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Abby Winters Interview

by Jayo October 2007

AbbyWinters is rapdily becoming the go-to studio for quality solo-girl and girl/girl DVDs. The AbbyWinters philosophy of "real" "natural" and "true" are fresh and accurate in an industry where those terms are used, misused and abused far and wide. The AbbyWinters portfolio show that you can successfully marry "amateur" models with quality production values and get an outstanding result. On their 7th anniversary, Abby Winters and Garion Hall were kind enough to share some of their techniques for success.

Is Abby Winters a real person, or just a name like "Betty Crocker" to personalize the company?

Abby: I am def a real person! I founded the company back in October 2000, but soon had other commitments, so I handed over the reins to Garion Hall (now CEO) to grow the business. He's done a pretty amazing job. We made the decision to keep the Abby persona alive, as the hostess of the site. I pop my head in now and then, post on the boards, critique shoots, do the odd shoot.

Garion: So Abby created what we call the paradigm—what our models look like, what they do in a shoot (actually, it's pretty much just how young Aussies naturally are), how we shoot them, and how the material is edited and presented. From that foundation I refined her vision to make it a successful business. While Abby is not involved in the day to day operations of the business any more, we invoke her name as a noun, and adjective, and a verb, all the time here.

How did AbbyWinters come to be? What did you do before this?

Abby: As a consumer I was disappointed with the quality of the amateur genre on the net—sites would get these fantastic amateur models but dress them up (and make them up) to look like porn stars, totally missing the inherent appeal of an amateur model in the first place. On top of that the presentation was poor—small images, awful quality video, misleading websites, poor design, and these dodgy guys directing models to do things they clearly did not want to do—ugh!

Originally, I planned to shoot models and sell the shoots to other sites, but I got rebuffed many times by the sites of the day. They said I should re-shoot the models with heels, make up and stuff, then they'd buy my shoots. So, I thought, "how hard could it be? I'll start my own damn site!". It was hard.

Satisfyingly, those sites are not around any more, and abbywinters.com is pretty successful!

Garion: Abby and I met working in the theatrical lighting industry here in Australia—we both worked on shows (musicals, festivals, touring concerts and so on), and struck up a friendship. I was a consumer as well but never had any aspirations to work in the industry.

Abby: I was always keen on photography but never any good at it. I refined my skills shooting for the first year the site was running, then stepped back and let Garion be the driver.

Were you confident of success, or did you think you were taking a big risk?

Abby: I never, ever intended it to be a full time job for me; though I did not really have any actual "intentions" at all. I just thought it'd be fun to give it a go.

Garion: I saw potential but knew very little of the industry, very little of running a business. I figured I thought it was good, surely there must be someone out there who'd like it as well? Abby still thought it was all a bit of a laugh even when a dozen people a day were joining the site; but I started to think, "Uh, this is getting serious...".

Abby: Well, of course I knew... ok, I didn’t really. I was just messing around. Anyway I had about $4000 saved up, and used that as the seed capital for it all. I had a pretty decent job and room for plenty of growth there, so it did not feel like a risky thing at all.

Garion: It was nowhere near as organized as Abby makes it out to be—"seed capital," for fuck's sake! It was some cash she was going to spend on whatever—may as well be this hobby as anything else!

When you started out had you had an idea of where you'd be by now. Have things worked out the way you thought?

Abby: I def never thought it'd employ 45 people full time and turn over more than $10m a year! In my wildest dreams, we'd employ one or two people and have a bit of fun.

Garion: It's been more successful than I would have thought, especially considering Abby's idea is pretty uncomplicated. It's a lot harder to manage as the company grows than it was in the early days. There are new challenges pretty much every day: none of which I would have anticipated a week ago, let alone when we started this jaunt. It's a lot less fun than it was before, but it's also more satisfying, more challenging. I feel an enormous sense of obligation to the employees and models who have worked with us to get to where we are.

What was the most surprising thing you've learned about the business?

Abby: That Garion could take my two-bit, hare-brained idea, and make it as successful as it is now.

Garion: The most surprising thing—and the most frustrating thing—is how much time I have to spend on non-core activities like managing people, politics, advertising, legals, paperwork, policy, administration, compliance, IT, gear, systems, and so on. We're very much a media production company that happens to produce porn (rather than a porn production outfit geared to make a profit as a business).

I really want to spend more time on core stuff: making the shoots be as sexy and breath-taking as possible—but that's why we employ excellent managers.

Knowing what you now—if you could go back and change something when you were just starting out, what would you have done differently?

Abby: Not much personally, but I have had a pretty easy ride. For Garion, though, we should have organized a business advisor kind of person earlier on. Not having things like position descriptions and performance reviews for staff made things pretty chaotic.

Garion: Yeah, someone to help us with that stuff would have made a big difference. We got someone in early 2005. Now, we're still resolving policy on things that should have been put to bed years ago. Some of that is due to the rate of growth (we're doubling in staff each year); if we had someone with some business sense help us early on I would have been a lot less stressed!

If we did it all again from now, we'd structure things totally differently—when we started we had no idea at all how to run a business, let alone a successful one. And of course, we did not really know it was going to be successful. That being said, I don't regret it—it's been a wonderful learning experience, though my partner may disagree.

There is no public "face" of Abby Winters. Had you thought of hiring an actress to play "Abby Winters" as host on the website or DVDs?

Abby: We've toyed with the idea. Garion has asked me a few times to host things like that, and I am not into it at all!

Garion: I don't think it's a big deal. Customers ask if Abby has done a shoot as a model ("she should!"), but when they see she has not, they get over it pretty fast, and go back to the site and see what there is to see. And there's a heckload of cool stuff to see!

Right now you've been concentrating in solo-girl and girl/girl content. Are you going to stay with that, or do you see yourselves applying your philosophies to guy/girl content? What about a male version of " Intimate Moments," or gay-male titles?

Garion: We have done a few girl-boy shoots, and they are pretty popular. It's our #1 request from customers.

Abby: I had this theory: if we're going to do it, we'd only do it with our models' own, real-life partners. The models are more keen this way, and there's undeniable passion there (that is often lacking from mainstream shoots).

Garion: The problem is, for most non-professional boys it's all over in the first two minutes of the video (or 20 frames of stills). One shoot, we had to go back five days in a row for the video, and the poor guy still could not get a grip. It's understandable—our models are all damn sexy!—but it makes it hard to shoot.

There are ways around it, but we need to decide if it's something we really want to do. We also need to consider if it'd freak out our existing models—some models choose to do the gentle nude only posing (knees together!) and we don't want to freak them out at the recruitment stage by telling them we shoot hardcore stuff as well (we're really big on keeping our models fully informed, so we'd never omit the truth in the auditions).

Abby: Again, there're ways around it. One day I expect we'll produce GB, and maybe BB stuff a well. We know nothing about the market, and I don't know what our shooters would think of shooting that stuff! Never say never, and all that...

Garion: Yes, we never rule things out—we have a big list of potential ideas for shoots and whole sites. Right now the site we have is keeping us plenty busy.

How do you pick your models?

Garion: We have a pretty structured system for recruiting models. We interview around 30 new models a week; we show them the site and talk a lot about it. Because our models are all amateur, and the industry has a bit of a bad rep, they are relying on us to be truthful and honest and straight up. So we spend time telling models about the chances of being busted, about what they get paid, what they do and don't have to do, what the contracts allow us to do, and stuff.

As I said earlier, we allow models to choose their own level of posing—some want to keep it nice, other are bang up for everything. We do a few topless test shots of each model and give her a booklet with more info. Our recruiting staff gather all the info into our database of models and the production team gets together and discusses the merits of each.

Some are no-shoots right away—they don’t match the paradigm for some reason. Those that are shootable, we rate in terms of how suitable they are for us. We have a quota for what kind of stuff we put on the site each week, so if we're low on solo-masturbation videos, we'll rate a new model up for that higher than someone who is not.

Around a third the models we interview "convert" into shoots, and most models will do a few shoots of different types. We're always looking for new models, but we always have enough to get by as well.

Who are some of your most popular models--your crowd favorites?

Abby: A key part of the site is that it's greater than the sum of its parts. We don’t have exclusive stars, and we're careful to never have lists on the sites of "most popular" models (though we get asked for it all the time). Also our models are all amateurs—none of them make a living from the modelling, and we need a constant influx of newbies on the site.

Garion: That being said, some models we have we know we can count on for an amazing shoot, and because of that we shoot a lot of them. And because of that, they are very popular. Julietta, Petria, Sue Ann, Jacki, Anneke, Melita, Violet, Jilly, Marigold, Chloe B are some of these models.

Coincidentally, they are also working on a long term special project that comes to fruition in January 2008—it's top secret, but we'll be releasing more info about it soon. Meantime, many of them are on DVDs or will be soon, and they all have stacks of shoots on the website.

It takes an unusual kind of person to want to pose nude (or masturbate) on camera. Do your models all have something in common that's sadly lacking in most people (like say, Scarlet Johansson)?

Garion: A sense of adventure would be the main thing. Some of our models are exhibitionists: they really get off on shocking people, on getting a reaction by being sexy. But others are verrrry shy and quiet, doing modelling for a confidence booster. Some do it only for the money, some others would do it for free. Some are unemployed, some are employed in professional jobs with a planned career path. We have really seen all types, but we always meet new models who you'd think would never do this kinda thing, and they end up being amazing at it, and loving it.

Where do you shoot the scenes? Either you have a great budget for set design or you're going into people's real homes to shoot.

Garion: We do most of our shoots at the models' own homes. Some models live with their parents which makes life a little hard (and dangerous! Oh, the stories!), but some models live in huge share houses, and they let us shoot other models there. In the warmer months we shoot outside a lot as well.

Abby: It's really integral to the paradigm, that we shoot the models in their own clothes, in their own homes. These are just every day young women, and we try to reinforce that as much as we can.

The masturbation scenes have a static camera, and the girl appears to be literally alone in the room. How much input does the model have in what will be done?

Garion: The model goes out with the videographer, who chooses a specific location with the model (say, a bed), and sets up lights (though we try to use natural light as much as possible), and the camera on a tripod. They give the model a short briefing—because the camera is alone with them, they cannot move out of the frame—so we work with the model to see where she thinks she will move when she has an orgasm (this can be an interesting conversation).

We leave the technique to the model. Part of the whole "Intimate Moments" thing is how it's fascinating to watch the different methods people use. We ask that she be open to the camera, but we don’t give too many instructions, because we want it to look pretty uninhibited and natural. In fact, in one of our best IM's you cannot see anything more revealing than her breasts because of where she has positioned herself in relation to the camera. That's Toni B—it's not on a DVD, but maybe it should be!

In terms of direction, ask them to do what they do normally—some will not even take their underwear off, others will get it all off in the first 30 seconds. One model could only masturbate with a particular kind of shampoo bottle (she discovered when she was 16), so she brought that to the shoot (Jade T).

We used to shoot to 60 minute Mini DV tapes, so we'd ask the models to be done in 45 mins max just in case they went longer. This is also fascinating—some models pop off in two minutes flat, some (frustratingly!) go to one hour and 20 minutes, which meant useless footage and a re-shoot. One of the longest ones (on DVD and the website) is Jilly. It's the first time she has used a vibrator and it's an amazing 45 minute journey!

Now, we shoot Hi Def to harddisk, and the disk holds 111 minutes. No one has broken that barrier yet.

The girl/girl scenes obviously have a crew shooting the scene. How many people are behind the scenes?

Garion: We try to keep as few people as possible on set, because we want the models to have a natural, uninhibited experience. But as we grow we need to train new shooters, so we often have an assistant/intern there learning. The basic crew is a stills photographer, a videographer, and a Shoot Assistant. The shoot assistant will do second video camera and handle all the administrative stuff like release forms, lunch, clothes, and so on.

When shooting stills, it's only the stills photographer. When shooting video, it's the two videographers. The shoot Assistant is around but seldom in the same room.

How long does it take to shoot a full scene (considering that it probably edits down to 20 minutes)?

Garion: We always shoot the videos in real time—we start rolling both cameras and let the scene unfold. Scenes as shot go for between 40 and 60 minutes, usually around 50. We never stop recording and try to edit the scene together also in real time, so the only editing required is cutting between the cameras (that is to say, we seldom remove "time").

We pretty much never shoot traditionally—call a cut, stop shooting, plan the next sequence, shoot a take, shoot another take, shoot inserts, cut-aways, and closeups. Shooting like that totally breaks the passion we're renowned for... but it also results in shoots of a higher technical quality.

Viewers will have noticed that our shoots are not amazing technically— sometimes there's not enough light where you want it, or a model bumps the camera, or a truck drives past outside, or a dog barks, or a phone rings—but the passion is relentless and enthralling. We try to keep it as real as possible on shoots and not use "tricks" to show a heightened reality of what might have occurred.

Abby: As you could imagine, this makes for extremely hard work. I cannot think of any other genre in media that does a 50 minute, non-stop take, and only gets one go at it—you've held the same awkward pre-orgasm shot rock solid for four minutes, you're in agony, in a small room in summer with hot lights, two girls going at it for an hour, the sweat from your foreheads drips down your nose, onto the handle of the camera making it slippery, then drips off the handle onto the LCD display making it hard to see, over the buttons, onto your foot. Then your leg craps just as she has her third orgasm... Our shooters are the unsung heroes, the work is really damn hard, and you put so much of yourself into the shoots, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.

Garion: So to answer your question the video shoot itself takes as long as it takes—around an hour. We shoot the "before" and "after" interviews before the shoot and after the shoot, of course.

How much input do the performers have in the girl/girl scenes?

Garion: On a GGT3 day (as we call it) we always shoot the stills first, which allows the photographer to work with the models on general poses, pace, and allows the models to give each other some pointers on what floats their boat. We try to pair models that have done at least one shoot before with total newbies, so they can guide the newcomer, which helps the shoot go a lot smoother. We always ask for ideas from the models, and the models who have done more shoots, we let them run the show, and work hard to keep up getting the coverage! Sometimes the photographer will set up an idea and let the models run with the ball.

When the models get to the video shoot stage, they get what's going on, and have at it—it's totally up to them.

Abby: It's funny at the start of a shoot, we tell them the scene should go for around an hour, and they're all, "a whole hour?!". At then at the end of the shoot, we let the bask in the afterglow and say, "well, that's 65 minutes—we're done!"—they are always amazed that it went that quick.

Garion: Time flies when . . .

Do the performers in the g/g scenes know each other beforehand?

Garion: Sometimes. We prefer they don't—we kind of set the shoots up to be a "one night stand" in a way. We never have a plot, but we occasionally have a premise. I think plots in porn is the most absurd thing ever. Anyone who's buying porn is there for the sexy, not for porn actors reading badly written lines with excruciating technique. If you want plot, character development, story arcs and narrative—go rent a drama from the video shop.

Abby: And if you want hot sex, buy an abbywinters DVD!

Garion: Exactly. Some of our models do know each other (models often refer their friends), and others do a lot of interacting on the forums first (they find out the day before on the phone who their partner is). It's fascinating to watch the interaction unfold on the forums, and to have site members interact. Heh, I guess that's character development right there! Uh oh...

Are the g/g performers real lesbians, bi-sexual, or are they just doing it as "performers?"

Garion: we have a pretty even mix. Many women this age seem to be pretty happy to go either way at any time (whether they are being paid or not), and being paid is certainly a nice bonus. We have a thread on the forums recently about this actually—some models start with us purely for the money, but do more shoots because they love it. Others are the opposite; they did it for the fun and thrill, now they do more shoots for the money. Others are just really sexed up all the time.

Abby: The answer, then, is that most are bisexual. We don't ask models; we don't think it's relevant.

On your website you encourage people to send (new) toys in for the models to use on-camera. How well has that worked out?

Garion: It has worked a treat! We get sent in around 10 toys a week from all over the world, our Production Assistant pops on her apron and washes them (always a fun surprise for new staff to find a dildo in the office dishwasher!). On the shoot, the models choose the toy from the toy chest to use on her shoot, writes a short message to the member, and shoots a small 30-second video message for him as well. The model keeps the toy so models love it, and we send the member the short video and the model's handwritten note, so the members love it!

We get some pretty freaky things. Some of them cost hundreds of dollars.

How much does viewer/fan feedback influence your content?

Abby: we used to be more receptive than we are now...

Garion: yeah, it's hard. We have a niche we know we’re good at, and we get a lot of feedback from customers about shoots they want to see. It's pretty seldom one piece of feedback matches anyone else's though—"more tribbing" / "less tribbing"—two emails I got from different people on the same day last week. So we just do the same amount of tribbing.

Abby: The single most common piece of feedback we get is requests for more boy-girl shoots, but we're not shooting that stuff now.

Garion: Other feedback we get, they just don't understand the paradigm—our most common feedback a few months ago was from people wanting us to move the camera more in our "intimate moment" shoots (the whole point of these shoots is that there is no camera operator in the room, the camera is on a tripod, and you watch the action unfold as if you were peering through a keyhole). Other feedback is just inappropriate or dumb. "I want to see two girls having sex in a busy shopping mall"—well, sure. We'll get right on to that.

Abby: Our members in 2001 and 2002 really helped us define the paradigm and explore it. These days we feel more comfortable in our way of doing things, and as we get older, less inclined to change things. It's a bit sad—I swore I'd never become one of those people...

Garion: We are getting feedback lately wanting models to do more dirty talk in GG shoots, and this is being discussed on our forums. It's an interesting cultural thing—here in Australia dirty talk during sex is viewed as being kinda lame. It's the sort of thing that they do in porn movies—it's tacky, crass, fake, pretentious (ok, I am generalising, of course—some people dig it, but it's far from common).

It seems to be that in the US, it's pretty normal—you're weird at sex if you don't do it (I don’t speak from first hand experience, but that's what my anecdotal data points to). So our American customers feel kinda ripped off when our models are not more vocal during sex. We want to please our customers, but don't want to get our models to do something they don't normally do because it'd just come off as being fake. It's a whassname.

Abby: That's called a conundrum, dude.

Many lesbian scenes from other companies feature a lot of toys, strap-ons, riding a Sybian. I've seen a few toys in AW scenes, but not many, and I haven't yet seen any strap-ons or Sybians. Do you think you'll add this later on, or are you going to stay with what you're doing now?

Abby: Actually, we don't use toys in GG scenes at all because it's such a cliché, and such a male-dominant thing "the only way two girls can have a good time is with a penis, or phallic shaped place-holder." It was really a pet thing of mine when we started out—I am not saying that no lesbian couple would ever use a dildo, just that every other GG shoot in the world has it. And my point was: it's not required equipment.

Garion loves having rules and he interpreted my annoyance with toys as being an absolute thing. It has actually worked ok—there is a significant movement amongst GG porn aficionados that dildos are evil, and we certainly cater to them.

Garion: yes, I do like rules, or at least guidelines. You know how annoying those "creatives" can be, changing their mind all the time? Rules help me run a tight ship!!

Do the Abby Winters models/performers make personal appearances?

Abby: We don't actually market our DVD stuff here in Australia at all. Because our models are amateur, they don't want to have to deal with being famous in their suburb for all the wrong reasons. Our models are proud of what they do, but it's not the only thing they do in their lives; so we try to keep it on the lamb by not selling our stuff here in Australia.

Ironically, Australians make up a small portion of our website customers. We think it's because Aussie guys are spoiled by all the real live Aussie girls they meet every day, and the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Aussie blokes tend to prefer the more glammed up America stuff (a generalisation, of course).

You state that the company gives a certain amount of money to charities. Which charities do you support?

Garion: We donate $1000 a week to a different charity. We select them each week and it's kind of random—just places that are non-political, non-religious, and help people (or animals). I think it is important to do for any company. Abby's really big on social responsibility, and because of that, I have become so as well. We're a successful company in the local community, we should be helping to make the world a better place—not just giving people their sexual entertainment, but, well, more.

Abby: We also hope to set an example that other adult producers can follow. We also make large monthly donations to the Eros Association (Australia's "Free Speech Coalition"), and we're a title sponsor of ASACP.

Finally—I was going to leave this alone, but I just can't. On your website you have a list of equipment you use for this that and the other, and buried in there, where you didn't think I'd notice, is "Light meters are for wankers." Heresy!

Abby: Ha. You old timers...Digital cameras, with histograms and full frame average and spot metering, zebras, and highlight alerts, is all you could ever need—ever need—to achieve a correct exposure. Light meters, and people's obsession with them, really annoy me. They are just totally unnecessary. If you're shooting film, I get it. But who shoots film these days? Can you even still buy film?!

Garion: Now you've gone and got her started . . .

Abbywinters.com is the online home for "Abby Winters," which includes a large database of "natural" models in stills and videos, and sells a line of solo-girl and girl/girl DVDs: they have an excellent tour and a lot of free stuff as well.

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