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Being Creative In Corporate Video

Determining your goals is key to deciding your production approach.

By Rob Rosen

Michael Phelps was standing by the edge of the pool, shivering, and I knew I was in trouble.

“This really has to be the last take,” his handler told me. “His body temperature is dropping.”

It was a few months before the Beijing Games and I was criss-crossing the country, directing profiles of 11 athletes in training for the Olympics. Everything had gone well, until now. Here I was, in front of the biggest stars of them all, I didn’t have my money shot, and only one last chance to get it.

Corporate Video 1

Rosen (center, holding script) leads his production team on a recent shoot.

I positioned my ‘A’ and ‘B’ cameras. One, on a medium-wide shot of our hero. The other, down at ground level to capture his impact with the water. The problem was the ‘C’ camera, and its operator was treading water at the pool’s surface, blowing into his scuba mask.

“I was in too close that time. He nearly dove right into me.”

What can you say at times like this? Get the shot or it’s your ass? It was my ass and he knew it. Trying to keep the creeping panic out of my voice I said, “We’ve tried this a few times. We’ve been off center, too far, too close. Don’t be a hero. Just get the cleanest, safest shot you can get. It’s our last go.”

The underwater camera operator nodded and submerged himself back into the pool. I held my breath and smiled weakly at the gold medalist who was a trooper, but losing patience.

“We’ll get it this time,” I promised with a confidence I didn’t really feel.

After getting the OK signal from camera ‘C,’ I had Phelps get back into his starting position.

“Michael, just like this is for the gold medal. Camera A—go real tight into his eyes and zoom out slowly. OK, Michael... GO!”

Phelps, who’s normally a laid-back, surfer-dude kind of guy, instantly transformed himself into the legendary swimming pool assassin we now know so well. He aggressively dove into the water, creating a volcanic splash. About a dozen executives sat on the University of Michigan bleachers waiting to see if we were about to have a celebratory dinner or a long post-mortem discussion. Moments later, Phelps emerged half the length down his lane.

“I think he got it,” he quietly told me.

Moments later, the underwater camera operator came up smiling, his thumb proudly in the up position. We were going to have a nice dinner after all.

Clearly it was a given that you’d be shooting Phelps underwater. How did you find the right guy to shoot it? How did the content of your shoot drive the tech needs?

The surprising twist to this story, or at least surprising if you didn’t read the article’s headline, is that this was a corporate shoot. The client was AT&T and I had been hired to produce human-interest pieces on the athletes who had sponsorship deals with the telecommunications giant. There was nothing overtly commercial about these pieces. The company was simply trying to drum up interest in the aspiring gold medalists, who they’d spent so much time and money promoting.

Corporate gigs like these are surprisingly creative. When I’m not running my company, RPR Media, I show-run and create reality shows. And while I enjoy both worlds, some of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in the past few years have been in the corporate arena.

For one thing, most business clients don’t have rigid ideas about how things should be shot. They usually trust the professionals to create a look and mood that will bring their vision to life. This gives us a lot of leeway.

So for the Phelps shoot, when I said I needed an underwater cameraman, nobody blinked.  Of course, needing one and finding one are two very different animals.  Detroit is not exactly teeming with trained scuba divers who specialize in shooting underwater action scenes. Fortunately, one existed and I was quickly pointed in the right direction. It would have been far tougher to get the company to spring for an out-of-town diver to be flown in and put up for the duration of the shoot.

Whenever I meet a new client, my approach is to always start with the creative; How can we bring this company’s story to life? Only once I’ve answered that critical question can I start to think about the technical requirements for the shoot.  If you own your own gear, like I do, that often means being willing to let it sit on the shelf.  Trying to force-feed the equipment you own into the creative of the shoot is definitely a case of the tail wagging the dog.    

Also, don’t be afraid to think big. I’ve been surprised to discover that clients are usually willing to pay for great ideas.

For example, I was recently brought in to produce a 20-minute show for the in-room channel at a new Marriott Hotel. You know, one of those “what to see and do” while you’re in town deals. If you do any travelling, you know how brutal most of these videos are. The second you turn on the hotel TV and see that dreary infomercial look, you dive across the bed, grab the remote and quickly change the channel.  We could have easily done a copycat idea and the client would probably have been fine with it.

Instead, we decided to do something completely different and produce a guide that would feel like one of the syndicated entertainment shows, like Entertainment Tonight or Extra!. We hired a host, put her in a glitzy studio surrounded by video monitors, and then hired a jib operator to make all sorts of fancy moves, transitioning from monitor to monitor before swooping up to our host, as she introduced each segment. The pieces were cut in a fast and fun way, and voila, what’s normally bland, tiresome content became compelling infotainment.

Another issue that needs to be addressed early is which cameras to use. There are two factors that go into this decision: (1) How the video will be distributed? (2) The actual subject matter of the shoot.

Distribution is important. A lot of corporate clients are simply looking to produce a standard DVD to be shown in a large conference hall. This is an opportunity for the client to save some money. In this case, we may use a Panasonic HPX-900 as a primary camera and a smaller HPX-170 as a ‘B’ camera. We’ll have to compress the footage in post but at least they’ll have the raw footage in HD should their needs change in the future.

Some bigger clients, have “three-screen” needs: Web, mobile and TV. This does cause some issues in post, but the shoot then needs to be done at the highest possible quality and then compressed for each of the platforms.

A second major factor in choosing a camera is the subject matter. When we were doing all of those Olympic profiles, it became critical to find cameras that could get us "up close and personal" with athletes in a wide variety of sports. Of course, there was the underwater camera needed for the Michael Phelps shoot. We also profiled a BMX racer named Donny Robinson and outfitted a special little HD camera to his helmet so we could get heart-stopping footage from his POV as he tore his way across the course. For the Michael Jackson This is IT documentary premiere promo I worked on, a time-lapse camera was set up to get a good wide shot of all the hoopla before, during and after the event.

The other issue is frame rate. A lot of clients love the film feel of 24P, but if you’re shooting a fast-moving subject, like an athlete, it can cause massive blurring. Shooting 60i is usually a better call for that type of subject.

If you’re thinking about giving corporate work a shot, the best advice I can give is treat the material with the same focus and passion as you would a movie or TV show. The bottom line is that the client is counting on your professionalism to help bring its story to life. You might even be surprised to find that this arena will allow you to flex some creative muscles you haven’t used in years.

Rob Rosen is the President of RPR Media, Inc.