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Friday, 06 February 2009 14:14

Crewing the Production

Written by  Iain Blair
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Crew from Maslow Media on set in Salt Lake City Photo courtesy of Maslow MediaCrews come in all shapes and sizes, but Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer says there’s one aspect of crewing a production that always remains the same: “A cohesive team is absolutely essential, and finding and hiring the right crew can make the difference between success and failure,

Crew from Maslow Media on set in Salt Lake City Photo courtesy of Maslow MediaCrews come in all shapes and sizes, but Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer says there’s one aspect of crewing a production that always remains the same: “A cohesive team is absolutely essential, and finding and hiring the right crew can make the difference between success and failure, both in the end result and in the experience itself.”

“Getting the right crew with the right abilities for a production is absolutely critical,” says director Jon Avnet. “Without it, it’s very difficult to execute your vision of whatever project you’re doing.” These guys know whereof they speak –– together they have 50 years of experience in making movies and television programs. Grazer, whose credits include Best Picture Oscar-winner A Beautiful Mind, is currently in postproduction on Angels & Demons and most recently produced Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling.

“Both Ron and Clint are masters at hiring great teams and keeping them from film to film,” notes Grazer. “I get pretty involved in crewing, but a lot of it [comes] down to a director’s relationship with his DP, editor and so on, and temperament and experience and talent are all crucial elements. You also need team players, because we’re all on this team together. Talent is essential, naturally, but team spirit is also critical in your crew.”

Grazer stresses that a good line producer is also critical to the crewing process. “Ron and I’ve worked with Todd Hallowell for 16 years now and I totally trust his judgment –– and his taste –– when it comes down to crews,” he says. “He shoots some of our second-unit stuff, and his belief in a crew member is essential for Ron and I to move forward on a shoot.”

Avnet has a similar approach. He’s written, produced and directed nearly 60 motion pictures, television movies and Broadway plays over the last 25 years, including box-office hits Risky Business, Fried Green Tomatoes and Up Close and Personal (starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer), and the critically acclaimed Uprising and The Burning Bed for television. And, like Grazer and other top directors and producers, Avnet knows that “one of the unusual things about the film business is just how collaborative it is, and how dependent you are on your crew and their abilities.”

            Avnet most recently directed Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and 50 Cent in Righteous Kill, and he’s currently prepping “Bunker Hill,” a pilot he’ll shoot in Boston for Turner Network Television. Like directors Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, Avnet stays loyal to the key crewmembers that have worked with him for years. “So I’m using the same keys that did Righteous Kill, starting with my longtime DP Denis Lenoir,” says Avnet. “He’s obviously the crucial person in terms of how we approach shooting. Then I will also bring my production designer, Tracey Gallacher, who’s done my last eight films, my first AD Linda Montanti, my costume designer Debra McGuire, my editor Julie Monroe and my producing partner Marsha Oglesby, as well as stunt coordinator Buddy Lee Hooker. If I’m doing stunts and Buddy’s there, it’s less likely that you’ll have problems, as he’s a world-class stunt coordinator.”

            Avnet will adjust his crew preferences depending on availability and location. Prior to Righteous Kill, he directed and executive-produced “The Starter Wife,” the Emmy-nominated, six-hour limited series that was shot in Australia for the USA Network. “So I hired Geoffrey Simpson, an Australian DP who’d shot Fried Green Tomatoes for me and some other films, and flew in Tracey, Debra and Linda as well,” Avnet recalls. “And then you hire locals to fill out the crew.”

Avnet’s career has taken him literally all over the world –– he worked in South Africa with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and interviewed him in his home in Soweto after his release, and, in preparation for the film Red Corner with Richard Gere, he’s dealt with aiding Chinese dissidents in Beijing shortly after the Tiananmen Square protests. “When you shoot abroad, it’s good to check with other directors and producers and get some reliable contacts,” Avnet says. “And crewing agencies and the Internet, especially sites like IMDb, are all good resources. But usually, nothing beats good word-of-mouth and your own contacts.”

           In addition to resources like the Producers Guild, the DGA, IMDb and Creative Handbook, filmmakers can also depend on several top crewing agencies, such as the Maslow Media Group (MMG) in Washington, D.C. Founder and CEO Linda Maslow reports that MMG has been offering clients a full-service connection for crewing needs since 1988, and that the company has had “a very good year, with a lot of growth and four production managers working constantly.” One of them, Laura Anderson, says that MMG has been busy crewing jobs both nationwide and internationally, “in six to eight countries, as well as every state in the union.”

MMG has an internal database of over 8,000 pre-qualified field and studio crews. The company has booked crews for commercials, documentaries, training, news and educational packages in Jerusalem, London and Mexico, as well as small regions in Canada, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Paris. They also get requests from Haiti and Puerto Rico. In the U.S., MGM has booked an average of three field crews per day, ranging from Betacam SP and HD VariCam crews to HD MiniDV and XD camera crews, for jobs across the country.

“We’re doing every sort of job, from a single Avid editor for one day, to doing big script-to-screen shoots with full crews,” reports Anderson. “Recent big jobs include a Flash Gordon-type, sci-fi re-creation for a 30-minute show done in Salt Lake City, with 12 actors and 20 crew, so it was a big deal.” MMG also recently did a big PSA script-to-screen job featuring Gary Sinise for the Department of Veteran Affairs. “We provided the whole HD crew and post team, and it was shot in L.A. on the set of ‘CSI: New York,’ and then posted back here in D.C. at Video Solutions,” Anderson adds. The resulting 15-, 30- and 60-second PSAs will be released nationally in theaters and on major networks. MMG has also been busy providing DigiBetacam crews and still photographers in Dallas, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Boston, New Jersey and New York as part of a large project called “Mass Transit IED Threat” for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Network.

The president of Denver-based Crew Connection, Heidi McLean, has been crewing productions for the past two decades. “The past year has been very, very good, which is surprising as we’ve all been watching the economy fall apart,” she says. “But somehow we’ve managed to maintain the level of bookings of our very best years.” McLean attributes this to “a healthy increase” in the number of outlets for media and video production, as well as distribution. “There are more methods and means, and more buyers out there,” she explains. “The company does a mix of national and international business, and while our clientele is still mainly U.S.-based, we do a huge amount of international crewing and shooting, as so many of our clients require that. I’d say that a good 20 percent of our shoots are outside the States, ranging from Canada to China.”

Crew Connection does a mix of corporate production and broadcast television. “There’s been a huge change in formats, so much so that it often leads to confusion,” McLean notes. “It’s a long way from the days when the industry standard was Beta SP and that was it. Now there is no standard. It depends on what the client wants to shoot on, and that, in turn, makes the crewing a bit more of a challenge, as we’re not only looking for the perfect crew match in terms of style and personality, but [we] have to keep the equipment as a key part of the picture. So we do a lot of MiniDV, as well as a lot of the larger formats, such as HD and DVCPRO50. And we do all formats of HD.”

Crew Connection’s Emily Baker factors in the current economic climate. “It's all about cutting costs and increasing value,” she explains. “We are a great resource for companies during lean times. When clients book a local crew through Crew Connection, they don't have the expenses associated with traveling their own crew, such as airfare, hotels, per diems and so on. We've been in business for 20 years and have long-standing relationships with our crews, so clients can be confident they are getting tried-and-true professionals. This is especially the case with international productions. We are currently booking a series of corporate testimonials in Bangalore, Madrid, Ratingen [Germany], Singapore and Tokyo, all for the same week. Using our services on an overseas, multi-city project like this definitely helps our clients keep their budgets under control. When ‘The Daily Show’ brought their production to Denver for two weeks to cover the DNC, we were able to equip them with several local crews, sparing them the cost and hassle of putting up additional people. We've also provided crews for AMC’s coverage of ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ the Twilight premiere and Body of Lies. In addition, we regularly crew shoots for ‘The Biggest Loser,’ ‘The Bachelor,’ ‘Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?’ ‘House Hunters’ and ‘Untamed and Uncut.’” 

The crewing business over the past year has also been “extremely robust” at the Boston-based CrewStar, according to Joe Maiella, senior VP of marketing and sales. “It’s always interesting to see the cycles and how some sectors are more active than others,” he says. “But, in general, there’s been a good upturn in production, both at home and in our international markets.” CrewStar has been supplying crews since 1994, and Maiella reports that the latest crewing trend is a big demand for HD crews. “That’s what everyone seems to want now, even though there are still a lot of formats and choices out there,” he explains. “HD has really become the big growth area for us, for our clients and on-site video capture. Recent jobs include crewing shoots for travel shows and themed programs, such as ‘Best Beaches’ or ‘Most Exotic Destinations,’ that kind of thing. So we’ve been crewing for a lot of entertainment clients. We’ve also had a lot of corporate clients who are still doing on-site video capture of their executive announcements, as well as sales events and coverage, some in standard locations in the U.S. and others in exotic locations abroad. So, overall, it’s been a very good mix of corporate clients and entertainment clients who supply the Discovery Channel and those kinds of outlets.” 

Maiella goes on to note that production in the Northeast has steadily grown over the past two years, and that recent strong tax incentives in the region have helped to spur production as well. “And now we have Plymouth Rock Studios all set to go, and I think that’s going to bring a lot of work to a lot of people,” he adds. “It’s an exciting venture and especially good news for the local Massachusetts production community. It’s a big deal, and will attract a lot of business from out of state as well as local work for our Boston production companies.”

At Assignment Desk in Chicago, President Bill Scheer reports that business over the past year has been up from ’07. “[This] is surprising given the state of the economy,” he says. “The company has a wide mix of clients, from ad agencies and PR firms to TV and corporations. Basically we do it all, from behind-the-scenes for DVDs to sports and political jobs. We also do a lot of international work, and over the 16 years we’ve been in business, we’ve probably crewed and shot in every country in the world.”

In 2008, Assignment Desk crewed jobs worldwide, from London and Manila to China, Taipei and Dubai. “[In Dubai,] we streamed a live operation using three camera crews and a translator to medical facilities around the globe,” says Scheer. “We do a lot of HD now, but we also work in every format, whatever the client needs.”

Scheer sums up current business trends: “The crewing business overall is pretty healthy now, and downsizing helps our industry. When big corporations cut back, it just makes sense to outsource –– and with one call, they get everything they need.”

Assignment Desk


Creative Handbook

Crew Connection

CrewStar, Inc.

Maslow Media Group, Inc.



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