I received an email from Photographer/Director Jason Mitchell of Purebred Photo challenging me on a assumption I made in a question to Clint Clemens about how photographers are simply shooting motion cheaper than traditional motion crews can. He was correct to challenge me on that, because it was simply a hunch I had without anything backing it up. I love hearing from people in the field and found his comments so interesting I asked him to expand on them with some examples for everyone to see. Here is Jason’s response:
I think it’s important to talk about the cost of motion production and the idea that photographers can somehow do it cheaper. I think that this is a misconception born out of the often smaller production costs of shooting stills as compared with a motion campaign, and sprinkled with the cost of acquiring on dSRLs vs. high-end motion cameras. If in reality the cost reduction is due to a smaller crew count, less expensive cameras, cheap lights and reduced overhead, then most motion production companies are already doing that. However, they do not talk it up as they prefer to focus on the larger jobs that pay better, have a properly skilled crew, and often better results. It boils down to the level of quality and control you can achieve when you are approaching a project as a solo vs. cooperative effort, the difference is in the details.
I bring this up because in your question you feel quite certain that photographers can do it cheaper. I feel I must put it back to you that everyone can do it cheaper (and already have been). But what motion teams are good at also incorporates another element (other than the obvious editing and sound as Mr. Clemens addresses): the evolution of a story. The deeper you dig into the motion world, the more you will come back with the idea that the story is king.
The barrier to entry in motion production for photographers is not all that high. The simple answer is to hire the same people who have been doing motion work for decades. It is up to the photographer to incorporate this collaborative effort, decide which elements to focus on and which to delegate. And their approach may be more novel as they are coming with fresh eyes and fewer presuppositions on what the ‘requirements’ are for solid motion production. But the costs of production relate directly to the ability to support and communicate the narrative.
So, here are two examples that I could offer up to support the rhetoric — where we kept the budget low but strove for higher quality.
Job A: OOH targeting transit in NY, SF and London and Viral still and motion banners for [Redacted] through agency [Redacted].
This one was a bit unusual (as if anything ever isn’t). It started out with only still deliverables but the client couldn’t commit to a date. As the job progressed they added on more desires for the outcome, including motion banners to support an interactive experience in the web browser. The producer was a friend I had worked with and problem solved with before and he had just run into two problems. The client pushed the dates into a conflict with the photographer who had originally bid/secured the job so he was down a photographer. They added motion, which that photographer had no experience with.
When he called and talked about the project, it was a week away. They had booked a studio and talent but needed a new (and new type of) acquisition team. And to boot, they had already settled on a budget for the project of $8300 to cover camera crew, equipment and lighting for a two day shoot — the agency was acting as the production company and handling the hair/make-up fx, prop stylist, talent, studio and post. I was available for the time and had the ability to take both both formats down so I could gladly help him out. But to complicate matters the two clients couldn’t agree if the materials should be high key or low-key to match existing work, so our punch list was growing exponentially.
I wanted to shoot strobes for still to freeze the action and needed hot lights for the motion — I chose HMIs to match daylight of the strobes. I brought on a gaffer and a 1st photo assistant for both days, each familiar with the different lights. Cameras were a Nikon D3x for poster-sized stills and an HVX200 that had plenty of resolution for web banners. I focused the budget on what I would help augment our ability to quickly handle the shoot. On set, I sistered the two (hot and strobe) lighting setups to quickly move between them. In the end, we had more issues with coaxing the talent to stay fresh than we did with the multitude of setups, so we saw overtime on day one.
So a minimal budget equaled a minimal approach — cheaper cameras and small crew. A complexity added by the client resulted in having to focus heavily on utilizing every iota of talent from the crew to make it work.
Job B: 3x 15 second web commercials (virals) for [Redacted] through [Redacted] .
This we bid out from the beginning. After a little back and forth it was clear that they had marked out $25,000 for the project to include production and post on three 15 second web commercials. The agency would be handing talent costs, but otherwise we would be delivering finished spots. The original estimate called for a lot of agency involvement in pre-production in casting and location scouting. In reality they were busy on other projects and simply weighed in online.
To make it meet the budget, we planned for one day of production with three locations. The shots were simple, all ‘oners’ where there was just one shot for the whole spot (a logo and some VO is added in post). We had SAG talent so the reads were all gold and we were able to push through the setups in short order. And we kept the locations close to each other and ended up only moving the trucks once (we shot one exterior outside on the street of the interior location). The crew was robust but minus a couple of the ancillary multiple roles, and I could Direct/DP to keep costs and crew count down. There was a total head count of 21 including 5 agency and 1 client.
I was able to negotiate a couple of price reductions in rate or kit costs with crew members that I had a good relationship and took care of everyone very well on set (great craft, a motor coach to work in and I ordered the larger grip truck). We shot on the Red with a kit 18-50mm lens for versatility in our locations and the ability to reframe the image in post (critical to time and budget concerns). We took advantage of the sun at our first location with shiny boards, a single HMI and LED at the second, and a mixture of lighting for the third location. The day included a lot of time to set up the camera and lighting to do a simple dolly move and allow talent to walk around in the frame. The formula was just right for the size of crew to the scope of the project while allowing time to dial it in on set. The time spent augmenting reality with the lighting and focus on the details made the spots much better than if we had simply run and gunned it.
A modest budget, achievable with less, not full market rate for all matters concerned, better for having more.
So there are two examples of where we kept the budget low but maintained the right kind of quality in the production. Hope this helps illustrate that not every commercial you see is a bajillion dollars. But if you have more time, effort and talent to put on you can address the important details.