"Oh, I hate that word!" shouts Zacuto director and product designer Steve Weiss in his office when I bring up the word "democratization" in regard to filmmaking. "I have to stop you right now. This is not a democracy. The fact that they say that video is accessible to everybody is socialism."
Whether or not the current filmmaking scene is a democratic or a socialist state, one thing for sure is that Chicago-based Zacuto (the name is derived from Weiss’ mother’s genealogy) has been one of the leaders of the digital filmmaking revolution. With three different divisions—Zacuto USA, Zacuto Rentals and Zacuto Films—their filmmaking accessories have helped transform low-budget camcorders and DSLRs into digital motion-picture cameras, and their web series and videos (over 60 of them) have educated young filmmakers around the globe. One particular piece of gear, the Z-Finder, is essential for any DSLR owner who wants to capture video.
Weiss and Zacuto DP and product designer Jens Bogehegn started working with video back in the early 1980s. They met while Bogehegn was studying film at Columbia College Chicago and Weiss was running his first production company, 1st Generation Video. Weiss had previously been shooting "point-of-purchase" videos for the fashion industry, where he would place monitors of fashion content in department stores. "That’s why we’re in this neighborhood," says Weiss, "because there used to be a thriving garment center in this area. We shot the fashion videos on 16mm and edited them on film."
After Weiss helped Bogehegn finish an edit of his student project, he asked Bogehegn if he wanted to help crew some projects. Since then, the two have completed, as director and DP, more than 600 corporate, commercial, fashion, documentary and political films, mainly in the Chicago area.
According to Bogehegn, after 9/11, their budgets began to shrink, so Zacuto transitioned more into rentals. From there, they began renting their camera kits to a number of political campaign films by Chicago-based political advisor David Axelrod’s Axelrod & Associates. (This was even before President Obama was a state senator.) Axelrod, still one of Zacuto’s longest-standing clients, was an early proponent of HD for his political spots and particularly loved the look of the Panasonic VariCam.
The VariCam, which Zacuto began renting to a lot of Chicago sports teams and ESPN, was the HD camera that helped grow their rental business. As 16mm film was dying off, Weiss and Bogehegn smartly sold off their Super 16 camera equipment. "At the time, there were only 100 VariCams, and we had three of them," says Weiss. "One of our VariCams would be in Texas and then we would ship it directly to Florida and then somewhere else. We wouldn’t even see the thing for weeks."