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In Conversation

Building Your Production A-Team with Dustin Schultz

Bringing together the right crew for your production can mean the difference between a smooth, collaborative experience and a dragging, draining mess.

November 12, 2020

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Our guest Dustin Schultz talks all things team-building for your next video production. Bringing together the right kinds of people in the right roles is key for a successful on-set experience. 

The following interview is an excerpt from our video series, Production - In Conversation. To watch the full interview and see more video content, click here. Or you can listen to the SHIFT - In Conversation podcast here

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Dustin Schultz - Executive Producer - Union 
Grace Amodeo - Program Manager - SHIFT 

Grace:
Tell us about yourself and about Union.

Dustin:
I'm a husband to my beautiful wife, Rochelle. As of five months ago, I am the father to two newborn twin girls. Ten years ago I started a video production studio kind of by accident, and it came to be known as Union. Union is the secret weapon for connection and clarity in content marketing. We’re a video-first agency, and most of our work is with the brands directly. We like to say, it’s not good to play a concert for an empty stadium. And so if we can think about where your video is going t

o end up and make sure that the right people are seeing it, then you’re going to end up winning with it. 

Grace:
When you’re getting ready to staff up for any given production, what is your first step? Where do you start?

Dustin:
Often we bring in a lot of our higher level, above-the-line people even before a project is awarded. We’ll bring in our producers and directors and we’ll do what we call our “Creative 30”, which is a 30 minute spaghetti against the wall, no holds barred creative session. Nothing is off the table. This is a chance for our upper level team to come in and have a voice even before we do our final pitch for a project. We definitely have a top tier of highly trusted producers, directors, and DPs that we get involved off the top. And part of the trust that we’ve given to them is that they pull in the people they trust below them, and the people that those people trust below them. It becomes this cascade effect of networks.

Grace:
On the highest level, what kind of people are you looking for when you are building a production team?

There’s a great author, Patrick Lencioni, who said -- when hiring people, look for people who are humble, who are hungry, and who are smart . . . If you’re seeing those qualities come through a person consistently, I think you end up with some winners. 

Dustin:
There’s a great author, Patrick Lencioni, who said -- when hiring people, look for people who are humble, who are hungry, and who are smart. So what does that mean? Humble people are going to be putting others before themselves. They’re not doormats, but at base level they are courteous. A hungry person is not desperate, but they are very action-minded. They are going to jump in there. A smart person on a production is someone who studies their role, and is a constant student of their role. We’ve had great success applying these filters. If you’re seeing those qualities come through a person consistently, I think you end up with some winners. 

Grace:
How important is it that you are hiring people that you have worked with before vs someone who is unknown?

Dustin:
I do really like a good mix. Within your top level people, your director, DP, even maybe your camera operator or audio engineer, it's important that most of those people you’ve been on set with multiple times before. The tone of the project can only be set if the majority of those people are known versus wild cards. Having a group of “known”s to help set that tone is really, really key. I’m also fine with people being one or two degrees away from a person that I trust. And that comes back to extending that trust, I trust you to do a good job and I also trust your judgement on the person below you. 

Grace:
Talk to me about the balance between hiring someone who is really great at their job vs someone who is really great to have on set. Where is that line for you?

Dustin:
If you’re really good at your role, part of your role is being a team player. We have had total jerks on set, someone for example whose job it was to help make beautiful images. It was a bad experience across the board, and even though they did make beautiful images we vowed to never hire that person again. Within production circles it is so easy to get blackballed for attitude. It’s a dangerous game to play. On the other hand we’ve hired people who are just great to be around, but you end up doing way more than you should be doing to help them. And as a producer or a leader you have a level of responsibility to have hard and honest conversations with people. A good producer can pull someone aside to let them know how they are coming across to other people, and the ability to have that conversation is not just for their betterment but the betterment of the industry. 

A good producer can pull someone aside to let them know how they are coming across to other people, and the ability to have that conversation is not just for their betterment but the betterment of the industry. 

Grace:
When you are hiring for on-set roles, do you consider not only how two people might get along but also how the various roles will all have to work with each other?

Dustin:
Absolutely I do. Especially in today’s age, production scales so much in terms of number of people on set. When it comes to person-to-person relationships, I think we’ve done a really good job of finding people that are just, in general, great to get along with. So whether you have three of them or thirty of them on set, it doesn’t become a concern. When it comes to the connection between the roles, I think it comes down to communication and code books, for lack of a better term. If I am a director and I’m trying to communicate something to my DP, is what I am saying clear to them? Do they come from a different background where the terminology I’m using doesn’t line up in the same way as it did for them? That’s why we try to bring those top-of-the-line people in pretty early on to be a part of the creative conversation. 

Grace:
What would you say is the percentage of new faces vs usual team members on most of your sets?

Dustin:
On every set we definitely have new faces, especially at the production assistant level. Part of it is geography based, if the job is in a market that we haven’t worked in a lot then we’re going to send some of our top-tier people, but we’re probably going to also have gaffers and grips and lots of folks that we’ve never worked with. And things get a little bit riskier there. When we’re close to home then most of the time we’re going to pull together that same team, but availability says not everybody is going to be able to be there. So you’re going to end up with maybe 75% people that you’ve worked with in the past, who then use their referrals and their networks to pull in those other people. You can’t be so reliant on that one person being available, if you have most of your team together and a couple of new faces then you have the opportunity to learn who those people are and build trust with them and vice versa. Within verticals of production, we’ll sometimes do pre-interviews with folks even when there’s not a project yet. We interview dozens of people so we can really find the people that we work well with, for those desperate moments when your normal team is not available. 

Grace:
What does it feel like when you’ve done everything right and you really have that A-team on a production with you? 

It’s magical when that happens. You have those people who are anticipating needs, and getting them done. They feel empowered to go ahead and make decisions, you can hand off the micro-managing.

Dustin:
It feels like it's your birthday or Christmas morning and someone happened to see your list ahead of time, but you didn’t share it with anybody. You open a present and you’re like, “Wait, how did you know?”. It’s when you write every email where you tell them that you were thinking about getting something done, and they already thought about it and already did it for you. There’s been a lot of projects like that for us. It’s little things, like when you have to do a company move within the same building that wasn’t expected. And the producer had the PAs move craft services from one floor to the other, so suddenly you walk into the barren new room and the coffee you need is already up there. It’s magical when that happens. You have those people who are anticipating needs, and getting them done. They feel empowered to go ahead and make decisions, you can hand off the micro-managing. To be a good leader, you have to be willing to pass off your anxieties to other people and say, “I trust you with this worry of mine, and I know you will make it happen”.

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Would you like to participate in a future In Conversation video interview? Email grace@shift.io for more information.

 

Grace Amodeo is a program manager at SHIFT, where she oversees the annual SHIFT Creative Fund grant program. She is a graduate of Emerson College, where she studied film with a concentration in directing narrative fiction. Grace lives in Los Angeles.
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