Combining content and style are the keys to success for In the Car. By Jeanne O’Brien Coffey
Dan Stevens and Dave Ells have found themselves in some pretty unique locations and situations since launching In the Car, a video production company based in Beverly.Â For example: a basement in Tennessee packed with trophy racks of antlers. Or the suburban Michigan home of passionate Detroit Red Wings fans watching their team lose a critical playoff game this spring.
“We couldn’t help but feel like intruders,” Ells says. “We kept wondering when we should leave.” Rather than letting that awkwardness get in the way, these coastal Massachusetts natives always leave shoots having formed bonds with their subjects. The owner of that Tennessee antler collection offered to ship them some venison, and rather wishing them away, the Red Wings fans invited them out for drinks after the game.
“Our work often puts us in situationsÂ we wouldn’t normallyÂ be in,” Stevens says,Â displaying pictures ofÂ the antlers coveringÂ the couch of that Tennessee home.Â The pair, who graduated from Gordon College in 2007, credit their liberal arts education, which included everything from psychology classes in exposure therapy to studies of youth engagement, for their ability to connect with their subjects.
“I don’t think we would have intuitively learned [how to help subjects feel comfortable in front of a camera] if we’d just gotten a technical education,” Stevens says.Â After graduating from the Wenham-based college, the pair worked on their own projects, and Stevens could also be found as a barista at Atomic Cafe in Beverly. But over time, they found themselves collaborating more and more on projects, until they decided to combine forces and formally established In the Car in February 2012.
“We tiptoed into it-either one of us could have walked away, but now we’re kinda married [to each other],” Ells says. These days, the business partners spend so much time together that Stevens says his wife will occasionally wonder which “us” he is referring to-him and his wife or him and Ells.
The adjustment was tricky at first- with both doing their own freelance gigs, deciding what money went to whom was a challenge. But now, when a client hires one of them, they are getting the In the Car team, and all the money goes into they business, which has become self-supporting. “We weren’t intending to start a business-we were friends first and the business was a slow evolution,” Stevens says.
The spirit of their working relationship is captured by their unusual name. In the Car comes from a road trip the pair took with another friend to visit Gordon State College in Barnesville, GA, a small school that bears the same name as their alma mater. They thought it would be funny to make a documentary about visiting the unrelated college in the Deep South, wearing their Gordon College gear and talking with the students.
“We wanted to capture the feeling of that trip with the name of our company,” Ells says, noting that “in the car” became a constant refrain on that spontaneous trip-and in everyday life. “We never realized how many times a day people say, ‘in the car,'” he adds.Â While they technically run a video production company, specializing in stylish videos that get to the hearts of their subjects, they prefer not to be pigeon-holed, seeing themselves more as creative collaborators than as technicians, and their clients agree.
“Working with [In the Car] is pure collaboration,” says Neela Sakaria, EVP/ Managing Director at Latitude, a media consulting firm based Beverly. “They are consistently bringing new ideas to ourÂ work, inspiring us to do even better, and helping us innovate with each new video. After our first project together, it became obvious they would be one of our key partners going forward.”
Latitude has worked with In the Car on projects for big media companies, including Viacom Media Networks, NBC Sports, and BBC America. Sakaria says they have created what the company calls a Latitude Insight Reel-a high- quality mini-documentary that showcases new engagement opportunities for clients, integrating research in a concise and inspiring storytelling format. “Our collaboration with In the Car has been a key part in our development of this offering to clients,” she adds.
Stevens and Ells say they get as much fulfillment out of working on these corporate videos as they do from working on a music video or a documentary lifestyle piece. “Many creative types will say, ‘This is what we do to pay the bills,'” Stevens says. “We are more holistic than that. We say, ‘Why not have fun with both?'”
“People are often asking us, ‘When are you going to do something for yourselves?'” Ells adds. “We spend a lot of time trying to convince people we are not just hiding our dreams in the closet. We learn just as much from a music video as from a corporate one.”
That attitude is one of the keys to the team’s success,Â says Tim Ferguson-Sauder, creative director at Gordon College and at Return Design, a studio affiliated with Gordon that does creative work for arts and nonprofit groups. “What’s great about [In the Car] is they do a really good job of integrating concept and design,” says Ferguson-Sauder, who taught both men at Gordon and has since hired them for projects. “They have an understanding of client needs and branding that is hard to find,” he adds, explaining that that kind of understanding is also increasingly in demand.
“People are realizing that the lines between video production and marketing are blurring,” he says. “Nobody wants to watch a five-minute commercial to get you to buy a car, butÂ a lot of people may want to watch a five-minute video about the making of the car.” This turns the project from something a videographer might not want to do into something they do want to do, he says, adding, “While the marketing person sees it as marketing, the videographer sees it as a creative outlet.”
Listening to Stevens and Ells talk, it is evident that they love their work-and they love working in a space that combines marketing and creativity. They also love being a part of the North Shore community.Â “Everyone who does film thinks they should move to New York or L.A.,” Stevens says. “We like the North Shore because it’s a place we can call home, not just a place to run our business.”
There is also a very practical side to being based here. The North Shore offers a panapoly of video vistas-everything from Boston’s skyscrapers to Gloucester’s gritty docks, not to mention the quaint charm of many small cities and towns.Â “In a big city, we’d have to travel far to get such diverse vistas,” Stevens says. “It says a lot about our area. A lot here can look like many different places.”
So appealing is the location that many clients, like New Jersey-based rock band I Call Fives, travel to the North Shore to work with Stevens and Ells. That was a smart decision on I Call Fives’ part-the video for their single “Late Nights,” featuring a tangled love story playing out among the woods and oceanfront of Gloucester, was displayed on the front page of MTV.com and even spent some time as the #1 video in September.
“That was a big surprise,” Stevens says. “Our goal wasn’t to be #1 on MTV.”Â While many people might think that the team would use that as a jumping off point to head more deeply into music videos, they say they’re satisfied with the mix of corporate, music, and lifestyle shorts that is currently their bread and butter.
One area that the duo is hoping to do more work in is the nonprofit sector. They have already completed projects for the Whittier Street Health Center, where they documented the work of inner city doctors at the Roxbury facility, and the Not For Sale Campaign, which aims to abolish human slavery. Both are projects they point to as being especially fulfilling. “We’re hoping we’ve made a difference,” Stevens says.
In the meantime, Stevens’s and Ells’s ability to put a creative spin on a corporate brand or a music video is likely to bring them a lot of success, says Ferguson-Sauder. “They have a mature approach to videography,” he says. ” Many young designers want to put their own style ahead of the needs of their clients. [Stevens and Ells] have their own style, for sure, but it doesn’t override the clients’ needs.”
Latitude’s Sakaria is just as big a fan. “These guys have helped us get the shots we need and uncover the stories we didn’t know we needed…In very simple terms, Dan and Dave are the rare partners that just get it.” inthecarmedia.com.