Chicago video content agency Bottle Rocket Media fuels traditional expertise with DIY spirit.
Guided by a pair of visionaries who met while working at the Oprah Winfrey Show, the company has become one of the industry’s most unique production and post operations since launching in 2011.
Over the past eight years, Bottle Rocket has completed hundreds of commercials for dozens of brands, built a growing archive of docu-style video content, and finished a plethora of motion graphic projects.
But the wheels began turning decades ago, when the managing partners launched their individual careers on roads less traveled.
Dan Fisher went to LA after graduating from NYU’s film program and worked as a freelancer set lighting technician, gaffer, and best boy while doing a little directing on the side.
“I moved to LA to be part of the filmmaking machine,” he explains. “That was sort of the thing I did to figure out where I fit in.”
He found creative fulfillment by way of a music video that nearly fell apart after he had finished directing it. “The band had broken up before the video was able to find an editor,” he recalls. “So I edited the video on an Avid and realized this is fun, this is everything I had been looking for as a filmmaker.”
His discovery led to a series of editing jobs for TV programs during an era that he describes as “the reality show boom” of the late 90s.
“Then,” he says, “the Oprah show called.”
Fisher moved to Chicago and worked for the next nine years as Lead Editor on the hottest daytime TV show in America. When the run came to a close, he struck out on his own.
“When Oprah ended, I had a better understanding of directing and realize I had to take a step back and learn some more nuanced stuff,” he says. “People gave me the opportunity to grow into the director I wanted to be while working their on company videos, biographies, and documentary work.”
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Singer cut his teeth in a three-person design firm operating out of $600-a-month Wicker Park apartment in the 90s, when the not-yet-hipster location was known for old haunts like Club Dreamerz, Busy Bee, and Friar’s Grill.
“The company was called Psychedelic Shakespeare,” he says. “We did art for artists, art openings, and CD covers. We did the menus for Buddy at Pontiac and whatever we could do for Earwax to get free food.”
The experience was exhilarating, but it didn’t deliver the “behind-the-camera” career that had motivated Singer to earn a film theory degree from MSU. When Psychedelic Shakespeare dissolved for “various, 25-year-old reasons” and he landed a job with the Oprah Winfrey Show, things began to change.
Singer handled graphics one day a week for Oprah and spent the rest of his time on a project that he had launched with a likeminded creative spirit named Simeon Schnapper.
Together, they made Dot, a low-budget indie feature that captures the boundless enthusiasm, wild ambition, and unreasonable expectations of the first dot-com bubble better than anything out there.
Although the film aired on Showtime and won several festivals — including Slam Dunk and Dances with Films — it didn’t bring widespread fame and fortune. Still, Singer chalks it up as a win.
“That movie was film school,” he explains. “We worked with these amazing people who went on to be masters in their craft. The crew included Darryl Miller, who is now second camera on Chicago PD; Alex Riordan, the head sound guy for Empire; Dan Schalk, who edited Road to Perdition and Parks and Rec.”
As the film’s run slowed down, Singer began freelancing and eventually returned to the Oprah Winfrey Show. He remained there as lead motion designer until 2013, when he joined Bottle Rocket Media, which his old friend from work Dan Fisher had launched two years earlier.
“That’s when the party really started,” Fisher recalls.
Bottle Rocket takes off
Today, Bottle Rocket Media is a video content agency that boasts more than a hundred industry awards and a staff of eleven. With accounts ranging from advertising agencies to major corporations and legendary Chicago institutions, the company wields a signature blend of branding, motion, documentary, and live-action finesse.
Bottle Rocket’s portfolio shows a startling variety of depth and expertise. In a Reel Chicago exclusive, Fisher and Singer explain how it got there.
Bottle Rocket on location for Glidden Paints
What is Bottle Rocket Media’s specialty? (DF) We have two verticals: client direct and agencies. We enjoy working with both. The obvious benefit of working with agencies is that they come to the table with great creative work. We help them take it to the next level and bring it to life.
This summer, we did a great project with Digitas for Glidden Paint. It was this Glidden prep squad: they come out to your home and prep it for painting. With them, the best idea always wins. The director was Blaine Hogan. We worked with professional actors and real people and, because it was a series of quick spots, we shot two locations per day for three consecutive days, and we brought it in on-time and on-budget. That’s a lot of moves!
PREP SQUAD | GLIDDEN PAINTS
(BS) I think where we excel is finding the story in documentary style videos. We really try to find these authentic moments, to be good listeners and be open to the whole story, not just the story we thought we were walking into. There was a video we produced for byline bank.
They just bought the naming rights for the Aragon Ballroom. Mark Cwiakala directed and we shot interviews at the venue with all of these old-timers who had worked there for years. The bands they had seen — Iggy Pop and the Stones and the Pixies and the Beastie Boys. Pretty straight-ahead video but it was one of those things like, man, to hear people talk about it.
I’ve done a million of those but I still get excited. To hear somebody talk about something they love. I like hearing people talk about things they’re passionate about.
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How does your Oprah experience come into play? (BS) As a team, we’re pretty unflappable because we’ve worked at the highest level of TV. On the Oprah, it was always “we’re going live in fifteen.” That’s stressful, but now all we know how to do is make high quality videos, whatever the budget, whatever the concept.
At the end, I kind of made it a point to learn from as many people as I could. The carpenters were amazing — How do you use a router? The camera guys — Can I use your tripod? When Canon 5D came out, I would borrow the set photographer’s camera and lenses to shoot the bumpers for the show. I kind of made it a masters degree in production.
It also helped Dan and I learn how to conduct ourselves when we opened our own place. | (DF) I’m able to see people when I’m directing. I see more than the shot. I really see people, whether scripted with actors or certainly if it’s documentary, I’m really able to see that these are real people and not just a cool idea or whatever.
People want to be heard and I want them to feel heard when we’re working together. So much of filmmaking is really about the art of listening.
What is your process for developing content for agencies and brands? (BS) When we meet with a client, we ask the same three questions: Who is the target audience? How are they going to watch video? What do you want them to think or feel or do when they’re done? The answers to those questions become our guiding force, and we advocate for meeting those objectives as the project moves forward. That’s what really grounds us and the project and informs our decisions.
(DF) Our approach is to get the creative, digest it, sit down with the client, and understand what they’re looking to do. It’s pretty standard stuff. And we have a really creative space to help develop the content, from prep through poist, with an edit suite and a conference area if clients want to come and edit or do brainstorming or anything else. The agencies set the pace. We’re just here to help them achieve what they want to do visually and hopefully plus it up in the process.
What makes BRM different from other production and post companies? (BS) Something we take a lot of pride in is that we love this stuff. We really, really do. When you decide to make a video or work with a video partner, you’re really committing to spend a lot of time with them. We pride ourselves on being nice people and being really fun. And we care. We never put ourselves in a position where we don’t have time to care about the project. Dan and I particularly enjoy the sales process and we’ve got a bunch of people on our team who really like it and really get it. You can’t work in this business unless you’re a geek about it.
How do you know which directors are right for the BRM roster? (DF) Directors who we work with all have a certain level of experience and creativity. Simply put, they are talented. We are growing a roster that features directors who do not overlap with one another. For client direct, it almost doesn’t matter. Talent is talent. For agencies, they often want to see directors who have already done what they’re trying to do. Chasing this concept can be challenging, so instead we just choose to work with talented people, knowing that the right work will find them.
What makes Chicago a great place for a video content agency? (BS) I love Chicago. I’m originally from Buffalo NY. Lived in Chicago 25 years. Chicago is the best of everything: culture and theater. From a film perspective, tons and tons of talent. Tons of opportunity. Four seasons. There’s no better town than Chicago. It’s also got a deep pool of talent. Technical talent. Actors.
We’re working with more and more writers who we find through second city and iO. | (DF) I literally love everything about this city. On my commute, I walk through this city and see incredible art, architecture, and people are really nice to each other.
Professionally speaking, it’s great to be in Chicago because we can travel all over the place. We’ve probably hit about 27 states over the last eight years. Growing up in New York and living in LA and now I’m in Chicago for fifteen years, it really is the perfect combination of culture and intensity. With the exception of the weather between October and March, it really is the perfect place to live.