Where It All Began...

The summertime is always a slow time for my business, TV commercial production. The thinking is, most people are out and about, soaking up the sun and savoring outdoor activities as opposed to being cooped up in their homes in front of the tube. Bracing themselves against the harsh winter elements, cocoa in hand and wrapped in however many blankets it takes to ease the constant chill, most people find themselves more likely to tune in. A captive audience, so to speak. And so here I sit, with a little extra time on my hands, to reflect on the road that lead me here, to this career I fell into 11 and a half years ago.

When I decided to move to Kalispell, Montana in 1998, it was literally a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants idea. I’d only been there on vacation a couple of times, but there was something about the place that told me I would somehow, some way, eventually take up residency among breathtaking glaciers and little towns with names like Big Mountain, Big Fork, and Hungry Horse. I knew no one there. I didn’t even know the lay of that rugged land, aptly nicknamed “Big Sky Country”. But I’d lived in LA long enough and after a brief stint in Tucson it was time to make a change. A drastic change. I was tired of the big city life, the traffic and plastic nature of LA, the crime and grime of pre-Guiliani Manhattan during my years at NYU, and I longed for a better quality of life.

At the time I was strictly a short story writer, having ditched my attempts at becoming an actress after years spent unsuccessfully scaling the studio walls of Hollywood. Therefore, as a writer, I could set my sails to whatever port most enticed me, and suddenly, the Norman Rockwell life seemed irresistible. So I packed up my little red car and my big blue Neapolitan Mastiff and took to the open road headed for the unknown. Once in Kalispell, I took up residency at The Kalispell Grand Hotel for two weeks in order to search for the perfect place to call home. I poured through the homes for rent section of the local newspaper and quickly found a lovely cottage 30 minutes from downtown Kalispell, in rural Rollins, MT. The house came with an awe inspiring view of Flathead Lake complete with postcard worthy glaciers wrapped all around it in the distance. The property was mostly isolated, with only one neighbor visible in a lot down below mine at the water’s edge. It was so isolated, in fact, that if the mood struck, I could have easily roamed around naked without any worry as to anyone seeing me in all my glory. No, I never did test out this theory, but it was nice knowing I could if I wanted to.

One day while looking through the paper, I stumbled upon an ad on the back page that stopped me in my tracks. The small paragraph read, “Part Time TV Commercial Producer Wanted” along with a short description of the requirements necessary to fill the position. My heart raced at the thought of winning a job at a TV station, the prospect of it thrilled me to the core. But here I was, in town for just two weeks to secure a home. I had no resume, no proper interview attire, only the rabid desire to get hired at this tiny bureau of a much larger station 2 hours south, KAJ-TV. I called immediately and was granted an interview. I explained my lack of resume and choice of clothing, and the station manager showed no concern over my predicament. I wanted that job so bad I could taste it. Like a mouthwatering dessert you can’t help but devour, I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough. I was at somewhat of a disadvantage though, since I had little to no training from college in behind the scenes camera or editing work. Honestly, I did not know how to perform the most basic edit much less how to turn the camera on. (What’s that big button do? Oh. How do I load in a tape? Oh. It’s not recording any sound. Where’s that button? Whoops. OK. Now, wait, tell me all of that again so I can take notes this time. Sorry.) The fact that I knew NOTHING that was required of me to know according to the ad in the paper did not deter me from my dedication to win that job. And win it I did! Looking back, I think the manager could see my gritty determination and figured she’d give me a chance based on my sheer will to learn on the job and promise to make a success out of myself one ad at a time.

Here was my chance to prove myself. For years I’d felt like a failure in my chosen field of acting, yet now I had the bull by the horns and it was up to me to carve out a career in television. Here I had control over my destiny, no agent or casting director could dismiss me because of my age or type or looks. I was large and in charge for a change and I LOVED IT! Here I had control and with that came a confidence I’d long regarded as gone. I learned everything as I went along, tirelessly trying out fresh ideas, new ways to flex this newly discovered creative muscle. I worked late into every evening and came in all weekend long, hell bent on figuring out, all on my own, this deliriously exciting new world of production. For all of my efforts I was paid $6.50 an hour, no overtime. It didn’t matter at all to me then, so thrilled I was at my new lease on life. I quickly bonded with the fantastic sales team (two home grown local guys who so patiently and graciously tolerated my novice position) and our in house beat reporter and I shared a million laughs along the way. At the time I was hired there was one other producer at the station that made it known immediately that he did not like me and like a wild animal that hisses at you from his cage, I learned right away to keep my distance. He left, thankfully, three months after I arrived and at that point I became HEAD OF PRODUCTION. So what If I was the only one in the production department? I was the official HEAD. The big cheese. The one whose shoulders must carry the weight of the entire station’s production needs. I juggled many hats, and always asked for more. To name a few, I created all of the TV ads, the community calendar spots, the station identification posts, and the morning program we developed to piggy back onto or mother station’s morning show, sweetly titled “Flathead This Morning”, in which I had to shoot a week’s worth of episodes in one taping each Wednesday with interviews booked by me in which our roving reporter would sit down and talk with everyone from a local historian to a chef performing a cooking segment, to a local dance troupe that would perform then inform the audience of their next gig not to be missed. I would spend hours sifting through the telephone book, desperately searching for talent to fill our airtime, regardless of the fact that I had no idea where to begin or who was who in this town I had no prior knowledge of. It was a hoot. Our studio was the size of a shoe box, and I could barley fit the two cameras up on their tripods in the back of the room and still have enough space to tape the show. Trust me, it can be tough trying to squeeze a dance squad consisting of a bunch of sequined clad little girls into a room no larger than most broom closets. But that was all part of the fun. When taping was over, the monster task of editing each episode was mine to tackle. As in all of the editing at KAJ-TV at the time, our platform was the cro-magnon of editing systems, the three quarter deck. Basically, it’s one step away from cave drawing. It is all linear, which means whether you make a mistake 5 seconds in or 5 seconds to finish, you have to scrap everything and start over. Not fun. The “special Effects” were anything but special and I was limited to essentially elevator music for the music beds. Can you tell where I’m going here? Try as I may, the finished product never had a chance of being anything other than bare bones, but no one seemed to mind in that forgiving sleepy town. Not that I had any control over it. I did the best I could with what I had to work with. Even so, the first time I happened to see one of my ads air on television, I was at a friend’s house and it suddenly came on with my voice and everything and I just about passed out. So proud I was of this accomplishment. I jumped up and down clapping my hands like a small child, so overcome with the sheer joy of it all. I felt like I was on top of the world, and nothing could stop me now.

After a year and a half at KAJ-TV, I realized that if I ever wanted to see any monetary success (I was told my salary cap would be a firm and destitute $8 an hour) I would have to strike out on my own and start my own company. The thought terrified me. What if, after building up a client base of 97 customers via KAJ-TV, no one decides to follow me on to greener pastures? What if I leave a job I love, roll the dice, and lose? With great fear mixed with the thrill of the unknown I threw myself into finding an office location and buying all of my own gear. In forming my company, I knew I had to abandon the archaic system provided by the TV station and invest in the latest and greatest equipment, full of bells and whistles aplenty, to the tune of an AVID editing system. In order to use this new editor, I had to fly to LA and take workshops at Moviola in Hollywood. At first I was overwhelmed. The difference was obviously like night and day. All computer based and cutting edge, I initially struggled with the program. I was reduced to tears at one point, convinced I would never grasp this new information. Thoughts of that hellish Jumping Jack from my first blog post came back to haunt me. What am I gonna do? I just spent an arm and a leg and a torso on new equipment that I have no idea how to use and nothing the teacher is saying makes any sense AT ALL!!! Then, the light bulb mercifully popped on and just like that (can you hear the fingers snap?) everything came together and I understood. Whew! And so I returned to my adopted town with the assurance that I could, in deed, pull this off, regardless of whether or not I’d see a clamoring of clients beating down my door. I christened my company ARK Productions after my mother said matter-of-factly, “Why don’t you just use your initials?” and off I went. To my surprise and utter relief, I did find a full client roster at my doorstep, all as anxious as I was to get started. When I look back on those days, I feel such an amazing sense of pride and accomplishment, of great times and the satisfaction of promising new beginnings. I carry with me a connection to that crazy girl I used to be. So green and yet so unknowingly strong. I’ve since returned to my hometown in Ohio, ARK Productions and Miss Ava in tow, and through the years I’ve had my share of ups and downs in this business I still whole-heartedly adore. It’s that KAJ-TV will that keeps me going through the tough times and the combined experiences along the way that never fail to reignite the magic.

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The rocky evolution of my career path and ultimate discovery of my life’s passion for production.

The world is full of magical photo ops…

All you need to grab them is a zest for life, an eye for the extraordinary and that trusty camera of your choice.

Raise the sturdy weight of it to your face … close one eye then … lower your finger upon the shiny black button… hold your breath then… hear that hypnotic click and suddenly, dynamite explodes! the stars collide! and maybe, just maybe you’ve captured a magnificent moment in time… How thrilling is that?!?

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  • rocamiadesign
    rocamiadesignalmost 4 years ago

    I enjoyed reading about your experience, here in the Flathead Valley. I think I’ve seen “Flathead This Morning”. Since we were unable to get cable, where we lived, we were limited to watching KAJ and KXLY for years. You probably wouldn’t recognize Kalispell today. Since this is now one of the fastest growing areas in the country, the traffic is like driving in a big city.

  • I cannot thank you enough for your incredibly thoughtful comment! I must apologize profusely, as I have no idea when you left it as I must have missed it. Just now seeing your marvelous words.
    So cool that you probably tuned in to “Flathead This Morning”. It’s good to know we had at least one viewer out there watching our kooky show. Such fun I had producing it, even though I barely knew what I was doing at the time! :)

    I’m sure you are right regarding me not recognizing Kalispell today. It was such a sleepy, scenic Mayberry place while I was there. Can’t picture it bustling!

    – Ainsley Kellar Creations

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