It probably seems like a no-brainer to tout the importance of clear communication (both between producer and client, and internally among the production team) in ensuring the success of a project. However, this is the point of failure for numerous young companies and inexperienced teams. In the fast-moving world of video production, mistakes have far-reaching ripples that quickly resonate throughout all the departments on set and all the phases of production, as well as having budget implications. More often than not, these “ripples” can be traced back to a failure in communication somewhere upstream in the process. It is therefore crucial that the production company communicate clearly, concisely and effectively among themselves and consolidate the information that flows back and forth with the client to ensure all parties are operating in tandem toward the common goal of a successful final product. Like all things in world of content creation, this process starts in pre-production.
Before the Deal is Done
My partner, Jason Sirotin, recently penned an article entitled “Please Just Tell Me What Your Budget Is”. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read it, as it highlights one of the major communications pitfalls a production can fall into before it’s even gotten started: lack of clarity about the budget. The phrase, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” applies in spades when it comes to producing high-quality video content. We could literally come up with 100 different approaches to produce a :30 second broadcast television commercial, all of them with different strengths and weaknesses, and still have barely scratched the surface of the possibilities and variables at play. How many cameras? What type? How large of a crew? How many shoot days? How long in post? Graphics? Voice-over? Versioning? Multiple languages? The list goes on.
What’s the best way for us to focus our approach and cut through the noise of all these myriad methodologies to choose from to produce the same end product? Knowing what budgetary resources we have at our disposal. With that information we can strategize about what tools we can place in our production “toolbox” to get the best product possible within the stated budget. Give us that information and you’ve given us the keys to the kingdom rather than asking us to find a way to break in. We’ve now saved tons of man hours and laid the foundation for a successful production simply by the producer and the client communicating clearly with one another.
Let’s look at it from the other side: let’s say the client does NOT tell us the budget for the project. Now we’re guessing – pulling one of literally hundreds of possible scenarios out of the air and running with it based on our experience and intuition. Sometimes we get it right, but even if we do (in the sense that we’re awarded the project) we’ve also opened the door for issues downstream. Did we guess too low? Is the production value of the final product the client expects not in-line with the proposed budget? Did we guess too high? Sometimes the conversation ends right there, despite the fact that with some clear communication we could likely have worked within the budget the client had in their head but didn’t want to share. If we win the bid, will the client feel they have overextended themselves? Will they enter production feeling they are spending beyond their means, or worse, being taken for a ride? These feelings can make for an unpleasant, hostile and ineffective working relationship – something that will NEVER help the final product. Once again, these issues can be nipped in the bud with clear communication from the outset.
Alright, the deal is done, the contracts are signed, the deposit is paid and it’s time to get to work. Hopefully communication has been effective and clear thus far and we’re working with the right budget for the job. Now it’s time to lay out a roadmap for success. The production team creates internal milestones and expectations, shoot dates for production, delivery dates for cuts and revisions, and places dates in their respective calendars. Once the team is all on the same page, the client-facing portion of those milestones should be communicated clearly to the client. Here’s a key inflection point – these should be presented as a proposal, not dictated as fact. The most crucial item here is that the timeline works for both the client and the production team. Don’t make this a two-way process and guess what? You’ve got a breakdown in communication. If the timeline needs adjusting, the client should feel empowered to suggest changes, ask questions and raise concerns. Then client and producer can work together to problem solve and find a solution that works for everyone. Then, and only then, are we ready to move into production.
Each day of production is a microcosm of the whole project. There are goals, expectations and milestones that must be met, and if they are not, the “ripples” will throw things off downstream, possibly even causing irreparable harm to the final product. Expectations must communicated clearly from the outset. These can be simple concerns like call time (remember: always be 15 minutes early), the weather (dress appropriately for both the client and the conditions) and parking (if you show up 15 minutes early and have no idea where to park, you’ll be late anyway), or more complex concerns like the camera department and media manager or DIT discussing what codec/compression scheme we’ll be shooting with so the proper number of cards and backup hard drives are brought to set to ensure we don’t have to break in the middle of a setup to dump media. This is a perfect example of the ripples of communication and how they can affect the entire production. If these departments don’t communicate, the schedule that the producer, director and AD slaved away on during pre-production goes right out the window as soon as you run out of media. Maybe this means losing a shot you really needed, which then affects the editor in post who now has to creatively problem solve to accommodate for a missing angle.
Here’s another example: if you’re shooting two-system sound and the audio mixer doesn’t communicate with the DP about what frame rate he’s recording in, you could have a mismatch between the audio and the video, which means when you go to sync them in post, they will drift apart as you play them. Sure, this can usually be solved by conforming in post, but that creates more work which adds uncompensated hours (you can’t charge the client, it’s YOUR fault), stress and the possibility of missing a deadline.
There are pitfalls on the client side as well. Let’s say you’re the client and you don’t mention that you want to grab “a couple extra interviews” until the day of the shoot. Now you’ve added two setups to a carefully planned day with no notice and the production team has to react and adjust on the fly. Trust me, we’re used to it, but you can ensure a better result by clearly communicating all your needs well before the shoot, and by having enough respect for your vendor to treat additional last minute needs as a new job that you’re happy to pay for.
You’ve gone into the trenches and come back victorious, with all the footage and audio you wanted to capture safely and discreetly backed up in two locations…but you’re not out of the woods yet. Hopefully clear and open communication has ensured that what you captured on set aligns with the client’s vision. You laid out milestones in pre-production and now it’s time to meet (or exceed) them.
Start by delivering the rough cut. At ECG we strive to shoot for something a bit more fleshed out than your standard “rough cut” as the first thing a client sees. Over the years we’ve found that it’s much easier to show someone what you have in mind for graphics, music, VO, etc. rather than asking them to envision it on their own. We feel we can take this leap because (you guessed it) we focus so strongly on communication that by this phase of the project we usually feel very in-step with the client’s intent. Regardless, post-production comes with it’s own unique set of potential communications pitfalls. The most important ones involve communication among the post-production team. The assistant editor, editor, animator(s), colorist, sound designer, audio engineer and even the person responsible for archiving the completed project must all be communicating constantly to ensure that each successive phase of post only begins once the preceding one is completed, internally peer reviewed and approved.
On the client end, things can sometimes get a bit muddy here with contradictory feedback. This often happens when a client does one or more rounds of review with the team directly involved in the project, then sends it out further afield for later iterations. We often joke about a contradictory bit of feedback that comes out of left field as being due to the fact that “Susie in Accounting’s cat must not have liked it”. This type of second guessing is a perfectly natural part of the process, especially when the stakes are high. Once again, the pain here can be minimized with clear communication: about the expectations for the finished product and what it will accomplish, and about WHO it needs to resonate with. If either of these are unclear, you may find yourself running in circles during post trying to invent these things that should have been settled on in pre-production.
As you can see, video production is a complex ecosystem, and the lifeblood that keeps information flowing and the project moving is undeniably communication. The best teams are the ones that can anticipate needs, both internally and client-facing, and be proactive about filling them before an issue becomes so large that it can affect the project adversely. If client and producer are communicating clearly and effectively, and the production unit is in-step and in-sync, you’ll be much more equipped to deal with the things you CAN’T anticipate, like equipment failure, a power outage, or a stubborn cloud that just won’t get out of the damn way so you can just get the shot already…but I digress. Louis Pasteur said “fortune favors the prepared mind” and I couldn’t agree more. The best way to achieve a prepared mind is to ensure strong communication from before the contract is signed all the way through to delivery of the final completed content. It’s not just the best way to ensure success in video production; it’s the only way.
Do you have an anecdote (or horror story) about communication in the production world? We’d love for you to share it in the comments below. We’re always looking to expand our knowledge base and get better at what we do by communicating with our readers and the production community at large. So drop us a line and let’s keep the conversation going!