I did some indie films that needed a small truck. But commercials and TV for industry were the customers I was cultivating at the time.

 

What it’s like now:

There are far more kinds of media projects now. We’re producing TV for the web and commercials that go straight to the Internet, which need a polished, professional look. We do programs for the CDC and the Medscape series of news shows for doctors.

 

2017 is our first year with two trucks working—we added a one ton van—and we’ve been very busy. We’ve done EPKs for The Walking Dead, Halt and Catch Fire and [the IFC series] Stan Against Evil. This is new business we didn’t expect in the 1990s. We’ve continued to do commercials and TV. They don’t need bigger trucks; they want you to be fast, nimble and small.

 

Mistakes I won’t make again:

Once or twice I’ve bought a camera I’ve regretted, especially during the Mini DV years. It was tempting to throw a little money at a small camera package, but I should have stayed in my own lane! I‘m grateful that I never lost a lot of money in that department.

 

Advice to those starting out:

Once you’re out of film school with your degree and a nice student reel, the best move you can make is to get a job in a rental house. It’s like a paid post-grad program. It’s hands on; you learn by osmosis. It taught me the business—customer expectations, how to treat customers, even to wear a button down collar when bringing equipment into an office environment. Remember to be pleasant and fun to deal with: Difficult personalities don’t get very far.

Your business milestones:

No one thing stands out. We’ve experienced consistent growth throughout the years. We do one or two high-profile projects a year that are good marquee [value] for the Danny Boy brand, but the majority of our work is small to medium-sized projects that we get through positive word of mouth. We’re known for a string of well put together projects where nothing terrible happens! That’s how you keep the business. We’re blessed with repeat customers and working with crews who are our friends, too.

 

Georgia’s turning point:

Obviously, it was the tax incentives. When we were trying to get the Georgia Production Partnership to influence lawmakers, I participated in a big way with other shops to show the kind of commerce associated with the production community. Tax incentives are not a giveaway but an invitation for enterprise and commerce of all kinds.”

 

Georgia’s future:

Universities are starting to ratchet up film studies’ programs on the technical side. I’d like to see curricula featuring filmmaking programs staffed by people with dirty fingernails, people who’ve done it—editors, gaffers and sound, lighting and camera people. But schools are mostly doing the job now; they’re better at it than when I graduated with almost no technical knowledge. The young people I rub elbows with have technical book knowledge, which is good; all they’re lacking is onset experience.

 

Haven’t been there, done that yet:

I’m thinking about organizing a weekend clinic for student filmmakers showing them the basics of electricity so they don’t make the whole block turn dark when they’re shooting. I’d like to teach. I’m looking forward to the day when I can put what I’ve learned to work for the people who’ll be on sets for the next 20 years.

 

I’ve also acquired a new truck: a 14-foot van packed with production value and new battery-driven LEDs. So that will make us a good fit for a lot more projects that don’t need a 26-foot box truck.

 

GREG CRAWFORD:

Audio Mixer/Sound Designer, Crawford Media Services, Inc. (ADR)

 

What it was like then:

When electronic post production started the cost of entry was so extreme that we did everything: records, boatloads of commercials, film and TV. Even after a lot of production fled to Canada we still had all of the post work for In the Heat of the Night for a number of seasons, TNT, CNN, Coca-Cola—it really didn’t impact us that much. There weren’t many places like Crawford around.

 

What it’s like now:

Business has been unprecedented: Last year we had over 100 unique IMDb entries. Our big service is ADR; we’ve built incredible relationships with the major studios, and we can’t stop the faucet—we get the lion’s share of any dialogue work done in town. Every studio says they do ADR, but you need a certain size room, the software, and the ability to interface with studios around the world and maintain the comfort level of the actors.

 

Mistakes I won’t make again:
We’ve really hustled the ADR business. I wish we’d hustled full audio post as much to get shows to mix here. We’re waiting for the day when 
producers recognize the potential for full post production here in Atlanta.

 

Advice to those starting out:

Network. My oldest son is deep into this business and has a network of extraordinarily talented friends he works with, and I imagine my youngest will too. Networking seems to be the number one thing that gets them work. Get involved with Film Bar Monday here in town; it’s a Facebook group of likeminded professionals that meets in a different bar in and around Atlanta every week to network. They say, ‘no headshots, no resumes, no desperation.’ The 48-Hour Film Festival is also a good way to meet people and show off your skills. These are the people I’m going to be working for one day!

 

Your business milestones:

We have worked on dozens of Academy and EMMY Award-winning projects, which is cool considering we are in Atlanta. Our earlier milestones would be a toss-up between the series In the Heat of the Night and the first original program on TNT: The Making of a Legend: Gone With The Wind. We worked with Jeffrey Selznick over a year on that; we did the edit, audio, color correction, graphics and assisted in making a new version of the print.

 

Georgia’s turning point:

When the tax incentives took effect. After that the very first show in was Drop Dead DivaThen Vampire Diaries built some incredible stages and literally grew roots here—we were eight years with them. Next came The Walking Dead. It just hasn’t stopped. We’re lucky that we have the history we do because we were the first call when work started to come to town.

Georgia’s future:

We have some of the nicest stages in the world—Pinewood is beautiful and Eagle Rock is great, too. Filming is rampant. The missing link is on the post production side. We’re still waiting for the moment when producers decide to make Atlanta their home, when content providers make the investment in post here.

Haven’t been there, done that yet:

I want to do this job long enough to get to work for my son and his friends. Then, when I go, I’d like one of those “In Memoriam” show mentions. I’d hope people would think enough of me to include me!

 

 

 

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