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How Did This Director and DP Find Success in 2020 Despite Odds?

Nic Davis is one of Storyhunter’s most successful freelancers of 2020. He’s a Los Angeles-based director and DP with his own production…
How Did This Director and DP Find Success in 2020 Despite Odds?
Nic Davis (far left) directing a documentary in White Sulphur Springs, Montana.

Nic Davis is one of Storyhunter’s most successful freelancers of 2020. He’s a Los Angeles-based director and DP with his own production company called 4:08 Productions. The pandemic forced him to postpone the theatrical release of his first feature film, Enormous: The Gorge Story, now set to release in the summer of 2021. Despite this initial setback, he found success during the pandemic by taking on projects through Storyhunter and working on branded documentary content for Cadillac and Citizen Watches through 60 Second Docs. He delves into the opportunities and challenges of producing branded content and shares how remote video production allowed him to work more globally than ever before.

Shivan: When the pandemic hit, how did you recalibrate your work?

Nic: In March of last year, everything dropped off. I’m directing a feature documentary on the Gorge Amphitheater. This music venue is called the Gorge and it’s one of the best in the world. You’ve just got this incredible view, backdrop and then this 30,000 person music venue. We’ve got this really cool film with Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam and Jason Mraz.

It’s the first feature documentary that I’ve directed. It was supposed to go to 400 theaters around North America on April 28, 2020. That came crumbling down because theaters weren’t open in April of last year. It definitely started with “What is going to happen? What are we going to do with this film? What is going to go on in the production world, with the rest of my work?” From there I wound up doing a variety of remote projects. I remote produced and directed shoots around the world. Even though we were hindered in our ability to travel, I was able to work more globally than I ever had before.

Shivan: Can you expand on that? How were you able to connect more globally?

Nic: There was a huge project that came through Storyhunter. It was for this huge global tech conference, InsureTech Connect, that had to figure out how to do a tech conference without meeting in person. So, I was working with Cat [Stuart] as one of her show runners and I was executive producing a series of content featuring all these different businesses and brands. We were able to hire a cinematographer in Tel Aviv through Storyhunter and then I directed and produced it.

Shivan: You mentioned that the pandemic hit and the release date of your feature film was pushed back. What happened next? How did you go on to find success in 2020 despite the pandemic?

Nic: The feature film’s theatrical release got postponed, which was a big shift. We had sold $30,000 in tickets and we’re having to now restructure. How did I find success? It’s always been just hard work, honestly. It’s hard work and then just loving what I do. Those are really the keys for me. I’ve been hustling in this industry for a long time. It’s cool now, after working so hard to finally be, even in the midst of this pandemic, having more success. I’ve had my busiest six months probably ever where I’ve got three feature documentaries I’m directing and a bunch of brand content that I’m working on. I started shooting, producing, and directing in 2011. It’s been a while of hitting the pavement, working hard, honing my craft and then building my network and people who can trust my work so that they know that I’m going to deliver. It’s a cool place to be where I feel like I’ve been working so hard that now I’ve finally built a body of work. This industry can humble you a lot. It’s so competitive and so passion-driven. If you don’t love it, there are so many other things you probably should do that are going to pay you a lot better and are going to be a lot easier.

Shivan: What kind of stories are you drawn to telling?

Nic: There’s almost always a cool story to be told with whatever company there is. Everyone has a story. I’m not necessarily looking for X, Y, and Z stories. It’s more about, “Is there the budget there? Is there the team there to really dig in to figure out what that story is that we want to tell?” It’s amazing to me that we all have these incredible stories that only we know about. You’ve lived this whole life of heartbreaks and successes that I know nothing about. If we had the time we could uncover that. I feel that’s true with everything. It’s true with every business, every brand, every person. And so it’s more a matter of digging in to figure out what that is than “Oh, I’m laser focused on telling stories about social justice.” I like to have a good budget and a good team and figure it out. I like that creative process.

Shivan: You mentioned working on branded content. What’s that experience been like for you?

Nic: I love branded content. For a while, there was sort of a rift in documentary film where some people don’t think of branded content as true documentary film. And it’s not. It’s definitely its own creation. I love it because I’ve always been fascinated by brand stories, by commercial content. But, my background is as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. To me, it’s a really cool marriage because in branded content you have the ability to really dial in the look and the story. You can get a little more cinematic with it. I love raw on the ground stuff, but I tend to shoot more cinematic documentary content. So, it’s a cool space for me because it provides more money, which usually brings in a better team to create higher-level work.

Shivan: What’s important to keep in mind when working on branded content? What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Nic: When you’re dealing with branded content, one of the challenges is you’re not able to move quite as nimbly as you often can on a non-commercial or non-agency shoot. In a documentary environment, it’s usually just the people who are shooting the project and then the subject. But in the branded world, you’ve then got this brand attached, which provides limitations. They obviously have a look that they want and they have an ecosystem that it needs to fit into. And that is totally legitimate, not to talk them down at all because their perspective is extremely valuable. It’s marrying the documentary sensibility, that director’s sensibility of telling a great story, with the vision they have for their brand. It’s not just you running around shooting whatever you want to shoot, you have to account for this other arm of the project.

Shivan: How have you leaned into remote video production? Can you describe one remote project you worked on and how it all came together?

Nic: We’ve been lucky enough to do quite a few remote projects. We’ve learned a lot throughout that process. The first major one we did was ITC [InsureTech Connect], which was seven shoots literally around the world. So, we were shooting in Tel Aviv, Ottawa, Canada, New York, LA, Minnesota. We really learned a lot from that workflow. A lot of it comes down to hiring, making sure you feel really comfortable with your DP on-site, and taking the time to select the right person. I have my own company, 4:08 Productions, and we have some amazing producing staff. So, my producers provide the DPs with everything they need, all the logistical and creative information, and make sure we are all on the same page. Then I monitor the look and the feel of the content that they’re shooting. For all of those shoots, I was patched in on a monitor asking them questions. So, I could still be there making sure we were getting the responses we wanted, engaging with them.

Nic on the set of a live session shoot with musician JP Saxe in Los Angeles, Calif.

Shivan: In normal circumstances, would you be there as well? Were your producers on-site?

Nic: My producers weren’t there, they were remote producing. We had our remote producing team that would create all these documents and prep every DP that went on location. This was still pretty early on in the pandemic and we were trying to be safe and have as minimal a crew as possible.

Shivan: What tools did you use for remote production?

Nic: The two-way directing system is pretty clutch. There is a little box [called a capture card] that you can essentially go from computer to camera so that you can see the live feed of the camera on your computer. That’s the nifty tool we used on a couple of the bigger brand shoots where they actually want to see the image. The two-way directing system is huge. Just to feel like you are in the room with that person.

Shivan: How has remote production changed for you? Are there some aspects of remote production that you found more efficient and will stick to once life returns to normal?

Nic: We’ll definitely go back to the former whenever we can. There’s something to be said for being in the room. It’s just more efficient in terms of interacting with the crew and checking framing and making minute adjustments. That’s a little harder digitally. But yes, a hundred percent I actually really loved the process of remote directing and producing. I found that it put me in a good headspace where I could really focus on the creative and on the content that we were shooting. Instead of having to worry about a hundred things on location, I could just be at home and review a couple of shots from the DP. Then sit and think about it. The pace was slower for me. It enabled me to really focus more on my role as a director. When I’m on set, I’m worried about a hundred other things like “Where’s lunch? How’s everyone feeling?” and “It’s hot in here.”

Shivan: What advice do you have for other creatives who are delving into remote producing and directing?

Nic: Pre-production is even more critical because you need to have everything really dialed in when you’re sending someone out. You want to ensure that the person gets the best content possible and that they have everything they need. They should have a really good sense of what we’re looking for.

Shivan: How did you use Storyhunter during the pandemic?

Nic: Storyhunter has been huge for me. It’s been an amazing platform ever since I moved to LA. I moved to LA pretty cold, didn’t really have any contacts out here. And one of my first gigs was through Storyhunter for The Weather Channel. I was shooting the Montecito floods a few years ago that was happening in Santa Barbara. From there on out, Storyhunter has been an incredible source of connecting me with amazing brands, companies, super unique projects. Then during the pandemic, the ITC project was one of my biggest projects of 2020, if not my biggest. It was on par with some of our feature films in terms of budget and time commitment. It was a big deal for last year. Storyhunter has been killing it.

Shivan: It’s safe to say, you’re killing it on Storyhunter. Besides ITC, what other projects did you work on through Storyhunter?

Nic: I did a shoot through Storyhunter for Seeker. It was for their series Wild Crime, which is basically about crime against animals and wild animal populations, for example, the ivory trade. We were filming with dogs in Montana that are trained to sniff out ivory from cars. It was really fascinating to go to this small ranch in Montana and film dog trainers. For Brut, I was in LA. We were covering the BLM protests, which is pretty amazing and powerful and a really cool experience to be a part of and help document. It was obviously a huge moment for the country.

Shivan: How can other creatives navigate this uncertain time?

Nic: For me, it’s always boiled down to working hard and putting in the time. One thing I try and do my best at is communicating with the client really well, doing my best to just take care of them and make sure they know exactly what I’m planning to do and that we’re on the same page. I think it has set me apart from a lot of technical DPs who maybe don’t have that communication skill. I think people appreciate that because we all want to know that we’re on the same page instead of not hearing from the guy they sent out in the field and hoping it’s going okay. So, taking care of your clients, working hard, and making the best content you can. When I was just getting started with Storyhunter, having the platform to be able to get some of those first jobs out here was huge. If you’re really young and you’re just getting started, do whatever you can for free and just get on set.

Shivan: From what you are saying, there are still a lot of opportunities out there despite the pandemic whether it’s through Storyhunter or getting creative and filming something at home.

Nic: There are some companies that are even doing more now. We’re cranking, which is awesome. So, look for those companies that are creating content. The pandemic has accelerated the trends towards hiring smaller crews and documentary crews, which is what we are. For 4:08 Productions, I’m more of a director. So, I’ll use Storyhunter to hire talent. It’s been super interesting this year using it more on the other end, searching for people and hiring them.

I just appreciate the platform. Storyhunter has been huge in my career in getting me connected with some of my favorite clients of all time and really catapulting me to another level of directing and shooting.

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Interviewed by Shivan Sarna, Head of Stories