Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Since I began this journey in media production and marketing, I have often came across those who thought a a certain length of work, like a 30 second commercial, took the same amount of time to produce it. To be honest, I wish that were the case then this blog would have only taken me a few minutes instead of a month to write. When it comes to producing a work, whether a blog or a 30 second television commercial much planning is involved. A good example of this process is a recent commercial we shot for our friends at Featherstone Retirement Community.
If you have ever watched midday television you may have came across a commercial for facilities like Featherstone. The set is simple and possibly on location and a script featuring actors and/or announcer talking about the facility. No doubt there are many factors why commercials like this are so generic. One consideration is HIPPA, The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, a law that provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information. In the setting of a nursing home, which provides medical services, like a hospital, HIPPA prevents filmmakers from including residents (patients) from being on film thus most filmmakers will opt to produce a commercial like this one.
While these are great for telling the viewer about services, it doesn’t give the client a way of including the public on the journey besides a phone call or a website visit. While twenty years ago that was industry standard and an acceptable risk, it isn’t now when you look at the power of social media; a 30 second television commercial can be shared with the world in a matter of minutes! With this being the case, is the above commercial worth sharing? Unless you are a patient or a family member, the facility, the agency that produced the commercial or the actors probably not. At best, like this commercial, it will be posted on Youtube that is then embedded on a website to be viewed by visitors who googled the organization. There are no advocates posting this commercial. These two factors were the start of the creative process of producing a promotional video for Featherstone.
After discussing the clients needs, I asked for a tour of the facility starting with lunch in the dinning room. To some, lunch would be a trivial matter. On the surface, it sounds weird. “What is so special about eating lunch with residents?”, they may ask. From a storytellers point of view, mealtime is magical. During this time much can be observed; the true happiness of visitors, residents, and staff, the quality and quantity of food, the overall ambiance of the facility, and more. In facilities like Featherstone, a communal setting may be the only time residents interact outside of their rooms. From my perspective it’s also the best way to get to know them without being invasive. This observing continued after lunch as facility manager Ragina showed me rooms and other amenities.
Upon learning all I could about Featherstone, I began brainstorming. I took out my journal and wrote as much as I could. I asked myself many questions; what would it be like if I lived in this community? As a resident what would I expect? What are my needs? Does Featherstone fulfill all of them?
When it comes to ones needs much research has been given on the topic. Among the bazillion publications the 1943 paper aptly called “A Theory of Human Motivation” written by American psychologist Abraham Maslow is one that continually stands out. In short, in order to be happy three “need” categories must to be filled. Based on this knowledge, I not only affirmed what I observed at Featherstone but I had a starting point for their script.
The next question I asked myself was “How do I tell the story?”. Sure I could have easily wrote a commercial where I discussed the community and highlighted each of these needs in a generic way. While a commercial like this is quick and easy it doesn’t serve the higher purpose I felt my client needed.
Since film technician school in Albuquerque, it has been my long held belief that film production, or an other media, serves more than one purpose. I’m not just producing a work, I am creating an experience. In the case of my commercial for Featherstone, this production was an opportunity to fulfill the upper parts of Maslow’s Hierarchy by including Featherstone residents and staff. The opportunity to be a “movie star” and experience an event most don’t is something one can talk about for many years.
When working with non-actors the best rule of thumb is have them play the parts they have always played. To loosely quote Shakespeare, “The world is a play and we’re mere actors” is very true. The residents would play residents and the staff would play staff. Our hired actor would be the only one with actual lines. “So who would be our actor?”, Regina asked while we discussed the initial idea of the video. Judy Pittman, a local actor who has had many years performing with The Miami Little Theatre was the answer. While this was just a thought, the likelihood of it happening was pretty high.
Upon the decision that Judy would be perfect for the role, I decided to write our script with her in mind. While I’ve only known Judy for a few years, we talk each time I go to the local drug store to pick up a prescription or to ease my sugar craving with circus peanuts. During our quick chats I have gotten a pretty good feeling about her personality. For an 70+ year old lady she’s spunky and has a personality that is likable right from the start. I felt if I had this feeling then those who watched Featherstone’s commercial would also be drawn to her and think, “Wow, this retirement community is pretty awesome!” and then act upon that feeling.
Another aspect of the production was a possible group entertainment scene. In the script I featured all of the the hierarchy of needs; I showed food, rest, health, friendship, feeling of accomplishment etc but I couldn’t wrap my mind around anything that fell under entertainment. “Aside from WIFI, TV, and books, how does Featherstone entertain their residents in a group setting?” I asked myself. Regina mentioned shopping trips, local musicians visiting, and bingo. Frankly each one had it’s own logistical concerns. A shopping trip would make a long shooting day longer and Bingo was cliché. I opted to include musicians. Now that I had musicians how could I make that more interesting? What could I do to give the client more added value? I included a pizza party. The idea was simple, get a local pizza place to give us pizza in return we’d include their product in the commercial. Before I could make this idea official, I talked to my buddies at the Miami Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Since 2018, the Chamber has been my go to source for advice and ideas. With a project as ambitious as this I knew I’d get some great feedback and could be directed down the right path. They not only directed me to a chamber member but also gave me a name. “Talk to Jacob, the manager, tell him we sent you. “ they said. After a few visits to Goodfella’s Pizzeria, I secured enough pizza to feed over 30 people.
In all honesty, I hadn’t shot anything like this since college and even then it was with fellow students who all had an idea what to do. This being the case, I called upon a good friend from college, Kate Allred. Since starting my business she’s been my go-to for technical assistance. I called upon my mother-in-law, Rose, to proofread the script to ensure every “i” was dotted and every “t” was crossed. She also provided some insight to retirement community living since she lives in a place that is similar. “Mrs. Johnson’s First Day” was ready to be presented to the client.
By the time I present a project plan to a client, I am on a roller coaster of emotion ranging from fear to excitement. This is where the client will think I am awesome or an idiot. If the process is done correctly any question that arises should have an answer, if not that is my fault not the clients. I have found addressing the seen and unseen honestly in a narrative letter is effective. By explaining why I wrote the script the way I did to include reasoning for why one thing was used and another wasn’t shows the client their business’ story is well planned. With that said, it also reassures the client the script isn’t written in stone. Sometimes during the pre-production phase things can be overlooked, purposely omitted, or out-right changed. Thankfully, in this case, there were no surprises. In fact the folks at Featherstone were worried about not giving me enough information.
Upon the client’s approval, we were ready for the next phase of pre-production...crew and talent meetings. Like the approval process, this too is a roller coaster. When it comes to starting out as a new business, I can’t afford to have folks on a daily schedule. Just as a temp agency has employees that come and go, video production is very similar. Everyone who works for me has a day job. Production Assistant Kate works at a local TV station, a bank, getting her Master’s degree at a local university and has a husband. Actress Judy works at a local pharmacy and is a grandmother. The client and their residents also have a schedule. When it comes to these needs, I planned the shot schedule accordingly with my actress’ schedule being the priority, followed by the client, then Kate’s. Typically crew member’s needs are last on the list simply because everyone on the crew are cross trained and can carry the slack. For this project, shoot time, shot organization, and equipment placement would have taken longer if we didn’t have Kate’s help.
For a quicker and more efficient shoot a well planned shot list/storyboard is important. In “Mrs. Johnson’s First Day” the story is a recall of a day’s events at Featherstone through the eyes of a new resident. Aside from the first scene and the last scene everything else is in chronological order starting from morning and ending in evening. While this linear writing process made for easier storytelling on paper, the video storytelling aspect was a little more complicated. If we recorded everything in this linear fashion, Kate and I would be setting up and taking down equipment per scene only to return to the same room in a later scene. By doing so we’re ensuring a long shoot, tired folks, and possible equipment issues. If we shoot in a non-linear fashion where all scenes that take place in one room are shot then go to the next room and repeat the process, the recording process runs quicker. With that said there are caveats, everyone has to be on their toes ready to adjust their mindset in a non-linear way. As I wrote this script, I knew this would be the case. This was especially true when working with extras and staff who had never acted. I also had to worry about not tiring out my actress. From an editing perspective, I had to be able to quickly reference each shot and this is why Kate was hired on as Production Assistant; her job was to log each shot, help setup and tear down equipment, and help ensure continuity in each scene by being a second pair of eyes and ears.
As we began our shoot with an early crew/casting call of 4:30am, we quickly shot every scene in Mrs. Johnson’s bedroom except for the selfie/book scene (which takes place in the afternoon). We also took advantage of the early morning quiet and room tone to record the voice over. We then proceeded into the dining room and shot our breakfast and lunch scenes. From there we shot our beauty salon scene and ended the day’s need for extras with the library scene which was a favorite because all the talent go to sit and talk while “assembling” a puzzle of the Statue of Liberty. By 10:30 am we were finished with 90% of the shoot.
By the next evening I was on Cloud Nine, as I drove up North Main Street, everything was going as planned; the video we shot the previous day looked and sounded great, Featherstone staff and residents had a full grasp of what extras do, and I had 15 boxes of pizza from Goodfellas Pizzaria seatbelted in the back seat of my 2015 Nissan Pathfinder just waiting to be eaten by a group of hungry folks. When I pulled up to Featherstone’s parking lot I was further ecstatic, it was pretty full. Inside, the band was setting up for their concert. After a pizza dinner in the dining room and setting up lights and cameras, we were ready to shoot.
When working with music, fonts, photos, books, and anything else that is considered “art” great care must be taken in order to ensure someone’s copyright is not violated. From reprinting Bible verses on Norman Rockwell paintings to parodying songs by Pop Artist Prince, copyright law has been ignored and violated to the point multi-million dollar lawsuits have been argued in front of the Supreme Court. With this in mind, I take great care in ensuring I follow a simple rule, “unless I have specific right to it, I don’t use it”. When it came to this project, I had a few concerns.
When it came to this project, I had a few concerns. Starting from the snacks Mrs. Johnson got (While the only one who could copyright a banana is God, the sticker on it was a Dole logo and needed to be removed) to the puzzle of the Statue Of Liberty Mrs. Johnson assembled with her friends (Initially I includes the puzzles photo because it’s of a public landmark but had to blur and cover it with Featherstone’s logo upon reading this article). I instructed our extras not to wear logoed apparel. I ensured we only used fonts that fell under the End User License Agreement from our video editing
When working with musicians respecting copyright can be also a slippery slope especially if the only songs they can perform were recorded by others, not every musician composes music. While The United States Copyright office says A “public performance” of music is define as any music played outside a normal circle of friends and family (a room of 30 retirement community residents would fall under this) putting any copyright work on a commercial would violate a copyright without the creators permission and a licensing fee paid to a music rights organization like Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI) or The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Depending on the song, artist, and rights organization these fees can be very expensive. Thankfully there are ways around this, as a rule of thumb anything over 100 years old is pretty much free to use. Church hymns like “Amazing Grace”, traditional tunes like “Yankee Doodle”, and classical pieces by Mozart etc all fall under Public Domain. Unfortunately the music required for this commercial needed to be upbeat and non-religious. Our band for the evening played a lot of Hank Williams Sr. and Albert E. Brumley tunes, both composers who were at the forefront of copyright law and their families are still maintaining copyrights. After quickly educating the band on copyright and the money that needs to be paid. They gave me a quick pick’n and grin’n tune in the key of “G”. Within the hour our commercial shoot was finished and I returned to my office for an hour of editing.
In the end the client liked their commercial and posted it on their Facebook page where it has been viewed over 2,000 times and shared by 45 people and plays on an advertising “digiboard” at a El Villarta Mexican restaurant in Miami and Rancho Viejo in Grove. Over 200 customers visit each restaurant daily.
If you are a business and need someone to tell your story give us a call. 918-544-6194.