Merge Lane: Interview with National Geographic Photographer and Producer David McLain

I first met David McLain a few years ago at an agency meeting in the Maine woods. He showed us a video called Santiago, and some of the multimedia projects he was working on for outdoor clothing maker Horny Toad. I was impressed by the mix of his editorial eye and commercial polish, and his innovative use of stop-motion and still photography. We had a conversation afterwards about the impending convergence of still and video technology and he said something about a “still/motion camera” that led me to use the term “stillmotion” for my work.
To prep for my workshop a couple weeks ago on stillmotion and breaking into new media at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, and following on the interview with photojournalist and multimedia pioneer Ed Kashi, I spoke with McLain on his career with National Geographic and his multimedia production company, Merge. It’s a look at how an established photographer is wasting no time taking risks and breaking new ground to keep things fresh. Listen up!
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AK: How did you get started working for National Geographic?
It had been a dream of mine since high school.  I took the slow approach.  I’m a big believer that you gotta walk before you fly.  Basically I shot non-stop at newspapers and smaller magazines for about a decade.  Jose Azel helped me get a tray of slides (yes, i’m that old) together to bring down to DC and Susan Smith was nice enough to take a chance on me and give me a really small assignment which led to Zip Code assignments which led to feature assignments.  Without Jose or Susan Smith it is very safe to say I never would have got the chance to shoot for National Geographic.  You can check out the most recent story I shot for them in the January 2010 issue of the magazine.

Santiago from Merge on Vimeo.

AK: In 2003 you produced a short piece called Santiago. It’s a short fluid motion piece filled with still images and sound that seems to bridge the gap between stills and motion picture. What was special about this piece?

To me what was special about the piece was that early on, Jerome Thelia (my business partner in Merge) and I started thinking about how we could bring his knowledge of post production together with my knowledge of photography in a way that pushed both of us forward to places we could not get on our own.  While our techniques, tools, technology, and approach have changed since then, this is still the driving force behin Merge.
Medica from Merge on Vimeo.

AK: How did you take that concept and create a production company around it? Was it hard getting clients on board, as a small boutique competing for campaigns against traditional big commercial production houses?

Well, we were both so busy doing our own thing, me with photography and Jerome with Post production for feature films and spots, that Merge was always a collaboration that happened when things happened to come our way.  This was usually the result of clients that knew my still photography hiring Merge to create motion content.  We’re going to bump it up a notch next year though.  2010 will be the first time we are going to fully commit to Merge and be more strategic about growing it.
Saturday from Merge on Vimeo.

4. Though Merge seems to be mostly focused on commercial production, Your style is really authentic, with a sort of core outdoor lifestyle look, and your client list reflects that. Who have been some of your favorite commercial clients over the years? Do you ever turn a project down because it doesn’t fit with your style?

Horny Toad, the California based clothing company, is the best client ever.  Their CEO Gordon Seabury is really smart and their Art Director, Cari Carmean is one of my favorite people to work for.  Gordon gives us the freedom to do our thing because he trusts us and Cari, Jerome, and I work in a very collaborative way.  Its all about mutual respect and elevating each other…. you  know, the 1+1=3 thing….  That’s why we definitely turn down work that does not fit with our style.
AK: You shoot a lot on Red. What brought you to this particular setup?
It was a completely logical progression for us just as Scarlet and/or Epic will be.  With Red and Jerome’s back end system which includes Scratch, we own the means of production to shoot, edit, and post a feature length film.  Think about that…. its incredibly powerful.   Check out Jerome’s post on our site about it for a more in-depth explanation.

AK: In maybe 5 years the technical landscape has changed radically with the convergence of still and video cameras. In 5 more years it will no doubt be radically different still. What is this convergence doing for storytelling? For commercial advertising production specifically?
We could talk for many beers about this but what is clear to me is that technology has opened up new production models for creating content and new channels to distribute it.  At Merge, we spend a lot of time thinking about both of these things.  Stories will always need to get told but moving forward the way in which many of them are produced, distributed, and consumed will change quite a bit.  In light of this, it might be a mistake to stay totally tied to the old ways.
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7. You strike me as adventurous in terms of embracing technological change and experimenting, while staying true to your style. On the other hand there is a lot of pressure to find simply chase new revenue streams, or to use new technology as a means of creating buzz. In the commercial advertising world, maybe that is still a valid approach. How do you strike a balance here?
Well, i’ve never been about chasing gimmicks and have always gravitated toward timeless visuals so its never really been hard to keep a balance.  Sometimes, if you are being paid really well, money is a perfectly fine reason to take a job but most of what we shoot is exactly what we want to.  While Merge provides new revenue streams for me, that is not why I co-founded the company.   If you want to make money, go to Wall St. don’t become a photographer. Merge is about a way to expand my craft and get the same stoke I got watching my first print develop in a tray of Dektol 25 years ago.  I believe in evolving and life long learning which is why I am so into Merge.
AK: Feel free to let anything else fly if you have something burning to say. Thanks again for doing this.
Here is our  new explanation of how we partner.  We spend a lot of time thinking about it and I think it addresses many of the questions you bring up.  Also, we should have some new work up on our site by the end of the month so be sure to check it out….
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Merge conceives and creates visual content for the web, broadcast, print and beyond.  We spend a lot of time thinking about shifts in our industry and evolving our craft: a combination of timeless imagery and fearless embrace of technology.

Merge unites the eye of a National Geographic photographer with a technical fluency built from two decades of post-production and production expertise.   We cut our chops the old fashioned way but are not beholden to habits or structures that no longer make sense.   The old paradigms for content creation, post and distribution have changed.  At our core is an ability to to take traditional needs and seamlessly express them in old ways, new ways, and ways that have not been thought of yet.  Whether it is our nimble production model, a blend of art direction and improvisation, the integration of stills and motion, site specific POS video installations, or the use of dynamic technology like 4K RED and Scratch.  What people who have worked with us understand is that we are naturally adaptable and thrive at the intersection of tradition and change.

Our new model for creating visual content combines the right mindset, experience, and toolbox to offer high production values and efficiencies to our clients.  We think of ourselves as partners rather than vendors and seek collaborations with clients that allow us both to get to places we would never arrive at on our own.  To Merge is to break new ground and grow together.


inspiring. That’s the only thing I have to say about that. Thanks Andrew and David!

posted by Michael Carney on 12.18.09 at 6:26 pm

Very inspiring. Thanks.

posted by David on 03.01.10 at 5:15 pm

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