In a few short years we went from 40-50 weddings to working for a bunch of really cool companies on TV features, documentaries, and even some amazing things like an Olympic campaign and the Superbowl.
How did we make that leap?
What tricks and mindsets helped make our transition quicker and more smooth?
Throughout KNOW, at nearly every stop, we got several questions about how we made the move from weddings to commercial work. Our story of the NFL seeing a wedding film on Vimeo makes for quite the story, but it certainly doesn’t act as useful advice to rest your hopes on.
We want to break down our transition into commercial work and make this tangible. Something you can apply immediately to your work if you find yourself wanting to make the same transistion.
Even if you aren’t working in only weddings, these lessons continue to help us push our work forward – and expose us to even larger stages (we still use these lessons in our non-wedding work).
Here is our ‘secret sauce’ if you will, about how to use your background in weddings to gain traction and get clients in the commercial world.
Key #1: Make Wedding Films for the World, Not your Couple
From the beginning of Stillmotion, we’ve always said that we try to make wedding films interesting enough you could show the mailman.
We’ve seen many people fall into traps where they let the stigma of wedding videos get to them and they lower their standards, or they aim most of their creative vision at trying to please the couple.
So many times we’ve been asked to offer feedback on a clip and when we ask ‘why’ a certain decision was made the answer, all too often, is something along the lines of ‘the bride asked for that’ or ‘they’ll be upset and ask me to change it if i didn’t include that’.
We like to say, as harsh as it sounds, forget the couple.
If you can make a film strong enough to keep a stranger’s interest, then the couple and their family will surely love it.
When we say “stranger” we do not just mean other soon-to-be-married brides (stop making films for brides altogether).
If you aren’t making a film for brides, how do we then justify hanging the dress in the window or rolling the rings on a table? Try showing that to somebody without the context of it being a wedding film and see just how quickly they get confused or bored.
In making this clear choice to tell a story above all else, all of a sudden the fluff falls away and we need to find something deeper and more meaningful to drive our film.
Said in another way, showing you can make a good film about the wedding day says you can cover an event.
Making a strong film about who two people are shows that you can tell a story.
If you can tell a story about people that is interesting to more than just the bride and groom, you’ve developed a strong sense of story for other genres of filmmaking.
And, in the end, your couples will be blown away by your work when it stays true to their actual story – and not just a play-by-play of their wedding day…
Key #2: Think Less ‘Wedding’ and more ‘Filmmaking’
We look at a wedding and commercial film as the same thing – a story with characters, conflict, a journey, and resolution.
When we shot Phil Mickelson for Callaway, he just happened to be playing golf. When we covered Veronica and Dan’s story, they just happened to be getting married that day.
The context you find these people in certainly plays into how you cover and tell the story, but it doesn’t have to be the story and it shouldn’t define every decision.
Once you make the mental shift that you are making a film, a story, something more than a recounting of a day than it’s time to put some serious thought into everything you are doing.
Where are you placing the camera?
How are you moving the camera?
What lens, composition, color?
We can no longer rest on our favorite lens or that slider shot simply because thats how you shoot a wedding. Once we forget it is a wedding, in many ways we need to start from scratch and explore all of the unquestioned assumptions that we’ve done repeatedly over the years.
Use your weddings as a place to push your decision making to the limits by questioning everything and working through the answers. The more you do this, the more you are ready to step outside weddings and tell any story you’de like.
This was never more apparent to me than when we actually filmed Phil Mickelson and the director, Rob, referenced a wedding he really enjoyed where the groomsmen had played golf in the morning (Stu + Dana, if you’re curious).
He asked we cover one of the best golfers in the world in the same way we covered a bride and groom.
It sounds crazy at first, but remember, they are both just stories.
Key #3: Celebrate Your Ability to Experiment
Weddings are an amazing playground to learn new tools and try new approaches.
Of course we are accountable to the couple and we all care very deeply about doing the best we can for them but, what’s best for them often means pushing yourself creatively instead of playing it safe.
It often takes finding yourself in a commercial situation before we realize how creatively freeing a wedding is and how little we take advantage of that.
I can remember being on set with a bare chested Ryan Lochte, medals hanging around his neck, as we prepared for the next shot. I was sitting on a Fisher dolly with 50′ of track in front of me. Behind Lochte a massive American flag that would be released from the ceiling halfway through the shot.
So many hands went into this one shot, so much coordination, and every take took 10 minutes just to prep. This wasn’t the time to run around and start trying new ideas – we had to stick to the plan we’de created and execute it as best as we could.
Contrast that to a wedding where, in a moments notice, you can completely switch gears and change your storyline, approach, or tools without having to worry about a director, graphics, and agency all watching your every move on HD monitors.
This is a big difference and you’ll miss the freedom when it’s gone.
Take the time to explore new ways of approaching your shoot or to work with tools you’ve always wanted to understand. Look at different ways to get your narrative across, unique coverage patterns, and experiment with how it all fits together.
When we first got a Steadicam we definitely celebrated our ability to use it at weddings (to a fault in some cases) but we sure did learn how to become proficient with it. If at all possible, we try and take two steps at once by learning how to use that tool or technique while also finding a meaningful way to employ it.
As we were growing, this often occured in two stages. First was using the Steadicam everywhere and anywhere we could get it in the door. From there we started realizing that only a small portion of shots are actually enhanced by a Steadicam.
All of a sudden we calmed down and started using the Steadicam in ways that helped the story while also having gained the experience to use it properly. The interesting thing to note with our story of Steadicam is that while we use it much less now, it does so much more for us.
By choosing exactly where a Steadicam adds to the story, we can accomplish more in one shot than the 6 Steadicam shots in a row did before.
Key #4: Build Off The Incredible Value You Can Offer
As a wedding filmmaker you often produce, direct, shoot, capture audio, carry your own gear, set up lighting and then in post you often edit, color, and do a sound mix.
If you take just one element of that, say shooting, it is not uncommon to find a Steadicam of some sort, sliders, in addition to monopods/tripods and sometimes even cranes.
Each one of those roles could be 1-2 people on a commercial shoot. We’ve been on shoots where there is a dedicated Steadicam op, somebody to setup the dolly, another to push, and somebody to assist on camera – 4 people plus a camera operator to get shots similar to what many of us do at weddings with sliders and Steadicam rigs.
The point is not that you are over-worked (though you can definitely make that argument), the key is to realize how powerful of a package you can offer.
As a wedding filmmaker you are flexible, you are compact, you are quick, and you are powerful.
Many commercial sets can greatly benefit from what you have to offer, but if you don’t see your own value it is rare that others will.
Weddings prepare you to bring incredible value to set, but you need to realize that position of strength, instead of hiding from it like so many of us do.
Key #5: Every Industry Has It’s Cliches
As you start to venture into commercial work, realize that you have one huge asset that few in the industry do; a set of fresh eyes.
Trust your judgement and push back if something doesn’t make sense to you.
It is easy for us to identify and avoid the patterns or cliches in the wedding industry. Slow motion and black and white have been recently replaced with an ultra shallow depth of field and slides galore.
In entering a new realm, such as commercial filmmaking, we need to find a way to identify these patterns quickly so we don’t fall into them.
Imagine you knew nothing of weddings and instead you came from a commercial world. One day you get a call from a bride who asks you to shoot her wedding. You decide to accept the challenge and ask what she is looking for, like you would ask any commercial client.
To the best of her ability she will probably try and explain the style, types of shots, moments, and tools she wants you to use. Is her direction going to create an original film or is it going to resemble more of an average wedding video for that time? It’s the only thing she knows.
We need to see what our clients need, what our stories can be, not simply what is being asked for.
As we get into commercial work we often are so excited for every opportunity that we forget to recognize the biases in style, direction, and approach that any client has.
We aren’t suggesting a client can’t come to you with amazing ideas for story, as we all hope that does happen.
The key is to recognize that we are the storytellers, and that means we need to find and develop the story being told without expecting it to be handed to us.
Key #6: Genres grow at different rates
While we definitely want to avoid cliches of any genre of filmmaking we are in, it is important to also remember just how different each is and know that they evolve differently in terms of workflow, gear, and thinking.
Throw a slider on the ground during the bride preps or in the center of the church and you’ll risk being mocked for having the nerve to be so unoriginal. If you do the exact same thing in a commercial setting you can be hero.
Commercial setups are used to full-sized dollies that take a ton of time, space, and crew to setup. This is evolving, but often much slower than you might imagine.
If you can offer a similar look to much larger setups but with 1/10th of the real estate and time you can definitely make an impact.
The point here is to realize that different genres of filmmaking evolve along different paths and timelines. Take the time to learn more about your clients and where they are and you’ll often identify some simple ways you can add a ton of value.
Take the example of same-day edits, something that has been quite common in weddings for several years now. It is rare you would shock somebody in the wedding world by telling them you could shoot, edit, and deliver in the same day.
Say that same thing when working in television features and you’ll get an entirely different reaction.
When shooting the NCAA Final Four open for CBS this year, we worked with the producer to bring a same-day edit element into the piece by shooting the day of and constantly adding to the edit throughout the day.
Our skill doing something that was a bit more routine in the wedding industry, completely blew away a different genre (it was unheard of).
Key #7: Know Your Characters
When we film a wedding we have one incredible resource that we rarely investigate enough; the couple.
They are, after all, the client but unlike a commercial situation they are often not only willing to, but excited to spend as much time with you as possible answering anything and everything you might want to know.
Seize this opportunity and dive deeper by finding out everything you might be interested to know.
Here is the huge insight that often falls on deaf ears – a bride is a person too!
Beyond and after her wedding she’ll continue on and have a life to live. Find that person, not the bride, and it is so much easier to become inspired by who they are, why they are here, or where they are going.
A strong original story is often sitting right in front of you, we just don’t take the time to find it.
The more you know about them, the more relevant their film will be and the more compelling your story line can become.
This serves three main purposes.
First, you become more connected with the people you work with and the work you do. More connection means you’ll enjoy what you do and your clients will get more out of the entire experience.
Second, so many other people will see this film. The stronger the story is, the more people that will want to see it. The stronger the story, the easier it is to make that leap that the same person that shot this wedding can do my commercial.
Finally, when you start in the commercial field, you won’t have unlimited access to the client and the ability to ask any and every question you’ve dreamed of. You’ll need to listen carefully and learn to extract a large amount of information in a very short time.
You can start developing this ability much earlier in weddings and this, again, will set you up with a huge advantage.
Bringing it all together...
Don’t hide from your weddings, instead celebrate them by making the most of every shoot to become quicker, more thoughtful, and more diverse in your skill set.
Realize that making a wedding film for the couple will likely result in two people seeing it, but telling a story for the world can lead to much bigger things.
Take the time to find that story, develop it, and do everything you can to protect it.
As your stories get stronger, more people will notice and more opportunities will come your way. When that chance does come a knocking, you’ll be ready to offer an incredible value and a fresh approach.
It’s somewhat ironic, but for us the key to making the transition from weddings to commercials happens when you realize there is no transition to make.
A story is a story is a story.
Don’t let yourself be confined by a genre, client, or the expectations of an industry.