Sunday March 13, 2016

A 5-Year-Plan

When I first started playing with off-camera flash, one of my earliest experiments was to stage and photograph a magelight.

A buddy asked me for help with his burning man project.


As he introduced me to the rest of the team he kept saying things like "making a successful career as a photographer." It all sounded quite grand.


Grander than I feel, truly. I mean, I tried that route, but it's not really what I do, day by day. And I get that confusion a lot.


So let me show what it is I actually do here, day by day, by jumping back in time a little bit to show how I got where I am. [1]


What is a Magelight?


Before Magelight the company there was just magelight the name.


A mage light is a light made by a mage, which is a fancy word for magician. It's generally described in fantasy literature as a bubble, free-floating in the air, that emanates a warm glow from deep inside.


From a business standpoint, Magelight is a rather unfortunate branding decision I made some years back.


Oh, people who grok the name, love the name. But I've also met a stunningly large count of people who've never encountered the word "mage" in their life, and to whom my company name makes no sense whatsoever.


But I'm in love with the name, and I've never found a term to label my art that I like better.


That right there wraps up the whole point of the Magelight brand: it's a label for my own art, my personal art, the stuff I do for myself.


That doesn't mean I don't do work-for-hire. I do. I highly enjoy working on projects with and for other people. My most recent gig was a few weeks ago: I ran lighting for a staged photoshoot with the vintage Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.



But honestly, though do I take jobs when they come to me, I don't put any advertising into in. Work-for-hire has never been the focus of my Magelight brand.


There was a time when I did concentrate on work-for-hire each and every day. But that I did under another brand name.


Two Frame Films


Magelight, LLC was founded in January 2010.


That corresponds to the time when I walked out of the globe-trotting career of a senior software engineer and declared I was going to study photography full time.


I registered the business right off the bat, for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted a legal shell that would "own" all my creative output, in case I accidentally pissed someone off and got sued. Second, I thought I might want to charge someone money someday, and having a formal company in the state's books might make that part easier.


That last part turned out to be a really good idea. In fact, I learned that it's often easier to charge someone money to work on their project than it is to do it for free.


But anyway, for a couple years all I did was study. I took projects when they crossed my path and invented projects for myself in between. Then in autumn 2012 the right circumstances came together and it made sense to start focusing on work-for-hire.


By circumstances, I mean me and a couple buddies all had the right time together.


I'd met a couple of young men at the local community college while taking some video classes. All my professional experience had taught me to recognize talent, and I did. So I stayed in touch, and worked with them on quite a few of their class projects (for $20 once!). When they were finished with college and graduating with degrees in digital media, I hired them.


Together we bought a bunch of video making gear and set out to run a video production studio.


Two Frame Films


Why video? Because there's money in it.


I honestly believe the money has fallen out of photography as an industry. Do photography cause you love it, but if you want an actual sustainable income, then I really think you must be working video.


The thing is, video is hard, and has a lot of pieces. You can't do video as a one-person operation and have any sort of professional quality. Video needs a whole team to make it happen.


That's where my buddies came into the picture. We called our studio "Two Frame Films", which was just a registered tradename of Magelight, LLC. I headed the business and ran lighting on set. One of my guys was director, the other camera-operator. We picked up another guy to do audio.


Our business model was blindingly simple but highly effective. We did some product launch videos, a few kickstarter videos, and then even got hired into a feature film. Thanks mostly to the last one, a year after our studio opened we were pulling in more cash than we were spending.


Now I love video almost as much as photography. And the skills I learned through Two Frame Films will be with me always. But as far as dedicating all daylight hours (and quite a few nighttime ones) to running a video studio?


Well, I ended up sidetracked by a problem I thought was more interesting.


In 2014 we closed down our production house and went our separate ways. That's when I called myself "on sabbatical" and moved to the middle-of-nowhere Colorado, to think about my idea.


Also to be in the mountains.


Sometime in all that time I'd figured out that mountains were very important to me.



Project Moonrise


That brings us up to current day.


As a brand, Magelight is not supposed to be a big-time business that does daily transactions. I had Two Frame Films to play with that stuff.


My daily focus is on my own art. And lately, on this sabbatical, that art digs deep into my skills as a computer guy.


See, the problem I found was that it was really, really hard to manage all the digital assets produced by even our small digital media studio.


Even with just Magelight and Two Frame Films, all the photos and videos we made, all the files on disk, all the servers full of hard drives, all the backup hard drives on the shelves in the closet, it was overwhelming.


I talked to people I knew at other studios, and the gist was every single one of us was having a rough time of it.


That's where I got to thinking, and wondering what sort of software tools I would like to exist, to manage all this mess. There's disappointingly few tools that do exist, and some obvious gaps in them. I dusted off my coding skills and started writing some experimental software.


I talk about it on this blog sometimes. My prototype is 50,000+ lines of Python code, and my deployments are using trendy new technologies like Amazon's cloud. You're even looking at part of my prototype right now -- it's the technology that powers this website.


So at the end of it all, that's the answer to what I do, day by day: I'm working on a digital asset management service.


My "five-year-plan" is, when this prototype is ready, to head over the continental divide towards the I-25 corridor and show a few venture capitalists that they need to help me build a startup out of all this research.


So how real of a company is Magelight?


As the name for all my professional art, and the gigabytes and gigabytes of digital assets that I keep producing, it's very real.


In that it's a dream for an amazing world-changing tech company in the not too distant future? [2]


Here's a toast to making that part very real too. :)






[1] This post is inspired by me applying to business school. The application process seems very cookie-cutter, and I'm an oddly shaped cookie. It's led me to think how best to condense the odd adventure I've been on into a coherent story that might be appreciated by, say, a college admissions board specialist.


[2] That world-changing tech company would ideally be based somewhere around Colorado Springs, for easy access to mountains. :)