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
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, he’s 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 York’s Times Square, has sold over 3000 times on its own.
Heck, you may even have seen one of Daniel’s 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 Daniel’s 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 he’s bought, the places he goes to shoot, the studio he’s 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 hasn’t seen before, he’s 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 there’s 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. You’ve definitely got some long suits, including aerials, high speed footage, and food, but it’s 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 didn’t have any experience in video at all until 2005, when I started doing some experimenting with time-lapse photography with my DSLR. I’d 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. I’d 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 weren’t a lot of rigs – and the rigs that were out there weren’t designed to move heavy cameras really quickly, which is what’s 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. I’m partners in that company with Sean, who runs the day-to-day operations, but that’s 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 that’s even better, that nobody else has done.
This is completely different from assignment shooting, where people hire you based on work you’ve already done. But I had this idea that if I was going to be successful in stock footage, I needed to NOT do what I’d 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 I’ve gotten to where I DO have some expertise in these fields, I’m 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.
AERIAL FOOTAGE: HELICOPTERS, GIMBALS, DRONES
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 we’ve 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 don’t have to re-rig a new helicopter in every location, or learn how to work with a new pilot. Plus, there’s always so much interesting things to see in between various locations. I’m not just flying to a city to shoot, but I’m also shooting aerials along the way.
When I first started shooting high speed, and these kinds of aerials, there wasn’t anybody else doing much of that in stock footage. It was easier to take big gambles, knowing that there wasn’t 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 I’m 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.
You’ve 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. It’s done amazing over the years. Hundreds of people have done this shot since then, and they haven’t sold anything like as many times. There’s an advantage to getting in early.
That’s why it’s important to avoid the temptation of looking at stock footage sites at the most popular shots. You’re competing against those shots. My approach is to look through collections to find what hasn’t been shot before, or see what I know I can do much better.
BUILDING A STUDIO
You mentioned on social media that you’re building a new studio. What’s the story there?
I have a basement studio right now that’s 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 it’s 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, you’re going to bring in a decorator and set up the house – how about we leave it set up for the holidays, and we’ll 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 Santa’s 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.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
How does post fit into what you do? You’re obviously a camera guy by background, but I’m assuming that you had to learn something about post as you got into stock video.
You’re right that I didn’t know anything coming in, but I’m 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 don’t have to spend time in post. My workflow is pretty simple. I do most of my shooting on RED cameras, so I’m 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.
I’ve 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 who’s 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? You’ve 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. I’ll hire actors or freelancers as needed, but the rest of the time, it’s mostly just me.
Where do you go to hire an actor?
We’ve 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 wouldn’t show up, so since then, I’ve been working with casting people who also happen to be two actors I’d 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 they’re looking for extra work”, and that’s 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. That’s 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 “Someone’s asking for this and we don’t have any footage along these lines. Is that something you can help with?”
That’s 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 haven’t 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 I’m excited to see where it’s 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 what’s going to sell for them, and how much they’ll 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 I’d do a few videos on those assignments, but I learned quickly that the videos are where the demand was, that’s 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 wasn’t 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, it’s important to focus on it if you want to build a business around it.
What’s the future look like for you?
I’m always excited to do new things, so I don’t know what’s coming. I feel like the returns on stock productions are still good enough to justify the outlay, so for the near future, I’m still going to keep shooting stock footage, but I’m also starting to build a client base with some of the of the technology and gear I’ve acquired, whether it’s 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 can’t 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. It’s not that you asked, “What’s possible with this camera or that technology?” It’s more that each of the stages of your evolution has been driven by what you DON’T know how to do.
Exactly. That’s how it’s always started. How can I do THAT? That’s 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