Wide Set

Delivering On A Last-Minute Deadline.

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This post is all about The Deadline. When our team was tasked with creating a series of brand & on-air IDs around National Geographic Channel characters, we were given a very short runway to create them.  I suppose it was only a matter of ‘time’ before The Client Blog tackled that age old challenge in our business – how can you create great work in very (very) little time? Well, here’s a perfect case study that combines a quick turnaround, a shoot, multiple talent, and lots of pressure. I should add that I started my career in local news – so I certainly understood those pressures and quick deadlines. But for Nat Geo, we usually have a little more time on projects – because the stakes (and audience) are much bigger, we try to avoid rushed turnarounds when possible! But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. So let’s set the clock back…to Thursday October 16th at the National Geographic Channel headquarters in Washington, DC.A001_C005_10210XFormer Green Beret Grady Powell on set.

120 HOURS BEFORE THE SHOOT. (THURSDAY A.M.)

Meetings…meetings…meetings.  This can sometimes be life on the other side of the table for the Client – strategic meetings, production meetings, process meetings, briefing meetings, sometimes even meetings about meetings. As a Client, I am often working on many projects for multiple Channels simultaneously, and that goes not only for promoting shows, but also for promoting the Channel brands.  In this particular meeting, a group of National Geographic Channel Executives (myself included) were discussing the Channel brand and our shows’ characters. One distinct characteristic about the people on our shows are that they are REAL, and they’re legit.  Looking at a show like Life Below Zero, people like Sue Aikens are very real – she lives north of the Arctic Circle year round. Chip and Agnes’ life as hunter/gatherers (also on LBZ) would not be any different if cameras were there or not. On Ultimate Survival Alaska, a competition show where 4 different teams race across some of the harshest terrain on Earth, the teams are made up of some of the most rugged, hardcore men and women around. A former Navy SEAL, former Green Beret, a two-time Iditarod Sled Dog Champion, an Olympic and National Champion Kayaker, lifelong Alaskan outdoor guides, etc, etc. These people are the real deal – and they are on National Geographic.A001_C005_10210XThe unstoppable (and very real) Dallas Seavey, two time Iditarod Sled Dog Race Champion. Still perfecting his arms-crossing technique.

We wanted to create a series of :10-:15 second Channel IDs that could capture what they were all about and remind viewers that only on NGC can they find these real, authentic, rugged adventurers. Easy, right? Oh, well, except that they live in extremely remote locations, off the beaten path, and it would be extremely difficult and costly to go to them to create these spots. We also knew that we had to have the first of these to be done by the first week of November for a big presentation – and it was already October 16th. (At 3pm, to be exact)  How would we even begin to get this done?  This would require A) scripts B) an actual concept C) on-air talent D) production partners E) and time – to produce them.  So we came out from that meeting and I quickly pulled my team together to brainstorm. We immediately realized that we would have 4 of our characters in New York City for a press trip – we had already planned on doing a photo shoot with 3 of them for the upcoming promo campaign for Ultimate Survival Alaska, and Sue from LBZ was going to be there as well. We only had 2 hours with them total for that shoot – but for this new project we were going to need at least 8 hours of shoot time to get what we were going to need. The plan was beginning to hatch – and we were only 30 minutes removed from that initial meeting. But as Brian Everett, my Creative Director of Design said “sometimes the best work comes when you have no time to do it.” I sure hoped that was the case, and the race was on.A001_C005_10210XJared Ogden, former Navy SEAL and “Ultimate Survival Alaska” cast member. Accomplished arms-crosser.

118 HOURS UNTIL THE SHOOT. (THURSDAY P.M.)

The other challenge? The stills shoot was Tuesday. It was Thursday afternoon. We had no studio space, no production partners, scripts, or concepts yet. Very quickly we made some decisions – we would need to shoot all day with the talent, and we’d have to ‘steal’ them from some other Marketing plans that had been made (shooting for Social Media materials).  We promised we’d get them what they needed while shooting our IDs, and just set out to lock in talent. We knew we’d have Sue from LBZ, Dallas Seavey, Jared Ogden and Grady Powell from USA.  Dallas has won the Iditarod twice, Jared is a former Navy SEAL, and Grady was a Green Beret/Special Forces soldier.  Without pausing too long, we next needed to start figuring out the logistical/creative side. We needed production partners to shoot with. While the first blush thought was that these IDs would be the perfect thing to shoot on location – at the edge of a crevasse in Alaska, or at the head of a raging river – it simply wasn’t going to be able to happen. We’d have to shoot in a studio to get the most lighting control and flexibility. Shooting with 4 talent in one day is tough enough, multiple locations in NYC would be impossible.  I didn’t hesitate to call up our creative partners at Variable, (Executive Producer Tyler Ginter is on my speed dial for moments just like this) to have them help us – I needed a team that knew us and our brand, and would put it all on the line to pull this together.  Our first task was to line up a studio, and a DP that could light this shoot and make it look incredible. I wanted to go with DP Khalid Mohtaseb as the man to light and shoot these pieces. Khalid is an incredible cinematographer, and has worked with us on multiple projects previously. I knew he could make these look amazing.Andy and Khalid on setHere we are on-set Tuesday afternoon.

Tyler got on the phone and we wouldn’t know until Friday afternoon if Khalid could make himself available but we were hopeful. With Variable’s Director Jon Bregel unavailable and my desire to shoot with a DP that I already knew, we were in nerve-wracking territory. Would we get Khalid? We’d know soon enough. In the meantime, the writing period was beginning. But within just a few hours, we had at least gotten the ball rolling – Variable began to hunt for available studio space and additional logistics were beginning to get ironed out.

96 HOURS UNTIL THE SHOOT. (FRIDAY MORNING)

Waking up after a fairly poor night of sleep – excited to think about the possibilities for this shoot – we knew that Friday would be a big day.  Since it was Friday, and Monday would be a travel day, we knew we had a limited opportunity to get internal buy-in and approvals on any next steps.  Luckily, the first major hurdle was quickly overcome.  At 9:15am Friday, Tyler from Variable confirmed that Khalid WAS available to DP the job.  This also meant that I was going to be Directing on the shoot day.  Khalid would focus on the lighting design and camera work, and I would direct the talent and be the on-set lead.  More on this a bit later, but it definitely required a slight shift of my mindset at this point.  We planned for a Saturday creative call with Khalid and the rest of the team at Variable to talk about logistics and initial ideas for how these would look and feel.  At this point with Khalid in the mix, my mindset started to change a bit. At one point, a fellow Executive had said that maybe these spots would be more of a “proof of concept” rather than final spots for air.  If we could pull it off and show that the idea could work, we could go back later and do it better at a later moment.  But once the pieces started to fall together, I knew that we wouldn’t be proving the concept – we’d be fully executing it.  Starting almost immediately, the writing process began – we knew the structure would be 1. Establish the talent credentials 2. Describe their passion for adventure and why they love what they do 3. Establish that they’re on Nat Geo.  Given that we were only planning to create :10 (and maybe :15) promos, that definitely makes the writing challenge much simpler!  We also knew that we would want to interview the talent – hearing in their own words would be key, and probably get some better thoughts and ideas about adventure from the cast members. We just needed to have options on the shoot date. Brian started designing some style frames as well, knowing that we’d be in a studio location.The clock was always ticking, and while the shoot was the immediate challenge, we still had to figure out who else we wanted to help us on the project.

Background ref 15Reference image for color, light and tone.  Photo by Dean Bradshaw.Background ref 13Another reference photo for light, color and tone. Photo by Dean Bradshaw.

SELECTING OUR OTHER CREATIVE PARTNERS.

The shoot was only half the battle, after all!  Nailing the edit, design and music were going to be huge for the final spots. We discussed options internally before I reached out to our friends at Radium Audio out of the UK for sound. They’ve worked with us many times before, including an Emmy-winning campaign in 2012 as well as the last two seasons of Wicked Tuna campaigns. They can not only compose great music, but also do incredible sound design.  It got a little interesting when we spoke briefly, because they actually declined the job!  They were slammed with several projects, and wanted to make sure they could deliver exactly what I was looking for.  I pulled the “Client Card” – which basically meant that I begged them to please, please do it, and they reconsidered – and agreed to jump on board. The sound that I was envisioning for these spots was big, dramatic, and modern, and Radium – led by Andrew Diey – would really would knock it out of the park. Their process is not only highly collaborative but also it sounds incredibly sophisticated and premium.

This Wicked Tuna tease was mixed and sound designed by Radium – intense and premium.

The last piece of the puzzle was design and editorial. We wanted to work with an agency that could do both really well – in many cases we’ll hire specialists that only do edit or design. But with time not on our side, we knew that we’d need to work with someone who could do both – really well.  The list was short, and we settled on the team at Colourmovie out of LA. They’d worked with us on several promo jobs – and we knew that they’d be able to not only turn cuts and boards around quickly, but would also be good at keeping in constant communication. They eventually accepted the job late on Friday, and the team was set.

85 HOURS UNTIL THE SHOOT. (STILL FRIDAY)

After a few more early afternoon conference calls sharing more details about the talent in attendance, budget, timing and logistics, we now had the following things nailed down: a shoot production team, a DP, an audio team, a design and editorial team, rough scripts and concepts, a shoot date and a rough design look and feel.

Background ref 14
Lighting/mood reference. Photo by Dean Bradshaw.

We had not yet spoken with Khalid, but he had sent along some initial ideas on a shoot look he’d been wanting to work with. It’s always helpful to have something to react to in this situation, and while we had initially thought of the idea of green screen shooting to ‘fix it in post’ that idea never gained much traction, as it would severely limit what our lighting would look like. Knowing that Khalid would make it look incredible, we had to start thinking more about color and room vibe.  After looking at several options, we were able to secure our #1 location, the 1896 Studio in Brooklyn at 6:48p on Friday. Brian finished some initial mood boards for lighting and style, and we sent those to Variable at 7:40p. Excellent Art Director Joe Sciacca (who we worked with on Killing Lincoln and Kennedy) also was tasked with helping to set up our studio space as well. We now had those boards and some initial color ideas from Khalid, along with first scripts and Q&A for the talent, and were ready for our Saturday AM conference call.Initial Talent ID look frameLighting and design reference by Brian Everett.

70 HOURS UNTIL THE SHOOT. (SATURDAY, 10:30AM)

After a few Saturday morning errands (and coaching my son’s soccer team), we all hopped on a call to talk for the first time as a whole group.  With our studio locked down, we talked creative – how we wanted to dress the space. We all had agreed that a dark blue backdrop would look dark and moody, and reflect the look of the reference photos Khalid had already sent. We also didn’t want to clutter up the set with props or additional built structures – knowing that we would not have a pre-light or pre-build day on Monday also dictated that we keep it very simple.  Less is more, right?  Figuring out the layout of the day was the next big step – we were certain we’d have 3 talent from “Ultimate Survival Alaska” – Dallas Seavey, Jared Ogden and Grady Powell, and possibly Sue Aikens from Life Below Zero.  There were other conflicts with their time, so just figuring out the schedule, transport from the still photo shoot, and shooting time all were reviewed. I’ve talked about the importance of pre-production before here on the blog, and this was another reminder of that. Constant communication and quick, decisive decision making was key, as Khalid was sending more lighting references and ideas from Saturday all the way until Monday afternoon. We were planning to do a location scout Monday morning and our pre-light starting at 3am Tuesday to have enough time to setup for an 8am start time with talent.  It’d be tight, but there was no other option since the studio was booked Monday. The other wrinkle was that we were hearing that Sue was having trouble getting out of Alaska – she lives so far away from civilization, sometimes she literally can’t leave because airplanes can’t get to her in a severe storm. They were going to try one last time Sunday after numerous failed attempts. The plot was thickening.Andy Arms crossedMe directing Jared Ogden on the intricacies of crossing his arms and standing.  He wasn’t impressed. 

CLIENT – AND DIRECTOR.

The other thing we spent a little time discussing was my role on-set. I’ve worked with Variable many times, and while I do play the role of “Client” on-set, I like to think that it goes a little deeper than that, creatively. With Khalid as DP/Cinematographer, I was excited to step in as an official “Director” for the shoot.  I have directed shoots many times before, but it had been a while since the burden had fallen quite this squarely on me! But ultimately, it was more of a mental change than creative one. I’m usually pretty active on set, rarely enjoying sitting in Client Monitor Village, so being near the action was hardly something new. But calling the action, directing the talent, and conducting the interviews was something that I needed to plan and prepare for – especially since we would be shooting in a time crunched situation.  I love new challenges and I also knew exactly what I wanted to do for these spots, so it was very exciting to not just be “the client” this time.Studio Space Talent IDsA shot of our empty studio space, “The 1896″ in Brooklyn, NY.

48 HOURS UNTIL THE SHOOT. (SUNDAY)

Sunday we continued discussing art direction and lighting ideas.  Joe Sciacca sent over multiple references (at 3:56 am, no less) for backdrop colors, hanging styles, looks, etc. We settled in on a general color palette we wanted, and I even sent over a sketch idea to Khalid and Joe for how we might want to hang curtains to give extra depth to the studio. We didn’t end up going in this direction due to the depth of the space, but I did want to share my highly detailed and technical drawing for the blog. Andys Terrible SketchI am available for set sketches and lighting grid illustrations. Please contact my agent for bookings.

20 HOURS UNTIL THE SHOOT. (MONDAY MORNING)

The first piece of news was that Sue was officially out of the shoot. They couldn’t get her out of Alaska, and we had to move forward.  Looking on the bright side, it did give us more time for pre-light on Tuesday AM, and a little more time with each talent – we had a hard out at 3pm on Tuesday to get the talent to a press event, so we had about 2 hours scheduled with each guy.  The backdrop and general mood was coming together, and I was taking the train up in the afternoon. Khalid sent over some cool reference images not only for light, but for practical light – using fluorescents as an element on camera.

Flourescent 3Reference from “Drive” with Ryan Gosling.

Flourescent 2
Lighting reference from “House of Cards.” 

I was really excited about this look – it would add depth and dimension to the set, as well as something in the background for us to include in the shots. Since we were not propping out the set with anything, this would add the feeling of intensity and space into the IDs. That’s why having a great DP on a job like this is so critical – he had this in his head and it’s a simple trick but one that I never would have thought of adding. In the end, it was my favorite part of the set and look from the finished IDs. One of the other cool things that happened was when Khalid and the Variable team were scouting the location on Monday morning, they did a quick facetime call with me to show me the location and walk me through the best angles/shots. Since I wouldn’t see the set until Tuesday, it was a great final touch-base with the team. I’ve done facetime photo shoots before, but never a facetime location scout! IMG_42364:30am: Setting up the studio.

10 HOURS UNTIL PRE-LIGHT BEGINS.

I took the train from DC to NYC. Most of the ride was spent writing down additional questions for the talent, lines, and shoot ideas for Producer Alex Friedman and the Variable team. Going to the shoot with a greater responsibility than normal was exciting – I was more in the drivers seat than usual and didn’t want to let the team or the spots down by not thinking of every possibility for what we would be shooting. We met for dinner at 7p, and talked about the morning and (long) day ahead. I was in bed by 10pm, 5 hours from pre-light.

Talent ID Alex Andy Khalid5:00am: Prior to the shoot, Alex, Khalid and I gather to look over our shot list and plan for the day.

THE SHOOT BEGINS.

When I arrived on set, the action had already begun. Lighting, hanging the curtain, building the dolly track – it was underway and the clock was ticking. As anyone who is in production knows, things take longer than you think, and in this case, with the short runway, it was nerve wracking as it was the first time we were able to see the curtain, the lights, and general setting. Again, extensive conversations with Variable Producer Alex Friedman and Khalid was critical, and by around 10am we were ready to start shooting with Dallas. From this point on, it was a blur of a day – lots of improvising, questioning, tweaking, and making fast decisions. I’ll never forget that right before we started Khalid looked at me and said “if you think something sucks, or I think something sucks, let’s just look at each other and be honest so we can move on to the next thing.”  Having worked with each other so many times, that shorthand and honesty was critical to keep the day rolling and moving quickly. Khalid on dollyKhalid shooting Jared Ogden, up close and personal. 

THAT’S A WRAP.

Due to some hard outs for the talent, we wrapped just after 3pm, just 5 hours after we started rolling. It was an exhilarating whirlwind, and also quite exhausting. I regained a profound appreciation for all of the Directors I work with – the sweat, stress and energy exerted on that day was incredible. I couldn’t ever take 5 minutes to unwind on the couch and check my phone, and I’m grateful for the reminder of what it takes on-set to work with and lead a team – telling Khalid when something did suck (it wasn’t often) and vice-versa.  It was an incredible day, and by the time I rolled out for my 5pm train back to DC, I was spent – we had done it. We’d pulled together a full shoot in a few days that looked like a million bucks. It sure wasn’t going to be a spec spot – it was going to be way better than that!  Colour Movie Look and feel frame

Colour Movie Talent ID conceptInitial design frames from Colour Movie.

POST-PRODUCTION.

We got back home, and in a few days Colour Movie had designs back to us that we loved. They felt tough, yet sophisticated. As we had asked, they needed to feel “premium – but with a little dirt under the fingernails, too.” They were able to incorporate environmental elements as well.  Colour Movie jumped into edit, and Radium was all over the sound.  We had daily calls with both Colour Movie and Radium, reviewing notes, making tweaks, and getting more and more excited every day about what we had. After a week of multiple back and forth, plus some internal review on everything, we had the final IDs, and even delivered them a day earlier than our initial deadline. The funny thing was, since sound was being done in the UK, and edit/design in LA, the dash-around factor for me personally felt reduced, because I had been so hands-on for the shoot, but I am sure that the teams in both agencies were running around like crazy. In many ways, for them the work BEGAN after the assets were delivered – and they did an amazing job turning everything around smoothly and seamlessly. Here are the three final IDs that were delivered after a whirlwind two and a half weeks of hard work.

CONCLUSION.

When it was all said and done, we got some killer branded IDs.  I can’t say enough about Dallas, Jared and Grady – they couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating, and it was an honor and a privilege to meet and work with them. A big thank you goes to the entire team involved in pulling this off, including our talent management and press team, who helped shift the talent schedules and make it happen.  The final product exceeded everyone’s expectations and I have no doubt there will be more of these to come. And Brian was right – sometimes the best work can come when you have very little time to make it happen. You make decisions quickly, you go with your gut, and you rely on your team. It’s a testament to why I love promos so much – you spend a ton of time, sweat and energy – losing sleep and little bit of your mind, all to create just 45 total seconds of content (3x:15). And it was totally worth it. The deadlines are stressful, but the feeling you get when you make them is worth it all. And as someone once told me – “when you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute!”  (Maybe next time we could have 2 minutes though?)

PBJ ShootWe didn’t cut any corners on craft services for this shoot. Laura Levine from Variable is gettin’ it done.