Two Cities, Two Shoots, Two Crews…One Campaign.
This post tackles some interesting new subjects for the blog. A couple of recent projects we just finished up reminded me about the importance of so much of what I talk about here – transparency, new and old partnerships, collaboration and taking what you’re given and making the most out of it. Along the way, I got the pleasure of meeting and working with new people, while also being reminded of the importance of existing friendships in this industry. I feel very proud not only of the work that came as a result, but more proud that the process on this project proved so much in my mind about effective ways to work with people who have a common goal – to make cool stuff with nice people.
A previous Client Blog entry back in October covered the idea of very quick turnarounds – creating a series of “talent IDs” for the network featuring characters from our series “Ultimate Survival Alaska.” I teamed up with Variable and Khalid Mohtaseb on the shoot, and then Colourmovie did the post and design, and Radium did all of the sound. If you didn’t see it, that post can be read here. And here are the final spots from that whirlwind week:
Well, let’s fast forward about a month. It’s mid-December, and a very similar challenge has reared its head again. Every January and July, television critics from all over the country arrive in LA where all of the networks present their new or returning shows at a big conference called “TCA” – the Television Critics Association. Nat Geo always has a presence there, bringing talent, network execs and show runners to talk about their shows, play sizzle reels, and answer questions – all with the goal of getting the press to talk about our shows and generate some publicity. So our characters from the shows are in one place all at one time – it’s quite convenient, especially when you have people in your shows that live all over the country. Typical client on his phone oblivious to the amazing light. Photo by David Thomas.
Since those first talent IDs were such a hit, we targeted a potential shoot in LA for another series of them, and when three more cast members from Ultimate Survival Alaska were going to be there, the writing was on the wall. Add in a new show “The Big Picture with Kal Penn” to the mix, and pretty soon we were making plans for an early January shoot.
DP Yon Thomas in the haze. Photo by David Thomas.
THE CHALLENGES. (AND A QUICK REWIND.)
Now, if only it were as simple as setting up a shoot and making it all happen! The first (and most obvious) challenge was that we weren’t going to be able to shoot in NYC (which is easier since it’s closer to home). Between the LA shoot and the previous Talent ID shoot in October, we’d done another set of these IDs with the Captains from “Wicked Tuna.” In that case, the Captains were only a quick train ride away, so we could be based in New York. Let’s take a quick rewind back to that production.
DP Khalid Mohtaseb with Tuna.com captain Dave Carraro. Photos by Joey L.
We shot in at the exact same studio as the first USA ID’s, and once again I Directed with Khalid Mohtaseb as Director of Photography. We designed that studio to feel very different – like an old fishing warehouse, art directed and filled out to feel like an authentic fishing space.
One huge advantage this time was having an entire day of pre-light to really map out the day ahead, with more time for art direction too, thanks to Joe Sciacca and his team. Khalid knew from the start what he wanted to do differently on the Tuna IDs. “On the USA shoot, we had the talent stand for the majority of the coverage and did not give them any props or physical objects to hold during the shot. I felt as though the coverage became repetitive after a while so I thought by giving the talent something to do or something to play with we’ll be able to break up the coverage a bit and shoot more. It ended up working out really nicely and made the talent feel much more comfortable in front of the camera.”
Next to our “ice box” prepping to shoot with Captain Dave Carraro. Photo by Joey L.
We wanted the space to have several mini-locations within it. On the USA shoot, we’d had one main area and more or less replicated our moves 3 times, but with 4 Captains, we wanted to have a bit more variety this time. We also heard from Colourmovie on the edit side that they wanted more b-roll and cutaway shots to vary it up, so the coverage Khalid talked about was perfect.
Captain Dave Marciano on-set.
Me, on-set. I feel like I’m ready for my “Flashdance” moment. Photo by Joey L.
We built what looked like a giant walk-in freezer in one corner, with a big plastic walk-through curtain. In reality, it was just a large door that went straight outside, so our team built out a giant white room that was basically a giant softbox that we blasted light from to make it look like a real space. Khalid gives the technical breakdown: “We had daylight outside the plastic curtains that not only didn’t work with our interior color temperature but was also going to be problematic to control all day. Relying on daylight through a window is always a gamble and I wanted something that would be consistent throughout the entire day and was easier to control. That was originally built as a controlled lighting environment that we can see on camera and that talent can walk though during a shot but the quality of light blew me away so we ended using it as a side light for most of the setups as well.” Check out this instagram post by Khalid that shows what it looks like on the other side of the curtain:
And here’s a photo from the outside of the softbox: (we had to take it down after the pre-light so it wouldn’t blow away and rebuild it on the shoot day!) A shout-out to Joey L, who stopped by the set and took some snaps of the scene.
iPhone snap by Joey L.
So that was a very cool lighting setup, and gave us multiple angles to shoot around with different captains. It was another whirlwind day – shooting with 4 different talent for about 2 hours apiece – and it yielded some pretty cool IDs. We had tabletop elements, as well as a nice wooden-walled corner and my big request – a soaking wet floor to give some nice light reflection.
2nd AC Michelle Ginter on-set.
We also test drove the “eye direct” for the first time, which allows you to interview talent by looking into a mirror which projects the interviewer’s face in front of the lens, like a prompter and that way talent can look directly into lens but answer the questions directly. It is a really cool device, and I was inspired to try it after Alex Buono’s presentation at Masters in Motion about documentary interviewing – it was simple, and worked great.Using the Eye Direct device with Dave Carraro. Photo by Khalid Mohtaseb.
Similar to the first round, Colourmovie in LA once again did the post and design work, and Radium delivered on the audio end. And as always, it was a pleasure working with Khalid – our working relationship is fairly unique and very transparent – even if I am the Client AND Director. Here’s Khalid again. “I’m too much of an opinionated DP that a working relationship that doesn’t embrace transparency simply wouldn’t work for me. Yes Andy is the client but he also understands that things from a production side aren’t always going to work out according to plan and that filmmaking is a task of problem solving. Throughout our working relationship, Andy & I have always been transparent with one another and he actually embraces that kind of workflow. ” Working with Colourmovie in post and Radium on sound, here are the final Wicked Tuna IDs.
ON TO LOS ANGELES.
We wrapped that production up the week before Christmas break, and Colourmovie went to start post – they delivered the final IDs in the end of January. And smack in the middle of that finishing, the LA shoot was going to need to be happen the first week of January. (It was convenient to be able to review Wicked Tuna edits on set with Colourmovie) Due to budget, travel, and timing challenges, we decided to hire Colourmovie to pull the shoot together for us, since we’d be shooting in their backyard. They could scout local studio spaces (and there were some questions about how close we needed to be to Pasadena where the convention was). They were also excited to take on a different part of the job, not just the finishing but the shooting as well. And luckily, they already had a Director lined up to lead the charge (that’d be me).
Me and Yon on pre-light day checking things out and getting on the same page. Photo by David Thomas.
TWO DP’S – AND A POTENTIALLY AWKWARD SITUATION.
We reviewed some potential DP reels for guys in the LA area and picked Yon Thomas, an experienced DP that they had worked with many times previously. One of the first big challenges was that since 3 of the 4 IDs we’d shoot were for the same show we’d already shot IDs for (Ultimate Survival Alaska, aka USA) my goal was to make it feel as close to what we’d done before as possible. Gulp. Asking one DP to take another DP’s work and re-create it, and asking the original one to tell him how he did it? I was definitely a tad nervous about that scenario, as I wasn’t sure how Yon or Khalid would react to that. The first thing I did was talk to Khalid – since he wasn’t going to be on this job, I asked him if he’d be willing to hop on a quick call with me, Colourmovie and Yon to walk through his lighting setup from before and for Yon to ask him technical questions so he could mimic the general look and feel. “I don’t believe in keeping creative or technical secrets internal and not sharing them with the community and I definitely don’t believe that an idea or a technique is a a recipe for success” said Khalid. “When Andy asked for me to consult on the USA ids I actually embraced it and thought it would be interesting to see two separate crews led by the same person execute a look that is almost identical. I was curious to see what would change and what would be improved on the second round. I also wanted the best for the project and if I could lend a helping hand to elevate a vision – then why wouldn’t I?” Brandon Martinez from Colourmovie had this to say about the unique situation: “We knew we had to extend the campaign seamlessly, so our approach was to not replicate the look but rather take the goals from the original project and come at it with a new perspective.”
On-set in LA. Photo by David Thomas.
This is one of those scenarios that could have been touchy or challenging – but Khalid is a pro and a good friend and had no issue with it at all – so we all hopped on a call a few days before Christmas and Khalid shared everything – and thankfully Yon also had no problem taking an existing lighting look and adopting it for the day. I can’t thank both enough for putting aside any ego or “this is my idea!” way of thinking. Khalid wants to share what he knows/loves with others, and in this case it helped us maintain a similar look to the campaign and did it without hesitation. I talk a lot about building collaborative relationships and this is one of those times where having that comfort level and relationship made what could have been awkward not a big deal at all. We were even texting during the pre-light and he was asking me questions and trying to learn from what we were doing! After the shoot when I thanked Yon for being willing to do it as well, he reiterated that it wasn’t a huge deal at all, and truthfully he wanted to emulate the look, while also finding new ways to evolve it and make it “his” as well. And that’s what he did. Having a much larger space, we added more rows of fluorescent lights, and rather than hanging a blue curtain, we painted the wall itself, giving the space a nice texture. Of course, I had my new GoPro and new ‘selfie stick’ so I did a little walk through of the fluorescent lighting setup on the main stage: (a Client Blog GoPro first!)
In addition to the challenges of timing and matching an existing look, this was also the first project I’d done with Colourmovie taking the production lead. The good thing was, for USA we had a pretty clear directive – the bigger challenge was what to do for our 4th ID for that one-day shoot, an ID with Kal Penn, the new host of “The Big Picture with Kal Penn.” We couldn’t shoot that ID on the same set as USA – it is a fun, smart, quirky, information-based show, which meant it needed a warmer look and feel.
Shooting on the secondary set with Kal Penn. Photo by David Thomas.
Tackling that aspect of the project – adding in a second set to the production, with an entirely separate style to it, props, color tone, everything – was going to be a challenge.
STEPPING ON-SET WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW ANYONE.
The other challenge I had for this project was that I was serving as director again, but unlike the last two ID shoots when I knew the Variable crew and Khalid very well, in this case I had never met anyone before other than a few phone calls! Making sure we’d all connect well on set was key, and that we were all on the same page. That pre-light day once again proved huge, as I could chat with the AD and talk about our schedule, how we like to work, and our overall plan.
Lel Tone, badass.
Spending several hours with Yon that day was also huge – we had to build a good working dialogue because with a shoot day this busy and fast (4 talent in one day) we needed to develop that shorthand quickly. Working with the team at Colourmovie (Brandon Martinez, Michelle Hammond and David Thomas) was also fantastic – we had that experience under our belts of posting the last two projects (Tuna and USA) so having them there to be another set of eyes and ears was key. They would know if we had enough interview content to craft a good story, and in the case of the Kal Penn ID, they’d know what we’d need in post since we were adding a lot of graphic enhancements to that one. What could have been a challenging day was instead one where everyone had the same goal, and positive outlook. As our hired agency, it could also have been awkward for them to surrender a lot of creative control to a Director that was also the Client. I recognize that it’s a tough position for them, but they trusted me, and I really appreciate them working so hard to get everything just right. Here’s Brandon again, when I asked him if it’s difficult having a Client in this role on-set. “This is a funny question in pre-production meetings we all mentioned it in one form or another. It absolutely has the potential to be awkward. Once we got into pre-production and witnessed how everyone is looped in from scripts, concepting to art direction we knew quickly the leadership skills where there. Leadership and steering the ship is such an important part of the equation, the client aspect becomes background.”Working with Daniel Dean on-set before our interview.
THE INTERVIEW PROCESS.
The interview is the most important part of all – if you have amazing, heroic footage of the talent but bad stories or soundbites, the whole ID would fall apart. My approach in this situation is to prepare myself by coming with a long list of questions I’ve really thought through. I know what the perfect answer or soundbite will be for that :15 story, but since these fishermen and military/endurance athletes aren’t actors, they need to deliver their stories in their own words. You’d be able to feel if it were scripted – so working backwards from what I think an interesting story would be, I wrote out about 20 questions for each person that will potentially lead to a great answer. In each one of these interviews, new and unexpected questions came up because I tried to make the interviews more like a conversation. Ask a question, then actually listen to their answer (crazy, huh?) and then ask questions based on what they had said. That gave them less time to ‘prepare’ their next answer, or get nervous, and the flow felt more natural and conversational. So despite the fact that there were 20 other people on-set listening and watching, it truly felt like we were just chatting one-on-one. I knew my questions, but did not let those questions get in the way of taking the conversation to a new place. We only had a half-hour for each interview in our 1.5 hour shoot with each talent, and it was more important to get natural, honest answers rather than ensuring that every single question on my sheet got answered. And the beauty is, while adventure is a consistent theme for each subject, there are new ways they talk about adventure and what it means to them. It’s not a 5k light, it’s the sun! Light spills through the flags over the windows. Photo by GoPro.
CONCLUSION, THE FINAL SPOTS + A BONUS :30.
Both shoots went great, and I want to thank both the teams at Variable and Colourmovie for being so collaborative and inclusive. On every set as “the client” I am aware that there are moments that the production company wants to keep the challenges hidden and make the client feel like it’s all going smoothly. But as the director, you need to know about those challenges so you can help solve them and keep the project moving. When you’re on set as both client AND director, it puts them in a potentially difficult situation. But with a little trust and openness, we overcame a few bumps (as is normal) and got through those two crazy days in New York in LA and had a blast along the way. And because the vision for the campaign was clear and consistent from city to city, show to show, it was not that hard to keep the look and feel consistent, too.
Thank you also to our talent from these two shows, as they hustled and worked hard to nail their performances and give us some really great stories and insights that make the IDs really sing. Working with Kal Penn was a true honor, and it was a wonderful experience getting to direct him and work closely on a totally different kind of “adventure” show on the Channel. Here are the final IDs for Ultimate Survival Alaska and The Big Picture with Kal Penn below. Both the NYC and LA shoots were projects that tested me and once more reminded me of the value of collaboration, trust, and relationships in this incredible industry that I’m so fortunate to work in. Here are the completed IDs.
And last but not least – the team at Colourmovie also put together this :30 compilation promo that features the stories and soundbites from the USA and Wicked Tuna IDs – showing just how cohesive the theme of adventure across these spots. When we saw this cut, we immediately put it on our own air, as it successfully links the two shows and the campaign together. Thanks to everyone involved on this entire project, both in LA and New York, and thank you for reading!