It’s rare that I can blog about my commercial work. Normally NDA, privacy, and a million other reasons mean that the work I normally talk about is my personal work. Although that’s not always the case. I was able to blog about the Adidas Viral for the Olympics and a few others, but normally it’s not possible. That’s why it’s really kind of Facebook to allow me to do a blog post about the film I made for them. It makes sense, as the film is for the web and it’s about education, so the perfect marriage for a post on my site!! Naturally, there are substantial differences between a personal film and a paid gig, but these are mostly down to what the end product is and of course the collaboration with the client.
This post is a breakdown of making (in my opinion) a strong corporate documentary for a well-known brand, from the brief to pre-prod, production, post and delivery. What this covers can be applied to pretty much most shoots.
Facebook approached me with a desire to make a film about their new pilot scheme to use Facebook as an educational platform in schools. The film would be shown at a large educational festival then put online (on Facebook of course!). It needed to be one film that would work across both platforms (although in the end I delivered a tighter cut for the web…more on that later).
Before I agree to any job, naturally I need to know more about what they want. It’s essential to understand the brief before you can figure out the rest. What would be required to make it work, can it be done in the given timeline, what style and look is wanted, how much graphics work is needed (do I need to bring someone in?), and much more. Then there is the more personal stuff. Am I the right person to make this and do I have the time of course? I normally get booked up quite far in advance. Finally, is it something I want to make? This last point is a luxury to be honest. I don’t know anyone who just does jobs that they want to do. I talk about that point in depth in this blog post about succeeding in the business. To do a paid gig that interests, excites and challenges is what I want.
THE BRIEF AND PRE-PRODUCTION
First off, I have to be honest. My initial reaction was, “Facebook in schools…how on earth could that work?” So I needed to understand the concept firstly and ask them all the obvious burning questions…here are a handful…”Is this our Facebook or a different version?”, “How are the kids not going to abuse it?”, “How can it enhance education?”…and of course many more.
After having my questions answered, I understood the idea and how it would work. I hadn’t spoken to anyone who was actually using it yet, as in the teachers and students, but I was very interested. If you are going to produce a film for a company, you absolutely must 100% understand the story and their needs Otherwise at best you will have to do lots of edit revisions to make it what the client wants…at worst you won’t have the right interview grabs or shots! Understanding fully is key! When I’m shooting a personal documentary, I tend to learn the story throughout the filming. I love that discovery you get, the unfolding story.
A few back and forths between myself and the agency, Blue Rubicon, plus Facebook of course, gave me a firmer understanding of the type of film they wanted: Something with the feel of a documentary showing Facebook’s education program and how it has performed in its pilot scheme. Naturally, this is a Facebook film so it needs to be a positive film that ticks their boxes. Remember, you are not making a film for yourself. This is for them.
Facebook is the client. They want a corporate film to promote their initiative. Just because it’s in a documentary style it doesn’t mean you can make a film which presents both sides of the argument.
Coud you imagine making a corporate for say BP about their clean up of the Gulf of Mexico and how amazing it was, then also cut in interviews from environmental organisations saying they are not doing enough? Of course that would be highly unlikely to be commissioned!
So remember, even though you are the filmmaker, the client is the “Studio”. They are more important than your own artistic vision. Sure, try and make it how you want it and put your “artistic stamp” on it, but remember the client is paying you to make something. You are hopefully still shaping the film with your vision, so it’s still your film, just without the freedom to go crazy! After all, would you want the builder you hired to make your kitchen to be so artisticly free that he put a water fountain in the middle where your breakfast table was going to be? Of course not! They will make it how YOU want, and if they don’t, they fix it so it is. You are the client/ customer paying the dish! I don’t care how “visionary” he is. It’s my kitchen. If he wants a fountain in do it in his own!
When it comes to potentially controversial subjects, I would rather address the elephant in the room than ignore it. Sometimes you have to, but then you have people rant on about said elephant in the comments. If you don’t know that phrase it means, I would rather ask the questions that viewers obviously will have about the subject actually answered in the film than ignore them. Instead of glossing over them, let’s tackle them. This is again of course not always possible. It depends on the client. Facebook are a very progressive company and were very keen on this, which was great!
The film that I wanted to make is, like my docs, is a journey of understanding. The plan I had formulated was a structure built up with five sections.
1: What is this and why is it being done?
2: How did the schools, teachers and students react to the idea?
3: How is it being used in lessons…why does Facebook help?
4: The reaction after using it from the schools etc
5: What next? What is the next step?
I wanted to tackle the main questions within the film, so for me it’s a complete and well-rounded film…despite being a corporate. I wanted to make a non-corporate corporate if that makes sense? A film that feels like a doc, looks like a doc and if it wasn’t paid for by the main “character” in the film, a doc! This is also my first full gig for Facebook (I contributed to their film about going public with some pretty shots). I of course want the client to be 100% happy for obvious reasons!
For me it was essential that the two schools we were going to film represented Britain as it is, a varied multi-cultural country of various socio-economic situations. That means I needed a cross section, two very different schools that ticked those boxes, and the ones we had definitely did. The London Nautical School and Wellington college.
We had a very tight turnaround on this. Although the gig was agreed quite a while ago, the actual filming dates were later than planned. Totally my fault. With other work hogging my time, I had to make it fit into my diary, and of course Facebook and the Schools needed to make sure those dates worked for them.
With the shoot being later, we had to deliver the next week. Personally I like deadlines. Way more than no deadlines. You procrastinate. Deadlines make you work harder and faster! Although they are more stressy!
So we had 2 hours or so in the first school, which included 3 teachers and 3 student interview PLUS lots of B-Roll, then the next day 2 Facebook interviews then the final day a similar schedule to the first day. So not a lot of time. The last day of filming was a Friday, the first pretty complete edit was to be delivered asap on Monday. So a tight turnaround.
My pre-production was simply research, back and forth with the agency and the client, plus putting the crew together and figuring out how to make the schedule work.
The C300 was the obvious choice for the main camera. It’s my main camera for work as it produces a terrific image, is easy to use and is HD broadcast approved. The B-Camera was the 1DC. Again an obvious choice for me as I have one. In HD super 35mm mode with the Canon Log setting, it damn well matches the C300 so well…it actually looks better at times! The B-Camera wasn’t going to be used much, but I always take a backup camera these days. This isn’t down to any concern about reliability. I just like to play safe when it comes to big gigs like this.
The crew was small. I was acting as Producer, Director, DP, Cameraman and co-editor. Lots of hats but totally do-able. Why? I had Sarah Estela operating for all the interviews, which meant I could put on my director’s hat for all the important getting-the-info stuff after I had lit it. Sarah was also going to be the assembly editor, so great to have her on the shoot…and she is a great shooter too with a terrific eye and also a great person to bounce ideas off of. That is so valuable. Work as a team, not as a bunch of individuals with their own set roles that don’t deviate.
In addition I had two excellent interns. Jack Daniel Mills who has helped on my “Bitten by the frost” music video and the soon to be edited F55 short “Venus”. Yannick Hausler from Ravensbourne College came along too. Both were great to have on board!
I decided on the shooting style before the shoot, and that is what I stuck to.
All “actuality” would be handheld…it would give it a less formal feel and it give me more of a chance to react to things. I was going to operate this part of the filming as, being the director too, it made things easy for me – rather than watching someone else operate and try and give direction without interrupting the flow. This would be the C300 handheld with the 24-105 F4 IS Canon lens. The IS of the lens makes hand held much better. Although the lens does not act like a true constant aperture as it gets a tiny bit darker at the end of the lens.
I used a Sony UWP wireless on the two teachers with a RODE NTG-3 on the top of the C300. No handheld rig was used, as the C300 is damn ergonomic as it is and with an IS lens. I wanted to use my Deity Mira loupe (seen below), this fits onto the LCD screen and gives you an amazing viewfinder. Annoyingly, I couldn’t find the clip bracket for the screen so I had to go with the built in EVF.
The Miller Compass 20 was my main tripod. Sarah had the DS20 with the 1DC for the b-roll. She didn’t do too much shooting with it as I covered most of the shots myself, but most of the b-roll shots on sticks are from Sarah and the 1DC in S35 mode.
The interview lighting was simple. No three point lighting here. Mostly one light, sometimes two.
My main key light was my Litepanel 1X1 bi-colour. My back light was the usual Dedo 150w. I like my lights to look like motivated light sources. To feel like they were coming from a natural light source, the windows.
I used the Rotolight Anova for one of the interviews to try it out. It came out fine. The one I have is designed for more of a flood, so the brightness wasn’t as concentrated as the 1×1 which I needed in the very windowed office of Facebook.
Most of the time these days I shoot my interviews on the 1DC in 4k, giving me the option of changing framing in post. Very useful. If I need to punch in for key moments I can. Almost like having two cameras. For this film, there was no need. The framing was fixed and designed for each of the groups. Facebook interviews would be the widest. Teachers a bit closer and students the tightest. They are the whole point of the scheme, so it made sense.
Audio for the interviews was mostly the Sanken Cos 11D wired lav mic and for children outside the Rode NTG-3 shotgun held by me with the pistol grip. I was very windy and I had no big fluffy lav mic covers.
The interviews and the set up with Facebook were the longest, as we had the most time. The teachers and children were the shortest naturally due to lack of time. Another reason why simple lighting is essential. In some of the backgrounds I had monitors visible, so I brought down the brightness of them to match my lighting.
The actuality that I captured was essential. A film of just interviews would be flat. Natural shots from real moments bring enormous life to a film, so I had to roll a lot as I never knew when the ideal moment would be. Tiring after a while, as handheld even with a C300 takes its toll. I am a weakling after all!
Because we had a three day break between the two schools (Monday and Friday), we were able to see if there was additional b-roll needed or any issues that needed addressing in our last interviews. Sarah went through the rushes whilst I was on another job, and when I got back we discussed what was needed (actually nothing really, it’s quite a simple tale). The second school is just a repeat of the first one just with different types of students in a very different school. Interestingly in the first school the students had no say on Facebook being used. It was simply part of their normal lessons. In the second school it was an after school lesson for volunteers.
So with the shoot done, did I have any regrets or concerns? I always wish I had done something different. Asked a different question. Perhaps got a tighter answer…maybe got more actuality. I thought I might doubt my decision to not film general b-roll of the schools. But my gut was right…I didn’t need them. I had all I needed to make the film.
The biggest chunk of the footage were the interviews. I covered most of the same questions from the three groups (Facbook, Teachers, Studens) so I could, in the edit, get them to fit together to form a flowing narrative where people would almost finish other people’s sentences. Some interview were easier than others of course. The key is to get the story and not to get either waffling or answers which were too short.
I assigned each group different colours. This made it much much easier to see in the timeline who is who, and if you are using a balanced amount from each school. It looks very colourful but I really recommend using the colours in Premiere (we used CC) to keep things nice and organised. An organised collection of bins and sequences makes things a lot easier.
Wellington college had warm palette of oranges and yellows. Nautical naturally had the blues and greens with Facbook getting the two pinks!
Sarah separated all the interviews and selected what she thought were the key bits, although we often went back to the originals to find discarded bits that worked better.
A skeleton structure was built via the interviews of around 15 minutes (the finished film needed to be sub 5 minutes. We then cut people back and shuffled them around so their answers complemented each other and, as mentioned earlier, flowed into each other. Too much repetition was removed and a nice balance between all was needed. Tom, a student from Wellington was incredibly eloquent to the point of not sounding 14 but 40. (keep an eye on him…he is going places!) We needed grabs from both schools equally and to make sure we had enough from the girls, as it’s a very bloke heavy set of characters. (Nautical is a boys’ school)
One key thing we got lucky with was we had b-roll of all the students we interviewed. They were not selected until after the actuality filming. Not ideal. Other way round would have been preferable, but the timing didn’t work. So luckily we had enough…part of the reason for over shooting and making sure I captured everybody.
When I felt we had a pretty solid and tight edit that told our story with a beginning, middle and end, we were almost ready to show the first draft to the client. I prefer to show them a colour corrected and even graded if possible version.
Each shot was matched and colour corrected using RedGiant’s Magic Bullet Colorista (all magic bullet software is 20% with code bloom20 at checkout) I then added 3 adjustment layers in Premiere to give the whole thing a wash for the grade. With all shots colour corrected, this was doable. Don’t cut up adjustment layers – keep them as a whole, that’s the point of them. If you need to make tweaks to a shot, do it to the clip on the timeline itself.
Each adjustment layer had a filter called “Lumetri” put on which is new to CC. I added one of the looks built in then clicked a symbol in the effects tab to let me load one from the finder. Inside the applications folder and inside photoshop I went to presets and 3D Luts. I used one 3D Lut on each layer at different opacity to create this look. It’s a nice feature and a simple way to create a beautiful filmic look. As we shot Canon log, the image was relatively flat. As you can see below, we brought the footage to life with the grading. I wanted a filmic looking grade, not too contrasty…natural really!
Using the password protected part of Vimeo Pro (or plus), I shared the edit with Facebook who came back with a few minor tweaks. They loved it though, which was fantastic! You never know how it’s going to go. I gave Facebook two revised edits in my quote – after that any more is chargeable. I cannot recommend doing this enough. Get it in writing. It’s better for you and them, as they have to make decisions and there are nice solid decisions made rather than “try this or try that”. Get those revisions in your contract!
I delivered an edit of just over 5 minutes via “wetransfer.com”. A bit longer than I had wanted, but we struggled to shorten it. After all, we had 13 voices in it! That’s a lot of people in such a short film. Although we used our two revision after the education event, I told Facebook I wanted to shave off 45 seconds for the web version at no cost to them. I wasn’t happy and felt it could be better. The version you see below is the final cut.
I felt it achieved what I had set out to do. Tell the story as a whole. What it is, why it’s being used, how it’s being implemented, the reaction both positive and negative, then the change in opinion after seeing how it actually complemented the teaching.
Could I have used more time? Yes on the shoot, to do less running round making sure we got it all…in post? Yes to a degree, but as I said too long is not a good idea often. Getting it cut fast and straight after the shoot makes the edit easier as its fresh in your head, and once it’s done you can move on rather than have it drag out for months!
If I haven’t covered everything here, please ask questions and I will do my best to answer.
A happy client and a happy filmmaker. Nice when you get both!