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freelance writer, director, communicator and consultant; Showrunner on multiple national episodic television shows

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why I Decline (most) Offers to Create Video Content

   Do you recall this episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Rob and Laura hired this famous "colorful master painter" to paint the interior of their home?

The year was 1963 and The Dick Van Dyke Show was in it's second season.

Fast-forward to 1990. I am entering to my first season of being a freelance cameraman and director of photography.

Throughout the 90's, budgets were big in all things film and video. With those big budgets came ample time to do the work. If there was a pressing deadline, clients and production cos had no problem paying a premium. The bar was high; quality was not only expected, it was demanded. If you failed to meet deadline you were out. If your creativity wasn't fresh and better than the competition's, you were out.

Through times like this, you grow and expand. Skill sets evolve, different revenue streams develop; workflow adjusts and re-adjusts with the ever-changing dance of hardware/software improvements with creative tone and manner.

All of this began to change when desktop video workstations became affordable in conjunction with Sony releasing the DVCAM format in the late 1990s. It took a couple of years for the effect to be felt across the production board, but what happened is that because quality production hardware itself became more affordable, more people dove into it. With more people in it, the bar lowered, costs were in a downgrade.

This happened again with affordable high definition production coming onto the scene a few years later. A couple of years after that, DSLR HD video and affordable 3D hit the scene. That brings us to present where now, full-format digital 35mm video cameras (awesome images 4x the size of HD) are affordable and available at B&H Photo.

With each progression of technology, there tends to be a downward trend for a) cost; b) deadline and c) expectations. Because of this, labor is getting cheaper and younger (greener). Clients can now base quality on meeting the immediate deadline under their budgets. If the project happens to look great and make sense, that's icing on the proverbial cake. If the video runtime is under one minute, then well done faithful servant.

Recently, a colleague tweeted this which appropriately sums up the last three paragraphs:

Cheap gear has produced cheap labor, which has, in turn created cheap clients.

What does this have to do with that episode I mentioned in the first 'graph (written by Carl Reiner) aptly titled "Give Me Your Walls"?

Well, I'm not comparing myself to any master painter by any means. But I am saying that, like with anything else, quality does need a bit of time.

Vito Scotti as Vito Giotto in
Give Me Your Walls, 1963
That painter lived with the Petries for weeks. He was a craftsman that poured over every detail and was proud of his work (and he wanted a free place to live, another irony). Rob and Laura just wanted the walls painted.

Like a great painting, Story takes time to produce and unfold. Telling a great story with great connecting images takes time. Cramming all of that in a two minute YouTube clip for upload tonight takes talent and time (not to mention a stable broadband connection). Time is money; clients and agencies seem to have neither these days. So basically they settle with what they can get for their money: thrown-together content that may or may not make sense; content that may or may not look great; content that's all eye-candy and no protein. That's acceptable today and it's a travesty.

By the end of part two of Give Me Your Walls (yes, it was a two-parter), Rob Petrie told the guy to just hurry up and get out. And in the past three years, more often than not, digital media projects that come my way have one main criteria from the client: hurry up and get it online.

With labor rates well below what they were in the 90s and expectations well below that, I am fine with turning down immediate-delivery, run-of-the-mill projects in hopes that there is someone, anyone, any company, any agency out there that demands quality, honors story, is respectful of deadline and has a reasonable budget based on this criteria. If this is you, let's talk- I eagerly await.

on Hulu:

Friday, August 6, 2010

Are you an MBA or a Creative?

   I was at a posh meet-n-greet a few years ago at a prestigious film production co in Hollywood. One of the principles came up to me and inquired, "Are you an MBA or a Creative?" What a strange thing to ask a stranger, I thought; but hey, it's Hollywood. "I don't have an MBA, just 22 year's experience in the industry as a Director, DP and Editor" was my reply; his: "Great, I can talk to you!" What?! Why did he think he could not talk to someone holding a master's degree in business administration? He ran this company, so you'd think that he'd want to talk the business of "the biz" with people in-the-know.

Either that was his ice-breaker OR he really believed that he could not relate to "an MBA" because he himself was so incredibly creative. I firmly believe it's the latter. He was a "Creative". And, as I found out throughout the conversation, he simply viewed himself as only being able to relate to other "Creatives." It's almost like Creatives and MBAs were two different species in his mind— and there were no crossbreeds.

yours truly (far right) on location in Jamaica as part of an in-house production team

In companies that sell a product or service OTHER than video, audio and print media, but have an in-house media department, (I'm talking about a department or team that produces promotional video, print, copy, etc... NOT social media) the employees in those departments simply have this mindset. Maybe not to this extreme, but it's there.

What does this mean for you *non-creatives* and MBAs  in the organization? It means that these people really feel that they can't relate to you. Maybe they're fine in social settings after work, company picnics, etc..., but deep down, at the shop, they can't relate— or they think they can't.

This is one of the reasons I find that it's so important to structure these teams in ways that are, at times, seemingly unconventional. If you are aware of their general sensitivities as creative individuals as well as this overarching and downright fear of *the suits*, then you'll soon realize that these folks function better as individuals and as a team when they are governed in seemingly non-traditional ways.

There's no magic bullet for this media structure. Each plan is different and unique. It's based on individual strengths/weaknesses, work style preferences and workflow practicality. It's also important to understand where various tasks relate and crossover and the ones that do not. For instance, certain tasks in digital media are very quick to happen. Other tasks can take a very long time. I've seen a situation where one team member has the responsibilities of all the time-consuming tasks, while another has all of the quick tasks. If you look at the JDs, it all seems logical if you don't know media production, but the persons designing these jobs wasn't aware of what's quick and what's not. The slow guy looks, well, slow and frustrated. And the young intern appears to outperform. Even though they may function together as a team, they are not satisfied nor efficient. What's more, they are too frightened to speak up. Let's face it, jobs are scarce, so who want's to tangle with the suits and get the axe? Seriously, although it's a cliche', that is the mindset with these creatives.

If you are in HR and already have these people on your staff, it would be very rewarding to take a look at these individuals and learn a little bit about what they do... (in their words, more specific than just the JD). They are (or should be) the experts in this rapidly changing field. You will have to go to them, they will not come to you. Give them the opportunity to write their own JD and see what they come up with. Yes, it could be totally off-the-wall and not possible to execute budgetarily; however there may be elements there that can be. They will take it seriously. And they will operate more efficiently, maybe even optimally even if it's just for your asking and concern.

from www.mashable.com
Lastly, I believe it's getting increasingly important for HR folks to realize these things now and be ready to recruit creatives (if you haven't already) and support these teams or departments in a proper, albeit maybe non-traditional, non-MBA way as this digital media, social media tide keeps rising. It'll be better for them, better for the bottom line.

Consider the facts:
  • unemployment is up now, it will bounce back, hopefully with a vengeance;
  • the social media engine is primed as an incredible promotional tool, and it's only in it's infancy;
  • YouTube® and various other video hosting sites have made valid, credible distribution free and easy;
  • WordPress and Blogger have made online publishing credible, free and easy;
  • your company WILL, AT SOME POINT, take advantage of these things in some form...
So, will the IT intern handling your in-house creative (web, video, print)? Can your company afford an outside creative agency or contractors? The most logical and cost effective solution for most will be to add the salaried digital media production team and their gear in-house.

Consider what happened in the 90's with the hiring of creatives for digital media. Although that bubble burst because of Wall Street and hundreds of creatives were laid off, it wouldn't have been sustainable anyway because the internet infrastructure wasn't there. It is now. Will you be ready to recruit and structure wisely for the next go 'round?

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Having your DP do the Story Edit? Think Again.

   First let me say that having a Director of Photography on your team that can picture cut is a wonderful thing. This makes them a better storyteller with what they’re passionate about (hopefully): that is telling a story visually, thinking sequentially and thinking ahead.

Now more often than not (in guerilla reality, documentary and corporate production), I see situations where the DP (staff or contract) is asked, required (or wants) to story cut a project. I don’t think this is a budgeting thing as much as it is a misnomer that has escalated over the last few years as technology has progressed making specialized tools of the trade more affordable to everyone in the industry.

It’s not my intent here to get creative contractors all riled up by suggesting they forfeit a revenue stream. Nor am I trying to suggest that a staff DP or editor isn't up to the task.

What I want to do is address a workflow that in the corporate setting is almost always somewhat broken. And this broken workflow affects how the team interacts internally and externally, their satisfaction of work performed and the quality of the product.

Let’s cut to the chase (pardon the cliché)…
In a story cut, the editor and director (sometimes one and the same) are focused solely on matching the story to the best takes available, nothing else. Assuming any technical issues are fixable, all takes and clips are fair game. Story comes first. That’s it.

Being a picture-cutting DP myself on occasion, I can say first hand that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate story from that great irrelevant, random B shot sequence you may have captured. A DP cutting story will tend to force these great shots and sequences in at the story level- whether they’re needed or not. So then what you get is a storyline that may drift and could be remotely confusing- but hey, that great sequence is in there. And that’s a good thing right?

It’s never a good thing to confuse the audience at the story level. The best cinematography possible simply isn’t going to save a wondering storyline.

Where I’m coming from…
The first real story edit I did was in 2006 for director David Gibbons cutting footage shot by college students to create a feature-length documentary— a project called “14 Days in Great Britain”. Now, since I hadn’t shot a single frame of this footage, it was all fair game and I was totally unbiased. I focused solely on story flow, sequiter soundbites and nothing else. This footage was not fully logged and what was (by the DP), focused pretty much exclusively on the best B roll they’d shot. No one had transcribed the interviews, so it was up to me to find the story, where really, at that point, no obvious flow existed. How I found this flow is the topic of another discussion. (Ping me and I’ll write it up.)

Bottomline, Gibbons had only 3 minor content changes in the entire 86 minute piece because the story was so focused, direct and understandable. About 7 weeks after I started the project, the piece premiered in the UK at a number of venues including BAFTA. The workflow was simple: storycut> picture cut & postscore> final mix & color grade> master. This operation happened smoothly and swiftly. The director allowed me (the editor) to work in my sweet spot and as team leader, I was the only person who interacted with my assistant, the composer and the sound mixer. Communication was direct and effective. The project's DP had done his job and had moved on to other work.

Before we go too far…
Whilst speaking of the UK, I’d like to mention that HD DSLR guru Philip Bloom has got to be one of the premier digital media DPs out there today. And the speed at which he is able to post his completed shorts online is simply astounding. Without fail, when you watch his work you will be mesmerized by the picture. Now, what did I just keystroke?... “…mesmerized by the picture.” When I watch his work, that’s all I think about: nice, nice, beautiful, well-composed shots. But what about story? Yes, it’s there in his work, but because he’s cutting it himself, he’s going to give us the best shots in the bin; that’s his priority, story is second. With a great DP doing your story cut, it simply always will be in my opinion.

Now this isn’t to say that Bloom or anyone else at his level can’t wear the director’s hat and focus on story. They are totally capable if they have the passion AND the ability to allow their hired DP to work without micromanagement in the field and a trusted editor that gets the same freedom in the edit suite. And I don’t mean a free-for-all; just proper direction, communication, governance and workflow.

An obvious summation…
If the Director is DP, then the story cut will most likely be driven by picture. IF the DP and director are two distinct individuals, then there’s simply going to be some tension and hurt feelings (creatives tend to be low EQ) between what each feels motivates story (picture or script). And since the director should prevail (because story comes first), it’s the DP that could be disappointed at the end of the day.

So, back to the topic at hand…
Where should your FCP-on-an-MBP-wielding DP fit in after the shoot? Two words: color grading. Once your story cut is solid and picture is locked, if your DP is capable and has a great ocular palate, then allow your DP to make these (and only these) shots laid out by your story editor beautiful beyond description (staying within the tone and manner of the story as directed, of course). If he/she isn't trained to do this, then by all means they should sit with the colorist and director, learning, observing and contributing.

What this does, and what this article has been about, is ensuring that three key players in media production are in their sweet spots. The DP and editor have freedom and creativity: governed, but not micromanaged by the director. The DP’s job is mostly in the field; the story editor’s job is mostly in the suite. Some collaborative overlap is healthy, but the roles most be clearly defined and each should know their limits.

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