5.01.2015

About video production

I took my second digital video class this semester, and the instructor said we can get extra credit if we talk to someone at a video production company and write an essay about it. So I contacted an established business in Chicago: Big Shoulders, which is a full-service production house. They do all kinds of production for various clients, and do live broadcasts as well. They have three locations: one in the Hancock building, one on Wacker and Michigan, and a warehouse in Alsip. On the day I visited the Hancock location, they were broadcasting a live satellite tour. A man was sitting in front of an image of the Chicago skyline, and he spoke to TV outlets throughout the country.

Big Shoulders doesn’t own any shows but provides whatever is needed to get projects done. Several people work there, so the company usually doesn’t have to hire freelancers, unlike other production companies that are headed by one or two people who staff each project with lots of freelancers. Usually employees are assigned to one aspect of a project, including motion graphics, camera crews, audio engineering, editing, and graphic design.

I talked to Jeff Tudor, who is an executive producer. He has worked in TV news with CNN, and also freelanced with crews in Chicago. As part of managing projects at the company, he has to set the budget. In order to efficiently budget a project, he has to know the day rate of the employees, overall labor costs, how long it will take to shoot and edit, and allow for extra time in case there are problems at the location (such as sound) or if the talent makes mistakes. A project includes a budget, production schedule, shooting which takes 10 to 12 hours a day, photography, building sets, and post-production. Editing could take up to two weeks, and the company usually uses Avid (by the way, he said if you don’t know Avid, skills from other computer programs translate). If clients have a smaller budget, more inexperienced people are assigned to work on it and cheaper cameras are used.

He said that video is a small community, so it’s important to network and get to know people in the industry. A good way to build relationships is to make friends and to listen, and as you work on crews, you can meet people who will tell you about opportunities. Big production houses have cocktail parties and seasonal events, so people can connect there, too. He said the best way to build a network is to do an internship. Big Shoulders has internships for students and an extern program for people who are already out of school. Doing an internship or externship is a great way to gain skills and demonstrate your proficiency because that’s how they usually hire people. He also said people should get to know the scheduling departments of production companies to find opportunities.

He said a person’s reel should be a one-and-a-half minute compilation of their best, most recent segments. If you work behind the scenes and aren’t involved in imaging or other work that can be represented visually, then use photos that show you working in a studio. If you’re too busy to update your reel, you should compile notes about what you want to put in the reel when you have more time to do it. It’s also important to be on LinkedIn so that potential employers can easily see your experience.

Overall, you should be professional, easy to work with, and open to new opportunities. Jeff said his friend was a boom operator on many shoots, and because he was always on a set, he was able to watch people work. He learned a lot, and is now a director. So just observing the whole process helped him move ahead. What I found interesting was that Jeff said the industry in Chicago isn’t really competitive. People get along and just focus on doing their jobs. He said that Chicago is a friendly, hard-working place, and people are open to sharing information and talking about projects. That is very different from radio, which is a competitive, shrinking business full of insecurity. He also said that while LA is more entertainment-oriented, Chicago is varied, where people do independent and corporate films. He said he likes working in the business because it’s collaborative, fun, creative, and every day is different.

4.24.2015

Rare newsletter

I've been getting newsletters from various people and companies for a while, and I've even written newsletters. But recently I got a really good newsletter from Dobie Maxwell, who's a comedian. You'd think his newsletters would be light, funny, and even superficial, but his latest newsletter has a lot of honesty that is rare.

Usually newsletters, even end-of-year holiday letters, are filled with positive information that is also self-congratulatory to make the reader feel impressed. But Dobie's newsletter from this month has sincere feelings that are pretty much never seen in newsletters or in those boastful holiday cards that make the family seem extraordinary. Such honesty is also rare nowadays in blogs (which I've mentioned before), but he's consistently written such posts at his blog, too (though he discontinued it last year to write a book).

Anyway, he said I can post an excerpt from his newsletter, so here it is:
My whole life is taking on a new direction of late, and I’m not 100% sure where it’s going but I know I’m really liking it. Gone forever are the days when I devoted the all of my being to chasing the dream of being an entertainer. No more being on the road 45 to 50 weeks a year – year after year after year. I’ve had my fill of that.

The thrill of being on stage is still fun, but only to a degree. When I’m off stage I am finding there is a lot more to life than just trying to get to the next gig. There is a huge price that comes with chasing the showbiz dream, and I just don’t think it’s worth it – at least not for me. I feel myself yearning to experience new challenges.

One of if not the most delightful things that has happened in my life has been the continuing reconnection with my siblings. It has been exactly what I have wanted since I was a small child, and having it happen has been nothing short of a miracle. I never thought it was possible, but after a lifetime of waiting it really is happening.

Not caring in the least what happens show business wise has ironically given me a new found power I have never felt before. There is all kinds of sucking up to be done to people of questionable integrity, and that’s pretty much what show biz is. I never enjoyed that part of it, and it has showed. I have managed to alienate myself with more than one “powers that be”, and that has caused undue pain and stress.

Now, I could not care less about any of that. The people that don’t like me aren’t going to change their opinion any time soon, so why try to change their minds? I’m not going to let them control my ultimate destiny, even though they think they do.

They might be able to book or not book me for some comedy shows, but that’s as far as it goes. They can’t stop the growth of my soul, and that’s what has happened in this past year with my family reconnection. There is a part of me that was asleep for decades, and now it’s wide awake and enjoying life. Comedy can’t touch that.

The newsletter is longer than what I've posted here, and if you want to sign up for them, email him at dobiemaxwell@aol.com

4.10.2015

A good writing gig

I was going to name this post "The Best Writing Gig" but I decided against it because I don't know if "best" is possible in anything. But for the past year, I've been a news writer at one of the most successful news radio stations in the US, and probably the top radio station in Chicago.

I've been writing for several years for different companies, and because I'm not an introvert, it's been sort of tough in some situations because there wasn't much, or any, in-person human contact. I assumed that's how writing is, which is why I've never done it full time. However, when I got the news writing gig, I discovered it had these positive elements:

1 - I'm really part of a team. I work with an editor, who sets the stories and content; an on-air news anchor, who reads what I write; and an assistant producer, who's in charge of audio that appears in some of the stories (some stories are only text while others include audio). Each of us plays a role, and we each have to do our job to make the group strong. So instead of writing alone at a computer and sending out the copy to someone who I might never meet offline, I am in a room with other people, which helps to satisfy my more extroverted characteristics.

2 - What I write is immediate. Even though the deadlines are tight, what I write is read on the air within an hour of when it's finished. I can also hear the person read what I write, so I know that what I write really matters. The urgency forces me to be quick and correct while also making sense for the listeners. The challenge gives me a rush and also satisfies another aspect of my personality, which is intensity. Other types of writing may have a deadline, but I usually just send it out and don't know when the person will respond or what they think. I also have to motivate myself to finish the work because there's no one physically there waiting for it to use it as urgently. It's satisfying to know the value of what I produce.

3 - I'm working with professionals. Radio is full of people who knew someone to get their job and others who are hired for reasons other than skill. But everyone I currently work with is good at what they do, and they take it seriously. They didn't get their jobs because they knew someone but because they had to prove themselves in some way, through tests (writers have to take a timed writing test to be considered), airchecks, and experience. It's probably one of the few radio stations that is so professional, and the standards are high. It's like playing with a sports team that's won a bunch of championships.

Basically, I've done a lot of solitary writing and translation work that is really suited to an introvert. I love language, but I don't always want to sit at a computer all alone working on pieces that are sent out into the ether. When I started this blog, I was working a lot more with language in such a situation. After taking some detours, I'm back in the language world, but I'm even more convinced that I don't want to just float in an orbit around the connected world alone at my desk. So I'm glad I have this good writing gig to offset other work that is more indicative of isolating, technology-driven modern society (which is a subject for another post).

12.31.2014

Some work-related highlights of 2014

Now that the year is coming to a close, I want to write about some memorable, positive work experiences that I had this year. I don't usually write about work, though sometimes I'd love to vent about some things, but that's obviously a huge mistake to make online. During the holiday season for the past few years, I've worked many days at WGN Radio filling in for the Creative Director, Commercial Director, and even some producers. This year I haven't had the opportunity to do that because I was required to leave there in order to take a writer's gig at another radio station (which will be a separate post because it's the best writing gig I've ever had). Even though my positive work experiences really span more than just this year, I want to talk about it now because this year was the end of that chapter in my [weird] work life.

First of all, radio is a shrinking, failing business for many reasons that a lot of other people have delved into in various places online, so I won't get into it here. But the combination of the insecure business plus insecure people means working with others, especially on-air folks, can be challenging (some aspects of which I wrote about in The Help and The Hierarchy of Personality). Earlier this year my time with Bill Moller wrapped up. I had been working on his show as a producer for almost two years. He has been working in media (mostly TV) for several years, and is also a highly-paid consultant. Basically, he's a very successful guy, but the way he treated me was memorable because he didn't care that I wasn't successful (well, that I wasn't successful in the same way--I guess in terms of life satisfaction, I'm successful). Successful people *should* treat others well, but unfortunately I've noticed that someone as decent as Bill is rare for a few reasons that probably include money, position, and the inability to relate to, or care about, those who aren't on the same level. Bill always let me be myself, which meant a lot to me since I don't have a milquetoast personality, and he let me express my thoughts and opinions, even if he didn't agree. He also consistently showed appreciation for what I was doing, even though, honestly, my job wasn't difficult. It's his decency that made my job easy because he was never demanding or rude, and he never "pulled rank" to let me know he was the Talent, and I was not. I really felt like I was a part of a team, which, again, is rare in radio. I was treated so well and respectfully, it became a standard when I worked with others to the point that I really didn't want to work on other shows anymore.

Another excellent experience was filling in for the Commercial Director. What made it so fantastic was that I was doing very enjoyable work, plus I was interacting with wonderful people *every single* time. It is very hard to find such a combination. When my boss took time off and I would fill in, he totally trusted me and just let me do my job. I absolutely looked forward to filling in for him, and it is probably the best work experience I've ever had. I won't name the people here because they might be embarrassed, but I had to deal with sales people, production people, voiceover people, traffic/continuity people, management, and sometimes on-air people, and I always had fun, fulfilling interactions with them. There were times when the deadlines were tight, but it always worked out, and I really felt like the whole thing gelled in every way. Another rare experience.

Filling in for the Creative Director was a different experience, but what made it special was the guy I filled in for had a ton of experience and was super-picky, but he also trusted me to do the work. He even complimented me, which he doesn't do readily, so it meant a lot. Overall, doing creative audio for a radio station engages the mind like few other tasks do, and I was privileged to get that opportunity.

Of course, teaching this year was good, and I will continue to do it because there is no strife or office politics, which is another rare situation. It's also a place where we can be open and outgoing and have fun. (I mentioned that workplace in my Introverted World post.)

I've tried to thank individual people outside this blog post, but if I've forgotten anyone, I'd like to say THANK YOU and have a great 2015!

12.19.2014

If you like David Bowie, see this exhibition

Even though I live near the Museum of Contemporary Art and like David Bowie's music, I wasn't very interested in going to the exhibition until I got an email offering a slight discount (because I'd already bought a ticket for someone else). It was worth the price! I wasn't expecting much because when I'd seen other exhibitions of famous people, there weren't many artifacts, and the presentations didn't seem so innovative. A good example of an underwhelming and disappointing exhibition was about Pelé, which I saw in Brazil. Even though I don't care much about soccer, I thought there would be more information and items to look at that covered his life and career. What I remember most was how it seemed to be a commercial for Coke. Maybe I'm not remembering accurately, but the Coke logo and red color seemed to dominate the exhibition. So I thought the "David Bowie Is" show would be a bunch of hollow hype. But it was way more!

The most impressive aspect of the exhibit was how they creatively used multimedia to show his performances, influences, and recollections. There were also numerous documents, including handwritten lyrics, historical artifacts, and sketches. Plus, there were several outfits displayed that he'd used throughout his career, along with explanations of the designers and inspirations (such as Kansai Yamamoto using concepts from 19th century Japanese theater). When I bought the tickets, the guy said that it would take 1.5 hours to get through the whole show. But I spent about 4 hours there, and would have stayed longer if the museum didn't have to close. It's best to go through it twice to fully get the impact of all the visuals and to listen to the audio that enhances some of the installations. If you're into his music, you'll hear many songs in your headphones as you pass by TVs and through rooms, and in the final room, you can see various performances from over the years. This is a room worth settling in to for a while because it also has his outfits that are illuminated between the sets. I even watched all of his film clips. Seriously, it's a vibrant show that effectively showcases his creativity over years.

Time is running out--the exhibition is only until January 4, and Chicago is the only venue in the United States! If you don't live in Chicago, it's worth the trip, because you'll also get to see the city all lit up for the holidays. I didn't intend on even blogging about the show, but it was so impressive, I really think Bowie fans should see it. (I took all the pictures below: prepping the poster, opening night, and how the poster looked on the museum's wall.)

12.03.2014

A great explanation of creative struggles

It's been a while since I've posted anything on this blog, and I thought I was going to post more often since I resumed working more with language (as a news writer and ESL teacher). But I've been taking a digital video class this semester that has filled my brain, ie, I haven't really expressed myself creatively in other areas. Even though my video projects are short, they've taken several hours, in addition to the other homework, class time, and socializing with other students. It's been fantastic, and is one of, or possibly the best, class I've ever taken!

Since I'm not working in radio much and haven't been doing any audio production for radio lately (which I used to do more often at the previous companies I worked), I've felt down and frustrated at times. But then I would notice that my mood would lift when I worked on my video projects. For instance, I've been working on creating a rough cut of my final project, and even though it's just a few minutes long, I've spent thousands of minutes refining the visual and audio aspects of it, and have felt great every time! Even when I do a blog post here, I feel really good, like I'm in The Zone. But my lack of writing here made me inexplicably muddled and I kept feeling guilty due to procrastination and avoidance.

It turns out that the weird feelings I've been having are actually "normal" for a creative person. I don't go around thinking I'm creative, and really don't admit to it if someone brings it up, but after reading this post by an artist, it all makes sense.

The artist, Cedar Lee, writes that artists struggle psychologically and have other negative feelings, then offers her theories about why they get depressed if they don't work: art is empowering, art gives identity, art makes you high. The post is worth the read--you might identify with what she's saying, even if you do other creative things. Actually, I've heard that performers crash when they step off a stage or away from a microphone. There are probably other good articles out there about creative depression, so I'll keep looking.

8.27.2014

Interview with JC Corcoran

J.C. Corcoran has been working in the media for several years, and he's also a very good writer. His book Real Life Stories of J.C. and the Breakfast Club...or 20 Minutes in the Dark with Madonna is mostly about his radio (and TV) career in St. Louis, but you don't have to know that market or even his show to appreciate the book. His stories are entertaining and he offers interesting insights into the radio and media business. I previously interviewed him for my podcast about his career.

Why did you write the book?

I should answer this question, then duck...because it'll drive people who are trying to get published absolutely crazy. I was asked to. I was off the air at the time ("between jobs" as they say in the business), and was sending out a weekly newsletter called "JC Mail," which was a collection of random thoughts and sort of a text version of the show, really. A guy who owns a publishing company here was a subscriber, and sent me a note that said, "I think you should write a book!" I responded, "I think you're right!" About ten months later I did my first of about twenty book signings for Real Life Stories of JC and the Breakfast Club...Or Twenty Minutes In the Dark with Madonna. (The title refers to an interview I was doing with Madonna when a power failure hit.) That book went on to become the fastest-selling book in the publisher's history.

How did you write it? Was it hard to remember all the anecdotes and experiences you had?

The mistake most creative people make is that they don't record or write down their ideas. The greatest idea in the world is useless if you can't REMEMBER it. At the time I carried one of those little voice-recorders around religiously. When I had an idea or recalled a story I thought might be usable I'd bark it into that recorder. Then I transcribed and organized the hundreds of entries and started writing.

When you started writing, did you do an outline? How did you organize all those stories? Did the publisher help you?

The publisher didn't really contribute. I outlined things. The first book was a lot easier because there was a chronology of sorts. It was, in essence, part autobiography, so you start at the beginning, talking about how you got into the business, who your early influences were, then trace the development of your career and take everyone right up to what was, at the time, present day.

Your book makes the radio biz seem really intense and difficult. How would you describe it?

Cut-throat. Radio might be on the bottom rung of the show-biz ladder but it's still show business. And show business is a cut-throat racket.

How is it cut-throat?

ANY form of show-business is cut-throat. Radio is no exception. If you're successful at something, there's always a bunch of people observing who don't think you deserve it and think they can do it a lot better than you can. Radio and show-business is no place to go looking for friends. Now, you may MAKE some friends along the way, but I've found it's the exception to the rule.

What do you think of radio's future?

As for radio's "future," I'd say it's not good. And outside of a few rah-rahs, consultants and industry proponents whose very existence depends on a thriving broadcast industry, I don't know too many people IN the business who think much of it anymore. And, really...why WOULD they. The people calling the shots, by-and-large (and many of them ARE, btw...) are running what's left of it into the ground with ridiculously long commercial stop-sets, a great-diminished on-air staff, decidedly UN-exciting music programming, talk show hosts more interested in what THEY have to say than what their listeners have to say...and all of this at a time when radio is facing its most challenging competition in history. It's all a recipe for disaster, really.

How did people respond to the book when it came out (people in the media and fans)?

Even some of my biggest detractors praised the book because it really was good! I didn't see a single, rotten review. They saved all their venom for the SECOND book! But I think people were really surprised to see I could write. Even my dad, who was a voracious reader, was just stunned.

Why did they save venom for the second book?

I think I stunned everyone, even including my greatest detractors, with the first book's "quality." Nobody saw it coming. When the second one came out they had "recovered," righted themselves, and got their claws out again. In their defense, the second book wasn't nearly as good. But you can only tell your life story once, and I did that in book #1.

How did you have the energy to do so much in your career and keep those crazy hours?

I've never been afraid of hard work. I won't say it was the most difficult thing I ever did, but it required tremendous focus. I was newly-divorced so I was pretty much able to write, for the most part, every day for about eight months.

What about when you were working in radio? I noticed you did morning radio which required waking up very early, plus you did promotional and other activities.

There were really long days and I worked really hard. If you're going to sign on to do these kinds of jobs you have to understand it just comes with the territory. But I really enjoyed being as prominent in the market as I was at the time. I mean, the new "Batman" movie comes out and you're one of a small handful of people who's seen it? That's exciting to know hundreds of thousands of people are listening to and watching what you say, and wondering how YOU got to be sitting across from George Clooney and kidding around with him. There is an incredible rush that comes with that. It's like being handed the baseball to be the starting pitcher of the World Series.

What kind of reaction did you get from the people who you wrote about in the book, such as Emmis management, the head of KMOX, and others?

Much to my surprise, I think most people derived a twisted sense of "enjoyment" over having been referenced in the book. But the thing I really had going for me is that I was very much a "pack-rat" back in those days. So I literally had the newspaper clips, letters, memos, videotapes and other documentation for every story I told, every claim I made and every person or group I called out. It's sort of hard to challenge the validity of a story when you include the clip from the newspaper or a transcript of an encounter.

What kind of feedback did celebrities give about your assessments about them in the back of the book?

Well, I knew they'd never see that stuff because they're all in California and New York, so I was real brave about the things I wrote. Now, I also wrote about some local "celebrities," but I don't recall much reaction. Frankly, in most cases it was a lot of more-detailed back-stories of things, events and people most of my readers already knew about and had an opinion about.

This book was published about 15 years ago. What would you change, omit, or write differently?

I'm embarrassed to admit there were sixteen errors, typos or mistakes. I got the most guff about referencing the address of "The Munsters" address incorrectly. I'm serious. Also, I had a lot of issues with the editor that was assigned to my project. She was a 40-ish, single, very Catholic type and I just don't think she got it. So I'd want a different type of editor. I may also have wanted to "slicken" up the production values. We had an awesome cover and introduction, but the font, resolution and other curb-appeal aspects of the book could have been better. But, in terms of content, I was pretty pleased at the time. It was a first venture. You learn a lot.

What did you learn, and what advice do you have for people who want to write a similar book or another non-fiction book?

Advice: Take notes for six months to a year. Along the way, write down specific phrases and/or short thoughts about exactly HOW you want to write certain passages. WRITE DOWN your ideas!!! Test out some of the stories on friends and family. See if they react with interest and curiosity to the extent you anticipate. Remember, when Jay Leno was at the absolute peak of his popularity and making twenty-five million dollars a year, he was still out every Sunday night at a comedy club in Hermosa Beach testing out new material.

What did I learn? That writing a book is hard. At least it is if you want to write a real good one.