Taylor Steele — Not Just Another Poor Specimen

Taylor Steele broke onto the scene in 1992 with “Momentum,” and ushered in a new movement in surf videos. Before his arrival, most surf videos were corporate sponsored. But with Steele — and the advent of the Camcorder — a new market was born. TransWorld SURF Business caught up with Steele for a look into the beginnings of his production company, Poor Specimen, and to find out where he thinks the surf-video market is heading. In the interview, Steele reveals what’s behind the making of a surf video, his run in with Jack McCoy, and how many cars he drives.

TransWorld SURF Business: What was your first movie?

Taylor Steele: My first surf video I did in high school. It was our final project for high school, so I spent the whole semester making it. It’s called “Seaside And Beyond,” and it pretty much had Rob Machado and Brad Gerlach and all those guys that surf Seaside. That was my first one.

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But the first one I sold was “One Step Beyond,” and that one didn’t do that well — it was just a little rough. I drove up the coast and went to every surf shop. Then someone from Japan ordered a lot of them and that got me to be able to do the next one and that was “Momentum” in 1992.

TransWorld SURF Business: It was your breakthrough video.

Taylor Steele: With “Momentum” I was able to stop going to junior college and make surf movies as a career. It was a huge stepping stone for me because it made enough money where I could travel for the next video.

It was weird because I didn’t think it was a job — I was just doing it for fun. And then it took off. It was cool like that.

It was weird because when I was showing the video to all my friends they’d be like, “This thing’s insane, you gotta sell this to shops and you gotta push it out there,” and I’d go to shops and they’d be like, “No, kids don’t want to see this stuff. They want to see 16mm, slow-mo of Tahiti, and they don’t want to see California surf.” So it took probably six months for “Momentum” to catch on. It was word of mouth because the shops didn’t want it, and finally when enough kids asked for it then they started taking it. And they’re a lot more receptive when I came back with the next one. But it was funny because I had grudges on some of the shops that were mean and wouldn’t even check out the video. I’d be like, “I spent a year making this, do you want to check it out?” They’re like “No.”

TransWorld SURF Business: What are the key ingredients to making a successful surf video?

Taylor Steele: With surf videos a lot of it has to do with timing — being at the right place when the waves are good, having music that’s different. When I was making “Momentum” my favorite surfers were Tom Curren, Tom Carroll, Martin Potter, and Brad Gerlach. I wanted to film them, but I was only eighteen then and they didn’t want to film with me. But I knew Rob Machado and I knew those guys — and they were only seventeen or eighteen. They weren’t really established, but that’s all I had so I used them and that turned out to be really a great break because as I started filming with them the magazines started to push them at the same time. It was lucky timing. Kelly Slater really started to step it up.

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TransWorld SURF Business: Is the formula you’ve done in the past going to work in the future?

Taylor Steele: In general, as in the surf-video market, I think the future should be more like a record — there’s a whole bunch of different styles. There’s the slow, classical artsy ones, there’s the fast, up-tempo ones, there’s the pop ones — that’s what I’d like to see happen instead of twenty videos that look the same. I’d like for it to have a whole bunch of different feels, but my niche is an up-tempo, getting kids amped to surf style. I think that there’re several ways to do that. My formula has been the same for ten years, and I’m getting a little bored with that, so I want to push the envelope but keep that ampy feel.

We sort of let the market dicta that a little bit — what works and what doesn’t. We know right away what doesn’t work and what kids want to see.

TransWorld SURF Business: What are some of the things that don’t work?

Taylor Steele: I’ve been trying to put hip-hop to surfing, but for me it just doesn’t have the tempo so that doesn’t really work. It’s more like little things like pacing, like too many skits and not enough surfing, or too much surfing and not enough breaks where you just get numb to it all. It’s basically got to be an entertaining movie, and if you get bored or it gets numb to you then it’s just not working and that’s what I’ve been working on more — having three minutes of energy and a minute break to recover, three minutes and a minute break — sort of keeping that energy going for a whole hour.

TransWorld SURF Business: Some people may say that you put bands like Blink 182 and Pennywise on the map. What’s your take?

Taylor Steele: It’s a fine line to say how much we helped each other. Some people say “Oh you made this band.” I feel like they made the video. It’s a partnership. It’s hard to describe, but I think I’ve helped them and I know they’ve helped me. When they let me tour with Pennywise it doubled my sales.

TransWorld SURF Business: Will more of that kind of music be in your future videos?

Taylor Steele: I’m trying to push toward different styles of music. In “Loose Change” we played with that a little bit. We had different styles like Ben Harper and Beck, and I want to push with that in the future, but the thing is I was trying to figure out with “Momentum 2001” maybe a whole new style of music that’s brand new to the surfing world and have that solely as the music, but than I’m thinking about making it more of just a variety of music. Kids nowadays have a wider palette for music. It’s either going to be wide variety or it’s going to be a completely new style. That decision comes when it’s closer to editing.

TransWorld SURF Business: Is it easier now to make videos with all the digital editing?

Taylor Steele: It’s a lot easier now. Up until “Focus,” we did it linear, which is where you edit it and you edit it onto the final tape — you’re not putting it on to the computer, you’re putting it on to the tape. So when we put down segments it was set in stone: this movie’s gotta be this long, the audio’s gotta a stay there, you can’t shorten it or extend it. So it was a lot more stressful putting the songs where they were. And a couple times I wish I could have took out like 30 seconds but I was stuck with it so I had to make it work.

It’s cool because we like to show the premieres and get a direct feel on where the energy goes and where it’s not working, and then we just take it out for that night and have it fixed for the next premiere or the release of the video.

TransWorld SURF Business: So the movies now are a lot more technical?

Taylor Steele: You can do a lot more with the editing now. When I edit everyone makes fun of me because I do guerrilla editing. I don’t do it how you should, I just piece it together and make it work. In the future I’ll hopefully get better at it.

TransWorld SURF Business: Through your videos we’ve seen the original “Momentum” crew grow up and progress as people and surfers. Is “Momentum 2001” going to be the new class?

Taylor Steele: Yeah, all the surfers are going to be under 21 years old. And that’s what the guys were when we did “Momentum” the first time. A lot of people are telling me, “You gotta get Taj in there, you gotta get the Hobgoods in there,” but it’s sort of nice to have guys that aren’t established in there. Guys that people want to see how they surf and they haven’t seen them in movies before.

TransWorld SURF Business: What’s next for you?

Taylor Steele: This year we’ve been really going over and thinking about what we’re going to do with that stuff. We were going to shoot a music video on Tuesday but that fell through. But we’re going to be doing music videos this year and we’re working on scripts for a feature that we’re going to fund ourselves. We’re also doing short films in the meantime before we do our feature just to practice basically, and then we’re also doing all of our surfing things and TV. We’re really pushing forward with the music videos and the film side of it ’cause that’s just something that I’ve been jonesing to do.

We started a distribution company to push others and ours, called Steele House distribution. We’ll probably move into skate and snowboarding. We’re also doing a skate video, which will be out this summer. It’s shot all in 16mm. We’re doing DVDs for other people.

TransWorld SURF Business: Will you ever switch to doing 16 mm film?

Taylor Steele: Yeah, I think film’s a great format and I like the way the colors pop on that, but the thing is, we shoot 100 hours of footage for our movies to make 40-minute to an hour movie so just cost-wise I don’t want to limit shooting everything. I like to get everything. But I think there’s a way to incorporate it without shooting everything with a 16. We do the skits in film, or maybe water stuff and mix it like that.

Film’s hard to shoot everything too because changing film — it’s only five minutes — so you miss a lot of stuff during the change time. So there’s just some little things about film that’s made it hard for us to switch to that direction.

TransWorld SURF Business: What about DVDs?

Taylor Steele: The DVD is what has me excited about doing future projects because in the past I’d always do the secret videos and with DVD you could put forty minutes of extra stuff — it’s just bonus footage. So it’s like the next step on secret videos. It’s the same price of the video and it’s on a CD size. It’s just cooler to me. You could fast forward to your favorite surfer like on a CD — like how you fast-forward to your favorite song — watch their part and then you’re amped on that and then you can just go surf. It’s where it’s going.

We make everything here and then we have duplicators. It just takes two days for them to make it. We build the whole DVD master here and then we just give it to the duplicator. And building the DVD is a lot more work. It’s like a whole ‘nother editing project it’s like you edit the movie twice.

TransWorld SURF Business: How much did it cost to make “Loose Change”?

Taylor Steele: “Loose Change,” without people’s salaries, cost 100,000 dollars. “Momentum 2001” will probably have a 50,000-dollar budget. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to do with the theme part of it, whether it’s skits or something totally different.

TransWorld SURF Business: What are the production costs?

Taylor Steele: In “Loose Change,” the biggest expense was travel. We probably went to fifteen countries for that. Camera equipment, film, and video ads up. We shot skits, and that adds up. A three-day shoot with full crew.

For “Hit and Run” we shot it all in HD high definition and it was a whole new format and that was probably five times more expensive than our other ones. In 2005 all the television networks are going to switch to high definition. The video cameras I used for “Loose Change” were at 200,000-500,000 pixels — HD’s are 2,000,000 to 500,000 pixels. It’s way better quality, but they’re just huge cameras so they’re hard to travel with. We have two of them.

It’s been a slow investment. On most of the videos I’ve put it back into the company, so I have a lot more equipment. I’ve invested it back.

TransWorld SURF Business: So you’re not driving like six cars?

Taylor Steele: No not yet. I just have my truck.

TransWorld SURF Business: What’s your connection to OAM?

Taylor Steele: Back in ’95 or ’96 we were filming in France with Chris Malloy and Ross Williams and Shane Dorian and all the guys and we were all just hanging out at the place in France and we were driving to Mundaka — it’s a two hour drive — and we just started talking and we were like, “We shoos this year and we’re working on scripts for a feature that we’re going to fund ourselves. We’re also doing short films in the meantime before we do our feature just to practice basically, and then we’re also doing all of our surfing things and TV. We’re really pushing forward with the music videos and the film side of it ’cause that’s just something that I’ve been jonesing to do.

We started a distribution company to push others and ours, called Steele House distribution. We’ll probably move into skate and snowboarding. We’re also doing a skate video, which will be out this summer. It’s shot all in 16mm. We’re doing DVDs for other people.

TransWorld SURF Business: Will you ever switch to doing 16 mm film?

Taylor Steele: Yeah, I think film’s a great format and I like the way the colors pop on that, but the thing is, we shoot 100 hours of footage for our movies to make 40-minute to an hour movie so just cost-wise I don’t want to limit shooting everything. I like to get everything. But I think there’s a way to incorporate it without shooting everything with a 16. We do the skits in film, or maybe water stuff and mix it like that.

Film’s hard to shoot everything too because changing film — it’s only five minutes — so you miss a lot of stuff during the change time. So there’s just some little things about film that’s made it hard for us to switch to that direction.

TransWorld SURF Business: What about DVDs?

Taylor Steele: The DVD is what has me excited about doing future projects because in the past I’d always do the secret videos and with DVD you could put forty minutes of extra stuff — it’s just bonus footage. So it’s like the next step on secret videos. It’s the same price of the video and it’s on a CD size. It’s just cooler to me. You could fast forward to your favorite surfer like on a CD — like how you fast-forward to your favorite song — watch their part and then you’re amped on that and then you can just go surf. It’s where it’s going.

We make everything here and then we have duplicators. It just takes two days for them to make it. We build the whole DVD master here and then we just give it to the duplicator. And building the DVD is a lot more work. It’s like a whole ‘nother editing project it’s like you edit the movie twice.

TransWorld SURF Business: How much did it cost to make “Loose Change”?

Taylor Steele: “Loose Change,” without people’s salaries, cost 100,000 dollars. “Momentum 2001” will probably have a 50,000-dollar budget. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to do with the theme part of it, whether it’s skits or something totally different.

TransWorld SURF Business: What are the production costs?

Taylor Steele: In “Loose Change,” the biggest expense was travel. We probably went to fifteen countries for that. Camera equipment, film, and video ads up. We shot skits, and that adds up. A three-day shoot with full crew.

For “Hit and Run” we shot it all in HD high definition and it was a whole new format and that was probably five times more expensive than our other ones. In 2005 all the television networks are going to switch to high definition. The video cameras I used for “Loose Change” were at 200,000-500,000 pixels — HD’s are 2,000,000 to 500,000 pixels. It’s way better quality, but they’re just huge cameras so they’re hard to travel with. We have two of them.

It’s been a slow investment. On most of the videos I’ve put it back into the company, so I have a lot more equipment. I’ve invested it back.

TransWorld SURF Business: So you’re not driving like six cars?

Taylor Steele: No not yet. I just have my truck.

TransWorld SURF Business: What’s your connection to OAM?

Taylor Steele: Back in ’95 or ’96 we were filming in France with Chris Malloy and Ross Williams and Shane Dorian and all the guys and we were all just hanging out at the place in France and we were driving to Mundaka — it’s a two hour drive — and we just started talking and we were like, “We should all just all do a company.” And someone’s like, “We should do sunglasses.” And we’re like, “Oh, my sunglass sponsor’s too good.” What about clothing? “No, that pays all my bills.” And then we just sort of went through the list and went, “Hey, that would be cool to do an accessory company — that doesn’t conflict with anybody.” Then we got fired up, and some of the guys got really behind it like Chris and he started creating all these cool designs and artwork for it and Ross had ideas for pads and stuff and it just sort of went from there. And now we own a percentage of it and it’s still going. There’s like seven of us.

It’s cool that the pads and everything are just getting better and better. It’s just like with business there’s a lot of things that you’ve gotta work and make it work and you gotta put a lot of effort into it and a lot of us, we were sort of — well maybe me not so much — but some of the other guys were a little green to how much work there was like meetings and coordinating and promos and stuff like that.

TransWorld SURF Business: How much time do you spend with OAM?

Taylor Steele: Not as much now.

TransWorld SURF Business: So are you still going to be filming?

Taylor Steele: Since like ’96 I’ve been hiring cameramen that all the guys like and having them shoot more stuff. I don’t know if I’ve burnt myself out, but I traveled a lot for the first five years and I was gone ten months out of the year — just non stop. And the company side of it, there were expenses being wasted and art direction with the ads was just not being done how I wanted, so I figured if I stayed here more and had guys travel, then I could have more control over the whole thing than just the filming part.

TransWorld SURF Business: Who’s your favorite guy to film?

Taylor Steele: Whenever I’d film Kelly I’d make sure I wouldn’t miss any of his waves because you never know when he’ll do something just really crazy. But they’ve all had their moments that are pretty special in my book. So I don’t really have any total favorites.

TransWorld SURF Business: What do you do with the extra footage?

Taylor Steele: We like to keep it for ourselves and not even use it, so that way when you see our film it’s the only place you’ll see that stuff.

TransWorld SURF Business: Is it difficult to always have exclusive footage?Taylor Steele: In the past for filming, to get exclusive footage we would just stop filming and all the guys would come in when somebody else would show up on the beach. We’d be in France and the waves would be great. We’d finally find a great sandbar and we’d set up and somebody would just show up with no crew or anything and set up twenty feet down the beach and start shooting the same stuff. So we’d just pack it in a go and try to find another spot.

Jack McCoy … he would threaten to beat someone up. He’d be like, “This camera weighs 20 pounds, you wouldn’t want me to hit this over your head with it!” It’s just hard to get exclusive footage. I’ve had great footage that I was sitting on and I just didn’t use because I knew somebody else had it.

TransWorld SURF Business: Is there room for another Taylor Steele?

Taylor Steele: There’s totally room for a new movie from anybody coming out. The thing that I would suggest to them is to look at what’s out there, look at the market, think, “What could I do differently, what’s needed, and what are these guys doing wrong?” Try to do that. Don’t look at what’s the formula for success with other guys. Look at what can be improved on and what you’d want to see that’s not being shown. Because when I came out, if I would have tried to copy other guys I don’t think I’d be here today.

Find your own niche, and do your own thing. It will help in the long run. It might take a little while for it to catch on, but if you work hard it’ll work out. should all just all do a company.” And someone’s like, “We should do sunglasses.” And we’re like, “Oh, my sunglass sponsor’s too ggood.” What about clothing? “No, that pays all my bills.” And then we just sort of went through the list and went, “Hey, that would be cool to do an accessory company — that doesn’t conflict with anybody.” Then we got fired up, and some of the guys got really behind it like Chris and he started creating all these cool designs and artwork for it and Ross had ideas for pads and stuff and it just sort of went from there. And now we own a percentage of it and it’s still going. There’s like seven of us.

It’s cool that the pads and everything are just getting better and better. It’s just like with business there’s a lot of things that you’ve gotta work and make it work and you gotta put a lot of effort into it and a lot of us, we were sort of — well maybe me not so much — but some of the other guys were a little green to how much work there was like meetings and coordinating and promos and stuff like that.

TransWorld SURF Business: How much time do you spend with OAM?

Taylor Steele: Not as much now.

TransWorld SURF Business: So are you still going to be filming?

Taylor Steele: Since like ’96 I’ve been hiring cameramen that all the guys like and having them shoot more stuff. I don’t know if I’ve burnt myself out, but I traveled a lot for the first five years and I was gone ten months out of the year — just non stop. And the company side of it, there were expenses being wasted and art direction with the ads was just not being done how I wanted, so I figured if I stayed here more and had guys travel, then I could have more control over the whole thing than just the filming part.

TransWorld SURF Business: Who’s your favorite guy to film?

Taylor Steele: Whenever I’d film Kelly I’d make sure I wouldn’t miss any of his waves because you never know when he’ll do something just really crazy. But they’ve all had their moments that are pretty special in my book. So I don’t really have any total favorites.

TransWorld SURF Business: What do you do with the extra footage?

Taylor Steele: We like to keep it for ourselves and not even use it, so that way when you see our film it’s the only place you’ll see that stuff.

TransWorld SURF Business: Is it difficult to always have exclusive footage?Taylor Steele: In the past for filming, to get exclusive footage we would just stop filming and all the guys would come in when somebody else would show up on the beach. We’d be in France and the waves would be great. We’d finally find a great sandbar and we’d set up and somebody would just show up with no crew or anything and set up twenty feet down the beach and start shooting the same stuff. So we’d just pack it in a go and try to find another spot.

Jack McCoy … he would threaten to beat someone up. He’d be like, “This camera weighs 20 pounds, you wouldn’t want me to hit this over your head with it!” It’s just hard to get exclusive footage. I’ve had great footage that I was sitting on and I just didn’t use because I knew somebody else had it.

TransWorld SURF Business: Is there room for another Taylor Steele?

Taylor Steele: There’s totally room for a new movie from anybody coming out. The thing that I would suggest to them is to look at what’s out there, look at the market, think, “What could I do differently, what’s needed, and what are these guys doing wrong?” Try to do that. Don’t look at what’s the formula for success with other guys. Look at what can be improved on and what you’d want to see that’s not being shown. Because when I came out, if I would have tried to copy other guys I don’t think I’d be here today.

Find your own niche, and do your own thing. It will help in the long run. It might take a little while for it to catch on, but if you work hard it’ll work out.