There is No Handbook — Chapter-by-Chapter with Director Decatur Dan
Script & Narration by Eugene Kan
Transcript by Alek Rose
Audio by Elphick Wo
Video by Daniel Hall
Photos by Alex Maeland
Transcript by Alek Rose
Audio by Elphick Wo
Video by Daniel Hall
Photos by Alex Maeland
Rarely do creatives start their careers with a particular defined path. It requires a few bumps and bruises, and wrong turns to find the right path. Decatur Dan, otherwise known as Daniel Hall, has come up through the ranks in a way that’s almost a requisite for success… your own way.
His initial start creating content began as the streetwear boutique in Atlanta known as Standard. Regular meetings with Atlanta’s vibrant hip-hop scene allowed a new chapter to emerge as a music video director for the likes of 2Chains, Future, and more.
Shooting videos for some of Atlanta’s most prominent artists are not without its own limitations. Narratives and visions are often left incomplete, as the entertainers often have their own challenges that often result in compromised results. The reality is that as a music video director, you’re often left in a balancing act between your vision and that of the artist.
With an appetite for the next step, Dan has continually looked to redefine himself. The recent celebration of his studio’s fifth anniversary, Where It’s Greater, is arguably one of his most important chapters and one that continues to push and drive him. His work has spanned some of consumer culture’s most popular brands including, Nike, Beats, and more.
Where It’s Greater, Dan Hall, and everything he’s built up to this point is a culmination of a feeling and an unoften inexplicable belief. It’s the confidence to act on those instincts which are foundational to building your house, on your terms.
Listen to Eugene and Dan’s conversation and find the transcript below, enjoy the video (right click, “show controls” for audio) and the images to follow.
One day, you're gonna look up and look back and say, 'Wow, look how far I've come.' That's what make's it interesting.
One day, you're gonna look up and look back and say, 'Wow, look how far I've come.' That's what make's it interesting.
For a long time, I wasn't really proud of what I'd done. Home in Atlanta, people were like 'he's not doing music videos anymore.' They associate it with failure.
There's no handbook, you're just moving off of vibes, off of feelings. No one wants to consciously make the wrong decision.
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Dan: There’s no handbook. You’re just kind of moving off of vibes, off of feelings. Reading the room, you know? The room is huge in the business world. There’s a big room with a lot of people in it. So it’s like, how do you navigate through all that and still keep a level head?
Eugene: There’s a distinction that Daniel Hall often makes between creatives and artists. Artists are free to create as they please without any underlying accountability to others. Creatives such as himself are out to provide solutions to artists or brands. That clear distinction is something that has required a specific understanding between what it means to continually produce, and the symbiotic relationship with money and business. As he said: ‘There’s no handbook.’
Dan: My name is Daniel Hall.
Eugene: That is a lie.
Dan: Decatur Dan? Okay. Decatur Dan is my moniker. But yes, I’m Daniel Hall. I am my mother’s child (laughs). I’m a photographer, I’m a director, I’m a creative, I’m a producer, entrepreneur, all those things. But I don’t really like walking around saying that type of stuff but on paper, Yeah, that’s what I am.
Eugene: Decatur Dan, Daniel Hall, depending on what phase of his life you’ve met him has clearly defined chapters to his career. An early start slinging streetwear for Standard in Atlanta would be his first opportunity to create content on the regular. The shop was one of two key spots in the area to cop the latest sneakers and gear. Regular customers and the vibrant music scene in Atlanta would mean that it wouldn’t be long before Dan would turn the camera from sneakers and clothes to up-and-coming and established rappers in one of hip hop’s biggest if not most important markets. Working with the likes of T.I., 2 Chainz, Big KRIT, Jeezy and more was soon his new calling. Shooting music videos wouldn’t be Dan’s final career calling. One thing that Dan doesn’t lack is agility and vision to reinvent himself and create the necessary upside to align himself with the right flow and the right people.
Dan: I don’t know if you can curse on his radio show.
Eugene: Doesn’t matter. You can do what you want, Dan.
Dan: Okay great. Honestly a lot of street smarts is just like: ‘Yo, I don’t fuck with this person. I’m not gonna fuck with this person. I’m going to move over here.’ So I think it’s more so just like gravitating towards the things and the people that you do like and staying away from the bad things.
Eugene: How much of that is innate and how much of that did you just learn by being around hip hop and stuff?
Dan: Whether you’re coming up through the streets or building a career in creative culture, there’s no roadmap. Dan’s path is a testament to that. From shooting gear for an online store to music videos for 2 Chainz and now Nike and Beats, they’re all opportunities that had to be seized. The freeform nature can be simultaneously beneficial and challenging. It benefits those with a clear understanding of where they want to go but a challenge for those that perhaps lack the confidence to define their own path and their own place. How you get there can look a thousand different ways, but what’s certain is that there’s the opportunity to leverage hard work, opportunities, and tolerance for uncertainty. Unlike many other industries, you are your own gatekeeper.
Eugene: The best way to look at it is, you and I connected under a very different pretense a long time ago. I don’t think we actually met for quite a while after that, right?
Dan: Probably the first time we met was through Alex? Or on AIM, yeah.
Eugene: We knew each other before Alex.
Dan: Yeah we definitely did, there was a lot of AIM back and forth. Lots of “Hey, can you post this for me?”
Eugene: I honestly was always super annoyed when Dan would hit me up because I knew he only wanted one thing and that was to post up some sneakers.
Dan: But I gave you good content.
Dan: So you had to post it.
Eugene: I didn’t have to post it.
Dan: But you wanted to.
Eugene: That was like the original relationship that we developed. But I think now looking back what I find so interesting is that your hustle honestly is probably what has defined your whole career, right? So like let’s start at the very beginning of where I guess we connected or even before we connected. Like, what was it like growing up in Georgia, in Decatur? And like did you feel as though you had this sort of like creative drive or spirit? Or did you grow into that?
Dan: I grew up around the production industry which is, you know—production is not necessarily creative. They kind of go hand in hand but they’re also very separate too. So like I grew up around production, my dad was a camera operator and a video editor, and I never really wanted to follow in his footsteps. Not because I wanted to rebel —I had a great relationship with my father— but I kind of wanted to find my own way and I wasn’t really into the clientele that my dad was servicing, which was like mega churches and things like that.
While I thought fooling around cameras was cool and playing around with Final Cut Pro 4 was fun, I wasn’t into the content that was being created itself just because it wasn’t of interest to me, you know? And it wasn’t until later until I was about…I was still in college when I started working with a pretty prominent DJ at the time and he needed some video content. I was like, ‘oh well then, you know, I know how to do all this stuff.’ At that point in time was when I realized like, ‘oh man, like, I really wish I would have paid attention to what my dad was kind of showing me the ropes a little bit more.’ I was always paying attention, I was kind of learning through osmosis.
Eugene: So what were you doing with your skills at that time before the DJ approached you?
Dan: Ah I was using them for the blog for when I worked at Standard.
Eugene: Standard being a sneaker and streetwear store in Atlanta.
Dan: I’m sure there’s lots that have popped up now, but at the time it was just those two.
Eugene: [The two] being? Wish and Standard?
Dan: Being Wish and Standard, basically the blogs are starting to pop off now but blogs were really like for people like Highsnobiety and Hypebeast and things like that. No store had a blog at the time, so I launched the Standard blog. Basically found a template, hacked it up, whatever, and then just started putting content on there.
Eugene: Did you know you’re doing at the time?
Dan: No, this was just a playground. But I knew what I liked. I knew what I liked to read and I knew what I liked to see. So it was kind of twofold. I mean looking back on it it’s like: 1. I’m going to have this be a place—we didn’t have a shop, you know what I mean? And the owner at the time didn’t really want to spend lots of money. E-commerce sites back in the day were very expensive: there was no Shopify like there is now that you just pay like a monthly fee and blah blah blah. It’s like if you want an e-commerce site, it’s going to cost you upwards of five to ten thousand dollars to like code it from the ground up. You know the whole thing, you had at your own server, there was no you know all this stuff. So needless to say, a blog was super low barrier entry like, you know you get a free WordPress, get the template, customize it a little bit and cool. And so I was like you know what, this is a way for me to update clients with what’s new, but then I also wanted to make it a little bit like a community so I would post up stories and things like that and it worked and people were engaged. At the time I left the store, they went from having no internet presence or just like social media internet presence, like people using MySpace, using Facebook wasn’t even big then, Twitter to promote themselves. To getting you know, 1500 unique views per day. We’re talking about a small mom and pop kind of store in Atlanta that has like a national if not global readership. But honestly for me, that was fun in doing it.
Eugene: And did you think there was a timeline on that? You kind of were going to get to the end of that?
Dan: Yeah, I mean it’s just evolved too because now it’s evolved from blogging to Twitter to Facebook to Instagram, to whatever it is. And so yeah, so the platform was always changing. People don’t look for the same thing in a website now that they did 10 years ago.
Eugene: So how did you parlay all of that experience into the next step or the next chapter?
Dan: It wasn’t really intentional. I ended up leaving that store just because it was time, I’d kind of outgrown it. I kind of hit a glass ceiling or whatever. And unfortunately I had to leave and I didn’t really know what was next, but I knew I’d been practicing making content for the last two, three years. And I was like what I was doing with that store, people would come in. I mean there were celebrities who’d be like, “you know, hey can you do what you’re doing for this store for me?” You know whether that was people like Greg Street or people like Don Cannon or you know, people who saw the value in what I was doing, was like, “hey can you apply this to what I’m doing?” And so then that transitioned from OK, streetwear, menswear, clothing, sneakers to okay, hip-hop you know like, people would come to me with songs like alright, I have this track. This is back when leaking tracks was a big deal. Like no one actually leaked a track, it was more so, like intentionally leaked. But basically what I was doing was sending out a press release, for lack of better—thinking and getting it on blogs, I had all these relationships with all these blogs because the hip hop bloggers who ran these hip hop blogs, they read the Hypebeasts and they read the Highsnobietys and they read all this stuff and they knew my name and they knew just from being passed around Internet circles or being sourced as like you know Decatur Dan, photos by this person or whatever.
Eugene: So from there you ended up going into basically being hip hop PR kind of dude?
Dan: Yeah. But I wouldn’t say PR just because I was doing that because that was…I did that out of necessity. At its core what I like doing was OK the strategy or the strategy and then creating the actual content. How should we release this? We should release this pulling references from whatever the newest innovative way to put something out was, you know what I mean? But content was still what I loved to do the most whether that was, I was a studio rat like I would hang out in the studio all day with these people when I wasn’t in school, when I wasn’t working with my camera and just record footage. I would go home after a couple of weeks of having collected footage and I would cut together like a little teaser or a little something and then we would release that and that would be promotional content to hype up whatever mixtape or whatever song or whatever project was about to be released.
Eugene: When you look back on that time there, what would you say was the application of what you learned prior? I mean the way I look at it is like you went from interacting with still life and product to real world implications with like rappers and whatnot. So how is that different?
Dan: Taking pictures of still life is very controlled for the most part. It’s just like, you do everything at your own pace at your own time. You know you’re really there just kind of like capturing what is the still life. This other stuff it’s like, well you’ve got to document it and like it’s a video so cameras are rolling at all times. Documentary work is so hard because as soon as you stop recording is usually when the magic happens, you know? So that was tough and then on top of that too it’s like there’s a lot of pressure because once you did one thing well now it’s like they want you to do that every time and it’s just not that easy. It’s not something that you can just spit out all the time. I mean some of the stuff was very organic and just felt right and it’s just like yeah this is it. And then times it was like not organic or not forced but you know sometimes we would just collect people’s money and we would go through the motions and we would do things and we would release it.
Eugene: At that time, what was the expectation within hip hop? What was the standard of quality required?
Dan: The expectation was kind of twofold.
Eugene: What’s the timeframe we’re talking about right now?
Dan: Fuck I don’t know. Years, but like Worldstar at its height. Let’s say, not right at its height or 2DopeBoyz at its height.
Eugene: Yeah like what were the artists at the time that you would say defined that genre?
Dan: This was like backpack Internet kind of era. People like Asher Roth come to mind, people like The Cool Kids come to mind like, whatever XXL Freshmen cover from that kind of genre… Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y. But the expectation was to flood the market. There was like an abundance of content. This is a when content really started to become kind of disposable. It’s like let’s create a video or like this create this thing and let’s just put it out. They didn’t care if it was any good, as long as it was on a blog, as long as on the HD, I mean a DSLR camera and it was HD and it was in focus you know, it was fine. They didn’t care if it was good, it was just like OK we got it out there.
Eugene: How did you feel about that?
Dan: I hated it. I hated it. I still am a perfectionist. Creatively I know that it’s OK for things not to be perfect but I also know when things… This is just, this is just dumb, you know I mean? Like you can trick people, I guess when I really started to realize it was when I started working with Jeezy this was like the height again of Worldstar. Rick Ross which was at the time his I guess arch nemesis if you will, had like three videographers and they were just cranking out video content every day and Jeezy wanted me to kind of like kind of compete with that. I’m like, look they’ve got this thing set up properly. They’ve got multiple videographers, they’ve got editors that they have on standby and they’re just putting out content hand over fist. They had a good system down and it looked good and it was whatever but at its core it was still nothing and so I just didn’t like wasting energy and I didn’t like wasting time. Then I also realized that when you’re dealing with these this caliber of artist they have fans and their fans do not care about the quality if it’s good because they’re going to like it. Jeezy would put out a trash record like just like a bad single. I would just go on Twitter and I would just pay attention to like what people were saying but they would all love it. And they would be like, this is the greatest hit ever and that’s when I realized that the fans are gonna ride for you no matter what. You know, the fans are going to be there. They’re going to they’re going to support, which is good, which is great. But I knew from my end, from a creative end, I wanted to just be making great stuff. You know that was undeniably good.
Eugene: It came to a point when Dan eventually felt it was time to move on. Mind you, this was a few years ago. Hip hop was undoubtedly a massive genre but yet to fully recognize its new place atop the charts and popular culture. Dan’s desire to be more driven by narrative stories and substance would be the push he needed to move away from creating content for the sake of content.
Eugene: So at what point did you feel as though it was time to move on? Was that sort of the definitive moment or was it just like a slow grind?
Dan: I mean basically what ended up happening was I started to kind of find my groove a little bit so some of this documentary type work essentially a fly on the wall like pull a rabbit out your ass, like record some footage and turn it into something type of thing. Yeah it just started to turn into more conceptual stuff like because the quality was so good. Like you could tell a difference between maybe my work and maybe someone else’s just because mine had a little bit more of a feeling to it or maybe it didn’t look better but maybe it just connected with what the viewer a little better. Essentially that led to like more conceptual work. Because when you’re working with these type of artists you know, rappers, it’s like, They don’t care whether or not you’re a video director. All they know is you got a camera, you know how to operate it, we can shoot a music video. OK. And so that kind of kicked off.
Eugene: Do you think that will ever change? Do you think hip hop will start to embrace more quality driven content?
Dan: I mean yeah they are. But here’s the thing, the street artists don’t care. The street artists are mostly concerned about whether it’s affordable, like why would I go pay so-and-so 50000 dollars for a video, Decatur Dan or whoever 50000 dollars for a video where I can go get dude over here to do it for 5000 or maybe even less. And they got the same camera, whatever. They don’t really differentiate like that. But when you look at artists like Kendrick Lamar or even like I remember it was a big thing when Macklemore first came on the scene, his videos were always over the top. Once Macklemore blew up they became big budget but when he first started they weren’t necessarily big budget. He was just working with the right people. He was working with USC film students. He was a little bit more resourceful and he cared a little bit more about the craft.
Eugene: Seeing how this all played out, I mean it’s fair to say you loved hip hop?
Dan: Yeah for sure. Still do.
Eugene: Do you think that it left a bad taste in your mouth when you realized that the qualitative nature of hip hop was maybe not even really ever considered, right?
Dan: Yeah I mean there’s definitely as I think back on like my time and doing that, there’s good memories and there’s there’s bad ones.
Eugene: What would be a good memory and what would be a bad memory?
Dan: I mean bad ones were just more like them not caring about the craft. I as a director, as a music video director let’s say that, not a film director because it’s very different when you’re talking about someone who’s directing their own short film or their own documentary because then the power is in their hands. But as a music video director, they’re sharing the power with me. I could come up with the best treatment I could do all the prep in the world and I can be great. But guess what, if the artist shows up six hours late and they’re faded and they’re high or they’re unenthusiastic, maybe they’ve had a bad day because their world is super complex and crazy and I don’t get the performance out of them that I need or I don’t get the time that I need in order to create what I need to create. Well then, that’s what I mean by sharing the power. Like it’s not in my hands. So it takes two people to come to the table and do it. And so those are the bad experiences I’ve had because I’ve had a lot of opportunities that you know kind of just fell flat and I’m not pointing the finger at anyone but for whatever reason it just kind of didn’t work out. But at the same time too I chalk that up to… I’m a big person of like, it’s all about timing. I never let that really discourage me. I kind of took it with a grain of salt and I was like all right how can I change that? But the good memories are working with some of the most relevant artists of our time, I mean especially with hip hop being the most popular genre. I mean some of the artists on my reel are still some of the most…
Eugene: If I was to give you the ability to just like drop some names?
Dan: I’ve worked with pretty much every rapper in Atlanta. Let’s Say five years ago every rapper in Atlanta in some capacity, whether that was Jeezy and T.I., The older generation, well for me the older generation. Or newer people like Future and 2 Chainz. So that whole spectrum, whether I was directing a video for them or whether they were a featured artist you know. But I’ve worked with T-Pain, I’ve worked with Lil’ Wayne, I’ve worked with all these different people in some capacity. But then obviously those people now are either more or less relevant. There’s tons of newcomers now, there’s a new relevant rapper coming out of Atlanta every six months. There’s a new song, there’s a new hit song and maybe that person stays around for five or ten years. Maybe that was it. So there’s an abundance of talent so that’s what I’m saying, anyone can go there and have a camera and just hang around and kind of like float around on the studio scene, go to different events and things like that and you’ll catch work. You know, you don’t have to be the best in order to get a video a Gucci Mane. Yeah and I’ve never never got a video with Gucci but shouts out to Gucci, big big Gucci fan.
Eugene: But it is interesting because you’ve sort of laid out this path and correct me if I’m wrong but there seems to be a very ‘chapter’ approach to your career in a way. Would you disagree? Because I mean you did the streetwear thing then you did sort of the behind the scenes work and then music videos and then after that you just ended up opening up a studio, Right? And like that work in itself was almost like a departure from… how I put it? Not unfocused, but the disorganized chaotic world of hip hop towards maybe something a little bit more streamlined and structured.
Dan: Yeah, I will say this: I mean you can always connect the dots looking backwards, so for me none of this was very intentional. If there was a good opportunity that was put in front of me, I felt that that was for me. I would take that and I would run with it.
Eugene: For you what what defines a good opportunity? Like when there’s probably limited information but like what’s going on in your mind to define a good opportunity? I’m sure you have like a mental checklist.
Dan: Yeah I have a mental checklist but it’s really just a gut feeling and it’s more so like, is this something that I’m interested? Is this something that can support myself? Is this something that I can use as leverage to get me onto another level? And so I think if it checks like two out of three of those boxes that I’m into it and I’m very fortunate, you know I work very hard but at the same time I’m very fortunate in the sense that I never woke up one morning and said I want to be a music video director, I never woke up one morning and said I want to shoot footwear for Nike or do stuff with Beats, but at the same time I love what I’m doing yeah.
Eugene: How would you say what you’re doing now is different than anything in the past and maybe actually before we even get into that, what do you do now? How would you describe what you create?
Dan: We provide creative and production services at the end of the day. It’s pretty simple and straightforward but we definitely provide more than that. There’s a lot of intangible things that we provide. It’s like we come onto the projects in different parts of the spectrum all the time. And what I mean by that is just like sometimes we get asked to like come up with some creative and you know we’ll do from concept to camera shoot the entire thing. Other times the creatives are already prepared and we’re just shooting. Other times the creative’s prepared, maybe there’s another photographer, maybe they just want us to kind of support like with some video content or provide our space or whatever and I mean that’s obviously not a big part of what we do but if it’s the right project then we’ll do that. But the difference now is just the reason why I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing before, I mean as many good things there were about it, it kind of boiled down to just the unprofessionalism that I wasn’t used to. Like I consider myself a buttoned-up kind of person, responsible, like I check all my boxes, I do all my homework, I work really hard and if I feel like that’s not being reciprocated on the other end, because it’s a partnership you know any time you’re doing a project with someone, I do a lot of client work. 90 percent of the stuff I do is client work. You know, there’s only a few things that are like personal projects here and there. So for me every project is like as a boyfriend girlfriend relationship, not boyfriend girlfriend but it’s a relationship.
Eugene: Do you think that people who question the creative capabilities of client work are actually not entering the right partnerships? Like they’re not stay in their claim?
Dan: I just happen to be that type of person who’s pushing and who’s also… like I said, I like client work mainly because I think there’s a big difference between an artist and a creative. You what I mean? Those two things aren’t necessarily the same.
Eugene: How would you define them in your own words?
Dan: I think a creative is someone who can work for a client and produce work and they know where to draw the line and say OK like even though… It doesn’t mean that that happens every day, all the time we’re like, we have stuff that we want to do, like concepts that we’re pushing: Lighting, it can be the smallest thing, the retouching, and then the client will say no we want this brighter or we want this darker. Can you do this? And at the end of the day, as a creative that’s what you have to do, you have to listen to the client, they’re the one paying your bill. As an artist, an artist a lot of times they have a message, an agenda. Something that they’re trying to bring into the world, a story that they’re trying to tell. They’re a lot more stubborn if you will, and that’s why client work probably kills them. You know like they hate it. On the flip side of that, what is the saying? ‘Business is the best art.’ Is that Andy Warhol?
Eugene: Sounds Vaguely familiar but I’m not going to back you up on that one because I don’t know it.
Dan: But it’s true. It’s valid. And you can fact check it if you want.
Eugene: That definitely connects to my next question: Do you consider yourself an astute business person? And if you do or you don’t people will eventually look at the photos and realize hey this is like a pretty nice studio that you’re working out of, like this took time and obviously the ability to rise to the occasion with different jobs and client work. So like I think that the most interesting thing is over the course of your career, how far has the financial consideration been from everything you’ve done? Because I know the stories you told me back in the day where you were hustling to sell leftover t-shirts or whatever.
Dan: Sure, I think for me it boils down to, I’m not the smartest business person out here. Finances and economics and all that type of stuff like that stuff to me, it’s not that it doesn’t matter, that’s not my business though. What I do think I’m good at is like street smarts as it pertains to business.
Eugene: Give me an example of what is street smarts in your eyes for someone that doesn’t have it?
Dan: Like yourself.
Eugene: Yes. Okay, use me as an example. Is it because I’ve never smoked and sold crack? Is that why?
Dan: That’s not street smarts. I Think it kind of boils down to, for me, knowing how to navigate in the field that you’re in. There’s no handbook, you’re just kind of moving off of vibes, off of feelings. Just reading the room. The room is huge in the business world. There’s a big room with a lot of people in it you know, so it’s like how do you navigate through all that and still keep a level head and do that? So I think that’s kind of what street smarts is. A lot of it is intuition. I don’t know if you can curse on his radio show.
Eugene: Doesn’t matter. You can do whatever you want, Dan.
Dan: Okay great. All right. Honestly a lot of street smarts is just like: oh I don’t fuck with this person. I’m not going to fuck with this person. I’m going to move over here. So I think it’s more so just like gravitating towards the things and the people that you do like and staying away from the bad things.
Eugene: How much of that is innate and how much of that did you just learn being around hip hop and stuff?
Dan: I think some of it is quite frankly genetic. Could be. My favorite genre is hip hop and not even just hip hop, gangster rap. Not only because I’ve worked with a lot of these people, so I know their stories, like I worked with Future right after he had changed his name from Meathead to Future. No one knows him as that, but you know so I’ve seen his progression. And so the stuff that he’s talked about, I’ve seen him experience that and not all of it’s street stuff. Some of it’s like romance, some of it’s whatever. It’s a way of kind of like carrying yourself and a way of handling yourself and like really just kind of being solid, like you know what I mean and not like being weak and that’s stuff that I didn’t just learn that from my influence hip hop. I learned that from my influence of sports. I learned that from growing up in an area where I grew up, you know.
Eugene: What do you mean by that exactly?
Dan: Growing up in a tougher community than most. It wasn’t necessarily dangerous you know, but it also wasn’t just like everything wasn’t all peachy clean and you know whatever. You had to watch out for yourself. You had to take care of yourself. You know I mean? Or you had to take care of your friends and your friends had to look after you. So in general we are a product of our environment. Yeah so my environment kind of made me who I am today.
Eugene: Yeah I guess to that point like you being defined by that. Do you feel as though most creatives that you see and you interact with lack that sort of understanding and that street smarts? Because I would say in general that’s probably the most definitive things is that like…
Dan: You think that’s a competitive edge?
Eugene: Well for you, yeah. For sure. Like I would argue that for the most part a lot of creatives out there don’t stumble into the creative industry on the basis of the business side. They do it because they love making videos, photography, whatever may be so I guess I’m always fascinated to see, how should they approach business? How have you approached business in a way that allows you to, in your eyes, basically bring your creative ideas to light and not fight it? For a lot of creative people they just simply feel as though there’s something that’s going to happen the minute they introduce money, too much money whatever.
Dan: Yeah, listen, money is an uncomfortable situation for a lot of people. It’s not just creatives or anyone, as soon as you start having to talk about money it is something that is not going anywhere, you’re always going to have to negotiate, you’re always selling yourself. I don’t care, you might be a sales person but you’re always selling yourself. Your salary, your rate, your this, your that. These are things that are always going to come up. It’s worth getting comfortable and being able to talk about those conversations. Even for me, I don’t love to have the conversations either. You know I’ve definitely gotten better at it. I definitely know when to put my foot down. I know when to be flexible. I’m the same person who will charge you extra for every little thing that we do. I’m the same person who will do a free photo shoot for you. So knowing when to bend and when not to bend is kind of one of the things that it just takes experience.
Eugene: Yeah, does someone need to just go through that and get burned a few times? How have you approached failure in your eyes?
Dan: Failure sucks. At the same time I mean there’s also no such thing as failure. Failure is like… Being burned that’s nothing. That’s easy. I mean sure, we’ve all been there. Like I’ve looked at my bank account before and had no money in it and it sucks. But let’s talk about real things, you want to talk about like losing a loved one. There’s so many worse things that cause way harder pain that that type of stuff is just something you’ve got to push through.
Eugene: Do you think that pushes you to be more open towards taking risks? And What does taking a risk look like?
Dan: Taking a risk looks like we’re sitting in right now. Like you guys can come in here and look at it and it’s like wow this is great and this is awesome and this is whatever. And from the outside looking in, yeah it is. But at the same time I signed a five year lease, you know, an eight year loan, those are the type of risks. But I think you do those things, it’s all based on your gut and it’s like alright cool you know you’ve got to do it. Even how I got to L.A. I didn’t get to L.A. because of one thing, I moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles because of a culmination of things. It was a perfect storm if you will. And that’s the same way that leaves me here. So even though yes on paper it’s a risk. At the same time you got to look at where all the signs are pointing. And if they’re all pointing in one, you got to take that and if you don’t take that risk then you know… People want to look at the signs or lack thereof when they’re taking risks and then once they do that they just kind of forget about the whole thing. But you know it’s important for me to like, after you took that risk, continue to look at it and see if you are heading in the right direction because then if it’s like you took the risk and everything was pointing in what you thought was right direction, you went down that direction and then if it’s been a year, if it’s been two years and that direction doesn’t seem to be panning out then you need to back out to go another way. The amount of jobs that we did in this studio last year alone was like a big sign that this was the right decision. You know, we did our first job with this robot that I was so scared of purchasing or whatever.
Eugene: Dan loves to talk with his robot.
Dan: Not true. But yes because there is a big financial, there’s a big emotional attachment to it too. But like we were able to book a big job with that. That really paid off. It’s not even about the robot, I was able to create something that I’m really proud that has attracted other talent to the studio, believe it or not. Everything is kind of like building blocks, every moment life is pregnant with the next moment in life. For me it’s like yeah, did you make the right decision? And then you’ve got to gut check that decision as you go along. Was the right thing to do? Okay cool.
Eugene: There’s no denying there’s a sense of confidence whenever you speak, like a swagger. So does it mean that unless you have that built in there’s never going to be any sort of success in someone’s life?
Dan: No, no, and it’s not like something I’m intentionally doing, I’m not like consciously trying to exude confidence right now. But there’s definitely moments where I’m not confident. There’s definitely moments where I’m insecure about my decisions or whatever and it just kind of ebbs and flows.
Eugene: How important is the feel that though?
Dan: It’s important to feel both of them because like honestly on one side you gotta let your ego… Ego has a negative connotation but sometimes you’ve got to let your ego shine through because if you’ve been putting in the work you’ve been doing hard work, no one is going to sell yourself for you. So you’ve kind of got to like let that show. But it’s also important to be humble too because all this stuff can be taken away from you at the same time, it can always be worse. Recognizing that. But it’s a balance, it’s a balance just like anything else and that’s such a cliche thing to say. There’s definitely a balance in knowing just kind of when to be confident, when to be humble. It’s kind of the biggest challenge, but you know you’ve got to be yourself. You know I’ve definitely gone through a phase where I was not… When I first when I left music videos and I first moved out here when I first started doing the studio work, I definitely was like, what am I doing? Like I just worked so hard to build up this one career, this one thing. What’s going on?
Eugene: If the balance between business and creativity is the primary concern of a creative then the relationship between ego and self-doubt are a very close second. One thing that Dan seemingly doesn’t lack is a sense of confidence. It could be earned through past accolades or simply being around a culture of hip hop that has rarely allowed participants to show weakness. Regardless, what Dan says is something that’s often lost on those who don’t feel comfortable selling themselves. Nobody’s going to do it for you nor should you expect someone to take on this responsibility.
Eugene: Was it hard to make that transition out of a place where you’d built up a name for the sake of starting basically a new career?
Dan: Yeah it was hard. It was very hard, it was very scary. I mean it was always something that I knew I could go back to but I’m not a big fan of going backwards. I’m not afraid to go backwards if I have to. That’s also not something I want to do. You know no one wants to consciously make the wrong decision. But I moved here and like for a long time I wasn’t really proud of what I had done. You know in Atlanta I was like, oh damn I just up and left like you know you can hear the voices of like oh like he fell off, he’s not doing music videos anymore. People associate it with failure. Even though on the flip side I’m building up to do something bigger and better than I’ve ever done before. And I guess only recently in the last couple of years, months, whatever have I really started to kind of see that pay off. And that’s probably why you know I’m more confident now than I was back then but you know you got to put your head down and you got to work, you’ve got gotta grind. There are seasons, there’s always not a season for being on top.
Eugene: Is there anything that is outside of your professional life that contributes to your professional life?
Dan: Like you asked that question and I’m not big on artistic inspirations and things like that, like I don’t have an artist, photographer or a director who I’m aspiring to be like. All that stuff is kind of like self-motivated, It’s all internal. There’s definitely people who I respect the hell out of those, and there’s people who I admire and there’s people who I look to for maybe like style and things like that but like sometimes people ask those questions and I’m like, those names don’t even roll off my tongue that fast because I’m just like, I got to think about it. This sounds kind of cliche too but exercising and just overall health has been a big thing in the last year for me. Waking up early working out eating right. Your body is, it really is…. You only get one, you know what I mean? And it’s your temple and as you take care of it, it will take care of you. Growing up and athlete and just training really hard and then not doing that for a long time and then getting back into it, it just reminds you like you know if you can push yourself, because it’s all the same you know like whether you’re pushing yourself in the gym or whether you’re pushing yourself at work like that. If you’re exercising hard work it doesn’t matter what arena you’re in. Because I think in general it’s important to fail. It’s important to try and fail I guess is what I’m saying and it doesn’t matter where you’re getting that from. Whether that’s your industry, whether it’s something else because you have to trick your brain because it’s like you get to this point where you’re like, there’s no way I can do this. My trainer will be like, well you just did this but we’re going to do this exercise and I’ll look at him like, that’s impossible. There’s no way that’s happening. And then I’ll sit there and do it and I’ll push myself and he might have to help me. But I get through it you know. And I think that type of stuff a bleeds over into other arenas.
Eugene: Do you think that the world of athletics and the creative world are actually more closely tied than people give them credit?
Dan: Absolutely. That’s why I love sports and I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world but I know the value that that playing sports for me played in my life. Even if you don’t play sports it can unite you, it can unite people. It’s an amazing thing. I remember when the Falcons lost the Super Bowl. I was extremely upset and just sad, I’m just like I had to ask myself like, why do I feel this way? I don’t care like, at the end of the day I’m not getting paid off of it. I didn’t bet on it. But I wanted my team to win. So there’s the emotional connection that I haven’t really looked into that much, but sports just plays a very deep role into a lot of things and athletics and taking care of your body. I’m a hardworking person but I’m also a pretty lazy person. So it’s definitely tough to get into that routine and get into that regiment. But once you do, it has a lot of long term benefits.
Eugene: Do you see yourself doing what you’re doing for a long time? Like have you finally found a chapter of your life that has no end in sight?
Dan: You know I didn’t know that I was going to be here doing what I’m doing now. But I found a kind of a niche in some form or capacity, what I’m going to do is going to probably change over time but it’s kind of always going to be around creating. I’m a maker of things. Right now it’s mostly content but that could change. But it’s production, it’s production, and people say production and you know especially in Hollywood, production has a connotation. Production to me just means producing, making something from nothing. And that’s why when people say I’m a producer I’m like, well what kind of producer are you? You know what are we talking like? Even in the creative world, the film world, whatever, that has so many different types of meanings. Let alone other industries such as music or digital producer, there’s so many different ways to produce but I think what I’m good at is understanding what needs to be done and figuring out a way to to get that done in the best way possible and that’s why I like a lot of like the street smarts and the stuff we talked about, it’s like working with people, I’m working with people, I’m a people person to a degree and that’s why it’s like, I can hire someone and we’re going to get the job done no matter what but that might be a one off experience or I might hire you and we’re going to work together forever. Mike, the first time we worked together, drove from L.A. to San Francisco to do a photo shoot with Nike and since then we’ve worked together almost every day since then.
Eugene: Shout out to Mike.
Dan: Yeah. Visual assassin. And those are the type of relationships and those are the type of things that I seek out and those don’t come very often but it doesn’t matter, if you meet someone like that you just keep building on that. We’re a small nimble team here. Our studio gets more done with a smaller team than some studios get done with a staff of 50 and we pride ourselves on that. That’s something that I can hang my hat on. We’re fast, we’re nimble but it’s not because we’re doing anything special other than just working with the right people who get it. Back in the day it was only like one thing, it was like everyone wears one hat. And now it’s like no, I don’t wear one hat. You know so why should anybody that works for me wear one hat?
Eugene: Do you think that is where creatives are going?
Dan: Absolutely. I mean now it’s like creative directors can’t just be creative directors. I mean creative directors just use to be deck organizers, you know put together a deck. Now you got to know how to use cinema 4d. Now you got to know how to use photoshop. Nnow you got to know how to take a decent picture just so you can do a comp or mock something up, 5-10 years ago this was not the case. It’s about enabling yourself, giving yourself the power so you’re not always depending on someone else. I taught myself how to do a lot of things. I also know what I don’t need to teach myself. The era that we’re moving towards right now, I mean also with technology and software becoming so much more accessible, we’re talking about DaVinci Resolve coloring software used to be you know 5-10,000 dollars to buy a license. Now they give it away for free. So it’s really in your hands, it’s up to you to teach yourself the craft. If it’s something you’re passionate about it won’t even feel like work. You don’t have to be the best at everything but you need to know how to get your message across.
Eugene: Looking at what you’ve achieved so far and where you want to go like how much of this is defined by luck? How much of it is defined by hard work and talent?
Dan: I don’t like to use the word luck, I like to use the word fortunate. But there’s definitely been some some great opportunities that have come my way.
Eugene: Was there ever a moment time where there is an opportunity that you wish you had handled differently or you had the opportunity to engage in and it just never happened? Do you have regrets?
Dan: Yeah I have some regrets. Yeah I have some regrets.
Eugene: Like what?
Dan: During the music music video phase of my career I was very selective with the jobs that I picked, which is right, there were reasons but looking back on it I should have done everything that I could. I should have busted my ass, I should have not slept. There was plenty of those instances but I could have just done more, there were artists who you know who wanted to work with me but maybe they didn’t have the budget or maybe like it was just going to make me a little uncomfortable because like I had another project that I was doing and we couldn’t work it out. There was a lot of videos left on the table or I was a very like… Let’s say… I’m a pretty emotional person in general and so like let’s say I was supposed to do… Like this would happen all the time with Future, he would tell me he wants me to do a video and I would get all ramped up for it. I’ll write the treatment. We would start preproduction on it and then the label that he was signed to would then say, no we’re going to work with this director instead. And then I would get all butt-hurt and sad about it. And I would think it was Future’s fault. Maybe some of it was and then maybe we would lose contact for a little bit and we wouldn’t talk. And then there were so many projects that I should’ve just said… Like he’s got so many hit songs I could have just said alright cool, like what’s the next one? Let’s do the next one. I shouldn’t have been so emotionally worked up about it because like I said, there was a lot of good content left on the table.
Eugene: But why do those regrets even matter knowing that that’s no longer what you do?
Dan: Well that’s why I answer that question in that way of like, you know at the end of the day I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. And I feel like I’m moving in the direction that I’m supposed to be moving toward. I just know that it’s about experience and I didn’t grow up on a set. You know even though I did grow up around my dad being a camera operator, editor or whatever, I did have some experience but I didn’t come up the ranks the normal way of like you’re a P.A. and then you’re you know maybe you work to a grip, then you’re a gaffer, camera assistant, then maybe become a DP, then you can direct something. Some DPs, they have 10 years of experience before they ever even turn on a camera. I didn’t have that. I literally am born of the DSLR boom. So it’s like because I had access to a camera because I was already kind of creative and I wasn’t afraid, I just got the technology jumped out there and sink or swim moment. And there is something to be said about that too, in terms of my regrets, I wish I would have done more because number one because the more work you do, the more chances you have for… Like if I look back on my music video stuff now, there’s only a handful of projects I’m like really happy about and excited and like this will stand the test of time.
Eugene: And what are those?
Dan: Don’t make me namedrop my own stuff. I’m kidding.
Eugene: We all want to know.
Dan: I mean I really like some of the work I do with Big KRIT for a song called What You Mean, a lot of the work I did with 2 Chainz, we only did like three videos but all of those. Turn Up, there’s a song he had called Turn Up, the video for a song called Riot that I was really proud of and there are some documentary stuff here and there that was like small stuff but it’s like. But when you look at it it’s like a format that I could go back and I could replicate now and I could do that for Nike and it’s a commercial. At the time I didn’t know what I was doing, which I think is beautiful. Because there’s power in not knowing, there’s power in being a rookie because you’re going into it and you’re not going into it with all of the crazy things that will psych you out. You’re just like, all right this is what we’ve got to do. Let’s do it. You just start putting the pieces of the puzzle together and before you know it you’ve got something, you’re like oh this is cool. And it’s just so pure and it’s just so innocent you know. How did you do that? I just did it. And now I feel like I’m back to that point because now I feel like it cool you have to learn everything in order to know what rules you want to break, in order to know what matters, in order to know what doesn’t matter. Having control over this and consciously saying you know, I want to consciously leave this out or I want to consciously add something here that’s going to add to the mood is going to add to the feeling of something. That’s something that takes tim.
Eugene: What’s the last thing that you’ve done that you are scared of? Don’t tell me you don’t scared.
Dan: I get scared all the time. I used get scared before every music video because there was a lot of uncertainty in them. Now I don’t get as scared as much because I’m big on prep and I have the capacity and the space to to do that. So I know what we’re doing before we do it. You know we did a shoot for Beats for productRED that was featuring Yvonne Orji. We tested out the lighting and everything beforehand. The shoot was done before she even got there, all she had to do was walk in and sit down. I mean obviously there was a rapport and you have to get the right shot and things like that, so doing it this way makes makes things a lot more a lot more thought out a lot more secure. But the last thing I did that I was scared of, I don’t know it was it was probably taking the risk and moving into a bigger studio space. It probably wasn’t anything like a project related.
Eugene: Do you think that it really just comes down to being in a mindstate where nothing phases you? Because that’s kind of what I feel as though there’s nothing that’s inherently going to be so big, so bad that you can’t get past it?
Dan: With me that’s more so come with age than it has necessarily with anything else.
Eugene: It’s not personality?
Dan: It’s not personality. It’s just come of age like now it’s like something bad happens. I used to be the person who would be depressed or I’m going to be or I’m gonna blow a gasket and be mad and yelling at people like just going crazy. Now it’s like, it’s not that big a deal you know, my friends or the people who I work with are more like you’re not mad about this? More than I’m just like, I’ll be patient you know I’ll be patient let’s figure it out. At The end of the day everything is going to work itself out, I’m a believer in the universe and so like everything’s going to work its way out the way it’s supposed to. You know it’s not that anything phases me, it’s more so that I know that this is not in my control, and so whatever I do right now is not going to change anything.
Eugene: Before you embarked on this career as a creative, what did you think it’d be like and what has been the reality?
Dan: I don’t know the specifics of what I thought it was going to be like, I don’t remember what I thought was going to be like to what has been the reality. I can tell you that is not what I thought was going to be. I’m a very like a visionary type of a person it’s like you paint this idea of what you think it’s going to be like in your head and then you get to that point and you’re like, this isn’t what I thought it was going to be. Not to say that it’s better or worse, it’s just different. And every every instance and every situation is different. But I think that’s kind of what keeps me going, I’m still always chasing that romantic idea of whatever I’m chasing. And I think as long as you do that and you keep your will spinning and you keep growing and you keep progressing, one day you’re going to look up and you can look back and you’re going to say, wow, look how far I’ve come. Like that’s what keeps me going, like alright cool, I’m still not there. I’m still not there, we’ve got to keep going. You got to keep going, and you know the reality is you’ll never get there.