The experienced freelance producer speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper, in association with Pulse Films, about working on campaigns like Nike ‘Dream Crazy’ and Kobe Bryant’s final Nike ad and how advertising agency dynamics have impacted the role of the producer
Pulse Films predicts that 2021 will be the year that defines the future of production, a thought that's the driving force behind this exclusive new interview series on Little Black Book. Covering four key themes, the series will investigate how the pandemic has affected production and the shape of things to come.
Up in the series today is James Graves, an independent film and TV commercial producer with an absolute wealth of experience. He has produced campaigns for Apple, Nike, adidas, Under Armour, CitiBank, AT&T, ESPN, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes Benz, Target and Gatorade, and with actors and athletes such as Brad Pitt, Robin Williams, Zoe Saldana, Antonio Banderas, Christoph Waltz, Kobe Bryant, Snoop Dogg, James Corden, Steph Curry, Misty Copeland, Tom Brady, Dr. Dre, Jay Z and Quincy Jones.
He has produced commercials for a variety of talented directors such as James Marsh, Mark Romanek, Wally Pfister, Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, Tim Godsall, Henry Hobson, Calmatic, Paul Hunter Jonas Åkerlund, Twin and Matt Bieler.
Outside of commercials, James has produced several short and feature films including ‘The Brass Teapot’ starring Juno Temple and Michael Angarano, a docu-series for Netflix titled ‘The Confession Tapes’, where he worked as an executive producer and a Fox Digital and Hulu show titled ‘Visible’. Recently he worked with Oscar-nominated director Sophia Nahli Allison on the documentary project titled ‘Hallowed Ground’.
LBB’s Addison Capper was thrilled to be able to pick his brains on the ways agency setups have influenced production in recent years, how Covid has impacted both production and creative ideas, and how he aims for calmness on set.
LBB> What lasting impact has the pandemic had on how you approach production?
James> As a freelance producer I have to take into account what the dynamics of the job are, how we're going to produce it and keep the crew safe. It’s been really good that all of the production companies have implemented really strict Covid protocols, so when we do get a situation where you need 100 extras, the testing is pretty rigorous. You feel a sense of safety with it. But I will say that from the creative standpoint, agencies are developing concepts that don't require a level of compromise for Covid protocols as well. When jobs come in it’s about ensuring that we've got the right crew who understand how to work in these circumstances so they're not compromising anyone else. The right Covid team understands that - and some are better than others - but for the most part, it’s making sure that we've got the right staff to manage the job that's put forth.
LBB> As a freelancer, is it your role to bring a lot of your own staff in? That must be one of the most important things for you - to have those relationships in the first place and to be able to work with the people that you know.
James> Yeah, over the years, I have developed strong relationships, friendships even, with the production teams I work with. I feel they are vital to the job not just for managing the day to day details, but creating positivity and calmness for the production. There’s always going to be some level of problem solving or issues that come up - some projects have way more than others - but for me it’s great to have my team, who can calmly and effectively handle those situations. If we as the production team give off that vibe, hopefully it transcends to the rest of the crew.
LBB> How has the pandemic affected the demand for different production skills, from yourself as a producer, but also from what you've seen from directing talent from production companies as well?
James> It's interesting, there's a few facets to that. Sometimes you have a director who can't travel. So the director’s directing remotely and it puts the crew in a position where the first AD is having to communicate more to an actor than they normally would, as well as having an earbud in, listening to the director who's watching on Zoom. And then I’m telling the AD that the agency wants another take or whatnot. We've had to learn how to adapt to those situations and I think communication skills have just risen to the top of what is a huge priority. I have to be aware in those situations that the production formula has changed and have to adjust to make it work. For the projects where I don't have an agency on set and everyone’s at home on a Zoom call - with me having to relay to them what's going on - I feel like I'm talking constantly. They can't see the cameras being moved from one side of the stage to the other, so there's a sense of - maybe not anxiety - but just that they're not sure what's going on. You're trying to mitigate that sense of nervousness on what ultimately is a high-pressure day. Just communicating constantly about what we're doing throughout the day is definitely a new dynamic.
LBB> Are there any bits that you just find a bit irritating and annoying?
James> Not having the creative team there and them not physically being able to see what's happening is definitely a deficit to the production. Even though we are walking the agency or client through what's going on, just having people in the room and having that face to face contact is something that I definitely miss in production. It’s such a bad analogy, but I think if you look at a location picture that someone has emailed you compared to walking into that space physically is completely different. You can’t replicate being on set and physically seeing and feeling the space, the crew, the set and all that.
With agencies, maybe more with clients, everyone's really particular about the colour and making sure things don't look too dark or too ominous but every DP wants to make things dark and moody! It’s kinda funny, but it happens so much. But you’re comparing this person's iPad which is not calibrated to this person's iMac, which is not calibrated to the Alexa mini LF that is shooting... It's always another challenge with that. I can't just walk someone into the DIT tent, look at the footage and say, ‘Here's the raw footage. You have this much latitude in post and adjust this however you want.’ Not having that face to face contact definitely puts a bit of a hamper on some efficiencies.
LBB> Do you think the quality of craft is important to cut through for a brand in 2021?
James> Absolutely, I see that. From the freelance production side, I've got more of a task-oriented approach to just making sure they get the best production so not necessarily thinking about the diversity of the craft. But I do think that because of the limitations that we have on set and of what you can do, I think you will get production companies who will probably advise not to do some type of work because it's difficult from a Covid standpoint. That puts a bit of an onus on agencies and brands to come up with ways to break through.
LBB> What models of production have you found to be the most successful or most intriguing? What works for you?
James> Honestly, I think it comes down to the team that's on the project. I think some agency dynamics can be tricky, with the agency and their relationship with their client. Many agencies are completely in sync with their client, and the process is smooth. And some are not. But with some client direct stuff, like Apple, that team is so ingrained with the brand itself that they're completely in sync with creative and the brand messaging. There's no difference of opinion and, in a sense, everything is a single line of communication. With those Apple projects, it seems like everything is on a straight arrow with how it works. It's a really symbiotic relationship, it's just this complete, cohesive relationship between the brand, the agency, the product and it all works really well together.
And I think in the traditional agency-client model, good agencies understand that also and strive for that type of relationship. I imagine even outside of production that’s better in their day to day jobs also.
LBB> Even before the pandemic, the role of producers has evolved from the days of ‘head of TV’ and things like that. But from your experience, as a freelancer, how does your role differ from 10 years ago?
James> I think the role of the freelance producer has changed because the dynamics of the ad agencies have changed. The creative team obviously comes up with the ideas, but I think a lot of the client relationships now are through the account department so there's a new dynamic to it. Now it's the creative team, the agency producer, and then the account team and now it’s like a three-headed entity that's all involved with it. There's definitely more to take in because you’re not just working with the creative team, but also there's a client and maybe an account team perspective that we have to incorporate. Before, I feel like we'd have one voice of opinion. Now there's multiple because of how the dynamic of the agency has shifted.
LBB> What recent piece of work are you most proud of and why?
James> Well, the first job I did early in pandemic was a full remote shoot with Facebook that was really special. It was early Covid, so we were at home on Zoom with talent all across the US. We had the talent being filmed on phone by someone in their family and then someone else in their family on a different phone or tablet on Zoom to show us the device that was filming. It sounds confusing even saying that. But it was really special at the time. Jenn Nkiru was directing from London and me, the AD, Guy Forgaard, the DP, Arnaud Potier, and production designer, Joey Jenkins, all from our homes in LA. It was all of our first pandemic job and we had no idea where production or the world was headed. And over the three or four shoot days, we created this amazing, crazy, unique, fun, experience that we all bonded over. We became a family and there may have even been some tears when we called wrap. And the spot won some awards, so there’s that also. (Check out the film here.)
LBB> Thinking back, is there one piece of work from your career that you're most proud of / is particularly memorable and why?
James> Wow… I don’t think there’s just one. I’ve been fortunate and have worked with some amazingly talented people, which of course makes them memorable. Working with Chivo [Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki] on a portion of the Nike Colin Kaepernick Dream Crazy jobs stands out. So does Mark Romanek on Kobe's last Nike commercial, the Conductor, or being with Wally Pfister on an epic Under Armour spot and Garth Davis and Greig Fraser on a Lincoln commercial. Maybe these are memorable as I do aspire to do more long form projects and so working with these folks is great as I always learn something from them about filmmaking. It’s great to understand or see their process on storytelling, how they interact with crew and work talent on performance.
LBB> You were an account guy! How did you end up doing what you do now?
James> I quit. I worked at traditional ad agencies in account management in Chicago and then I made a move to San Francisco in the late ‘90s to try to do something different. I got into some dotcom advertising, which was interesting until I realised we were sitting over a computer and analysing the colour of a banner ad. And then I ended up back at a traditional agency in Oakland and worked on a campaign that I somehow, just through the dynamics of it, got more involved with the production of it. I was on set one day and I just asked the director and the producer, ‘how do I do what you guys do?’ Their job seemed more fun than mine. The director and producer both said, ‘Move to LA and we'll hire you.’ I quit and moved to LA, and started over as a pretty old PA, just to work through the ranks on the production side.
LBB> With that in mind, do you think that the skills to be a producer can be learned? Or do you think they're quite innate skills?
James> I feel like it's a combo, I think you can definitely learn it. If the skills required are not innate to your personality, you can definitely learn it, but it might be a bit more difficult because it's going to take you out of your comfort zone a little bit. For me there's a few key factors. You have to be smart and know what you're doing, and communication skills are top. But also there's a personality dynamic - you’ve got the personality of the director, the DP, the production designer - and I feel like as a producer in that sphere, I've just got to make sure we're all moving in the same direction. I've learned that I have to feel out the personalities of each of our key crew members, and just make sure we're all on the same page. It does sometimes mean that I've got a thought or idea, but I know it's not the right time to say it and you just wait it out. You just have to ebb and flow with that through the process to make sure that it is moving in the right direction and still on budget and on time, and in sync with what the agency is looking for.
LBB> How do you prep for a job? I imagine a lot of the people you work with are familiar to you, but sometimes they’re not. How do you approach that as a freelance producer?
James> I've got a pretty good list of a go-to crew that I'd love to use because I know we're completely in sync. I know that as a unit we are adaptable to any situation as well, so it makes working with a new director easy. Or if the director is part of that core, as a unit, it makes working with a new client, new agency or in a foreign city easier.
But on the flip side, it’s really good to get a chance to work with new folks. There are so many talented people in the business and they each bring something different to the table. And talking to them and getting to know them, to try to extract some of their personality - that helps me figure out how they fit with the whole team.
LBB> What would your advice be for the next generation of producers?
James> With the system of how things are set up now, I think this will be the norm to new producers starting off. I’ve got a bit of experience with the older system, where it was more traditional and I only spoke to the agency producer on-set and they would disseminate the information to the rest of the crew. Now that's all changed, we all just chat together. As much as you have to have a personality that's likeable and can come across as a leader to the group, I think the new crop of producers will have to also manage and understand the new technologies in filmmaking. I went from working with film to the RED and now it’s so much digital that changing a film mag is a special talent. Now it's like, ‘what are we going to do with the LED XR screens?’ and stuff like that. So I think, even with post production, now I have to know a bit more and understand more about the post production process to be a good producer - ‘will this blue screen spill onto the set?’ or, ‘how can a matte painting help?’ Yes, you can always say ‘I'll get back to you’, but to have that knowledge and to be able to speak to it with some confidence and some understanding is definitely going to be more useful in the future.
LBB> Can you tell us one thing that you believe we are certain to have in store, for the future of production?
James> While this might sound kind of corny, I think we're certain to have change in the future of production, just because of the evolution of technology and how it's going to impact, not just physical production, but also the creation of ideas and what's possible. I’m seeing it on an animated piece I'm doing now. I don't think four years ago we ever would have thought about doing something like this.
From a safety standpoint, the long term effect of Covid will make people more aware of being safe on set. Whether that's sanitation or even just as simple as how long people are working. With Covid and everyone wearing masks, I've been on jobs where - because you can't put your mask down on set - people just have to take five minutes to go outside and drink water. Just little health and safety things like that - I hope they’ll run through the rest of production in the future.
Lastly, I hope there will be a bit more diversity in production, as well as advertising. Recently I had a job where maybe 20% of the crew were people of colour. And at some point during the job, I think most of them said to me ‘this is great, I’ve not been on a set like this before’. Which says a lot about the industry and production. There are programs in place to help underrepresented people get a start in production which is great as it exposes people to the industry. But it doesn’t, or maybe rarely leads to a union job or rather a career. It’s a complex issue, but I hope we find a fix in the future.