Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The two women warriors check each others preparation, cinching straps on Kevlar armor in a massive Salt Lake County warehouse stacked to the rafters with racks of uniforms from all branches of the U.S. military, shelves full of tactical gear, a ton of complex-looking hardware and even a camouflage-painted Humvee parked in the corner that has become a makeshift platform for additional stacks of equipment.
One woman is a veteran of the U.S. Army and a competitive markswomen for Austria's Glock firearms. The other is a former member of Israel's armed services. A variety of weapons are laid out on a table nearby, including automatic rifles and handguns. But what looks like the first steps of some very intense covert operation is belied by the smile, and light-hearted joking coming from Jim Staley, the man overseeing this preparation and founder and CEO of Utah-based TacGas.
That the gear, preparation and personnel all look and feel legit is no mistake and really at the heart of TacGas. The startup is making a name for itself creating hyper-accurate simulated military scenarios and other advertising and marketing content for a variety of clients including U.S. Defense Department contractors, firearms and consumer products retailers, and even the film and video game industry.
Staley, himself a U.S. military veteran and one-time intelligence agency contractor, said about six years ago he was working on another business he started, one that provides long-rifle training for civilian, law enforcement and military clients, when he got a glimpse of a potential and even more lucrative opportunity.
"We were out on a training range that was also being used for a big video shoot," Staley said. "These guys had a super high-end budget and all the latest equipment. The first day alone probably cost around $300,000.
"I thought, I really want to see how this goes."
And that's when the glimmer that would become TacGas first appeared, as Staley witnessed a series of missteps and errors that simply undermined what was a very expensive advertising project that was attempting to re-create an authentic moment of military action.
"You know, they had a lot of really fancy gear but when I saw how that production was actually executed, it was horrible," Staley said. "All the talent looked wrong, the gear was wrong. They had guys pulling stuff out of wrappers and putting on fresh uniforms that looked like they had just walked out of the mall or something."
Staley partnered with a photographer friend and, thanks to a network built on his military background and post-service endeavors and his penchant for precision, TacGas had no problem finding early clients.
In addition to his focus on accuracy and detail, Staley said he helps customers get the most out of their marketing budgets by offering the option of participating in multiproduct photo and video shoots. The approach allows clients to get more bang for their buck by being featured in productions that leverage the advantages of scale.
"We offer an annual contract that for a flat fee you get 12 profiles, or looks, over the year," Staley said. "We issue a guide to clients that outlines the production. Say, we're doing one that will feature four Marine infantry members and we'll build out a shot list based on who is participating. So that shoot might include a brand new helmet from one client, a new rifle from another, somebody's new scope and another company's suppressor.
"The whole shoot could have a budget of $200,000-$250,000 and everyone gets what they want from that. And, with the cost sharing, they all get high-end content for just a fraction of what they would have paid on their own."
And, Staley said, many clients also see some downstream benefits since their products can show up in other brands' marketing campaigns.
"So, when Ops-Core posts a picture of their new helmet, you might also see the latest Mystery Ranch pack in the shot."
One brand that's bullish on TacGas is Turkish firearm manufacturer Canik, a fast-growing brand distributed in the U.S. by Century Arms.
On a scorching hot day in May, Canik is part of a slew of TacGas production activity at a firing range just outside of Grantsville. The company is getting footage of an actor, and another of TacGas's numerous U.S. military veterans on staff, drawing and firing Canik's latest semi-automatic handgun.
Adam Ruonala, Canik's national marketing director, said TacGas had proven its expertise in numerous other projects for Century Arms, and when it came time to assemble promotional materials for the debut of Canik's new handgun, the hiring choice was easy.
"This new pistol is something that we want to present in a proper light, not only from aesthetics point of view but also in a way to ensure our marketing collateral is done in a safe, clean, crisp and very professional manner," Ruonala said. "And with that being said, it was a no-brainer for us to to make sure we did just that by having TacGas do the work. We know they'll portray it exactly how we want."
Ruonala noted that Canik firearms have also figured into work TacGas has done for video gaming giant Activision in development efforts for the company's wildly popular "Call of Duty" franchise.
Staley said he was limited in what details he could share about the work TacGas has done for Activision thanks to a nondisclosure agreement. But he did note his longtime friend and occasional TacGas collaborator Michelle Viscusi, a U.S. military veteran who is also a professional markswoman on Glock Pistols' competitive shooting team, did participate in a photo shoot that was part of a "Call of Duty" development project that would eventually lead to the Wraith character. In addition to photo shoots that help developers envision and build new characters, TacGas is also doing audio capture of different types of weapons being fired that can be incorporated into games for, you guessed it, the kind of high-level realism that Staley and his team are turning into an art form.
While TacGas continues to grow its client base for marketing and promotional materials, Staley also has is eye on making forays into work for the film and television industry.
To that end, he said he's on the hunt for a rural Utah property that could be used to stage even larger-scale productions and envisions opportunities to not only stage his own work there, but make it available to film and television teams.
Utah continues to grow its presence in that sector and a spokeswoman for the Utah Film Commission said the industry was showing signs of coming out of shutdowns and delays brought on by pandemic-related restrictions.
Staley knows his audience in looking for rural Utah property that could become future filming locations. Over half the productions shot in the state are outside metro areas. Utah Film Commission Director Virginia Pearce noted the economic impacts of such production projects are a boon to the areas of the state with some of the biggest economic challenges.
"We currently have nine productions slated to film throughout the summer in Salt Lake, Utah, Weber, Summit, Wasatch, Cache, Kane and Washington counties generating an estimated economic impact of $27 million and creating over 1,000 local jobs," Pearce said. "We have received an influx of inquiries this year for all different types of productions, including film, television, commercials and that demand does not seem to be slowing down.
"Productions filmed in the state have both a creative and an economic impact, particularly those filmed in rural communities, which supports our mission to encourage production and grow our film industry."
Staley said the same set of factors helping drive increased interest from out-of-state production companies is what makes Utah the perfect place to start and build a company like TacGas.
"It's a great central location for when you have to travel for shoots or bring people in," Staley said. "And it offers so much when it comes to terrain and locations. I can be in the west desert in under an hour to get stuff that looks a lot like places in the Middle East, head up to the mountains in the winter for Arctic-looking settings or in the summer if we're looking for trees.
"We're in a place where there's a lot of bread and butter right in the backyard."