In the field of video editing, Thomas Ian Mora – known to everyone as Timmy – is the boss.
His employees at Visual Art and Production gave him that title for his skill in taking raw video footage and condensing it into the shortest, most compelling stories possible.
Visual Art and Production celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, but Mora has been in the business for 45 years, spending five years at Trinidad & Tobago Television (TTT) before leaving to start Video Associates in 1981.
At TTT, he established a reputation as an editor, and credits the late Curtis Wilson for teaching him the technical aspects of that discipline. Take, for instance, a 1979 special which launched the brass band Shandileer. Carl Jacobs and Robin Imamshah made their entry coming out of a “spaceship,” much to the delight of their manager, Gary Dore.
“I never worked so hard on a show,’ said Mora.
“The premiere ran on TTT for a minute before there was an island-wide blackout. That really depressed me,” he laughed.
This was long before looping television shows became the norm.
When TTT went through industrial-relations issues, Mora picked up his placard at lunchtime and picketed like everyone else. Eventually, he along, with colleagues Andy Smart, Stephen Lee Pow, John “Buffy” Sinanansingh, Donald Lee Fook and Gregory Wilson, left to start their own company: Video Associates. Mike Gonsalves was the first trainee.
“We left TTT in February 1981 and were successful from the start. We had two older heads on the board of directors, chairman Ken Gittens, and Kelvin Scoon. They guided us in business and financial matters. We bought state-of-the-art equipment from the US.
“At TTT I had mostly worked on programmes. I never did an ad before, but I quickly learned to tell a story in 30 seconds.”
From 1981- 1985, VA, at 17 Saddle Road, made its money mainly from commercial production.
“Our first commercial through Atlas Advertising, run by Roy Boyke and Pat Wong Chong (Ganase), was done for Kirpalani’s when the new store opened in West Mall.”
Production houses Banyan and AVM were already on the scene and were producing a lot of TV programming. VA soon became the premier production house for commercials and controlled that segment of the market in those early years.
“We made a good profit, had money in the bank and invested in new gear in 1983. But we all felt we weren’t doing what we really wanted to do, which was good television programmes.”
One day, Horace Wilson came to VA with four scripts for a drama series called Turn of the Tide, set in Tobago.
“Stephen Lee Pow, our general manager, took a chance and invested in the project. We hired Wilbert Holder to direct the local soap opera.
“The first four episodes were produced and presented to Lonsdale Advertising, who loved it, and said, ‘Why don’t you do 13 episodes, a whole series?’”
VA hired Cliff Seedansingh as director of photography and his wife Liz, an experienced production manager (who worked on Raoul Pantin’s movie Bim). Christopher Pinheiro came on as art director. Mike Gonsalves, Andy Smart and his brother Cedric were some of the crew who spent six weeks in Tobago working on the series. Mora, who stayed back in Trinidad to work on the company’s bread and butter ads and other features, edited the entire series, with Andy Smart sitting in on the edits.
“Then we were into 1985, and Lonsdale said their sponsors pulled out because of the recession. The series didn’t come close to paying for itself the first time it ran on TTT. We looked for sponsors, and picked up advertising as more viewers got interested in the series.”
VA’s reputation grew even more with its music videos.
“When we did Fireflight’s video Fool in Love, people didn’t believe it was a local song or video.”
Mora piled up editing awards, earning his first of seven media awards in 1985 for White Horse, a Fireflight song about cocaine, which featured Francis Escayg and Evris Walcott.
In 1986, Robin Foster joined VA as a sound engineer. He worked on the TV series Calabash Alley.
Then some of the core team began to move on.
“Donald went to the US; Andy went to Grenada, Stephen got an offer from another production house; Buffy took a job as a chief engineer in a university in Orlando.
“By default, I assumed the CEO position, and Mary Jardine came on board to handle administration.VA moved to Bergerac Road (Maraval), where I could live and have the studio there to save money during the recession. I met Debbie Jacob for the first time when we produced Chanting to the Beat, the first feature on David Rudder, which ran constantly on TTT during the coup in 1990.”
During the coup attempt, Mora set up TTT’s editing suite in Camp Ogden. Afterwards, he got a call from Bernard Pantin saying Ken Gordon, CEO of the Trinidad Express newspaper, planned to establish TV6 as the media were opened up and new TV and radio stations came into being. The Express became an arm of the Caribbean Communications Network.
“They wanted to buy VA to be their production arm so they wouldn’t have to invest in equipment and people. After some negotiations, CCN bought 40 per cent of VA. We had to make a major investment in new equipment. I was responsible for purchasing all the TV equipment for the new station.”
Mora bought the first state-of-the-art outside broadcast vehicle into the country.
The new partnership proved rocky, partly because CCN insisted on VA moving into its Independence Square office.
“Clients weren’t coming to Independence Square to do dubs or edit an ad,” said Mora. The business relationship didn’t work out, and Lawrence Duprey and CLICO bought out VA.
“I planned to leave, but CLICO made an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I stayed and ran the company for the CL Financial Group until 2001.
“It was an exciting time. We never posted a loss during that period.”
VA was once again the premier production house and Mora continued a training programme he started in 1987.
But once again, politics and personalities clashed. In February 2001, Mora left VA, with the company’s two best editors, Francis Morales and Christopher Cabrera. He started Visual Art and Production. Mora and Naushad Khan, his accountant at VA, were the initial shareholders (Khan died earlier this year).
Much like the original VA, Visual Art and Production competed successfully in the TV market and by 2010, employed over 25 full-time staff and freelancers, with Mora continuing his ongoing training of young people who dreamed of working in television.
The company landed a lucrative contract in 2004 with the Stanford Financial Group (SFG), based in Antigua.
“For two years, I spent almost two weeks a month in Antigua. We started to shoot 35mm film for SFG, and were able to attract new work with bigger budgets because of this capability.” Video Art continued to invest in new technology and in its people, but a downturn in the economy caused staff to drift away.
“New competition started. People were editing in their bedrooms and had little overheads. These startups succeeded in tremendously undercutting the market.”
With more competition and less business in the commercial arena, Visual Art started working on features primarily for the Parliament Channel, producing biographies of former prime ministers Eric Williams and Basdeo Panday, President Ellis Clarke and other political figures.
“Naima Mohammed initially came on board as writer/producer for these features and worked on a myriad of other projects in her 12-year association with the company.”
Visual Art established its own YouTube channel in 2016 as Mora began to think more about preserving the cultural and historical legacy of video production in TT. When Video Associates closed up shop, he rescued a significant amount of invaluable archive material from the company’s library.
“While at VA, I always insisted on keeping a proper library system,” he said. He posts important archive material on the non-profit youtube.com/visualartandproduction channel, which has now crossed 11,000 subscribers.
Mora’s studio now features older-format videotape recorders (VTRs) that are used to digitise legacy tapes, as well as modern editing equipment to operate in today’s technical environment.
“I need to invest in more machines,” he said, but he’s glad he kept the old equipment working over the years.
“Over the past 15 months, I received a lot of work from people who, while house-cleaning during the covid19 lockdown, found old tapes and wanted to convert them from analog Betamax and VHS to the most modern digital tape formats.
“I have a good relationship with TTT and other government agencies who utilise our services as well.”
Mora also wants to create playlists for embassies from his content on YouTube, which hosts over 2,000 clips.
“In a week of watching a playlist, embassies would have a good idea of our cultural history,” he explained. “My work is never done. There are so many tapes to convert and so little time.”
Looking back, he is most proud of all the young people he mentored in the business over the years.
“I always saw them as the future.”
Timmy Mora’s legacy in the television business has been his quest to preserve the cultural and political history of the country.
“We have to try our best to preserve these memories for future generations. I am just doing my part.”