Starting a Video Project? Here’s How To Approach the Creative Process
Storyhunter Michael Peay founded his full-service production company, Reframe, with the idea that stories can change the world. Alongside his partner Chelsea, Reframe has created videos for the Gates Foundation, Malala Fund, United Nations, and brands such as Viacom and AT&T.
We chatted with Michael about Reframe’s mission, the video production process, managing tight budgets, critical pre-production questions, and more.
Shivan: What is Reframe’s ethos?
Michael: Reframe was founded on the belief that stories can change the world. Chelsea and I wanted to place most of our focus on social and environmental impact storytelling for nonprofits and for brands. Whether it’s working for big nonprofits that are doing doc storytelling as part of their mission or in branded content, where human storytelling can be a part of their marketing.
We’ve been around for six years and while we still do that, we’ve expanded greatly. And we’ve recognized that our skills in producing content applies to commercial and branded content really well. And that’s what has allowed our business to thrive and to still take on those meaningful projects even when they don’t necessarily have the budget. Now we do all sorts of branded content, commercial work, and are starting to move into television. The branded content is 80 percent of our time in a year.
Shivan: What are some of the projects you’ve worked on for NGOs?
Michael: One of the first big projects we did was through Storyhunter and it was for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We created five films in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia profiling women leaders in their communities and the work they were doing for their community. We profiled a woman in Southeast Asia who was creating micro loans for women in her communities to start small businesses. We went to Mumbai, India and profiled a woman who was campaigning for women’s reproductive health rights. The budget was smaller than some of the branded content we’ve done, but enough to send teams out to all these places.
Shivan: Can you give some insight into the production process?
Michael: The Gates Foundation has an amazing network of organizations around the world. The biggest way they operate is by giving money to smaller NGOs and charities. They helped us with the casting because they had feet on the ground in all of these places. They put together a whole list of options and we were able to weigh in on who would be the best and why. Then our team wrote the stories for each woman. Here’s the story we want to tell and here’s how we’ll do it. We hired the filmmaking teams, rented the gear, booked the travel, and worked directly with the talent in pre-production. We then handled all of post-production with client input along the way, and delivered it off to the Gates Foundation. They’re experts in their fields. They had a lot of really good input, but it was up to us to say, “here’s all the facts and information. Here’s how we put it together in a compelling story in film format.”
Shivan: You’ve found awesome projects through Storyhunter. How else do you use the platform?
Michael: I find Storyhunter particularly useful for when I’m outside of places I’ve worked before. I shoot a lot in New York and in LA, but in the past five years, I’ve shot in so many cities outside of the top five in the US from Beirut to Minneapolis. Sometimes you don’t need to hire a whole crew for a big commercial shoot. Sometimes you need two people who can run a camera, a very simple light set up and sound, and who know how to be Swiss Army knife people. Storyhunter is really helpful to find those amazing doc shooters.
“Storyhunter is really helpful to find those amazing doc shooters…who know how to be Swiss Army knife people.”
Shivan: You’ve worked with companies of all sizes and who have varying budgets. How do you produce compelling content on tight budgets?
Michael: I can share my expertise with clients on how the budget is going to affect the creative. My goal in the very early days is to find a creative concept that we can execute with their budget well rather than trying to stretch it and do that concept poorly. Some people think the higher a production budget, the more money a producer or someone is stuffing in their pocket. And maybe in some worlds that’s slightly true, but really production is a low margin business. Most of the money is going towards crew gear and travel resources. So, less money just means a smaller crew, less camera and lights, and so on. If the budget is smaller, let’s strip the art department and go with more of a doc style. This concept requires five people, let’s look at it with two instead. You do all these things up ahead, so by the time you get to the shoot even if it’s smaller, you can create something cool and engaging that hits the mark.
Shivan: When is it best for a brand to opt for a full-service production crew versus hiring individual freelancers?
Michael: If you’re an NGO or organization and you’re looking to do something on the bigger side, look for a production company, they’ll bring in the team that you need and they’ll be able to manage the project with you in the best way. If you’re doing something smaller or you’re trying to really stretch your money, then look for the small filmmaking teams, the doc filmmaker, who has a friend or two that they work with all the time and they can do everything for you. It’s going to be a little bit more of an organic experience doing it that way, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not going to create an amazing film. It’ll just be different.
“Even if they’re a beautiful filmmaker, if the communication chain fails, the project can fail.”
Shivan: What are the questions a brand needs to ask before starting a project?
Michael: Do I like their work? Do I think they can create compelling films? Is it at a production quality level that we’re expecting on this? Ask what they’ve done before and who they’ve worked with before and how big the organization is. Basically the bigger the organization they’ve worked with, the more people and management outside of picking up the camera that they had to do. There’s a whole half of the project that is just communication and project management. And if you’re a nonprofit and you’ve got a team of stakeholders involved in the project and it has formal rounds of feedback, make sure the filmmaking team that you’re going to work with, whether it’s a company or a freelancer, has done that before. Even if they’re a beautiful filmmaker, if the communication chain fails, the project can fail.
You want to make sure the team doing the film isn’t just making something pretty and interesting, but specifically hitting the points you need it to. And that involves a lot of conversations and feedback rounds before, during, and after the shoot and post production, especially.
Shivan: On the flip side, what questions does a freelancer need to ask a client?
Michael: It’s asking the right questions early on. Why are you making this video? Is it part of a larger campaign? Do you have a communications plan around this? What are the key points you’re trying to address? Where’s this video ultimately going to live? Who’s the target audience? All of those things will affect how you craft the creative. You can make an amazing video for a nonprofit that’s totally off base for what they’re trying to do with it. They are not making it to make it, they’re making it for a purpose.
Shivan: These are all great points to keep in mind. Thank you so much for your time.
Looking to hire talented video professionals on Storyhunter for your next project? Our Head of Community Success, Lena, shares three tips that’ll help you find the right person for the job: