A pioneer in video on the web, Troy Witt has been producing video of all kinds since the mid-90s when the Internet was just beginning. Now, Troy and his team produce video - both live and on-demand - for everyone from trade journals, to big pharma, to automotive and education. While you may not know their name, Take One Productions, you have seen their work. Their job is to let client's names be known; and, often as a sub-contractor, brought in to remain in the shadows.
For founder and president Troy Witt, years of live TV news experience at OCNewsChannel, KCET, and Fox Sports West got him hooked on the thrill of big live productions. Marrying that love with the emerging Internet in the late 90's, Troy was one of the first people to compress video for small clients and put them on web pages. Now, his company produces live webcasts around the country.
Take One clients love the fact that their production workflow, (fast, very FAST), is pulled from Troy's news background. Many times, morning shoots are edited that afternoon, on the web by evening, and make that night's news. In fact, with laptop editing now standard, they frequently edit HD electronic press kits on-site so that the client can approve and walk away with a final product.
SOCAL Where were you born and raised?
TROY I grew up in Irvine -- and before you pooh-pooh it -- let me tell you that the access to media in OC while I was young was really fantastic. My grandparents’ home in Hancock Park, Los Angeles, was really my first exposure to production. I loved being “on set” when their home was used as a location for Murder, She Wrote, Knott’s Landing, and a host of TV commercials. The lights, the crew, the “production” really blew my mind and I loved it! Later on, when I tried to break into the TV world, facilities and crews in OC were much friendlier than LA. Without union restrictions and with more independent producers around, a high school kid could actually get an “in”.
SOCAL You started Take One in your bedroom in Irvine. How young were you and what type of training did you have to prepare you for creating commercials and eventually live broadcasting via the Internet?
TROY I started Take One in “suite 2a” which was my bedroom, when I was 16 . . . very official. Really, I started by doing, and making mistakes. I also had a mentor, who worked with MTV for a bit, giving me advice. He and I put together a montage video from a paintball expedition using two VHS decks. Following that, I started shooting weddings at my church. I would do sound for every wedding and got to meet a lot of video guys who served brides. I’d watch what they were doing and pick their brain. This “kid” would soon give them some competition. I began shooting ceremonies for $350 and would do the reception for a couple of hundred bucks more. I got a loan for my first 2-chip camera and a deck and was off to the races. I think I paid that camera off within 4 months.
SOCAL You continued growing Take One from your dorm room at USC. What was your major at USC and how did you find clients? Please describe some of the clients you had in those early days and the projects you did for them.
TROY Shortly after leaving to USC, a friend who had a business in the Irvine Spectrum making a new surgical device, knew of my work and called me to make a surgical training video for his product. I was pre-med at the time and it was great to be marrying my two loves: video and medicine. I probably shot 20-30 surgeries for that early client. He would show my videos at medical conferences and others asked him who did them. That’s how I grew and shot for UCI and Johnson & Johnson and a few other incubators. Really, they loved having a producer who knew the operating room protocols and could work with physicians to show off new techniques. But as I realized that my calling was in the video world and not in medicine itself, I changed my major to Broadcast Journalism which really taught me the "run and gun" storytelling that has become the hallmark of our production style now. Without any pre-production (which clients hate doing), we can show up on-site and make a video that comes together easily.
SOCAL You were pretty creative in devising ‘office space’ to work with these early clients. Please share where some of these meetings took place while you were still a student.
TROY That’s a funny story. Can you imagine execs from Johnson & Johnson’s surgical unit meeting me, a student, in the USC library and discussing projects that I’d shoot at the next Spring Break and Summer? I hang my head in embarrassment now! But that’s what I did. Oh, and my roommate would make fun of my giant Amiga 2000 with Video Toaster that I had set-up while he worked from a svelte laptop. Later on, though, everyone in my Broadcast Journalism classes wanted to work with me because I had better gear than the University and we could work all night when the edit lab was closed.
SOCAL What were some significant lessons you learned before you set up your own business?
TROY It was actually before USC that I started working in the business. While in high school, I worked at OCN on a live truck until someone in legal or HR figured out that I was under 18 and kicked me out. Then while at USC -- in addition to running Take One and being the photo editor of the Daily Trojan -- I worked at Fox Sports West and KCET. I was at KCET until the summer after graduation when I thought that I needed to get a "real job". You know, make more than $10/hr that PAs get. So, for a year, I worked as a Digital Pre-Press Specialist for a magazine publisher in Irvine. And while that took me away from production for a while, I learned many of my most valuable business skills in a corporate environment. It was soul-sucking, but at 22, I needed to learn about client relationships and how to make an Excel spreadsheet, too.
SOCAL How soon after you left USC did you set up your offices in Tustin?
TROY What took me to making Take One Productions my full-time gig was when a client asked me to go to China for 4 weeks to produce a mini-documentary fund-raising film. It was on that trip that I really heard my "calling" and decided to follow the entrepreneurial dream of doing production full-time. Within 3 months, I set up my shop in Tustin and made video for my "daily bread".
SOCAL You have a unique proposal structure, pretty much a fixed price for various levels of service. Most competitors created line item proposals for each prospect. How did you come up with that business model?
TROY While I think there is a place for line item quotes and such, I have found that many business people and our clients can't operate like that. They really like to pick from a restaurant menu or a pharmacy shelf. Once they see all of the options, they just want to pick one and know the price. Literally, they can't handle all of the add-on pricing and nickel and diming that our industry normally does. I found that clients hated being invoiced for tape stock, batteries, gaff tape and such. So some clients and I came up with simple off-the-shelf packages that cover 90% of our shoots. For instance, we do a lot of lunchtime lecture shoots. So we made a flat price for a single-camera lecture shoot including basic editing, adding any PowerPoint slides, lower-thirds, and giving the client 3 DVD's and a web-ready file. Bam. Done. Now, when even my staff gets a call from someone wanting that shoot, they can quote it over the phone and clients like that. They love the consistency, too. They can build an annual budget with 12 or 30 shoots. Of course, we also love those totally custom jobs, but even those are based on our published rate card. In the end, I'd rather save a client money and have them come back -- or refer a colleague -- than take them for all they've got and never see them again.
SOCAL You have a pretty sophisticated equipment package. Please describe what is generally included.
TROY In general, our package always starts with the camera. We have four Sony HVR-Z7's in our office all with the same exact kit. So that way, anyone can pick up a camera kit and know what is in it and where. That includes the camera, Vinten sticks, two 6-hr batteries, a Sennheiser wireless lav and XLR kit and on-camera LED light. That's just my news background. A basic ENG package is crucial. And ours are all carry-on compliant for airplanes because we travel so much. But from there, we have the usual assortment of light kits and backdrops for field production. And then there's the live-switched webcast sets -- of which we have three -- including TriCasters and all of the stuff to make a live show just about anywhere. The airlines love when I show up with 6 checked cases of gear!
SOCAL How many people are on your staff? How many shoots are done locally? Do you travel throughout the US and internationally for clients? Please describe.
TROY I have three full-time staff and they are critical to the success of our operation. Clients know them and trust them as they would myself. And that means that we don't miss out on business because we can handle multiple jobs at once. There's nothing more gratifying than having customers compliment my staff and even put in requests to have them on jobs… even instead of me. That lets me take a vacation once in a while! Plus, we regularly use about 10 different independent contractors to fill out our team for big shows and when we all need to be in multiple places at the same time. Like last weekend, I had two cameras in Vancouver, two in North Carolina, and two in Alabama while one guy still here in OC covering a shoot, too. That takes a whole team.
We do a lot of local work. I'd say that we are busy in the LA/OC/SD area three days a week. But we also travel a lot. Believe it or not, clients fly us to New York for at least three to four jobs a year… not because there aren't good shooters in NYC, but because of the insurance policy they have of knowing us, knowing our work, and knowing that we have a vested interest in their long-term success. Personally, I seem to be on the road about 25% of the year now. And we do a surprising number of international trips. From that very first year when I went to China for four weeks to this year where I'll be in Europe at least three or four weeks total, too.
SOCAL Are these out of town trips for long shoots?
TROY No! That's the surprising thing. We routinely travel for shoots that can be from five to 20 minutes. But before you gawk at spending a day on a plane each way for such a short shoot, keep in mind that to my clients, these interviews could be worth tens of thousands of dollars and they MUST be done right the first time. And many have been burned by hiring a local. I've been given tapes that are horrible and there's nothing to do but re-shoot.
SOCAL Please tell us about one or more shoots you consider particularly challenging? Give us an example of one or more shoots you are most proud of.
TROY As many producers know, most jobs hold a special place in your heart for the unique challenges that you overcame; whether it was a cheap client with caviar tastes, an impossible deadline, or a totally MacGyver solution. Every job has a story! Right now, my team is still reeling from the production of the first funeral at Christ Cathedral (formerly the Crystal Cathedral) for the Arizona hotshot firefighter who was killed. We had less than a week to prep for a 3-camera live-switched HD shoot in an iconic venue. But more so, the media wouldn't be allowed into the church, so we were feeding the pool feed for all of the live trucks parked outside and an overflow auditorium across the campus. It would have all been easy, but the Diocese had taken possession of the Cathedral just a week before and the former occupants gutted all of the gear and severed all of the cables throughout the campus. We had to run all of our own cable, even across the patio to the overflow. But the payoff came when our footage made every LA newscast that evening and the truck operators came out to thank my team for a job well done.
Another routine job that makes me proud every time is what we do for a trade journal client. We will shoot anywhere from 10-15 two-person sit-down interviews for them in a single day! Not only that, but then we'll edit some of those and post to the web that night. And because this client has tight budgets, I'll do that with one person. It's tough, but we have a system that works and this client flies our team around the world now because they know that with one person and a ton of gear, we can pretty much do a "junket in a box".
SOCAL What gets you most excited about what you do?
TROY What gets me most excited about video on the web is our reach. When we do a live webcast and can see that we have viewers from Europe, Asia, South America, and all over the US... live, right now, that's really a thrill; both for us and our clients. They have live stats that are better than Nielsen ratings because these are actual, measurable eyeballs.
I also love the efficiency that we have been able to reach as an industry. We as video producers have really been on the forefront of doing more and more and more in less time and with lower budgets. What a crew of ONE can achieve today, took at least three people a few years ago… five people a decade ago, and at least ten in the eighties. Now you can have someone like me, a producer/shooter/editor who can take the job from vision to video. And when given even a little more money, we can really make something fantastic.
SOCAL What keeps your clients coming back again and again?
TROY We live in an instant, always-on world now. Video production clients want to be live on the web. They want their shows edited immediately after the shoot and finished that day. I love that! It is great to perform at that instantaneous level now. Plus, it means that projects aren't hanging over our head in editing for weeks."
Clients know that we are their partners, not just a service provider. If I see where a client can make our production more efficient, I’ll tell them -- and save them money. I’d rather leave some money on the table and have that client come back than take their entire budget and never see them again. I really want to understand what they want to accomplish with our video. And if while we are shooting that video, we can pick up B-roll for their annual meeting or gala or get an interview clip for a promo, we’ve just saved them thousands and become more of an integral partner rather than a one-time service.
SOCAL Not yet forty, you have over 20 years of producing videos and live webcasts. You have been in the forefront of change. What new developments do you see on the horizon over the next 20 years?
TROY We still aren’t to an age of “video everywhere”. Going live, and 2-way video is still a challenge and requires a lot of gear. I think that’ll change. Plus, as bandwidth opens up in mobile and homes, I think video-over-IP will be ubiquitous. That’ll lead to more and more live production for smaller and smaller sectors. Some will do it themselves (even my mother-in-law can use Skype) but we’ll be called on to produce the important big events and the high-profile ones. I think every medium-sized event will eventually be watchable live anywhere in HD... or hologram or whatever comes next.
SOCAL You mention finances and financial issues a lot. Why is that?
TROY I see the biggest downfall for most of our colleagues is not in their artistic work or production, but it’s their business acumen. Nobody taught them to run a business. They always wanted to be producers, not accountants. But the accounting is critically important or you’ll be out of business. The number of guys I know who have gone out of business because they either didn’t charge enough or never got paid is huge. And it’s sad because it’s totally preventable.
Listen, our rates have to be based on reality. You can’t pull a day rate out of thin air. You have to work backwards. How much money do you need to live in a year? $50,000? Great, then you need money for overhead and taxes. Let’s just say $75,000 total. So there are 52 weeks in a year. Then you need two weeks off for vacation, so we are down to 50 weeks. Let’s say you think you can get work for two billable days per week -- which is pretty generous starting out -- so you need $75,000 divided by 50 weeks divided by 2 days per week. That’s $750 per day! So if you’re a young gun going out for $500/day, you’re killing yourself and will be out of business quickly because that’s unsustainable. But the number of people I’ve told that to who don’t believe me and are out of business in less than two years is astounding.
Similarly, I hear time and again from guys who haven’t been paid thousands and tens of thousands of dollars from clients. And while criminal, stomping their feet and crying about it doesn’t help. Literally, I treat all new clients the same way as the hotels. I require a credit card to hold the date and money COD along the way. After the job is done, we have nothing to hold over clients’ heads. So while it may seem extreme, I take the same stance as the caterer, hotel, and many other vendors: credit card to hold and check on delivery. If you can’t respect my work enough to respect that I need to be paid, then it’s just not going to work out.
SOCAL You rant about audio and audio-for-video. Why is that?
TROY Video without sound is totally useless most of the time. If I do a great interview shoot and the audio is garbage, I might as well never have done the video. And nothing gets me more worked up than doing an event shoot and having the sound guy give you a terrible feed. It’s overdriven, has a hum, or noise, or he’s got you on a sub-group and forgets to send a whole channel to you or something. After the event, the client doesn’t know that his audio was bad. And complaining to the client about another contractor just doesn’t help anyone. So I went so far as to begin offering audio services to clients, too. We have basic PA because that’s the level where we consistently get hosed by the in-house people. Since I know that my own guy is running audio, I know that he’s making sure it sounds good in the house BUT I also know he’s talking to the camera op and making sure his feed is good as well.
SOCAL When I visited your office, I still saw a lot of tape on shelves. Do you still use tape in the “digital age?”
TROY Yes, we still go through a lot of tape... but we are also a totally tapeless workflow. How does that jive? We have all heard the horror stories of a client’s job being lost because a card got corrupted or a PA deleted the wrong file. Literally $20,000 helicopter shoots have been lost due to a bad card. And I couldn’t live with myself if that happened to a client. So while I shoot direct to CF cards, we also run tape in our cameras at all times. For $2 per hour, it’s cheap insurance.
SOCAL What advice would you give to young people entering the video production business these days? What are the most important qualities you look for in new hires?
TROY I love people who are hungry in this business. Hungry to learn, hungry to work, hungry to show off and have an excitement about what we do. I remember my first time in a live control room when I was a kid. That was a thrill. I want to work with people who love our business and love what we can do for our clients and society.
For most people entering the business today, I don’t really need to teach them about lighting and framing, they’ve been working on the techniques. What they need to learn is the business side. So I think a basic business class or understanding is critical. What is a return-on-investment? How do you make a quote or proposal? And how do you deal with the finances?
For more information about Take One Productions, click on the logo below.