What goes into a "simple" assignment?

I was going thru some older work; stuff from the early part of the century (doesn't it feel weird to type that phrase?) and I found this image from a job I did for a telecom company thru a large ad agency, here in Texas.  The telecom was doing a series of newspaper ads about a "mentoring" program they inaugurated and supported.  Our brief was to cast four models and shoot them against both a white background and a black background.  We cast these two people for our African American mentoring duo and we cast a caucasian women and girl for our other mentoring duo.  We would shoot them in five or six different configurations in front of each of the backdrops.

So, how do you budget something like this and what all is involved in shooting it?

No matter how simple the shoot, when an agency is putting together a campaign that will run nationally for a client they want everything to become "bulletproof".   And a bullet proof Honda Civic cost tons more than a "run of the mill" Civic.  We would need to cast a large number of people so the agency and client could pick exactly the right mix for each pairing.  We'd need to rent a bigger studio so we could bring in lots of wardrobe choices and so we could accomodate art directors, creative directors, their assistants and, of course, a product manager and program manager from the client as well as their assistants.  Of course we'd also need space for the hair and make up people and space for the food catering.  So, yes....a bigger studio space.  We took a creative meeting and went into great depth about EXACTLY what the clients all wanted and then we went back to the studio and bid.

The total project came in a bit under $30,000.  (I know I hear someone out there grumbling, "I woulda done it for $400.  Or a byline....."  Right.)  Here's how it all breaks out.

Our casting director (freelance and paid by the day) gets in touch with model and talent agencies in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.  Everyone sends out books of models.  We narrow down selections until we have several dozen who all look as though they might be right for the part.  We rent the studio for three days for casting.  We schedule all of our "possible" choices to come in over the course of three days to be photographed and interviewed.  We also have a general casting call during those three days to pull from non-affiliated actors and other potential walk-ins.   After meeting and photographing dozens and dozens of people for each position we have prints made of each person, with their information on the back,  we put these into a book and send them to the art directors and producers at the agency.  After a week of winnowing down the selections and getting them approved by the clients we get their four main choices and four back up choices (in case we can't make the scheduling work for everyone.)  

Once scheduled we book the studio for another three days.

At this point we begin negotiating with the talent agencies.  Professional talent is paid for showing up and then paid residuals for each 12 week run of ads.  We were negotiating for more uses and trying to keep the budgets reasonable.  When we successfully negotiated with the talent agents we set up a schedule and started putting together a team.  After my assistants the most important two people were the make up person and the wardrobe person.  We had a budget and a wish list for wardrobe, as well as sizing for all of our talent.  The wardrobe person gets moving.  We book our favorite make up person and she books an assistant.

At this point we get a rough head count and call our favorite caterer.  The magic number is 24.  That's not a typo.  We'll have 24 heads for a one day shoot with two pairs of models against both white and black backgrounds.  We'll need pastries, some protein and lots of coffee first thing in the morning on the day of the shoot, snacks during the morning, a sit down lunch for everyone and snacks in the afternoon.

We lock up the caterer and pay a deposit.  Next up is to get parking at the downtown studio lined up.  We negotiate with a building near the studio for six of their spaces and pay a rental fee.  That will take care of the agency and client cars.  The crew will use spaces next to the building if they have lots to load in (caterer, wardrobe).  My first assistant and I will go into the studio space the day before to set up the first background and design and test the lighting.  We'll be using two Pentax 6x7 cameras with 200mm lenses and we'll bring two back up bodies and a back up lens.  We're using big soft lights.  My trademark?

In the week leading up to the shoot we check in with the wardrobe person and the caterer as well as the studio management, just to make sure.  We give daily progress reports via e-mail, to our client.

On the shooting day the first assistant shows up at 6am to open up the space, turn on the lights and meet the caterer who needs to be set up and ready for the onslaught of crew that will arrive at 8am.  The talent arrives at 9am along with the clients and agency folk.  While the first pair of talent sit in make up the wardrobe person and the client and agency figure out what they want each talent to wear on set.  These items are steamed, ironed, de-tagged and made ready.  We're doing the guys first but we choose the wardrobe for the female talent and have them change before getting into wardrobe.

For every set up we shoot tons of Polaroids and spend a fair amount of time making adjustments to the background/foreground lighting ratios and direction of light.  We also get to a consensus on what kinds of expressions we want (but we end up shooting a big range......).  Then we shoot in earnest and burn twenty or so rolls of 120 (ten frames on a roll) or 220 (20 frames on a roll), pausing every once in a while to shoot more test Polaroids, just in case.

As we go along one of the assistants will pin Polaroids to a wall in linear order by "time shot" so we can be cognizant of continuity and progression.  When we hit the half way mark (as near as we can tell....) we break for a delicious lunch.  Half an hour later everyone is back to work and the caterers are pouring coffees and cleaning up from lunch.  We've got bowls of fruit and nuts and chocolate on the food table for anyone who needs a quick burst of energy.

The shoot goes on the rest of the afternoon.  My second assist marks every roll of film and logs it into a book.  We'll process the film in batches so that in the worst case scenario of a lab catastrophe we'll have enough variations to cover the client's needs.  In the end we shoot about 150 rolls of film, a mix of 120 and 220, all color transparency.  All carefully metered and double checked with Polaroid tests.  The first batch of film goes to the lab.

We booked the studio for three days.  One day was for loading in and pre-production, one day for shooting and a final day for rounding up wardrobe, packing out gear and cleaning everything out.  I don't need to be there for most of that and that's great because it gives me time to hunch over a light table with my first few test rolls and a good loupe so I can make sure we've really nailed the exposure before we begin running all the film.  One batch at a time.  

Once we get back film we snip out the blinks and dark frames caused by shooting too fast for the flash recycle.  We put it all in a notebook and deliver it.  I use the 50% advance we asked for (and got) to pay all of the crew and suppliers.  And another job goes out the door.  Did they want it produced in a cheaper way?  No.  They wanted what they wanted.  A job that almost could not fail.  If one camera dies we had three more.  If the lens died we had a bag full.  If  a light died we had several replacements standing by.   Don't like the green shirt?  We have red and yellow and blue.  Need a vegetarian entree'?  We've got that too.  It's dangerous in this business to presume that everyone wants the lowest price you can possibly offer.  Many, many times they want to assurance that everything will be just as they want it to be.  And many times photographers get hired not because they are masters of imaging (that's assumed) but because they are also masters of production.  Just a few shots against white and black?  No, not really.  It's really the intellectual property and creative content that ended up powering ads used in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ad placements.  Maybe millions. 

And if you are going to spend real money on buying space doesn't it make sense to have the right photograph to provide the visual message?  If you start bidding big jobs my advice to you is to have a checklist and never assume the client isn't interested in doing something right.  If they don't have the budget they'll tell you.  But if they do.........