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LA Fishguys, or how I created a reality show with my aquarium business.

 by Jim Stime, Jr.

When I moved back out to Los Angeles in 1979 Dad said if you want to live at home you need to sign up for school at the local community college. OK, lets take what I am interested in, Television, Radio, Electronics, Theatre Arts and Older Beginner Piano. At the end of the first year I had a third class radio permit and was working the evening shift as a transmitter engineer at the college radio station, KPCC. I did everything except speak on-air. It was around then while working on two school plays I was bitten by the ‘theatre bug’ so badly that I dropped the Television and Piano classes. That summer I started working at a local equity theatre. Equity means something like they don’t have to pay you, but other than being ‘found’ sitting on a stool in a malt shop that’s how one works their way into Hollywood. Its all about being in the right place at the right time.

I spent the next two years working that equity theatre as well as a couple of days here and there at NBC and CBS studios. One day I was driving down Melrose Blvd. and spotted a number of friends in front of a small Hollywood theatre. As I looked closer those friends were carrying signs, picket signs. They were on strike. It occurred to me at that point that this was not a career path I wanted to be in… or out, as in out of work.

Twenty years later after working for a purified water vending machine company, then for a major aquarium products company, and then as aquarium service manager for a local tropical fish shop I found myself owning my own aquarium service business. It was during this time that I designed and developed a free standing jellyfish tank, called the Jelliquarium. I was setting up one of these jellyfish tanks on the set of MTV’s The Hills in the apartment of Heidi and Spencer. Spencer and I seemed to have hit it off and I mentioned that I was going to be setting up another tank, a really fancy cylinder aquarium. Spencer being a media in-the-know fellow suggested that we video tape the set up of the tank. I assumed that with his connection to MTV it seemed like a sure thing. Well, Spencer did not come through that weekend but once again I had been bitten by that theatre bug and decided I could film the installation myself, I just needed a camera.  Back in the 80’s and 90’s I consider myself a tech savvy person. I had worked with radio, reel to reel and cassettes but I will admit I began to not keep up DVD’s and here I was buying a digital video camera? If I recall it was a basic $700 hand held video camera. The next day was the installation of the tank.

During the last eighteen years of aquarium maintenance I have taken care of a few tanks that belonged to ‘hollywood’ type people. I have serviced tanks for Tommy Lee and Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue and Pamela Anderson of Baywatch. One of those customers was the writer of Gladiator, David Franzoni. He told me that you film as much footage as possible as you never know what will change in the story will occur, as did Oliver Reed in their story. Spencer also suggested filming daily, everything and all the time. He said instead of Ed TV I should think in terms of Jim TV. So there I was, ready to set up the most expensive aquarium I have ever done and trying to film it at the same time.

I decided I needed to concentrate on the aquarium job and asked my brother to film the installation. Since most reality shows use the giggly camera style that seemed to work well as many of the shots are hand held. Most of the time I was having him follow me around telling him what to shoot at but some shots were done with the tripod. “The home is fantastic” as I described it in the beginning of Episode One. Perched at the top of a gated long winding driveway it is a multi-level mansion with a sweeping curved grand stairway. The tank is cylindrical, about 45 inches in diameter and is 66 inches tall. It sits on a metal stand and custom cabinetry surrounded by a uniquely shaped bar and it appears to be the support for the upper floor. Placed inside the tank is a full height colorful artificial coral reef sculpture. Aside from a couple of silly goofs involving bulkheads and a string the only set back was a leaking circulation water pump, otherwise the installation went off without any incidents and was completed in two days.

I had in my mind before I started filming what the name of the show would be. Most of my aquarium service customers referred to me as the aquarium guy or the fish guy, just as they would the pool guy. I still can recall after opening the front door they would holler “Honey, the Fishguys here”.  The LA part obviously refers to Los Angeles which is so much sexier sounding and much more recognizable than Thousand Oaks, it also gave me a bigger grasp of where and what I could create a story about. 

Besides the aquarium set-up as the plot to my video story it also involves some music and a host to guide you through the story. The first version of Episode One used all my favorite musical hits, including music from AC/DC, Motely Crue and VanHalen.  It was at this point that Spencer suggested uploading to You Tube. This sounded like great exposure but I could see copyrighted music was going to become a problem ( wow how fortuitous ). If you have ever looked into what is required to legally use copyrighted music you will find its not easy and can become very expensive, plus it takes you in a completely different direction than where you need to be. Enter Mr. Frank Gari of Gari Communications. Frank was a singer and songwriter similar to Frankie Avalon back in the 50’s, and he happens to own a music business. Frank has a large library of music and lent me a CD full of cool sounding instrumental music tracks. I feel the music is a big part of the show and in return Frank is an Executive Producer of the show and receives credit for his contribution.

The voice of the narrator is me, and was difficult to create. The reason I never spoke on the radio back in college was I did not know what to say. I figured I needed to develop a character, that way one could fall back on the character to always have something to say, right? After many years of telephone and fish shop sales repeating over and over how biological filtration works in an aquarium one becomes comfortable and soon has something to say. I played around with a few characters. My original version I sounded like some goofy British guy ( no insult intended to goofy British guys ).  I remember the first time I met Nancy Cartwright, she does the voice of Bart Simpson and is a seahorse tank service customer ( Episode 10 ) of mine. At times in our conversations she would get excited and I could hear Bart, it came from inside her, it was natural. Since all of my on-camera speaking is just regular me I ended coming back to my own natural voice for the voice-overs as it was the easiest and comes naturally.

I think it was Bob Fenner, an aquarium author, who pointed out a phrase I had stated in some of the episodes “keep moving forward”. It was never planned to be the inspirational statement its become. Actually it comes from my own person lack of confidence issues and it helps me take those leaps of faith I sometimes need to push myself. Somehow I had unintentionally brought more of me than was planned into the show. In addition to it becoming the motto of the show it appears as though it has had a positive effect on many viewers as I have receive numerous messages from people quoting it. As the show has developed that statement has now become the foundation of the shows attitude, meaning its all positive. While the show is suppose to be of all facets of the business and nothing is hidden I just don’t see negativity as being appropriate message.

True reality shows generally have no script and everything is on the fly, and LA Fishguys is no different. The set-up or service of the tank serves as the basic plot. As I go along I may decide to speak at the camera directly and talk about something or other times I just film something and plan on doing a voice-over later. Usually it comes down to my comfort level that day and what I feel the scene itself requires. Once the filming is completed I download the video to a computer I use specifically for videos. I use Pinnacle Studio 12 Ultimate as the editing program and have a simple karaoke microphone. I usually do four passes through a video to edit the show. The initial rough edit involves chopping the film clips down and forming the visual story, the second pass is to add voice-overs and transitions. The third pass is to add graphics and the forth is to monitor audio levels. All of the completed video then are saved as MPEG2 files and uploaded to You Tube. I later convert the MPEG2 files into what is called a Flash ( FLV ) file which is then uploaded to the LA Fishguys web site. Flash is something that most web browsers can play without having to download special programs or deal with numerous versions of internet web browsers. 

The first 35 shows include the set up of the cylinder tank, its removal, replacement, the scratch and its repair along with jellyfish tanks, seahorse tanks, installation and service of two different curved tanks, a couple of large rectangular tanks built into walls and some business challenges, such as dealing with customers, small claims court and the fish wholesalers. Here’s where the fortuitous part of the story comes in, the fellow who had lent me the music may not have expected the amount of exposure that You Tube offered. Within the first year there were over 1000 You Tube Subscribers and it turns out there was a question as to the ownership of the music, and I could no longer use it. It was lent to me for my personal use and now that I was uploading to the internet this was now a different issue. This meant removing all thirty five shows as we could not risk a copyright violation. Additionally, You Tube had invited LA Fishguys to become one of their YouTube Partners, which gave me even more exposure. Frank had no choice but to have me pull the episodes. He had provided me with new music, music that he clearly owns the rights to, but I still have to re-do the music. So why have I not redone those first 35 shows? Time and frustrating software upgrades.

As of August 2011 LA Fishguys on You Tube has 103 episodes totaling 231 individual videos, 7230 subscribers and almost two and a half million total videos viewed to date. So, as LA Fishguys approaches 2012 the question is, where does it go from there? Whatever it is you can count on the fact that I will “keep moving forward” in one way or another