It’s a pleasure to interview Alessio Balza, a successful lifestyle stock footage contributor based near Milan, Italy.
At school, I was a bad student as I was not able to concentrate. I was interested in nothing, but at the same time I wanted to do everything.
This has not changed a lot since my school years, as I still quickly skip from one topic to another. I started this career as a video-maker maybe just because of that short attention span.
I found something that fills my gaps giving me the opportunity to always change and evolve every single day. Stock footage gives me a way to avoid the routine and it might seem strange, but it also relaxes me. The idea of being on a topic for months and dealing with deadlines, such as working in a traditional 9-5 job, is terrifying for me and I’ll probably never do it, but who knows for sure.
I live in the town of Lodi, near Milan, in Italy, which is a perfect place in the countryside, with easy access to the metropolitan area. I am very happy with this choice of location as I’m close to nature and animals, which make me feel good.
My day does not really begin, as it also never ends. Since the morning I begin to think about the stock, like a sort of obsession. Whatever I do, I would like to be ready to record it, sometimes useful things, some are just experiments. In reality, I feel like my time in a day is never enough to do everything I would like to do.
After driving my children to school, I go straight to the office to run some research on what is missing in the footage market. I rework other people's ideas, watch TV commercials, photos, paintings, anything that grabs my attention online.
I often check on our clips to correct errors. Most of the time, I don't like the clips as I feel unsatisfied. There is always something that could be added, or taken away, or just changed, to make it “perfect” - though I know that perfection does not exist, and maybe the stock world does not need the “perfect clip”.
However, I know that this is a strong trigger to always perform better, trying to achieve that perfection that maybe will of course never be reached. When I return home, it is my everyday family life which is the best source of ideas. However, it’s not easy to implement those ideas immediately, because being alone makes it incredibly tough and challenging for the set preparation: lights, stage, camera optics, sliders…it’s tiring to get everything ready, and when it is finally time to shoot, well… sometimes I have no longer the energy to even start.
Anyway, I keep going, I start shooting, and with the help of my wife, I’m usually able to finish what I started. But you cannot imagine how tough it is sometimes - a one-year-old baby in my arms and two others snooping around touching everything, while I’m trying to finalize my ideas for a shoot.
As soon as I put the children to sleep, I start the "silent" search: mobile phone in hand, keywords, google, blogs, and I start browsing on all the topics that come to my mind; I take snapshots to be covered in the following months, without any logic, only visual inputs or notes.
Everything lasts until three or four in the middle of the night. And a few hours later, everything starts over again.
I recently realized that I know nothing about photography. I was just doing nice shots with expensive equipment, but I never dealt with the complexity to correctly set up the light in a set.
The stock footage industry didn't really require such high technical requirements until recently, but now things are changing and I am thoroughly studying the theory of illumination and colour matching, which I think are becoming two of the most important topics in the stock.
You can do a lot these days even with semi-professional cameras, nevertheless, I look at professional equipment as strategic. I am lucky to use a Red Helium, which is by far one of the best cameras on the stock footage market.
For best results, I usually bring with me three good lights, with a softbox and dimming. For optics, I have a 28-50-85 zeiss otus, which make me feel comfortable for my standard use, though the focus is manual and therefore the motion scenes are somehow more difficult to be carried out.
I only use the large stock platforms, including Shutterstock, Adobe, Getty and a few others. On our own site, sales are nothing compared to the big ones above and therefore it almost makes no sense to keep it up to sell a few clips. Right now the big names have mastered the market, they decide prices, they are the only placeholders etc.
If I have a product, I prefer to sell it at the supermarket with many customers, rather than opening a shop in a small town. We tried promotions, but with no results. You don't grow up like this, in my opinion.
Nevertheless, we started a new challenge, recently. Would we be good at teaching someone really interested to start producing stock footage? We produced a full course on stock footage, which is going fairly well so far.
We are happy about it, and we think that we included our best experience in this industry; something very useful for anyone who wants to start with the right foot.
Everywhere, all around my life, I go to any shop, pharmacies, supermarkets, I look at images and do my mental sets. Then, when I like the theme and it seems feasible, as soon as I come back to the office, we start working on the idea, by checking its feasibility, and then starting the planning.
In 2020, we introduced a two-meter blackboard, where we take notes, sketch sets. In other words, it’s become our main tool for brain -storming, maybe old fashioned and old technology, but always very effective.
Yes, we create a lot of lifestyle clips to be used for stock. At the beginning, our models were friends, relatives or people who were joining our sets for fun. As our revenue has increased and may require specific types of people, now we can rely on agencies for our standard shoots (even though sometimes we still use friends/families). Sometimes, we directly hire from social media for some jobs.
I worked with some Italian productions, mainly in movies. But as I explained previously, I don't really like doing things that are too long due to the routines. My favourite and best projects were when I finally decided to exclusively create stock footage.
Until recently, this was my same opinion, that it may be too late to start. Well, I was wrong.
I strongly believe that if you produce content of the highest quality, you can seriously enter this stock world and start selling very well. Of course, starting with trivial or obvious products, or thinking to achieve a stable success while filming your cat on the couch, for instance, is a complete illusion.
I would advise to study photography, study interesting situations, do not copy the existing clips of others, or rather, if you do so, try to improve upon them by avoiding making bad copies.
It’s crucial to be original in creating concepts and to target the best technical quality possible because the customer will always choose the “best” clip for his/her own project.
The main challenge in this job is to create new and saleable concepts that are of the best technical quality possible, while within the limits of the resources available.
Unfortunately, there are products that although cost considerable investments and effort, you have to invest and continue to produce to stay at the top of your game. Have to keep on pushing without slowing down, or somebody faster and more convinced than you will take the lead in this competitive market.
I use Da Vinci Resolve to post-process all clips. A fundamental part of my workflow is colour correction in order to ensure that video clips will stand out from the competition and eventually sell. Stock footage buyers generally want to integrate licensed clips with others within a story, so in general I try to use the most real colours. Colour correction is tricky, it’s not enough to simply increase the contrast and add saturation!
I usually work with R3d files, which is a file format that encodes measurements from the digital sensor of a camera. Each colour channel data is stored separately and then converted into a full colour image with the aid of software. I always select RAW or LOG files to obtain more information on color scales, especially on highlights and blacks. Every new generation body has these functions.
Once I have applied the various (Look Up Tables) LUTs, which is basically a conversion profile that takes a colour value in your original file, looks it up in a table and returns a new colour value, I first begin to check the colours of the skin (if there are subjects). Secondly, I move onto the colours of the backgrounds - usually I like to use colour palettes to take colour contrasts to the extremes. I look trivially at the colour wheel and select their complementary to have an optical contrast effect. For example teal and orange is one of the most used in the cinema of the second millennium, the characters are always very orange and the always green / blue backgrounds, which is pleasing to the eyes. In addition, using both cold and the warm colours within the same frame is usually interesting to the senses.
As far as keywording is concerned, I must stress that without accurate keywords the videos will not be found easily by potential buyers, even if they are of high commercial value and technically excellent. To keyword, I use the software supplied by Shutterstock which finds similar clips that have already been keyworded. The software is artificial so I must modify the keywords accordingly for accuracy, but it’s sufficient as a starting point. I must be careful since other contributors are using the same software and we may end up with similar keywords for similar content, so I must carefully add my own.
I use an excel file to create my updated CSV as if some new platform wanted my material for sale I could make a substantial upload and with a few clicks have the clips already with the metadata applied and ready to be available for sale.
It depends. On some occasions, I simply turn the light on, record a couple of minutes of my son playing and I can produce a world best-seller for that concept. some other times, instead, I have to rent a location, choose actors, call make-up artists etc., as a result, it takes much longer, and not necessarily worth the investment. Anyway, in these cases, it usually takes one week before starting shooting the clips;
You need to invest time and money many times to have uncommon or obvious things.
We decide if uploading stock video is worth the investment by discussing between ourselves within our company. We weigh the pros and cons and make a decision. Since we never know for absolute certainty what will sell, we just go for it like bungee jumping. If we stop thinking too much, we may fall in a frozen area, where we never start doing something just because of the fear.
So, we approach the business with sustainability, feasibility, and a lot of artistic feeling in mind.
Some of my bestsellers:
My post production workflow is very basic. I arrive at the office, copy the native files on a NAS system and I start uploading the clips using DaVinci Resolve. I colour-grade them with my own system, based on my feelings, and then I export them. Simple.
After that, I keyword and I start uploading the clips to the main agencies.
After Effects is like a game for me. I also find it relaxing. I love tracking the clips frame by frame and working them out with external effects.
I learned how to use After Effects after following lots of tutorials, and no, I cannot say that I master the software. Let’s say that I rather focus myself on what I need moment by moment, for instance, if I find something nice, some new technique or plug in, I work out ideas and try to bring them on my clips.
Sometimes the result is rubbish, and I just throw away hours of work, but some other times, I like the processed clips, as they may be interesting.
Shutterstock is my best agency to upload stock video, followed by Adobe Stock and Getty Images. For the other agencies, including as videoblocks contributor and at iStock, it’s almost worthless uploading the material, tagging and processing them as the returns would be tiny.
As Shutterstock is our best agency. Of course nobody appreciated the introduction of the new payment schedules, but we are their guests and Shutterstock do what they want with their company and we have to accept.
Basically it is not up to me to judge Shutterstock’s strategic decisions. Besides, I think that when they take such decisions, I am quite sure that their main target is to evolve and maintain the lead on the market, and indirectly, their own good is basically their best contributors’ own good.
As a matter of fact, this is a sort of partnership, and there is no rational reason for not following their business decisions. The result would be only a huge loss of income if I were to boycott them or at worst, to remove content from my portfolio.
No, I have never tried. I would do it with Shutterstock, but so far we have never received this option nor have they asked me personally.
Despite the pandemic, I believe that creative agencies continued to buy stock material. Besides, as the video makers are in lockdown, we have experienced a small increase in earnings in recent months since we work regularly with artificial light anyway.
Nevertheless, the entire situation was difficult to organize shoots due to restrictions brought by the authorities for containing the virus spread.
Now, slowly, we have started to organize the first shootings where all people working on set undertake a preliminary COVID-19. It’s boring, costly and slows us down but this is the only way to deal with the virus and restrictions.
The future of the stock industry should always grow and change with time. This will present opportunities for those stock contributors who may have no budget for a large production and choose to make a quality video.
In addition, immersive videos are the future. There will also be 360 stereo content, for instance.
Overall, it’s important that stock contributors keep studying on what is trending and keeping up with the demands of buyers.
Thanks for this opportunity.