A Lovely Post-Production VFX Day

Ah, visual effects. I love them so. Most companies in our weight division avoid VFX. I embrace it. Why? Because, honestly, having a kickass visual effects pipeline and the experience to take advantage of it absolutely can elevate the stories you’re telling.

My favorite type of VFX work is that which most people will never notice. What do I mean by that? I mean things like removing markers and wires. Adding completely new environments that are photo-real. Removing things from shots and adding things to shots that make the story pop more. Basically, the kind of stuff that makes people think the project at hand cost millions of dollars.

Today I did some moving camera tracking in 3D, object removals, and object retouching to make a client’s product promo pop (yes, I said it like that on purpose). This, after spending the morning in DaVinci Resolve, taking our RED 5K Raw video footage and making it look absolutely magical in the technical color grade. The tech grade is done before VFX work, then you do a big beauty pass grade- which in this case will mostly be power windows to highlight things I want people to notice in frame, since the tech grade looks so magical on its own.

Last week was the edit, and this week is finishing for this project. I still have a few tough VFX shots to do, including some screen replacements, but I am pretty thrilled with how good this little project is looking. I hope the client realizes how great it is turning out, too.

What’s Your Mission, Stan?

I co-wrote and directed a short film a number of years ago called ‘Headhunting, Inc.’. Its hero was an everyman named Stan, who was in a rut, career-wise. He had to break out of this rut and figure his shit out, or be stuck in his unfulfilling life forever.

It was a cute little short, well-written, with my talented (and weird as shit) writing partner at the time, Rick Bourn. The film was a little surreal and strange, of course, as well. Wouldn’t be one of mine, otherwise.

And there was this character in it, who was a former postal worker with a grudge. Stan has a vision of this character accosting him in the shower, and demanding “What’s your mission, Stan?”.

This helps jolt Stan out of his complacency, and that day he makes moves that get him on a new and better path.

This morning, I was thinking about our postal character, and how it’s so fucking easy to get caught up in the bullshit, feeling like you’re busy and going places, when you’re really not. It’s easy to get off course with your mission.

I think a lot of the world counts on and hopes that you stay on your current path. The vultures profit from your complacency.

For instance, Bank of America just sent me an email that said from now on they won’t be automatically waiving the $25/month fee for one of my accounts. See, complacent me would just deal with that. I’m sure BofA is praying everyone does nothing, and they make their additional $XXX millions of dollars in fees this year.

Me? I fucking went to Betterment.com (yay Betterment!) and initiated a rollover of all my BofA investments, and I’ll be headed down to BofA on Monday morning to close every single one of my accounts, and opening an account at a credit union (yay credit unions!) that actually wants my business.

Fuck complacency. And while we’re at it, let’s get back to our mission, shall we?

Some Days You Eat The Bar(Bear)

Apologies to The Big Lebowski’s cowboy character. But it’s so true. Some days you can’t do a damn thing right. Then, sometimes, you have a day like mine today:

First, I got to the airport early for once. And my shuttle was literally waiting for me as I arrived. Then, check-in went very easily- no lines. At TSA, also no lines. And a TSA officer flirted with me. Seriously. He and I did not share a sexual orientation, but, I was flattered. Then, I noticed that my long-awaited TSA pre-check status had gone through. So I got to keep my shoes on and go through the metal detector, instead of the Rape-i-scan nude body imager. Yay! My flight, while full-ish, was pleasant, and I got a sandwich onboard, while watching a fun indie film (Grandma, recommended). I got off the plane (which arrived early), walked right out of the terminal and directly onto the rental van. And then directly into the “Elite Gold” member counter, just ahead of 30 other people. Got in my car, and drove away.

While on the road, I got a new lead from an agency back east. And the sunset was absolutely beautiful.

It’s hardly ever this easy. So, wow.

Demanding Doesn’t Equal Asshole in Video Production

I’ll say it: almost all of my clients are intensely demanding. And I love them for it.

I expect a client to be demanding when there’s high-five-to-high-six-figures at stake. I expect in-person meetings. I expect many calls, as we go from concept into pre-production and casting. I want my clients to be very involved in the process, I want them to care.

It’s the ones who don’t give a fuck that you have to worry about.

I’ve gotten up at 3am for conference calls in the UK while I’ve been in LA. I’ve taken calls from our studio in NYC coming from clients in Asia, at 12am local time. I’ve gone through multiple rounds of casting when my client’s vision for their spokesperson hasn’t quite been met. I often get up at 4am so that when the client walks on set at 8am, we are ready for them.

I love doing this stuff.

I’m not even against spending money not in the budget, if I can justify it, sometimes, for items that’ll up the production value of the video we’re doing for a client. For instance, on a recent financial services company commercial, I made arrangements for the lighting truck’s contents to be upgraded. I had a feeling that we’d need bigger lights than they usually carried. It cost me an extra $750. Guess what? We needed those lights, in the end.

I didn’t even tell the agency people how we went above and beyond for them with these add-on lights, I just did it. Because I know they had so much on their minds with their client already.

Because the secret is, as demanding as the most demanding client is, I am more demanding of myself and my team. We care.

I’m not telling you this to brag. I’m just showing you how one guy and his little production company has been successful with big and small clients over the last few years. A demanding client is awesome. They help you rise to the occasion, and most importantly, it means they care about the project, too. That’s a good thing.


Sometimes I Screw Up. Not Often. But Sometimes.

I love my clients. I get a thrill every time I connect with a client, and I love over-delivering to them, exceeding their expectations with the videos we make. But once in a while, this bites me in the ass. It’s why we have good (but simple) contracts. Yes, it’s fair to consider our contract “ass protection”.

Recently, we’d been working on a project for a company that’s a small player but could do great things with their neato tech products. But things started to unravel with their project last fall. First, they told us they would handle some of the production tasks in-house. That ought to have been a red flag, but I liked the people, and they really wanted to save money (that ought to have also been a red flag), so we went with it. Of course, they did not deliver their side of things. At all. And it made for a very, very difficult shoot. We, of course, over-delivered on our side. My team worked their butts off- and so did I- to make up for the client’s fails. Because that’s what you do, you try to make your client look good, and failure doesn’t look good no matter whose fault it is.

Sadly, this client’s fails continued to where we could not film a scene in the script. So, production stopped. We took a breather to reevaluate the project. The client came back, and said, essentially- “Let’s rewrite the whole thing, using the stuff you shot, to make it work”. Red flag, because if you work in production you know that one does not rewrite the story after filming. That’s bananas, even for the most skilled storytellers among us. But I, being a game kind of guy, said “no promises, but yes we’ll work with you to see if we can tell your story without that final scene, and despite all the compromises we had to make due to the things you promised to perform and did not. Sure, let’s try!”.

So, we tried. It was all work that was beyond the scope of the contract, and we did it at no additional cost. I was aware that both of these points were red flags. And, well, going the extra mile for these guys bit me in the ass. Instead of being appreciative, this client started pushing for more, more, more free work. When I delivered a rewritten script to them that expertly avoided that final missing scene yet still told their story, and asked for feedback before we incurred the hard costs of a voiceover artist and re-edit, they essentially told me that they just wanted to see a whole lot of story options as fully-completed videos, and they’d just choose the one they liked best.

I mean, fuck, not even I could ignore that big honking red flag.

So, I sighed a long sigh that you could have heard from a block away in New York, and pulled up the contract. I examined it. I showed the client that we’d exceeded all the parameters including time we’d promised to commit to their video. And as nicely as I could, I explained that we want to help them get out of this mess (which I clearly showed was a mess of their doing, not ours), but that they need to honor their side of the contract, which, after all, they’d signed, too. And that part of this is to not take advantage of my company’s good nature.

I hope the client starts treating their project- and us- with the respect deserved. They do make a cool product, that could be a big deal if they let us do our jobs with the video, and then properly promoted it. No matter what, though, our simple contract served its purpose.

Wrapping up, I don’t usually go around set with a copy of the contract, screaming when we’re asked to do extra stuff. If it’s small, we’ll do it. If our out-of-pocket isn’t large, we’ll do it. If it’ll make the client happy, generally, we’ll do it. But having a great, simple contract has proven to be very, very useful for that small percentage of clients who don’t respect their vendors.

ps: I thought long and hard about posting anything “bad” about a client. But after long and careful deliberation, I noticed that the de-facto way of dealing with the 2-5% of problem clients that agencies have is to pretend they do not exist, that you never have to deal with clients who let you down. I think that’s dishonest. And it’s not how I want to be. The facts are, over 95% of the clients I’ve worked with in my career have been good to great relationships, and I’ve enjoyed them and they’ve enjoyed me. But it’s not all wine and roses, not even for the best vendor-client relationships. Having simple things in place to protect everyone is important even with the best relationships. And when you deal with a not-great client, these things become even more important.