Three Thoughts: Field Production

Most of my commissioned video production projects are out in the field, on location at the Client’s or Client’s partner office. So not a controlled environment: setting is typically a generic office cube farm and ambient light and sound are varied, hitting every possible spectrum and frequency. We’re often shooting some form of talking head content, either documentary style interviews or direct-to-camera address along with relevant b-roll footage. And having made about every possible mistake possible after 10+ years in production, here are three nuggets of production wisdom which may help you on an upcoming project:

Number One – Pre-Production is King:

Beyond the standard pre-pro logistics such as scheduling crew and location scouting, collaborating with the client on the video’s script or treatment is crucial. But this core storytelling function is oft overlooked — because we’ve all made customer or content marketing videos before. We know the drill. And because we get a tad lazy.

In a perfect world, all subsequent pre-production activities will be based on the approved treatment, outline, or script. How can you build a project specific shot list without the written version of the video as a foundation? If you have some location flexibility, how do you choose the best location without having clarity on the end result? Same goes for storyboards, camera location schematics, and lighting plans. They all need to support the script or treatment.

Even with an approved script, storyboards, and schematics, have a plan for things to go wrong. Because inevitably, they will. We’ve had conference rooms reserved for weeks become suddenly unavailable. Which of course required a completely new lighting and camera plan. We’ve had microphone batteries die in mid-record, SD cards fail, external drives succumb to gravity and break, teleprompter software act up. And on, and on.


This typically means channeling your inner Boy Scout. Their motto? BE PREPARED. You’ll end up bringing more gear than you’d ever think necessary.

But that musty 8×10 black duvetyne, c-stands, and clamps may become integral in dressing an impossibly messy desk. Or blocking unexpected ambient light. And that back-up Canon 5D may become you A Camera, so have those batteries charged too.

Number Two — Divide and Conquer:

I’m as budget conscious and lean / mean as the filmmaker down the street. But there is a direct relation to crew size and the resulting production value. Taking a typical corporate or non-profit shoot, I will often direct, run either A Cam or B Cam, and often also monitor production audio. And while this is usually fine, there have been some issues that went unnoticed until post: audio drop-offs or cell-phone interference. Moireé patterns due to the interviewee’s striped jacket. An unwanted item in the background, usually on far frame left or frame right. A facial blemish on the client executive who doubled as on-camera talent that could’ve easily been addressed by a make-up artist.

In each one of these cases, the nominal investment to add another crew member, and divide tasks further far outweighs time spent in post trying to address the issue.

The blemish removal Final Cut Pro plug-in alone was several hundred dollars! Likewise, investing in a field monitor, even a camera mount 3.5″ screen is a huge benefit for both the director and client

Number Three — Keep Calm, Cool, Collected

The client, cast, and crew will feed off the field producer and director’s relationship. If they are testy with each other, the tension will only spread like gossip in Hollywood. The stress will inevitably cause production to take longer than it should. If you’re both field producer and director, even more reason to stay cool. There’s power in demonstrating the stereotypical “grace under pressure.” Keeping a smile on even when shit is hitting the fan will prove invaluable for the rest of the project and beyond.

A few years ago I had a two day / three camera studio shoot where the client founder was also our primary talent. He had some on-camera experience but reading off a teleprompter under the hot lights was an occasional occurrence to say the least. Between the camera operators, gaffer, grips, sound recordist, boom op, make-up artist and production assistants, the crew numbered around 15. Given our end result was a 75 minute DVD, the production called for LOTS of talking head content … and therefore a teleprompter and operator. In pre-pro, I’d put on my producer hat and tried to squeeze a few $ from the production budget by renting the prompter from a local shop under the assumption one of my PAs could become the prompter operator.

Oops.

Perhaps you’ve worked with them, but in case you haven’t, teleprompter’s and their corresponding software can be finicky. This particular rental prompter’s software seemed to be written for DOS … or maybe Windows 98. And who of us has touched a Windows machine in years anyway? After wrangling the longish script into the software and formatting background color and font size, I thought we were through the hurdles and on the final stretch home. But the software had a scrolling bug. The trackpad mouse was temperamental. Both of which made the scrolling speed difficult to control — which in turn prevented the client from being able to read our carefully crafted copy.

The PA felt the pressure of our 30 eyes bearing down, and after another failed take, she went into meltdown mode. There were screams — “I can’t do this. This computer [bleep BLEEP] sucks.” Followed by a mix of tears and hyperventilation.

I remember pulling off my headphones, taking a breath as I set them carefully down on my chair, and I went into damage control mode. I told her it was OK, not a problem, don’t worry about it. And I signaled to one of my longtime generalist PAs, who was working as a grip. He hopped in front of the laptop and got the script rolling smoothly in minutes.


Perhaps these have helped … or at least provided a chuckle or two. Until next time, may your budgets be large and lenses clear!

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