9.23.2017

"Show Black" and other mildly interesting event production details...


I had to go shopping for shirts today. I have way too many shirts but I didn't have just the right shirts for an upcoming job. I'll be shooting for three days at one of the fancy downtown hotels for a high profile, high tech firm and, as usual, in discussing the project with my client I asked about dress code.
My client being a practiced hand at large, corporate stage shows just tossed out, "standard show black."

"Just like the guys from the event production company." She referenced a company that I have worked side by side with, literally all over the world.

Show Black is as follows: black shoes, black socks, black dress pants (not jeans), black belt and a black, long sleeve shirt with a collar. The shirt can be either a button up dress shirt or a long sleeve polo style shirt but it should be dull black, unwrinkled and professionally presentable. And the entire outfit should blend in nicely with the black drape around and in front of the main stage.

The purpose of wearing "show black" is pretty simple; if you need to transit an auditorium filled with an audience you don't want to take away attention from the main speaker, the panel or the on stage presentation or demo. If you are working the show in the capacity of photographer, videographer, director, lighting technician, A/V specialist or stage set technician you need to always remember that the client and their presenters should be in the limelight and you should be functionally invisible.

Many, many years ago when I first started photographing at major shows for Dell, IBM and Motorola I showed up for a stage show event in a nice pair of black jeans, a white, button down shirt, and a pair of Nike trainers. The head of the staging company (who has been a friend now for 30 years) walked over and asked me, "Do you want to keep this client? Do you want to come back and work tomorrow?" I nodded. "Heres' one of our shirts (black button down oxford with his company logo very discreetly embroidered on the pocket), go and change and tomorrow be sure to come in black "business casual slacks" and black leather shoes. Clients are paying to see your work, not you." 

In a moment of rare clarity I took his advice and upgraded my show wear. I've successfully worked at major events for those three clients (and many others ) for the better part of thirty years. And in that time I've watched executives or journalists transit in front of a stage in white or light colored shirts and khaki pants and it seems like every set of eyes in the audience watched them as they made their way across the room; the bright, white shirt like a magnet for peoples' attention.

I have five or six presentable pairs of black dress pants but the closet was getting low on black shirts. I did a show two weeks ago and by the third day I was on my last presentable black shirt. My preference these days is black golf shirts --- I like the Greg Norman ones but there are a few other brands that are very low key and well cut to my build. The material has more give than cotton broadcloth and the latest fabrics are eminently breathable. If I was fat I would stick to  button up oxfords but since I have no discernible belly bulge I'm safe for the moment in tighter fitting shirts.

And my wife would tell you that my supply of black leather shoes will never run out. I love functional dress shoes. I know I am a living anachronism but I also have a shoe shine kit and black shoe polish and I don't show up for shows with scuffed toes. (Love the way that sounded when I said it out loud).

One more thing about wearing show black and having a couple of cameras over your shoulders--- the client's team instantly knows who you are, why you are there and what your are doing; even if they did lose your badge on the way into town....

Call Time. I learned even earlier than my sartorial education that the start time of my client's program is vastly different than my "call time." On the first full day of the show I'm working this week the online agenda says that the main tent session will start at 8:00 am. And yes, that means the show will probably start at 8:00 am. But on the production schedule, which the attendees will not see, are line item call times for various production positions. The stage techs' call time is 6:00 am. It could be earlier if there needed to be a pre-show rehearsal.

My call time is 7:00 am. This means I check in at the main auditorium no later than 7:00 am. One reason for this is to provide comfort to the client. If they see your face when they walk in for last minute changes and check list stuff they know you're there and ready and it's one less person to worry about. They know they won't be getting a call ten minutes before their CEO walks out on stage with a photographer on the other end making a lame excuse about traffic or a flat tire. Your early call is one more check on the check list that means "all systems go." 

But the early call time is more than just padding. Many times a request for special coverage will come down before the show. On a recent show several speakers came into town with no headshots for projection on the big screens to announce their upcoming presentations. All the other speakers had headshots and they were already dropped into templates for the program. Since I was on time we were able to set up, shoot and deliver new headshots that fit the template just in time.

I love showing up early. I can get acclimated, drink some coffee, talk to the show techs about anything special I need to be aware of ( a surprise award presentation? )  and get a feel for the disposition of the client. I routinely offer to show up early for the production company that's designed and implemented the stage design so we can run through some lighting cues and get them some photo documentation for their portfolios. It's a quid pro quo because, if they like you, the production company is quick to recommend you to big, new clients.

Crew Meals. On some shows I am asked to wear a coat and tie since I'll be working in the middle of a group of similarly dressed executives. In those situations it's pretty much assumed that I'll have lunch with the audience. When we are asked to wear show black and fit in behind the scenes the presumption is that we're separate from the invited guests and audiences and we'll eat in a space reserved for the crew.

The food is usually the same in the crew craft service area as what the hotel or convention center is serving to the show guests, it's just that we're in a room off the stage and the food is presented buffet style since everyone's schedule is, by necessity, staggered. This is great because we can blow off a little steam without potentially embarrassing ourselves --- at least not in front of the client....

It's also great because we aren't subject to the delays that the guests might encounter, such as long lines at buffets or long service times for sit down lunches and dinners. We don't waste time waiting.

I usually head straight to lunch as soon as the last speaker of the morning surrenders his/her podium. I want to eat quickly so I can sit down at my laptop and grind out a selection of images to send to the social media person on my client's staff for quick dissemination. I don't usually have time to eat a leisurely lunch on a big corporate showcase because I tend to be scheduled pretty tightly and there seems always to be a voracious appetite for ever newer images and video as the day drags on.

The Bar. Occasionally you'll have a long term client who sees you as part of their team and invites you to have a glass of wine or a mixed drink while you are attending and photographing receptions, etc. That's very much an exception. I make it a general rule to leave the bar and the alcohol to the guests and the marketing people from the client company. They truly might not care in the moment but if something goes wrong and karma catches up with you for writing a column about not needing dual memory card slot redundancy, and you lose some important images, the client may suddenly remember that one glass of wine and head down the road toward blaming your "reckless" drinking for their loss. Not a pretty position to fine one's self in.... Better to wait till the end of the night and have a drink at the lobby bar. Or, better yet, remember that you could make it to the 5:30 am morning master's swim the next day and skip that performance robbing glass of chardonnay altogether .

Memory Card Management. You are working fast and shooting tons of stuff. Eventually your memory cards fill up. You have more fresh cards to stick into the camera but what, exactly, do you do with the cards full of potential prize winners that you've worked so hard to fill up? I have a goofy system for that. I buy little coin/change envelopes at the office supply store. They are fairly small and have lick-and-stick closures. I get the yellowish manilla colored ones. When I fill up a card I lock it then fill out a time and subject description on the card and seal it into its own envelope. If I have duplicate cards I do an envelope for each and write "B/U" (for back up) on one of them. When I get back to the studio and start ingesting files into Lightroom I copy the files from the main card onto two separate hard drives with custom file names and some detailed exif. I keep the "B/U" cards separate and safe until I've done all the post processing and have delivered the final images to the client (also in duplicate -- nowadays on 64 GB memory sticks/flash drives).  Always better safe than sorry. Those little envelopes have saved me a lot of grief..... You can reformat and re-use one set of cards as long as you have one set put aside for the inevitable "rainy day."

Bill Hard and Bill Fast. You should bill for everything you originally discussed and also bill for any additions requested by the client during the run of the show. Did they ask you for print outs? Bill it. Did they ask you to come in earlier than originally agreed upon? Bill that. Were you promised an onsite meal but missed it because the client added a file send request that needed to be done ASAP? Grab a meal from the hotel restaurant when you have a chance and be sure to bill it. Does the client need a second version of the show on a second hard drive to send to their boss in San Francisco? Bill it. It's easy to get nickled and dimes at a fast moving show but you've got a smartphone and you should know how to use a notebook app to keep track. They would bill you if the shoe (black) was on the other foot.

Also, bill quick. Don't dally around after the show is over. Don't go on vacation and decide you'll bill when you get back. The excitement surrounding the show is like perishable food. It's best eaten fresh and begins to smell after it's been around for a while. Hand your client a bill with the deliverables while the show is happily fresh in their minds and remind them that you are happy to accept their corporate credit card for payment. Money in hand is well worth the meager percentage you might lose to execute the transaction. Wait too long and the show won't look as exciting in the client's rear view mirror. Then they may decide to go on vacation before they get around to picking around the edges of your invoice before sending it along to accounting; where it will go to the back of a long line of invoices from other vendors from the same show who were more motivated to get paid quickly than you were.....

First in line is always better. More to follow.




12 comments:

  1. Good advice, particularly billing. Works for me in my freelance IT gigs.

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  2. Valuable. Thank you.

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  3. I liked the ideas on memory card management. Getting back from travels with a set of cards and not knowing which order they were used in or what is on any specific one is a major pain. Much better to ingest in the order of shooting, and know how the contents are going to be renamed and filed.
    Peter Wright

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    1. I have never shot professionally but have always kept track of image sequence. With film every roll was numbered and that number transferred to the processing envelope at the lab. The processed roll came back in the same envelope. The date and time stamps on digital files take care of that for me.

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  4. Show blacks.
    I was introduced to the concept when a friend booked me years ago for a large corporate event. It was a great learning experience for me to learn the protocols that would keep me safe from the anxious attentions of the director.

    Just hearing those words gives me flashes of the halls, crew lunches, green rooms and media centers and reminds me that the season is starting up again after summer.

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  5. Hi Mark, I did a three day event for AmeriCatalyst on the 6,7,8th. I'm shooting for a tech client this week on the 27, 28,29th and both are instant reminders of having done this all the way through the 90's and the the first 17 years of the 2000's. But, every rehearsal at Zach Theatre is an opportunity to revisit best practices. I imagine it would be distracting to actors if the only person visible in the front half of the house (no audience) was some mindless jerk in a bright white shirt coupled with some bright yellow shorts....

    I mostly remember the early, early mornings in godawful places like the Marriott Convention Hotel in Orlando...

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  6. Of course it could be worse for the actors if the photographer was roaming around in front of the stage with an on-camera flash....

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  7. Shades of Henry White there in your image Kirk :)

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  8. I had always wondered about why so many event photographers seem to dress in all black. i thought it was some sort of "I am a cool artist" statement.

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  9. Another chapter for your book to end all books on professional photography practice and business, Kirk. By the time we get it to market, there may be three aspiring professionals left to buy it.

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  10. Perfect timing with this blog. I attended the Texas Tribune Festival 2017 this past weekend at the University of Texas at Austin. Plenty of photographers covering all of the panels and one-on-one discussions. Almost all of them in jeans, sneakers, and a variety of shirts. Most carried two Canon bodies with mid-range "L" series lenses and large "L" series telephoto lenses. The movement of the photographers was distracting. The large white lenses were a distraction. The most annoying thing of all was the noise level of the cameras as the photographers worked. I am hearing impaired (practically no hearing in my left ear) and still found the sound of the cameras disturbing. Do you ever use a sound blimp or damper of some sort while working a conference? I have a new appreciation for quiet cameras and show black!
    Aubrey

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  11. "I mostly remember the early, early mornings in godawful places like the Marriott Convention Hotel in Orlando... "

    The higher profile the event, the more tense (or alert) I become.

    Early mornings at resorts are spoiled for me with combination of a fitful sleep, 4am gear check, and sleep-stuffed skull being set afire with caffeine and anxiety.

    Two days later I can break out in hives.

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