Tim Damon grew up photographing Detroit muscle cars. His video work earned him awards and Super Bowl airtime.
Then came the call to help promote a high-end sports sedan that sounded like someone forgot the engine.
In the resulting short film about the Tesla Model S, called "Lightdrive," music swells, lights play along the car's body and, as the sun rises, the electric vehicle hugs the hairpins like a low-slung fighter jet on wheels. The film has been viewed thousands of times online.
"I started out in still photography," Damon said. "If you can make a car look great when it's not moving, you don't need the noise."
Damon's Square Planet Media is among a small cadre of production companies that manufacturers are drafting for the increasingly tricky business of selling cars.
Automakers always rank high in the annual Advertising Age list of the 200 leading national advertisers in the traditional media of print, radio and television. But more and more, manufacturers must chase car buyers online with polished spots that grab fleeting eyeballs.
Digital ad spending by the U.S. automotive industry is expected to increase to about $14 billion by 2020 from nearly $9 billion in 2016, according to eMarketer. In that period, online auto advertising is expected to grow faster than that of every other industry, except for entertainment, the market research firm predicts.
With such advertising, automakers are trying to overcome mounting challenges to their traditional way of doing business.
More consumers are using their phones and other electronic devices to shop for cars rather than wandering around dealer showrooms. Cars are getting more complex and expensive, and young people are delaying getting their driver's licenses because they can easily connect with friends online and by using ride-sharing apps.
Vehicles that park themselves and call your mother are "altering the basic contours and features of the traditional automobile and amplifying the difficulty and cost of manufacturing cars," according to a recent report from consulting firm PwC. "The price tag is high — as much as 20% greater than the cost of the previous generation of automobiles."
Selling all this is Damon's job, through his Gardena-based Square Planet Media, a commercial production company, and Damon Productions, which specializes in still photography.
Damon's approach is simple: You get left behind the moment you reject the latest technology.
"I grew up with coin-operated pay phones, when the only way to 'be there' for a big event was to physically be there and, if you weren't there, you just missed out," Damon, 52, said. "How do I survive now when the technology is literally changing before my eyes? You just embrace it, the second anything new comes out, no matter what it is."
That means a combination of stabilized camera systems, lighting and chase vehicles that convey the thrill of speed in a spot that runs a minute or less.
None of that is cheap. The Tesla short had three producers, three directors, two filming units and an original music score. Damon Productions and Square Planet Media got producer, studio director of photography and camera car credits.
"It wasn't even that big compared to some," Damon said. "We've been on productions that have had crews of 80 to 100 people working on them."
To keep costs down, Damon's companies make a lot of the rigging and devices that hold the lights and cameras.
"In the last three years, I've built four camera cars that all do different things. My studio has turned into sort of a machine shop," Damon said. "I have two full-time welders and fabricators on staff."
For commercial shoots that average between $200,000 and $1 million, Damon has assembled an exotic fleet of chase vehicles: five Porsche Cayennes and one Hummer H2. There also is a specially modified and supercharged Ford Raptor. Even the Porsches have been beefed up, from 450 horsepower to 650 horsepower.
They need the extra juice to shoot footage at speeds of 100 mph or faster.
On top of each is what looks like a giant scorpion stinger, which holds a stabilized camera crane system. When he's operating the system, Damon sits in the back seat, working toggles on a setup that resembles the world's largest Xbox console control pad.
His workdays have allowed as little as two hours of sleep, and he's on the road all over the world for about 150 days out of the year, Damon said. Clients have included Acura, BMW, Fiat Chrysler, GM, Infiniti, Nissan, Lexus, Tesla and Subaru.
Damon, who's been looking through one camera or another for decades, still gets a charge out of his job.
"We're really into it," Damon said of the work he does with just 11 employees, "and we're having a lot of fun doing it."
Although the auto industry is in flux, "it's all going to sort itself out," he said. "Americans are still going to want their own cars, and they will still be passionate about them."
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