Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

Pitch Production Artist: The Mill’s Tom Basis Defines a New Creative Role


If you’ve never heard of the title “pitch production artist” before, don’t worry. Neither had the Mill’s Tom Basis before he ended up in the role. In fact, there’s a good chance he gave birth to the term himself (as a quick Google search can confirm). If it catches on in the industry, that will be a nice feather in the young artist and director’s cap. Not that he needs it — since joining the global VFX and creative studio last year, Basis has already put his name to several major projects in fashion, television, and design.

A New Role for an Evolving Industry

So what is a pitch production artist, exactly? In essence, it’s someone who can wrangle all of the ideas, people, and elements that go into creating a pitch for a client, then distill them into a creative document that will land the gig. “You have to liaison with the producers, or the designers, or the directors,” explains Tom. “Sometimes there’s another writer, or CG artists will develop a rendering that will then have to be in the deck. So all this logistical work and coordinating, that’s the ‘production’ aspect.”

Tom Basis Working on Set
Reviewing the script before shooting a scene at Marchesa

“As an artist, you have to set expectations, and you have to share with the rest of your team where you’re at, because at the end of the day, it starts and ends with you,” he continues. “The pitch is going to get funneled down into a PDF, and then you’re the last person that sends it away before the actual pitch happens. So the artistic aspect of the job is in the overall aesthetic of the deck — the cohesion of the writing, frames, and references, all together.”

As a director himself, Tom is also able to take a high-level view of what each project needs; he can see the document he’s creating not just as something a potential client will be judging, but also as something he could use to bring the concept to life. “Every pitch will need something else,” he says. “Some pitches won’t require a whole team; some pitches will require someone that has a good design background that puts together style frames; someone else will get a CG rendering out. Sometimes we’ll even work with a graphic designer to develop the deck itself, exploring different fonts and layouts. Most of the time, I’m in charge of the strategy of the presentation and how well it resembles the directorial vision.”

IBM x Marchesa “Cognitive Dress,” co-directed by Tom Basis

Making a ‘Ghost Book’

“The process is where a lot of what I do shines,” says Tom. “In the beginning, what I’ll do is create what I call a ‘ghost book’ or an outline. A lot of times, that could just be one big piece of paper that says ‘narrative approach,’ and then right after, another page that says, ‘cinematography approach’ — or something that’s way more elaborate than that, but that’s sort of a guide. That’s where I’ll begin pulling reference.”

Of course, with any presentation, visuals are key to effective communication. This is where Tom often turns to Pond5 to help communicate the team’s vision. “The internet is almost too wide of a net to begin searching through,” he explains. “It becomes sort of a ball pit, and then you start realizing that all the balls or all the photos look the same, and you’re not able to differentiate the voice or the emotion behind those images. So being familiar with different databases like Pond5, you’re able to start exploring a style or aesthetic that you want to demonstrate in your pitch.”

Tom Basis from the Mill
Conducting an interview with the team behind IBM Watson

Work That Speaks for Itself

To Tom, being thorough is a major part of the job. When he’s completed his pitch document, he doesn’t want there to be any question about what it’s relaying. “Because a commercial, music video, or film is such a conceptional thing, a pitch helps you materialize it, make it real, and communicate your ideas to anyone,” he says. “A layman could pick up the document and understand the same exact thing that’s in my head. I’m a big fan of continuing the communication of that concept as much as possible throughout the process. Then, by the time you get to the set, you really know exactly what it is that you want to achieve.”

Sometimes that becomes extremely necessary, because Tom and his team at the Mill don’t always get the chance to deliver the pitch the way they’d like. “Once it gets approved and the director is happy, we’ll go to our execs, and we’ll have an initial meeting to make sure its ready to go,” he says. “Then it goes to the client or agency. I’m not really sure what it used to be like, but my favorite process is when you’re pitching in a room in front of people, where everyone has a hard copy printout of the pitch, and we walk them through it. Call me old-fashioned, but working really hard on something and then simply emailing it out and hoping to hear back always bums me out.”

Hudson Yards “Vessel” Film, co-directed by Tom Basis

The Director’s Chair

As a creative, the ideal scenario for Tom is that the pitch not only lands the deal, but also lands him in the director’s chair. When that happens, he’s able to carry his initial vision all the way through to the end. “When I’m directing, if the job that I pitched gets awarded, a lot of the time I’ll take that deck and keep tweaking it with new scripts and new images,” he explains. “It becomes a bit of a shoot bible, a north star for the whole production, because everything is laid out in a language and aesthetic that we’re all familiar with. That pitch becomes a pretty important document throughout the production.”

Even when he’s not directing, though, Tom has a difficult time playing favorites with his pitches. “There are a lot of amazing projects that I’m happy to work on,” he says. “Often, I’m able to instill a little bit of my own idea, and seeing it come to life is very rewarding. Especially if that thing is CG, like a talking animal for example, and I spent a week pulling references of that animal and giving that animal some kind of personification, and two weeks later, or a month later, that animal comes to life and has a character and a personality. That’s definitely a rewarding experience.”

Hap & Leonard Season 1 Titles, co-directed by Tom Basis

Pitching Yourself

At the end of the day, there are no rules to creating a pitch, as long it accomplishes its main goal. And you don’t have to be a part of a huge team like the one at the Mill to do it right, either. “My advice would be to really strategize what it is you want to do and communicate it, even just to yourself, even if it’s just with a pen and paper, so you can create a roadmap for yourself,” says Tom. “If you don’t have the skills or resources to create specific style frames, or looks, or different renderings, you can achieve anything through just a photo and one caption underneath.”

“One of my favorite pitches I’ve ever seen was just one photo and a sentence on each page,” he continues. “It was almost like a children’s book, and you turned each page — it was extremely effective and appropriate for that project. You really don’t need that much or that many people to put together a concept. I’ve always looked at it as something that is most important for the director. So if you’re doing it on your own, you’ll figure out the best way to do it for yourself.”

Top image: At the monitor during a take for the Hudson Yards and Alvin Ailey “Vessel” film.