By Randi Altman
It takes a special kind of human to travel the world, putting himself in harm’s way to collect hard-to-find stock imagery, but Rick Ray thrives on this way of life. This Adobe Stock contributor has a long history as a documentary filmmaker and a resume that includes 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama (2006), Letters Home from the South China Seas: Adventures in Singapore & Borneo (1989) and Letters Home from Iceland (1990).
Let’s find out more about what makes Ray tick.
As a DP, are you just collecting footage to sell or are you working on films, docs and series as well?
I used to be a documentary filmmaker and have about 24 published titles in travel and biography, including the 10 Questions For The Dalai Lama and the TV series Raising The Bamboo Curtain With Martin Sheen. However, I found that unless you are Ken Burns or Michael Moore, making a living in the world of documentary films can be very difficult. It wasn’t until I came to realize that individual shots taken from my films and used in other productions were earning me more income than the whole film itself that I understood how potentially lucrative and valuable your footage can be when it is repurposed as stock.
That said, I still hire myself out as a DP on many Hollywood and independent films whenever possible. I also try to retain the stock rights for these assignments whenever possible.
How often are you on the road, and how do you pick your next place to shoot?
I travel for about three to four months each year now. Lately, I travel to places that interest me from a beauty or cultural perspective, whether or not they may be of maximal commercial potential. The stock footage world is inundated with great shots of Paris, London or Tokyo. It’s very hard for your footage to be noticed in such a crowded field of content. For that reason, lesser known locations of the world are attractive to me because there is less good footage of those places.
I also enjoy the challenges of traveling and filming in less comfortable places in the world, something I suppose I inherited from my days as a 25-year-old backpacking and hitchhiking around the world.
Are you typically given topics to capture — filling a need — or just shooting what interests you?
Mostly what interests me, but also I see a need for many topics of political relevance, and this also informs my shooting itinerary.
For example, immigration is in the news intensively these days, so I have recently driven the border wall from Tijuana to the New Mexico border capturing imagery of that. It’s not a place I’d normally go for a shoot, but it proved to be very interesting and it’s licensing all the time.
Do you shoot alone?
Yes, normally. Sometimes I go with one other person, but that’s it. To be an efficient and effective stock shooter, you are not a “film crew” per se. You are not hauling huge amounts of gear around. There are no “grips,” and no “craft services.” In stock shooting around the world, as I define it, I am a low-key casual observer making beautiful images with low-key gear and minimal disruption to life in the countries I visit. If you are a crew of three or more, you become a group unto yourself, and it’s much more difficult to interact and experience the places you are visiting.
What do you typically capture with camera-wise? What format? Do you convert footage or let Adobe Stock do that?
I travel with two small (but excellent) Sony 4K handicams (FDR-AX100), two drones, a DJI Osmo handheld steady-grip, an Edelkrone slider kit and two lightweight tripods. Believe it or not, these can all fit into one standard large suitcase. I shoot in XDCAM 4K and then convert it to Apple ProRes in post. Adobe Stock does not convert my clips for me. I deliver them ready to be ordered.
You edit on Adobe Premiere. Why is that the right system for you, and do you edit your footage before submitting? How does that Adobe Stock process work?
I used to work in Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Pro X, but I switched to Adobe Premiere Pro after struggling with FCPX. As for “editing,” it doesn’t really play a part in stock footage submission. There is no editing as we are almost always dealing with single clips. I do grade, color correct, stabilize and de-noise many clips before I export them. I believe in having the clips look great before they are submitted. They have to compete with thousands of other clips on the site, and mine need to jump out at you and make you want to use them. Adobe allows users to submit content directly from Premiere to Adobe Stock, but since I deal in large volumes of clips in submitting, I don’t generally use this approach. I send a drive in with a spreadsheet of data when a batch of clips are done.
What are the challenges of this type of shooting?
Well, you are 100% responsible for the success or failure of the mission. There is no one to blame but yourself. Since you are mostly traveling low-key and without a lot of protection, it’s very important to have a “fixer” or driver in difficult countries. You might get arrested or have all of your equipment stolen by corrupt customs authorities in a country like Macedonia, as happened to me. It happens! You have to roll with the good and the bad, ask forgiveness rather than permission and be happy for the amazing footage you do manage to get,
You left a pretty traditional job to travel the world. What spurred that decision, and do you ever see yourself back at a more 9-to-5 type of existence?
Never! I have figured out the perfect retirement plan for myself. Every day I can check my sales from anywhere in the world, and on most days the revenue more than justifies the cost of the travel! And it’s all a tax write-off. Who has benefits like that?
A word of warning, though — this is not for everyone. You have to be ok with the idea of spending money to build a portfolio before you see significant revenue in return. It can take time and you may not be as lucky as I have been. But for those who are self-motivated and have a knack for cinematography and travel, this is a perfect career.
Can you name some projects that feature your work?
Very often this takes me by surprise since I often don’t know exactly how my footage is used. More often than not, I’m watching CNN, a TV show or a movie and I see my footage. It’s always a surprise and makes me laugh. I’ve seen my work on the Daily Show, Colbert, CNN, in commercials for everything from pharmaceuticals to Viking Cruises, in political campaign ads for people I agree and disagree with, and in music videos for Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay and Roger Waters.
Shooting on the road must be interesting. Can you share a story with us?
There have been quite a few. I have had my gear stolen in Israel (twice). In Thailand my gear was confiscated by corrupt customs authorities in Macedonia, as I mentioned earlier. I have been jailed by Ethiopian police for not having a valid filming permit, which was not necessary. Once a proper bribe was arranged they changed clothes from police into costumed natives and performed as tour guides and cultural emissaries for me.
In India, I was on a train to the Kumba Mela, which was stopped by a riot and burned. I escaped with minor injuries. I was also accosted by communist revolutionaries in Bihar, India. Rather than be a victim, I got out of the car and filmed it, and the leader and his generals then reviewed the footage and decided to do it over. After five takes of them running down the road and past the camera, the leader finally approved the take and I was left unharmed.
I’ve been in Syria and Lebanon and felt truly threatened by violence. I’ve been chased by Somali bandits at night in a van in Northern Kenya. Buy me a beer sometime, I’ll tell you more.