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How Freelancers Can Succeed: Production Management

Production manager for TV commercials Kerry Prendeville.
Every time I ring or bump into Kerry Prendeville, a production manager for TV commercials, he is

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By Ande Schurr

Every time I ring or bump into Kerry Prendeville, a production manager for TV commercials, he is always working.

People like Kerry are exactly the sort of freelancers I like to interview. Not only are they sought after for their knowledge but also for their pleasant manner and harmonious work ethic.

In a refreshing sort of way, when I asked the reason for his continual stream of work, he said he doesn't know why he is so busy - "they just seem to call me".

His wife Jo, who was sitting with us throughout  the interview, offered up something more plausible - "because you're good" - she said, matter of factly. There is a lot to be said for the support that partners give their freelancing spouses!

Like all my interviews and articles, this post is for anyone wanting to study the attitudes and methodologies of successful freelancers. The fact that Kerry is a Production Manager is somewhat irrelevant. The common thread that the subjects of all my interviews have is 'gold running through their veins', that is,  they know that it is a delicate mixture of attitude plus the intelligent application of their skill, that stands them out from the crowd.

Having said this, perhaps you do have aspirations to become a production manager. Perhaps you are currently in production now as a runner or assistant and have wanted to experience the "power" they hold in making things turn out right on the day; putting into motion the budget and watching unfold all the plans that the director/producer team have made.

Whatever it is, you can read and learn from this well respected production manager:

How do you get so many jobs?

Almost all my work comes directly from production companies. Mostly it is through word of mouth. Perhaps I've been around long enough that there are enough people in the industry who know me and... they just seem to call me really. I wouldn't know why.  I think people have confidence in what I do.

Because I have a broad range of skills, I can be a lot of assistance in preproduction. So before the job takes off, whether it's locations or production, there's that whole early stage of a job when there's the producer and director still thinking through the strategy. It's often good to have as many people involved in different departments as they can so perhaps for me it's because I can wear a few hats, I can be helpful in both production and locations. The producer is obviously very budget focused, and the director is creative focused so it's about having a small team to start with. That might be a reason.

It has been said that doing more than one job, does not serve you in the end, because people get confused with what you are. Yet in your case, with production managing and also location scouting, it seems to have worked. Why?

I think the market these days has changed a lot in the last 18 months. Every job is tighter. The same output is expected yet the input is different. I find that I do a lot of jobs where I might be doing production and location because I understand them. I do agree you don't want to be wearing a lot of hats but those two hats, for me, work well and they're sort of from one side of the film making process, they're from a logistical side. So I can do those two things because when you're doing locations you have to think about logistics of the crew; how they're going to get there, parking up etc, and when you're doing production you have to think about what crew are required. So those two areas do have a bit of an overlap.

I wouldn't want to wear too many hats but those two fit for me nicely. And those are the only two hats that I do wear because I don't get involved in any other departments as far as the film making side goes.

For example with the art department, you're always going to get an art director involved because that is a whole specialist area. It is the same with camera. Even though I have a good understanding of the camera department, I'm not a cinematographer as such but I can look at a story board, see a frame and know that it is a crane shot or dolly. Just from an initial point of view, it helps to know what equipment you might need for different parts of the shot. And it helps if you can confirm what they are thinking.

You worked in Joyride Films for a fair while. What was it about executive producer Anzak Tindall that kept you there so long?

I was there for 6-8 years, and huge credit to Anzak. He is from an engineering background, so he is a very logistical person, and very much about attention to details. As far as a trainer goes, you can't ask for better than that. Whenever I do a job for Joyride, I know that he'd be looking at every aspect of the job.

For me to be able to be successful at Joyride I had to be very good at the job because Anzak was very good at the job. The best you can do is work with the best and learn from them. It sets you up in really good stead - that's what Joyride did for me, it taught me from the ground up how to do it and how to be very precise about it and how to take the whole job apart and make it work.

What place does loyalty have in the film industry?

I try to be very loyal to people and support them. [In your case,] you were always our first choice for sound because of the relationship we had and the results we had from your work were always outstanding so why would we change? The only times we would look for other sound people is when you were not available. And what happens with yourself, as you get more and more 'in' the industry and you get better and better, and the net gets bigger, unfortunately you become more unavailable. I tend to do that with a lot of people; I will support them through the industry as much as I can and what happens is that they come up through the ranks and they'll go off into other departments and other jobs.

You don't come across as cocky. It seems to be something I see in the successful ones, that you don't have to have any ego to be at the top of your game.

I'm actually quite a shy person. I'm not one to blow my own trumpet as such. I'm never one to do a lot of self promotion. I let the work that I do speak for itself.

But what about in your early days when you didn't have the luxury of a network of people who knew and trusted you?

In my early days, I started working with Joyride so I had the fortunate opportunity of having a full time position and I would be the co-ordinator on the jobs. That's where Anzak would do the work as far as the producer is concerned and I would do all the web work and the pitching. So we'd pitch for work and he would do the budget and I would do the image side.  That worked really well and as jobs came on, we would get a production manager on and I would be the co-ordinator on the job and as the years went on, I would be the production manager on the little jobs and then it just came about that I started being the production manager on most of the jobs. That is the thing with a small boutique production company, you get to take on many roles. Joyride has been a successful line-production company. He's done some amazing projects.

With my location work, if we were pitching for work and we needed to go shoot something then I would go and shoot the location so that development came about.

What is your greatest quality?

Jo: the film industry can be a very stressful industry and people can be highly strung and so intense and full on. But Kerry doesn't get really wound up. He handles stress really well and doesn't lose his temper and head. He keeps cool, calm and collected and that is what people love about him, because he doesn't lose it.

Kerry: The nature of production is that it all changes. You set up to shoot here tomorrow and then something happens - the weather changes, the location changes, equipment breaks, and all of a sudden the whole show has to go here. From production, you just have to go "oh well" because that is how it is.

Jo: That is his favourite saying - "oh well" - he's always saying that "oh well, never mind"!!

Not everyone is born with the nature to be cool, calm and collected in typically stressful times. Can you help those production managers-in-training amongst us who get flustered easily?

What you have to understand is that you actually don't have control as the production manager. You're really the facilitator, that is what you are. If you can understand that you are never going to have total control and it is always going to change.

A good production manager is about being able to change quickly and having lists. Because if there is a change you must make sure everyone is aware of that change. So it is all about lists. Check that 'to do' list off. Whenever people tell you stuff, write it down because you can't remember a hundred things. In a notebook is good - and then you have something to refer to and you won't miss anyone - because every one of those requests is important. The cost of not having a piece of equipment or a crew or cast member on set is huge. If you didn't get a call to say " call time has changed to 1130" and all the crew hadn't been called and they turned up at 0730 instead, that would be four hours of waiting, which is a considerable cost to the production. Have lists and tick off the lists.

Do you get worried about there not being enough work out there?

I'm not really worried if people hire me or not. For me, I'll be the same with anybody. I'm not in the film industry to be social as such. I don't go to the bar to meet people to try to get work. I don't really socialise with the film industry outside of work. So it doesn't really factor.

Hopefully my work speaks for itself, that they employ me because they want me on the job - not because I'm a "nice guy" and hopefully the "nice guy" bit is just part of it as well. In the end you employ people who are professional at their job but are also good to work with as well.

What would you suggest to the trainee who wants to become a production manager?

Pay attention to detail. Start out as a runner - learn all the bits of production. The production manager is just guiding all the pieces to work. I don't know if film school is necessary. Film school would give you wonderful training in the camera side of things. However production is an area where you can come into it from not having been at film school because you can have done a similar sort of role in another employment and come into production roles. It would be more difficult from a camera or sound point of view but easier for production. 

Another good thing about production is that your overheads are low. You just need a laptop and that is it. That is your office.

It sounds very attractive the way you put it. Is there a real demand for people wanting to be a production manager?

I think everybody wants to be a director in the film industry, don't they? I think that is also the part of the film industry that attracts people because they want to be a director. People don't necessarily want to be a production manager, when given the option, because all you really hear about in a movie is the director. Perhaps people fall into production because directing or camera isn't their thing but they still want to be in the industry so they look to other areas.

The film industry is a circus. Everyone is a different performer. From a locations point of view, I always let people know at locations that it is a circus that turns up. As you know, when you turn up to work and find ten trucks - most people don't understand there are going to be that many people turn out to a shoot. They see the TV3 cameraman and soundie on TV, three person team,  and think it is going to be that but when we turn up with a 50 person crew, it is about managing the circus.

Have you made any mistakes?

Perhaps a few miss-spelt names on call sheets!

Jo: To be honest, I have seen Kerry work on so many jobs... I think that is the training from Anzak, they work so hard at ensuring everything goes right and that there aren't mistakes. They're incredibly thorough, and go over and over and over things to make sure everything is going to go smoothly. I'm sure things must go wrong but I've never heard Kerry come home and go "oh my God, I've stuffed up this time". I haven't heard that from him because he's so thorough and he's learned that from Anzak.

What are your greatest achievements?

My family.

[He turns to Jo -] "What are my greatest achievements darling?" 

[She responds -] "Marrying me of course!"

In the film industry you learn there is not a lot you can plan ahead. As long as you can deal with that. That is what people outside the industry find hard - that we can't plan far in advance. We tend to be lucky to know what we are doing this time next month or even next week! I don't know how many times I've woken up on my wife's birthday or wedding anniversary at 0530 and arrived back at 11.30 that night.

I think people really feel they are in safe hands [with me]. From a producing point of view that is a really important thing. There's a point where the producer gives the shoot over to the Production Manager - the logistical side of it. [The producer would say:] "We've got to the point  where the director and I have pitched for the work and won the work, we've made it happen and now we need someone to facilitate it",  and they've got to feel as though they're giving it over to someone who is capable of doing the job and will do it with their vision.

What will the next 18 months hold for the film industry?

I think the film industry is back into the swing of things. Last year it was the whole thing of 'water finding its own level' but the first three months of this year have been very busy. It's all coming back - the next 18 months will be very productive. The jobs are harder and tighter and you have to be a little more careful, but they are out there and more and more people are shooting. The next 18 months will be amazing.

Written by

Ande Schurr

21 Apr 2010

Corporate video producer and production sound recordist now based in Singapore after a 15-year career in New Zealand. Video clients incl. universities, tech startups, medical clinics and business consulting agencies. Sound clients incl. Netflix, Discovery, BBC, National Geo.