Making Videos Clients Will Love With Budgets You Don’t

November 20, 2014

By David Walker

One of the challenges of shooting motion is squaring clients’ high expectations for production value with their tight budgets. Many clients still see motion as an add-on to a still shoot, with little understanding of what motion production requires. “We hear over and over that motion is secondary,” says photographer Jim Hughes. “Clients tell us, ‘Just shoot me a bunch of video and we’ll figure something out.’”

Photographers with motion experience know better than to fall into that trap. So what strategies do they use to manage clients’ expectations, and get them to invest more in all the elements required for a video production? How do photographer/ directors work around low budgets, without sacrificing the quality of the final product? And what are some budget line items that experienced photographer/directors won’t sacrifice, no matter what?

Hughes emphasizes that because budgets are almost always tight, his job is to help clients understand what is possible–and what isn’t—within their budget. He starts by explaining the cost of a production that delivers everything they ask for, the way they ask for it.

“I tell them, If you want A-level production, here’s what you’re going to need. I hold the integrity of pricing,” he says. From there, clients inevitably ask: What can we get done for five grand rather than 25 grand?

“My rep says, ‘They come to you for a solution.’” Hughes explains, adding that the more creative freedom a client is willing to give—i.e., the less specific the client is about details of the final production—the more Hughes can do with a bare-bones budget.

“There are so many places you can cut a production budget. It all depends upon what the shoot is about. So I ask questions to the point where it’s like beating a dead horse.”

The questions help him figure out what the most important on-camera elements are.

“If it’s all about the talent, and the location doesn’t matter so much,” a plain, simple room might do, Hughes explains. “Is the talent in the background? Fine. Maybe you don’t need a stylist; maybe you need a groomer instead.”

Hughes first looks at ways to cut the biggest expense: the crew. Often that means he has to wear multiple hats: director, director of photography and grip. “I’m cutting out luxuries,” he says. “Can we live without craft services and deal with sandwiches from across the street? Do we need a PA [production assistant], or can the producer take care of PA tasks first thing in the morning? For hair and makeup, can we get someone junior?”

But Hughes has his line in the sand, beyond which he won’t accept a job because the budget would only sabotage the shoot. He recounts a big job he recently walked away from—”They were surprised,” Hughes says, and he struggled with his decision—but the client kept insisting on a long list of shots in multiple locations with complicated props. Hughes didn’t think he could possibly do it for what the client was willing to spend, and feared that he’d have a black mark on his reputation if he tried.

Jesse Scolaro, who produces still and video shoots at Bend Creative for photographers and directors, says his spending priority is usually the production details that appear on camera. He recently produced a shoot for a juice company that started as still photography only. The day before the shoot, the agency told the client, “We have this crew. What if we include a motion component?” The client went for it, Scolaro says. Suddenly the budget doubled.

“It freed up funds to increase the scope of what we were capturing,” he says. In addition to hiring a camera crew for the motion component of the shoot, Scolaro spent more on art direction. “Our production designer was able to add a crew person, and we had the budget for better props,” he says.

Though photographers pride themselves on figuring out how to make a production work on a bare-bones budget, they often have budget line items they’re reluctant—or outright unwilling—to sacrifice. For Scolaro, it’s a digital tech, who is on set to manage media, back up and secure image files, and make sure camera cards are not corrupted.

Scolaro has insisted on hiring a digital tech for every production since having a near miss on a job a few years ago. “We were just going to have a camera person copy cards at the end of the day” to save the cost of hiring a digital tech, he says. But they ended up hiring the digital tech, who discovered during the shoot that some camera cards that looked fine when played back in-camera were actually corrupted. The crew was able to re-shoot important scenes on the spot that would have been lost otherwise.

At press time, Scolaro was trying to convince a footwear client to send a digital tech along with a director, director of photography (DP), and producer on a multi-city tour in Asia to shoot videos featuring celebrities. “We’re going to be in cities where there aren’t a lot of reliable production resources,” Scolaro says. “It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to travel without a digital tech. God forbid there’s a problem. You’ve sacrificed your entire budget if you don’t have that crew person there.”

Lifestyle photographer Stephanie Rausser says her make-or-break budget requirement is money for a DP. “For a long time I was my own DP. I’ve learned from doing it one too many times that to be a good art director and be in communication with people on my crew, I can’t be behind the camera,” she says.

Rausser says that getting models comfortable with one another and directing action on set requires a lot of her time and attention. “I’m a very vocal director. I found that when I was behind the camera, I couldn’t also speak,” she says, explaining that she was too preoccupied by framing the images, anticipating the next shot and worrying about changes in the light. “It was very stressful.”

For Rausser, a DP (or a day dedicated to shooting video) is fundamentally about enabling herself to achieve the look and feel that defines her visual style. It’s also what motivates other photographers to protect certain production budget line items. Hughes says the last thing he’ll cut is lighting and equipment, such as the expensive prime lenses he uses. “I don’t like to cut on our tools—those are making the nice beautiful pictures that clients hire us for,” he says.

Photographer Jonathan Chapman says the look of his videos is dependent upon having multiple cameras at work.

“To have one camera trying to get [everything], that’s just not my approach to visuals,” he says. “My business model is based on really exploring from subtle details to the broad overview. That’s what clients have grown to love in the way I work,” he says. Getting those details, he says, requires a second, third or even a fourth set of eyes. (For a recent Target C-9 shoot, he worked with four camera crews.)

Chapman hires DPs who understand his workflow and visual style. “You’re tag-teaming to get two shots in one,” he says. “I almost always direct the scene and run the A camera while the secondary camera is there, positioned to capture an alternate angle that complements my shot.” While Chapman is reviewing shots or discussing ideas with the client, a second camera crew can look for details that aren’t necessarily scripted, and that clients wouldn’t want Chapman to spend time shooting, but “really are the backbone of the edits.”

On a creative call for a Samsung assignment, the creative director mentioned a b-roll cut on one of Chapman’s videos for McDonald’s that showed the talent’s hands on a counter. It was “a little element, a little nuance” that the CD loved, he says. “That’s not a shot I might have had time on my own to grab on a production for McDonald’s, but having a second camera on set allows us to capture a broader library of those subtle but impactful moments.”

And therein lies the challenge for photographer and their producers: convincing clients to spend money on production extras—and even essentials—that they don’t understand the value of, simply because they can’t pre-visualize the results. The production sacrifices you end up making can depend heavily the sales skills you bring to the bidding process and creative calls, long before you get on set for the shoot.