The Watts Media producer on shooting in China, creative problem solving and how to figure out if producing is right for you
Kaija Jones is a senior creative producer with 20 years of experience working across many facets of the business. She has been fortunate to straddle the producer/creative line, affording her the opportunity to develop and nurture both disciplines. Her background as a fine art photographer shapes her desire to infuse artistry into the content she produces. Prior to joining Watts, Kaija spent six years working for non-profit environmental organizations in the areas of marketing and communications.
LBB> What first attracted you to production - and has it been an industry you’ve always worked on or did you come to it from another area?
Kaija> I sort of ended up in production out of necessity. After college, I worked for non-profit environmental organisations in marketing and communications. Eventually, I began photographing the places I was trying to protect and felt this pull to do something more creative. I’d been taking photos for years, but since I had never had any formal training, I decided to enroll in photography school. I never considered production until a couple years later, when I ended up back in Seattle suddenly and really needed a job. The rest is history.
LBB> What was your first role in the production world and how did this experience influence how you think about production and how you grew your career?
Kaija> I started out doing whatever was needed – bookkeeping, shooting stills and being an assistant producer. I didn’t know a thing about production. Learning the business from the ground up has proven to be invaluable. I’m one of those detail-oriented creative people and being able to straddle that line and develop both disciplines has been rewarding.
LBB> How did you learn to be a producer?
Kaija> By being thrown into it, really. And by trial and error. No one sat me down and said “Here’s how you do this job. Here’s how you handle this situation.” I made mistakes and agonised over things that are now second nature.
LBB> Looking back to the beginning of your career, can you tell us about a production you were involved in where you really had to dig deep and that really helped you to grow as a producer?
Kaija> Fairly early on, we won a job conceptualizing and creating content for roughly 10 multimedia exhibits at the future home of the museum. I was asked to produce this and soon realised I was in way over my head. This was the quintessential ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ scenario. Not only did I have to educate myself in the subject matter (i.e. read several books, etc.), but I also had to manage a huge job with a huge team and a modest budget. I learned a ton about, well, everything! Plus, I was given the opportunity to photograph all the content for one of the exhibits. I got to spend weeks on location scouting and shooting landscapes. It was an invaluable learning experience, especially right out of the gate. The downside is that the client pulled the plug on building the new museum, despite all the work that had been done. That was a little tough to swallow, I must say, but 'them’s the breaks' sometimes.
LBB> A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital experience. Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
Kaija> A good producer should be able to produce for any medium. They may have to bone up on a particular area, but the basic principles are the same. Plus, a good producer will recognize when they need support or specialised help and they’ll line up those resources accordingly.
LBB> What’s your favourite thing about production and why?
Kaija> The problem solving and the process of getting from an idea to a finished piece. So much of what we do involves thinking on our feet and recommending the best course of action. It’s extremely rewarding to face a challenge head on and deliver work that beats expectations.
LBB> How has production changed since you started your career?
Kaija> When I started, we were still shooting film and going to telecine, or shooting on DVCAM. Yes, I’ve been doing this that long! We had an entire room filled with various tape decks where I would often sit and watch tape after tape writing down timecode ins and outs. Seems like a world away, really. Gone are the fancy editing suites where clients spent the entire day working with the creative team while an intern took coffee and lunch orders. Today, all the tools for production are cheaper and more accessible and everyone owns a good quality camera and fancies themselves a filmmaker. So, if anyone can make a video, it’s even more critical for us to think differently and do the unexpected.
LBB> And what has stayed the same?
Kaija> The ingredients and fundamental processes for creating compelling content are still the same. The best ideas and execution still rise to the top. Clients still want to feel supported and understood. Brands still want to stand out in what has become the most crowded of spaces.
LBB> What do you think is the key to being an effective producer - and is it something that’s innate or something that can be learned?
Kaija> Good communication, problem solving, flexibility, delegation and being proactive are super valuable skills. Anticipating problems and being prepared to deal with them is a big one, too, especially on set or location. Always have a plan B! Having a solid foundation in film/video, animation and the creative process is key. It’s that soup-to-nuts understanding of how it all comes together that gives a producer that 30,000-foot view. Lastly, knowing how to set expectations is critical. In the end, our clients are the most important thing. We can make the best work, but if the clients aren’t happy, we haven’t succeeded. Producing benefits from a certain kind of brain. That said, I think a lot of it can be learned.
LBB> Which production project from across your career are you most proud of and why?
Kaija> I worked on a huge centennial event for two years as both a producer and a shooter. Talk about an immersive experience. To see that come together and be as well received as it was, was immensely satisfying. The icing on top was all the travel. Six continents! Heaven.
And…there’s another project that stands out because it was very Wes Anderson-like in its execution. I’m a big fan, so the whole process of concepting and making a video in that genre was a blast. Always makes me smile to watch that one.
LBB> And in terms of recent work, which projects have you found to be particularly exciting or have presented particularly interesting production challenges?
Kaija> As soon as the stay-at-home order was lifted last summer, we dove into shooting a customer story on an aerospace tools manufacturer. The challenge was capturing the essence and authenticity of this customer when its workforce was operating remotely or on staggered schedules. Rather than trying to manufacture the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced shop floor while there was mandated lack of activity on site, we opted to shoot more intimate and choreographed scenes and create the fast pace in the edit. Turned out to be a showpiece for us and the client despite all the challenges.
Most recently, I got the opportunity to produce the Anthem video for [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella’s keynote at Microsoft Build 2021. The Anthem served as a giant thank you to the developer community, which helped society overcome enormous challenges this past year and will have a significant role in shaping the future. I’m proud of how we conveyed that message and I’m thrilled to have been a part of it.
LBB> Producers always have the best stories. What’s the hairiest / most insane situation you’ve found yourself in and how did you work your way out of it?
Kaija> On a two-week shoot in China and Australia, the camera support equipment we shipped got stuck in customs and the camera batteries we packed were confiscated at an airport in China. Fortunately, we were able to rent almost everything we needed, but the catch was that the equipment had to be supervised by someone from the rental house. For a week, we had to drive, fly and put up this guy, who it turns out, was monitoring us, not the gear. He never spoke with us and never ate with us but was always where he needed to be at just the right time. Thankfully, we were cleared to leave the country and fly to Australia where the process was free of the Big Brother vibe. By the way, the gear was released from customs and shipped back to us three months later!
LBB> What are your personal ambitions or aspirations as a producer?
Kaija> To work on projects that make a difference in the world; that encourage people to think differently about an issue, a place, a species, a way of life. To tell real-life stories. On the flipside…working on a large commercial campaign would be super cool.
LBB> As a producer your brain must have a never-ending ‘to do’ list. How do you switch off? What do you do to relax?
Kaija> So. Many. Lists. I get great satisfaction from crossing something off, though inevitably, I’ll add another item or two! It’s hard to switch off my brain, especially the night before a big production or during a big push. For me, getting outside is the best medicine. A long walk can do wonders to clear my head and so can a good workout. And then, of course, there’s wine.
LBB> Producers are problem solvers. What personally fuels your curiosity and drive?
Kaija> I’ve always been curious and always asked a lot of questions. Being the only child of two very busy working parents, I had to learn how to entertain myself and figure stuff out. Diligence and work ethic are things my parents instilled in me. It didn’t take me long to learn that I’d better do whatever it was well or continue redoing it. All of that drives my desire to produce and create to the highest standards.
LBB> What advice would you give to people who are interested in becoming a producer?
Kaija> Get acquainted with all aspects of the business. Work as a PA, shadow a producer, go on shoots, sit in on meetings and creative brainstorms. Be present for all of it and ask lots of questions. Get that baseline knowledge. Wear lots of hats and then decide if producing is right for you.
LBB> From your experience what are the ingredients for a successful production?
Kaija> Building in adequate time for pre-production is key. It’s the time for creating a roadmap and a vision to be executed in production and post. Because timelines are often squeezed, pre-pro can get compressed and feel somewhat like a luxury. But a solid, experienced team will find a way to make it work and ideally exceed expectations.
LBB> What’s the key to a successful production-client relationship?
Kaija> Good communication and trust. For me, the most rewarding relationships are the ones where the client trusts me and the team enough to let us push the creative; to pitch new and unexpected ways of solving a business challenge. That trust has to be earned -- the client has to know that their best interests are top of mind.
LBB> One specifically for EPs: Producers are naturally hands-on - they have to be. How do you balance that in the more managerial role of an EP?
Kaija> Though not an EP in title, I do manage and mentor the producers on our team and really enjoy sharing what I’ve learned over the years. I’m a bit of a control freak, so the process of letting go can be tough, but once I do, it’s very satisfying to see them grow and succeed and know that they’ve got this.