Work in fine-art painting and photography leads to career in Georgia’s film, TV industry

Steve Dietl was 10 years old when he joined a friend (also 10) to produce a couple of what they proudly called “neighborhood newspapers” in Santa Monica, CA. The friend would write the copy, Steve would shoot the Polaroids.

Forty years later Steve’s become one of the most active still photographers in the Georgia’s film industry with dozens of credits, including “Ozark,” “Real Housewives of Atlanta” and “Raising Dion.”

“The local film economy enabled me to buy a house, settle down, get married and run the rivers of North Georgia,” says Steve, who moved to Georgia in 2016.

Before his film and television work, Steve was a painter and printmaker who incorporated into photographs taken by others into his own his creations.

“I decided to hone my photography skills to be able to use my own images rather than appropriate from other sources,” says Steve, “When I did, the photography became a larger element in my work.”

He moved to Atlanta from New Orleans four years ago. By this time he had been working as a still photographer on sets for about 10 years.

Before coming to Atlanta Steve worked primarily on feature films, but here he began working on more episodic television and the occasional reality show.

“I’d work on a feature one day,” he says, “episodic television the next day and a reality show the day after that. The variety of opportunities was exciting. In network TV you get a real sense of structure, on a feature you get the feeling of experimentation and a reality show is like improvised jazz.”

The variety of assignments also stretched his creativity. “You never know what importance a photograph will have,” he says. “All of a sudden you see your photo in a magazine or up on a billboard.”

To keep busy during the slowdown of a pandemic Steve took on some personal projects.

“To keep myself interested and get outside during the quarantine I’ve been photographing neighbors and fellow crew members, socializing while I work with them in their own backyards. Often artists work in isolation, so this was a good way to keep busy and keep sane.”

He displays this collection, called “Camp Isolation,” on his Instagram account, @steve_dietl.

Stand-in roles provides the flexibility former city worker needs

Janice Scott has held a number of jobs that fulfilled her personally — special deputy with the U.S. Marshals Service, motivational speaker, and part of the City of Atlanta Watershed Department, to name a few.

But it wasn’t until she established herself as a stand-in actor in Georgia’s film and television production industry that she felt truly grounded. Today, the industry provides not only a challenging career for Janice, it gives her the flexibility to visit her elderly mother who lives about eight hours away.

“I’m a Christian woman, and God told me that if I gave up my city job to go one once a month to take care of Mom, He would open doors that no one could close,” says Janice, the youngest of 10 children. “And He did.”

Janice makes regular drives to Arkansas from Atlanta to take care of her 93-year-old mother.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, when she worked as a special deputy for the U.S. Marshalls Service, she couldn’t drop everything to go home when the family needed her. It all became too much in 2002 and Janice moved to Arkansas to be closer to home.

In 2016 Janice returned to Atlanta and began a job at the city’s Watershed Department. She also became and a devout member of World Changers Church, where she made valuable connections that led her to the film and television production industry. She put her natural networking skills to work, and soon found work. It didn’t take long to build film and TV opportunities into a full-time career that provided the flexibility she needed.

Her work includes productions such as “Sweet Magnolias,” “The Resident,” “The Haves and The Have Nots,” “Ozark,”, but her favorite was standing in as a choir member for all four seasons of Greenleaf.

“I’ve always been drawn to the industry,” says Janice. “In the ‘80s I met Oprah Winfrey and said, ‘One day that is going to be me.’ So here I am, working in an industry I love that lets me be the person I’m supposed to be.”

Army veteran leads “Movie MacGyvers” of the Georgia film industry

“Hey, I’ve got a weird one for you.”

Jason Benton, owner of Great Dane Production Services, often hears that from location managers looking for a vendor to solve a problem.

Jason and his crew have been referred to as the “Movie MacGyvers” because like MacGyver, they have a knack for unconventional problem solving. If there’s a weird job that needs to get done on a production, Great Dane Production Services figures out a way.

During this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, Great Dane is helping studios get back to work. The company is approved to provide sanitation and decontamination services for several production offices.

Solving problems for the film industry has been a lucrative challenge for the company. Since 2016, Great Dane Production Services has worked on more than 140 productions and expanded from one employee with a pickup truck to seven full-time employees, five part-time employees, four trucks and a 5,000 square foot warehouse in Tucker.

After completing his tour of duty in the Army, Jason purchased an Atlanta biohazard company that specialized in crime and trauma scene cleaning. A location manager hired his company to do mold remediation on a house used for filming.

Jason quickly realized the film industry offered tremendous potential for work. He closed his biohazard company and started Great Dane Production Services. His company now focuses almost solely on film work, juggling 19 different productions during the summer of 2019 alone.

The company does everything from testing for air quality in abandoned buildings to site preparation, restoration and cleanup. Jason and his team remove railroad ties, jackhammer out metal bollards, clean and refresh musty air from vacant buildings, clean up trash, and remove biohazardous human waste. Nothing is too strange or unglamorous.

Great Dane also cleans sound stages. Before the coronavirus outbreak halted production, Jason’s team did on-site cleaning and disinfecting so filming could continue. With expertise in biohazard remediation, Great Dane stocks hazmat suits, chemicals and air scrubbers.

“The Georgia film industry has created awesome, well-paying jobs for our state,” says Jason. “It’s created tremendous opportunity for my family and

 

Key rigging grip creates opportunity for himself, others in Georgia film/TV industry

For Francis Harlan of Atlanta, Georgia’s film and television production industry has been a game-changer.

“The Georgia film industry has changed my life,” says Francis, a key rigging grip. “It’s allowed me to pay off credit card debt, build my own company, explore other entrepreneurial avenues and give back to others. I never would have been able to do that without this industry.”

Francis started as a lighting and equipment rental warehouse manager, where he learned the intricacies of the equipment, picked up film industry-specific vocabulary, forged relationships with industry people and did freelance work setting up lights for productions.

Today, a big part of his job is hiring the best crew possible. He’s built a solid group of high quality, dedicated grips. Francis firmly believes that diverse people with a plethora of backgrounds and skills make the best crew, but most people never have the opportunity to even try so Francis gives people with potential but no experience a chance. And his gamble has paid off.

“I’ve helped 10 guys turn into high-quality grips and several are working as best boys. This opportunity really changes their life for the better,” says Francis. “I hired a restaurant cook and kept him with the crew since then. He’s skilled with a phenomenal work ethic. He was able to buy a house.”

After earning a degree in photography from Georgia State University, Francis joined the union in 2009 as productions started ramping up in Georgia. They needed crew and Francis used his connections to get a job on the first season of “The Walking Dead.” Francis says he told himself this would be his career, and he was right.

Francis moved up through the ranks to Best Boy where he hired crew, estimated equipment needs, and procured equipment. His warehouse experience gave him the capability to fix equipment before returning it and saved the productions money.

He now runs his own company, Omega Grip Studio Rental, and operates a side business buying houses and renting them to people in the film industry.

“I want to continue growing my business and bringing other people into the film industry,” says Francis. “This work gives people pride in themselves and they would do a lot to stay in this industry.”

DeKalb County native puts creativity to work with Georgia-based production team

Scott Thigpen has always loved movies.

“When I was in grade school, Atlanta superstation WTBS showed old movies at 10 a.m. and again at 1 p.m. Going through the TV guide one day I noticed that two of my favorites were playing: “Double Indemnity” with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, and “Maltese Falcon” starring Humphry Bogart,” Scotts recalls. “I faked a stomach ache to stay home from school so I could watch both.”

Scott doesn’t have to fake illness any more to see a movie. He makes them as a producer, director and chief operating officer of Atlanta’s Crazy Legs Productions.

He began his journey as an early enrollee in Georgia State’s film program. Back then there weren’t many internships or jobs available, so he called every film production company in the Atlanta Yellow Pages until the son of the owner one firm happened to answer the phone and confessed he was moving to Seattle and that Scott could have a job as a part-time production assistant. He worked that job until graduation, when he was promoted to fulltime associate producer.

“For a couple of years I covered sports like water skiing and offshore powerboat racing,” says Scott, who now lives in DeKalb County, where he was born and raised. “It was great training.”

Still, he wanted something more purpose-driven than the formula coverage of sports. Back to the phones and another lucky break. CARE was moving its headquarters to Atlanta from New York and was hiring to replace someone who didn’t want to make the move south. Scott got the job, and for more than 17 years produced documentaries about everything from poverty and marginalized populations to sustainable development. In his time with CARE he rose to director of advertising and media productions.

In 2011 he joined Crazy Legs Productions, where he is now chief operating officer. Georgia’s film and television production has come a long way since Scott picked up the Yellow Pages to find his first job.

“Everything’s expanded,” says Scott. “The bench of talent has deepened, so there are a lot more crew and actors available. It’s all here: Studios, vendors and services of all kinds

“Every day people are moving here to take advantage of the growth and opportunities. And the local talent is benefiting from the expansion.”

The global pandemic has disrupted but not stalled production. When the crisis hit, Crazy Legs was in post-production on a feature film expected to be released in the next few months. To keep everyone safe, Scott recruited an advisory board of medical experts to help establish guidelines for operations. One strategy was to select scripts that were “self-contained,” that is, requiring fewer cast members and crew, fewer filming locations.

Another creative initiative was to compile a list of actors who were married so when a script called for a married couple, the already married actors could fill the roles safely. Scott was assisted in this project by his wife, Jessica Fox Thigpen, who is one of Atlanta’s leading casting directors.

His goal to tell stories and keep people employed is working through more than a little ingenuity and effort, including the production of podcasts that eventually can be expanded to documentaries or feature films.

“I grew up thinking that making films was the only thing I could imagine myself doing,” says Scott. “And I’m doing just that.”

Hitting Pause: Dodd Vickers

Georgians who work in the film/TV industry at home during the pandemic.

“During this pause in filming, I’ve enjoyed time with my family and helping my wife distribute homemade face masks. I took some time to study for and receive my General Class Amateur radio license. This allows me to communicate with people in numerous countries and to hear directly from them as to how the Pandemic is impacting their area. I also started a podcast called ‘Locations on Two’ in which I interview location managers from around the world including two members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. We talk about their backstories, experiences, and what we think things will look like when we do go back to work. It’s been incredibly rewarding to talk with people that I respect and share it with audiences inside and outside of the film community.” — Dodd Vickers, Location Manager, LGMI, from Cumming

Hitting Pause: Tina Sauls

Georgians who work in the film/TV industry at home during the pandemic.

“During this pause in filming, I’m enjoying downtime at the family farmhouse in Valdosta, Georgia. It was my grandparents’ home and I’ve been fixing it up. I’ve been remodeling and installing new electric throughout the house. It’s a great place to escape to. It inspires new ideas and talents in me to use when filming resumes.”  —Tina Sauls, Valdosta, producer’s assistant

 

Hitting Pause: Theresa Daniel

Georgians who work in the film/TV industry at home during the pandemic.

“These past few months I’ve been staying home working on my garden, hanging out with the animals, and cleaning out the attic. I’m also working on some ideas for a children’s book. When productions return, I hope to work on my goal of being on 100 different film sets. Right now, I’m up to 87!” – Theresa Daniel of Forsyth, background actor

Hitting Pause: Jason Benton

Georgians who work in the film/TV industry at home during the pandemic.

“I’ve kept all my employees on our payroll during the shutdown so now that things are opening back up, we started working again this week. We’ve been doing work like painting and roofing for folks who work in the film industry. We’re also doing equipment maintenance, so we’ll be ready to jump back in once filming returns. On a personal note, I got accepted into Notre Dame’s MBA program and I’m taking a preparatory math class right now. I’m keeping busy!” — Jason Benton, owner of Great Dane Production Services in Tucker