ED McCulloch On Creating A Directors Reel From Scratch

Photographer and (now) Director Ed McCulloch sent me his new reel website: http://EDdirects.com which I thought looked amazing, so I asked him about the process:

What was the impetus for getting into directing and creating your reel?
Over the last couple of years I’ve seen the needs of agency creatives change. I did not want to be left behind. Last year I was shooting a campaign with Cramer-Krasselt in Austin Texas. On set the creative director for the agency told me that if I had a reel I would’ve been directing the tv spot as well. That’s when I started seriously thinking about film and director’s reel.

How do you go about creating a reel from scratch? Walk us through the process.
It was definitely a lot of work. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to create a reel that was on the same quality level as my photography. I knew it would take time. The learning curve would be steep and keep my head spinning for months.

The hardest decision I had to make was deciding between creating a director’s reel or a director of photography (DP) reel. Did I want to direct or did I want to shoot? Being a photographer my natural instinct was to become a DP. DP’s are responsible for everything composition, camera movements and lighting. They collaborate with the director to make sure his vision comes to life. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that in my photography my biggest enjoyment came from directing the photo shoots; choosing locations, talent, wardrobe and getting the right performances out of the talent which all culminate in the final product. For me photography was always more about the story and the creative aspects, not the technical side.

After that decision was made I started brainstorming ideas and writing the scripts for the spots. That was one of the most important things: the creation of the concepts and the stories I would be telling. I chose brands that people would recognize but not brands so huge that everyone knows exactly what agency or what director shoots them. I do however have a Nike spot on my reel. The decision to use Nike as a brand was made because I was shooting an NBA player who is really sponsored by Nike.

While writing the scripts I searched for specialized crew members that were willing to help me build the reel. I did use some of my photography crew like assistants and stylists but in the end film is so much more collaborative and involved than photography so I knew I would need crew members that were also experienced in film. I definitely encountered plenty of no’s but kept pushing forward. In the end I found a great group of people willing to help me build the reel. We had anywhere from 15-25 crew members on set for each shoot.

After I had scripts and crew I set dates for the first couple of shoots then started producing them. I scouted locations, applied for permits, gathered insurance certificates, scheduled casting calls, chose wardrobe with my stylist, made compositional and lighting decisions with my DP, put together call sheets and shoot schedules etc. That was extremely time consuming and exhausting.

Next was shooting and directing the talent and overall look and feel of each piece. Shoot days were definitely the most fun. Collaborating with actors was a learning process, it’s much different than working with talent in photography. Learning the way actors think and the language they use to communicate takes time to understand. The whole process of collaborating with them was incredibly fulfilling.

After shooting came editing. I could not for the life of me find a good editor willing to help, so my DP and I had to learn it. Editing is an art form in and of itself. Editors have a unique talent for problem solving and story telling. It was incredibly difficult to learn. It takes a completely different creative thought process, it was challenging. We edited all of our pieces on Final Cut Pro 7.

Sound design was another challenge. Collecting high quality sound and laying it in the right places at the right times of the commercial is an art form. I enlisted the help of a sound designer for this part.

Put all of that together and you have a :30 or :60 second spot. Everything currently on my reel was shot this year between February and November.

What are your thoughts on taking your vision from print/digital and applying it to motion?
Yeah that was definitely an important part of the process. Having your own unique style of directing is just as important as it is in photography. I think it’s extremely important to stay consistent throughout your photography portfolio and motion reel but there are so many more variables in film to consider. This one thing caused an immense amount of stress for me. I knew how to create photographs, how do get the look and feel that I needed, how to tell a story with one frame. Initially film blew my mind in this aspect because instead of one frame I now had many many frames to tell my stories. There are so many different processes in producing and directing a commercial that it was initially a challenge to make sure ALL decisions were being made with my vision in mind.

What’s the next step, working with a production company? That seems a bit different than the photography business, so tell us how that works?
After the reel was created the next step was contacting production companies. These companies represent directors. They are the middlemen between the director and the ad agency. They take care of all the estimating much like a photographers agent would do. What differentiates them from photographers agent is they actually produce the commercials which is where their money is made. A director is assigned an executive producer within the company to work with. Production companies are represented by reps that are positioned by territory; east coast, mid west and west coast. These reps travel to ad agencies within their territories and funnel projects to the production companies they represent. Most reps represent multiple production companies, editorial (editors), music and visual effects companies.

I researched these companies and contacted the executive producers to set up the meetings. The process took about six months, they are incredibly hard to get a hold of. I was told they receive thousands of email requests each month. I’ve recently returned from LA where I met with some great production companies. I will be up and running with one of them in January.

There Are 19 Comments On This Article.

  1. Good read. Thanks for the post.

    By ‘helping out,’ does he mean unpaid or paid? I talk with so many people who think that if they’re shooting a test or a reel, the crew doesn’t need to get paid. I have mixed feelings about this. Wondering what others think.

    • Helping out = unpaid, or some times minimum wage.

      I started working in Hollywood in the 1970s. I’ve “helped out” a lot of young directors and never once did this result in later paying work. YMMV.

      Sometimes people do this if the job is a step up, i.e. hiring a lighting Best Boy as Gaffer or a Boom Man as Sound Mixer.

  2. As for paying crew; I think you may get some support people to help at no charge if you have a good professional past relationship with them. Those who would have something to gain as in a DP, Makeup/hair, wardrobe, talent, who can put the shots on their own reels and you work with their schedules.

    But grips, gaffers, sound people, PA’s, rental houses, music, producers etc will usually have to be paid something for their time. Their rates for a test, will depend on how often you hire these people on a regular basis. And unless you do all post production yourself, that can also get quite expensive. As the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for”. IMO

  3. Impressive. Thank you photo editor for bringing this interview. It’s quite representative for the state of things right now, when software installed on a mildly powerful laptop can make a pro with no previous knowledge. Just some let’s do something like what I’ve seen last night on TV.

    There used to be team jobs and solitary jobs. Yea, moving around some strobes might mean a solo job unless you’re quite in a hurry. But the filming part involved a qualified team. Now the market is flooded with people who are good enough to do anything. Sure, nobody could read the unreadable script, but that’s the reason the guy started shooting the project: to push the script. Than camera. Well, if I can make some photos with a Canon and the brand new Canon has also the ability to shoot a movie as well, that makes me qualified by default. So here I am making a second rate script into a movie. I still need some help, but I wonder why the qualified crowd won’t work for peanuts and let me take the profit alone. So I go with the second rate crew as well.

    And there comes the editing. Same story. Nobody qualified would come for free so Adobe and Apple to the rescue! Airbrush, contrast, saturation and the pack is ready to go. Now I’m wondering why it’s hard to sell. But, because I scamed everybody, I can lower my expectations and undersell. And maybe some executive would be willing to fill in some gap with my El Cheapo Movies.

    And while the newscasters keep shouting about the financial institutions and WTO and OWS the things go further down. Sure, it’s the bonus of some big wig that is making things worse for the country. Not that every mercenary is ready to give everybody else exposure and a chance to work in the industry or whatever, as long as it is for free and reliable so he won’t have to call twice and spend some of his potential profits. And when somebody is interesting they give minimum wage and no insurance. Less money goes in tax, people get worried about tomorrow, and the lines in the market get blurred day by day. Last time I checked the bank did pay the wage and the tax at the set time and not after I sell.

    I guess it’s time to move. The rats are taking over.

    • Chris Rodgers

      What on earth are you talking about? The reel Rob shared with us looks like it was shot on 35mm film with a substantial crew and budget. There’s no way a dslr could have held up to that type of quality under those lighting conditions.

      The state of the industry has always been: work your ass off, work your ass off, work your ass off.

      • The photographer’s blog has a photo of, and talks about, using a Red Epic with Cooke lenses on a least one of the shoots for the reel.

    • I can’t take you seriously just based on your poor spelling and grammar…that and you make no sense. If you can’t change with the times you get left behind.

  4. Great Work, Ed, I’ve been watching and following your spots this year- revisiting this lit a fire under me today! Curious if you’re renting the Red in SLC or if your DP brings it to the project?

  5. I could be misunderstanding what Ed did (and I love the work), but isn’t it deceiving potential clientele to post videos for a client that isn’t really someone you did work for? Especially with brands that are so well known as Nike, Bose, Fiat, etc? By posting these in a director’s reel you’re implying that you did the work for them and not as spec stuff. It’d be like posting Harley Davidson on a client because you took a really great photo of your friends motorcycle.

  6. I understand these commercials were all on spec, not shot for the companies they were advertising.

    My question is: did you get a written permission to use the brand names and logos? (I suppose you did – please tell us more how that interaction with the owners of the brands was conducted and what their first reaction to your approach was).

  7. Ed’s superior vision is exactly why switching to video should be overwhelming. Doing it this well takes more than more can muster.

    Other still photographers who are now “shooting video” need to take notice of what Ed McCulloch is doing. Taking a non-paid, inexperienced test model, putting her on the beach with wet hair slapping her face as the wind blows at a slowed frame rate from 10 different takes and angeles is far from story telling.

    All the best, Sir. I’m sure you’re going to be doing very well moving forward.