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SECRET IDENTITY - From Procedurals To Comedies, Josh Berman Is Ready To Dig Beneath The Surface

Posted By Jeff Bond, Tuesday, August 29, 2017

When Josh Berman started shopping his idea for Drop Dead Diva, a comedy about a shallow spokesmodel who dies and comes back to life as a plus-sized attorney, he got some confused reactions. After all, Berman had spent a combined 10 years conjuring up bizarre ways for people to die on CBSCSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Fox’s Bones—even creating dark procedurals like Killer Instinct and Vanished in the process. Wait, youre our dark procedural guy.Why do you want to write a one-hour comedy right now?Berman recalls associates saying. But unlike, say, CSIs Gil Grissom, those people just werent paying attention to the clues.

A native of Encino, California, Berman actually got his start riffing off of and working on comedies, from a YouTube takeoff of Ally McBeal (called Allan McBeal and made while Berman was a young executive at NBC) that got him his first writing job offers, to a brief stint on the Lauren Graham sitcom M.Y.O.B. (the show Graham headlined right before Gilmore Girls). Like Graham, Berman jumped to a new show right after M.Y.O.B. floundered— in Bermans case, a weird little procedural that no one expected much out of: CSI.

I loved writing but I also had a strong bent for science,Berman shares. What drew me to CSI was it was the first show I ever heard of that made science sexy. I thought, What an opportunity here, to bring science to the masses in a very commercial way.’” Berman met with producer Carol Mendelsohn and was quickly hired as an executive story editor. The show had a very small budget because everyone thought CSI was going to very quickly fail and they didnt have the money to hire upper level writers, so I was lucky to be hired at a low level. There was no one between me as an executive story editor and the executive producers of the show, so I quickly had a lot more responsibility thrust on me than I normally would have.

Of course CSI quickly became one of televisions biggest hits, running for 15 seasons and spawning so many spin-offs (including one appropriately named CSI: Immortality) that CBS was in danger of becoming the CSI network. Berman became one of the flagship seriesexecutive producers, sharing Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series in 2003 and 2004 and a Producers Guild Award nomination for Outstanding Producer of Episodic Television Drama in 2005. He parlayed his six-year stint on CSI into a highly successful career as a show creator (Killer Instinct in 2005, Vanished in 2006, The Mob Doctor in 2012 and most recently ABCs Notorious) and producer (Bones, The Blacklist, Daytime Divas).

Josh Berman (front right) discusses a scene with director Michael Engler (left) and cast member
Piper Perabo (seated) on the set of the Notorious pilot.  -Photo by Eli Joshua Ade 

Berman credits Carol Mendelsohn not only with hiring him on CSI, but also giving the young writer access to the shows nuts and bolts, providing him with experience as a producer long before he might have otherwise had the oppritunity. He still cites Mendelsohn as his primary mentor in the field—one of a number of strong women who helped inspire him and set him along his career path. She taught me everything,says Berman. There was no part of production or writing that she didnt include me in. For the first season of CSI, I spent virtually every weekend at her house, and we would write and look at cuts together. At a low-level position, she taught me the job of being a producer, and then I stayed on CSI until becoming an executive producer on my last season. When the executive producers were away, it fell to me to run the writers room by default. Even as an executive story editor, I went to every mix, I went to playbacks, I went to casting sessions, I had a lot of set time, and I think I wrote six episodes the first season just because they didnt have the manpower, which was really lucky for me.

Berman’s mother, a former English teacher who later went into nursing, also inspired the producers appreciation of good writing, working with him to rewrite his grade school English essays word by word until they were as perfect as they could be. Its what inspired me to be a much better writer, when I saw how language and words could transform an average essay into something really great,he recalls.

Berman’s inspiration for his left turn into offbeat comedy on the cult hit Drop Dead Diva was another female family member, his maternal grandmother. The beautiful model who dies in the show is named Deb after my grandmother. My grandmother was a chubby, 5-foot-1-inch Holocaust survivor, who carried herself like a supermodel. I knew no one wanted to buy a show about my grandmother, so I took the spirit of what made her so unique and infused it into the lead character of Drop Dead Diva. So I really had a model to write from and a point of view.

The Lifetime comedy pivoted on something Berman says hes always drawn to: the theme of identity. What makes us who we are and the person we show the world versus the person we are inside? Even going back to CSI, I wrote an episode about a woman who suffered from the real-life werewolf disease, where inside she felt like a scared little girl, but outside she looked like a monster. And I think thats a great way to encapsulate what I look for when attacking material—how were perceived versus what we really are.

Berman has been able to successfully blend his insight as a writer and artist with a hard-nosed, MBA-oriented approach to production that emphasizes attention to detail. I scrutinize my budgets and Im very collaborative with my line producer. I think that gives me a competitive edge in this business. I meet with my line producer multiple times a day during production and figure out how we can get the biggest bang for the buck, and I push and I push and work with locations. If Ive set a scene at a bowling alley but they have access to a fantastic basketball court, Ill happily rewrite that scene, as long as I dont sacrifice content. I think you have to be fluid in TV and willing to rewrite a scene a day or two in advance if you can get a better location, or if it means moving things around so you can get an actor or another talent youve been chasing.

Josh Berman (left) consults with director Michael Grossman (center)
on the set of Drop Dead Diva. - photo by Bob Mahoney 

Despite the pressures of TV production and his oversight of every aspect of the shows he works on, Berman describes his approach as calm, measured and collaborative. “I’ll take ideas from anyone. I remember on CSI, I was writing an episode and trying to figure out visually how to explain how electricity worked, and it was a hard idea for me to grasp. I was talking to one of the grips on the set who told me about this experiment where you can electrocute a pickle and it demonstrates how electricity works in a very simplistic way, and that is the experiment that Grissom, played by Billy Petersen, did on the episode. I literally took that grips idea and put those words into Billy Petersens mouth. Now my kids know that scene, and thats how they talk about how electricity works, by lighting up a pickle.

After 17 years in television production, Berman has seen the standards for writing and the medium, skyrocket. I think people talk about peak televisionor the golden age of television because we have producers who are holding their TV shows to the same high standards that feature producers have held their features to for years. I fight for budgets,he declares. “I’ve written letters to musical artists hoping that they would drop their prices on songs to let me use them on my shows; that has been successful more often than not. I write when I want a specific actor to play a guest star, or I get on the phone with them—I do what I can, and you just cant leave any aspect of television production to chance anymore.

Balancing his duties as a writer and producer remains one of the most challenging aspects of the job, and Berman confirms that writing has to take a back seat to production once a seriesfilming is underway. When Im in production, production comes first,he states. Everything Im doing during the day is in advancement of the current episode were producing and the episode we have in prep.That means writing has to be done in the producers spare time. I will do it at night or I will bring my laptop to the set and write between takes. You try to fit in writing where you can, but when the show is up and running, its full speed ahead. I want to make sure the current episode is in perfect shape so thats where my attention lies.Berman says writing remains the number one priority when the show is in prep, eight to 10 weeks before filming. I feel like a good show will have six to eight scripts in the can before you start shooting, and that alone gives you the leg up that you dont have to be writing every second. Im still writing probably five to six hours a day, but if theres an issue on the set, I can never slow down production just because I need to write.

Berman has seen the relatively static characterizations in procedural shows evolve into complex, multilayered individuals who reveal deeper aspects of their personalities, their flaws and obsessions over the course of a season or series. Differences in the way people take in TV series episodes on DVRs and streaming platforms also have changed the expectations of audiences. I feel like shows do need hooks, whether its character or story hooks at the end of an episode, so if the show is being streamed, you know that the audience is going to want to watch the next episode right then—you want to make that next episode undeniable.But with those added pressures come additional opportunities, particularly on cult shows like Drop Dead Diva. Drop Dead Diva aired on Lifetime,Berman recounts, but its since been bought by Netflix, and when I go on Twitter and read viewer comments, most of the people watching Drop Dead Diva believe its a Netflix original show. I find that fascinating. I think the fan base of Drop Dead Diva has probably grown tenfold since Lifetime because Netflix has such an expansive audience. I think thats a fundamental change in our business—the afterlife of a show is more powerful than the life of the show.

That might be particularly important for Bermans ABC series Notorious, which was based on the real-life careers of CNN reporter Wendy Walker and defense attorney Mark Geragos. Notorious had its run of first-season episodes cut short out of the gate by the network, after its debut last October and was cancelled in May. The show may have suffered from the same predicament as Netflixs House of Cards, which has been overshadowed by real-life events this season. I feel like Notorious may have come out six months before its time,” Berman admits. “Notorious dealt with themes of news as entertainment. We even had storylines about fake news before the notion of fake news became so pervasive in our society, and we talked about how peoplestweets became news on the show, but I didnt realize that we were ahead of our time.

Berman is still rolling with another diva-related show, serving as a producer on VH1s Daytime Divas, inspired by Star Jonesexperiences working on the morning talk show The View. He just signed a four-year deal with Sony with partner Chris King (producer on Penny Dreadful) to develop a series of new projects. “I’m tackling themes that I always wanted to, and thanks to Sonys support I have a couple of IPs that I think are going to be really terrific. I feel like what I really want to dig into this season is shows with genuine emotion, and I think if theres an aspect that unites my development this season, its really digging deep and unpacking complex, multilayered characters.Thats something that Berman has been doing successfully for the past 17 years—getting his narrative hooks in us. So whether theyre airing on networks or being binge-watched on Netflix, Bermans next moves are likely to be undeniable”—theyre already on our Watch List. 

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EMMA THOMAS - Meet Christopher Nolan's producer - for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in Gotham or in Dunkirk

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Her situation is, admittedly, a little different than most of her producing peers. The “resting state” of many producers is to have a multitude of projects in various states of development or production, following the heat wherever and whenever it appears. As opposed to Emma Thomas, who at any given moment is working on one project, and that project alone. Most producers are constantly seeking and cultivating new connections and industry allies. Thomas’ career to date is the product of a single relationship that spans her personal and professional life—she’s the producer, wife and essential creative partner of visionary filmmaker Christopher Nolan. A chance meeting during their first days at University College London blossomed into a decades-spanning collaboration, yielding not only contemporary classics like InceptionThe Prestige and The Dark Knight trilogy, but four children as well.

If Thomas’ role as a development producer is by its nature narrower than that of her peers, the challenges she faces in prep and production are almost certainly more expansive—service as Chris Nolan’s producer means that it’s on her to bring to life such elements as interstellar travel, dreams within dreams within dreams and a teetering-on-the-brink Gotham City. One of the few filmmaking teams who appear determined to push the envelope with every new outing, Thomas and Nolan most recently have raised the bar with their thrilling war film, Dunkirk. A compact epic, its elegant cross-cutting narrative, historical authenticity and exhilarating camera work have earned the duo some of the best reviews of their storied careers.

We were fortunate to catch up with Emma Thomas at the Dunkirk press junket at Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar. For someone whose work has taken audiences to the outer and inner edges of the known universe, Thomas is reassuringly grounded and accessible. Nearly 30 years into her film career, she sounds as surprised as anyone to have wound up an essential contributor to some of the most successful and admired films of the current generation. Even amid the buzz of the junket, shes relaxed and friendly. She admits that it helps that everyone seems to really like the film, and anyway, with regard to the press, the stakes for her are lower: Nobody is that interested in producers,” she deadpans.

Not if we have anything to say about it.

I have to imagine that being in this position, as a blockbuster movie producer, was not your career target, growing up.

It never occurred to me that it was even a possibility.

So, what left turn brought you into producing?

I completely fell into it. My dad was a diplomat, a civil servant. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. I assumed I was going to go into the Foreign Service like my dad.

And my first day at university, I met a guy called Chris Nolan. He had always wanted to be a director. I was really fascinated by that, because I didnt know anything about that world. It was right at the beginning of the school term time when everyone is joining lots of different clubs and societies. And he said, “I’m going to go make films in the Film Society.I thought, Well, thats kind of interesting.I mean, how do you even do that? I had no idea.

So it really started as a social thing. That was just the group of friends that I connected with. I had no idea what a producer did, but I started helping Chris make his films, and that was kind of the beginning of it.

So by the end of university, I decided I didnt want to go into the foreign office. Chris had some ideas for films, and I figured Id try and get a job in the film industry. But of course we were in England; there werent a huge number of film companies around. But there was one called Working Title. They ran an internship, where you could be a runner for two weeks for free. I did that, and afterwards got my first job with them as a receptionist. I remember my dad came down to meet me. He took me out to lunch and he had a pile of brochures from the civil service in England. I think he was pretty horrified that I had gone to university, the first one in my family to do so, and then I was taking a job as a receptionist.

But that was the beginning of it. I learned an enormous amount from watching Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner but also Jane Frazer, who was my immediate boss. I ended up working as an in-house physical production coordinator. In the meantime, on weekends, we were making our own films.

So talking about Tim and Eric and Jane, what sort of information and experience did they impart to you?

Tim and Eric, they were head and shoulders above everyone else in England at the time, making films in what I want to call an Americanway. They had very commercial sensibilities but at the same time really cared about script and the artistic integrity of their films. Jane taught me everything about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and what it takes to make a film, from how a production report works to insurance and budgeting. What was most amazing about her was that she was incredibly generous with her time and her expertise and never made me feel like I didnt have a right to ask questions. She was incredibly encouraging and Im enormously grateful to the three of them.

When the time came, Chris had finished making this film called Following, which we shot on weekends with no money whatsoever. We were looking at the way independent films were discovered in the U.S., and it seemed very much as though we needed to do the film festival thing. I was talking to Jane about what I wanted to do next and she said, Well, you could go and work on one of our productions, if you want. Or maybe you could go and work in our LA office.And of course I went straight for the LA office. That was where I needed to be if we were going to figure out how to put this film that we had made out there.

Producer Emma Thomas chats between takes with cast member Harry Styles
on the set of Warner Bros.' action thriller Dunkirk. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

Landing In LA for the first time, was there a major culture shock?

The system here is very different, with the agencies and the studios and so on.  Just learning who everyone was and how it all worked was an incredible eye-opener for me.  In the meantime, we were submitting Following to festivals. I look back now and I think, Gosh, you were so naïve.Because we really believed that if we just sent these tapes out cold, they would get discovered.  We were incredibly lucky that anyone ever watched the film or managed to pick it up from the pile.  We did manage to get Following into a couple festivals, including the San Francisco Film Festival. We had shot the film on 16mm but cut it on tape, and we had to have a print to show, which was going to cost us $6,000.  We had to raise the money. It was the most intense and insane experience of our lives because we got the print made in the UK, and our lead actor flew the print up to San Francisco. I mean, it had just been finished. He flew it out with hours to spare before our first screening at the festival.  The first time we saw this print was when it ran in the theater. I look back on it now and I think we were mad to do that.

After we had a successful screening in San Francisco we hooked up with an amazing guy named Peter Broderick who ran a company called Next Wave Films.  Peter gave us finishing funds so that we could blow the film up to 35 mm, and helped us get distribution.  We played a bunch of other festivals, while in the meantime, Chris had been writing Memento.  On the back of the small-scale success that Following had, we managed to get Memento going.

One of the great things about your and Chriscareers is that the earlier films each demonstrate a clear growth in terms of scale and production complexity.

Exactly. I would say that the leap from Following to Memento is by far the biggest leap we’ve made. When you look at Chris’ body of work on paper, you would probably think that Insomnia to Batman Begins would be the biggest leap.

I admit, that was my thought, at first.

To me, the biggest jump was actually Following to Memento, because although Memento was a miniscule budget by comparison with the films that we subsequently made, it was the first time that we were making a film with somebody else’s money. You’re no longer pleasing yourself. On Following, we could do whatever we wanted. We controlled every aspect of it. We didn’t have anyone giving us notes. I mean, it was incredible, looking back. On Memento, there were a lot of people with a great deal of money invested, and if they didn’t have money invested, they had their reputations invested. So you find yourself having to do a lot more explanation of what you’re doing.

Especially with a story like Memento.

Especially with Memento. Memento was a script that when I first read it, I remember very clearly a lot of going back and forth among the pages. It was definitely a challenging script, pushing boundaries in a very unique way, just a very different experience. All credit to Newmarket and [producers] Aaron Ryder and Jen and Suzanne Todd for taking a chance on it. It was an incredible act of faith in Chris and in the script and just ballsy beyond belief. I mean, it changed everything for us. I’m eternally grateful for that.

Producer Emma Thomas (right of center) on the set of Batman Begins, alongside director and writer
Christopher Nolan (center). Photo by David James

What about the leap from Memento to Insomnia, your first film in the studio system?

Yes, that was the first film that we worked on with Warner Bros, with Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove of Alcon financing and producing it along with Ed McDonnell and Paul Witt. I went into the project with no credit or position guaranteed, but after seeing the way I worked with Chris, Andrew and Broderick generously gave me the credit in addition to allowing us to develop our own relationship with the studio.  It was really interesting to cut our teeth on a studio film, which is a very different kettle of fish then an independent film. It was really interesting to cut our teeth on a studio film, which is a very different kettle of fish than an independent film. I mean, Memento, for example, we didn’t have distribution when we were making that film. That was a process that came later. So when we shot Memento, it was a very pure sort of production process. Whereas on Insomnia, we were already in the studio system …

You have a slot and maybe a release date

You have a slot. And in casting of the film, there are names that you have to attach. Its just a massive education.

Many producers say thats their favorite part of the gig, the way the job is a constant learning process.

Exactly. Somebody asked me a question earlier, to the effect of, How do you keep excited about your job?And I felt like, its so obvious to me! Because every two years, its like were living in a different universe. Every film has a new set of challenges and a new set of people and personalities and I think thats massively exciting.

What about the education in blockbusting franchise filmmaking, with Batman Begins?

That was definitely a kind of baptism by fire. It was a whole different level. For a long time on Batman Begins, right up until we started shooting, it was just Chris and I. There was no other producer on it. In fact, Chris wasnt a producer on Batman Begins.

Chuck Roven produced it, right?

Yes, Chuck came on to produce it with me, and we formed a great working partnership which lasted for four films, including Man of Steel, where he took the lead. But we approached it very much as we approach all of our films, which is that we keep it to as small a group as we possibly can. Particularly on set, I think that our films, whatever the size, all feel fairly similar, as stripped back as possible and really focused on the work at hand. In many ways there are a lot of benefits to making a film like a Batman film within a studio system because it’s so important to the studio that you’re never going to fall between the cracks when it comes to marketing or whatever. As long as you’re all on the same page about the film that you’re making and there’s a level of trust between you and the studio, it’s a pretty fantastic way to make a film.

I think its much harder to make a non-branded film. I mean, they dont even make films like Insomnia these days. But if you were in the $50 million cop thriller category, fighting for their attention against these huge branded properties I think would be really, really tough. So Batman Begins was eye-opening all around, but I definitely feel like we benefited from the high-profile nature of the character. Of course, that makes the pressure harder in some ways, but we felt very confident about the film we were making. As long as the core of the project is solid, then you can deal with that stuff.

I really cant reiterate it enough: Chris does produce on all of his films I think Batman Begins was the last one that he didn’t. But as a director, he is a producer’s dream. I remember Chuck saying that once—and it’s because he’s incredibly responsible and articulate in terms of what he wants. People, I think, have the notion that everything is very secret and closed-in with Chris. He does ask that we keep the circle small. But he never holds the studio at arm’s length. He brings them in, because ultimately he understands that it’s a partnership and if you fight them, they’re going to come down on you harder. It’s so much better to have an open dialogue, show them what you’re doing and bring them into the process, so that they can be invested in what it is you’re trying to achieve as much as you are.

Emma Thomas on location for Dunkirk with a multitude of colleagues,
including cast member James D'Arcy (left). Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

At this point I imagine Chris has built the trust that a studio is going to let him do what he wants to do. But earlier in your guyscareer, before you built that trust, how did you work with the studio to convince them to take the risks you felt you needed to take?

I think you just have to work harder. Were very lucky in that Chris has achieved that level of trust with the studio that has enabled him to make a film like Dunkirk, that I think another filmmaker, who wasnt in his position, might not be able to make. For that film, the process of explaining to Warner Bros. what it was about the story that we felt was the reason we should make it was a fairly easy process, because they know that when Chris says hes going to deliver something, he will deliver it.

Obviously that wasnt always the case. At the beginning of Batman Begins, for example, where we were taking the studio’s crown jewel and doing something different with it, I would say the biggest difference was in the pitching process, whether it be pitching what the story was or illustrating for them what the design was going to look like, on the car, for instance. We had to devote a bit more attention to that. To me, it speaks to Chris’ openness, which I generally don’t think people realize is a characteristic of his because they tend to think it’s all secrecy. But on that film when he was developing the script with David Goyer, we had Nathan Crowley simultaneously working in our garage in a sort of early form prep, designing an early version of the Batmobile. So when the studio read the script they also were able to look at the very early designs for the car, which was a very good illustration of how different the world was going to be.

It makes a big difference to be able to give them something concrete like that.


So, in terms of your personal and professional relationship with Chris, how does the partnership work at the various stages of production? that collaboration must operate at different levels at different stages of the project.

Definitely. I would say Im usually the first person that gets to see the script. From the moment he has an idea, hell tell me, generally speaking, what the idea is. And then hell go away, and hell write something or hell think about it. Then hell come back and tell me about it. And then Ill read the script. Ill tell him what I think. But I very much view my role as being a facilitator, someone whos there to help him achieve his vision.

Thats the producers job, after all.

That is ultimately what were here for. Being married to each other, he can be very confident that I only have one agenda, which is to make the best film that we possibly can make. I dont work with other directors. I dont work on other projects. I dont have anything else going on other than making the best film that we possibly can, and I have utter faith that the best film that we can make is going to be the one that he wants to make.

Okay. well, lets just take Dunkirk for example. From the moment he says, I think Dunkirk is where my heart is taking me,where are you? Is there a moment where you start thinking, Oh no. That means were going to have to shoot a movie on the water…?”


At what point do you start having independent ideas that you may or may not share? At what point do your producer wheelsstart turning?

From the beginning, from the moment I read the script, Im thinking about those logistical aspects. Oh my God. How on earth are we going to do this?Particularly as it related to this film. Were at the point now where I have such a good sense of how Chris is going to want to make a film that when I read the script for Dunkirk, I knew he was never going to be satisfied making this on a green screen stage in LA. I knew immediately that this was going to be the location versionwith real planes and real boats and real everything to the degree that we could get them.

Including—significantly, I have to believe—a real ocean.

Thats something we hadnt really done before. The first thing that enabled us to pull it off was finding a really fantastic marine coordinator, Neil Andrea. Because the logistical issues with shooting on water are just bananas, even assuming that the weather is goodand thats a big assumption to make when youre also shooting in Northern Europe. We were shooting on a small boat that fit maybe three actors on there at any given time and a bare minimum crew: Chris, [DP] Hoyte [Van Hoyteme], first AD, sound. I would be on there if I could be.

As well as one of the biggest cameras in existence.

Oh yeah, plus an IMAX camera! It was just so fascinating. I mean, I have this amazing visual in my head: Theres the Moonstone [a small family boat that plays a significant role in the story] and then behind it you have the safety boat, the camera boat, hair and makeup boat, stunts. I mean, just a trail of boats, one after the other. It was absolutely incredible.

It sounds like you needed your own little Dunkirk flotilla for every shot.

Exactly. And then of course the shot is all fine, but then as soon as it turns in the other direction, then all of those people and boats have to get out of the way. And then theres the question of where everyone goes to the bathroom. How does everyone eat? It took us at least 45 minutes to get out to where we were shooting every day. So we would go out there, shoot, then we had a PA just bringing lunch boxes out to everybody. Wed eat on the boat and then come in at the end of the day.

It was insane on every level. Things like boat-to-boat transfers are incredibly dangerous. So you have to be really careful about making sure that when you go out in the morning, as far as possible everyone is on the boat that theyre going to stay on. Obviously people do have to go from one boat to another. But youve got to be really careful about it. The making of the film is very important, but the most important thing is safety. Because its going to be a great film, but ultimately we want everyone to get home in one piece.

Nothing wrecks a shoot like somebody getting hurt, or worse.

Exactly. As I said, hes a producer on the film, and hes a very responsible director. Safety is paramount. Likewise, hes not a director who has any interest in making a film that doesnt have the chance to succeed. Yes, Dunkirk wouldve been a lot easier to make if wed have doubled the budget. I think there is a world in which we couldve fought to try and get more money than we ultimately asked for. But Chris never wants to make a film that is asking to fail. If we had made this film for too much money, then it wouldve made it that much harder to make a film that would be financially profitable for the studio.

Ultimately, we want to keep making films. So we were in lock step from the beginning about how much we felt was the correct amount to ask for to tell this story. We knew it was going to be extremely challenging,shoehor because we have significantly less than we had on the last few [films], given the fact that we knew we were going to be casting unknowns in a lot of key roles. And its a very English story. It doesnt feature anyone in tights and a cape.

Are you sure you couldnt have shoehorned someone in there? “Dunkirk Man” couldve really put you over the top.

Oh, I know! [laughs] But we agreed on what the budget was going to be. Then we started talking. Okay. Well, within that number, how exactly are we going to do it?Thats when we begin to get slightly more into the territory of him saying, Well, this is the way I wanted it.And I dont say, No, you cant do it that way,but what I say is, Are we really sure that thats where we want to devote our resources? Is it really going to be worth it? Are we going to, at the end of the day, feel like, Damn, we should never have spent that money there because we couldve put it somewhere else?’”

Can you recall a conversation like that that you guys had on this movie?

Theres a shot in the film where all of the little ships are approaching. Theyre on their way to Dunkirk and the Moonstone goes past a big destroyer. And theres this seemingly endless row of soldiers on the deck, all lined up on the side. That destroyer was a real French ship called the Maillé-Brézé. It cost us a lot to bring that. It was in a berth in Nice or somewhere near there, and it didnt have an engine. We had to tow it up. It was a very big deal to get it, but it was the only destroyer that we were able to get. We were getting fairly close to the shoot, but we hadnt quite pulled the trigger on it coming yet. I was asking, Are you sure? Couldnt we just do this with visual effects?We had all these other ships that kind of looked enough like destroyers that we could have made it work.

Shooting the bow from
this one, the stern from that one

Exactly. I was thinking, “Can’t we just do something like that?I really made quite a half-racket to get rid of the Maillé-Brézé. And Chris said, No, I think that this is going to be an important shot. I think its going to be a defining moment in the film. I really want to be able to see the little boats next to the destroyer.

So I gave in. Okay, fine.And when I watch the film now, for me it is a defining moment. I don’t think there’s any way that we could’ve replicated it with a visual effects solution. So I think that a big part of a producer’s job is knowing when to trust your creative partner, and I am extremely lucky in that my creative partner is somebody who is very clear about what he needs and what he doesn’t need. The fact that he is very responsible about getting rid of stuff and making compromises in other areas means that I totally trust him when he says, “No, this is something I really need.”

Another massively important part of our job as producers is working with the marketing department of the studio. At every step of the process of making our films, were bringing the studio in to see the early concept work or to see designs or just to talk about what it is that we see as being the reason for making this film. One of our jobs as producers is explaining to people whats special about this film, why they should bother to come out to the cinema and spend two hours in a darkened room looking at lights dancing off a screen. And over the course of making the film, we gradually develop that from those earlier conversations about design and concepts.

The people at the studiotheyre your first audience, basically.

Theyre our first audience. Exactly. I think that completely crystallizes what it is that Im saying. We want the studio to be as invested in this, in our film, as we are. The thing about producing, which I always think is so fantastic and fun, is that there are so many different elements to it. Other than the director, theres really no one else whos on the film from conception to beyond release. And I love that. 




Tags:  cover  feature 

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HIGHER GROUND - A Producer's Guide To High Dynamic Range (HDR)

Posted By Debra Kaufman, Tuesday, July 25, 2017

When PGA member producer Declan Baldwin signed on as line producer for the pilot of Amazon’s Z: The Beginning of Everything, he learned he would have to deliver an HDR master. “I didn’t really understand what it was,” he says. “Our initial reaction was, ‘That sounds complicated.’” Because currently only Amazon and Netflix routinely ask for an HDR master, most producers have no experience providing one and likely have a tenuous grasp on what it actually is.

Baldwin quickly got an education in the basics from Amazon post-production head Aaron Lovell, who walked him through the pipeline. Next, he made a stop at post-production house LightIron, where executive director of business development Megan Marquis, spelled out what Baldwin and the crew needed to do. “She took the fear out of it,” he says.

HDR, the abbreviation for High Dynamic Range, provides more contrast in the image, producing whiter whites and blacker blacks and resulting in more detail in highlights and low lights. Wider color gamut, which is paired with HDR, offers many more and more saturated colors. Together, the look has been described as three-dimensional and very real.

Is anyone watching HDR? Producer Erin Smith, when faced with delivering an HDR master for Man in the High Castle, recalls the team was skeptical if anyone would actually see it that way. Roundabout Entertainment senior color scientist, Jerome Dewhurst, says we already do. “We’re now seeing consumer displays, whether they are computers, phones or tablets, that are significantly brighter and show a wider color gamut than the professional reference monitors used for Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) video mastering,” he says. “Arguably we have HDR displays already in circulation, but we’ve been watching SDR-mastered content on them.”

Produced By spoke to producers, cinematographers, a colorist and two color scientists who have shepherded HDR projects to completion. This is what we’ve learned.


Start in Pre-Production

Dewhurst points out that, “From a producer’s perspective, it is possible to start thinking about HDR before post-production. For example, if you’re shooting with an ARRI Alexa, using an HDR monitor on set, it allows you to better visualize the dynamic range the camera inherently captures more clearly than can be done with conventional SDR displays.” When Smith’s team first talked about HDR, she says, “We were in a bit of a conundrum as to how it would work, how much it would cost and how people would see the benefits.” First stop for her was the post houses where she saw HDR images which “blew us all away”—and started planning ahead.

Cinematographer Tobias Datum, who shoots Mozart in the Jungle, learned he would deliver an HDR master and asked to shoot with the ARRI Alexa. “The color science is superior,” he says. “The emphasis was on having 4K resolution, but I found the resolution isn’t as key to the look of the image as color and dynamic range.” He also spent time in pre-production with Technicolor senior color timer Timothy Vincent, who had already had a lot of experience finishing HDR masters.

Vincent says that it’s not uncommon for producers or cinematographers to ask about HDR during pre-production. “They are trying to get their bearings on a new delivery and what they’ll need,” he says. His advice: First, because HDR shows more details, the cinematographer has to pay close attention on set to what’s outside the windows. “In SDR, the windows are usually blown out, but not in HDR,” says Vincent. “The results can be terrible if, for example, you see out the window and it’s a different location or time period.”

Cinematographer Tim Orr, who shot the pilot for Z: The Beginning of Everything, agrees. “I had to be more aware of the highlight detail,” he says. “Since it’s a period show, if there were elements outside the window that we didn’t want to see, I couldn’t depend on blowing the window out. I just had to assume that if I could see it with my eyes, I’d see it later.” (The pilot of Z: The Beginning of Everything was colored by Sean Dunckley of Light Iron New York; all subsequent episodes were graded in HDR by Company 3 colorist Cody Baker.)  Orr’s observation speaks to Vincent’s second piece of advice. “Look at the RAW footage more often, especially if you have things you don’t want to see outside the window,” says Vincent, who adds that he doesn’t think there’s a need for an HDR monitor on set. “If you see it in the RAW, you’re going to see it.” [Editor’s note: Many producers use RAW as a shorthand description even when the format is not technically RAW footage.  e.g., Amazon’s series store their data as LogC format (see sidebar) in ProRes 444 at 12 bits.]

At Technicolor PostWorks NY, CTO Joe Beirne advises a production to account for HDR in the aesthetic planning for the show, involving the director, cinematographer and scenic designer. “Ideally, you would do hair and makeup and camera tests through both the SDR and HDR pipeline,” he says. “I would try—in a modest way—to find a way to allow cinematographer and DIT to review HDR on set or at the color facility during the shoot. Where possible, take versions of the cut as it evolves and “flip” it into HDR space, just to put eyes on it. At a minimum, as early as possible in post finishing, start looking at HDR, even if there is no HDR master (yet) on your delivery schedule.”


Shooting an HDR Master

The main requirement for an HDR master is a camera that can shoot RAW or LOG footage. Such cameras include the Sony F65 and the RED ONE, though the most frequently used is the ARRI Alexa, which was utilized on Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, Z: The Beginning of Everything and Man in the High Castle among others. ARRI CEO/President Glenn Kennel notes that the ARRI Alexa cameras have always captured HDR, with 14.5 stops, slightly more than film captures. “Every Alexa camera is HDR ready,” he says. “HDR is about getting more out of the camera and allowing creatives more range to work with.”

“ARRI believes that HDR is a game-changer in terms of delivering higher quality TV programming,” he adds. “It’s much more impactful than going from HD to 4K. It allows the creative people to take the dynamic range they were already capturing and move that from the set to the screen.” Cinematographers, for example, enjoy the extra creative possibilities of being able to capture HDR and its wide color gamut. Datum reports that the third season of Mozart in the Jungle starts in Venice, Italy on an overcast day. “In the HDR version, there is so much more definition and gradation in the clouds that the image feels almost three-dimensional,” he says. “It brings out so much more texture, especially in the highlights. There’s a lot of dynamic range, which looks spectacular.”

Dailies during production become especially important. “I always advise producers to do a test, taking first-day dailies and timing selects in SDR and HDR,” says Vincent. “Then they can know right away what they’re dealing with.” Producer Baldwin notes that, “Most cinematographers, at least the ones I worked with, are excited about shooting in RAW.” As a producer, he says, he always wants to know the value for the storytelling. “I’m a fan of the format that best serves the film, although we defer to filmmakers,” he says. His caveat is that shooting data-rich RAW footage resulted in higher costs for storage cards, as well as somewhat greater effort to back it up. But Baldwin understands the rationale behind HDR; Amazon, he says, is “thinking about the future.” As people see HDR images, they become converts. Producer Smith reports that her post producer liked it so much that he now has an HDR monitor at homeand “absolutely loves it.”


HDR in Post

Although most of the post-production focus for HDR is in the color correction suite, Technicolor PostWorks’ Beirne has seen how HDR impacts the way edits read. “Your attention doesn’t always carry through the cut in the same way in the HDR grade,” he says. “In a traditional Hollywood style of filmmaking, the edits are meant to be invisible. An HDR finish ideally doesn’t change that, but your eye may be drawn to an unexpected part of the frame as the scene dynamics change.” The solution, says Beirne, is always to be “sensitive to the cut.” “Higher dynamic range, both within the frame and within the sequence, gives increased power to the filmmakers and adds additional scope to post,” he says. “It’s both a challenge and opportunity to do more perceptually. Account for HDR throughout the process and everyone will benefit.”

Whether the HDR or SDR master is created first depends on the flavor of the HDR master being created. For Dolby Vision, the colorist starts with HDR, says Vincent, and if the end result is HDR10, he starts with the SDR version. Vincent says he prefers to start with SDR “because most people are watching the SDR version. You can do two independent grades with independent color decisions,” he says. Beirne believes there is merit in both approaches. “But when you have a chance to do the HDR grade first, we found that we learned a lot and were able to carry that through into the SDR version,” he observes. “If you do the HDR grade first and it’s carefully accounted for by everyone in the process, the creative vision of the project is established there.”

Occasionally, a project gets an HDR master after the fact. That’s what happened to Manchester by the Sea, acquired by Amazon, which then ordered an HDR master. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes had shot in RAW, thus “banking” a potential HDR version later. Neither Technicolor’s Vincent nor Declan Baldwin (a producer on Manchester as well as Z) wanted to create a version that felt dramatically different from the SDR version; this movie was a case when HDR’s eye-popping colors were not appropriate. “My philosophy is that whether you watch in SDR or HDR, you should get the same emotional response,” says Vincent. “HDR is a heightened version, but it doesn’t have to feel heightened. I will dial it back and keep coming back until it feels the same.” [Editor's note: Manchester by the Sea was colored at Technicolor-Postworks NY by colorist Jack Lewars.]


In Conclusion

Despite first-time concerns over the creation of an HDR master, Smith says her experience was “pretty smooth sailing.” The only major change, she says, was “doing the two frame-by-frame color timings,” adding “that requirement might change in the future.” Although Baldwin still has misgivings about the necessity of an HDR master, if it’s a requirement, “embrace it fully and turn your attention to the experts.” After all, he notes, “There are many post houses already doing it. It’s quite manageable and really not that scary.”

Beirne provides an analogy. When archaeologists discovered that the classic Greek marble statues had been painted, artists such as Rodin thought it was impossible. “They thought of the white marble as the beautiful thing,” he says. “But those great marble sculptors painted the statues to make them look like people. People have felt that HDR was like painting the marble—that it isn’t really necessary. But what we’ve discovered is the opposite. In many if not all cases, it’s the highest quality you can get. To have this really rich original has turned out to be very important.”

HDR Glossary 

High Dynamic Range has been captured for years by film and by an increasing fraction of digital cameras. With HDR, images can be displayed brighter and show more detail in both shadows and highlights at the same time, resulting in an image much closer to what human beings actually see.

Wide Color Gamut, although distinct from HDR, comes paired with it. As the term suggests, it offers a greater range of colors, covering a wider spectrum with greater saturation. SMPTE Rec. 2020 covers a wider color gamut than either Rec. 709 (Standard SDR TV) or P3 (current Digital Cinema.)  

Dolby Vision is a proprietary version of HDR that differs by using dynamic metadata to “talk” to a Dolby Vision TV set and automatically adjust the content to the appropriate light levels for that display. This HDR version also specifies 12-bit color depth and allows for a peak brightness of as much as 10,000 nits. (A standard SDR TV is calibrated to 100 nits.)

RAW footage is unprocessed data directly from a camera’s image sensor, with no video processing.

LOGC fORMAT is a format similar to RAW, which appears without a display LUT (Look-Up Table) applied to it. It’s a very robust format, with uncompromised dynamic range, often favored by producers for TV workflows, due to its file size being considerably smaller than that of pure RAW footage. 

HDR 10 is an open standard, created by a consortium of device manufacturers (including Sony and Samsung) to work around Dolby’s proprietary system. It supports 10-bit color and is generally mastered with a peak brightness of 1000 nits. HDR+ is an initiative of Amazon and Samsung, incorporating dynamic metadata into the HDR10 open standard. 

HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma) is another HDR flavor, this one created by the BBC and NHK and intended to support HDR in live broadcast. It uses the traditional gamma response of television for the lower end of the tonal scale and switches to logarithmic encoding for the brighter part, and so has some compatibility with existing production and consumer equipment.

PQ Curve—The Perceptual Quantization curve draws on research into human contrast sensitivity and attempts to make most efficient use of available bit precision to avoid noticeable quantization artifacts in an encoded HDR image. Both HDR10 and DolbyVision encode HDR images in PQ values (SMPTE ST 2084.)

Tags:  feature  hdr  high dynamic range 

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BRIEF ENCOUNTERS - Short-Form Content Has Come Of Age In The Mobile Era

Posted By Chris Thomes, Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Original digital short-form series have become far more prolific over the last few years. And we’re not talking about YouTube videos of kids talking to camera from their bedrooms, or mash-ups of others’ original programming. We’re talking about real, TV-level, premium content. Real shows. Real stories. Professionally produced. There’s just one difference: length.

The proliferation of mobile devices and the consumption of video on everything from tablets to phones to PCs has increased the demand for short-form, snackable programming—anything from 19 minutes down to 30 seconds. And everyone is producing short form, from Doritos and Lexus to music artists and politicians. As a result of this saturation, consumers are now starting to demand more curated, premium programming. It all comes down to the viewer’s time, or lack thereof. With so many things competing for their attention, they have grown more discerning and impatient with low quality. The true way to gain their loyalty is by making content that is simply worth their time, be it 30 seconds or 19 minutes.

Producers in this space have seen what was once the “wild west,” with no rules and few expectations, evolve into a professional community where production looks a lot more traditional, budgets are rising and talent is just as important to a show as it is in network TV or movies.

Chris Hanada of Retrofit Films acknowledges that, “digital budgets have steadily and slowly risen over the years, while at the same time filming technology has become less expensive. Visually, audiences expect that a digital production look just as good as an on-air show. From a business perspective, the standards to which we are held by studios, networks, legal, financers and guilds are just as complex as a television show at this point. The continuing convergence of digital with traditional [production] has given us the opportunity to go from being a couple of guys in a garage to producing network content relatively quickly. Since the launch of our show This Isn’t Working (ABC’s digital series created by and starring Lisa Schwartz), the meetings we’re taking now are not just for digital originals, but for television projects as well.”

Hanada’s business partner, Tanner Kling, concurs and notes that the evolution has shifted their business. “When we started Retrofit Films back in 2005, our niche was exclusively digital short-form productions, so it’s really what launched our business. Back then we were producing almost exclusively derivative series [spin-offs and side stories of broadcast TV shows, feature films, etc.] but we always knew the platform would evolve. Moving into original digital series has, of course, been more creatively rewarding and has turned out to have been a great step toward the next opportunities.”

Retrofit isn’t alone. Many producers who have been in the trenches defining transmedia content and short-form for the past several years are now growing into the grand sythesizers in this field. They are bridging the smaller-scale world of digital with the high-end production value of scripted TV.

David Tochterman and Bernie Su of Canvas Media Studio have not only been affected by the changes, they are making it their core business model. Tochterman notes, “It’s our primary focus. We launched Canvas with the intention of creating short-form scripted series that are designed for digital platforms as a first window.” Their determined focus on innovation is now merging with traditional production approaches and what is coming out the other side is a variety of short formats that all focus on high-quality storytelling. But all of these producers can agree on one thing: the art of producing remains the same as it has ever been, perhaps with the main difference being the number of hats the producer typically has to wear on smaller scale projects. 

Regarding their approach, Hanada explains, “Production is production. It’s funny to have meetings with networks or studios and explain what we did on a digital series. Then they ask us, ‘Can you handle a bigger budget?’ The truth is, we have had to wear multiple hats on these projects just to get things done – having a larger budget never intimidates us. A recent production of ours had a very high budget for digital, where it was almost comparable to an episode of television, and truthfully, it was a huge relief because we could build out a full staff to handle the nuts and bolts and we could focus on our most important job, the creative producing.”

Executive producers Tanner Kling (left) and Chris Hanada (right) of Retrofit on location in Palmdale, CA with
line producer Aaron Billet for The Off Season.

And while creative producing remains at the core of quality content, formats are changing radically, which adds another layer of complexity. Anything under 19 minutes seems to be the norm for mobile viewing.  Tochterman explains, “Episodic length and individual platform specifications vary from project to project, which is both challenging and exciting.  Every platform is designed differently, and as they refine their standards, Canvas needs to be flexible and versatile with our creative and business models.” By embracing the disruption, Tochterman and Su have become some of the top producers for premium digital short-form programming. From their scripted dramatic digital series, Vanity, to their upcoming Socio project, they are leaning into the opportunity that short form provides, focusing on creative issues, characters, and leveraging the format to their advantage by embracing short story arcs that are dramatically charged.

And that seems to be what younger, mobile-first audiences are seeking. In a Snapchat/Instagram world, millennials (and post-millennials) are finding their attention drawn to short, snappy, snackable content.  But given all the competition in the digital space, premium scripted programming is starting to stand out as a beacon for distributors looking for a way to cut through the noise and establish a beachhead with new audiences. The Television Academy saw this trend and recently created five new short-form Emmy categories specifically for scripted comedic and dramatic programs, non-scripted programs, and best actor and actress in a scripted short-form series.

Bernie Su, founder and producer,
Canvas Media Studio

David Totcherman, founder and
producer, Canvas Media Studios

Canvas certainly is taking advantage of this trend. No strangers to Emmys, Su has won two on his own for earlier digital series and Vanity was nominated last year.  This premium approach hasn’t just paid off with awards; eOne Television recently bought a stake in Canvas.  Canvas intends to use this investment to distribute, produce and finance premium scripted content for digital and traditional media, as well as emerging VOD and OTT platforms, while eOne Television will have first dibs to help produce and distribute the fare worldwide across all media. And this premium content is taking a cue from the reigning motion picture model—franchises. David Tochterman explains, “Our focus is on creating entertainment franchises.  Short-form is sometimes used purely for marketing, but that’s not our primary business.  We look at shorter form series as way to build IP value by connecting with younger, engaged audiences on digital-first platforms.”

But with all of this talk of a premium approach, keeping costs in check and managing digital productions require different thinking from traditional TV. Instead, short form tacks closer to an indie film production model, with small crews wearing multiple hats, living or dying on creative solutions to everything from production design to craft service. Retrofit’s Hanada believes that, in fact, the scale of production for digital is the essential distinction. Big crews just aren’t feasible. As quality increases, budgets will grow, but money is still very selectively targeted at key areas to increase production value. Tanner Kling explains, “Other than different guild and union rules, rates, etc., producing for this medium is just as challenging as traditional.  We still need to dot each “i” and cross each “t.”  That digital production is different or easier in some way has been one of the biggest misconceptions we’ve encountered since we started. The platform should not dictate the budget. The creative and the execution should. Often in digital, we end up backing the creative into a flat budget we’ve been given and it pains us creatively to have to cut the things that would make a show really pop. That said—I’ve yet to meet a producer that ever felt like they really had enough,” he laughs. “It’s our jobs to figure out how to maximize resources.”

Which brings us to how a short-form producer brings it all together. The producing team needs cohesion, vision and producing leadership to execute properly. Hanada notes, “The one thing that is different is that the digital projects often are more interesting creatively. You can be a bit more experimental with form and style in digital. Our cast and crew are often top-notch people and we usually can’t afford their usual rates, but they’re excited to be working on something new and fresh. It’s much easier to bring great crew on board when everyone is excited about the material. It also makes negotiating deals easier when I can tell anyone, be it in front of or behind the camera, ‘This is what I have, and it’s what everyone else is getting, so I can’t give any more. But it’ll be a good time with a good crew and we’ll make something special.’ I think everyone from the top on down sees the opportunities, and it’s a better experience and a better product when your cast and crew believe in what they’re doing and aren’t just punching the clock.”

At the end of the day, these new digital producers are excited by the new challenges and using them to their advantage in a shifting marketplace. The combination of high quality and smaller scale seems to be paying off for not just producers, but for audiences too. Making premium programming at flexible price points is the name of the game. With increasing distribution of short premium programming across mobile and OTT platforms, the investment from traditional companies into the space, and acknowledgement of the format by major industry organizations like the Television Academy, you can expect short-form to stick around for a long time.

- This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Produced By magazine.

Tags:  feature 

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UNCOMMON SENSE - The PGA's "Protect Your Team" Workshop Debuts In Atlanta

Posted By Jennifer Haire, Monday, May 8, 2017

“No... no. We need a stunt man,” Producer/director John Boorman told actor Burt Reynolds on the set of Deliverance. Reynolds had volunteered to do the stunt himself in a scene where his character Lewis rides his canoe over a waterfall. “We’ll just use a dummy! We’ll just throw a dummy over,” Boorman insisted. A young Reynolds fought to do the stunt himself and as expected, it led to injury. Boorman was at his bedside when he woke. “How’d it look?” Reynolds asked. “It looked like a dummy falling over a waterfall” replied Boorman.

Producer Mark Shelton shared this infamous story with over 75 members of the Georgia film & television community at the inaugural Producers Guild of America “Protect Your Team” Safety Task Force event on February 11th, 2017. “What does it mean to be safe?” Addressing this question, the event was designed for producing team members to empower them with the knowledge to be leading advocates for production safety. A safe production starts at the top.

The event was hosted at Eagle Rock Studios just outside of Atlanta, thanks to PGA Member and Eagle Rock Studios VP of Studio Operations Beth Talbert. Via a discussion-based format, four production safety experts led producers through recommended practices for developing a safety plan, highlighting the producer’s role as part of the safety team, as well as how to recognize and correct hazards. The event likewise included a thorough briefing on support resources available locally. The goal: to keep producers, cast and crew safe on the set. Speakers included IATSE Safety Committee Chair Kent Jorgensen; Contract Services Vice President for Production Affairs and Safety, Matt Antonucci (along with Jorgensen, also a Co-Chair of the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee); Margaret Burke, the Regional Director of Production Safety for 20th Century Fox; and independent producer and OSHA-authorized safety instructor Mark Shelton. Representatives from the community, including Jenny Houlroyd of the Georgia Tech Research Institute as well as Trish Taylor from the Georgia Production Partnership, contributed to the conversation.

Despite being the latest critical buzzword, safety is not a new topic for the entertainment industry. The Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee was formed in 1965 and is comprised of guild, union, and management representatives active in industry safety and health programs. They are responsible for researching, writing and making available the Safety Bulletins, seen attached to callsheets on many productions. These bulletins are recommended guidelines for safe practices on a set and cover both overarching concepts such as general safety as well as more specific high-hazard departments such as working with helicopters and airplanes.

From left: PGA Safety Task Force Co-Chair Jennifer Haire, event speaker Margaret Burke,
PGA Safety Task Force Co-Chair Melissa Friedman, PGA Atlanta Co-Chair Scott Thigpen,
event speakers Kent Jorgensen, Matt Antonucci, Mark Shelton

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) was established in 1971 as a result of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. A part of the US Department of Labor, OSHA is tasked with assuring safe and healthful working conditions by setting and enforcing standards for all employers and their workers, including producers of film and television. Many Safety Bulletins have OSHA standards at their core and blend entertainment industry practices with government standards for a safe workplace.

In the 1970s, Contract Services Administration Trust Fund (CSATF) was created as way to help educate filmmaking craftsmen and women through various programs for the motion picture and television industry. Around the mid 1990s, the studios of the AMPTP, as part of their collective bargaining agreement with IATSE and other entertainment craft organizations, created a voluntary safety program through CSATF. It wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that Contract Services required a mandatory safety training program for IATSE signatory productions. The Safety Pass program was created in collaboration with the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee “as a means of addressing the OSHA requirements that employees be trained (and the training documented) in the safe use of equipment and work practices on their job.” IATSE crew employed on signatory productions are required to take these special courses before they can be employed.

However, there is a substantial knowledge gap between the trained union crews and members of the producing community. The PGA saw the need for safety education for producers and their teams, addressing the issues from the producer’s perspective. On any production, it is vital that the cast and crew know that the producer is looking out for them and their well-being. They want to trust the person they are working for and know that they will not be unknowingly put in harm’s way. Union crews have been trained to recognize hazardous situations; would you recognize one on your set? Do you know how to protect your team? Members of the PGA Atlanta chapter do.

Safety demands can seem daunting. How can you know all of the laws and proper safety measures for every possible situation all the time? In short, hire an expert, use common sense and plan for Murphy. A basic understanding of how to recognize and correct an unsafe situation is essential knowledge for a responsible producer to make reasonable decisions. Are you shooting exteriors on a hot day? Provide shade and water. Are you working on roadways? Set up lane closures and provide reflective vests. Are there local poisonous indigenous critters in abundance? Hire a removal company to clear the area you are filming. The script takes place at sea? Hire a marine coordinator to handle the logistics. Need the character to ride a canoe over a waterfall? For God’s sake, use a dummy instead. Production is a training ground for adapting to constant change. No two days are the same. Plan for everything to go right; be prepared for it all to go wrong. A typical production day goes in a direction you didn’t expect. Have a safety plan for change. Develop your eye for safety and encourage your cast and crew to bring their concerns to your attention.

The PGA Safety Task force has compiled an ongoing list of helpful resource and information links, available on the Guild’s website at

The “Protect Your Team” seminar was additionally sponsored by MBS Equipment Co., Crazy Legs Productions and Decide Dekalb and was produced by PGA Atlanta Chapter Vice Chair Scott Thigpen as well as Melissa Friedman and Jennifer Haire, Co-Chairs of the PGA Safety Task Force.

The PGA Safety Task Force is currently developing a follow up program with an additional emphasis on doc/non-fiction/reality programming to be held second quarter 2017.


It was a November evening in 2009, when a handful of producers found themselves in the backroom of Manuel’s Tavern, an Atlanta institution where politicians, journalists and artists have been gathering since 1956. We came together that night at the request of our colleague, Tom Cappello, who pitched us the idea of starting a PGA chapter right here in the very heart of the South. Tom went onto say there was a fellow by the name of Vance who was coming to town who could explain things further. Soon after, we found ourselves listening, beers in hand, while Vance Van Petten expounded on the benefits of PGA membership and the virtues of becoming a part of this national organization. He explained that the PGA’s mission was to protect and promote people just like us. We ate it up, hungry for the camaraderie and professional support. Weeks later, many of us met again and filled out our PGA applications together. And by April 2010, the vetting was completed and the charter members of the PGA Atlanta chapter had been accepted into the Guild. We had become something; we just didn’t fully know what…yet. There were less than a dozen of us. The start was slow going at first, but we eventually found our way, with guidance from Mitzie Rothzied in the PGA East office, and through the encouragement of visiting members like Nelle Nugent, Gale Anne Hurd and Lydia Dean Pilcher. In the years since, we have elected chapter officers, formed committees, and organized many outstanding events, including the “Protect Your Team” safety workshop. Today, the Atlanta chapter is 100 members strong with a steady stream of networking opportunities, educational workshops and panel discussions. And like the rest of the production community in Atlanta, we see boundless opportunities ahead.  — SCOTT THIGPEN


- This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Produced By magazine.

Tags:  feature  safety 

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