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February 05, 2020

Juggling budgets and expectations

Any content marketer knows that when you have projects, you have expectations to meet and budgets to work within. We found ourselves in a very tricky situation once…

Hi, I’m Kartini Deffahry, Production Manager at Click2view.

Anyone in the content marketing or film making industry would know that budgets are really being stretched these days. We’re expected to do more, for less. One of my first tasks entering Click2View in May 2019 has been one of my most challenging yet, but one that I’m grateful for because I’ve learned so much — I bet it’d be helpful to anyone reading this too!

Here’s what went down:

I was tasked to manage a video commercial production for a big client, Visa. The budget and the concept of the film had already been agreed upon, and I was sure it’d be easy enough. Until I looked closer.

Scrutinising the documentation — creative, production budget breakdown, director’s treatment and the requirement to shoot this commercial on the Phantom Flex 4k — I realised the budget was going to be tight. Really tight. It overlooked the number of crew required (as well as their ever-increasing rates) and other technical accessories and post production processes needed to make the video we’d envisioned.

Should I tell the team that I thought it was impossible, or accept the challenge and make it possible? Me and my silly “Never-Say-Die” attitude refused to give up. I’m glad I didn’t.

I had to pull off the biggest success of my 20-something-year career as Production Manager and Producer, or get my ass fired! Definitely a challenge worth taking.

Creative Solution

While troubleshooting, I noticed that we’d followed the typical industry process:

  • Kicking off once budget and director’s treatment are locked
  • Engaging crew/talents
  • Locking in location
  • Shoot
  • Post-production treatments
  • Production assessment

But maybe that wasn’t the best way. Ever adventurous, I decided to turn this age-old process upside down.

Looking at things downside-up

A production manager’s gotta do what a production manager’s gotta do.

Fortunately, the client was agreeable. In fact, it was Kris LeBoutillier, Director, Digital Content Asia Pacific in Visa, who gave me the inspiration — he suggested we go indie! (The last time I worked on anything indie was back in the 90s.)

I scrutinised every item to see what could be eliminated and turned into extra budget, starting with Post Production. One potential was an expensive colour grading process to fully capture the essence of filming with the Phantom Flex 4k – it required specific and finite tools only available at big external post houses.

We found a solution in Seance, a program that would enable us to read and export the RAW .cine files. From there, BlackMagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve would let us edit, colour and transcode them — for free!

Next, I zeroed in on the high studio costs. The Phantom Flex 4k sits at the intersection of a true cinema camera and an absurdly fast high-speed camera. You’d therefore need really big lights. This, we easily solved by suggesting to shoot at an outdoor pool — no light is bigger than the sun and sunlight is free!

In essence, I overhauled the entire company’s standard production managing process flow:

  • Conducting a detailed production assessment via Post Production
  • Locking in the location
  • Booking the crew & technical gear required
  • Talent sourcing
  • Creating the director’s treatment board

Things were actually beginning to look manageable.

An unexpected curve ball

At the last moment, we were thrown a curve ball. The client wanted to change the concept. Rather than an outdoor pool shoot, they wanted us to film a salsa dancer in slow-motion. Oh my! It was back to “big studio and big lights”!

Big studio! Big lights!

On top of that, the deadline didn’t move. I took a step back to reassess the project’s new direction. I sourced for an affordable studio first, then cheaper equipment, and skilled crew in our network who didn’t mind the short notice. We found our talent from a pool of freelance dancers. Then we confirmed the dance choreography, costume, and everything else, and at last, checked the treatment board off the list.

It wasn’t easy. With a tighter budget, we had to lose the director. Our minimum size required (no less than 4,000 sq ft with a minimum height of 8m) and budget also gave us only two location choices in Singapore: Infinite Frameworks or Performance Studios.

We chose Performance Studios (still expensive but manageable) and soft-booked everyone.

Under Pressure

With less than 72 hours left before the actual shoot, I pressed the pause button and did a third round of production assessment. The forecasted spending looked daunting. There was zero budget for errors on filming times and overtime, or the company would end up forking out the extra costs. I couldn’t allow myself to sign off on any line items for over-time and miscellaneous costs. There was no more room.

It’d take a miracle to keep the expenses within budget and not go over-time on this cinema-like filming.

An unlikely miracle

And then a miracle appeared.

Someone brightly suggested that we look into filming a little further afield — across the causeway connecting Singapore to Johor Bahru, Malaysia, where things might be slightly cheaper.

I’d never believed in filming overseas despite the lower costs in places like Thailand or Indonesia or even Malaysia, where the Singapore dollar could be stretched. A major concern of mine has always been the lack of transparency. Ultimately, Post Production assessment usually ends up a lot higher after factoring all these unseen off-shore costs.

But my research led me to Iskandar Studios — the former Pinewood lot. A commercial studio with all the equipment we would need, I was elated to find the unit costs of my line items were dollar to dollar — almost three quarters of our line items would only cost a third of the forecasted external expenses!

Thanks to them, we pulled the project off within budget and then some.

Have a look at our superb Salsa video

And a second miracle happened — we didn’t do any overtime! That’s extra costs saved! I’m sure production managers out there would know what a feat that was.

Analysis & Recommendation for best Production Managing practice

What did I learn? Rather than harp on what I couldn’t control — like client expectations and the predetermined budget — this project reminded me to focus on what I could do with production management:

  • Production assessment should be visited and revisited, from briefing to the final delivery, not AFTER filming has been completed
  • Work closely with friendly freelancers, vendors and the client to ensure all production alternatives are considered up-front

This project has also reinforced to me the importance of a production manager’s role. It’s critical that they assess the feasibility of the budget upfront to prevent (or minimise) hiccups along the way. When budgets have been confirmed and expectations come in, it’s also their duty to ensure the desired creative is achievable for the budget.

Conducting the production assessment process FIRST has definitely helped me identify opportunities for savings that I’d never have thought were possible, simply because I didn’t need to think out of the box. Now, I’m armed with so many more creative ideas for our future projects, I wonder what I’ll be capable of doing next 🙂

Read more from Click2View:

  1. Streaming live with multi-cameras into zoom, how did we do it?
  2. How powerful is B2B content?
  3. Social media is transforming retail now.

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Click2View is Southeast Asia’s premiere full-service independent B2B content marketing agency servicing clients like Microsoft, Google, Visa, Prudential, and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.