7 min read

Q&A: Granny Cart, From School To Success

Q&A: Granny Cart, From School To Success
Storyhunters Elettra (left) and Léa, working on one of their many stories. Brooklyn — 2014. Photo by Sarah Shebaro.

Elettra Fiumi and Léa Khayata began working on their master’s project together at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and haven’t stopped since. Soon after graduating, they founded Granny Cart Productions and have landed 26 gigs and counting on Storyhunter, with publishers like shift by MSNBC and AOL. In all, they’ve worked on over 85 different video stories together since 2011.

We spoke to the New York City-based team about producing an entire series for shift by MSNBC, and about growing their company.

Storyhunter: What drew you to the shift by MSNBC assignment on Storyhunter calling for women empowerment stories?

Granny Cart: We’ve always had a particular interest in this topic and had already covered stories related to equality for other outlets, such as BBC America. So we already had a ton of ideas on this topic when we started pitching to MSNBC. The response so far has been great.

The key is that we cover not just stories about women who are empowering women, but stories of people who are doing great things, pushing boundaries, inspiring and leading change. They just so happen to be women.

SH: Tell us about how your relationship with MSNBC evolved.

GC: We started pitching stories to MSNBC as regular freelancers on Storyhunter. As soon as we completed our first story, our editor at MSNBC asked us to produce their weekly Breaking Glass, a former MSNBC Originals series that profiled women pushing boundaries in their fields and/or communities.

MSNBC has since adjusted its strategy, and merged its Originals videos to its Shift online programming. We are now still producing stories for MSNBC and other publications, but on a wider range of topics.

SH: Great segue: tell us about how you guys started working together. And we’re really curious — where did you get the name “Granny Cart”?

GC: We were already journalists when we met at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and there we learned our filmmaking skills together in 2010.

We had used a red granny cart to carry all our gear around on shoots during the winter, which made a lot of people laugh. It became a running joke. When we decided to create our production company, we named it after that famous cart that had saved the day so many times when we first started.

The original granny cart that carried the girls’ gear. (2011)

SH: Why did you decide to create a production company?

GC: We love having control over the whole creative process, from researching stories to filming and editing them as a team. So we decided to create a production company together to have the freedom to do it all.

Creating a production company from the get-go allowed us to build a brand over time. People usually remember our name and logo and like to comment on it. It allowed us to look much more professional when we were just starting, and has served us well since then.

SH: What are the challenges of working as a two-woman-band?

GC: Sometimes the churn of freelance life gets rough. We were told it takes three to five years to get established. As soon as we turned 3, work started pouring in. The timing was so perfect it almost seemed like a joke at the time. However, connections and reputation take time to mature into solid, regular work, and it’s hard to have that perspective when you’re just starting.

Once you start reaping the fruits of all the hard work you invested in the beginning, it all makes sense as you realize nothing goes to waste, even if it seemed like it for a moment.

SH: Can you explain what you mean by that?

GC: In the beginning, we poured a lot of time and energy into sending proposals, setting up meetings and generally talking to people about potential collaborations, and we still do. Although it might feel discouraging at times when projects don’t immediately become a reality, we’ve realized over time that people do come back to you, sometimes years later, when the time is right.

We work with DSLR cameras, which allows us to travel light on shoots and to be unobtrusive which often enables us to get closer to the subject. We sometimes still encounter cameramen who make derogatory comments on how small our gear is.

On the bright side, people remember us as they often don’t expect two women to show up for a shoot.

Léa (left) and Elettra, filming for shift by MSNBC, for a piece entitled “Kayaktivists’ fight Shell’s Arctic plan” (May 2015).

SH: Are there any situations in which you guys disagree on how to approach a story? How do you resolve those conflicts?

GC: For the most part, we have very similar sensibilities and values. Having that common basis helps us move forward. Even if there are disagreements, we go back to that common basis. If we have a disagreement on who should be the main character, for instance, or who is the best teller of the story, we’ll just talk about it, and weigh out the pros and the cons. If it’s a disagreement in the editing process, one of us just gives up and accepts the other’s suggestions. Sometimes we just take turns on who takes the lead on a project based on which of us cares the most about it.

We don’t let our egos and pride get in the way of the partnership. Above all, we’re friends. There’s respect and a bond that seeps into our work.

SH: What gear do you use right now?

GC: We’re currently using Canon 60Ds. We’re testing out the Alpha S-7 and are maybe waiting for the new Sony camera to come out. We’ve also shot with the C100, but would prefer to invest in a camera with 4K capability.

Léa gets creative on a shoot about letterpress for BBC. (2014)

SH: Does any specific story that you’ve worked on stand out?

GC: The most fulfilling story was a profile we did on Liza Donnelly, a cartoonist at The New Yorker. Through a profile of one woman and her work, we were able to showcase the dynamics between gender and humor while discussing International political issues she addresses in her cartoons. It was both intimate and global.

SH: What challenges did you encounter with producing that story?

GC: We were focused on translating her creative process in a visual way, but so much happens in the artist’s mind before it gets thrown on paper. We spent the whole day with Liza Donnelly in her studio and at her house. We let her work as if we were not there. It ended up taking more time than simply setting up nice shots to only capture her drawing and call it a day, but the end result was so much more in depth and accurate. Since these are non-narrated pieces, we made sure to have the interviewee explain everything in a very practical and detailed manner. While editing, we focused on the silence in her studio, played with some music and elaborated on the various steps of her work.

SH: Now that the work is pouring in, what are some new challenges you face?

GC: Juggling different projects with different requirements and deadlines is the trickiest part but working in a team of two helps so we can divide responsibilities, clients and be accountable for each other. Time management and staying organized is key. As we’ve grown, we’ve also started hiring freelancers to help so that our team grows to adapt to the work load but we remain flexible at the core.

It’s both exhausting and refreshing. Something we’re becoming better at is the time between when you’re wrapping up stories and you need to go back to pitching mode. We’re usually working on 2–3 stories at once. As we’re wrapping them up, we’re thinking about the next round. That’s a hard brain exercise. We’re always meeting with people, keeping in touch with people that we’re in touch with. Reading, contacting new people. It never ends.

Sometimes we’re juggling such different material. Some topics are very serious and some are very light. The editing style we use is often really different for each piece. It keeps us flexible and evolving. Every week is different from the last. Each client presents us with a different challenge and audience. The variety of work keeps us on our toes.

Granny Cart regularly posts their filmmaking photos on their @grannycart Instagram account. Check them out.

SH: In addition to editorial work, you also take on some corporate and advertising projects. Tell us about that.

GC: Doing non-editorial work seems to activate another side of our brain. It’s fun to do both. In the beginning, we spent time trying to figure out how to keep them separate. We were always questioning ourselves and were terrified of doing something wrong and compromising our reputation as journalists. But as projects have come on, we haven’t had issues overlapping. It’s very clear to us what is journalism and what is not.

To our clients, we always present ourselves as journalists. We’re not just camera people. We are storytellers. Over time, we’ve been working with people and clients who really value those skills. We’re looking for genuine videos, not ones that are heavily scripted. We look for projects that require a natural, authentic vibe to the story.

SH: Lastly, can you share some of your best filmmaking tips?

  • Be aware of the space you’ll be filming in and its possible challenges such as lighting and be ready to tackle it (for example by bringing the right lenses).
  • Keep on trying to come up with creative camera angles. Beware of habits!
  • Always go close. Close-ups are fundamental.
  • Always get a solid wide shot. Context is just as fundamental.
  • Go behind the scenes to capture what the average viewer has never seen.
  • Let the action happen and capture movement.
  • Film a process.
  • Be sensitive to the environment and how those visuals speak to your story.
  • The interviewees need to be very descriptive to fill in all the information needed to build a coherent story, especially when doing non-narrated pieces. This includes both practical details and the philosophy behind the story.
  • Have fun with the editing!

Elettra and Léa were recently awarded a grant from the Graham Foundation to continue working on a long-form documentary called “A Florentine Man”. It features Elettra’s father who, among other accomplishments, invented the first digital subtitling system and started the Florence Film Festival.