Video & Filmmaking

How Collaboration Can Produce Better Video

August 2, 2010

By Holly Stuart Hughes and Jacqueline Tobin

© Simon Biswas

Photographer Simon Biswas's video portraits of elderly subjects are accompanied by interviews he recorded, following advice from sound designer Jesse Flower-Ambroch about how to get pristine audio recordings.

Digital SLRs that shoot video promise an easy and low-cost way for photographers to expand their skills and become video directors. But producing high quality video presents photographers with a whole new set of challenges, including audio recording, sound mixing and post-production editing. Many photographers have found that they can be more productive and deliver a better product to their clients by recruiting help from experienced film and TV editors, producers and sound technicians from the world of TV and film to help them complete their video projects. Their collaborations produced a better quality product and, in the process, photographers say, they have learned invaluable lessons in the art of video production.

Simon Biswas and Jesse Flower-Ambroch

Last October, editorial photographer Simon Biswas attended the Eddie Adams Workshop, and heard multimedia producer Brian Storm admonishing attendees that if they want to produce quality multimedia, they have to learn to pay as much attention to sound as they do images. Biswas recalls, “He was preaching that you have to capture pristine audio because if the audio sucks, the viewer is only thinking about the audio, and it takes away from your piece.”

As more of his editorial clients were asking for video for their Web sites, Biswas realized he needed advice on his sound recording and mixing. Luckily, he knew Jesse Flower-Ambroch, an experienced sound designer who was not only willing to mix audio recordings for Biswas’s videos, but could also tell him everything he needed to know to get high-quality sound recordings. Flower-Ambroch has done both on-set recording and post-production sound editing for feature-length documentaries, TV commercials and Web videos for DeBeers, Royal Caribbean, The Daily Show, Hearst Digital and other clients.

“Even though we’ve been friends a long time, it’s a new working relationship,” explains Biswas, who began experimenting with video and Final Cut Pro last winter.

Now when his clients, who include People, and West Elm, call for video productions, Biswas reports, “I say, ‘This is my crew.'” Flower-Ambroch’s contribution varies, depending on whether the video is simply running over a soundtrack, or it requires extensive recording of live sound. “Jesse goes back and forth between being the sound guy on set, doing the recording and micing people up, and doing post production, where a guy like me comes to him and says, ‘I have a session. Can you mix this?'”

Biswas had been working on a series of portraits of people in their 80s and 90s, set against black backdrops. He decided to videotape them as he interviewed them about aging. With no budget to pay for Flower-Ambroch’s services on location, Biswas sought his advice on what gear he would need to record clear sound that Flower-Ambroch could then mix to Biswas’s specifications.

“There’s a lot of crappy, but enticingly priced audio gear out there, and having nice gear makes a huge difference,” Flower-Ambroch says. He advises photographers, “Unlike cameras, audio equipment depreciates in value very slowly, so consider it a long-term investment. A good mic will always be a good mic.”

Over the past year, Biswas has built a sound kit that includes a shotgun microphone and a digital recorder that he can hook up to his camera. “There should be a mixer, but I haven’t gotten there yet,” says Biswas, who estimates he’s spent about $750 on the kit.

He also purchased professional headphones so he can monitor the sound as he records it. One of the many tips he’s learned from watching Flower-Ambroch work, he says, is that he has to listen constantly to his audio in order to detect any changes in sound levels or unwanted noise: “You’d never interview someone in a kitchen, because the refrigerator is always running.” There’s a classic trick that he’s adopted: “When sound designers do on-location sound, they first unplug the refrigerator and put their keys inside it, so they remember to get their keys at the end of the day and plug the refrigerator back in.” In videotaping his elderly subjects at a nursing home and an apartment in New York, he made sure to do the interviews in a small room with carpeting and closed the windows to keep out traffic noise.

Biswas says at each interview he brought a long checklist of everything he needed to record, including room tone. “One of the biggest, biggest elements is room tone,” Biswas explains. A common mistake in video is to cut the audio in a way that sounds abrupt or choppy. By recording 20 to 30 seconds of the room’s ambient sound before and after each interview, the sound editor can smoothly cut from one interview to the next by blending room tone.

“I think that photographers are thinking about their pictures,” Biswas says. “That’s the hard part of transitioning to multimedia: You’re delivering a complete package. It’s not one element, it’s many, and you have to think about how they’ll work together.”

Using Final Cut Pro, Biswas edited his video footage and made a rough outline of where he wanted to place the interview clips. He then left the files with Flower-Ambroch, who worked on the project using his own mixing board and Pro Tools.

On their first project together, Biswas and Flower-Ambroch sat side by side during the edit. Now, however, “We will work in short bursts, then call each other for notes when we think we have something together,” Flower-Ambroch says. In the final mix, he adjusts the soundtrack depending on whether it’s intended for Web, broadcast or theatrical use.

Flower-Ambroch says he was happy to provide his services. “I love a good story, and I really think Simon pays attention to the stories behind his images so it’s always fun to work with him,” he says, adding, “I know I can call on him down the line when I need pictures for my Web site, someone to help me shoot a documentary, etc.”

Since Biswas showed the piece at the Look-Between Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, in June, a magazine Web site has expressed interest in licensing it. If the deal goes through, Biswas says, “I’ll write Jesse a check. I’m all about people getting paid what they’re worth.”

—Holly Stuart Hughes

Benjamin Edwards and Elizabeth Fischer

When the Alternatives Organization, a women’s pregnancy resource center in San Diego, recently approached Benjamin Edwards and Gary Christenson about shooting a video project, the still photographers didn’t think twice about accepting, even though they both run full-time studios.

Alternatives wanted the photographers, who are also co-founders of the non-profit Emote360, to design a new Web site as well as create some spots for it that would target young women as well as Alternatives’ board members and potential donors, explains Edwards. “The initial problem was that Emote360 was not officially a 501c3 [non-profit] and so we couldn’t take on the project until our status was approved.”

Rather than turn Alternatives down completely, Edwards and Christenson took on the resource center as a client for each of their own photo businesses, as did the freelance editor they hired to work on the job, Elizabeth Fischer. “Gary handled the Web design, I directed and shot the video, and the editing and production Elizabeth did was routed through her company, SRO productions,” says Edwards. Fischer often works with Edwards and Christenson through Emote360 on multimedia projects for NGOs, as does the audio engineer Edwards hired for the Alternatives job, Peter Wiley. Both are from Edward’s hometown of Bend, Oregon, where he says he finds most of his support team for similar jobs. Fischer hired composer Conor Miller, also from Bend, to lay down the tracks for the final Alternatives’ spots.

Collaboration made this piece possible, says Edwards. “While HD integration into still cameras has opened up a whole new line of possible revenue for photographers who’d like to move into video and film, there’s still pre-production, gaffing, audio and post production needs to consider and learn. There’s just not enough time in the day and I still have my still business to run. Partnerships like this on video jobs are crucial for me.”

Fischer says that while Edwards knows visually how to tell a story and can fill a frame, it would be impossible to do everything himself in the limited time a job like the Alternatives assignment imposes. “There are so many components to making a video—scripting and storyboarding, editing, sound, composing the score and so on. We each have our own parts to contribute but we’re also working together to hand in one seamless product in the end.” Fischer adds, “Ben and I have worked so much together on similar jobs in the past year or so that we are now like two sides of the same coin.”

Edwards says the first piece he and Fischer worked on for Alternatives was a 30-second commercial spot that highlights the emotional roller coaster a young woman might face when she finds out she’s pregnant, and that they have someone they can talk to at Alternatives, which offers abortion and adoption counseling, as well as information on safe sex practices, pregnancy healthcare and more. The second piece is a seven- to nine-minute informational video that’s geared more toward donors, and tells the fictionalized stories of several clients. The video also contains interviews with staff and real clients who have benefited from what Alternatives’ organization offers.

The client flew Fischer, the audio technician and Edwards down for a two-day shoot at locations in Escondido and Oceanside, California. “The shooting schedule was fairly intense. We flew in, picked up our rental gear and immediately met the staff of Alternatives and started scouting. We knew we needed to walk away with emotive footage and didn’t have a lot of time to gather it.”

Fischer handled the interaction with the client, contracts and model releases so that Edwards could focus on directing talent, lighting and camera work. She also shot b-roll footage so they’d have extra material if they needed it. In the evenings, Fischer edited the video using Final Cut Pro software and would show Edwards her cuts to get his feedback before proceeding with the final cut edit.

When it came to payment, Edwards says they wanted to make billing as easy as possible for the client so rather than giving Alternatives three invoices for video, production and sound, they billed everything through SRO productions and Fischer then handled payments to Edwards, the audio technician and the equipment rental house.

Edwards says, “I cannot stress enough that a project of this magnitude or greater could not have been done by myself.”

—Jacqueline Tobin

Shaul Schwarz and Bryan Chang

Shaul Schwarz directed a feature length documentary about the Gaza pullout in 2006, and in the past year he’s produced about ten ten-minute videos that he shot on the Canon 5D Mark II for Israeli TV and magazine clients. He’s also skilled with Final Cut Pro. But for all that experience, he says, “I’m not the best editor, and I don’t strive to be. I want to bring in an editor who’s good.” He believes that collaborating with editors has made him better at shooting video. “You’ll learn the most about how to produce in the field when you work with an editor who will tell you, ‘You didn’t build me a sequence,’ or ‘You might have tons of b-roll, but who’s your character?'”

Schwarz recently hired editor Bryan Chang to edit the video and stills he shot after the earthquake in Haiti. Time had sent Schwarz there to shoot stills, but he and filmmaker Julie Patner, Schwarz’s girlfriend, stayed for a few days after the assignment to shoot video. Back in New York, Schwarz made a rough cut that he showed to director of photography Kira Pollack. “I told her I think there’s something strong here.” Time didn’t commit to posting it, so he decided to create a polished piece on spec. He contacted an editor who had worked with Patner. He wasn’t available, but he recommended Chang, who edits films and Web videos and is a founder of Meerkat Media Collective, a Brooklyn-based group of artists and filmmakers who support their documentary and personal projects by taking commercial assignments.

Schwarz paid Chang a flat rate for the project (which ended up requiring about ten days of work over two weeks), and promised to pay Chang more if Time picked up the video. Chang says the project appealed to him because “as an editor I’m excited to work with all kinds of footage and see worlds I don’t personally get to experience. Also, the 5D is kind of the hot new toy that a lot of filmmakers are using.” He had edited one previous project shot on the 5D. The camera, he notes, “can only shoot for so long in a steady take, and there are problems when it pans. I was curious to see how it held up in documentary footage. Also Shaul is a pretty talented storyteller. It wasn’t a hard sell.”

Before he previewed his stills and his four hours of footage for Chang, Schwarz had already created a log of his clips. In the log, he explains, “I’ll make a note like, ‘strong text,’ or ‘shaky,’ or ‘good, but see clip 32.'” Once the log is complete, “then you start the fun part, which is making a paper cut,” Schwarz says. “I try to outline my themes, and put this clip with this audio and this b-roll. If you’ve done your log well, and previewed it with another person, it’s pretty easy to cut and paste the clips.”

“Shaul and I have developed a pretty good dynamic,” Chang says. “We’ll say, ‘These are the building blocks, our five or six main pieces.’ We order them on paper, starting with a main character, and then transition to another piece. Then he’ll leave me alone and I’ll assemble the big pieces roughly.” If the structure of the rough cut works, “Then I’ll go back in and start making polished scenes.”

The video they produced, called “Breach of Faith,” is roughly ten minutes, which is long for a Web piece, but it was posted on in May. Since then, Time has hired Chang as the editor for a video by Lynsey Addario for and Time‘s iPad edition. Meanwhile, Chang and Schwarz are working on a much longer project about narco-culture in Mexico and the U.S.

Schwarz says he’s now being hired regularly to shoot video along with stills, and collaborating with an editor is essential. “Instead of getting a five-day assignment, I’m getting a ten-day assignment,” and earning higher fees. If he weren’t working with an editor, he explains, he would not have time to do everything, and the quality of his work wouldn’t be as high.

He believes that when photographers or clients say they don’t have the budget to work with an editor, “They don’t really understand the quality they might be sacrificing, or the amount of time you have to put into it.” He says the typical offer—”when a client says, ‘Can you do this on video? We’ll pay you an extra $250′”—isn’t sufficient. “If you want to have an impact in this world of video, you have got to aim higher than that. You have to understand what it takes to produce something better than that.”

Schwarz observes, “A lot of people can flip on a 5D and get some good video, but that does not make good multimedia. It takes staying up on the technology, and it takes an understanding of how to make a film. And the best way to get that is to get an editor excited about your work.”

—Holly Stuart Hughes

To see clips and links to the videos discussed here, see our feature story about multimedia partnerships this month on


To Learn More About Video

PDN’s PhotoPlus Expo, taking place in New York City, October 28-30, will this year feature a Video Pavilion on the floor of the trade show. The space will be dedicated to equipment, tools and accessories needed to create videos. For more information on exhibitors and the show location and schedule, visit

Where To Find


One of the easiest ways that clients and photographers enlist an experienced crew for a video assignment is to hire a production company. These companies rely on a stable of producers, cinematographers, sound technicians and editors who either provide all the services needed on a video shoot, or work under the direction of the photographer hired for the job. They then deliver completely edited video and multimedia, usually for a flat fee.

Production houses and rental facilities can also be a source of information for photographers who are learning about video or want help finding experienced freelancers. Photographer Simon Biswas suggests that photographers in New York, L.A. or other large advertising markets who want to collaborate with a sound or video editor contact a company that caters to video productions. “They know everyone. You can call and say, ‘Do you have a good recommendation of a sound guy?’ ”

Photographers typically find video collaborators the same way they find assistants, stylists or producers: by word of mouth. “I think word of mouth is the best way to find good sound designers,” says Jesse Flower-Ambroch, the sound designer who worked on Biswas’s multimedia pieces. “Ask around, especially to anyone that is plugged into the film world. And be persistent. Good sound people are busy.”

Flower-Ambroch adds that many video pros advertise on Craigslist and the site, but as anyone who’s ever tried to find a used sofa or an apartment on Craigslist knows, “you have to wade through a lot of crap,” as Biswas says. You can also post an “Editor wanted” notice on these sites.

Frank Evers of Institute for Artist Management, which represents many photographers-turned-filmmakers says photographers who want to create video should watch documentaries and videos—making note of who’s listed in the credits—and attend film festivals to meet directors of photography, producers and editors. That’s one way that Institute photographers have met and been able to work with people who have experience editing for film and television or recording sound for National Public Radio. Like photographers, Evers notes, “They have a shared interest in storytelling.”

If you’re shooting for yourself or on spec, there are different ways to compensate your partners. Evers says in the film world, “Deferred payments is a respectable, time honored way to acknowledge the value of someone’s contribution. You say, ‘I don’t have $10,000 to pay you now, but if this film goes anywhere, you’ll get paid.’ ”

Whatever you and the editor negotiate, Evers says, “You have to be really clear with people what you are going to pay them—or not pay them—and also what their credit will be.”

For photographers who want to sharpen their own shooting, recording and editing skills, Flower-Ambroch recommends the online groups and

Brad DeCecco, a New York photographer who has shot music videos and is working on a documentary, is a member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, a group started two years ago by two filmmakers who wanted a place where filmmakers could get feedback on their work and share ideas. DeCecco says, “It’s taught me a lot about independent filmmaking, how to collaborate, how to seek grants. It’s gotten me a lot of really helpful feedback on my projects and given me a chance to feel like I’m helping other people get their work to where they want it to be.”