In Conversation With: Drew O'Neill (Freelance Producer)
With a client list that spans from world behemoths such as Ford and Nike to underground icons like Connan Mockasin (above) and Beyond The Wizards Sleeve, Drew O’Neill has proved himself as one of the UK’s most exciting video producers. Working as both a freelancer and for in-house companies in fields including advertising, music, film and documentaries, Drew has managed to navigate his way from poorly paid starting roles to head of an independent Ltd. company and now works across Europe and the USA as well as in Chile, Jamaica, Dubai and India.
We spoke to Drew about managing finances as a young freelancer, the importance of trusting the people you work with and the major differences and challenges of working in both commercial and alternative fields.
Did you go to university and if so what did you study?
I studied film studies at University, it was an academic rather than practical course focusing on film criticism. I loved my time at university, I grew as a person and intellectually but the skills I learnt didn’t directly relate to the job I have now. I had some friends that went to leading universities doing practical film making courses and I ended up working for one of them later on. I wasn’t really aware of the job roles out there working in film and video whilst at university, but I didn’t seek it out either.
What prompted the transition from working in house to going freelance?
I first worked as a producer at a small production company run by some friends. It was great to have the support of my work colleagues who knew I wasn’t very experienced and they were patient with me. I was working on smaller projects where you can quickly learn the role without too much fallout if things went a bit wrong. It also meant I had to sleep on sofas and work in bars until I got enough experience to get paid enough, but it did mean I could fast forward some of the more traditional paths (working as production assistant/production manager). Also working within a small company you get to do a bit of everything and see how a successful company is run. This sets you up nicely for freelance life with its variety of challenges as well as the tax and business side of it all.
The freelance life appealed to me as I felt I could learn a lot by working with lots of different companies and see how they do things before trying to become a head of production, executive producer or similar role in-house somewhere. As well as working for bigger production companies I have my own small limited company to run smaller shoots. This is particularly useful for producers so they can pay crew, rent equipment, hire locations and take out shoot insurances.
Can you tell us a bit about your first freelance project and how you got it?
Whilst I was still working at the production company I would get freelance jobs for publicly funded visual artist films for which I would take time off or work on weekends. These jobs had me working on some crazy films in some amazing places. To get in I was recommended by a camera guy I know who was already attached to a project. Successful video/filmmaking is so determined by the personalities and specific skills of so many different people that one bad egg could throw a whole shoot off, it definitely promotes a ‘who you know’ culture. This is understandable as you can find yourself seriously stressed for many days in close proximity to other people and if you don’t like or trust them it can be a struggle.
I’ve find the visual artist film work incredibly interesting and fun to do. However, my background in music videos has set me up with the contacts and skills more suited to future work in commercials so the artist film work has sadly dropped away in my freelance years.
Do you think the education system prepared you for working as a freelancer or did it encourage a path towards more formal work?
Film Studies as a humanities definitely encouraged me to stay in academia as that’s what all your professors did. If I hadn’t had friends working in practical film I probably would have ended up trying that.
What are some of the main challenges of working for brands?
I think the main thing is that you are a cog in a big machine and communication is key. In classic models of advertising, there are so many layers to it, when you actually get into line production an idea has gone through client marketing teams, agency creatives, production company executive producers and the brains of the director. The main challenge is clear communication along the whole line so that everybody gets something they are happy with. It’s possible that creatives at either side of the chain get frustrated and can lose sight of what they are making and why.
What are the main differences in producing a music video compared to an advert for example?
The biggest difference is that there is much less money coming from record companies to make music videos nowadays, the video part of an artist’s revenue makes them less money. Also, largely due to advancing technologies making videos cheaper to make, there are more people queuing up to make them.
This saturation of lower budgets in the market is actually what gave me the opportunity for me to start working as a producer with relatively little experience because I was willing to take on low budgets and my ignorance helped pull off the improbable through high stress and hard work, things I would not agree to now!
There are so many music videos made now but almost none of them have the budget to pay for their high expectations. Promonews is great place to see how many of these come out every day and how high quality the average music video is now. It’s a beautiful place where film makers of all levels kill themselves for often little financial or personal reward for the odd explosion of pure creativity. Don’t get me wrong, there are still big budget music videos but the ambitions of their makers will have been 3 or 4 x the cost of what they were actually made for. Adverts and online content by comparison are usually well run, having the budgets and time to achieve their goals.
What is the best way to manage periods of less work and little income, especially when starting out as a freelancer?
When starting out as a freelancer it’s important to have savings to cover you for two months or so. When working in production you often also have to front a lot of expenses in order to get things done. Most of companies will have 30 day payment for your invoices and often you won’t be able to invoice for your full fee until the end of the project. This means if taking on a one month job you may need to front expenses and be ok not being paid for it for two months. It’s important to keep a close eye on cash flow, companies are usually quite good at making exceptions on payment terms if you are a new freelancer, don’t be afraid to negotiate this upfront.
Away from the technical skills, what are some of the interpersonal approaches you’ve found to be most useful when working in a high pressure environment?
Good communication is the most important part of production. As a producer you can not know anything as long as you know the right people to ask and clearly communicate their answers to each other you will get there.
Stay calm under pressure. Clients, crew and companies look for you to stay on it when stuff starts going wrong. You can be tied up like a knot inside but outside don’t panic and take it slow.
What advice would you give someone wanting to tread the same path?
Mainly just to say that I fell into this job not knowing what I wanted to do and I’ve found something I like doing. If you don’t know what you want to do, but you know it should be creative it’s important to realise there is creativity in many jobs that you might not think. It’s the people that make your work fun so follow the people you want to work with and you will get one you like.
If you do want to go down a similar path remember that loyalty goes a long way, don’t promise favours unless you know you can pay them back. Treat all your crew with respect, your runner could be your boss in a couple of years. Oh and on your first music videos, muck in and help lift the boxes, everybody’s working for free. A lot of my meaningful working relationships were built on those late nights loading out.