TLDR: The golden rule of operating a production company is to surround yourself with people who are better than you are at what they do.
As a producer, hiring new contractors to work on your video production set can be like inviting a marriage celebrant to your wedding. You have a vague notion of their capabilities and believe you can trust them to execute their important role, however they could just as easily turn up drunk without their gear and eat the entirety of your underwhelming catering spread.
Hiring Down vs. Hiring Up
When faced with hiring many people will inherently “hire down”; employing or contracting workers who are less competent than them in a given job through fear of either being made redundant or feeling inferior. Starting any business doesn’t allow any space for ego; this is even more true in an industry that requires collaboration across so many departments to create a single piece of content.
While “hiring up” will mean you often (though not always) recruit actors and subcontractors considerably older than you, you may have your age openly questioned while age on location (it happened again and again). Typically, if this occurs in front of others it’s done by someone with little industry experience. In front of others you might communicate that you respect the talents of the contractor and would like them to do the same. Failing this, it may help to remind them in private that it’s a small industry and you are paying them the cheque that will feed their family.
Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business Peter Cappelli, notes the biggest concern in hiring for small businesses is that “few companies bothered to check to see whether the people they’re hiring are good or not”. So in an industry of ad hoc shooting schedules and a revolving door of contractors, how can you know whether the person you’re hiring is skilled enough before they arrive on set?
While there’s no simple answer (we’ve already seen how showreels are a poor measure of a person’s skill) there are a handful of guiding principles. First, for any full-time or casual hire in video production, have the applicant complete a small project based on real-world conditions that requires them to apply the skills for which you’re recruiting. For example, when hiring editors we provide them with proxy footage, music, a brief and have them complete an edit within established time constraints. For producers, we provide them with a production brief, a shot list and storyboards and have them complete a shooting schedule. More important than the outcome is the explanation of their decision-making.
For contractors, the approach is more complicated. Our rule of thumb is that, unless you’ve worked with the contractor on set before, only work with word-of-mouth referrals from video production crew you trust. Even then, having a quick phone call can help you determine their level of interest in the project and how reliable they are likely to be (because there’s nothing worse than having production crew missing on set).
The Costs of Hiring Up
When your video production company is in its infancy, there’s greater long-term value in trading job profitability for the invaluable knowledge obtained by recruiting more talented contractors on set. If you can afford them, the experience in working with professional cinematographers, drone operators, costume designers and makeup in a production will provide you more insight than $30,000 of HECS debt and will secure invaluable connections within a tight-knit Melbourne community.
Our break came shooting an online video commercial for the rebranding of Norwood Industries in 2013. After securing the contract we realised we were well out of our depth in almost every department, so as Producers and Directors we took a sizeable pay cut. Contracting the best Script Writers, Cinematographers, Steadycam Operators, Colourists, Stylists and Hair & Makeup artists we could afford, we took away small profit margins but an enormous amount of acquired knowledge.
Sacrificing profitability to work with some of Melbourne’s best video production crews yielded us three core benefits:
Benefit #1: It builds good habits
Firstly, we eliminated bad habits formed in film school by gaining firsthand experience of the best practices of each department. These spanned tangible skills as diverse as how cinematographers collaborate with gaffers, how Steadycam operators block a scene, what inspiration stylists and makeup artists require and how to conduct a voiceover session. Equally, we acquired intangible skills through observing how to communicate with cast and crew members; importantly when to give them creative licence and when to give them instructions.
While the knowledge may seem trivial, these small pieces of knowledge compounded over time to deliver positive habits that will yield personal and professional results for your video production company over time.
Benefit #2: It builds bridges
Secondly, we built rapport with invaluable industry connections. In the absence of real mentors after a three year slumber party at University’s Ivory Tower, we were fortunate to strike an informal mentorship with our cinematographer, the legendary Hugh Turrell. Through his established network we made connections with some of Melbourne’s best Gaffers, Colourists and Camera Assistants. For larger budget productions we continue to draw on this same pool of talent, six years after the production of Norwood.
Benefit #3: It builds content
Thirdly, taking a hit on profitability in the short term allowed us to produce a piece of content that we could leverage to secure bigger budget online commercials in the future. Showcasing your wedding video might be great when you’ve forgotten your spouse’s birthday, but it’s unlikely to win you a large video production contract (no matter how emotive your cinematic MusicBed soundtrack). While you have low overheads and can afford to sacrifice profitability (living at home, receiving Centrelink payments or simply having less mouths to feed), building a powerful piece of client content early will deliver considerable future returns.
In the end, when working with anyone on set, remember this pearl of wisdom the video production gods taught us; “Crew want to be praised. Cast want to be directed. Both want to be respected”. Keeping this in mind, there’s no way you can’t succeed when your Melbourne video production company hires its next contractor. With this golden rule in mind, you’ll be prepared to nail your next live event video production.
Enamoured Iris is a creative video production company producing online video content marketing for lifestyle brands in the Travel, Health and Entertainment industries. The company’s head office is known as “The Owlery” and is based in Melbourne, Australia.