San Francisco has a variety of excellent soundstages, but one is trying to save the earth. Purebred Productions, which recently opened a moderately priced 36 × 40 sound stage with 600 amps of power in South San Francisco, offers a green rebate and donates class space to organizations in the Bay Area (including the San Francisco Film Society). Owners Jason Mitchell and Stacey Ransom are as passionate about zero waste and community involvement as they are about providing Bay Area clients with a beautiful new facility and a variety of production services. Packages include Red One cameras, grip, lighting and production design services, as well as creative and post services for medium-size independent films and commercial projects. I spoke with Mitchell about Purebred’s unique approach to business, art and zero waste. I phoned Ransom for a brief comment on Purebred’s community involvement- she was on a shoot. This is the first Q&A of an occasional series that highlights Bay Area businesses and organizations making a unique impact on independent media. This summer they will host an SFFS Filmmaker Education master class with Hiro Narita ASC.
SF360: When did you two decide to go into business?
Jason Mitchell: I think once you get out of college, you have to go into business. I am a director-cinematographer-photographer that works for hire. I edit, color correct and work with motion graphics on my own stuff. I try to balance being an artist and a technician. Stacey is a production designer with a strong graphics design background. She does all our retouching for our photo work. She handles still photography post and I handle motion post. Stacy also produces much of our personal work. By drawing the short straw. (Laughs.) She has worked on the client side for companies like The Limited, and on the intermediary side for a branding and identity firm as a design principle. We form a tight team. We cover all the creative aspects and mesh very well. We develop concepts together and bounce them around to the other. She assembles the proper creative team on one side and I will assemble the technical team. She creates sets and I direct and shoot the projects and work with actors.
SF360: What is the motivation behind Purebred Studios?
Mitchell: Our work is a dark with a little bit of humor and it focuses on exploring those in-between areas with still and motion work and combining the two. We expanded our photography business when we opened up this space in 2009. We noticed that a lot of photographers were trying to get into motion work–well, we already knew how to do that. So there was no learning curve for us; we knew what photographers needed. It is interesting because the photographers that are whole-heartedly going into motion are becoming commercial directors, which is probably the best place for them to go. We are looking to develop (and we can shape the business), editorial films that accompany a fashion photo shoot. This content is not considered traditional. Short films, experimental projects are all part of that nontraditional market. Certainly, our focus right now is to keep developing our still and motion photography business by finding the people that like to work in the realms that we do. We tend to be more on the commercial side and depending on how that fleshes out, we will continue to use that income to fund our personal projects, be they stills, shorts or narrative projects.
SF360: What do you provide clients? What is the space like and why would I want to shoot here?
Mitchell: This is a medium-sized sound stage for the Bay Area; it is not the biggest, and certainly not the smallest. Working on other sound stages over the years and working on crews dealing with different departments, we tried to pay very close attention to what every department needed. We made the facility as easy to use as possible for everybody. To that extent, we also wanted to create a private space for ourselves so we could be out of sight but also there if clients needed us. We have had up to 45 people here at a time going full bore on larger agency jobs. We have a makeup area that functions as a dressing room. There is a fully functioning kitchen, and there is plenty of room to move. We try to make the power very accessible. There are multiple ways of doing things; you find your way of doing things and every production that comes through is different. They use the space in completely different ways. Not just the lighting but where does the producer sit, where do they hang out where do they set up food how much space do you need, how many wardrobe changes. Most of our rooms are set up to serve dual purposes. We have a conference room that can function as wardrobe. If it is a big show, we can take that over. If it is a smaller space and they need a private area to make some phone calls they have it.
SF360: What are the technical details?
Mitchell: It is a 36 × 40-foot sound stage; it is 18 inches to the bottom of a 4 × 4 grid with 600 amps of power. There are 300 amps available on either side of a three-wall cyclorama to help keep cords out of the way as much as possible. And, in the ceiling there are 60 20-amp circuits that are labeled and switchable from the floor. We tend to leave the studio space walls white because we do motion and stills. I prefer white especially since we build a lot of sets. We leave a number of space lights hanging. So that way a production that comes in and wants to shoot a white cyc–they can turn that on and it saves them about an hour or so of work in the morning pulling stuff up and bringing it down. We provide all of this at a reasonable cost. We also have full makeup and dressing area, bathroom/shower, and full kitchen with coffee service all day long–because I love coffee and drink it all day. So, if I make it I can drink it. There is lounge space and wi-fi, there is the garage; you can drive through the garage into the studio it does have a passage from outside. We have plenty of parking. There is space to leave a three-ton truck out side all day. It is easy load in and easy to work in.
SF360: You rent out a large amount of camera, lighting and grip time as well?
Mitchell: I would not say that it is large but it is OK for the Bay Area. We have a couple different solutions and we have partnered with other people to provide the rest. We are particular about who we rent to. We have geared our stuff toward the independent film community with the one-ton van with grip, lighting and camera packages. We started out with the HVX with 35mm adapters; real popular with the kids for the longest time. We have a Red package; that is the primary focus of what our kit is now; it’s set up for medium-scale independent film. Stage-heavy carbon fiber sticks with 100mm bowl. It will connect with a jibe. A sizable tripod head; matte box filters and follow focus. All that stuff, but it is still easy to move with one person. You can get up and go. Any time we need to augment that we go to our partners. It just depends on the needs of the production. We have lighting; set pieces, flats, grip. There is always that sweet spot, what is the right job for us? If a job is too large, I will send it to someone else. I don’t want to be the middleman. That just creates another level of bureaucracy and headache. If I feel like a production does not know what they are doing, I won’t rent to them because it creates too many maintenance problems. I still use my camera; I depend on it.
SF360: Purebred has a unique green initiative and is serious about reducing its footprint on the earth. The whole process has been green? How does the rebate work?
Mitchell: We started in the construction phase not only in the material we chose but as we ripped out the existing structure that was here: We reused and recycled as much of it as possible, and even some of the stuff that was left behind we have made work for us or found a new home for it. In the construction of the space: Insulation in the walls is recycled blue jean, it is cotton so it is a naturally very sound absorbing. It was the right decision as well as the green decision. The floors are recycled rubber, partially because they are easy on your feet–ask the makeup people, they stand on it all day long. It is easy to clean and it is green. It was a little bit more money than other materials but it also looks really nice. We used sensible tiles in the kitchen and bath. We installed high velocity hand dryers in the bathroom. This is a one-time cost; it is easier, instead of continuously buying and storing a ton of hand towels and then having to throw away a ton of hand towels. If you don’t introduce garbage to the system you do not have to take it out.
We also set up a whole house water filter so it filters and pH balances all the water that goes through the unit. So, any faucet delivers clean water. So, we say do not bring in water bottles. We developed a green rebate on the rental. There are three sections to the green initiative: Don’t bring in water bottles–we will provide water for you, we give out, with a full day rental, 10 stainless steel water bottles. You get to keep them and walk away with them. They are branded of course. There is also a full kitchen with glasses. We also provide plates and silverware, and there is enough to do a full day of meals and the dishwasher is very quiet. So, there are no plastic plates, bowls and silverware and we ask that you separate all your trash. It’s South San Francisco, you know, landfills, bottles, cans, foil paper and compost that we personally take care of. Using this system, we are able to compost meat and all that kind of stuff. So, anything food-related goes into compost. This has rippled; we do this at home. I have put the garbage can out and have nothing in it. All we have is recyclables and compost. If a client does not bring in water bottles, uses our plates and glasses and they separate their trash, you get $100 dollars back off the price of the rental. That’s the motivation. If you don’t follow that, you end up generating extra trash, which costs money to remove.
It’s a big cost savings and it is strange how some people react to it. Most everyone is excited about it and I think people who are stuck in their ways don’t know what to do with it but most everyone is excited about it.
SF360: You have donated class space for SFFS in the past. Thank you. What role does community involvement play in your business?
Stacey Ransom: We feel an obligation to participate in the local film community to make it stronger, better. To that end, we have donated our space to a couple of groups, like the Film Society and the San Francisco chapter of the APA (Advertising Photographers of America) for training and events. Not only does this provide a functional space for lighting demonstrations, etc., it also helps to put our name out to the community so they know there is a new resource available for them. And during our host events we are able to network with new people that we’d otherwise might not have the opportunity to meet.
SF360: What is the state of Independent Production in the Bay Area; where are we now and what do we have to look forward to?
Mitchell: I think it is good that we have had stuff like Trauma come through and Parenthood that just aired. Having a TV show like that has been good because it has boosted all the union people and given people a steady source of income. I know this past fall and winter was bad for a lot of people. What was already a bad time hit rock bottom. So, people have not worked for months. On the flip side, some people drew into their core, some moved away and tried to go after other things, but, at the same time, I think smaller scrappier productions, like webisodes, are working. I think right now the commercial side is on the upswing. More productions are coming through. People are advertising and doing the promotional work they have to again. It is that kind of work that keeps people busy and pays the bills. Right now, there is more down time so there are more people working on personal projects. People are more likely to come in and work free to keep skill sets up. There has been a lot of content generated recently.
SF360: If technology is going to continue to become cheaper and it will become easier for filmmakers to make films, where do you see Purebred? Are you aligned to accommodate that reality?
Mitchell: It is shaping our decisions on what sort of gear we are focusing on. We have been supporters of the Red Camera workflow. I have enjoyed using it. Have been vocal supporter and teacher not only for the Film Society but also for many of my clients. A lot of people are hot on Digital SLRs right now. Commercially, people are trying to push too hard just to save a perceivable dollar. But, I think they are penny wise and dollar poor in terms of quality. There is a quality level in the commercial world that has to be there, but for the independent person that is running around and going smaller and lighter things are working out well. Working with small cameras to a laptop is a cheaper system that is making it very accessible for people. Unfortunately everybody has seen with accessibility that mediocrity invades as well. Simply having the tools does not mean you know how to use them.
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