It never fails. Each year, it seems budgets for media production are getting tighter and tighter. I’ve been in the business of promoting and selling the services of my small production company since the early 1990s. In that same time, I’ve also marketed myself as a freelance cinematographer and producer. One long-term trend in media production that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon is the downward spiral on the budgets awarded to small companies and freelancers to produce media content that’s more and more technologically sophisticated, for less and less money.
In a way, we can’t blame clients who often read headlines about new technology like the recently introduced LG V30 cine smartphone, which has features like a 10-bit HDR image sensor and LG Cine-Log gamma, yes, in a phone. Even if this new LG retails for $1,500, it’s an amazing technology package to have built into something so inexpensive and compact. It doesn’t really matter if professionals know that specs have very little do with creative and effective execution; the client perception is out there that you can shoot an award-winning feature film on an iPhone. It’s easy to extrapolate that accomplishment to a new piece of technology like this LG, which has even more impressive video specs than the iPhone.
Where does this leave the freelance shooter or small production company? You guessed it, in a race to the bottom, as far as budgets and resources. Although this race to lowering budgets isn’t a new phenomenon, it obviously accelerated as soon as the digital revolution in video gear began back in the late 1990s. The budget deficit in production is affecting everyone, too, not just small production companies and freelancers. Fast forward to 2017, and little has changed except many clients now require higher technical specs like 4K and HDR, as well as increased production values while at the same time, budgets are shrinking quickly.
As a freelancer or small production company, the obvious strategy is to try to contain and cut your own costs to maximize your profits. In my opinion, many of my colleagues have taken this mantra to heart a little too often. Most of us have at one time or another produced shoots and projects as a one-man band. Looking online, you can see the term “OMB” (one-man band; sorry, ladies, the term OWB hasn’t made it into the vernacular yet) all over the place, with articles, websites and lots of new gear designed to allow the OMB to get more done when shooting by him or herself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with producing, shooting and editing projects by yourself, but it can quickly become a de facto way of working that I feel not only compromises the quality of your work, but also the scale and scope, correspondingly, of your budgets.
Hear me out. I know that for a single-camera, small-scale interview, it’s pretty easy to shoot that by yourself. You can cart in all of your gear, unload it, set it all up, light the talent, mic the talent, roll camera and put on headphones, and you’ll end up with a pretty nice-looking, good-sounding talking head, if you know what you’re doing. However, I see plenty of OMBs who try to take it to the next level, shooting a two- or three-camera interview with a motion-control rig, as well as A and B cameras, typically at a drastically undermarket rate for what that shoot should cost the client, as well.
For the past year or two, my strategy with my clients has been a little different. I begin conversations with them with the assumption that I’ll have a crew of some sort to shoot the project. While I own a three-ton grip and lighting package, I don’t really own a large enough vehicle like a cube van to be able to efficiently transport the package to each shoot, so I end up guessing which pieces of gear will be needed and packing those pieces and hopefully not leaving a piece of gear I’ll need back at the office when doing larger-scale, more ambitious shoots.
Lately, I discovered a local fellow DP who owns a very nice large van that’s packed to the gills as a small grip and lighting truck. This van comes with a very nice HMI package—Kino Flos, Dedolights and even two top-of-the-line LED bi-color panels—as well as all of the stands, flags, sandbags and other necessary lighting control and rigging needed. He rents the van, grip and lighting package for a mere $700 per day. He includes a driver/grip/gaffer for a mere $350 per day who knows the van and where everything is stored and located as well. I’ve decided to sell off the vast majority of my three-ton package simply because it’s so much work and is so time consuming to load and unload all of my own grip and lighting onto a vehicle that’s not designed as a grip and lighting vehicle.
I’ve been able to show my clients the value of spending an extra $1,050 per day for the convenience and value of having a perfect small to medium grip and lighting package with a dedicated grip/gaffer ready to light any small to medium set. This leaves me, the DP, with the ability to better conceive, light and work with camera and camera gear, instead of carrying C-stands and sandbags and rigging every light myself. Filmmaking and television are creative collaboration mediums. Working with other skilled artists is generally how the best content is created. My clients end up with a better end product, the set runs smoother, and I’m free to concentrate on my job—lighting the sets effectively, rather than trying to do everything myself. Sure, it reduces the rate I could be charging for my own grip and lighting gear, but it also reduces the hassle and the wear and tear on the vehicle and my back. Lugging around hundreds of pounds of C-stands and sandbags is tiring and doesn’t really help my skills and clear thinking as a cinematographer.
It’s the same with hiring production assistants, script supervisors, ADs, ACs, sound mixers, hair and makeup, wardrobe, props and so on. Sure, many of us can pinch-hit in several of these positions. But all of us are only one person who can only have so much focus and concentration at once. Tell your clients that adding crew positions and specialists may appear to cost more than a minimal or OMB crew, but in the end, the additional budget spent makes up for it in better quality execution, less stress and greater problem-solving ability.
Let’s face it, about 70% of production is about solving problems and overcoming challenges. Working with a crew that I need for the scale and scope of a project is the most professional way to deliver exactly the finished product my client needs. One-man-banding has its time and place, but don’t get sucked into making the one-man band your default position. Your clients, your creativity, your stress level and your back will thank you.
Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.