Commercial studio finds a philanthropic niche
When Don Hamilton first came to Spokane, he was a commercial photographer working with film. Now, doing still and motion photography in digital media, he said he is able "to do more than ever before."
Philanthropy for Don and partner Lorna St. John means offering their time, tools and skills to provide quality video and photographic communication for nonprofits like the Spokane Symphony, YWCA and The Fig Tree.
When COVID shut down fundraising banquets, Don and Lorna found a niche presenting 40-minute professional digital livestream fundraising events with interactions. They also make videos that show what the nonprofits do and share stories of their impact.
The programs are presented on YouTube Live.
Don, who grew up in Burbank, Calif., studied theater at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria from 1970 to 1972. He then studied theater and lighting design at the University of California Irvine, and color printing at Art Center.
"I'm a DIY guy who went to college for five years and benefited but earned no degree," said Don, who wanted to combine his love of theater and photography to make movies.
In 1974, his mother, Mildred, who he said was "always the smartest in the room," entered contests and solved puzzles. She won six expense-paid trips to Expo '74 for family members. They liked what they saw and experienced in Spokane. First, his sisters moved here. Don followed, arriving Christmas Eve in 1979 with his then wife. His parents moved to Spokane some years later.
Renting a house from his sister, he set up a commercial still photography studio on 29th Ave. He added motion picture production, originally shooting film, not video.
In 1985, he purchased and moved his commercial photography and filmmaking business into the former gym and auditorium of St. Joseph School, at 1427 W. Dean across Walnut St. from the church.
Lorna, the producer, grew up in Spokane in the fashion business at the Crescent Department Store, which was later Fredrick and Nelson. She and Don met in 1983. After Fredrick and Nelson closed in 1988, she began working with him.
"When I came to town we had to shoot film to make a photograph. When I started making commercials, I shot film. Today the cell phone has democratized photography and filmmaking," said Don, who once had 14 staff members to manage the equipment, film and its processing. Now he has three full-time staff and that's plenty to do all he wants to do.
"Now we have the technology to do everything we did on film with digital original image acquisition. With post production processing, we can make digital video and photographs look like they were shot on film," Don said.
"We are grateful to be of use to nonprofits. Professional photography and filmmaking are expensive even in the Spokane market," he said.
"Don is a skilled communicator, knowing what people need to communicate and how to communicate it," Lorna said. "We do not have money to give, but it's a gift to us to be able to provide our services."
Hamilton Studio is now a mission partner with the YWCA.
"It's gratifying, because we believe strongly in their mission of empowering women and eliminating racism," she said. "We help them inform people about domestic violence.
"Domestic violence is at the root of all violence. If people did not grow up in violence, they would not be violent in the world," she said. "Jails are filled with people who were abused. Abuse begets hate."
Don has done free photography and marketing with other nonprofits, like the Spokane Symphony, Spokane Public Radio, United Way and Spark Central. With Interplayers, he also did lighting and sound. He has also done some documentaries with KSPS.
"He has been lucky in life, so he is able to pass his luck on," Lorna said. "Spokane is a philanthropic community. We have something to offer that others can't do. We offer our skill set and ability to use it to do something good for others."
Over the years, Don has taken photographs of Spokane Symphony musicians for their marketing programs and the Musicians Gallery in the Fox Lobby.
During COVID, he "filmed" and recorded livestream performances of symphony ensembles in his studio and symphony performances at the Fox Theater. The shutdown became a catalyst for converting the technology in his studio to become a TV station and movie studio.
Since 2020, Don and Lorna have produced benefits for the YWCA, Vanessa Behan, the Spokane Symphony, Domestic Violence Coalition, Spokane Riverkeeper and Spokane Public Schools Foundation. They also produced ads for the Spokane Regional Health District pro bono.
During the pandemic, Hamilton Studio helped nonprofits raise more than $1 million.
The studio has also facilitated virtual public meetings for the Inland Northwest Lands Conservancy, Spokane County Democrats, New Priorities Spokane, Innovia Foundation and the One Heart Film Festival pro bono or at cost.
"The pandemic forced us to do new things with what we had," Don said. "We have followed protocols to become a COVID-safe livestream studio with masks and distancing, offering livestream and recording programs for distribution online any time.
"We blundered into doing something new that people needed," he said. "We have become experts in the virtual fundraiser.
"I could retire and lease the space, but now I'm able to make motion pictures," said Don, who has recently produced a feature-length motion picture, "A Good Enough Day."
The film, which was shown in a private screening Nov. 15 at The Fox Theater, won Best in the Northwest at the recent Spokane International Film Festival.
"It's about a man on his last day, figuring out how to right relationships he had allowed to atrophy," said Lorna, describing the 82-minute fiction film about a photographer-filmmaker. The setting is Hamilton Studio.
Some of the film is scripted and some is ad lib. In one scene, the lead actor goes to St. Joseph's Catholic Church across the street and has a conversation with Mercy Sanchez, the parish secretary.
"We just told her to be herself and respond to the actor's questions about guilt, faith and forgiveness, as she would respond to someone who came in the church," Don said.
The actor, Trevor St. John, Lorna's son, knew where to come in and go out.
The idea of having unscripted scenes came from the film "Nomadland" in which a documentary crew filmed improvisational scenes and situations.
"Now we are looking to do other improvisational features to market on streaming services," Lorna said.
"I like doing feature productions, especially if family helps," said Don.
Beyond the work with nonprofits, Hamilton Studio does photography, corporate and web video production, TV commercials, documentary and theatrical films for art directors, designers, marketing directors, corporate managers and producers.
"Our aim is to help clients communicate by doing what we love doing," said Don, who learns what a client wants to say and helps them communicate it.
"Production is collaborative," said Lorna, noting that with people visually literate today, clients help create the product.
Others on the team are Matt Vielle, director and photographer; Hannah Sander, editor and post production supervisor, and Nick Palmieri, sound designer, audio engineer and drone pilot, The most recent hire is Shalyn Hall, an editor and shooter.
"Everyone at Hamilton Studio has to multi-task," said Don.
For information, call 327-9501 or email email@example.com.