When I first started working in the industry, I had a great experience, or I should say, set of experiences, that really enhanced my technical and artistic understanding of film and photography and storytelling in general.

I was fresh out of Parsons School of Design and met my friend Kevin O’Callaghan. Kevin is now a prominent instructor at the School of Visual Arts and an industry legend, not only for his excellence as an instructor, but also for his amazing work in 3D illustration, sculpture and art installations. Kevin is what he has always been, a creative genius.

With Kevin I began working creating props and special effects for film and TV. Together we worked on a number of projects, some in conjunction with Dale Malley, at the time one of the country’s leading independent prop makers.

We worked on television spots for Atari, making 3D live-action TV sets that played video games with each other. We crafted giant ice cubes, a giant glass and a giant can for 7Up and built colorful, moving props for BonJour Jeans. We made props for the Rodney Dangerfield film Easy Money and recreated aspects of the Oval office for a film about JF Kennedy with Martin Sheen; we made props for a Mid-Summer Night’s Sex Comedy with Woody Allen, the Flamingo Scooter for the Flamingo Kid with Matt Dillon…the list goes on.

The Flamingo Scooter

O’Callaghan; genius at work

Everything we built, no matter how fantastic, needed to fool the eye, to be real…enough. We had to be convincing in our execution of these props and effects. Some were incredibly authentic to original objects we had been asked to reproduce, others were pure fantasy writ large. This was fun, exciting and interesting work during which I learned a great deal about what the camera will see, or more specifically, what we see and what looks convincing on film. The understanding of how light interacts with various colors, surfaces and structures remain invaluable. The most important aspect of course is that all these aspects are delivering on the intention of the scene and the film as a whole.

The demand for video content and the need to tell brand stories in interesting ways requires first and foremost a great insightful story and then the ability to tell it effectively.

Photography and film is a science of both light and time, the manipulation of these fundamental elements can make or break a piece of content. It’s about what you are filming and how you film it. Where you place the camera and how you light the subject are two of the most important decisions that need to be made.

From my perspective (pun intended), not enough thought and creativity is put into this aspect of video content creation. There is a great deal of stylistic sameness; the industry repeating itself.  This works against the differentiation of your brand. The execution of the story should be anchored in the uniqueness of your brand story, not in the latest trend or enabling technology. If you’ve ever watched a video and the production techniques end up being more interesting than the story, you understand the problem.

If the idea is not crystal clear and interesting, then all the slick execution in the world will not make it better.

Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot…your brand story.

It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. I’m advocating for a conscious return of what I feel is a progressive loss to the level of craft in commercial content production.

The art of your brand story is one part and the art of the production of your brand story is the other. Thanks to the internet, there exists an insatiable desire for content. And thanks to the democratization of the technologies of content creation, everyone with a camera and a zoom recorder is suddenly a producer or director or director of photography or all of the above. Yikes.

Potential clients call Brandforming and ask us for an assessment of why their content is not delivering the anticipated results. They invested in, yada, yada, yada…

There is a lot of crappy content on the web; I hope it’s not yours.

Just because you can produce content with your smart phone does not mean you should. Just because you can fry an egg on your car engine does not mean you should. If Annie Leibovitz takes your portrait with a smart phone, it will be an amazing story of you. If Martin Scorsese wants to make a cinematic production with a DSLR, it’ll be an amazing tale. If Bobby Flay decides to cook you brunch on the engine of his SUV, it’ll be one of the best meals of your life.

The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is the point. Great gear in the right hands has the potential to make a great story or idea that much stronger in execution. But in and of itself it is an empty shell.

This does not mean you shouldn’t create and produce. It means if you don’t have the skills, you need to practice and hone the craft before you degrade your brand with crappy content. And the first skill you need to master is the story. If you don’t have the skills in-house, then hire the right people. All the tech expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.

Most production companies are not built like marketing agencies; most of them are built for episodic engagements, not brand stewardship. Building and safeguarding your brand story takes a long-term view, it takes insight and planning and strategy and great creative ideas, smartly executed. This is the work of brand agencies.

Today there is a profusion of production companies that have technical skill because the technology has made it much easier to look and sound good, but that does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make the cost to your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost is significant. Vacuous content.

Content without brand strategy is death by a thousand cuts.

Really good agencies know this, and really good clients know this too. And really good production companies know this and expect to partner with brand agencies. A great commercial director wants to understand your brand and its audience.  This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea with the correct intention.

This is the work of producing content; to tell your brand idea, and it is why brand agencies employ creative directors, writers, art directors, strategists and producers, to define your brand idea.  And then, shot by shot, adding and building, intention upon intention, the entire production design is aligned with the purpose of your brand.

This is the craft.

My first year as The F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration at Skidmore College has been a bit of a roller coaster. The good kind, thrilling without the sense of impending doom that you get in those “poop your pants” rides that seem to push the limits of engineering.

I went into this gig with some trepidation, not knowing how I’d fare. Not knowing is a good thing in my book. I like not knowing because it means I’m learning and I’ve learned a lot.

The first thing I’ve learned is that being a Professor is real work. From this day forward, if I ever hear anyone say, “those who know do and those who don’t teach,” I’ll offer to have them give it a try. They have obviously never stepped foot in a classroom full time. The occasional rock star visit does not come close to staring down a room full of 20 something’s at 8:30 am on Wednesday & Friday mornings in February when it’s 20 below. It takes real effort to keep them engaged. Effort, planning, follow-up and creativity. Sounds just like any other business.

The second thing I can tell you is the work outside the classroom far exceeds the work inside the classroom. But I’m still new to all this and it has already gotten easier but like any other gig, you get out of it what you put in, so if you’re doing it right, it’s never really easy.

In both courses, I bring in real clients, with real business and brand challenges. My approach is to workshop the challenge in a real-world format. It took some adjusting on my part to make this work for students vs professionals. It’s one thing to do something your entire career surrounded by pros and another entirely to codify it into a syllabus for people who have never done it before.

I can tell you the world is in for a treat when these young people hit the workforce. The other observation I can share is that Skidmore students are smart, with a causal confidence that belies their intelligence and strong work ethic.

It’s a unique experience working with students. Eager to learn and challenge themselves as much as I challenge them; to push their creativity and put it to work within a strategic construct. Working with creativity as a skill, with a business purpose, changes their ideas about creativity and helps them see it as vital and vitally important no matter their career choice.

This semester, my Commercial Production students took on an assignment for Garnet River, an IT Professional Services Firm that is launching an internet security service designed for threat detection and response for small to mid-size business. We spent the majority of the semester discovering all that is involved in the making of a TV spot; perhaps more contemporarily defined as content. Most of these students had never before produced narrative content, so we invested ourselves in the art of the story, the heroes journey. We examined other spots, listened to the words of Directors and Directors of Photography, Casting Agents, Location Scouts, Production Designers and Musicians. We practiced concept development and story boarding our concepts. Then we focused our efforts on building production books to catalogue and manage the production. And finally, with approximately 4 weeks remaining in the semester, these Management and Business student went to work on their final assignment; a 30 sec spot for Garnet Shield. A few examples of which are included here. Their skill levels vary but their creativity is strong.

Cheers.