The Art of Pre-Production: A Wicked TV And Photo Campaign.
This next post centers around the most recent campaign for “Wicked Tuna” on Nat Geo, one of the most complex and technically-exciting shoots I’ve been a part of, and as with all Client Blog posts, there’s a deeper theme in play. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I did being a part of it. One final note before diving in – I cannot overstate how fortunate I am to work with the talented people on my team every day. My fellow members of the NGC Creative Team have truly brought this campaign to life, so a big thank you to Erin Newsome (Writer & Executive Producer on the TV spots), Tyler Korba (Creative Director on the TV spots) and Brian Everett (Creative Director of Design on the TV spots, and lead creative on the print/key art) who have worked so tirelessly on this entire project.
“Wicked Tuna” is one of Nat Geo’s more popular series. It’s a show about Bluefin Tuna Fishermen in one of the nation’s oldest seaports – Gloucester, Massachusetts. These fishermen have been fishing for these giants of the sea all of their lives, and for good reason: each one of these rare, huge fish can bring home $10,000 or more at the market. “Wicked Tuna” follows a group of the best of the best boats struggling to make ends meet, and hopefully hook onto a big payday. This is the third season for the show, and each season we’ve done original shooting with the Captains for our promo campaign. But more on that later…
Captain Dave Marciano, owner of the F.V. Hard Merchandise. Photo by Michael Muller
In Season 2 last year, we worked with Evolve out of Chicago for the TV spots and they did some incredible work on that entire campaign. Evolve is set up a little uniquely from other production teams – the driving force behind their creative is the teamwork between Joel and Jesse Edwards, brothers and Director/DP/editors. They both do pretty much everything in a production, and that can have huge advantages for large jobs such as this. Going into Season 3, we booked Evolve again because we knew that they knew what to expect, and what they learned from Season 2 would be huge in order to improve our on-screen product in Season 3. An added benefit of working with Evolve is that they handle shoot, edit and design – one stop shopping. As a client, it’s always very beneficial when you can package multiple aspects of the production with one partner agency. It’s more streamlined and creatively cohesive. The big difference this year was that I asked them to take the necessary time before the shoot to focus solely on this project. We have a great relationship and history, and we both knew the creative would benefit from it…and it did. We also partnered up with Radium Sound – to not only build the sound design, but also to compose our tracks. One of the other big learnings from Season 2 was putting an even bigger focus on our print photography needs. We knew that we wanted to shoot the captains in a new way, and capture that same level of cinematographic quality we’d accomplished in our TV campaigns. We hired Michael Muller, as we loved his experience with underwater shooting and his ability to capture stunning, rugged portraits in a real, unvarnished style.
Top Photo by Michael Muller.
Bottom Photo of Michael Muller in action by Tyler Korba.
CHALLENGES AND MARKETING.
So we’ve shot with the captains for the last 2 years, and we’re preparing for our third…another reason we brought in Evolve – they know what’s been done before. So, one of our big challenges was how to evolve the campaign in the new season. There were a few brand new aspects to the show (a new Captain, TJ, joined the cast) but many of the promotable story beats remained the same: 1. The action – showing them fighting with fish. 2. The competition – watching them try to beat each other and become the #1 captain. 3. These are real, authentic characters – bringing their story to life is important, and making sure that soul of “they’d be doing this whether or not the cameras were even here” comes across. Our final challenge was to help grow the series – to reach people who haven’t seen it or heard about it before…to build a new audience to add to the existing one. To us, one of the best ways to do that was to make a campaign that looked stunning, and would turn your head.
BIG TAKEAWAY #1:
PLAN, MEET, PLAN, TALK, PLAN, THEN PLAN SOME MORE.
Evolve was excited to build on season 2′s great work, and they had the idea to fly down to DC to meet with us face to face for a day of brainstorming, creative discussions, briefings, and tech-talk to get the ball rolling. “This was an important part of the creative process because it brought the whole team together early on.” says Joel Edwards of Evolve. “We were able to be apart of important strategy conversions that gave us valuable information about the show and the networks research, feedback and needs. At the same time we’d be discussing ideas & thoughts, getting opinions on things that resonate and things that don’t…which is crucial to planning and being on the same page.” I’ve talked before about creative partners over-delivering for their clients, and this was a great example – it was their idea to come down, and they showed up with mood boards, concepts and possible camera packages to capture the action like we’d never done before. We’ve all done pre-production meetings but personally I’d never done something quite this far in advance. It was a month and a half before the shoot (which hadn’t even been formally scheduled), before a script and even a budget had been determined.
“Premonitions” concept board which evolved into the final :30 “Macro” promo. Swipe by Evolve.
One of the very first concepts they brought to the table, initially titled “Premonitions” really got us excited about a new way to tell the fishing story. Focusing on macro-shots of the key elements of fishing (gears, engines, rotors) as a way to make the viewer feel the visceral energy and mechanics of fishing, this spot was one we all saw a lot of potential in. A commercial for Acura provided further inspiration and ideas for how this spot could be executed. Pay particular attention to the last :30 or so of this :60 commercial and you’ll see some parallels to the final spot we created.
Even though we haven’t even talked about the shoot itself yet, this is a good time to show the final :30 “Macro” promo. Finding a balance between the macro elements and the captains/fishing was critical. Erin and Evolve worked collaboratively to tweak the cut and find that right amount of both. Here’s the final spot.
Now, back to pre-pro…we walked away from that full day of brainstorming and concepting with tons of ideas and toys we wanted to use to shoot these spots. Our main takeaway from the day was that we had to ensure that this campaign captured the action of the show, but more than ever we wanted to inject a little more soul into the marketing.
The final (and perhaps most critical) piece of pre-production was that we budgeted for a full day of scouting on location for Evolve. They went down about two weeks before our shoot was scheduled to look for locations for each of our many setups. This shoot was quickly turning into one of the most ambitious I’d ever been a part of, and we wanted to make sure we were going to be in the right places. Joel and Jesse went down and scouted, making contacts on the ground. The people of Gloucester couldn’t have been more helpful, and I want to give a big thank you to the entire community who helped us pull this together. Joel and Jesse also brought a Red Epic with them during the scout and even started shooting! They shot some scenics and sunsets and got a great sense of where the light would be at each location they picked. Everyone knows the importance of pre-production. But this shoot established just HOW critical it can be for a massively complex shoot with many moving parts. In this case, it was the most important thing we did to ensure success for the entire campaign.
Reference boards for Cineflex shooting.
TAKEAWAY #2: DO PRE-PRO FOR PRINT AND KEY ART, TOO.
Early on, after we’d hired Michael Muller, we all got on the phone. I’ve said it many times before, how important it is that your video and stills teams are on the same page. Getting on the same phone call to make sure there would be no surprises was important early on. We’d hired Arsonal design to help with initial sketches and concepting, so we had several big calls to discuss the concepts we’d narrowed in on, as well as for Evolve to tell Michael about the locations and what he’d need. We had scheduled a 5 day shoot (plus the first scout day, and a Cineflex helicopter day) and from that we carved out 2 full days for still photography. One benefit of having an insanely complex, multi-location shoot was that we could rotate Michael around to different captains, so we would always be shooting both video and stills.
Michael Muller in action. Photo by Tyler Korba.
“We were in Gloucester for 2 days shooting, and we took several thousand shots, but probably the most important aspect of this job were the multiple calls beforehand with Nat Geo and Evolve.” says Muller. “Knowing the location and logistics beforehand plus having the sketches gave us a tight schedule, so tight that we knocked out the sketch images quickly which left time for us to get even more than we’d planned to. We like to bring a fair amount a gear to a shoot like this, and with scuba equipment it’s even more – but we still work pretty quick and nimble and like to shoot as much as possible!” And boy is that true – I don’t know that I’ve worked with a photographer that moved quite as fast as Muller, it was a true rip-fest!
TAKEAWAY #3: IT TAKES MORE THAN COOL TOYS TO TELL A STORY. (BUT THEY SURE DO HELP)
We were all set to shoot, after an exhaustive pre-production process. We worked very closely with the team from Pilgrim, the production team for the show, to get a full week of shooting. A big thanks to Mike Nichols and everyone from Pilgrim who knew how important it was that we have time with the Captains for this shoot. Tyler, Erin, Brian, Production Manager Kevin Lahr and I headed up to the shoot. I can’t remember having 5 people from my team on a set, but in this case, it made perfect sense. For several of those days, we might not spend any time together, the goal being to divide and conquer, helping in different locations with shot suggestions, directing talent, bouncing light, shooting BTS, interviewing talent (Erin spent a full day interviewing 5 captains) and collaborating with Evolve on shots.
Interviewing Captain Tyler of the F/V Pinwheel. Photo by Tyler Korba.
I should also mention how much I like working with all of the Captains. They get it, and know how much this could help the show, and they couldn’t be nicer and more willing to do what we need to get the shot. And once they saw a few Phantom Flex shots on the playback monitor, they’re definitely even more into it! And speaking of gear…wow, did we have it. I’ll let Joel and Jesse lay out the tools we had: “We got to use some of the coolest cinematography toys available; The Techno Dolly- (a fully computer controlled 60ft dolly base with 15ft jib arm & 360 hot/dutch head), the Cineflex Elite w/ Alexa -M system on a boat (the highest end stabilization system that supports Alexa w/ Canon Cinema Zoom lenses), the Phantom Flex and Phantom Miro with an underwater housing, and RED Epics, top of the line 5k cinema cameras. This project was a film nerd bombers play day! These tools enabled us to put the cameras in new perspectives and create new high concept visuals – visuals that have never been seen & done before on a fishing TV show.” We had the tools – and we were fortunate to have them. But it’s critical to remember this: all the tech in the world doesn’t guarantee success. You still need a story and a message, or else it’s just pretty pictures.
The granddaddy of all toys, the TechnoDolly mounted on rails by the harbor.
Cineflex mounted on the helicopter, ready and waiting to take off. Photo by Jesse Edwards.
Erin and Tyler had scripted multiple spots prior to production, which was critical – the goal being that we could cover multiple scenarios and setups for each line of each script. Knowing we’d want to cover off on multiple angles, we built our shot list around those concepts and scripts. And then we’d cover the preconceived shot and add new shots in there to add to an arsenal of footage we’d have to cut with.
Fearless underwater Phantom operator Erik Ippel shooting up at the harpoon boat FV Lily. (The harpoon actually hit the tip of his flipper after he swam TOWARDS the oncoming spear, and he couldn’t have been happier – “I got the shot!” he said. It’s true, he did, and that was the last shot of the day.)
TAKEAWAY #4: TRANSPARENT COMMUNICATION ON-SET.
On this shoot, it was a combination of a plan and improvisation – with so many variables at play, there were many times when things we’d never have anticipated came up that we had to adjust to. This was certainly the largest production I’d been a part of, and it required an insane amount of teamwork to pull it all together. As with any shoot of this magnitude, we had some bumps along the road. Issues like making sure Captains showed up at the right docks at the right time, ensuring that the stills team had all the necessary props and assistance, and coordinating between multiple teams and locations simultaneously were all challenges we faced. When issues like that rise up, suddenly you’re 30 minutes behind schedule, and then schedules quickly have to be compressed and altered. Having such a tight relationship with Evolve meant there was 100% transparency on set when things were working or not. A big shout out to Kevin Lahr, who jumped into the project and worked hand in hand with the talented Producer team from Evolve (Elizabeth Ai and Tracy Chitupatham, who also produced the season 2 production) to keep things running despite so many variables.
4k Light support boat in the Gloucester Harbor.
“This production certainly had its share of challenges – but what was so unique was the way that those situations were handled. It made all the difference to have honest and transparent conversations with the NGC team.” recalls Jesse. “This helped us address the issues, improve our efficiency , and we were able to get to the goal quicker, as well as have better energy while we were doing it. Transparency and trust in each other are two of the most important ingredients in any production or creative venture.” Having that transparency from the beginning between client and production was the only way to get things working 100% efficiently. And when things needed improvement, transparency back to me to help solve those hiccups was always there. The bigger the shoot, the more critical it becomes that client and agency can have an open dialogue while in production. And perhaps most importantly, the work that ended up on the screen was beyond incredible – so any bumps were caught early before it could impact the end product.
Techno dolly setup with FV Hard Merchandise.
Technodolly Track and Joel & Jesse Edwards. Photo by Tyler Korba.
THE STILLS TEAM ROLLS ON.
As we captured all of the video materials, we continued shooting with Muller on land and in the water. Working with such an experienced photographer, he knew exactly what we were looking for and definitely subscribed to the “shoot more” method, ripping off literally thousands of stills along the way. Muller had not worked with us previously, but I can’t say enough about his collaborative spirit and gusto to shoot. He was always excited and suggesting new concepts and ideas in our setups, and worked with the team from Arsonal (who also attended the shoot) to make sure everything we needed would be captured.
Michael Muller, shooting Captain Marciano from the water. (Underwater visibility ended up being very low.)
Portrait of Captain Dave Carraro of the F/V Tuna.com. Photo by Michael Muller.
Captain Marciano in front of the Gloucester Paint Factory. Photo by Tyler Korba.
TAKEAWAY #5: TECHNOLOGY ALONE CAN’T DELIVER SOUL.
As I said earlier, we had the toys, the technology and gear that was worth salivating over. As a gear-nerd, I was in heaven, but those cool toys alone wouldn’t be enough. You need the words, the story, the soul to bring it all to life. Erin and Tyler’s scripts and the story they told were huge in building a great new creative product. Here’s a spot that injects a bit more soul into the campaign:
And last but not least, we wanted to nail the competition angle. Hearing from the captains themselves is the best way to understand just how competitive these guys are, and what it means to them to win. Using that 360 degree dolly track setup, I love how this spot has an anchor point in one location, while showcasing each Captain and their motivation for the season. And while it was one more logistical challenge, having Erin’s interviews with the captains was a huge tool in the arsenal when we were looking for a new way to tell this story…and the ending still gives me goosebumps!
360 Degree Phantom Dolly setup. DP Joel Edwards is under the plastic because of the water sprayer on the left…not good for a Phantom Flex.
As with many NGC productions, we hired a small BTS unit to capture all of the action behind the camera. It’s a great piece that really showcases the passion, energy and creativity on set, and how we brought that initial vision to life.
This was without a doubt one of the craziest productions I’ve been a part of. So many variables, so much gear, and such a great collaboration between NGC, Evolve, Michael Muller, and Pilgrim Productions. But what made it work is really simple, and all too often forgotten. “The single best investment you can give a creative project is time. We spent more time on prep & planning on this campaign than we have on any other project we’ve worked on – and we think that it really shows!” says Joel. I couldn’t agree more. We rarely get the gift of time in production – and it’s important that when we DO – that we make the most of it. The meetings, the scouting, the countless phone calls, briefings, re-writes and emails…none of them glamorous, but all critical ingredients so when it comes time to shoot, you’re ready to crush it. I’m very proud of this campaign, and the work that was done. But I’m even more proud of the way it was done – as a team, a true collaboration from beginning to end. Thank you to each and every person involved.
Sailing off into the sunset. Photo by me.