Why Producers Are More Important Than Any Good Photographer
Arguably the most important person on any production set is the producer. Charged with preparing for the worst and having a back up plan to a back up plan, a producer is responsible for making sure any shoot happens without any mishap, injury, or stoppage whatsoever. Blaine Deutsch is commercial advertising producer who handles days of pre-production, casting, big crews, planning, preparing, investing, paperwork, contracts, permits, and thousands of dollars on the line. More times than not, rescheduling and the producer must have a practical solution for everything. The producer is charged with making sure all of these gears are greased and everyone, especially the photographer, can focus on being creative and bring the creative vision to life.
Blaine Deutsch, seen below, is a prime example of a producer with a unique ability to think about all the moving parts, and how each could affect the other and prevent a shoot from happening. He’s traveled the world for productions with Corey Rich, and now runs his own production company called Took Take. I met Blaine about 18 months ago on a shoot my studio, RGG Photo, did for Klipsch Audio. We had 2 days to shoot 4 athletes in 4 locations across Missouri, and Blaine was in charge of making that happen. We had 48 hours to shoot at 3 locations about 120 miles away from each other with a crew of about 15 people working 18 hour days. We did all of this in 115 degree weather battling river snakes, fatigue, falling rocks, broken bikes, a drought, a sweaty chicken, cameras over heating, and crew passing out. Here is a small BTS video I was able to grab from the shoot.
Blaine is an important puzzle piece for any photographers charged with the task of a big production. Below is an interview I did with Blaine to discuss the massive value a producer brings to the table on any production. He was nice enough to pose for me in my studio to grab a shot of someone who is rarely in front of the camera. Thanks again, Blaine.
Tell me how you got your start in this industry?
Prior to my life as a producer, I spent about 12 years as an ad agency creative. I enjoyed my time, but was never fully settled into my role as a designer. I felt most in my element on photo shoots. It was more than just “Great! I get to be out of the office for a few days.” I was captivated by all the planning that went into a shoot. Further exposure to the photo industry and some fortuitous meetings led to my role as the studio director, and eventually producer, for a professional photographer. (More on that below)
How does one become a producer today?
There is no direct path to the role of a producer. All the photography and film schools offer programs in production, but these no more prepare you to be a producer than sitting in a simulator makes you a jet pilot. These can provide a good foundation, but there’s no substitute for getting out there and doing it. How you come about this experience varies greatly from one person to the next. I know producers who’ve had previous lives as engineers, musicians, models, and mountain guides. If there’s any commonality within these backgrounds, it’s experience in a field that requires you to be quick on your feet, the ability to multi-task and the willingness to put yourself out there and take some chances. Also, comfort amongst a group of people is essential. This is not a career for the shy. Like most roles, plan on some time paying your dues. If you’re in school or new to the industry, ask to tag along on a shoot or hang out in the studio to get a sense of how it all plays out. Make yourself available as a PA. As you prove yourself trustworthy, the more responsibility you’ll be given.
When did it become clear to you that this is what you wanted to do?
One memory stands out. We were on location, shooting for a major ski resort. It was about 6 in the morning (I had been up since 3 am) and I was standing on a peak in the Sierras. I was tired, cold and desperately hoping the conditions would hold. As we stood there, waiting for the first rays of sun to break the ridge line, I started to laugh. This was not hypothermia setting in, it was the realization that this was my job and I loved every minute of it. Certainly, this is a pretty dramatic moment of realization, but there have been many others throughout the years that too have reaffirmed my decision to be a producer. A handwritten thank you note from a client, a look of complete satisfaction on the face of a photographer, a text from a stylist writing to express how much fun she had on set – all of these things are just as fulfilling as that January day in the mountains.
If your career didn’t exist, what would you be doing for a living?
I once dreamed of being a professional cyclist. Though, given my age, at this point I’d likely be retired. My education is in painting & printmaking. I have a lingering desire to spend my days in a sun drenched studio, standing over an etching press. This may seem more like fantasy than a career path, but I feel it’s no more far fetched than photography or filmmaking.
What’s a typical day look like for you?
The only “typical” aspect of any day is the first cup of coffee. Beyond that, every day is a new adventure. Aside from time spent in various studios and locations, I may be on a scout, at a talent casting, or searching for that one unique item needed for the shoot. Most projects start with plenty of time on the phone and online, but even in that research, there is very little similarity from one to the next.
Is there such thing as an average day for you in production?
Not at alI, which is exactly the way I like it. I certainly do all I can to be efficient and avoid too many surprises, but my days are anything but “routine.” No two productions are the same. Dependent upon the way projects have lined up, I may find myself immersed in a location scout, casting talent, or working with stylists, carpenters and set dressers. This is all pre-production. Once we arrive the morning of the first shoot day, I assume the role of ringleader, seeing to it that all the elements come together as planned. From this point onward, my primary responsibility is to see to it that the photographer/director can focus on being creative, not having to worry about any of the external details.
How do you have a backup plan for everything?
Meticulous planning, informed speculation and a big bag of tricks. The first two steps require truly wrapping my head around each project, envisioning the the final product, then reverse engineering that to define all that is needed to make it happen. The “big bag of tricks” is quite literally, a big bag of tricks. Taking a cue from Shawn Corrigan, a good friend, talented photographer and one of the best assistants in the business, I equip myself with the kit of a seasoned 1st, and then some. It contains, off the top of my head, gaff tape, clamps, tools, gloves, batteries, cables of every imaginable connection, first aid, breath mints, ear plugs, rain ponchos, and a sewing kit. I typically add something to the kit during or after each production as new needs arise.
What software do you rely on the most to help your have a backup plan for everything?
I think this would be more considered hardware – but I rely mostly on my brain. There are certainly applications on which in I rely to keep it all straight, but there’s nothing out there that’s going to fill in the blanks for you. Only foresight and experience are going to help you understand how to be truly prepared. When I do go to software, I stick to the basics. iCal for schedules and Address Book for my contacts. I build custom estimates in Excel and layout my production books in InDesign. I know there are other applications that claim to streamline all of this, but when it comes down to it, I want more control than most specialized applications provide. Also – if you’re shooting outdoors, a good weather and sun tracker app are essential. (I prefer NOAA Weather and Sun Seeker).
What are the top 5 things every producer must be top notch at? Is there such a thing?
No matter the photographer, location or subject matter, a producer must be able to the following:
Look - Not just looking around, but keeping one eye trained as the photographer sees and the other observing through the client’s point of view.
Listen- Specifically, in regards to the photographer and client, listen not only to what they say, but also what they mean. Be tuned in to the conversations going on around the set and be sure your crew is doing the same. If there are any rumblings of an issue or a request, act on it.
Predict the future – This skill comes from the ability to combine the product of looking and listening. Also, know the schedule and shot list forwards & backwards. Plan for every contingency you can imagine, then plan for the things you’ve yet to consider. Check the weather. Check it again. Confirm your crew. Know what the photographer and client expect. Have answers before you’re asked the question.
React - Know when you should talk over something with the photographer or client, and know when you should just make it happen.
Be a good judge of character - When I hire a crew member, I’m not only choosing them for their technical or creative skills, but also for their understanding and appreciation for set etiquette. With so many other potential variables, the last thing I need is a head case or clash of personality on set. Do good work and work with good people.
Who are the people in career that you most depend on?
During pre-production, I rely heavily upon the gatekeepers. If you’re applying for a permit or looking to secure a location, you will very likely be working through an intermediary or administrative assistant. Be nice to them and respect their position. Their word may play an integral part in the approval process. This applies to talent agents as well. Sure, they stand to benefit from placing their talent on a shoot, but they don’t owe you anything. Do you homework, be considerate and remember you’re working together. Once a crew is in place and the shoot is underway, it’s all about my PA and craft services. A good PA is like having an extra set of eyes and hands that are connected to my brain. When you find a trustworthy and capable PA, guard them like family. It’s in everyone’s best interest that we have solid craft services. A well fed crew is a happy crew. A well informed and accommodating crafty is gold. When a production allows me to assemble all my 1st picks, my crew includes 2 vegans, a vegetarian, one each with a dairy and gluten intolerance – and a craft services team that can address all this without missing a beat.
Tell me about your time with Corey Rich, how did you get into that position?
Corey and I met in 2001 when I hired him to shoot a campaign for Bud Light. We immediately hit if off and became quick friends. Over the years, he shot a few more projects for me. As well, he called me in on occasion to design his marketing materials. Then, one afternoon my phone rang. Corey called, looking for a recommendation. He was ready to take his business to the next level and knew this meant bringing in a new studio director. He needed someone that was well versed in the industry and had a good understanding of his genre (action sports). In what, at the time, felt like a long shot, I threw my hat into the ring. Six weeks later, my family was packed up and we moved to Lake Tahoe. My initial tasks were those typical of a Studio Director; asset management, portfolio development, client contact, etc. Though, as bigger, more intensive projects rolled in, we brought in another employee and I fully immersed myself into the role of producer.
What was your favorite project you produced for Corey?
I have have so many great memories of wonderful locations, amazing athletes, and fun crews, but one project in particular had it all. We traveled to Rock Island, TN to shoot with World Champion kayaker Eric Jackson on a project for Anheuser-Busch. Rock Island is Eric’s hometown, chosen for its proximity to the Caney Fork River. The house sits just downstream from a hydroelectric dam, providing scheduled water releases, and thus, the perfect training ground for a family of world-class kayakers. Eric had recently been named the brand ambassador for American Ale and we were there to capture both action and lifestyle images for an upcoming print campaign. From a production standpoint, this could have been a difficult location. The area offers very little in the way of food or lodging. The only viable option was to stay at the Jackson’s home – and they wouldn’t have it any other way. We were welcomed as family. Eric’s wife Kristine, who prides herself as “team mom” for the Jackson Kayaks pro squad, made sure we were all well fed. Joining us on crew as assistant and safety boater was photographer, Trevor Clark. Trevor, a skilled paddler in his own right, got his start in the photo world as my intern in Corey’s office. He had since headed out to launch his own career, so it was great to have him back around, as many of us on that shoot count him amongst our closest friends. There were blurry, subtle lines that week between the production and a weeklong getaway in the woods. Hours after the boats were off the water and the last “end of day pint glass toast” frame was captured, we continued to add logs to the fire pit. I’m pretty sure this is one the client will always remember.
I understand you’ve recently left working full time with Corey and started out on your own. How did you decide to do that, and why?
As cliche as it may sound, this opportunity found me. My time at Corey Rich Productions was amazing and I would not be where I am today without that experience. Though, after about six years, I started to get the itch to return to the fine arts. As I had dreamed of doing for a while, I made plans to pursue my master’s degree in printmaking. Corey was fully understanding and supportive of my decision. It was tough to think that our time working together was soon to come to an end, but he knew I was doing what he has always preached – follow your passion. So we searched for my replacement and began the transition. After two weeks of training I passed the torch, leaving the studio for the last time as an employee. Then a funny thing happened. My phone started to ring. A lot. Word was out that I was available. I had hoped to pick up a project here and there, but I could have never predicted how this would play out. With three weeks until classes were to begin, I found myself with 2 solid months of bookings. I took a step back to discern whether this was a fluke or the beginning of something big. I made some calls, sat down with a few key people in the industry and came to realize the potential in future projects. Through a decision that was as difficult as that to leave CRP, I chose to put grad school on the back burner and launch my next chapter as an independent producer. Every day since has been a positive reinforcement of my decision. I truly love what I do. Also, as a personal condition of my decision to forego grad school, I spend time almost everyday in my studio making art.
Tell me about your role in the production of Why (above), and then the How of Why (below)? That sounds like a logistical nightmare.
This project was much more of a dream than it was a nightmare. We knew from the beginning that the client was looking for a behind the scenes feature to compliment the primary edit. The depth and complexity of these piggybacked productions certainly came with a laundry list of challenges, but that was to be expected. Establishing the production calendar required working around the commitments of three professional athletes, a national holiday and an aggressive schedule for delivery of final assets. Beyond that was the securing of two Federal permits (one of which required special counsel of an EPA advisory board) and a patchwork quilt of travel. The ultimate key to success was assembling a rockstar crew that was capable of working and traveling together in harmony, understanding that sleep would likely come only after we wrapped on the final day.
Are there online resources that you would recommend for photographers that need to brush up on general production. Like release forms, permits, back up plan tips, etc…
There are some amazing resources online, but don’t expect one-stop shopping. You need to do some digging to find the information that works for you, or is appropriate for your production. As a great starting point, become well versed with the site (and staff) of your local film commission. Then visit the sites for other major film commissions around the country and worldwide. When producing an out of town shoot, it’s important to know that not all offices function in the same way. Beyond that, spend some time on A Photo Editor. Here, Rob Haggart provides an in-depth, no-nonsense look at all aspects of the photo industry.
What are the top 3 blogs you read, outside of mine 3 times a day.
When revisiting my life as a designer:
When I’m feeling creative in the kitchen:
And though not technically a blog, I spend a lot of time on Vimeo – a great source of inspiration method of procrastination. As well, the content provides a pretty good pulse of the world of motion.
What’s your favorite type of beer?
This depends on my mood. If I’m looking for a good beer to cap off a successful day, it’s a Boulevard Brewing Tank 7. If I’m feeling nostalgic for my time on the West Coast, it’s Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. For a night with friends, I’ll grab some Urban Chestnut Zwickel.
Whats the best part of your job?
The people. I have the great fortune to work every day within a population that has thrown convention aside and chosen to live their passion. Photographers, directors, stylists, crew and talent. I’m surrounded by other artists and am inspired every single day.
What was your scariest moment as a producer?
Our third location during the production of Why took us to Joshua Tree National Park to shoot with rock climber Alex Honnold. Alex has made a name for himself as a free soloist, meaning he occasionally climbs without a rope. The plan was to capture footage of Alex as he soloed Equinox, an 80 foot high route cited by many climbers as a bucket list goal, someday, with a rope. When working with professional athletes, there comes a certain point at which we must step back and allow them to do what they do. It’s still necessary to take safety into consideration, but no so much as it interferes with their performance. The time came, everyone was in place and cameras were rolling. Alex took to the rock with the ease that most of us walk down the sidewalk. Calm. collected, seemingly nonchalant. Having accomplished something most cannot even fathom, Alex descended the backside of the route, looked around and said “Did you get what you need or would you like me to do it again?” Going into this, we knew we may have only get one go at this so we planned accordingly. We already had some great footage, but there was no way were going to pass up the chance at another take. After a few minutes rest, Alex readied himself and began to climb again. He started up with the same relative ease as the previous take. Then, about half way up, as can bee seen in the final edit, Alex’s foot slipped off the rock. What you don’t see is my look of momentary panic. At that very moment, my mind was summoning helicopters and calling in paramedics. I imagined the worst. Meanwhile, Alex simply composed himself and continued up the route. He would later chuckle about this as we recapped the day, confessing that, with focus set on his hand position, his foot slip was hardly an issue. Throughout my career, I am continually reminded of the true difference between an amateur and a pro. While it is, in part, their physical attributes, more than anything it is the presence of a mental constitution which allows them to push past what most of us believe is impossible.
If you’re willing, what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made on set in a production and could it have been prevented?
A few years back, during an shoot in another town, I had a horrible experience with (someone that billed themselves as) a caterer. Having never before worked in this location, I was dependent upon recommendations. He said all the right things during our initial conversations, but this in no way matched what was delivered on shoot day. He was released and we were left to our own resources. Thankfully, the rest of the crew was stellar. With a few adjustments and a bit of flexibility, everyone was well fed. In retrospect, the provider of the information was not well enough vetted to have been trusted as the single source of information. This was certainly a powerful learning experience and it entirely changed the way in which I go about sourcing local crew.
What do the most successful photographers have in common that you’ve worked with?
In my experience, a truly successful photographer is not in it for the money. Passion is the only force that will drive you to leave your comfort zone, and discover the character that makes your work powerful and unique. Money creates barriers. Relying too heavily upon potential income will only squelch true creativity. It’s a nice benefit and byproduct of success, but it can’t be your motivation.
How do photographers find a good producer?
Primarily by word of mouth. It is certainly important to have a great portfolio with your name attached to great work, but there’s more than just what you’ve done or what you know. A photographer/director needs to trust you know how conduct yourself on set, how well you can communicate with a client and how you handle any adversity. Assemble a production worth talking about.
What’s more important, learning from your own mistakes or traveling?
I feel traveling is necessary for development, no matter our chosen field. This can mean circling the globe, or simply stepping out of your comfort zone. These experiences help define our knowledge base and the frame of reference by which we make decisions. Without this broadened scope, we may never realize we’re making mistakes. See as much of the world as is available to you. Talk to new people, eat different foods, do something that may make you a bit nervous. When you return “home”, you’re reality may look a bit different. Only then can you recognize and learn from your mistakes.
What differences, if any, do you see from the commercial photographers 15+ years in the industry and photographers 3+ years in the industry.
Those with 15 years experience remember a time before digital was an option. Conversely, someone with 3 years experience has likely never shot a roll of film. I don’t intend to launch into the debate of film v. digital, as I see the value in both. However, there’s no doubt that the technology available during a photographer’s early years has a profound affect on their style and technique. In regards to commercial work, these differences are most evident in the way a photographer approaches the final image. Someone who cut their teeth on film is more likely to “get it all in camera”. In particular, I work regularly with a product photographer who will spend hours sculpting light for the perfect highlight or lens flare. The images are heavily composited, yet all the elements are organic. Whereas, photographers who entered the game in the digital era are much more open to CGI and manufactured elements. Now, before your start writing hate mail, there are certainly always exceptions, and I pass no judgement on one technique over the other.
I have also noticed that, increasingly, those newer to the industry are not always young photographers. The pros that entered the field 15+ years before were typically photographers from the start. They started assisting or shooting right out of college (that is, if they had gone to college) and never imagined a different direction. Today, I’m seeing more photographers enter the field, having just left a different career. I’ve worked with quite a few photographers I once knew as art directors. It’s an interesting trend and I think they bring a unique perspective to the table.
If you had a month off to do what you want, what would it be?
I feel fortunate in the fact that I just did this. After a very busy summer, I took off the entire month of August to ride my bike. For anyone that knows me, this may not seem like much, as I ride my bike nearly everyday. But this was a month of focused, dedicated cycling. It culminated in an amazing week spent riding through the Idaho backcountry. Aside from being a wonderful experience, it was very revitalizing. As soon as I returned I started booking for the Fall and Winter.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years, 10 years?
5 years ago, I could have never imagined being independent. 10 years ago, I hardly knew a career like this existed. An ability to foresee the future is essential to the success of a producer, but it’s hard to say where I’ll be 5 & 10 years from now. Based upon my current trajectory, I hope to be more involved in documentary film and some original concepts. I will always enjoy commercial work and will never completely push that aside, but I am becoming more interested in pure storytelling. I currently have several projects in development, all of which I’m very excited.
What’s the best location shoot you’ve ever done?
No matter your reason for being there, Rio de Janeiro is hard to beat. It almost feels like cheating. Every direction you turn, there’s an amazing image to capture or a story to tell. However, I have a project coming up in November in a place that may top Rio. More on that later.