The Increasing Need for Great Producers
I once asked a Flame artist for his honest opinion on the worst aspect of any job. His response? “When the producer opens the door.”
Annoyingly, he’s not alone, or exaggerating. Depending on the level of expectations born of experience we’re often assumed to do little more than thrash out a hilariously discounted rate or blindly forward emails. When your main interaction with a team of animators is to tell them they’ve got to work through the weekend, and the majority of your emails to clients are requests for more money, it’s hardly surprising that we’re a rarely celebrated resource. But it’s time to reclaim post-production producing as something brilliant.
The title ‘producer’ has so many variations and associations depending on the frame of reference. When used without a prefix people have asked me everything from what films I make to which crops I focus on, so it’s up to us, the front line soldiers, to be defining the role as something to boast about, to announce with pride. Post production – particularly in the amorphous realm of short-form projects - is still a bit of a dark art in the minds of most folks, so it’s understandable that the role looks muddy. And, as the last line of defence, with nowhere left to run, we often wholly deserve our reputation as the dastardly producers, the media equivalent of a cowboy builder, sucking in air while scratching the arse crack and saying, ”ooh, it’ll cost you”. Not the one you want to see coming into the suite with a new list of ‘tweaks’ and well-rehearsed, apologetic expression.
And it’s certainly a harder task now. As with most things, the past looks like an easier place. Commercials were the thing, the only thing, peppered with a dazzling music promo here and there. We knew what our job was, how big the legals had to be, and when we were expected to start our engines. But now we’re knee-deep in the digital revolution, the television renaissance, battling the emails that never sleep and the archives we can’t hold safely in our arms. The role is ever-changing, always surprising and endlessly challenging – and therein lies its beauty. This is a job that valiantly exists only to make things better, even though the marketplace constantly blurs the lines between roles and never asks for our permission before it shifts gear again. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
However, this ‘changing landscape’ we all keep blaming for everything, it’s different, yes, but it still needs corralling, still needs us to be jigging around in the background making a list of where everything is. It needs us producers more than ever. It’s actually presenting a lovely call to arms. True, we don’t need to be sending a viewing Umatic on the back of a motorbike to Manchester at 0400 on a Saturday, but we do need to stand-up and volunteer to be the sturdy mooring for all of these digital hooligans scudding around in the clouds like drunk kites. Working above and beyond the office walls gets more and more viable, but such apparent freedom needs even more care and control than its earth-bound predecessor. Those bossy tendencies of ours just need to encompass a wider berth. However remote the workflow, we still have to be the eternal consistency, the memory, the silver thread reaching from start to finish, still owning and delivering every job – even if they’re physically invisible - with the fierce, protective instinct of an angry bear.
I think being a great producer is a job to be really proud of. I can still get teary when I see someone absolutely producing the shit out of something. But the definition of a producer’s success in post is a misty goal. To steer and care for a job in today’s disparate forms takes courage, a library of experience and a steely urge to succeed. Sure, occasionally you’ll get that lovely ‘ta-daaa!’ moment of telling a client that their job is done, gaily typing ‘final master’ all over the place. But usually post producing is the epitome of enjoying the journey, not the destination. That master is going to deliver with or without you, but only you get to decide how it happens. You have the power to support your team with patience, grace and respect. You can help your client cut costs with clever solutions drawn from your wealth of experience. You have the knowledge and tenacity to find the last-minute alternatives when kit falls over. And never underestimate the value of providing an honest and educated sounding board for your clients, helping salve their pain like an organisational version of Valium. In here lies the seeds of a true, long-lasting creative relationship. Gold dust, essentially.
If you’ll humour me for a minute while I once again sound like my mum, it’s not how it was in the old days. It’s not the easy choice. There used to be more time to learn our craft. Now, more than ever, time is money, budgets are already pared down to the bone, and no one has spare time to invest in nurturing raw talent. I lay some of the responsibility for the drift in our reputation at the door of instant runner/receptionist promotion – the incubation stage for most producers.
I strongly believe that a good runner maketh a great producer. Both are the instinctively agnostic and empathic fixers of society. The ones that know how sometimes a cup of tea and a biscuit can make a lot of stuff okay. The ones that focus on the word ‘house’ in ‘post house’ and understand that our clients are our guests rather than a distraction. The skills transfer seamlessly from runner to producer in that they’ve got the same intentions within their actions; kindness, support, attention to detail, the urge to improve things. But instead of demanding that talent rises to the top like the finest Jersey cream I’m repeatedly seeing the ‘dead man’s shoes’ approach to promotion. ‘Production Assistant’ has become the automatic step-up for the best of the bunch when a desk becomes free, soon to be elevated to the ‘Producer’ moniker when someone higher up the chain moves on and there’s no room in the budget to replace expensive talent. Producers are made, not born, and no number of titles or pay rises will change this. Producers need to be taught by producers.
A nurturing tendency should be at the very core of a producer’s soul – and makes them the ideal people to be in charge of a junior’s development. Maybe it’s as easy as semantics? Maybe ‘Production Assistant’ could become ‘Production Apprentice’? Whatever it is that would allow people to learn post production producing as a true skill before they have to do it as a way to pay the mortgage. I’d love to see a standardisation of the journey to producing, something like living the (amazing) APA masterclass for a year to see if you’ve really got what it takes. A sort of Hogwarts for Post, ending in a terrible hazing initiation in Cannes. An impossible dream?
But back to now, where the gears keep shifting before we’ve had time to name them, where nobody follows the rules and there’s enough to do just to keep up with everyone’s Twitter feed let alone getting any work done. In these times of risk-aversion, where we’ve got to make the money go further but the merging horizons never stop multiplying – stretching out and out across the multitude of platforms, screens, immersive experiences and brand campaigns. The old rules gave us an agency or production producer to prowl the halls and keep everything in check. But these too are becoming a worryingly endangered species now that brands are entering the marketplace themselves in a bid to reduce the cascade of costs. We’re losing our teachers, our leaders and advisors. Design houses are producing commercials. Accountancy firms are briefing animators. It’s collaborative chaos out there. Post Production Producers are needed more than we realise. We need to step up and plug the gap, to be the one, sure mooring of stern QC insistence and encode checking, linking all of the differing talents together, even being surrogate brand guardians. We need to bring our holistic expertise to the whole production process to ensure everything is being finished to the standards we must still expect for the output of our industry whilst also saving time, money and tempers.
What I’m trying to say is, please be better than average. If you’re doing this job well then you’re doing an amazing job. If you’re not, please change your ways and embrace the fun and fulfilment that intense, creative producing in this crazy, exciting climate can deliver. It’s a new dawn out here in post-production and if you're gonna be a producer, you've got to like fruits. Do us proud.
Louisa Thomson is Executive Producer at Able
Frances Royle, Founder of Royle Productions, recently responded to this piece. Read it here.
Genre: Visual VFX