Frames Per Second: Shaul Schwarz’s Reel Peak Films is a Production Company Devoted to Editorial Documentaries

September 12, 2014

By Holly Stuart Hughes


Still images from Rise, a short film about the ironworkers working on the Freedom Tower in New York City, directed by Schwarz with cinematography by Maisie Crow and Christine Clusiau.

When photojournalist and filmmaker Shaul Schwarz decided last year to launch his production company, Reel Peak Films, he had two goals in mind: to help photojournalists produce short documentary videos for editorial clients, and to convince editorial clients that there’s value for them in spending the time and money required to make videos of high quality.
Schwarz has gathered teams of collaborators who can handle every aspect of filmmaking—including not only photographers who are directors, but also people who can help with shooting, recording audio, editing and production. While photojournalists are used to working solo, Schwarz says, “the ones who are serious about filmmaking realize it’s not a one-man show.” While he was completing his feature-length documentary, Narco Cultura, there were “hundreds of people around me,” he says.  
After that three-year project was released in theaters last year,  Schwarz wanted to continue making films, but wanted to work on projects that would take less time to complete. He began developing ideas for eight- to ten-minute films and pitching them to editorial clients like TIME. Though the projects were less complex than his feature-length documentary, he knew he needed a second shooter and an editor if he wanted to do the job well. “I was taking this approach that we should take it seriously and do it cinematically, and not do the magazine thing of, ‘Oh, maybe you can take an extra day and shoot some video.’”
Still, he needed to convince editorial clients to spend money on the resources he needed. Most publishers evaluate online content solely by page views, he says: “Did you get 10,000 clicks? Then let’s make ten shitty things and we’ll get ten times the clicks.” Schwarz believes that by producing videos that are equal in quality to a magazine’s feature articles,  they can not only attract viewers but also bolster  subscription sales and help the publication in other ways. “What print media is not seeing is that it could be a broadcaster. Broadcasters have been doing exceptionally well for the last five years.”
Reel Peak’s mission, he says, is to help magazines make broadcast-quality documentaries. “We’re a company that comes to magazines, bringing photojournalists and other talented people from the film industry, and says: ‘How do we help you bring your brand into the broadcasting world?’” 
To form the company, Schwarz talked to photojournalist friends who had experience shooting films, including Jessica Dimmock, Gillian Laub, Jared Moossy, Yoni Brook and Leeor Kaufman. He also gathered experienced editors willing to collaborate on projects. As Kaufman explains, with a team of experienced people, Reel Peak “could help get photographers to do greater things with their footage than they could have without the help of filmmakers.” Schwarz found an office in New York City and moved in an editing suite. Reel Peak’s website went live in the fall.
One of Reel Peak’s first projects was Rise, about iron workers building the 104-story tower on the site of the World Trade Center, which ran in September 2013 as part of a package of stories about the building. Rise was directed by Schwarz, with cinematography by Maisie Crow and Christina Clusiau, and edited by Jay Arthur Sterrenberg. Schwarz says the narrative is not groundbreaking, but the video’s production values “skyrocketed it to a whole new level.” 
As a producer, Schwarz has to determine “who’s good at what and who needs help where.” Before Reel Peak had officially launched, TIME asked Schwarz to help make a video out of a story that Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael had shot about Bobby Henline, an injured Iraq War veteran who has become a stand-up comedian. Van Agtmael had little filmmaking experience, so Schwarz suggested bringing in Jared Moossy, a photojournalist and experienced cinematographer, to help shoot the film along with van Agtmael’s girlfriend, Gaia Squarci. Schwarz notes, “Peter was smart enough to say, ‘This is great, I don’t have an ego to prove,’ and he was willing to step away from the camera,” and focus on directing and doing interviews. 
Healing Bobby marked the debut last year of Red Border Films, the documentary filmmaking division launched by TIME.  The nine-and-a-half-minute film took four days of shooting and three weeks of editing. Most videos Reel Peak has made for editorial clients are shot in seven days or less, Schwarz says, which makes them economically feasible for many publishers. 
Assignments have come to Reel Peak in a variety of ways. Most of the work for TIME has come from stories Reel Peak has pitched to editors. This spring, Whitney Johnson, director of photography at The New Yorker, asked Schwarz for help producing a video she was planning about the protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Staff writer Jon Lee Anderson and photographer Davide Monteleone had already spent weeks on the ground. Monteleone had also shot video footage, but had no interviews.
“To make a piece that’s of such high quality it mirrors the quality of the content that we publish in our magazine, we need two shooters. We need high production values,” Johnson explains. Johnson asked Schwarz to find an additional cinematographer and help coordinate video production on location. “It’s almost as if he became a partner, a collaborator,” Johnson says. “I count on him the way I count on a photo editor on my team.”
Schwarz sent Kaufman to Kiev, where he began interviewing protesters. Kaufman’s goal when he works on a film, he says, is “to find characters who reflect an interesting story.” Johnson says, “Leeor became more of a first shooter, and we used Davide’s work as more the B-roll.” Johnson previewed several edits of the video, Maidan: Tonight, Tomorrow, which was shown on The New Yorker website.  
Johnson says, “More and more as I think about a piece and how it’s going to be visualized in print, I’m also thinking about how it’s going to be visualized on a tablet and online. I think video is another way to tell a story well and can compliment an article.” She says The New Yorker is now collaborating with Reel Peak on a second, in-depth video package, but says the budget isn’t available to do many videos that take as much time and effort as the Maidan film. She explains, “We still need a lot of online content,” and some of that is in the form of short, quickly made videos produced by an in-house multimedia team.  
Reel Peak has three full-time staffers. Schwarz has had to learn how to run a small business and cover overhead. “It’s a whole different mechanism,” he says. Schwarz says Reel Peak will eventually expand into commercial advertising work. The company is also working on feature-length films.  One is an expanded version of The Last Clinic, Maisie Crow’s 50-minute documentary about the anti-abortion fight in Mississippi, which Crow released via The Atavist, the online platform, last year. 
Crow edited the documentary by herself. “I was in a vacuum,” she recalls. Schwarz “has been a mentor to me about filmmaking,” Crow says. When he saw the screening of The Last Clinic, she recalls, “He said to me, ‘There’s a real film in there, but this isn’t it.’” To expand the film, Clusiau joined Crow as a second director, shooting more footage and additional storylines. Working with Clusiau and Schwarz, “There’s so much discussion about how to shoot it—storyboarding, narrative structure,” Crow says. “I wouldn’t have gotten this far without them.” Schwarz hopes the film will be ready in time for the 2015 film festival season. 
Crow calls the Reel Peak business model  “a fantastic idea.” She says, “They’re combining the strengths of photojournalists and the way they shoot video with strong documentary narrative.” As more publications look for video, Crow can imagine other production companies following Reel Peak’s lead. “I hope so. The more of them there are, the more high-quality videos we’ll be able to see.”