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.
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