With 16 people in London, including motion designers, producers, and editors, CNN Digital Studios has a lot of hands and eyes working on and looking at any number of projects every day. But for Vivek Kemp, Executive Producer of Digital Video, it also involves working alongside colleagues across the network, from correspondents to associate producers on the news desk.
You can see in their credits just how much is needed to keep the engine running, and there are several ways they do it that can help with your own collaborative projects, too.
1. Communication Comes First
“Collaboration is communication — honest, forthright communication that flows easily both ways” says Kemp. When you take the time to communicate with the people with whom you’re working, it pays off in the end because you reach an understanding for what the vision of the final product will be. Be open, direct, and honest, and give your coworkers plenty of ways to talk to you if they feel the need.
If direct communication isn’t possible, make sure to talk about the best ways to communicate, whether it’s text, email, instant messaging, notes taped to bathroom mirrors, or whatever it is that works best for you.
Remote collaboration communication tip: Remember time zone differences! 12pm on the east coast means that it’s 9am on the west coast, which is 5pm in the UK, and 2am in Melbourne, Australia. Find the time that works best for all parties or do your best to accommodate others.
2. Drop the Ego
Ego can actually be a great thing in certain ways, because it can push and inspire people to be better, but it can also become out of control if it’s not kept in check. Collaborating with someone who never listens or won’t take suggestions because of their ego isn’t a true collaborative effort; it just means one person is working for the other as opposed to working with them. You can work on your humility by being open to communication and by really listening to others and their suggestions.
An added bonus is that you can often get more accomplished if everyone is open to staying humble for the sake of the project. Kemp points to CNN’s successful 2016 campaign-season cinemagraph project specifically as putting aside ego for the greater good. “We didn’t know how we were going to wrangle all the candidates, let alone how we were going to capture essentially the same image of each one, knowing that we would likely only have 30 seconds with them,” he recalls. “We had to solve for a lot, including frame rate, camera, and how we’d work with the candidates to maximize our time with them.”
Photo courtesy of RED Digital Cinema/CNN
“The only reason it worked is because people put aside ego. We just did the work.”
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3. Work on Trust
Once you’ve learned how to communicate effectively and have put your ego aside, the next step is to have trust in yourself and your collaborators. For Kemp and his crew, trust is key. Micro-managing your team is draining for people who are competent at their job. By trusting your editor or your director, you’re empowering them to do their best work. You can always step in if you feel like it’s not going the way you want it to and communicate your concerns, but if you can’t establish mutual trust, your work can suffer.
4. Focus on Pre-Production
The better you are at getting everything ready before the production, the better it will turn out. This is why pre-production is so important. “A clear vision at the outset of the project with an articulated storyboard and set of deliverables helps,” Kemp says.
Figure out specifics from camera logistics to blocking your scenes or having the right interview questions prepared. Get incredibly specific about who will be carrying the gear, who has all the extra batteries, which bag has the ND filters, and even what everyone is going to eat during any breaks. Having everything figured out beforehand makes it easier to roll with any unforeseen speed bumps.
You can also set hard deadlines, hold people accountable for their responsibilities, and create goals that give the team extra incentive. Just be realistic and talk about what will work best for your team, your budget, and your schedules.
Remote collaboration pre-production tip: Being in different locations during pre-production may not be all that different from being in the same room, since you can use video chat, slideshow presentations, or other visual tools to get the point across, but you may miss things like facial expressions and body language clues to see if someone is on the same page. Make sure to ask questions and get everyone in agreement before moving ahead.
5. Use All Available Tools at Your Disposal
Collaborating has only gotten easier thanks to the internet (some tools still have a bit of a learning curve to use effectively, however), so don’t underestimate what you can get done with the aid of online collaboration tools. For CNN’s candidate cinemagraph project, they utilized Instagram as their publishing platform to get instant results that were both relatively easy and quick to produce.
Using tools like Google Drive or Dropbox for transferring files, showing a rough cut to a producer with a private/password-protected vimeo or YouTube link, or doing it all with something like Wipster enhances your ability to get your collaboration moving.
If you’re using stock assets in your project, you can easily create collections on Pond5 of possible footage, music, sound effects, and After Effects templates to share between editors. For deadlines, something like Trello is good for adding deadlines and assigning responsibilities, as well.
Photo courtesy of Trello
You can also go more tactile or analog and hang a calendar or use a whiteboard for any crucial information that everyone can see either on the set or in the office.
6. Get Consistent
It can already be hard enough to do any sort of project with teammates, so you need to eliminate any costly or time-consuming, but ultimately preventable errors with technical specs during the process. Kemp and the team at CNN always make sure to shoot the same frame rate, resolution, white balance, color profile, and so on for each project. If you have multiple editors, make sure you’re editing on the same platform with the same project settings and exporting with the same compression, especially the codec. This goes the same for any stock media you’re planning on adding to your video.
Even transferring and naming your media should be consistent. Your DIT and your editor may have two different preferences for what to name the files, so settle on what works best for the project and make sure to repeat it every time to keep it very obvious and easy to understand.
CNN Digital’s Vivek Kemp
Remote collaboration consistency tip: Create a guideline PDF that’s easy to read and that you can simply email to your coworkers. They’ll have a visual representation of your preferred naming convention, resolution, frame rate, and so on, all on one handy sheet.
7. Back It Up
There’s an old military saying that if you have two, you have one, and if you have one, you have none. This is fairly similar to the 3-2-1 method of backing up files. Essentially, you should have three copies of your files across two different types of storage, with one of those copies being offsite. Give a copy to the editor, keep one for yourself, and upload one to the cloud. The last thing you want in a collaboration is for it to end because of a failed hard drive and no ability to save it.
8. Bring in More People If Necessary
“The digital video team in London is 16 people strong,” says Kemp, “but truly, our list of collaborators extends into every corner and every bureau of the company. We work alongside colleagues across the network. The point is to bring as many people as possible into the process – that’s where the fresh ideas come from.”
Photo courtesy of Vincent LaForet/CNN
9. Roll With the Punches
Your collaboration should be a like a liquid-filled, thick-skinned ballon. It should be malleable, but also able to move around and over any obstacles that come its way. You don’t want anything to be able to penetrate it and break how the team has come together, either.
In his time with CNN Digital Studios, Kemp has learned to roll with it. “If collaboration teaches you anything, it’s that you can’t control each outcome,” he says. “Sometimes you just have to ride the wave with your team. It might not always be pretty, but you can always count on another story and opportunity around the corner.”
In the end, a lot of this just takes practice. Some of it is very natural and you don’t have to think about, but some of it will really be a learning process. You can even take some of Kemp’s general advice about collaborations, which is that it doesn’t even have to be about making something: “It’s about expanding your mind and perspective,” he says. “Get on the phone, go out to coffee. Get out of the office. Talk about the things on TV, in Movies, and online that make you jealous. Dream a bit.”
Header image courtesy of CNN