Kate Ryan is a producer in The Mill’s London studio.
Having joined The Mill in Chicago as a runner in 2015, Kate quickly rose up the ranks and has gone on to produce projects such as Wholly Guacamole 'The Gang', Epic Games 'Unreal For All Creators' and Adidas’ 'Manchester United Kit Launch’ which took home a bronze award at the Clio’s Sports Awards.
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?
I managed a bakery below my apartment before I started working in production. It was a Polish bakery in Chicago’s Old Town. I used to wake up at 4:30am and walk down my back fire escape to unlock the shop and start loading in the fresh pastries and produce for the day. In between shifts, I was interviewing all over Chicago, in pursuit of a career I could sink my teeth into. And if I was lucky enough, something creative.
I had a brief stint as a ‘freelance graphic designer’ before that. Which was just a nice way of saying that I was, for the most part, ‘unemployed’. I studied Graphic Design and Business in college. I loved the idea of making art accessible. Creating something unique that would find its way into the world on something as simple as a coaster. Art that people interacted with every day, and didn’t even know it.
My cousin worked as a producer for a film editing company that shared an office space with The Mill’s Chicago location. That’s how I first heard of The Mill. She mentioned they were looking for runners, and that I should enquire. I remember speaking to her dad before my interview. He told me, “Go in there and tell them you’ll do whatever it takes to get the job; and try to wear something cool” (speaks volumes to my fashion sense at the time haha). So that’s what I did. I got an interview, and sat down with the head of operations and the Managing Director at the time, and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I will do anything you guys need me to do here” (pretty embarrassing in hindsight, and a story I will never live down). And about two weeks later, I got a call that I got the job. So I left my role serving coffee at the bakery, to serve coffee at The Mill. All great stories have to start somewhere
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?
I started at The Mill as a runner in 2015. I was very green, and in awe of everything. I picked up coffees for colourists, peeked in on client sessions, ran drives around town, and scrubbed scuff marks off the floor with a tennis ball on a stick. I was just happy to be there. I had never been surrounded by so much creativity, and I didn’t understand half of what was going on around me. I just knew I loved it. It was the most fun I had ever had at work.
Although I have moved through a few roles since then, I still carry that same spirit with me. ‘Once a runner, always a runner’. No task too big or too small. No one of us is bigger than the other. It’s about the success of the team. And sometimes that means rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty.
I got to learn about the industry, as I built my career, from the ground up. And that experience was invaluable.
How did you learn to be a producer?
People took the time to teach me. I had zero production experience before starting at The Mill, and I was fortunate enough to work alongside some incredible producers, operations managers, and artists who taught me everything I know about VFX. This involved a lot of listening at the beginning, and scribbling down unfamiliar terms on post-it notes, so I could look them up later. It also involved a lot of mistakes, and growing through errors I made on the job. I put my hand up for every opportunity I could, and slowly started building my career. I’m still learning how to be a producer – well, a better one at least! Our industry is constantly evolving, so to say I’m done ‘learning’ would be a disservice to myself and the teams I work with every day. I like doing good work, for great clients, and there’s always room for improvement there.
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?
Back in 2017, I was the production coordinator on a job for Nike Lacrosse out of Chicago. We had teamed up directly with the brand to create an identity for that year’s cleat launch. This job was the first ‘soup to nuts’ project I was heavily involved in, and it was wild. Hours of research, creative development, and planning resulted in a near 20-hour shoot day, an 80-second film for TV and digital platforms, and a slew of print assets. The budget was tight, and we were calling in favors left and right. It was a truly ‘Chicago’ experience, everyone came to help. We called neighbors and family to stand in as extras on set. I ran talent, wardrobe, props, and VFX; not to mention moonlighting as a designer to help develop some of the print assets. Everyone involved played an equal role in pulling off this feat, which made it even more special in the end. It was the definition of hard work, and collaboration, paying off. I felt a spark while working on this project, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since. And, almost five years later, I think the spot still holds up, which is pretty cool.
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?
I don't know if a good producer should be able to produce for any medium, but I do think that we could.
That’s just the nature of production, and producers. We like to dig in, get our hands dirty, ask questions, and find solutions. And if we can’t solve it, we know who to ask.
At The Mill, we pride ourselves in being industry leaders, at the forefront of creative development and technology. So, sooner or later, you find yourself on a job working with a new software/platform/medium/etc that you might not have years of experience in. And in those instances, you adapt, you learn, and with a bit of elbow grease, you get the job done.
I would also be remiss not to mention how much of my job depends on the guidance and expertise of the artists, and producers, around me. No (wo)man is an island. The success of any job is directly linked to the strength and determination of the team. So I guess my answer would be – with the right team, you can do anything.
What’s your favourite thing about production and why?
I love the proximity to creativity. I am not a technical artist by trade. So, to be able to contribute to the success of a creative campaign, in my own way, is incredibly rewarding. I like to think of myself as 50% right brain, and 50% left brain. I love being involved in the creative development process, AND finding a way to bring that brief to fruition. What good’s an idea if it’s stuck in your head?
How has production changed since you started your career?
I think production has changed significantly since I started in 2015. And that’s not too long ago! The shift from delivering a few large TV campaigns a year, to a flurry of social/digital content every month has been a big change that I have seen in just the last few years.
More ads are going out now to fit the crop of your phone, or to live in the world of VR, throwing away old formatting conventions. I think this is following the social trends we are seeing at the moment. How the growing global community is receiving information. It’s cool to watch, and shows the influence that people have over the content we create. It is pushing our industry to be more progressive, and bold, with the way we interact with those audiences.
And what has stayed the same?
I think the push for quality will always stay the same. We are always striving for the best renders, pushing limits for the best creative output. I don’t think that has changed over time, and I cannot see that disappearing going forward.
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?
To steal a line from Anthony Burrill, “Work Hard & Be Nice to People”. I think this simple truth sums it up for me. This is definitely something that I learned from my parents growing up. They instilled the value of honest, hard work from the beginning. No job too big or too small. I watched them treat all people with respect, and approach every conversation the same way. No one person is more important, or less, than the next. People are people, and any job worth doing is worth doing well. I think this is a very ‘Midwestern’ mindset. Honest, strong, and humble. Something I think we all could do a bit more with.
Which production project from across your career are you most proud of and why?
This probably sounds cliché. But I don’t think I have one. I am genuinely proud of the work that I have been involved with this year – and I’ve been saying that every year for the last 6x years. I started my career in Chicago, and now working in The Mill’s London Studio has been a completely unique experience. The style of advertising in the UK is very different compared to the US. I have found it to be more about storytelling, than the hard sell, and that has been so exciting to experience for the first time.
A great example of that would be the 2020 campaign I worked on for the Adidas Manchester United ‘Kit Launch’
. Both client and agency were interested in communicating the legacy, emotion, and memories associated with the team, as told through the fabric of the jersey. It was a fantastic opportunity to flex our creative muscle to tell that story. And, with a stellar team led by one of our very own Mill directors, we created a spot that went on to win bronze at the 2020 Clio Sports Awards for Film Technique Animation.
And in terms of recent work, which projects have you found to be particularly exciting or have presented particularly interesting production challenges?
It goes without saying that working through a global pandemic has presented its share of challenges across the board.Contrary to the above, with great challenges, comes even greater creativity, problem solving, and flexibility.
I am currently working on a job that is shooting across six countries, the director is in the Netherlands, VFX is happening in London and Bangalore, clients are remote – and the job is just cruising along. Something that was previously considered a ‘nonstarter’ is now ‘something we can solve’. It has been incredible to see the innovation people have brought forth during this pandemic. It has been very inspiring to be a part of. Art will always find a way.
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?
Oh gosh. There are loads. Eventually you learn to roll with it. And the ‘crazy’ jobs, just become the norm. I find saying, ‘That’s Showbiz, Baby’ helps.
What are your personal ambitions or aspirations as a producer?
I hope to one day become one of the women that I so looked up to when I first joined The Mill. I was very lucky to be surrounded by a group of powerhouse women in the Chicago studio that were truly breaking down barriers. I studied them as they managed departments, crushed pitches, and ran circles around that office (literally). They have been, and will always be, my inspiration. It was invaluable for me to see women in those management roles. It gave me hope that there might be a greater path for me at The Mill, as well. I hope to pay that forward to the next generation of women joining the industry. To push for a more inclusive space where people can see a path for themselves, as well.
Were it not for the chance someone took on me, my story would be much different. And I feel that I owe that same opportunity to the next generation.
As a producer your brain must have a never ending "to do" list. How do you switch off? What do you do to relax?
I don’t really ‘switch off’. That’s just not me. I enjoy what I do, so I think about it a lot. I often find myself watching an ad on TV and thinking ‘That’s a weird font’, or ‘how on earth did they do that?’.
Life could be worse than me overanalysing commercials and music videos… As my partner likes to remind me, ‘We’re not curing cancer. We’re just making commercials’. A bit of perspective is all you need sometimes.
Producers are problem solvers. What personally fuels your curiosity and drive?
I just want to do great work for incredible brands. It’s a fantastic industry to work in, and I hope to always be involved in some way.
What advice would you give to people who are interested in becoming a producer?
Start anywhere. Start at the bottom. You don’t need to have years of experience to jump in as a PA on set, or a runner at a production company / post house. Put your hand up for every task. And give everything the same amount of effort. Talk to your team. The role of the producer is to set your team up for a successful project, resulting in the best possible creative output. So get to know them. You won’t ever have all the answers. What is important to your artists might surprise you. Those everyday conversations add to the strength of the team in the end.
From your experience what are the ingredients for a successful production?
The Team: This includes the artists and producers involved. Having the right people on board can change the trajectory of a project. It can go from something done well, to something that really blows everyone away – pushing the limits of a creative brief, and our own expectations.
Flexibility: Jobs will rarely go exactly to plan. The key is to be able to roll with those punches, while keeping your eye on the resources at your disposal.
Positivity: Jobs can get stressful. Budgets are getting smaller, timelines tighter, and creative is still sky high. I have always found that a little positivity can go a long way in keeping the team motivated, focused, and ready to kick a job out the door.
What’s the key to a successful production-client relationship?
Inclusion and communication. Bring everyone along for the ride. Make sure your clients feel included in the planning and development process. You’re in this together. I have found that the more I include my clients in laying the groundwork for a job, the more understanding they are of some of the larger milestones/schedule-budget-creative conversations we need to keep a production on the rails. Continue to communicate and relay progress throughout. Not everyone comes from your same background. Take the time to explain the process upfront, and as the job progresses. Things change, renders fail, life happens. In my experience, when you keep everyone clued in, they are more likely to feel that they can contribute to creative problem solving as an integral member of the team