A number of creatives pursue their passion first as a hobby, then as a side hustle, and finally – as their full-time profession. Over the last seven years, Butler Branding’s Videographer, Naaman Villanueva, learned as much as he could about video production and making it as a professional creative. And last year, his hustle and hard work paid off.
After working with us on a number of one-off projects, Naaman joined the Butler team full-time in January 2019. He’s now the head of the bustling Butler video department – but I managed to pull him away for an in-depth discussion of how he got into video, his production process, and his current influences.
ML: So thinking about this, I landed on two different questions that I considered starting the interview with. And I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to lead on. So you pick:
You can either tell me when you decided you wanted to be a videographer – or at least “someone who makes videos,” because I’d imagine the term videographer doesn’t even come up until you start getting into the industry. Or, you can tell me whether you think in video.
NV: So what was the definition you found of videographer? I’m curious, since you brought it up –
ML: I didn’t really look it up, so feel free to correct me. But to me, a videographer is just someone who makes video.
NV: So I asked because, anytime I type videographer into a Word doc or anything like that, it always underlines it in red. So sometimes I have to wonder whether it’s even a word.
ML: I mean, it definitely is, though.
NV: It’s related to photographer, right? But I feel like photography can really be a solo job, even up to a professional level. If you compare an entry-level videographer to a photographer, they’re both working solo.
But the photographer can work solo, or with just a second person, up to a professional level. Whereas as you go up the chain on the video side, a video guy’s always going to have to start working with a team. Whether it’s additional staff or contractors or whatever.
Anyways, to help people understand what I do, I’ve actually been going with Video Producer. I think that gets at it, and then Microsoft Word doesn’t mess with me.
ML: Ha, okay. That’s actually interesting to think about.
NV: Going back to your question, “When did I know I wanted to do video,” it happened over time. I never had that “ah-ha” moment where I just knew that it was what I wanted to do for sure.
I first got into video in 2012, when I was living with one of my uncles in Santa Monica. He had a church he was running there. And the church was sort of small because it’s hard to sustain a church in Santa Monica, because it’s so touristy. My uncle had a camera laying around, this big, bulky Sony that shot in 720p. And he had a MacBook Pro laying around that he wasn’t using, with Final Cut Pro on there.
I was just there to volunteer and see what my uncle needed help with. So when I saw that laptop and camera laying around, I thought maybe I could do something with that. I started doing some YouTube research into what I could do with this camera and what was the best way to put together a video.
And remember, this was when YouTube was still coming up. There are millions of channels competing with each other now. Back then, there were maybe thousands or hundreds of thousands. The competition’s a lot more intense nowadays.
ML: Yes, it absolutely is.
NV: But anyway, I found this one particular channel called Film Riot, and the way he would explain how to create video and the different strategies behind creating a video – I just loved it. I binge-watched every video on his channel in one day. And I was like, “Man, this is awesome. Video is so cool!”
The years went by, and I was working in my family’s business. A transportation compliance company. I did that for three years. It was good hours, pretty flexible, good pay, but it wasn’t fulfilling. I felt like I could be doing more. Video was more of a hobby for me at that time, where I’d film a wedding for a friend or do photos for someone.
I was doing that side hustle for about four or five months when I got connected with Sean and started doing contract work with Butler. And then last January is when I started here full-time.
But one of the midpoints between those two things was, I was reading a book by John Maxwell, and there was a quote in it. And I’m sure it’s one of those quotes that’s found in almost every book, because it’s very, y’know. But he said, “People do what people see.” That’s a very simple quote, talking about how you should lead from the front.
But it stood out to me because people literally do a lot of the things they see. They see someone or something they like and they’re like, “I want to do that. I want to be that.” Or subconsciously, they see how something is done in a movie or whatever, and then that’s how they do that thing. People do what people see. That stuck with me because it really revealed that video is such a powerful avenue of communication. Video can literally shape cultures, countries, states, nations …
ML: So you want to control what people do, is what you’re saying?
NV: Yeah, I’m a low-key fascist. (laughs)
ML: So you built this whole video thing up from a hobby, to a side hustle, to something you now do full-time. What was the moment or the tipping point where you decided, “Okay, I’m going to make it as a videographer.” Because I feel like there has to be that moment where you consider whether you did the thing, it didn’t work out, you’re done with it, or you did it, you’re succeeding, and you can grow your passion into your job. Was there that moment for you?
NV: Yeah, there was. I remember that moment. I was sitting in the office at my dad’s company, where my work was usually the same most every day at that time. Same people, same place, same time. I had this sinking feeling, and this kind of answers your second question, finally, by the way. Do I think in video? Yes, absolutely.
Every thought or idea that I have, I see it as a video clip. You know in the movies where … I think the most recent movie I saw this in was Aladdin, the new one. The screen flickers, and you can see people in a theater, so you feel like you’re in the movie. And Genie looks back at the camera and talks to you, the audience.
I feel like my thoughts are kind of like that, where I’m sitting in a theater watching my thoughts happen on a screen. And this moment was like that, thinking back to it. I was in the office, and just picture the lights coming down and there being one spotlight on me. Then the camera goes close to my fingers, and my typing goes slower and slower, and the clack of the keys gets louder and louder. I finally just put my hands down, and I imagined my ears ringing at that point, and being able to hear my heartbeat. And I lean back and you hear my sigh and I push the keyboard forward and think, “I can’t do this anymore.”
ML: So the tipping point moment between you deciding to pursue video as the thing you do, you constructed as a video in your mind? That’s pretty cool. I like that.
NV: It would be pretty fun to make a video of, huh?
ML: The reason I asked you that question about whether you think in video is that I definitely think in writing. Like I’m almost always writing in my head, especially if I’m in the middle of a project. And I wondered if you do the same thing but, because of what you make, you do it visually. I’m always chopping words up, rearranging them, and I figured it would be the same for you – except you’re thinking in pictures instead of words.
It seems like that does happen to you, at least a bit?
NV: Yeah, it’s often like I see a video clip, but it doesn’t have direction. It just starts playing. Then images, frames, lighting, and sound is just added to it as it develops.
Which is sort of the same way I actually start when I’m making a video. I have to see the video in my mind before I can start.
ML: So that’s my next question actually: When a new Butler video project comes in, and you have the concept in front of you, where do you start?
NV: I actually have a document I created just for that. (opens his folder and pulls out the document) I’ll show you the first page; it’s super simple.
I go through this process, and everything kind of flows together. I figure out what the message of the video is, what the story will be, what the tone will be, and then I start to picture how I want the video to look in my head.
ML: We have a few different ways that we collaborate on video projects, right? For some projects, you’re the starting point – you get just the general concept of the video, and then you take the ball from there. But for others, I’m the starting point. I’ll develop the concept, write out a script, and then touch base with you about what I want to see.
I feel like when I’m the starting point, the best way to communicate with you about a video, because it’s the bit that resonates most with you, is to really define the emotion that the video should convey. That’s a thing I feel you really key in on.
NV: That’s so funny you say that. I like to watch Chris Do videos a lot, and there was one I watched recently where he was talking about figuring out what values a brand brings. And the people he was talking to said, “Well, it’s cost-efficient.” And Chris said, “No, what value does it bring?” And they said, “Well, it’s convenient.” And Chris said, “No, what values are you speaking to?”
ML: Because everyone’s going to say that their product is cost-efficient or convenient. There’s no unique space to carve out there, really. So he’s trying to get them to go deeper; I identify with that.
NV: So where they landed was “status.” That the product conveys status. And Chris stopped and said, “Bingo.” He explained how people are looking for an experience, at this point, more than they’re looking for a good or user-friendly product.
As a result of that, I’ve been looking even more at how to create videos that speak directly to people’s emotions. Because people just want to feel alive, y’know?
ML: Dovetailing off that slightly, who are the people in your industry that you’re following or looking to emulate? What are some of the things you’re experimenting with?
NV: Starting last year, I started to research how to get better at lighting. I’ve really grown to love lighting. And I’ve started to think about framing a video, the whole process, a lot like a painter would think about painting.
The way it’s like painting is that the lens is the paintbrush. The canvas is the camera itself – the frame that you’re actually capturing.
ML: So I was gonna say the canvas would be more of the setup, the actual shot itself. But the camera, and the film if you have that, makes sense. That’s where the images are stored as you shoot the video.
NV: Yeah, and the settings do play a large part. But just like in painting, if you give a really great painter a cheap canvas, some cheap brushes and paints, they’ll still come back with something that’s going to wow you.
So the lens is the brush, the camera is the canvas, and lighting is the paint.
ML: Okay, break that down for me. Why do you say lighting is the paint?
NV: Anything that’s captured into a camera is just light that’s bounced off an object and returned to the camera. If you turn all the lights off somewhere, you don’t see anything. You can’t film anything, even if you have the best equipment. You turn all the lights off, you have nothing.
So that’s why the way you shape the lighting in a shot feels like the way a painter would paint, to me.
ML: Let’s bounce back to cover the other part of that question: Who are some of the people in the video industry that you’re watching, learning from, etc.? What’s your Film Riot of the moment?
NV: There’s a company called FILMPAC that sells stock footage. Every frame of theirs that I look at, I love. I don’t study directors or cinematographers as much, but if I were to give you a person whose stuff I’m watching, it’s Jordan Peele. I like his movies, Us and Get Out –
ML: You came in talking about his Twilight Zone the other day.
NV: Yeah, which I’m not only impressed by the lighting and the angles that they get in that show, but also the way they pull at your emotions and layers his stories. All the different ways he ties his shots and his scenes to his message and builds that up throughout all his stuff.
ML: Alright, so to close this thing out, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want to talk about?
NV: I guess I’d just like to talk about how it’s awesome to work with an entire team that can bring different things to the table. Part of the reason I love working at Butler is that, I’m not just producing a video and then handing it off to a client. We help the client use that video to tell their story. We show them how to use it or we roll it out for them in the way that’s going to be most effective for that brand.
I always hate the feeling of creating a video and then just not seeing it anywhere. Which is why, I’ve even been learning the marketing side of this whole video thing.
ML: Yeah, you always just want to see the things you create get out there and be shared and reach an audience.
NV: Exactly. So just being part of a team that can do it all and makes sure the videos I’m making are getting seen is one of the things I enjoy most about working at Butler.