Simon Willis is the producer of the multi award winning Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown coaching films and the man behind SeaKayakPodcasts.com. After years as a BBC reporter on TV and radio Simon started his business, Sunart Media. It produces videos for a variety of business clients and broadcast productions.
1) How long have you been in business and what got you started?
I worked for the BBC in News and Current Affairs for twenty-five years before I started Sunart Media in 2009. Previously in TV, most people specialized in one particular role, whereas I tackled a range of jobs; presenting live TV and radio shows, reporting, producing other reporters and directing documentaries. Journalism was always the common theme. I even had a parallel career travel writing and taking photos for specialist magazines and The Sunday Times.
Nowadays it’s essential to be multi-skilled. When TV cameras and computer-based editing became simple, I loved the freedom to plan, shoot and edit my own work. The BBC was happy too, and for a year I had an open brief to bring stories to the screen. The logical step was to take voluntary redundancy and use the skills to produce content for my own business.
2) What’s the best part of your job?
The best part is that wonderful, special moment when I know what’s going into my camera is absolutely stunning. As a reporter I’ve had it during interviews, when the guest drops their guard and answers from the heart. Most recently, it happened during filming for Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown Volume 2 when Gordon started the swim-ashore sequence. I simply couldn’t wait to play it back and check that I captured it all.
Running that feeling a close second are those times when I’m in Scotland’s mountains, shooting for The Adventure Show on BBC-2. I’ll look around the peaks and think, “This is where I work... what a lucky bloke I am!” I was a mountaineer and cyclist long before I was a climber, and once even considered a career as a guide. All these years later to find myself earning part of my living in the great outdoors is fantastic.
3) What’s the most difficult aspect of the job?
Making money! If Gordon Brown and I charged ourselves our normal hourly rate for filming I’m fairly sure our films would make a loss. They are a great ‘shop-window’ for his kayak coaching business Skyak Adventures and Sunart Media but they make a lot of demands on our families, especially Gordon’s wife Morag who is heavily involved in the filming. The real reason we all do them is for the love of this sport.
4) What are two tips you can give to somebody looking to start their own video production company?
Be born to rich parents. I’m only half joking, as for the first few years you’ll probably work virtually for free. I was always told, “Knock on lots of doors and when one opens, jam your foot in it”. Get a camera and use it a lot to work out what you’re doing right and wrong. Find people whose work you like and try anything (almost!) to hang out with them in a professional capacity. They won’t pay you but they’ll love giving you advice. And all the time, the culture of the crazy media industry will start to seep into you. Looking forward it looks like a maze, but looking back you can always see a path.
5) What about your job do you think would most surprise people?
How little most people in broadcast TV now earn. Big stars command big bucks, but a recent survey by an industry magazine found the average annual pay for an experienced TV director in the UK is £36,693 (about $58k). That’s a less in actual terms (not just real terms) than twenty years ago.
6) If you could tell something to your 18 year-old self, what would it be?
Don’t get married. Twice. Wait until you meet a woman called Liz while climbing in Alaska... Oh sorry, you mean for work? Well, at eighteen I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do but was having such a good time, I didn’t really care and probably wouldn’t listen to a balding fifty year old. By then I’d adopted a philosophy I’ve clung to throughout life, although perhaps that sounds pompous, when really it’s a simple approach: before making a big decision, get all the facts, take time, walk up to the edge of the decision-cliff and pause; then when you step off you will have made the decision that’s right at that time. You can never, ever have regrets because you know you made the right choice. Oh, but it doesn’t work with weddings...