Hart Eyes CD ROM Video

May 13, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Dennis Hart has developed a keen eye for video content during his 30 years as a TV news cameraman and freelance videographer, director and producer, and now he wants to take corporate videos in a new direction.

It isn’t exactly what he set out to do.

He graduated from college with the intention of becoming a history teacher, but there was a glut of teachers at the time and job prospects were slim.

Since he had always been interested in still photography, he decided to apply for a job as a news cameraman at WJIM-TV in Lansing in 1971, back in the days of “steam-powered film production,” as he puts it.

“I was totally unqualified to shoot. I had no idea how to run a motion picture camera,” Hart recalled. But he got a little help from a friend.

His next-door neighbor had once been a higher-up at the station and WJIM’s news director owed him a big favor. His neighbor called the director and told him Hart would be good for the job because he had always done a great job of mowing his lawn and babysitting his kids.

“That was my big break; that’s literally how I got in the business,” Hart quipped. “I pulled some real bonehead plays in the beginning, but so has everybody else. I figured it out after a while.”

After two and half years at the TV station, he went solo and has been freelancing ever since.

He was a freelance news cameraman for WJBK-TV Detroit from 1973 to 1975, and then joined Media Group Ltd. as a freelance producer/director/videographer, working on a variety of assignments in network news and corporate communications.

He got into corporate television via a friend who worked for Dow Chemical’s Michigan Division Television Network, a weekly news show for employees that ran in all the company’s plants. The Dow job took him all over the world.

That was in the very early days of videotape production, and Hart had a hunch corporate videos would really take off, so he got in on the ground floor.

“I got a feel that this would be a good way to communicate with corporate employees,” he recalled.

He founded Semaphore Video with a friend in 1990 just as the video production business began to explode. He later bought out his partner’s share in the business.

He has since produced videos for CNN Financial News, CBS and ABC News, Oprah!, Inside Edition, BBC, Hard Copy, Reuters, Dow Jones Television, A&E, Showtime, the Maury Povich Show, CNBC, the Discovery and History channels, C-Span, Lifetime, PGA Tour Productions, ESPN and Fox News Channel.

Hart’s early assignments after moving to Grand Rapids in 1975 included shooting TV commercials for Meijer Inc., Spartan Stores and the former Union Bank and Old Kent Bank.

On the corporate side, Hart also has produced, directed and shot videos for Radio Shack, General Mills, CN Railroad, Kellogg’s, IBM, BF Goodrich, Quixtar, Donnelly, Ernst & Young, Home Depot, Marshall Field’s, Procter & Gamble, Gainey Transportation, Sligh Furniture, General Motors, Wolverine World Wide, Pharmacia, Upjohn, National Geographic, and Ferris State and Central Michigan universities, among others.

These days, some assignments come his way through crew booking services. He’s hooked up with five different booking services, so when a video crew is needed in Grand Rapids or elsewhere in West Michigan, they call him.

Oprah Winfrey is a repeat customer who personally requests Hart for various assignments.

“She seems to like my style and the way I interact with people,” Hart said.

He recently covered an N’ SYNC concert for British TV, but one of his most unusual assignments to date was covering the International UFO Conference in Grand Rapids for the Discovery Channel in the mid-1990s.

The conference brought to town hundreds of people who claimed to have had contact with extraterrestrials, and Hart interviewed a number of them.

“You never know from day to day what you’re going to do. It’s all over the place,” Hart said. “Sometimes they’ll give us a little information beforehand, but most of the time we literally have no idea what we’re getting into. We just show up and try to get 10 minutes with the producer. We’re winging it all the time.”

Hart is now moving into a new area — interactive CD ROM videos for corporate training, sales and marketing. It’s an area he thinks is really going to take off because it allows videos to be played back on a desktop or laptop.

“The thing we never know about a corporate video is how many people watched it and what they thought after they watched it,” he explained. “What we’re trying to do is develop a product that can track and document how effective a video actually is out in the field. We’ve never been able to do that on a VHS tape.”

A corporate video is expensive to produce, and it’s money wasted if nobody watches it, Hart said. He’s working on one now for a major furniture company in West Michigan.

He said the standard video is both passive and linear, while the CD ROM video is more like an interactive Internet experience over which the viewer has control. But the CD doesn’t require broadband connection.

“I strongly believe the future of corporate video is going to be interactive and digital. But it’s a brand new idea, and whenever you try to do something new, there’s a lot of resistance,” he said. “I just find it fascinating that we can do this now.”

In addition to his work, he’s also fascinated with trains.

His office is a red caboose on Taos Avenue in Ada, though he has another office on Fulton Street where much of his equipment is located.

Hart has had a thing for trains since he was a kid. His favorite pastime growing up was visiting railroad sites with his dad and checking out the different trains. His grandfather worked for the railroad for 47 years.

He has traveled to Ecuador and Europe just to see trains. The word “semaphore” in his company’s name refers to an apparatus used for signaling on railroads.

In fact, it was Hart who came up with the idea of forming the Marne-Coopersville tourist railroad, which stages events such as the Pumpkin Train, Santa Train and Murder Mystery Train.

After more than 30 years behind a camera, his enthusiasm for the work remains high. He said it’s the interesting people he meets and the things he gets to see that keep him coming back for more.           

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