humble's Bundled Approach to Production Lends Clients a Hand by Anthony Vagnoni 27 June, 2012
EP Eric Berkowitz built the studio from the ground up with skill sets in production, editorial, design and effects. All that's missing is the kitchen sink.
Did you hear the one about the director who turned to an agency producer on a shoot and said, "Don't worry, we'll fix it in post!" Sounds like a bad joke, and for a lot of agency folks that's just what it is. They'll tell you about the times they've heard it, only to be followed by not enough fixing and too many repair bills that no one wants to pay.
They're not laughing over at humble. While everyone at the company exhibits a playful sense of self-effacing irreverence and – dare we say? – a kind of hipster humility, when it comes to figuring out how to make production tricks work faster and better (and sometimes cheaper) through post production wizardry, they are squarely in their element.
"When you're working on a job with them and they say they're going to fix something in post, you just tell them, 'that's great, so fix it!' Because they'll make it happen," says Naomi Newman, Sr. VP, Sr. Broadcast Producer at McKinney. "It's really a feeling of relief, because you know it's going to get taken care of."
Newman is one of a number of agency producers who've fallen under the humble spell. Conversations with a handful all reveal the same themes: a sense of confidence that the company can do all the things it says it does, and a realization that the ability to package production through post – complete with editorial, visual effects, design and animation – has advantages that extend beyond the mere practical.
"For me, humble is a go-to shop," says Newman, who produced a spot for Lenovo laptops called "Boot or Bust" (directed by Sam Stephens and John Budion) that involves computers, parachutes, a daring demonstration of boot-up speed and no shortage of chutzpah. "You can go to them with your kookiest ideas, and they'll make them happen in spades."
Newman's not alone in this sentiment. Mary Hanifin, Executive Director of Creative Services and Broadcast Production for the Via Agency, worked with humble on an effects-laden campaign for Popsicle, also directed by Budion, that was one of a number of spots the company has produced for the agency. "Working with them gives you a comfort level that there's not going to be anything lost in the translation between production and post," she says.
Talk like this might make the humbler blush. But make no mistake, they're humble, but they're proud. The company got its start back in pre-recession 2006, when Founder and Executive Producer Eric Berkowitz got this idea for a new model of production house that bundled production, post and effects.
Berkowitz didn't come up through the traditional ranks of big-name production or post houses. Prior to opening humble, he ran a music production company, then got into the film production side of the industry. "I met a huge amount of people who I thought were more creative and more talented than I was," he says of his conversion, "not to mention better-looking." His concept of bringing them together to work collaboratively under one roof "just gradually formed from making these relationships," he continues.
What influenced his vision for what humble would be? Lots of things, actually. "By 2006, it was obvious the business was changing fast," Berkowitz says of their origins. More non-broadcast work was cropping up, virals and web videos and site-specific, experiential and out of home content. "And the larger, more established production companies wouldn't touch them," he says. "A lot of them wouldn't get out of bed for less than $150,000 a day, no matter how interesting the creative."
Berkowitz approached a number of them on his own with the idea of helping him launch humble. The experience was, well, humbling. "I pulled my pants down and got laughed at," he recalls, perplexed over the relative lack of foresight from a lot of the people he spoke to back then. Some told him the idea that you'd be watching ads on your mobile phone and in the backs of taxicabs sounded ridiculous.
Meanwhile, some of his agency chums were out there coming up with crazy, untested and largely experimental ideas on how to tap into these new avenues. "They were really pushing the limits of what could be done with a minimal setup and a lot of creativity," he says. "They were making this stuff on their own. It was the exact opposite of the old, entitled production attitude. It was inspiring. They were having fun."
This was all the motivation Berkowitz needed. He banded together with a handful of colleagues - among them Stephens, who heads up post, design and effects - and launched the studio. From the get-go it was designed to function as a collaborative environment where all the tools would be available – production, design, effects, animation, you name it. "We wanted to be the kind of place where you could be more experimental, take risks, learn from our mistakes and really build a community of people who enjoyed the work and enjoyed working together," he explains.
The model – and the work – took off. Humble has grown steadily, adding additional directors to its roster, shooting and editing larger and larger campaigns (often for the kinds of budgets that those old-school producers would have skipped breakfast for) and expanding the breadth of its services and the quality of its bench.
Today, humble is a finely-tuned machine that produces work for a wide range of directors. One of them is Jeff Bitsack, who brings a stellar big agency creative resume to its directorial ranks. A former Creative Director at JWT, he also held senior creative positions at Wieden + Kennedy (in both Portland and New York), O&M, Cliff Freeman & Partners and Merkley. A One Show, D&AD and Cannes Lions winner as a creative, he's worked on ads for ESPN, Fox Sports, Nike, Mercedes Benz, Jet Blue, Pepsi and a rash of other major brands. He signed on as a full-time director with humble in 2009 (after working with them on a Domino's web video project back in 2007 that truly went "viral"), and has seen the company's evolution up close.
"We have a set team of players now, which allows us to solve problems better and faster," Bitsack notes. "It allows us to get to answers more quickly, particularly from an editorial or visual effects standpoint. It's especially useful in the pitching stage."
Berkowitz agrees. "The heart is the same, but the body and brains have grown," he says of humble's expansion. "We've gone from a one-room shop to an 8000 square foot hub. We're still getting used to the idea that we have a dedicated conference room and that we don't have to hold meetings on the fire escape anymore."
But there's more to it than nicer tables and chairs. "We've succeeded because we've been flexible," he adds. "We've been able to handle difficult, nearly impossible production challenges because we knew we could make it work in post - or sometimes the other way around."
Stephens concurs. Their ability to put their heads together early on – and to consistently stay on the same page during the entire process – often lets them be more creative when it comes to allocating time and resources on a project. "Having post in-house is essential to making a lot of our projects work," he notes. Beyond that, he adds, the post side of humble's business is reaching a point where clients are coming to them just to handle the edit or effects on a job; in a sense, they're turning the back end of the process into the front end.
"We'd like to think we can stand alone as a production company and as a post company on a quality and creative level," says humble EP Persis Koch. "Our biggest challenge is to have agencies do a package deal with us not because the budget dictates it, but because creatively they want to do it all under one roof. They see the benefits to the creative vision and having the continuity of the team, not to mention having a director's involvement from start to finish."
Bitsack would agree with the bit about being more involved. "Working this way lets you get to know the creative teams better," he says. "In production, you're usually tied up with the details of the shoot, but in post you get the opportunity to collaborate with them on a more involved level over a longer period of time. You get to hang out, which is nice on both a professional and a personal level."
"The opportunity for collaboration and communication is so much better," says Andrea Papazoglou, humble's Head of Production, about the integrated approach, and she ought to know – she's worked at both production companies and post production and has also freelanced produced for agencies. "So much gets lost in the divide between production and post, no matter how good your intentions. No amount of conference calls can make up for everyone being in the same room, and we do that in just about every job here. There's a level of trust and respect that develops when you've done dozens of projects with the same people."
About three quarters of the work that passes through the studio is done start-to-finish at humble, Berkowitz says. The kind of work they're doing is changing, too, as the company matures. The majority of late has been traditional broadcast TV spots, with the rest being longer form narrative work as well as large scale broadcast promo work (such as the redesign of the 2011 ESPY Awards for ESPN).
They'll also keep a hand in the music video scene as well, "We're pretty selective about them, since they're really a labor of love," Berkowitz says, "but we've had some great creative success in the genre." They've been nominated for three VMAs and won a Moonman in 2010 for Best Special Effects for Muse's "Uprising," directed by humble's directing collective Hydra.
Berkowitz believes that looking at the company through the prism of bundling jobs only reveals half the story. "Above all, we're a flexible, collaborative studio, and that flexibility extends beyond just packaging a budget to custom assembling a team of artists to see a project through the entire process. They're both equally important.
"There are the obvious dollars and cents efficiencies about doing everything under one roof, and those can't be overlooked," he continues. "But just as important is the planning and strategizing that goes into our approach. Each project is unique. If production needs a little more love to get it in the can, post understands. All of the departments are working towards the same goal - making something great. How the margins break down between the departments is secondary to that goal."
Laura Shuey, Sr. Broadcast Producer at Euro RSCG, worked with the studio on an arty spot for, of all things, Easy Off oven cleaner. "Beautiful Spill" was designed to show off oven spills and stains as bits of abstract art – think Jackson Pollack meets Emeril. Her plan from the get-go, given the intensive post production nature of the job, was to take it to a single company for production and post.
Stephens directed the spot for humble, which came in and blew her and the agency team away with their treatment, she says. "It's like they were inside our heads," she says. "We looked at their work and it was like, 'Wow.' And Sam wanted to do this for real, not in CG. He plussed the concept and came up with stuff that we didn't even think of. "
What Shuey likes about dealing with integrated production houses is that, in some respects, they can mirror her role at the agency. "As the producer, I'm the glue that connects all the vendors when we're working on a job," she observes. "And I needed a production company that could fill that role in relation to this spot, just as I was doing for the agency team. I needed continuity and vision, since everything was closely intertwined."
So how did the recipe turn out? "Flawless," she says. "The entire process was seamless, effortless. Sam has a great sense of design, and he brought a very hip vibe to the job. They exceeded our expectations at every turn."
What does the future hold for a shop like humble? Best to ask Chris Grayson, the shop's Director of Digital. A brainy expert on things like augmented reality and an influential blogger on new media topics, Grayson and Berkowitz intend to make humble the "Jetsons" of production companies.
Shooting video for the web, Grayson says, is seen as something everyone's doing; it's the "low hanging fruit" of digital, he notes. They're after bigger fish (or melons, as the case might be). For example, humble has quietly been designing Facebook apps for clients, and dynamic games that run on the social media site.
Grayson's mission is to develop long-term opportunities in product development and to find a way to apply the studio's content creation and design skill sets to emerging fields like geo-location-based marketing, tablets, mobile, digital out of home and more.
He compares them to digital production companies that are currently working in this space (by which he doesn't mean visual effects studios that just produce CG), noting that "they all have programmers, but few have access to the resources that we have here. It gives us the ability to generate premium content." Much like the offer of production and post that humble presents to agencies, Grayson adds, "there's a synergy of having both of these capabilities under one roof, particularly as media and technologies continue to converge."
Back in the present, the humblers are brimming with projects, says Berkowitz. "We've already kicked Sam out of his office numerous times so that we could do post and graphics in his space."
Stephens doesn't seem to mind - what makes him happy is both the organic growth the company is seeing from existing clients and the steady development of its directorial roster. "Both sides are growing in terms of quality at the same pace, which is great, but our mindset is that often you can't separate the two; post isn't an add on, any more so than production is. For us, it's not one person who makes the difference, whether that's a director or an editor or an effects artist. It's the team."
And as they say, there is no "i" in team. Nor in humble.