Authenticity: The First Step to Stock Video Success
COW Library : Business & Marketing : Robb Crocker : Authenticity: The First Step to Stock Video Success
As so many epic tales do, this one begins with a quest.
For a cat video.
This one was for a client, though, honest! Specifically, Funnelbox’s Robb Crocker needed to find video of a cat in front a green screen.
The quest led Robb to the world of shooting and selling stock video, where he has been able to make $7 million in sales in the past 10 years in his “side” business, Uberstock: over 30,000 clients bringing in between $20-35,000, month in and month out. It has also led to Robb’s book, titled (appropriately enough) Stock Footage Millionaire, which lays out the details of how he added stock media sales to his video production company, and how you can too.
(In addition to Funnelbox and Uberstock, Robb has actually founded a third company along the way: Flixio, which produces digital signage content. We'd like to think that part of what makes all this possible is Robb's frequent visits to Creative COW for insights and support -- he's been a member since 2002.)
That’s what jumps out in speaking with Robb, perhaps at one of the many trade shows where he’s in high demand, or in reading his book: the practicality of his vision. Not that there’s any lack of grandeur to the vision. As he puts it, the promise of building a business around stock video is “No clients. No deadlines. No limits on my creativity.”
The key to actually pulling it off, though? Authenticity, says Robb, starting by shooting what you know, to create the kind of footage you’d want to buy. That means setting budgets, and doing whatever it takes to create the kind of production values that you demand.
Robb knows sports, so he started with golf – one golfer and a small crew – but when it came time to shoot some football stock footage, he hired a couple of football teams, rented uniforms and a stadium, and brought a full production truck.
Along the way, Robb’s footage has been part of projects on six continents, including Hollywood feature trailers such as The Muppet Movie; national commercials for Intel, Scion, Verizon, AT&T, and Discover Card; television shows including Parenthood, The Office, and The View; US presidential campaign videos for both Republican and Democratic candidates; corporate videos for Bank of America, Nike, Wells Fargo, HP, Delta Airlines, Toshiba, and 3M; and on digital signage in the heart of New York City’s Times Square.
Whatever the scale you choose, says Robb, and whatever settings you choose to work in (nature, family, business, travel, etc.), there are specific steps to take to turn your vision into a profitable business. Priorities to set. Risks to calculate. It can be done, though. Robb has some stories to share besides his own, but let’s begin where he did: with the search for a cat in front of a green screen.
ROBB CROCKER: I was working as a producer/director at a CBS affiliate in Eugene, Oregon, and I met a gentleman who was also kind of a freelancer. We had some clients and we decided to start our own thing in 1999. I was 25, and I had nothing to lose, so that's what we did: started Funnelbox.
CREATIVE COW: What kind of work were you doing?
Mostly local and regional commercials, event videos, motion graphics with Adobe After Effects. Since then, online video is at least 80% of what we do now.
We do a ton of video production, but we're also becoming more focused on strategy. There are so many great producers out there, great videographers, cinematographers, animators, compositors. For us, it's more about the strategy behind the production. We help organizations figure out what they want to say, how they want to say it, how to effectively say it. And then we can help them with the production or we can help them find good folks who can actually do the production.
When did you start Uberstock?
Uber Stock started in 2007. I was looking for some stock footage of a cat on a green screen for a commercial I was producing for a client. I couldn't find any cat on a green screen video, but what I did stumble across was, at the time, iStock Photo, which was just starting to get into video. I thought, “Hmm, that's kinda cool! You can just upload video clips and maybe sell them and make money.”
I took a very limited risk and uploaded some B-roll content that I had owned because I had shot some pro bono footage for some non-profits. The lightbulb went on for me when the first payment arrived in my account, on the morning of my 33rd birthday, while I was on vacation no less! It was only $58.90, but that money came in while I slept!
Once things started to sell a little bit, we started shooting specifically intending it to be used as stock footage.
One of the things that jumped out in reading Stock Footage Millionaire is that you essentially become your own client. Your shoots can call for substantial budgets, crews, and talent outlays. What do your budgets typically look like?
We realized that there were a couple ways we could go to make pretty good money shooting stock. One was to have access to a resource, be it a location, or people who were relatively easy to shoot and get good-looking content that you know the market was going to want.
That’s a good way to start, but it’s not going to be easy to become a stock footage millionaire if your long-term emphasis is on minimizing expenses rather than maximizing opportunity.
Or, you can go out and shoot something that nobody else is going to be willing to invest the time, money, and resources into shooting, because that’s also going be highly desirable content.
I can say that our shoots average out to a budget of $4000, but in practice, they’re split between a good number with budgets under $2000, and a handful a year with budgets over $20,000.
We focused from the beginning on stuff that I knew more about, which was sports. We started with golf, which wasn't too expensive, but probably our biggest investments were some football shoots. We went out and we hired two football teams. We rented a stadium. We rented lights. We bought uniforms. We spent a lot of money, but the footage has sold really well, and it has worked out for us.
A small handful of the shots available for both kinds of football from Uberstock, via Adobe Stock.
This gets to one of your key concepts, which is authenticity. What does that mean to you in the context of stock footage?
Sometimes it's easier to think about the opposite of authentic and the opposite of authentic is, you don't want your footage to show up on a video making fun of stock footage.
There are social media empires built on this kind of thing.
Right! You don’t want that. You want your footage to show up in the title sequence of NBC’s Parenthood – and both of my daughters are in the title sequence of Parenthood, because the footage looks like authentic home videos. Or on TV commercials because the production company or the producer or the editor thought that that content matched the look and feel that they were going for.
Authentic is shooting what you know. Authentic is, when working with talent, being able to direct them in such a way that it doesn't feel like they're acting. It feels like they're doing something natural, and that you're there just documenting whatever that action is.
Now that's for content that's supposed to feel authentic. There's always a need for just footage of different types of people, whether they be male and female, black or white, crazy characters, old and young, big and little. Maybe your goal is to create something highly stylized.
But even those, you want the talent in front of the camera to feel comfortable and authentic in front of the camera, unless you're specifically going for something that is supposed to feel uncomfortable. But for the most part, I think authenticity is shooting in such a way that what we see feels right. It feels organic.
"Feel" is somewhat of a nebulous word, but I think most creatives understand when I say it just feels right or it looks right.
Authenticity comes from understanding the relationship between the camera and the talent or the subject matter. It might not be a person. It might be an animal or a landscape, but also understanding the relationship between composition and lighting and camera movement.
Opening credits for NBC's Parenthood. Look for Robb's daughters at :26 and :35
That’s got to be tricky with sports, because you have the stage-blocking that you need in the scene, but a lot of sports thrives on unpredictability, and it’s hard for a rehearsed sports move to feel authentic, rather than choreographed.
Shooting sports is very, very difficult because you do want it to look like it's a real game, but at the same time, if you're doing a camera move or you're using a drone or something, you need people to hit their marks. Especially for athletes who aren't actors, sometimes it's hard for them to get the right mix of going full speed and looking like they're really playing, and also hitting my mark. And it is very difficult. You're very right.
Part of the challenge is to visualize where exactly the footage might be used, and set everything up accordingly. I mentioned my daughters winding up in the opening of Parenthood. I’ve had footage on digital billboards at the top of Times Square, used by presidential candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties, in corporate videos, on Facebook, and in high-end spots. Each of those calls for a different approach.
I saw a few years ago that MMA fighting was becoming more popular, and I knew that there was going to be a lot of demand for MMA fight footage. I hired a professional fighter, and I wanted something highly stylized. I wanted high key lighting, shallow depth of field, a handheld feel, because I was thinking of I wanted it to be used in a commercial, or a show open, or something dramatic.
And it was! I didn’t know that it was being used until I was in a sports bar, and saw it in this commercial.
It happens that the fighter I hired isn’t a boxer, and if you know boxing you can see it, but they cut it up really well. For adding drama, it really works.
Maybe they were looking for boxing footage and they like what they saw, but I’d like to think that they were looking at stock footage, found this, and said, “Let’s build a spot around this, and save tens of thousands of dollars!”
So you’ve focused on sports and lifestyle footage. You recommend people specializing?
Yes. There are some stock footage producers who have teams that shoot a lot of very different stuff, but I think for the most part, the super successful stock footage producers have something of a niche, or maybe a couple of them.
I know for instance, Daniel Hurst of VIA Films shoots a lot of high-speed footage, and he shoots a lot of helicopter aerials. David Baumber, who is Multifocus, and his wife Helen Fields, who is HotelFoxTrot69, they have their niche with business footage, and they also do lifestyle footage. They do very, very well in those niches.
I think it's just easier once you get to really know a niche. You need to think about what you do well, what you can shoot well that is authentic, that can play to your strengths.
So for instance, if you're a dog trainer, shoot a lot of dog footage. If you're a welder, shoot welding footage. If you have a boat, shoot boating footage.
And again, think about: who is your end buyer? You can't know that before you shoot, but you can have a hypothesis about who is going to be buying your content before you even shoot. With that in mind, then shoot the content you think that that person would want shot. Light it the way you think they would want it. Use camera movement the way you think that they would want it. Cast the talent that you think that they would want.
So, if that's an ad agency, cast and shoot in light like you think an ad agency would want. If it's a corporate video for an HR person, then shoot it like that.
What it comes down to is begin with the end in mind. Think about how this footage is going to be used, and then shoot content to fill that future need.
TOOLS AND TRENDS
You mentioned high-speed/slow-motion footage, which I know is trendy these days, even for phones. Is that something you find a demand for?
I brought up Daniel Hurst – he bought an early Phantom high-speed camera when they cost over $100,000, and rights-managed clips were going for $1000 each. People thought he was crazy to try to sell at micro stock prices, but he took the risk, made the investment, and has done really, really well.
Sure, we have some high-speed sports stuff, and some romantic lifestyle clips, but we’re not doing the bullet-through-the-watermelon shots. High speed footage as a category is just not a niche for us. We’re sticking with what we know.
I think a lot of people shoot higher frame rates to get a specific feel, but we've also had agencies saying, “Hey, we want more 'authentic footage'”, meaning, normal speed.
I assume drones fall into the same category for you?
Exactly. For us, a drone is just another tool. It's just like using a jib or a dolly or a Steadicam. If we can use that tool in such a way that it gives stock footage a unique perspective, or helps us to capture footage that we think buyers are going to want, and editors are going to want to use, then we'll do it. But we don't go out specifically just to use the drone to shoot drone footage.
Your site mentions the RED EPIC as your main camera.
Yeah, that’s our primary camera, but I used to be much more of a camera geek than I am now. I mean there's just so many great cameras out there that shoot 4K. I love our RED, but the fact of the matter is, most of the stock footage buyers don't really care if you're shooting on a Dragon or a Panasonic GH4 or whatever. People don't care. Does the image look good? Does it tell a story? Does it look authentic? Is it well-lit? That's really what they care about. It's not so much the camera anymore.
So are you seeing much demand for 4K footage yet?
A little bit. Not a whole lot. We’re shooting 5K with our EPIC, but I think adoption of 4K at the consumer end is going to go more slowly than adopting HD. It’s going to be a few more years before we start selling a lot of 4K content.
What about editing?
We started with Media 100, and after that, I think like a lot of people, we wound up as a Final Cut shop for many years. When Final Cut Pro X came along, it didn’t support our SAN at a time we needed to make a change, so that gave us a chance to take another look at Adobe Premiere Pro. We’d already been using After Effects and Photoshop, and it’s been great because everything is so seamless now.
Synergy in action: an InfoComm demo for Sharp, by Flixio, using Uberstock sports footage directed by Robb Crocker
How have you found the integration with Creative Cloud and Adobe Stock to be working for you?
We’ve been doing this for 10 years, and have close to 20,000 clips, so we’ve been working with several different stock companies over the years, with Adobe Stock being our newest partner for Uberstock.
We have our processes in place for editing, color grading, processing, and exporting – but being able to export straight from the Premiere Pro timeline to Adobe Stock is really cool. I think this is going to save so much time! And for people who’ve only been thinking about selling stock footage until now, I think that this is going to make it incredibly easy to get started.
I’m also excited as someone who sells stock footage, because if any company has the resources to really blow this thing up and creating new revenue streams for their contributors, it’s Adobe.
It’s also a great time to be somebody buying stock footage, because Adobe has done a great job implementing this cool technology that lets you download stock footage directly into your Creative Cloud applications.
We're definitely investing in specific content to upload to Adobe Stock along with the other stock footage sites that we know so well. As both a seller and a buyer of stock footage, it's good for us to have more contributors and more distribution partners.
What else has you excited for the future?
It's excitement, but there's also been some trepidation. I don't know what's going to happen in regards to the market. Certainly, there are more players in the space, more and more producers who are raising the bar, which I think is great.
But we’re also always thinking about technology. We actually invested a little bit in shooting 3D stock when it first came out, but obviously that went nowhere. Now people are talking about VR, and there’s a little bit of 360 stock out there, but I don’t really know how it’s going to play out. And who’s going to start selling 8K footage?
Maybe somebody already is, but when we started in 2007, SD was still a real thing, and the bulk of our sales were still standard definition. Now we’re shooting 5K, but for sales, the transition from HD to 4K is just starting to happen. It will be interesting to see what the future holds.
Of course, that’s why we’re shooting 5K now, even though that’s not yet what people are buying. It's always important to think about how the footage is going to sell two to three years from now, and not just how it's going to sell tomorrow.