Award-winning video company comes from humble beginnings

Voyage Pictures was created 11 years ago in a basement by two college students.
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Stephen Panaggio, left, and Bradley Jansen started their video production company while students at Calvin University. Courtesy Well Design Studio

For a small video production company in Grand Rapids, Voyage Pictures is attempting the impossible and delivering higher-than-anticipated returns for commercial and nonprofit clients.

What now is Voyage Pictures had humble beginnings. Founders Bradley Jansen and Stephen Panaggio started making videos 11 years ago in Jansen’s parents’ basement near the end of their college studies.

Most of their work involved shooting wedding videos. Around the same time, DSLR cameras had come out and were helping Jansen and Panaggio change the way wedding stories were being told.

“(They) were a lot of Disney soundtrack DVDs with ‘uncle videographers’ who had been filming on VHS,” Jansen said of typical wedding videos at the time.

Comparatively, DLSR cameras were budget-friendly and offered a low-grade professional quality neither Jansen nor Panaggio had before seen in wedding videography, they said.

Jansen and Panaggio’s videos started to take off, and the two went from producing for a few weddings in their spare time to shooting and producing videos for more than 50 weddings in their first full summer.

The small team quickly had to strategize how they could tell that many stories, which led to the formation of Bradley Productions.

“It was very much uncalculated at the beginning,” Jansen said. “We weren’t trying to start a wedding company or a storytelling company. We were just, like, ‘Hey, we’re good at doing this, and we want to get experience.’”

Over time, the company branched out into creating videos for nonprofit and for-profit clients, and eventually, the production group went from a basement setting to having a core team that worked in an actual office.

“Weddings just turned out to be a phenomenal networking opportunity,” Panaggio added. “A lot of wealthy people are all having a good time and are a captive audience for your video … we weren’t, at the end of the wedding, handing out business cards and saying, ‘Hey, we also do a commercial brand.’ We just cared about doing a really good job.”

The company began producing video content for commercial clients — including Jansen and Panaggio’s alma mater, Calvin University — under the Bradley Productions brand, but soon the team realized there was some dissonance between being known as a wedding company and the commercial work it did on the side.

“The wedding video was our bread and butter, but the commercial work became more profitable, so we found a need to separate the two,” Panaggio said.

In 2016, the team decided to spin off into a sister company, Voyage Pictures, which is now the majority of Panaggio and Jansen’s creative focus.

“We started realizing the client experience is radically different. The team structure is radically different in order to help a corporate or nonprofit client tell a story, than to have a bride and groom tell a story,” Jansen said.

Jansen and Panaggio will close down Bradley Productions later this year, not because the wedding business shrank, but because the commercial business grew and became more profitable. For the past five years, Bradley Productions only comprised about 5% of the team’s combined work.

Impact Burundi, a nonprofit supporting development efforts in the small, landlocked nation of Burundi, was one of Voyage Pictures’ recent clients.

Founder and Executive Director Libere Dusabe fled to the U.S. from the ethnic violence that followed in the wake of the 1993 Burundi presidential assassination. According to the organization, more than 80% of the country’s population lives on less than $1.25 per day, and more than half are food insecure.

“They wanted to tell a story … they were a little hesitant about it, but they knew that they needed to,” said Kate Avery, video strategist for Voyage Pictures. “We’re coming into something and trying to help the client quantify the want versus the need … even prior to that is taking a holistic view of what the client is trying to accomplish.”

Impact Burundi needed a video to tell its story so Dusabe wouldn’t have to be in 50 places at once trying to tell a compelling story to raise funds for the organization.

“This man is 45 years old. We can’t tell a 45-year story. We have to bring it around to be compelling to an audience in four minutes,” Avery said. “We actually have a one-minute version if you can believe it.”

“We’re all about making the great video for our clients, but we really care about where that lives,” Panaggio added. “Where is it being distributed? How’s it going to be viewed? Is your target really LinkedIn, but you think it’s Facebook? We’re asking those questions for them in case they aren’t asking themselves to make sure we aren’t just convincing them to pay for an expensive luxury product, which is a video, and have it not give them any return on that investment.”

Panaggio said Voyage’s mantra is “attempt the impossible.” In the case of a small project, like the one for Impact Burundi, it seemed impossible to make a compelling video on a shoestring budget, but the organization’s mission meant enough for Voyage to make an effort.

The video for Impact Burundi won Voyage an award because the team was able to film the whole segment and obtain international footage during COVID-19.

“What meant more to me than the award was when Kate and I were getting feedback that that nonprofit is doubling the amount of donations they were anticipating,” Jansen said. “Specifically, it’s noting the video is giving them the return they wanted. That is the ultimate affirmation for me because it means it’s working the way we want it to.”

Voyage Pictures also earned an award earlier this year for a 15-minute TV pilot about the history of the Berlin Wall intended for an international audience. The challenge was Voyage had to put it all together in 30 days. 

“That’s wild,” Jansen said. “Most people would say that’s impossible … that won us one of our awards because it was a compelling piece of content produced at a high level and was produced really fast.”

“I’m also really proud of that, because I wrote it and I directed it,” Panaggio said. “It was very script heavy. There were editors at all these huge news organizations reviewing the scripts, and they were brutal … the revision we had to go through in that short time frame and then to have the host of the program give me feedback on how strong it was; it just meant so much to have people enjoy it, and then to get an award was really cool.”

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