I'm sitting in the foyer of a North Sydney printing office with my eyes fixed on a plasma screen in front of me. Instead of the customary Sky News, I'm looking at a fireplace. A 20-minute loop of a flickering, crackling fireplace.
At first, the manufactured tranquillity makes me uncomfortable. It feels like the sort of kitsch favored by marketing executives with plastic surgery. But after a few minutes it begins to make sense and a radiant calmness emanates from the screen. This is fortunate, as I'm here to meet the guy who made it, and, according to him, invented the whole goddamn genre of fireplace DVDs.
Mark Denning greets me in full graphic designer uniform: horn-rimmed glasses, a vest over a dress shirt, and a sculpted goatee. He's immediately friendly and patient, eager to chat about his work. I gesture to the television, wondering if he put it on because he knew I was coming. "Oh, no," Mark replies. "We always have that on." I can't help but think of Kanye West sitting at home listening to Kanye West.
Denning is a curious kind of opportunist. Toward the end of the VHS-dominated 90s, he was looking for ways to get in on the Digital Versatile Disc, and noted a hole in the market of ambient video. Tapes needed to be rewound and replayed, which made them difficult to blend seamlessly into the background. Discs, on the other hand, could play endlessly, and that's where Denning made his mark.
The project launched under the auspicious name DVD Productions, indicative of a time when the mere act of putting something to disc was cutting edge. After a scouting mission, the model fire was filmed at a house in the Blue Mountains. It took several botched attempts to get it right. "People think it's pretty easy, you just set up a camera—but it's fraught with dangers. You need a fixed camera position, a good fire, a good glow, nice sound."
Mark's first and finest fireplace production
The golden portion of a half-day's filming was selected, and "very little editing" was required. That same cut has lasted from the original DVCAM incarnation to the Wide Screen Edition we have all come to know and cherish.
In its prime, boxes of these DVDs were being shipped internationally every week. Viewers could choose between a roaring log fire or ambient embers, and piano music or natural sounds.
Mark knows how silly all this seems. He laughs about it and it's clear he doesn't take himself too seriously; he even included a tongue-in-cheek interview with the director as a bonus feature. But at the same time, he knows that he makes something that people really want.
A few years back the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) licensed the fireplace video, which they set to classical music. When I spoke to Toby Chadd, ABC Classics' label manager, about how this has worked for them,he said they couldn't have been happier. Interestingly fireplace DVDs, like mangoes and flu vaccines, are highly seasonal. "We sell a lot of them when there's a cold snap." I ask Toby if he's serious about customers buying fireplace DVDs in winter like they would warm jackets and he nods. "I haven't actually plotted sales and temperature on a graph, but yes."
Mark isn't so reserved. "Everyone loves it," he says matter-of-factly. "It's perfect for dinner parties or romantic evenings."
Like all trailblazers, Denning was forced to contend with a wave of coattail riders. "I won't say the country, but it was copied a lot." I gently prod him on which bastard nation ripped off his brainchild and he immediately blurts out: "America. They were terrible at it. Their camera was constantly zooming in and out, and out of focus."
Along with competitors, the rise of torrents, YouTube, and Netflix—who have their own roaring log fire on demand—have cut into DVD Productions' sales.
Ever the forward-thinking media player, Denning tried to stay on the front foot. He proposed a fireplace app for Apple TV at the tech giant's Sydney headquarters five years ago, but they weren't ready for it. Since then, he's had some success selling other ambient DVDs of beaches, aquariums, and rainforests.
Sirens, a video of models in bikinis swimming enchantingly underwater, had the most potential but failed to sell at trade shows. "Wives would never let their husbands take one home," Mark admits. Despite this he tells me a Las Vegas casino plays Sirens on loop at its aqua-themed bar.
While we're talking I notice that I feel warm. I mean, I think I feel warm. It's a particularly windy day, and since arriving I've discarded a sweater and jacket. The fireplace has been flickering away in our periphery during the whole conversation.
I ask Mark to recall the last time he used his actual fireplace at home, and he's taken aback. "I've never used my actual fireplace," he says. "Why would I? I'd have to chop wood, get the matches out, and clean the whole area. I'd much rather turn on the central heating and chuck on a DVD."
Mark is a walking embodiment of modern values. Rather than engage with the environmentally unsound, economically inefficient, and physically exhausting trials of the past, we seek to replicate effects rather than worry about form. But in an industry gradually buried by media convergence, Denning seems at peace with putting the game to rest. Besides, he's still making sweet residuals.
"The other day YouTube sent me a check for a hundred dollars. I'm making it back, baby!"
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