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A Vision For Stock Video Success: Daniel Hurst, VIA Films

COW Library : Business & Career Building : Daniel Hurst : A Vision For Stock Video Success: Daniel Hurst, VIA Films
CreativeCOW presents A Vision For Stock Video Success: Daniel Hurst, VIA Films -- Business & Marketing

Portland, OR All rights reserved.

The name Daniel Hurst may not sound familiar, but you've definitely seen his work. An early mover in high frame rate and aerial shooting for stock footage using cameras including Phantom Flex 4K and RED Weapon 8K, hes sold over 200,000 clips through his company VIA Films since getting started with video in 2005. One of those clips, a time lapse of New Yorks Times Square, has sold over 3000 times on its own.

Heck, you may even have seen one of Daniels kids. During the last campaign season, clips of his son with a slow-motion American flag became so ubiquitous in dozens of political ads across the spectrum that an eagle-eyed Washington DC reporter tracked him down for an article.

Beyond the specifics of the work, though, what jumped out at us again and again is the way that Daniels career is built not just on the skills he has, but on the next set of skills he wants to develop. Photography led to time lapse video, to high speed videography, to aerials, to high resolution, and more, always driven by the question, How did they DO that?, followed quickly by, How can I do that?

We can answer one of your questions right up front. You can look at the cameras hes bought, the places he goes to shoot, the studio hes building, and ask, How does he do that?, and the answer each time comes back to stock video. After building a successful portfolio trying to create shots that he hasnt seen before, hes able to use his profits from stock video to subsidize the creation of the next shots he wants to see.

Even though he got started early himself, Daniel is convinced that theres still a future in stock video for people who are just now ready to get started. His story includes practical steps for where to begin, as well as an inspiring glimpse at what the future of stock video might hold, from one of the artists helping create that future.

Creative COW: Some videographers become known for having a single specialty. Youve definitely got some long suits, including aerials, high speed footage, and food, but its clear that you do a lot more than that, including a wide variety of lifestyle video. With that kind of diversity to your approach, how did you know where to begin your video business in general, and where did you begin with stock footage?

Daniel Hurst: My first job in photography was in newspaper, where I learned how to shoot a variety of things portraits, food, real estate, sports, spot news. What I learned was not to be tied to just one thing.

I didnt have any experience in video at all until 2005, when I started doing some experimenting with time-lapse photography with my DSLR. Id never owned a video camera before then, but this really opened my eyes to the idea that, wow, I can manipulate time! It was so exciting, and there were so many things to learn about video.

One of the things I had no clue about was moving the camera. Id never really thought about it. With stills, the camera is locked off, but now I can move up and down, side to side, and all these other things, so I started building jibs and dollies and other rigs that would help me tell a story by moving things around.

Food photography is easy to shoot locked off, but moving the camera adds tremendous technical challenges, and it also makes the video come alive. The challenge in the early days is that when high speed cameras first came out, there werent a lot of rigs and the rigs that were out there werent designed to move heavy cameras really quickly, which is whats required in high-speed photography.

We need to build arms that could move the camera as quickly as we wanted to and this started moving us in the direction of robotic camera rigs, so that we could also move the camera in multiple dimensions at once, not just one direction at very high speeds.

At first we rented robot arms, then we looked at leasing or buying them. Then a friend of mine, Sean Brown, and I decided that we needed to develop our own. We created a company for that, Motorized Precision with the KIRA robot. Im partners in that company with Sean, who runs the day-to-day operations, but thats where this idea came from, the urge to get the camera moving through high speed shots to bring them to life.

Building these interests into business sprang directly out of stock footage. When I started doing the timelapse videos, I started submitting them to a stock agency, and they did really well. I thought, wow, this is just me in my back yard with minimal gear and minimal effort imagine if I took it to the next level. So I started hiring crews, getting talent to come in, and shooting something specifically for stock footage. I was making my money back PLUS some, so I started thinking, what can we do thats even better, that nobody else has done.

This is completely different from assignment shooting, where people hire you based on work youve already done. But I had this idea that if I was going to be successful in stock footage, I needed to NOT do what Id already seen a lot of. With stock footage, there was no client. I could just go out and do it.

That was true of high speed, and true of aerials as well. I hired operators, and gimbals, and worked on a few shoots until I felt comfortable. Now that Ive gotten to where I DO have some expertise in these fields, Im able to rent out my gear to other people, and consult on their projects.

Stock footage freed me to do that. For example, that high-speed footage of bullets going through objects. I thought, wow, how do you do that? WHO does that? What kind of gear do you need? We rented an industrial camera from Germany, before digital cinema cameras like Phantom were accessible, and we basically spent a week blowing stuff up, and teaching ourselves how to shoot it.

Your website features a number of options for booking helicopters and rigs. Do you own those?

I work with local helicopter companies, but I own the mounts, the gimbals, camera and lens set-ups, so I can go anywhere in the country and attach my gear to a local helicopter. That said, I work with a number of local helicopter companies here in Oregon, and weve been building up longer and longer trips to other destinations.

One recent trip covered San Francisco, Las Vegas, Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Grand Canyon, Arches, Rocky Mountains & Palo Duro Canyon in a single week. It saves a lot of time because I dont have to re-rig a new helicopter in every location, or learn how to work with a new pilot. Plus, theres always so much interesting things to see in between various locations. Im not just flying to a city to shoot, but Im also shooting aerials along the way.

When I first started shooting high speed, and these kinds of aerials, there wasnt anybody else doing much of that in stock footage. It was easier to take big gambles, knowing that there wasnt as much competition to pay them off. The opportunities to shoot the things I most enjoy are still there, but I have to think more carefully, and try to be more efficient things like these cross-country aerial shoots. When Im taking a single trip that covers a large part of the country, I can do those on much smaller budgets than if I was flying gear into multiple locations.

When a lot of people see the words, aerial stock footage, they immediately think of drones. Do you do anything with those, or are you working entirely with helicopters?

I use drones for many of my stock productions. They are great for outdoor lifestyle or sports shoots, and they add a unique angle that is hard to get any other way.

For establishing city and landscape shots I prefer to work with a helicopter for several reasons. Drones are limited on altitude and speed. There are strict regulations on where you can fly: no flying by airports, over traffic and people.

With a helicopter we can take off and stay flying for about two and a half hours, and we can quickly go from location to location. I can shoot multiple landmarks all over a city or region within a couple of hours and focus my attention on shooting only when the light is great, like at dusk or sunset.

For me, shooting with my RED camera in RAW always gives me the best quality and the drones required to carry that camera can be just as expensive or more expensive to operate than a full-size helicopter.

Youve sold over 200,000 clips. How is the business changing?

My best-selling shot of all these is a timelapse of Times Square. It has sold nearly 3000 times now. I was there for a tradeshow, had my camera with me, set it up on a tripod, and it just took off. Its done amazing over the years. Hundreds of people have done this shot since then, and they havent sold anything like as many times. Theres an advantage to getting in early.

Thats why its important to avoid the temptation of looking at stock footage sites at the most popular shots. Youre competing against those shots. My approach is to look through collections to find what hasnt been shot before, or see what I know I can do much better.


You mentioned on social media that youre building a new studio. Whats the story there?

I have a basement studio right now thats a typical studio I can black it out, set up lighting, do product and tabletop work. The new studio will have a space like that, but its also a practical location. It will have a kitchen, and guest bedrooms that can also be set rooms that can allow any kind of household scenario. I also have space that can be set up like a business office, or a medical office, a flexible space that I can set up any way I need, and can leave it that way for a couple of months until I need to switch it to something else.

I do use my own house as a location as well, which is what inspired this, but our house is traditional, kind of a country home, so for the studio I wanted to go in completely the opposite direction, much more modern very much with stock footage in mind, thinking now I have two very distinct home-looking settings at my disposal at all times.

What kinds of things have you done in your home?

The year we built it, I worked on an assignment for a local company here in Portland that does wreaths and garlands and Christmas decorations. They were interested in still photos initially, but early on I said, Well, youre going to bring in a decorator and set up the house how about we leave it set up for the holidays, and well get some stock footage out of it.

They were very excited about this, so they came in around Thanksgiving time and decorated the place beautifully for Christmas. We took care of the still photos for their marketing, then worked on video through the holidays.

We shot my family making cookies and decorating gingerbread houses, then we hired a Santa Claus actor, created a Santas workshop for him, showed him putting things in stockings. Some of the most popular footage coming out of those sessions was Santa using technology Santa using a laptop in his workshop, talking on the phone, things like that. It came out nicely, and has done really well for us.


How does post fit into what you do? Youre obviously a camera guy by background, but Im assuming that you had to learn something about post as you got into stock video.

Youre right that I didnt know anything coming in, but Im primarily just trimming footage into 15-30 second clips, maybe some color correction. I try to keep it natural, and get it as close to what I want it to look like on the stock website as possible, completely in camera.

I know that different people approach this differently. They do more extensive editing, get into things like logo removal or stylized treatments. I really try to keep everything simple, in camera, so that I dont have to spend time in post. My workflow is pretty simple. I do most of my shooting on RED cameras, so Im just using RED CINE-X, their RAW processing software, to trim up clips, add a little correction if I need to, export to ProRes, and upload those directly.

Ive learned some Adobe After Effects along the way to do small things, maybe a little bit of pan or zoom in post, but minor.

I also have a freelancer I work with maybe a week a month whos an editor, and he builds my reels. I also use him on shoots when I can, as an assistant cinematographer.

So how does your company scale? Youve obviously got a partner in your robotics business, and someone here working quarter-time, but you also hire actors and helicopter pilots as needed. How do you think of yourself, then? As a solo operation? As part of a larger team?

A large amount of it is just me, but I try to set aside one week a month for shooting stock, along the lines of one or two shoots per day. Ill hire actors or freelancers as needed, but the rest of the time, its mostly just me.

Where do you go to hire an actor?

Weve done a lot of Craigslist in the past, but word of mouth, friends and family in fact, early on, friends and family was all I used. I started looking at Craigslist when I needed something specific.

Craigslist was okay, but sometimes people wouldnt show up, so since then, Ive been working with casting people who also happen to be two actors Id worked with before. They were doing work as extras on TV shows and in commercials, and they both said, I know all these people in the industry, and theyre looking for extra work, and thats been working really well.


How has it been working with Adobe Stock?

I was with Fotolia before Adobe acquired them. When Adobe took over, they improved the website, and assigned a contributor liaison to me. Thats been really nice. I now have somebody at Adobe I can talk to when I have specific questions, or when I see a problem. He also checks in with me: Hey, what are you working on? and Someones asking for this and we dont have any footage along these lines. Is that something you can help with?

Thats been nice, having a person I can build a relationship with, and have someone to help me out. I know that Adobe has been working hard on marketing and getting the word out there, so sales have started to pick up. I also like that contributors can track their sales in real time on the website.

One of the recent additions to the site is Collections. Contributors can now sort and create their videos into groups to better showcase them.

VIA Films at Adobe Stock

On the strategy side, two things that are working well for me are focusing on quality rather than quantity, and finding niche topics that havent been done, rather than trying to shoot what is already selling.

One of my best selling series on Adobe has been a recent elementary school shoot. My wife is the teacher and my kids are all in this shoot too.

Click image to see this footage from VIA Films at Adobe Stock

With Adobe Stock being part of Adobe Creative Cloud, the resources are already everywhere for people to start using it right away. I see a lot of potential, so Im excited to see where its going to go. I think Adobe Stock is going to become one of the larger players in the stock business.

You got in early, but do you think that there is there still opportunity out there for people to get started in stock video today?

There are definitely still opportunities for people wanting to shoot stock footage for a living, especially by shooting something unique. A great way to do that is maybe if they have an assignment shoot, they can take a few extra days with the gear and the location to shoot specifically for stock with a minimal outlay.

Doing that, or working with footage they already have, they can start to gauge whats going to sell for them, and how much theyll make from it. This can then help them set budgets for dedicated shoots later on.

My original idea was to bring video in on the side. I had steady work as a photographer, and I thought Id do a few videos on those assignments, but I learned quickly that the videos are where the demand was, thats what was selling.

Part of that is that photography jobs were for a lot of the same kinds of things that other people were shooting, so it wasnt necessarily anything special. I quickly switched gears to focus on video, because I felt I could do both simultaneously really well: get the work that clients wanted, and put myself in the position to get unique footage.

So, stock video as a side project is a great way to start, but once you start to figure out a few basics, its important to focus on it if you want to build a business around it.

Whats the future look like for you?

Im always excited to do new things, so I dont know whats coming. I feel like the returns on stock productions are still good enough to justify the outlay, so for the near future, Im still going to keep shooting stock footage, but Im also starting to build a client base with some of the of the technology and gear Ive acquired, whether its helping people do their own high speed shoots, or renting out Phantom cameras and helicopter gimbals, working as a technician on shoots. Those are still secondary to stock.

In the area of stock itself, I just launched a strictly aerial brand, ASCEND. Everything is shot on RED Helium in 7 and 8K and available in .R3D raw format. Creating a collection like ASCEND is one way I am trying to differentiate my work from the millions of stock clips out there, offer something niche, that is cohesive and high quality.

I just launched ASCEND at the beginning of the year, and there are still hundreds of clips that will be going online in the next few months, so it will take some time to see how it goes.

Overall, I see a lot of possibilities for the business to morph and evolve in ways I cant anticipate yet.

Well, you say that, and I believe it (laughter), but at the same time, it seems like a lot of this is being driven by your imagination, your curiosity. Its not that you asked, Whats possible with this camera or that technology? Its more that each of the stages of your evolution has been driven by what you DONT know how to do.

Exactly. Thats how its always started. How can I do THAT? Thats what keeps me excited about the future. Learning something new, and not even knowing right now what that might be.

This article is sponsored by Adobe Stock

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