Working With Producers & Why They're Important
So I'm about to jump on a call with one of my long time producers, long time friends, Michele Fleury, who really took me as a green horn (chuckles) into some of my first big projects. My first big jobs. I was terrified, scared, I had no clue of kind of what I was going into. And really this is only about five years ago or so that she really helped educate me as to the importance of what a producer's role is. And kind of before I jump into this call, I just wanna give you a perspective from me that the producer's job really is somebody who, as the job gets bigger and as the asks get greater, they're really there to help manage all the things that you don't wanna help manage, right? So they're there to deal with getting the permits, deal with paying the talent, deal with hiring the talent, deal with sourcing the food, the accommodations, the travel, the yada yada yada, and a huge part of this is that their job, although you might be on a shoot for three to four days, maybe a day, maybe a...
couple hours, maybe a month, their job starts from the very beginning, from the very moment that you bid the job to the very end when everything wraps up and all the photos are submitted. So their time on these jobs lasts for a long time. And it starts with the bid. And the bid really what that is, is it's the production bid. So oftentimes, and I've spoken about this earlier, but you have two different bids. You have a bid for what you are going to get paid, your fees as the creative, the director, the photographer, the whatever. And then you have the production bid. And the difference here is the production bid is all the costs that it's gonna take to get that job done. Why do you separate them? Well, I talked about that pretty much at length a little bit earlier, but to reiterate the reason why you separate them is that you need to educate and show the client. And when I say client, obviously what I mean is whoever's hiring you to do the job, could be a bride, could be a wedding, could be a big commercial client, could be whomever, right? Whatever that request is, I suggest breaking out these two things. The bid of your fees and the bid of production. Why we call them a bid is because usually there's a reciprocation of costs and values and thoughts. Sometimes you submit the bid and they don't have enough money, so you gotta redo it, right? So that production bid the reason it's so important is that it educates the client as to what it's gonna take to do it. And if you can show them, hey, that shoot you wanna do in Iceland under the Northern lights whatever, it's gonna cost this much for flights and this much for food and this much for whatever and yada, yada, yada, this is way before we even get into the creative and all these things, they might be like, oh, well, man, you're right, we don't have enough money, or, oh, well, dang we do need to pay you more. And I think one of the most important about that is that that is protecting you from getting in over your head. It's protecting you from saying, yep, I'll do the job for 5,000 bucks, that's great. When really you're gonna spend half of that on flights. So it's this person's job, the producer, to truly research all of those fees, all of those costs and get them down on paper and submit them for you. That's your production bid. And then once you're there, it's really their job to manage all that. They're checking into the hotels. They're putting that on their credit card. They're getting all the meals sorted. They're getting all the flight sorted, the rides, everybody's food allergies and whatnot. And they're also dealing sometimes when your client is on the shoot, they're dealing with that person for you. In many ways, it's a production coordinator, right? That's what they are, or a production manager, same thing. And really the skill sets I think make this person great are someone you trust, someone you're willing to communicate well with, someone who you know can insulate you from things that maybe aren't important. I don't need to know that this person is having an issue with this person. I don't need to know that this flight got canceled or this bad, like what... There are certain things that you as the creative person don't wanna deal with, because it's gonna detract you from your one singular focus which is bringing the best quality product to the table. And so that's really the main key role. And I can't express how important of a role it is. Now, there are gonna be some jobs that just the budget's not there for a producer because that person's gonna cost a little bit of money. And what I've realized is that nine times outta 10, if the budget's not there for a producer, it might not be a job worth taking because you're gonna have to take on all those responsibilities yourself. One of the things is if you really don't know any producers, and you're still starting out at a young stage of your career, it's okay to reach out to a friend, hey, there's some girls out there who have planned weddings and they've done a great job and they might be a good producer to start with. It's really just somebody who can get everything down on paper and plan it accordingly. Maybe they're not going out on the shoot. And maybe this is a terrible piece of advice, but I want you to understand that you can look for other ways to involve people who might be able to have similar skill sets or might be able to get you to the home base in the same way. As the jobs get bigger, and as the projects get larger, it's important to reach out to somebody who really knows what they're doing. Who really knows how to collect every invoice, every expense 'cause some of these jobs at the very end are gonna require you to have a cost analysis and prove every dollar spent. And those are kind of scary. You definitely don't want your friend's wife to be handled on that one, right? You want a professional producer who's worked in this field. But if you're starting out, it might be worth even just considering somebody who can step in, who can help you plan, who can help you organize, so that it's not all falling on your shoulders. And with that I'm gonna jump into this call right now with Michele, longtime friend, longtime producer, and get some of her thoughts on this subject. Hey. Can you hear me?
Where you are?
Oh, there I am. Okay. Hold on let turn up the volume.
Awesome. So anyway I've been working with you for, I would say about four years now and maybe a little more. (Michele speaking faintly) Yeah four or five. And you know, just in total transparency, some of my first jobs like larger jobs ever were with you. And I think that in many ways it was sort of like this hand holding scenario where you knew that I was pretty green and you knew that there was gonna have to be a sort of big level of separation created between myself and the client and whatnot. And so yeah, I thank you for that patience and that time and everything. But I guess the first question I have is like, when did you start producing and how did that come about? Was it come from the agency side? Did you come from kind of a freelance side? Like what was even the interest or the draw?
Yeah, I didn't have a... Well, I don't know if I had a typical path to what I do now. Sort of I started out in fashion for a year in New York and was like, no, no, no. And I was doing a lot of graphic design and I always found myself, it was J crew corporate. I found myself down in the catalog department, which was the floor below us. And I was like, this is way better. Seeing the photos of the locations and there are these two women in a really tiny room coordinating that whole catalog. So soon after that, I had talked to a few of my friends at the company and they had friends working in the magazine industry, this is in New York. So I started as a photo assistant photo coordinator. And this was the mid '90s. So it wasn't like you could just pull up the internet, find somebody's work, say hey, let's do it, let's book the tickets. So I started out really before the digital age, just as it was starting, which I'm happy about. So we had to FedEx portfolios, you name it. And I was the only one in the photo department at the first magazine I worked at. And from there, I just kind of, there was no (voice breaking out) through that place, much was taking on all of the responsibilities that there were tracking film, finding new photographers, bringing (voice breaking out) keeping the art directors who designed the actual magazine, you know, apprised of what was going on. From there I moved out to California because I didn't wanna be in New York city my whole life. And I got into custom publishing a travel group that does a lot of things. Like the W Hotel has their own magazine we were producing things like that, some stuff in Hawaii. So that's how I was still in the magazine world. I was the photo editor of the Advocate Magazine, which is like the gay lesbian celebrity news magazine. So I had produced every kind of photo you can imagine from celebrity to politicians, to travel to adventure, to home, shelter interior, to I mean, DIY you name it. So eventually I realized that magazines they were starting to go downhill. This was early 2000. So I'd been doing this for about 10 years. I saw the writing on the wall with the internet and magazine saying and the pay wasn't that great either. So I shifted gears into advertising and eventually went freelance, but now I never was on the agency side. I thought about it. It was just not the path I took. So once I went freelance just started building up contacts and meeting different photographers. I didn't even know how producers got work when I first went freelance. I had worked a lot brand direct. So working with marketing departments and I would source the photographer. I would find them kind of art buying. So I was a dual role of helping them find people who would be a good shooter. So I came from that side of things is not the way I think most producers start.
I almost think that most producers kind of work their way through the agency realm and kind of work their way up the ranks and then be an agency producer 'cause there's like, 'cause in those fields there's junior producers, senior producer, there's like four or five which is interesting 'cause you had direct connection to not only the photographers, but the photographs themselves and then the needs for the magazine. Do you think that was crucial in your understanding of being able to sort of produce for photographers and directors now?
I think it was really beneficial because my path was a very creative path, a creative producer path. In advertising out here a lot of times people have to be a PA, if you don't go the agency route and you go the production side of it. So the people who work for the photographer, you become PA production coordinator in TV commercials, there's production managers, and that there's a lot of roles in production before you get to producer same as the agency. For me I came from a very creative background where I was helping clients direct big brands, write shot lists like labs. And I mean just massive brands in working with their marketing department doing trend research. So for me, yeah, I think it helps in my job now because I know creatively what it'll take to have a good shoot. And I already knew the logistics. I had to learn a lot of the, I'm not sure what they would be called, but just the industry standards about how wrap books were done. You know, with clients, like I wanna see every invoice that you have. I wanna see it all complete. So I had to learn some of the organizational stuff. I was really organized, but I had never had anyone checking my work so to speak. So yeah for us when we shoot, if a location scout sends me photos, I'm like, no. Because I came from that creative side I'm like, this won't work for this reason, this reason, this reason. So for me it feels a lot easier to talk to you, other photographers about the creative aspects of the job, which I think is key. 'Cause if I was disconnected from that and solely logistics and finance, I don't know, I don't I think it was going well.
It's so hard 'cause your role encompasses so much and what people don't quite understand is like, and I'm speaking for this thing mostly to I would say an audience who this is new for them. And I mean the biggest question is like, what is a producer and what do they do? We'll get to that. 'Cause I know you and I are just riffing on like, we're going already deep. But I think for me, and just using myself an example of how green I was like. I understood the thought of a producer. It's this person that comes on, it's sort of like the barrier between you and the client that ensures that you get the job done that you need to do. And you're caught in kind of two worlds. You're sort of you're often working for the photographer or the director, but you're also sort of subject to the client's needs whoever to get the job done. And so there's often two producers, one on their side, one on your side in motions. But what I never understood was when that first big job came through, it was your responsibility to put forward the production estimate that laid out all of the expenses, the model fees, the this, the that, the travel like a good producer essentially in my mind is like yourself as someone who they've never been there, they have no idea what to expect, and they can orchestrate a 10 person crew, a one person crew, a 30 person crew, and how much it's gonna cost to eat and how much it's gonna cost to get around, all these expenses because, and I'm gonna boil this down to the simplest terms, but it's your job alongside kind of, I think the agent's job to educate the client as to how much this crazy ask or request or job is going to cost. I mean, that's like the first hurdle you kind of have to jump through before you even get there.
Yes, you're right. In the timeline of getting a job, you hopefully have a agency reach out to you. Chris we wanna do this, this and this. We have this amount of money. Sometimes they don't tell you how much money they have, and they try to say, well, how much would it cost? So then you get into this game of chicken of you don't wanna overbid 'cause you don't wanna put yourself out of the running. You don't wanna underbid obviously. But yeah, you take the information from the client, try to make heads or tails of it. Sometimes it's vague. Sometimes it's very specific, just depends on the job. And you create an estimate based on what they've given you. Sometimes the estimates are a whole lot of TVD. This is what we think it would be. We still are waiting on information from you, but yeah, you have to do... I do a lot of research. Some producers just throw it together and they're like, ah, I think it'll cost this and I'll make it happen later. I'm not like that. I tend to do a lot of research.
And maybe back in the day people could add stuff more. But I think now after 2008, it's kind of like not happening. We'll get to this later, but also on the back end, you're having to account for every dollar spent and your goal is usually to retain as much money for the photographer or for the thing. And if that money's not accounted for then it kind of comes out of that budget too.
Yeah. And just to touch on that, there are jobs that are fixed bids, which you don't have to show your books. And then there are jobs, the TV commercial land, they call them cost plus. So I'm sure people know this maybe they don't, that's when you have to show your books. If you're under, you have to give money back. But there are also ways--
It's like the IRS of productions (laughs)
But sometimes a producer might say to an assistant didn't you have a prep day. If you're under or didn't you write more equipment then, so there are ways to try to, for me give back where I can or I have to show my books.
Yeah. I would love to hear your explanation 'cause I kind of gave mine, but what is your job? If someone's hiring you, what would you sum up kind of your job to a total newbie fresh out of the gate. Like, okay, I have this job from this client. I've never worked for them. They're really big. They're a Fortune 500. This is outta my hands I need a producer. And kind of, what would you be like? Okay, well, here's what I can do, or here's what I'm gonna do.
Right. The producer essentially has their hands in every part of the shoot from client, from the beginning, from the bid, creating an estimate. If the job doesn't require that and you just are awarded the job, you've X amount of dollars, the producer can figure out how to spend that money and make the shoot go well. And meet the client's expectations, make sure that the photographer has everything that they need that can be--
So the client's hiring you as much as they're hiring--
Yeah. A lot of photographers I know people have lost jobs because of the producer or they've had clients come back to them and say, I love your work you the photographer, but you need a different producer. You know we can't deal, because some producers are very hard edged and revel in playing bad cop, which is great for the photographer because then they can play good cop and just be creative and do that and you take on all the criticism. But the hard part is I find it's a dance that you have to make sure the photographer's happy, but also make sure the client's happy because if they leave that shoot with a bad taste in their mouth, yeah they can fully blame it on the producer, but it's gonna ooze on to you as well. So I try to turn everything into a discussion or just be very fair minded or, you know, think it through, or maybe point out to them why what they're asking might not be fair or possible. I know producers are just like, nope, can't do it. Sorry.
And that hardass mentality kind of comes back to bite you in the butt because you know, we've talked about this a lot but you never wanna leave a shoot not accomplishing what you set out to do, but you also wanna leave with everybody liking each other hopefully, which is a fine line sadly, sometimes it's finer. So for those who might be confused, where does the agent's job stop and yours start? Like what is the separation, 'cause as you mentioned, like kind of once the job is awarded or once the job is bid on it's all on you, the agent--
The agent steps out.
But in the beginning you and the agent can be working side by side. So where does kind of your role start theirs end? I just wanna make heads tails of that.
Well, usually what happens the client reaches out to the agent. The agent immediately will talk to you and then loop me in immediately about scheduling. Is this possible? Do you have a--
Do you have like five days to produce a huge shoot?
Exactly. Five days and $5, like, ah, okay. So I usually have the conversation with the agent of what will it take to get this done? 'Cause in recent years I think people come in at you with one number. Like we have a hundred K. We wanna do this, this, this, and this. The agent obviously is working on commission. They wanna have as much of that go to fees as possible. So there's a dance with the agent as well, but you have to... You're gonna script and save where you can, but you also don't want the job quality to be compromised, or the talent quality or whatever the logistics are that you're dealing with. So you go back and forth with the agent trying to come up with a fair amount for production and a fair amount for fees. Normally agents will come to me with usually they're not too over the top with what they want, occasionally they are. And then you go back and forth. And can you accomplish this in the two shoot days? Can you accomplish it in three? So there's a lot of discussions about what can be done. I'll immediately start working on the budget and seeing what everything costs and we have a lot of dialogue about that. I'm finding we can't shoot three days. We can only do two, but maybe we can do two locations in one day to make up for it. So it's a lot of conversation back and forth, but the agent... And once the job is bid and accepted and the signed off on they're done, and they're out and they check in every once in a while just to make sure the client's happy, but it just becomes client relations at that point nothing else.
And after the job it seems to me kind of like that role for you is like, you're wrapping up the job, final expenses, invoices, this and that. And then you kind of have to handle a little bit of the sort of backlash to make or not the backlash, but I guess the trail of debris to make sure the client gets what they need, that I'm delivering, you kind of are like, you're on me. You're making sure that we're getting them what they need on time, et cetera, et cetera as well. So your job doesn't just end in the beginning, which is why a lot of times you'll have 30 days working on a project. I will only have like four or five, but for you, one other thing is the producer, from day one they're brought in to day 30, because this is how long it took to deliver. And throughout that whole process you're still working.
Yeah. If you think about how I explain it to people who have no idea what I do outside of our industry. I say think of every photo that you see day to day on a bus shelter, on a billboard, in a magazine, in an ad, every shot has to be... Some of them are small don't need a producer. But who hired the talent? Who found the people to find the talent? Who hired the wardrobe stylist? And you go through all of the line items, of the hair and makeup, the locations, is that location insured? You go through the location scout, there's so many--
Exactly. And that's kind of the part of it is that it's funny because a producer is in many ways just a made up role for somebody else doing the work for you, because I could do all of this, but I would do a terrible job. And what would happen is I would be so stressed out and not able to focus on anything. So as I've kind of mentioned before, your role is in many ways to take all of this weight and stress off of myself or anybody else, and really put that on to you, which is astronomical. It's a lot, right?
Yeah. But that frees you up.
Why the hair has grown.
That's why the hair, by the way, my hair just does this. It's not any product, Chris knows this. That allows you to be creative. That allows you to focus on, because as the photographer you are heading up your own department, you have your assistance, the Digi tech, you're dealing with the talent when you're shooting, you're watching the light, you're doing so many different things. And you're trying to hit all of the shots on the shot list, stand schedule, which is my job to help you say, do you feel like you have this shot? We need to move on. But yet all the things that I take on is so you can focus on your task at hand, and a lot of photographer themselves, hotel, lights, crew, you name it. But once you get to a point where the project is either complex or big, or you don't have the time to focus on those things you bring in a producer.
And you hope that everything that it doesn't implode. I think you nailed it right there. I'm wondering too, I guess you could say like, what does it require of the photographer or the director to kind of work well with the producer? Like what qualities do you need? 'Cause there's a little bit of letting go of control which I'm not always the best at. And I think that you can only be as effective as sort of they let you be. So I'm wondering like what are those sort of qualities that you look for and need and whatnot?
I think communication is key. And the photographer being honest with themselves and being honest with their producer of what they expect, what they would like to happen. Sometimes it just can't happen. There's not enough money or not enough time and that's beyond everyone's control. But I think good communication of what you expect from your talent, from your locations, from your crew, you name it. How do you see it going? So when you work in tandem and everybody's has a good flow of ideas back and forth, I think that saves a lot of the down the line, oh, wait, we're doing this this way. Wait why aren't we doing it that way? Conversations that should happen before you all step on set and everybody's looking at each other going, why didn't we shoot that yesterday? We should have done.
And so much of it is when you get into these larger projects and there's permitting and there, you know, you could be on site and this is the only time you have to shoot it because somebody from the agricultural society of whatever is there to monitor you, everything becomes more complicated and less go with the flow. And I've noticed too, realizing that sometimes you have to take a deep breath and the light's not gonna be perfect. And maybe it's not gonna look like what was on the brief, but everybody kind of accepts that this is what it is and you're just gonna do your best in that situation.
And again, you and I will communicate to the client on our pre-pro conference calls. Okay. We can shoot it this way, but the light at that time of day, are you okay with that? Because when you say to them this shoot really requires four days and you wanna do it in three. It's really important to communicate to the client. This is what you're gonna lose out on. It's sort of a cover your butt thing at the same time just being honest, like you, because they'll want the moon and back. And you try your best to give it to them but at the same time you can only do so much without running yourself into the ground.
And you kind of educated me on this important concept of just, you know, over delivering but under promising, right? I don't wanna over promise and under deliver. So you try to be as realistic as you can up front. And which is why I think this concept of being able to work as a team in tandem to first of all educate the client as to how realistic their asks are. 'Cause oftentimes they're slightly unrealistic, and then show them what they want even if they don't know. Show them what's possible and what you can do and in that regard, I think that you keep the creative you know, myself honest and I sort of try to do my best to not make everybody wanna kill themselves at the end of the day. Because I think again, as shoots get bigger and more complex, you start to deal with so many other things like union and which is a whole another topic we don't need to get into.
Then it starts to become very, very complicated. I love what you said. I don't really have too many more questions. It's mainly just trying to kind of help people understand this relationship, how I would say that the bond that you have with the producer is super valuable. And to be honest, there kind of tends to be like a number of producers for different size jobs. Some being like this is the super that can do it all. And some being like, I wish I could hire that person but this job isn't paying enough money. And it's a $5,000 budget, but I need somebody who I can spend $2,000 of that and they can just get a permit. So tell me this. Sometimes you are on the shoot, but there's occasionally sometimes where you're not, how does sort of that work out? Again, I know you prefer to be on site on location, but sometimes you're sort of producing before and after, but you're like maybe the budget doesn't make sense to be there. How does that work out?
I remember you and I, we went through that I think when you were down in, was it Patagonia?
And it rained.
Montblanc. Yeah. Every day I'm like, it sucks.
You and I went through that with the Montblanc job because when they presented the budget, it was not robust. And you had this great idea and you and I were able to find somebody who could go on the shoot for a lot less money. I advised him pretty much every step of the way remotely. 'Cause he would just email and text and call. But you know, he did a great job, had contacts down there where you were going. It's hard not to be on site because you just don't have that control. You're not there talking to whoever you need to talk to. Or reaching out to whether it's the permit office or somebody who owns a farm that you wanna shoot on, and you have to convince them like in Iceland, when we went there and I found that hot Springs. And we had a GPS address and it was owned by a German couple who chased people off the land. I'm glad I was on site because I was able to meet them and talk and they realized, oh, these two are really normal. And they're polite which goes a long way, versus the people who would trespass and then try to photograph and they chase them away. So I like to be on site just because you have more control. Offsite it's just one layer between you and your photographer.
I totally agree. And I think that the concept of when you rely so much on this person and really the creative process sort of becomes... I would say on those shoots and on the projects, usually it's me and my producer and maybe the second, like the first assistant whoever's kind of with me. Those are the three people who, those are the two people in my circle or in my ring that I wanna bounce idea off of them. And oftentimes I think your role is as much of a counselor and therapist and a good listener. And I think it's good to have qualities like relationship qualities that are different. So there's not like two people that are very fiery, doesn't really help. And so that's really important. And another kind of just side note too, is the fact that it's so nice having someone who understands the creative. And I'll let you speak this one more time if you can. But I love the fact that you have that background, 'cause as you said, there's kind of two types of producers. There's the very analytical very much like, hey, the expenses, the this, the that, the yada yada yada, like I'm gonna get all that dialed and the cost. But if that person lacks the creative side of like, I don't know what the light's gonna do and I know what he needs, it's really challenging.
Yep. It is. And you know, again on our shoots especially because we're dealing a lot with natural light and you have to be so aware of what's happening when. And to touch on what you said earlier but also this question. I look at our relationship and the creative side of things, it's like a bullseye or a storm, and you and I, and so it's like you, me and the client are in the eye of the storm, and everybody else are on these rings that just go out from there. So if I tend to be very don't understand the creative, don't understand what they want, there's gonna be waves. 'Cause you'll get stressed. All get stressed that you're stressed. The client gets stressed and then everyone on set feels the ripple effect. So even if I'm completely losing my mind, I try to make sure that no one will know that I'm just like we are talking now. And I think that's key. You know when you understand the creative, it enables you to make decisions that'll benefit your photographer. It'll enable the clients get what they're looking for just because I can do my purchase orders in very good order doesn't really help you when you're on set and you don't have any awareness of that part of the process.
A huge part of your job is making sure the client has a good experience too. And like they don't wanna be weighed down by little tiny production issues. Sometimes it's a matter of, how much to let them know, how much not to. Ultimately the best way to put it is you're the glue that really holds me and the client and the job together. And that's an amazing thing. And I just wanna thank you--
And the entire crew if you think about it. You have all the trailing people of like wardrobe and hair and makeup and assistance and everybody going, wait, what are we doing now?
They can't all flow if they can't all mesh because even for you, if we're in a van for 10 days driving the California Coast, everybody needs to be comfortable like camping and doing this. And there's certain people who work great and certain people who don't, and it's kind of all on you to like, okay, I trust this crew. I've worked with this crew. It's so nice. And I can say for sure, just as you mentioned, your role of insulating the creative from all of that tornado is so helpful because it allows me to do my job which is to be creative. And I mean there's jobs where it would've been great to make a little more money, but there's no amount of money that ever would be worth having to deal with that stress. And that sets you up for success with that client return, opportunities, the next job, and that's really where I think the value comes in which is awesome. I don't wanna take up any more of your day, but I just wanna say thanks and--
I appreciate you, and I'm hoping that we actually get to see each other, not on Zoom and somewhere cool in the world. Again Zoom.
We're working on it.
Yeah, exactly. Hey Michele.
Thank you. Bye.
So we just had a chance to chat with Michele Fleury and I love her insights. The fact that she comes from the creative background, working with magazines that means she's gonna really benefit a photographer specifically because she knows what the light's doing, what I'm looking for in terms of the creative process, she's gonna really be able to speak to that to the client and ultimately advocate for me, right? It's really a boxing ring and you have these people in your ring and that's the type of person that I want in my corner. So Michele comes with a long industry sort of list of clients and experience. She has a multitude of background. I think these are some of the skill sets that you really wanna look for when working with a producer. And also somebody who's not so rigid that they understand that sometimes the budget's gonna be, pretty small and they may not be able to be on the shoot. They may have to trim things down, but they're still going to help you get the job done.