Professional experience – Chat show production for Karen Footman

After the initial recce and test filming, it was time to get ourselves organised and prepare for the actual filming. The idea was that we produce three 20-minute ‘chat show’ style programmes in one day, with Karen Footman leading and presenting the shows and three of her current clients joining her in each programme. Here is a trailer I edited together, as a sneak preview before one of the episodes:


Logistics

The location we had chosen was booked for 1st November, 9:30 am – 3 pm. Karen and me arrived at 9:15 with the equipment, and I started setting up while she was preparing her notes. We had asked Karen’s clients to come at 9:30 – 9:45, and the plan was to start filming before or around 10:30. Each show was expected to be 20-25 minutes, plus some organisational stuff before and after, time for breaks etc., so we had planned to have at least an hour for each. We also wanted to film them all ‘as live’, in one take, so if we wanted to start again there was time planned for more than one take of each episode. Thankfully, we only needed to re-start the last programme – because I had to change the tape. By 11:30 we were already filming our second programme, and we had wrapped up and were travelling back by 2 pm – which was absolutely perfect, and even a surprise in productivity. This also meant I could return the MLS equipment on time.

Equipment and the technical side

On the day of filming, I was mostly concerned with the technical side of the show; we knew we would have to be ready with the creative preparation and decision making before the day, so I can focus on the smooth running of equipment and the technical plan.

I was using a Sony Z1 camera on a Manfrotto tripod, two AKG C1000 cardioid microphones with a single tabletop stand (the second microphone was laying on the table, serving as a backup / improving the stereo effect), and used the available stage lights in The VeNEW, this time set up all in white.

The only major problem I encountered was the external recording unit for the camera. I had planned shooting in digital so I can be more flexible with transferring files vs. digitising tapes, but I only knew how the external recorders work with the Z5 camera. Thinking it was the same, I didn’t check for the Z1, and of course it turned out I couldn’t figure it out on the day. Thankfully, I had planned with this ‘failure’ in mind, so we also had tapes. Thus, we were able to start recording on schedule.

Lots of the setup was a compromise between quality, mobility and resources. Usually, with 4-people chat shows, you’d use at least two cameras, but with so many other things to worry about, we wanted to keep it simple. Also, the microphones were a bit far from the speakers, resulting in some reverb, but the alternative was using 4 tie clip microphones, and using one or two separate audio recorders and mixers, which would have made things more complicated. This is not a production you’d typically be filming all by yourself, but since it was more of a ‘let’s do it as simple as possible’ and not ‘let’s make it perfect’, we decided to not call for more people and see what we can do with minimum resources.

Content

I’m writing about it last, but I still think our content preparation was the main reason we were able to produce these shows with such quality in such a short time. We had put a few days’ worth of work in refining the main topics for the three shows, and then the main points we wanted to make in each of them. At some point this looked absolutely daunting to prepare, but then something flipped, and it all started to fall into place.

The one thing that made all the difference, was structure. I never realised how incredibly important structure was before this project – and now that I’ve seen the results, I can’t imagine how we could have possibly done it without being concerned with the structure.

Each show was about 20-25 minutes. This included:

  • 1-2 minute introduction to the series and this particular episode
  • 1-2 minute introduction of each of the guests / panelists and their relevance to the main topic
  • Introduction to the topic, and invitation for each of the panelists to tell about an occasion in their life that was relevant; gently leading the conversation, asking questions, clarifying, etc.
  • Karen’s take on the topic – building upon the panelists’ words, adding her own experience
  • Tips and suggestions from Karen + invitation for the viewers to share their experience in a dedicated forum
  • Gentle reminder about the support / mentoring services she is offering, and what to do next
  • Introduction of the main topic for the next episode, parting words and closing.

This structure worked extremely well for what we were trying to achieve; what is more, it made it crystal clear what fit where, how much ‘content’ would need to go to each section, etc. It also helped with the panelists’ preparation. They had been sent the basic structure and the main points, with the request to have a story / main point they could talk about in each of the episodes. This meant they only needed a short re-fresh just before we rolled the camera, and they were ready to speak confidently.

Some of them were quite camera shy, Karen was a bit nervous as well, but I think this was normal; there was a lot of positive vibe and encouragement on the day, plus there was always one of them sitting next to the camera with me, so it was even easier for them to make the camera / viewer a natural part of the conversation, and not feel intimidated by the fact they were being filmed. We were not being perfectionist – there were a few hiccups, but they felt so natural that we just kept rolling and I think it made the whole series feel even more authentic. This fits with the main topic, of course, which is personal development and authenticity, tuning in and trusting your intuition etc. – so the shows, I think, reflect this in 100 per cent. We didn’t want a cold, polished production – we wanted a natural flowing conversation that people could feel part of, and I think we did it.

What I learned from this experience

  • I learned that technical preparation is key to allow a naturally flowing production; if you find yourself dealing with technical problems every 5 minutes, you can’t have a good production.
  • I learned the importance of a backup plan – I had a digital recording unit AND tapes, I had an internal AND external microphone for the camera, there were TWO microphones, TWO microphone stands (one was faulty), FOUR XLR cables (ensuring a backup for each microphone). We even had Karen’s stills camera and small tripod in the car, ready with clean memory cards and charged battery. I knew there was always a chance for a fault in the Z1 camera, and we wanted to have a half-decent backup instead of nothing. If something big would have gone wrong, we would have ended up with nothing. All the panelists had to travel back to their hometowns in the end of the day (no one is local), so we had to make sure we produce something good on the only day they were together.
  • Speaking of backup, we even had ‘backup’ in the panelists department; four of Karen’s clients turned up with only three of them needed in each episode – so they were able to rotate around, have a break, only take part and talk about the topics they felt comfortable with, plus there was always one ‘extra’ panelist in case one of the main ones needed to leave earlier.
  • I also learned that clear communication on set is extremely important. I always counted down from 5 to 1 before starting to record; we had a few small signs I could make so I don’t stop recording but be able to communicate with them. Everyone knew what was expected from the production, and whom to speak to if they had a question or idea.
  • Another small but important detail was that Karen had brought speakers and music – so in the breaks before each new take, there was a more ‘relaxed’ atmosphere, we knew how long the breaks would be, so everyone could go and refresh themselves, etc. What is more, turning the music down and then off was a clear sign and meant it was time for recording – this also helped minimise the confusion.
  • Another thing I learned is that in order to produce something good, everyone involved needs to ‘own’ their role, to be clear what they need to do, what they were allowed to do, where the limits are and where they can improvise / suggest ideas. It is also important to know who is in charge of what – so even though it is a collaborative process, there is ONE point of contact for each problem that may arise.
  • I also learned that directing is not just about the day of shooting. Me and Karen were co-directing the shoot, and to be honest, most of the directing had already been done in the pre-production stage. This meant everyone only needed a short introduction to the set and plan, and from then on they knew what to do, how and when to do it. It also made the decision making on the day easier – for me and Karen, it was more about checking if we were on the same page, or choosing one of two or three previously discussed / agreed actions.
  • This is the project I also saw the ‘trust not fear’ approach implemented to a creative project, and I it unfolded beautifully. As long as you know where you are starting and where you are going, you don’t need to worry about the middle part – the path. You don’t need to worry about all the small details while something is coming to life; planning too much would mean too much control and not allowing things to happen naturally. What is more, if there is only one point of control / planning, it usually means if something doesn’t go according to plan, everything might crumble. Too much control gives no flexibility – though too little creates anarchy. Both result in unnecessary tension, which is the last thing you need in a creative project.

This project taught me that beautiful things unfold not because you plan each of the steps to be beautiful, but because you create the conditions and allow them to be beautiful. You need to trust others as much as you trust yourself – and you should fear yourself as much as you fear others. Because even if you are ‘in charge’ somewhere, you can’t make things happen all by yourself – you need everyone to believe, be engaged and invested in the project for it to come true.

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