When local filmmaker Carl D. Brown bought a commercial building in West Oakland in 2015, he and his wife, entrepreneur Pilar Zuniga, had no idea the amount of work that was required to get the space ready to house their three growing businesses. Zuniga owns a floral design studio, Brown is the co-founder of a video production company, Corduroy Media, and together they founded Mama Dog Studios with the dream of creating a professional soundstage for local creatives, including themselves.
“There was nowhere in Oakland where you had a comfortable place for a good shoot, with good sound quality,” Zuniga said. “It just made sense to have something in Oakland, a community we’ve been tied to for a long time. [Carl] has always been about cultivating community.”
The couple was familiar with the area, having been residents of the nearby Gaskill neighborhood since the late 2000s. When Brown bought the expansive building—it spans an entire city block between 26th and 27th streets—one end was occupied by a craftsman who stored wood from floor to ceiling, a scene Zuniga called “a tinder box.” An artist collective lived at the opposite end of the building, a space that was also used for underground parties.
The building, Zuniga said, had been up for sale for quite a while. No one wanted to buy it, she said, in part due to its unusual mix of commercial and unregulated live/work space—unsafe conditions that were also present at the “Ghost Ship” warehouse, where 36 people lost their lives in December 2016 after a fire broke out inside the East Oakland structure.
After more than a year of negotiations, Brown and Zuniga reached an agreement with everyone living in the building to move out.
Once vacant, Zuniga and Brown began the daunting task of renovating the building. Brown oversaw construction, while Zuniga took on a design role managing everything from the colors on the walls to the furniture aesthetic and the overall layout of the space. “I spent many, many hours painting with an assistant,” Zuniga said.
The construction included ripping out the then-existing floor to pour a new concrete one. The building required new support beams as a result of a previous tenant cutting sections out of the old ones. Additionally, the couple had solar panels and a new electrical box installed to accommodate the demands of running their studio equipment.
While working on the physical construction of Mama Dog Studios, Zuniga and Brown were also busy building a social media presence to spread the word among creatives in need of a soundstage for their projects.
Besides the dollar amount they spent renovating the building, Zuniga noted the “sweat equity” the couple put into the space in those early days.
“There’s just so much that goes into a place like this. You have to be a creative person who values what it offers,” she said. “It’s not a great business model. If you’re in it just to make money, then it will not work.”
After several years of construction, Mama Dog Studios opened in the spring of 2019. When the pandemic started in 2020, Zuniga and Brown used their new space to launch a series called Live from Mama Dog Studios, spearheaded by local artist Mani Draper, a member of the Grand Nationxl collective. The virtual sessions allowed local artists the opportunity to perform safely at a time when they weren’t able to perform in front of live audiences. The “live sessions” have since evolved from intimate concerts to invite-only events featuring local creatives in conversation about the arts, culture, local activism, and other pressing topics.
Mama Dog Studios also rents out space to local artists and producers and offers a variety of options. There’s a 35 by 55-foot soundproofed stage, a smaller photo studio, and a 30-square-foot black-out stage with a conference room, shared kitchen, makeup vanity, and a wardrobe closet.
In the three years since Mama Dog Studios opened its doors, the soundstage has hosted an array of clients who’ve used the space for virtual concert sessions, live concerts, corporate shoots, fundraising events, and have even hosted celebrities like Steph Curry and local talent like the Oakland Roots. Last year, Zuniga hired a facilities manager, Sam Gouldthorpe, to help free up time to focus on her floral design business.
“We’ve had people build incredible sets on here,” Gouldthorpe said. “We’ve had cars in here, a Japanese game show, a space station, all kinds of sets.” And the turnaround time between projects can often be quick, he added. One day the soundstage may be all black, and within hours it’s painted a different color depending on the need of the client.
But even as Mama Dog’s client base grows, Gouldthorpe said the emphasis remains on fostering close relationships with East Bay creatives. “We want to make sure that local artists can come in and have a space to work.”
Even with the studio’s growing success, Zuniga and Brown are still deeply invested in their hands-on approach and the connections that are fostered through each project that’s filmed at the studio.
“Those are the stories. Yes, we are entrepreneurs, a ‘power couple’ or whatever,” Zuniga said. But I was just in there wiping down the toilet. You’re constantly trying to put that energy into it to keep it going and keep it moving.”