Paleo pears and patrons; surviving as a creative in government

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen within the Victorian Public Service (VPS) over the past 15 years has been the ‘rise and rise’ of in-house creative teams.
While a number of government departments have traditionally had a graphic design team, and over the last 7 years a number have built video teams, these teams have often been there to produce the ‘less creative’ outputs (Annual reports, video messages to staff, anything with the phrase ‘Getting to know the new HR portal’ in it, etc), while the creative projects were outsourced to Creative Agencies.
However, over the last five years, the insatiable desire for new and engaging content that social media has delivered, has meant that Departments simply can’t afford to farm out every project that needs some creative flair…and so increasingly, they are looking in-house to deliver these videos, animations, and social tiles.
But if creativity and bureacracy were dogs, they would spend most of their time barking at each other over the fence…so how can you make a career walking along that fence?!
Well here’s what I’ve learnt.

It takes a certain type of person

I’ve been lucky enough to work in an advertising agency with a few creative teams, and watched as they were able to generate multiple ideas and concepts in response to a brief in a matter of hours, when it would have taken me days to generate just one…and I’ve been lucky enough to work with Directors, DOP’s and Designers with both an incredible vision on how things should ‘look and feel’, and the skills to make it happen.
But I doubt they could have dealt with the constant iterative changes and dilution of concept that invariably happens in government work.

Similarly I have worked with a lifelong public servant on a project that required about 10% creativity and 90% number crunching, report writing and briefing into senior people. I knew how time-consuming and boring the non-creative part was going to be and so I offered to go 50%-50% on the work…but the other person said ‘Oh no…I don’t want to do the creative part! You do that and I’ll do the rest!’

Sadly it’s still true that within a bureacracy you can’t get in trouble for doing what has always been done and having it fail…but you can get in trouble for trying something new and having it fail. So the essential drive of creativity; to find new ways of doing things, is anathema to most public servants.

So to survive as a creative in government, you need both a high tolerance for process and procedure, but also a willingess to take risks wherever you can.

The paleo pear predicament

A few years ago a Federal Government department released this video:

The video was pretty widely panned, and a lot of people asked ‘How did this video ever get made, let alone approved?!’
But I could see how it was approved…every individual part of it was fine from a Government perspective!

Script – If a private company makes a video and it fails…then no-one really cares, after all, it was their money they wasted. But when a government department spends money on a video, then that is money provided to it by the public. So you can expect some pretty hefty scrutiny from the media. After all who doesn’t like getting incensed about what the government is wasting your tax dollars on?!!!
The result is that Government departments LOVE videos that are scripted to within an inch of their lives. It doesn’t matter if you can see the soul of the person leaving their body as they say them…so long as the right words are said in the right order and no-one can take offence…then it will be approved.

On screen talent – There are people who can take a dubious script and bring it life as if they really believe it…these people are call ‘actors’. There are also people who can successfully get a briefing note through a variety of sub-committees and eventually get a clause in a piece of legislation changed…these people are called ‘Senior Bureacrats’.
Interestingly, while it is VERY rare that any Logie Award winners or NIDA graduates decide that they could probably be the Deputy Secretary of a Government department, there is no shortage of Senior people within a Government department who are quietly confident that they can give this ‘acting’ thing a shot.
And nothing scoots things through the approval process faster than the person approving the video, seeing themselves in the video, as the Counting Crows sagely sang ‘When I look at the television, I want to see me, staring right back at me’.

The ‘true creative’ will say ‘This script is terrible and the acting unconvincing…there’s clearly nothing in those coffee cups!!!’ and refuse to take part in the project.
The ‘bureacrat’ will say, ‘This said exactly what the script said it would say…and my boss’s boss is happy…so it’s approved!’
But the Creative in Government has to be able to find a compromise that will engage its intended audience…without alienating the people who are going to approve it.
Failing that…just throw in a lot of ‘hawk’ sound effects and get them to walk slowy towards the camera.

A Patron

Just as artists in the Renaissance had patrons like the Medicis to support their work…any creative person working in government needs to find senior people within their organisation to champion their work. When I was starting out in the public service, I was incredibly lucky to have a Secretary (Gill Callister) who not only believed in using video as a comms tool (when a lot of senior execs didn’t), but was also really engaging on camera. But you won’t always have the person at the top of your organisation going in to bat for you, so you need to foster relationships with anyone you can who has some sway.
One of the good things about people automatically wanting the most senior person possible to appear in a video, is that as the person who makes the videos, you get a lot more 1:1 time with people you otherwise wouldn’t. And not just any sort of 1:1, a 1:1 where they are vulnerable and looking to you for advice. These people did not get to where they are by ignoring good advice, so get in there and dazzle them…and then, most importantly, work your arse off to make sure their project is a success! I can look back at my career and identify at least 5 projects, that I knew at the time were really important to a key person in the department and so I worked my guts out to make them work. When they did, the payoff of having someone in the upper echelons of the organisation willing to go in to bat for me made it all worthwhile.

Surround yourself with good people

Over 10 years ago I started a group called ‘The Secret Society of Government Video Editors’, which as the name suggests, was a collective of the people doing video work within the VPS. While there were of course advantages in terms of being able to share equipment and expertise…the real reason it has existed for over a decade is that it’s really nice to have a group of people you can chat to and say ‘Have you noticed the way that everyone who isn’t us is really annoying and doesn’t recognise our genius?!’ A sympathetic ear is one of the most appealing physical attributes for a creative! After all, only a creative will know the pain involved in any file named ‘Videomessage_final_V11_revised_newmusic_approved_FINAL.mp4’ or the horror of a design brief that requests a diagram that is “clean and simple, but that works in these 17 processes and 4 thesuaruses worth of words, and represents the circular basis of the main process, but DOES NOT feature any curves or arrows, and really shows how great this new project is but without being celebratory…and we needed it in 10 minutes ago.”
So surround yourself with other creative people whenever you can. Look for people who challenge you. Try to work with people with different genders, and cultural backgrounds, and life experiences…and make sure that the work you produce reflects these differences, as that’s what’s going to make content that really connects with an audience as diverse as the Victorian public.

But most of all, revel in the fact that the demand for creative content within Government is only going to increase, and you have the chance to be part of this bold new world. Plus any job that offers both creativity and relative job-security, is pretty awesome.

Making video content – approvals.

I often like to compare making a video to baking a cake; they both have a range of ingredients, you can make them in a variety of ways…and when they go wrong, everyone is looking for someone to blame!
But most of all, if you’ve never made a cake and someone showed you some eggs, flour, butter and milk on a bench…you’re unlikely to say ‘I can totally see how this is going to be a delicous cake!’
Similarly with video, if you’ve never made a video, it can be very hard to look at a very rough cut of a video and imagine what the final product is going to be like.
Given that the majority of people who are approving your video have never made one, when is the best time to show them the video to get their approval?

Stage 1 – The ingredients and the assets

Clearly a cake.

Just as there is no use in asking someone to have a spoonful of cocoa and a raw egg and hope they will approve of your culinary skills, asking for approval based on interview footage and a guide music track is a complete waste of everyone’s time.
So I’m going to ignore this as an option.

Stage 2 – The batter and the rough-cut

Batter up!

In cake terms, this where you’ve mixed all of your ingredients together…but it hasn’t gone into the oven.
In video terms, this is where you’ve got your rough narrative (ie you’ve edited the interviews down to what is going to be said in your video), you’ve got some basic cutaway footage (the footage that is going to visually tell the story of the video) and you’ve got a music track as a reference (the music tends to drive the emotion of the video).
Seeking approval here can be a really good option if you’re not sure about the narrative of the video. In non-scripted videos (which is the vast majority of the work that my team does), you’re at the mercy of what your interviewees have said, and so sometimes the narrative of the video can be different to what was initially intended (and more importantly, what those further up the approval chain were expecting). So getting it approved now can save you a world of pain if you keep working on the wrong narrative…only to find you have to go back to the drawing board after the first person who sees is says ‘NO!’
A chocolate cake can take on feedback and become a jaffa-cake really easy at this stage by just adding some organge juice and rind…but it’s a LOT harder to make it a jaffa cake if you’ve already baked it!
The counter-point to this, is that for someone expecting a cake…it looks nothing like a cake! If the person approving this is expecting a video, and instead sees something with minimal cutaway footage, terrible transitions and a music track with a digital watermark*, they will freak-out and start distancing themselves from the video. People who have made it to a point in an organisation where they can approve things before the public see them…haven’t got there by associating themselves with failed products. So if you lose them now, you’re unlikely to get them back on board!
Also, if a video doesn’t look like a finished product, people are a lot more comfortable suggesting wholesale changes (after all, there can’t have been much work gone into this if it looks so average!), so offering it around for approvals at this stage, may lead to more work than is necessary.

* if you’re using music from an online music provider, you normally download a free version of the track to edit to and then purchase the track when the video is approved. To make sure you can’t use the free download version most companies have a recording of their name spoken throughout the track so that it’s unusable.

Stage 3 – Baking and the real edit

Cake…not just a 90’s band.

This is possibly where the cake analogy falls apart. With the cake, you’re basically just throwing it in the oven, waiting, and then taking it out. With a video, you’re adding all of the cutaway footage, adding in the transitions, making sure edit points work to the music track, adding in graphics, and basically doing all of the things that make a video work as piece of communication.
But, whether it’s for the cake or the video…this is going to be the most time consuming part.
For me, this is when you want to present the video for approvals. This is pretty much exactly as you want the video to look, and is also what the untrained eye expects when they look at the video. By showing the video now you’re basically saying ‘This is what is going to be said, and this is the vision that’s going to accompany it. Are you OK with this?’ Not ‘This is kinda how it’s going to look…but it will be better…and this is what we’re probably going to say…what do you reckon?’
Now clearly, you have spent a lot of time getting it from ingredients, to batter to this…and if you’re only now presenting it for approval and someone says ‘This was meant to be a flourless orange cake’…or ‘You know that the audience is allergic to eggs right?’ Then yes, you are going to have to go right back to the drawing board and start from scratch. And yes, you could have saved a decent amount of time by presenting it for approval earlier. But in reality, if you’ve misread the brief this badly, you may need to look at your pre-production process.
In my experience, most of the time when presented with the choice between; a video they can use right now that they’re 90% happy with, or a waiting a week for a new version to approve…they will go with the one that they can use right now.

Stage 4 – The icing on the cake and the final export

The icing on the cake.

Now look, cake by itself is pretty great…but add the right icing and you’ve got a masterpiece! Similarly, with a video, it’s stuff that you do now that will take your video from ‘good’ to ‘great’! Doing a colour grade, animating some graphics, creating captions and making a bespoke thumbnail, are the finishing touches that make you a professional.
I’m yet to achieve the level of chutzpah that would allow me to deliver a video at this stage for approval, as there is just WAY too much work being done before you take on feedback…but if you can…then shine on you crazy diamond!!

So there you go. Getting approvals for a creative project (especially within Government) can be a real balancing act. Getting approvals too early can see people distancing themselves from the project, or requesting unnecessary changes. Getting approvals too late, can mean that all of your work has been for nothing as you’ve headed down the wrong path and now have to re-trace your steps.
But in my experience, erring on the side of doing more work and being able to present a video that is as close as possible to a finished product, is often what gets it across the line.
Am I suggesting that this will work every time? No.
Could there be factors in your work environment that make this approach unfeasible? Yes.
Do I have a therapists worth of projects that have had to be re-done or scrapped altogether? Yes.
But most importantly, do I now have a delicious cake to eat as a result of my wife making one for the photos in this blog? Yes…so I will see you next week, when I talk about being a creative person in a bureaucracy.

Eyes only for the cake.
Hoping this product placement will earn me a lucrative Tupperware deal.

Making video content – the 3 essentials

15 years ago I joined the public service.
I know this, because my eldest child is now 15 and I joined the public service when he was born, because I was sick of being made redundant in the video production world.
In 2009 I was lucky enough to start the video team at DHS…and by ‘team’ I mean ‘me trying to teach myself how to shoot and edit videos, while desperately pretending that I knew what I was doing’ (full disclosure, my time in video production had been as a Producer…so I was really good at organising things, but not so good at the actual making of things).
11 years and one department change later, I’m now the manager of a creative team with three visual designers and two videographers.
A LOT has changed in this time for video. In 2009 only a few government departments had internal video people…now pretty much every deparment has a video team. Video used to be the high-end tool that was wheeled out to launch only the biggest and most prestigous projects…now videos are part of a daily social media content plan.
But some things have stayed the same, and so I thought I’d share the three essential ingredients I believe every video should have…so essential, that my team won’t work on projects that don’t contain all three!

Essential 1 – A Story

The days of people watching a video simply because it’s there, are gone…nowadays your videos need to engage and retain your audience. The best way to do this is with a story.
You can list the benefits of your new project or initiative as much as you like, but people don’t connect with projects and initiatives…they connect with people. So if you want to connect with your audience, you need to tell a story about how your project or initiative has benefited a person, or a family or a community.
So for example, training and apprenticeships are a great idea and you can talk a lot about the levels of funding and courses available…but that’s not going to make for an interesting video.
Or you can show the story of someone who grew up watching motorsport with her Dad and asking what things were and how they worked…and who has now done training in motorsport and has her Dad asking her what things are and how they work

Or someone who was originally a florist, and is now driving heavy machinery on major projects:

Never underestimate the power of a story!

Essential 2 – A Storyteller

Once you have your story, you also need someone who can tell the story in a way that will engage with your audience.
Now I know that the first option most people think of is to get the head of the organisation, or the CEO, or anyone in a senior role to do the talking on camera. After all, these people can say ‘This agile project will deliver key outcomes to our stakeholders and offer synergies with the sector’ without even flinching!
Plus, nothing helps get a video approved quickly, quite like having the person approving it, also being the star.
But I can promise you that it will not resonate with an audience, as it just won’t feel authentic. What you need is someone with an actual experience of what your video is focussing on…and if they’re too nervous or shy to talk on camera, then you need one of their peers, or a frontline worker who has seen how they’ve changed. In short, you need someone who your audience is going to like and want to listen to.
If you go with the boss, you will get all the right words in the right order…but if you go with someone who is actually telling their story, you’ll get a little piece of unscripted magic that people will genuinely engage with.

Let your story teller tell their story in their own language

Essential 3 – A Visual Element

Video is a visual medium. So you need to tell your story visually, and you need to engage people visually. If you look at any of the videos above you will see that only about 10-15% of the footage is the person talking to camera, that vast majority is footage that tells the story and engages the viewer.
So before you commit to a project, ask what is the visual element of this video. If the project is a consultation, or a roundtable or a mentorship…just be aware that the footage of people talking to each other will be engaging for about 6 seconds…after that, you’re going to be in struggle town. If you absolutely have to make a video about something that is ostensibly about peope talking to each other, then it may be better to keep your powder dry and make a video about what the consultation/roundtable/mentorship actually resulted in (as that’s much more likely to feature people actually doing something…rather than discussing the many somethings they may or may not do!)
Also, the reality is that if you’re posting your content on social media, there is a VERY strong chance that the video will start playing without any audio, so you will need some REALLY engaging visuals if you want to convince people to unmute the audio and keep watching.

Even if your footage is just people talking…you can still make it visually engaging.
Dance = easy to show visually,
Farming = easy to show visually
Psychology = not so easy to show visually

So there you go, the three things we demand are part of any video project we commit to creating.
Next week I’m going to talk about the challenges of getting a video approved…especially in a Government context.

Uncle Jack & the iPhone

5 years ago I was lucky enough to work on a video shoot with Uncle Jack Charles. It was for an organisation called Malpa who are working to address the vast inequality in health between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. My job was basically to find a suitable location for the shoot (Malpa are based in Sydney, so they needed some local Melbourne knowledge). Never one to pass up an opportunity, I also bought along my camera to grab some stills during the shoot. I got some shots that I was really happy with…but this one haunts me to this day:

So close…but just missing the focus on the eyes.

This was taken literally as Uncle Jack was heading out through the house we were filming in. There was a light that just illuminated his face as we were walking and I quickly grabbed the shot. It wasn’t until I got it into Lightroom that I could see that I had hit the focus on his forehead instead of his eyes…I think I could have retired from photography knowing that I had peaked if I’d just got those eyes in focus!!!

Thankfully that sort of thing doesn’t stick in my head, or keep me awake at night, or re-surface any time I look back at these photos. So when Malpa got in contact again and explained that they needed to film Uncle Jack for a TVC, and that due to the ever changing COVID situation they didn’t think they could travel down for it, and so would like me to do it…I jumped at the chance.
I mean, had I Directed a TVC before? No.
Did I have a camera that could shoot 4K? Also, no.
Even if I could get a camera that shoots 4K, could I be trusted to shoot pictures and record audio at a quality that was acceptable for TV broadcast? No…again.
But, did this provide me with my best opportunity to get an in focus portrait of Uncle Jack Charles? Yes! So I took the gig.
Here’s how it went.

Location, location, location!

Malpa had said that they wanted a ‘grungy, Melbourne laneway’ for the location…but with $0 budget, there was no way I was going to find a cool laneway that we could section off for our use, and any other laneway that we tried to just rock up and shoot in ran the risk of traffic noise, people in their backyards, and of course if it was raining on the day, then we were stuffed. I also had some concerns about getting a man in his late 70s to walk along uneven cobblestones while looking to the camera delivering lines (the thought of the headline ‘Man who took out-of-focus photo of Uncle Jack Charles 5 years ago, now forces him to have a knee reconstruction after laneway mishap’ really didn’t appeal). But I found a few options near our house that had potential.

Grungy laneway option

Then on my morning run one day, I found a location that offered both ‘native bush’ and some graffitied walls that could offer ‘urban grunge’…and more importantly ‘place to film if it’s raining’. I pitched the idea to Malpa and they were happy with it. So I now had two locations…this was going to be great!

Under a bridge…
Native bush option

As part of my rigourous pre-production, I headed back to the location in the mid-arvo, as this was when we were likely to be filming, to see if the light was ok. It turned out that there a significant difference in light between 8am when I had taken the photos…and 3pm when we returned. It was almost as if the sun had moved and become brighter over the course of the day…weird.
Unfortunately this meant that the graffiti just near the bush location was out of action as it was in full-shadow and was too dark. But if we just headed over the bridge (about 200m) and down to underpass on the other side, there were some great options.
We had two locations again…this was going to be great!

Timing’s everything

I got in contact with Uncle Jack to sort out a date for filming. Unfortunately, the first day that was an option for him was when I was going to be down at Warrnambool with the family, so I proposed a few dates in between when we got back from Warrnambool and when we headed to Sandy Point, but neither of these worked for him. Malpa were hoping to have the TVC’s ready for broadcast from Australia/Invasion Day, so our timelines were getting a bit tight. So I decided that if push came to shove, I could head back to Melbourne from Sandy Point to do the filming, and the return to Sandy the next day. The only day that didn’t work was Tuesday as that was when Josh and I were going to Tooraddin airfield for flying lessons, so I said to Uncle Jack “I can do any day after Tuesday”…and he said “Tuesday is great! Lock it in!”…and I thought ‘I think he’s messing with me!…but he’s somebody who has served time in Pentridge with Chopper…AND has worked with Hugh Jackman…I’m not going to risk it!’
So it was agreed that Josh and I would drive from Sandy Point to Tooraddin, have our flying lessons, then drive to Melbourne to film in the late arvo. I wasn’t going to be doing the edit, so I could just upload the footage overnight and we could head back to Sandy the next day.
Josh had been at the shoot 5 years ago…and I was keen for him to help out on this one as well.

Josh and Uncle Jack in 2016
Josh, Katie and Uncle Jack in 2021

Fuji comes through

I figured I was probably never going to get another chance to take some photos of Uncle Jack, and so decided to roll the dice and get in contact with Fujifilm Australia to see if I could borrow one of their Medium Format GFX cameras again. Against all the odds, and indeed against their better judgment, the magnificent Neil at Fujifilm made it happen! So I now had a confirmed time and location with an Australian National Treasure, a graffitied location that was going to make for an epic portrait, AND a medum format camera to take it with!
This was going to be great!!!

Can we shoot this on an iPhone?

Unfortunately the date I’d locked in with Uncle Jack didn’t work for the DOP (Director of Photography…cameraperson) that I had hoped to work with. This meant that I would have to shoot the video, and seeing as I didn’t have a camera that shot 4K (one of the requirements for the final product), I was going to have to hire a camera.
Now I CAN shoot on professional cameras, but in much the same way as I CAN eat an entire Tiramisu. Just because I can…doesn’t mean I should ( while both will lead to an amazing story to tell after the event…in reality, they will also lead to very high blood pressure, and no sleep).
If you’ve ever seen a film crew, you may ask yourself ‘What are ALL those people doing? Surely they don’t need all of them!’ And 90% of the time that’s true…but it’s in those critical 10% of times where you need a dedicated professional to get the best camera shot, or realise that that there was a background noise that ruined the take, or someone to say ‘you missed a line of dialogue here’, or to realise that the shot was a little out of focus…that can make a difference between the success and failure of your entire project.
With this in mind, I was a little wary of being the DOP, Director, Script supervisor, and sound recordist…especially if I was using a camera I didn’t know. So I asked to hire a friend’s camera that shot 4K and that I had shot on before…but promptly managed to miss this by a day.
So I suddenly had a script, an amazing actor, locations, a fancy stills camera…but no video camera that could shoot 4K!
Unless of course, I looked to use my new iPhone. After all, it shot 4K, did 10 bit colour, and had amazing autofocus & stabilisation. If I put my non-existent budget towards hiring some audio gear, and promoted Josh from ‘general dogsbody’ to ‘audio recordist’…and roped Katie into doing the clapper-board so that we could sync the audio, and using a reflector to bounce in light…then we might be able to make this work!
At the same time, who the hell turns up to a TVC shoot with a renowned Australian actor and says ‘Look, I’m a trained professional who clearly knows what he’s doing…now if you could just look at my phone and deliver your lines, that would be great!’?
So I did a LOT of YouTube research and eventually convinced myself that I could get the quality that I needed out of the iPhone…and acknowledged that one thing I do bring to a video or photo shoot is the ability to get people to relax and just be themselves. Could I do that while I was also trying work out f-stops and shutter speeds, and make sure I was in focus, and ensure I wasn’t moving the camera too much? Probably not.
Plus, if everything went to shit, I would at least have my phone handy to call my DOP and blame them for everything that had happened…or use Google maps to find the nearest deep hole I could throw myself into.

The shoot

Josh and I left Sandy Point at about 9.30am and arrived at Tooraddin airfield in time for our flights. Any day where flying a plane for the first time is the second most scary thing you will be doing that day, certainly makes for an interesting life.

Maverick and Goose…in that order

We then drove back to Melbourne, picked up the audio gear, learnt how to use it, waited for Katie to finish work, then drove to the location. On the way there I saw someone driving a scooter with grey hair billowing from under the helmet…as we drew alongside, I realised that it was Uncle Jack. The man knows how to make an entrance!

Once we are all at the location, we did a full run through of the script with a static camera…then did a variation with some camera moves, and took some stills.
We didn’t really have enough to make a strong TVC with, but we still had our hero location under the bridge to do, so everything was going to plan.
But as we were walking to the next location, I realised that 78 year old men don’t walk as fast 45 year old men who are running on adrenaline and anticipation. By the time we had passed the midway point between location one and two (the bridge between the two locations), I was starting to realise just how insane my idea of getting a shot from the top of nearby hill was. By the time we had crossed the bridge and I had explained that we just had to walk down the hill to the underside of the bridge…Uncle Jack said that he didn’t think he could make it down there.
So what could I do?! Explain to a man who had fought against great injustice and who had overcome greater barriers than I could ever understand, yet was still willing to donate his time for a charity…that it was really important to my sense of artistic closure that he should suck it up and press on? Or come up with an alternative location and realise that it’s not all about me?
So we improvised a second location…and it looked like balls…and then we filmed on the bridge as another option, but there was too much wind, and if we looked one way we had too much sun behind Uncle Jack…and if we faced the other way, we could see a housing development, that sort of ruined the vibe. But we got it done, and when the video came back from the editor, you’d never know there was a problem in the first place. Why? Because Uncle Jack Charles is a freaking genius, and the level of energy he brought to his performance could have carried any TVC…and because I wasn’t a jerk and insist he worked an Olympic distance cross-country event into a video shoot, he still returns my emails!

So what have I learnt?

  • Always take on projects that challenge (and scare) you
  • Plan meticulously…but make sure you can improvise if you have to
  • Trust the technology and play to your strengths
  • Fujifilm Australia really do support their photographers
  • Katie and Josh are the best video crew you could hope for
  • Uncle Jack Charles is a genuinely amazing person, and I’m incredibly lucky to have had the chance to work with him

The TVC will be on SBS from today…and here are some stills from the day: