Part 1: Risk/Reward Profile & How To Organize Your Shoot
by George Avgerakis:
If you work in corporate video, there is one job almost no one wants to do – videotaping the CEO. CEOs with their own in-house video departments consider the department a perquisite regarded much as a private car and chauffer. Smaller corporations, without in-house facilities, rely on outsourced vendors, but can be even more demanding and less forgiving.
Just the same, the best in-house producers will leap at the chance to show off their skills to the top brass, betting their careers on a chance to shine under the least forgiving light. Vendors on the other hand, look at a C-level shoot like a high stakes crap throw. Pull it off, and you might get a regular gig shooting the same person and his sidekicks periodically. Maybe you’d even get a shot at working with the mid-level execs in marketing and PR.
But maybe it doesn’t go so well.
Assess the Risk
How do you evaluate the balance between risk and gain when faced with the opportunity of serving a CEO or really any powerful client? First, you have to know your limitations and skills. Are you a rank beginner with sales skills that exceed your capabilities, or a seasoned pro that’s ready for prime time? Clearly, a CEO is going to have little patience with anyone who isn’t confident – and confident for a good reason. If the fight or flight response doesn’t kick in, next assess your hardware. Do you have the top quality tools necessary to produce “network quality” results? If not, can you rent them?
Finally, are your nerves up to the task? Are you socially adaptable to be able to mesh your interpersonal skills and your personality, to create a utilitarian if temporary bond with the subject? If so, this is the most valuable asset you can bring to any high-risk personal engagement.
Essentially, as an “executive” media producer, you are kind of a high level doorman. By assisting a chief executive in successfully communicating, you expand that executive’s capabilities and multiply his force. Do your job well and you will have won a powerful ally. The rewards, while often not often immediate, may be significant.
What Kind of Equipment?
A sad fact about the corporate media business, like all media really, is that it’s too easy to get into. Consider the equipment you need to own or rent. Historically, a good video camera, lens, lights, monitors, teleprompter, microphones and assorted utensils could cost close to $100,000. Acquiring such a package was a threshold that many corporations could not cross, much less an independent filmmaker. Today, everybody’s nephew has field gear good enough to produce a network reality show – purchased with summer job money or Daddy’s plastic. So your competition is heavily weighted to individuals not yet experienced enough for the task. This is good and bad. Good if you’re experienced, bad because you won’t be respected until you prove you are.
Clearly, when entering into the C-suite, you need to have an image of at least technical proficiency. This is why larger, shoulder-mounted video cameras continue to sell best in the corporate marketplace. No boss wants to feel like he’s on a still shoot, or worse doing a “selfie” when it comes to his moment in the spotlight. So, when considering the gear package, shun the DSLR unless it’s got a rail, matte box and some hefty glass. And direct XLR microphone input capability is a good idea too, because who needs to disturb the boss’ piece of mine with a clapper stick and who needs to waste edit time synching dailies? I like the JVC’s GY-HM700 series camcorders ($4,300 – $10,000 with lenses) to purchase and the GY-HM800 series to rent as these stunning cameras produce great results, are compact and carry enough “studio presence” to look serious.
A note on lights. The most frequent complaint of executive subjects is bright lights. And if they’re complaining, before the thought reached the mouth, the lights were them getting nervous. If you’re stuck with incadescents, get them into softlight boxes such as the Chimera Small Video Pro Plus softbox ($320). Fluorescents are better, since they don’t get hot, use less power and don’t cause subjects to squint. The Impact Octacool-6 Fluorescent 1 Light Kit with Octabox ($250) is a great choice that creates round reflections in the subject’s eyeballs, allowing for dramatic close ups that do not reveal the lighting source. LED’s like the Bescor LED-1200 Bi Color Studio Light ($600, to own) or the Kino Flo Celeb 200 DMX LED Center Mount Kit ($3,000 to rent) are great choices for portability, low power and dimmable, non-squinty lighting.
Mission Critical Crew
The underlying risk with the CEO shoot (or any shoot for that matter) is that anything can go wrong, especially when the pressure to do everything exactly right dominates. In a nutshell, avoiding stress is the key. Nothing gives the commander more confidence in you than seeing you marshaling a professional, relaxed crew; dedicating it to the singular purpose of making that commander’s presentation a thing of simplistic beauty.
Hire the best crew you can find and work with them on at least two, non-critical shoots (even if you have to shoot some “spec” job) before taking them to the executive suite. Work out the kinks, build a tight team and know your crew’s idiosyncrasies. Because they are the best, we’ll assume they do great work. But do they work fast? You will likely get a limited, but adequate time to set up, but a very limited and hardly adequate time to shoot. And of course, you know the biggest time wasters on a set-up, right? Kinked cables, taping down power lines, and getting the lighting just right. Consider hiring extra production assistants (PAs) who are inexpensive and should be able to do a variety of services without being asked (like standing-in, finding circuit breakers and serving refreshments).
No important shoot should take place without a pre-production meeting at least a day before the shoot. Here, you can walk your client through the shoot and iron out any last-minute issues. One such issue, especially for male executives, is makeup, hair and wardrobe. Stress the importance of having a qualified makeup and hair specialist to assure that the subject looks his best. Men hate makeup, so even if the executive’s assistant says it’s a no-go, insist on it and say, “We can leave it up to the executive at the shoot.” I once had to spend 20 minutes convincing a very macho CTO that he would look “really weary” without makeup (that’s the best way to put it) without getting at least a “gentle powder.” Ten minutes after sitting for “Mr. Jerry,” he was given a mirror and responded, “Can I wear this home tonight? I’m going to take my wife to dinner.” No joke. He even had Mr. Jerry spruce up his makeup after the shoot!
Is There A Script?
There are two basic styles of a CEO presentation, scripted and interview. Obviously, the interview is more challenging, but both present specific challenges.
The scripted presentation opens up two very important issues: the script?” and the teleprompter. Fortune 100 CEOs are pretty familiar with teleprompters, but many executives have never used one and their staffs may balk at the expense (about $500 plus operator to rent, plus transportation). Never, never allow an executive to suggest reading from “cue cards.” Simply explain that cue cards are never used, when into the camera. The result is always a wall-eyed look because the eyes are never exactly in line with the lens. And do not trust that any executive is going to memorize a script or worse, “wing it.” Scripted presentations require a certain degree of performance. Some CEO’s are born performers, while most are born command quietly from behind large desks. You may get either one, so make your job easy with a teleprompter and don’t forget to ask if the CEO needs glasses to read it (and plan to light accordingly).
Somehow, you must accurately assess your subject’s capabilities of perform the script. Obviously, the first step is to get the script yourself and read it – out loud – if possible directly from the software of whatever teleprompter software you will be using.
Immediately, you will see that long sentences need to be broken so the key thought isn’t lost as the result of the reader pausing inappropriately at the end of the line. Any other changes to the script are best done in concert with your client, maybe even on set with the chief executive beside you. In such cases, keep in mind that most corporations have complex approval processes and that the script, down to the smallest word, may have taken weeks to perfect. It may be necessary to limit your suggestions to underlining the words to be emphasized.
Prepping the Subject
Start out by introducing yourself and suggesting “first names basis.” This might seem brash at first, but it quickly breaks the ice and establishes the kind of informality that you need build the intimacy of directing talent. Exceptions to this rule are, of course, The President, The Pope, royalty, or a military dictator. Nervous? F’getaboutit. Once, introducing myself to a reputed mob hitman, “Benny Hats,” I started off with, “Mr. Hats, I’m your Director, George Avgerakis.” Benny and the boys wept with laughter.
Introductions aside, start off by placing your subject before the camera with the lights dimmed or off. Show the CEO the teleprompter and assure that it’s easy to read. Teleprompter operators are trained to follow the pace of the subject, but if you don’t tell the subject this important fact, they tend to think they have to keep up with the operator. The CEO goes faster, the operator keeps up by going faster and in seconds you’ve got a fast, used car pitch! Set the pace and go through the entire script, making sure the right words are emphasized, the lines break naturally and most of all, the executive is relaxing.
Once you’ve got a passable read, suggest turning on the lights. If the executive suddenly looks like Marie Antoinette being introduced to the fat, masked guy, suggest another run-through. Just in case, roll camera without the executive knowing. It may be your best – and only take.
Remember, it is your job to obtain the best performance possible. This requires clear, quick assessments of what is wrong with a presentation and how to fix it. Often a quick, polite, softly spoken suggestion like, “Once more, please. Try reading this a bit more…” will give your subject just enough direction to pursue perfection.
Don’t belabor your directions. CEO’s are not used to supervision. Their time is more valuable than all of your crew’s day-rates put together. Often a director will attempt to pursue perfection beyond the limitations of the subject. Typically, non-professional talent tends to peak early, go sour and never recover. Give it a test reading, record one, tune it up, record one more. Consider yourself lucky if you get two good takes without the need for an edit. Don’t push the talent unless you believe you can’t use what you have or you are blessed with a CEO who wants to spend the time to get it perfect. In that case, spend all the time you can get.
If you really believe your subject is capable of a better reading, and a better reading will get better end results, you have to use your wits, charm and if necessary, your authority to convince the executive to go the distance. And never forget (though you often will) to get close-up shots of his hands to use as editorial cut-aways in case you really need to combine two takes. Just say, “I’m going to ask you to do something silly, but I need some shots of your hands to use in case I need to edit your presentation.” Then simply have the executive imitate what you do with your hands. Perform a series of gestures; pointing, counting off fingers, folding and unfolding the hands, making a fist, etc. Then you can reward the effort by saying, “Cut! That’s a wrap. Thank you for your time…” And a nice way to button it up is to switch back to military courtesy and add, “…sir.” (or “…madam.”).
End of Part 1. In Part 2, we start off with techniques to assist you in the actual shoot, wrapping and editing.