The World Of Commercial & Corporate Filmmaking with Rob Adams
I had just finished a 12-hour day filming a beauty reel inside of a Gordon Ramsay restaurant in New York City at The London NYC hotel. It was 5 p.m. I’d been up since 3:30 that morning, after having shot a wedding all day the day before and after sleeping a restless three hours. Then I’d driven into Manhattan from my comfortable New Jersey digs to meet my very demanding clients.
Poor planning. After I unload my gear and park my car, I realized I never booked hotel accommodations for the very long four-day shoot I’m about to begin. Usually, my corporate clients secure a room for me so I can remain on site during a location shoot, but I had failed to mention that traveling to and from New York City on a weekday basis is a very bad idea, and now I’m homeless in Manhattan.
I later find myself sitting in a Starbucks waiting out the afternoon rush-hour traffic and writing this article while lazily drinking a Grande Red-Eye and trying not to keel over. I imagine myself collapsing and coming to with green-aproned employees standing over me. One would be holding the defibrillator that was mounted near the washroom entrance. Alas, I’ve survived thus far and will make my way home later when traffic has died down. This is an example of the kind of challenges I face regularly in the non-video part of the corporate and commercial video world. This one is on me, but it’s not uncommon to face similar challenges during a production.
As a freelance filmmaker, I get to travel to exciting and exotic locations, and use my skills behind the camera to help other people bring to life their ideas and visions for their brand. The world of commercial and corporate filmmaking varies wildly and is very competitive, but it’s never not exciting. At least it hasn’t been for this guy. With clients such as Toys R Us, L’Oréal, TVTrip and Animoto, expectations are high and jobs come with a fair amount of pressure. When a project is accomplished, the result is a rewarding and fulfilling side business to my regular wedding bread-and-butter.
I want to share with you what I’ve learned is required to establish yourself in the corporate and commercial video world, and how to thrive once you’ve arrived.
I know some filmmakers who do crazy-fun stuff like travel around the world with major corporate marketing departments, documenting their trips and interactions with customers. They film professional snowboarders as they attempt insane feats off the world’s tallest mountains. They produce short videos and personality pieces for professional athletes, often traveling with teams. You can do this kind of work too.
My videos have ranged from simple talking-head interviews for in-house training to loss-prevention videos that teach employees how to detect and avoid theft. I’ve made personality promo videos that introduce a company or craftsperson to an Internet audience. I’ve flown around the world filming dignitaries and celebrities, and even found a love for filming hotel properties.
There’s a huge world of corporate and commercial film work out there, and good small-crew filmmakers are not that easy to come by. Be one. Weddings don’t have to be the only profitable entry-level video profession. I command a very respectable income with minimal overhead by positioning myself as a small-crew, affordable video producer.
Solo or Team Player?
There are several ways to get hooked into the world of corporate, commercial or creative filmmaking. The first thing you’ll need to do is hone your fundamental skill set. This can be challenging. You have to get proficient in basic video production, and that takes practice—which often means working for free or for very little. Then you have to earn the trust that, as an artist, you’ll be able to produce quality work consistently and satisfy multiple clients, often simultaneously.
Then you have to learn to run a freelance business, which is another beast itself. Flying solo can be insanely fun and enriching, but be prepared for very long hours, unpredictable clients and scenarios, and having to bend over backward on your lonesome to get a job done. Many times you will find yourself over budget and behind schedule. It’s all part of it, and experiencing these pitfalls will make you wiser and more efficient on your shoots.
I like to shoot solo or with one or two assistants. I shoot promo videos for many hotel chains, which is a great way to network, spend nights in cool hotels and be wildly creative. I often have to light entire scenes and environments using my own creative vision, and then shoot spaces, food, staff and sometimes actors and models to convey a message of luxury, beauty and jubilant recreation. Other examples of solo or small-group filmmaking are crowdfunded projects, small indie films, small business promotional videos, website vignettes and anything that can be handled with a crew of fewer than three. Being somewhat of a loner, this is a perfect fit for me. I have also worked on larger-scale projects, but they aren’t my favorite.
If you are more socially inclined or enjoy taking direction, you may prefer being part of a production team or an employee of a production house or ad agency. This is where the really big projects are handled, everything from reality shows to major television commercials. Budgets are big and crews are often union. You’ll likely start off fetching coffee, logging shots and taping down wires for at least the first several months. There are great opportunities for learning on a big crew, and crew members often team up to work on independent micro-projects together. Jobs with film production companies are placed by film schools and recruiters. If you search hard enough, you may find someone willing to give you a shot.
Landing your first corporate/commercial video job as a newbie can be challenging, but being new may just work in your favor. It did for me. Small businesses often seek someone for internal video work like basic interviews, interdepartmental communications and simple video coverage tasks, and they hunt for the lowest bidder. A personal recommendation or referral is helpful to getting you in the door, but networking among peers and rubbing elbows with anyone who works for a medium to large company is a great way to find yourself pulling your other foot through the door. Now is the perfect time to enter this field, because many companies need video and have no clue how to do it themselves.
Here are some basic skills you should be mastering. Have them ready to use on a moment’s notice.
Interview lighting and filming:
It’s not enough to just lock down a camera and press record. Executives of big companies (and anyone, for that matter) want to look good on camera. Knowing how to frame, light and create depth and interesting scenes is a must. Practice utilizing multiple cameras for your interviews so you have more options in editing. Corporate employees are rarely good speakers, and you’ll spend a tremendous amount of time cutting out ums, uhs and ahs. People who rise to the top of larger video production firms can use light and make any environment or subject look good on screen. This is your most valuable tool.
Gear rigging and grip work:
Whether you’re a solo act or the low man on the totem pole, you will have to know how to gaffe wires, rig supports and lights, and fetch coffee—lots of it. Get familiar with today’s tools of the trade and study how they are used on a film set. Then make yourself invaluable by being Johnny or Janie-on-the-spot when gear needs to be moved from place to place. Sitting on your rear watching others do it will not land you a next-tier position.
Judge color temperature and gel lights:
As a director in a small crew, I want one thing from my grips: Set my lights correctly the first time. Study how gels affect the lights you are using and how to light a scene just by estimating the color balance of a scene. Get things looking neutral white in-camera. It has a lot to do with the color temperature, or Kelvin measurement, of your lights. This saves a director a ton of time when trying to think about composition, direct talent and make movie magic. Judge light placement and color correctly and consistently on my set, and expect a raise in your near future.
Basic sound and dialog recording:
Every corporate job I’ve ever worked on required some sort of sound recording. You must understand how microphones operate on an internal level and how recording is done right. The mic on your camera isn’t good enough, and it never will be. Check out my article from the July issue. It’s a great place to start.
If you aren’t a proficient editor, it doesn’t matter how great your footage looks. It has to be put together correctly and with the final vision of your client in mind. The only way to become a great editor is to edit for long hours with bloodshot eyes. If you don’t have a sore ass or the threat of a blood clot shaking loose in your leg and making its way to your heart, you’re not a video editor. Pick a program and master it. It doesn’t matter which one. Learn to build a story and make visuals look great next to each other, and you’ll be a far more well-rounded filmmaker.
Knowing how to edit can save you blood, sweat, tears and money. Start small. Turn down jobs that are too big for your britches. In the video world, you may learn valuable lessons from biting off more than you can show, but you may also end up unhirable and with a reputation of not being able to get a project done to satisfaction. That’s a scarlet letter you do not want.
After completing a few small projects (Instagram and Kickstarter videos are a good place to start), you will build the confidence to take on more ambitious projects. Start by incorporating one element of production at a time. Perhaps start with a music-only project before including dialogue and sound recorded on set. Or shoot and edit a carefully scripted (and very short) indie film before trying to build something captured guerilla-style. Documentaries can be one of the most challenging types of film projects, so tread carefully. Work your way to larger and larger jobs. When you try to lock down your first corporate client, show them a body of work that you know you can produce—not what you think you can produce.
Finally, if you want to make yourself valuable to the filmmaking world in the years to come, take up drone operation. Today’s filmmakers are all dabbling in aerial photography and filming, and so should you. Even while the federal government drafts regulations and laws to govern and rein in the Wild West of drone flying, there seems to be a high demand for qualified, proficient quadcopter pilots. In addition to being good at the controls, you’ll need to understand how a camera behaves on a stabilizing gimbal and how exposure control works when your camera is hundreds of feet above your head. Study the latest tech and practice.
To see some examples of my corporate work, visit www.robadamsfilms.com.