Cost Of Motion Productions For Photographers

- - Motion

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.

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. In both still and motion it costs what it costs – true? The variables being: managing everyone’s expectations, weighing and balancing risk, and applying aesthetic judgment. Beyond that there are salaries to be paid, etc. – in the big scene of things, you get what you pay for – it’s just a matter of comfort. There is a price /production value below which some become uncomfortable and others don’t.

  2. Motion, even with the elimination of film and processing costs – is far more time and money consuming to produce than stills, there is no way around it, until they invent robots that can do all the production jobs.

  3. I agree and disagree. DSLRs have made many things about motion shoots easier. They are much more light sensitive and allow you to work with smaller lights/HMIs etc which does bring the costs down from traditional cameras. They are smaller and lighter so some shots are much faster to rig. I think it can bring the costs down if you want to create both stills and motion on the same shoot as well. I am not saying these cameras are for every shoot but they have changed the game.

    Can traditional film makers now use DSLRs? Yes and they are. They are also capturing stills for clients as well.

    I think the main point is that it is still very complicated and not an easy answer. Sometimes DSLRs work for motion shoots and sometimes they bring down the costs. You really need to understand the benefits and limitations of shooting motion with DSLRs.

    That all being said I thought the pricing mentioned in the post was very much on the low end for a motion production. It is a little hard to know from the information provided.

    • @Jason Lindsey, These budgets are on the very low end. But a lot of simple production jobs are down in that range. The other thing that kept the budgets low was that they were ‘oners.’ so there was really no intensive post schedule — just a little finishing work for about a day and a half total. We could then put more money in the production budget.

      And i agree that there are great uses for dSLRs, but they’re not for every use.

  4. In my limited experience with motion so far, I think one of the things that get’s forgotten by the still side of the business is how much time and energy goes into editing and grading a motion project. Sure, we can shoot it relatively cheaply… it might only take one day with limited crew and equipment. But the editing is a massive process in and of itself. Sifting through the raw footage, putting it into some sort of order, editing various versions, going through multiple revisions with the client, audio, and then grading…. from that one day shoot we might have a solid three weeks worth of work to do on the back end. It’s easy to get involved in a project on a set budget that seems rather high coming from a still background, but once you factor in all that extra work, you really start to understand why motion projects usually have such massive budgets.

    I have a feeling we are going to see a lot of these motion projects that still people have been getting swinging back to the people that came from a motion background in the first place, or still guys that have invested A LOT of time into developing motion skills. Still folks had a limited advantage because they had a direct connection to a lot of these clients and a good understanding of the new DSLR technology. But we are now seeing experienced DP’s getting a firm grasp of that technology and hot to really use it, and also new cameras coming out that will make the DSLR’s less attractive to productions. So their solid foundation in not just the story telling aspect of motion, but also the production and post production aspects is going to give them back the advantage.

  5. I have to question the impression that a DSLR capable of recording video can simple be pulled from the bag to produce quality work. I am more of the impression that it needs to be geared up with the proper lens, and additional holders etc to be an effective production tool. I do agree from what I have seen produced that DSLR’s brings a new dimension to the industry. Just thinking out loud here….

    • Ed:

      You nailed it.

      I’m not sure where the idea came from that anyone can just shoot an ad campaign with a DSLR without the benefit of stabilization, monitors, sound equipment and everything else that goes with it….ohhh yeah the camera manufactures.

      No photographer has made that transition better than Vincent Laforet and if you have read his behind the scene interviews, producing quality DSLR production takes a bit of knowledge.

      Recently I had an opportunity to meet with a CEO of one of the top post production companies in New York and he noted that a large part of their business is fixing productions photographed with DSLR cameras and RED.
      From a pure quality stand-point he wished it would revert back to film…but noted its all part of the learning curve.

      • @Gary Miller, Agreed. I began to ask questions recently because there seems to be a growing demand that I think will fade back to the guys who shoot motion or those who are great DP’s with motion or stills. I imagine if you told Spielberg or Cameron to produce a movie with a DSLR they could do it but it may not be the quality we expect. It would be an interesting experiment.

  6. The game changer was Kodak 5247 (35mm) and 7247 (16mm). Now we had a viable 16mm negative. BTW this was 1976.

    I worked on National Commercials shot with 35mm Mitchell BNCRs and Regional Commercials using 16mm Cinema Products CP16Rs. I work on Big Budget features shot with 35mm Panavision PSR 200s and Low Budget Features using 16mm Eclair NPRs.

    The big budget stuff had larger crews than the low budget stuff. Not much has changed since the mid 1970s.

    Another big change occurred when the hand holdable Arri 35 BL arrived in 1972. Now 35mm cameras could be used like the lighter 16mm cameras. And so it goes.

    A lot of the new converts to motion like to move the camera excessively. Here’s a great Steven Spielberg quote. ”I was very much into angles, tricks, subjective points of view, and I’d always let the camera tell the story. Later I learned how to let the story tell the camera, but it took a while before I learned that lesson.

    Director Jim Jarmusch isn’t much into moving cameras. Here’s the trailer for Mystery Train. Check-out the guy lighting the cigarette Clever direction is always a winner.

    But VDSLRs are good in low light. Check-out Matthew Libatique’s cinematography for Never Die Alone a Super 16 feature from 2004. Very little lighting (or money) was used to make this film.

  7. Three points….

    1. DSLR’s + camera motion = Rolling Shutter Jello-Vision unless you’re very slow, whereas an HVX200 can hande this pretty well… so this changes the way you do things, edit things, conceptualize the whole idea,etc….

    2. A good still photographer can often turn a mediocre idea into a great shot and an agency creative can reconcept a print ad at the last minute…. For motion shoots, a mediocre story can’t really be rescued in post, but you can go radically different with crazy editing and time consumed $$$, or do Weiden Kennedy and the Lou Reed Honda ad (see the “Where the Suckers Moon” book)

    3. I wonder if still photographers are more likely to entertain client randomness, whereas motion crews, especially directors and DP’s may be more “stick to the idea”

  8. I enjoyed Jason’s very clear exposition of his process for a few shoots. Thank you. And while the actual productions of still only and motion only shoots can be quite similar, the post work tends to be quite different as someone has already mentioned. Massive amounts of data transferred, flame artists working day and night, sound etc., all add up to much larger post costs.

    But the world is changing, client needs are changing, and sometimes not knowing how things are supposed to be done is much less of a burden than having to shed years of knowledge. In this environment, some still photographers will thrive making movies (especially short format), and as we know, some already are.

    • @James Godman, Yes, post costs can be more expensive, but like everything else they scale. The viral job I had mentioned incurred only two days of post, all within Final Cut Pro Suite (FCP and Color) for three spots. I ended up doing it myself as there wasn’t enough work to bring in freelancers. Mind you, I do have an extensive background in motion post, so it was more of a time management decision.

      I do think you hit the nail on the head about the learning curve. But it’s a double edged sword. That’s why I suggest you surround yourself with talented people who know their craft and who you trust. I don’t tell the gaffer how to pack his truck, but it has everything on there for the job i described. I think you’ll find most motion people have trained themselves to be active problem solvers. Because you could always do more and use more gear to craft a production — but your available resources are limited to what the budget will allow. The dolly I mentioned in the post above wasn’t a Fisher 10, but a simple speed rail / cheese plate dolly cobbled together from grip kept on the truck. It was the right solution for our shot and our budget.