Week 2: Case Study

posted Apr 25, 2012, 6:57 PM by Priya Nayar
  • Case Study: New York Road Runners Foundation

    At several points during this course, we will present actual “case studies” which will, we hope, illustrate some of the key issues that face producers. These will be drawn from actual experience. In this case, it is my experience.

    Our first case study is an example of sponsored, purpose-created media that was developed for a specific audience – a kind of limited distribution narrowcasting. This approach is utilized by organizations, corporations, political groups, and advocacy organizations, among others. The project being presented was created for the New York Roadrunners Foundation. Part of the largest running club in the United States, sponsors of the world-famous New York Marathon, the foundation is dedicated to starting and supporting running programs in urban schools which have a large proportion of disadvantaged children.

    The Foundation wanted to achieve several goals, all equally important. First, they needed a vehicle to introduce their two programs to school administrators and parents to get their buy-in. Second, they wanted a short video program to help create excitement among the elementary school students who were a target audience for one the programs. And finally, they needed to translate their large, unwieldy coaching manuals for the two programs into a readily accessible digital form. They needed continuity of design for a web-accessible database which would be used to track participation and results. 

    For this project, my company partnered with a communications design firm that already had a relationship with the NYRRF for a number of years. We were brought in as part of a team to provide expertise in interactive architecture and production, CD-ROM and web development, and video production.

    The first step for this project, or for that matter, any project with a specific purpose, is to meet with all stakeholders and sponsors to determine their goals and assess their needs. This meeting should occur prior to developing  a proposal, bid, or estimate for the project; otherwise, as a producer, you’re flying blind. It is important to insist on this meeting. Clients and sponsors often look upon the production process as a product that is made out of standardized parts, like a car; the request goes in one side of the factory and the final product rolls out the other end. Or, they may have a little knowledge, and that is dangerous. In that case, they’ll ask for a menu of services and rates --  shooting, editing, programming – without any real understanding of what those services will entail. Of course, they will also want a fixed-price bid.

    In my experience, it is impossible to develop a creative concept, understand the scale of a project, make a schedule, or come up with a budget estimate until everyone agrees on goals and message. It is important to lock down as many parameters as possible as early as possible – deadlines, participants, approvals, etc – at this initial stage. Time spent here is more than paid back later in the project. And, if a client pushed back too much, or doesn’t have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish, then you are in for trouble. It may be a good time to rethink whether or not you want to undertake the project, no matter how much you may need the business.

    We met with our potential client to assess their needs in early April. The executive director and several members of the senior staff were in attendance. At this initial meeting, we learned that the project was being funded by a grant from an outside foundation. Part of the grant would require that an examiner evaluate our proposal and capabilities to insure that we could meet the specified goals, as well as specific funding targets that would need to be met.

    As it turned out, more information was needed before we could get a handle on the scope of the project, so we scheduled a second meeting to further explore needs and meet additional members of the team about two weeks after our initial discussions. The final outcome was a proposal for fairly large scale, multiformat project which encompassed multiple elements including print, packaging, video and interactive media. Our proposal was submitted the last week in April, about a week after the second meeting. A copy of our proposal can be found the resources section of Blackboard.

    As it turned out, our team won the project (surprise!), and a start-up meeting was scheduled for May 10. During this meeting, we worked out the basic elements of the project: contract provisions, timeline, scope of work, contact persons, approval authorities, who will provide what materials.

    The start-up meeting was also the kick off for several weeks of preproduction and development. This was a fairly intensive period during which we would get an immersion course in the work of the New York Roadrunners Foundation in general, and, more specifically, their educational outreach programs for urban youth. We would have multiple meetings with executives and staff personnel during the month of May during which we would interview them about their work and their specific involvement with the school programs. Additionally, since there was a significant video element to the project, our research field trips would double as location scouting for the video shoots. We began an extensive review of existing marketing and training materials, manuals, etc.

    On May 11, one day after being awarded the project, we visited the first of several schools that already participate in the program to interview teachers and students to give us a sense of the program and what information the teachers will need. We also met with some parents to find out their impressions of the program – what was important to them and what they wanted to know about it before permitting their children to register. This material was important for developing the informational CD and video, both of which were targeted at administrators and parents.

    While we researched the project and reviewed existing documents, we were also finalizing the contract, specifically step payment terms, approval process, and final scope of work. The contract was officially signed May 15 as we continued visits to select locations and obtain necessary permits and releases from parents for students to appear in the video. Because we had to shoot prior to the end of the school year in June, it was necessary to complete site visits and make decisions on what schools, teachers and students were going to be included in the video by May 30. This would allow time for scheduling as well as obtaining necessary releases and clearances. As this was happening, the writers were working on creating the content for the two interactive elements.

    The project was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The specific purpose of the grant was to broaden the reach of the program beyond the NYC metro area into other urban areas across the country. One of the two interactive elements and the motivational DVD were to be part of a box which would contain everything a school would need to get started with the program.

    What we called, for lack of a better word, the “marketing” CD-ROM, was designed to create interest in the program. It would be handed out at various meetings or personally delivered to a highly targeted group.

    As we were shooting and editing the video elements, the graphic and text content for the interactive components was being developed.

    The first step for was to clearly define the intended audience. This was important because it actually determines two key factors – the choice of distribution medium, and the way the content is organized and presented. That is because different audiences digest information in different ways – teachers and educators are not the same kind of audience as, say, corporate middle managers, or graduate media studies students. Part of what we call Information Architecture is to analyze and break down content to fit the needs of the project and audience, and the way the audience receives information.

    Now the second part of this equation was the choice of distribution medium. Even in 2006, when we started development, all of the content we were planning to create could have been distributed on the web. There might have been issues with the video, but they were minor. So why did we choose to go with a “hard copy” if you will, with CDs and DVDs?

    Let’s take a look at the reasoning.  At the risk of repetition, there were three major parts of this project: an “instructional” manual, a “marketing” piece, and a “motivational” video. The original concept for what we called the “instructional” CD, or the coaching handbook, included far more video and multimedia elements than the final version. This was a client choice that was made midway through the process. So, it would have been a pretty “heavy” website and important parts would have been lost to people without broadband web access.

    Now, look at our target audience – teachers and administrators in inner city schools. Ghetto schools. Poor schools. Schools which, in many cases, have limited internet access, and when they do have access, it is overloaded and often not available except in the computer lab. A lot of these folks don’t even have official email addresses.

    We wanted the materials to be easily accessible to the teacher/coaches and administrators so we chose to distribute them on CD-ROM instead of the web. That way, coaches could refer to them on laptops in the field, or print out pages that were specifically designed for that purpose to use during activities, and would not be dependent on web access in the school.

    There was a web component that was developed for this project for reporting back participation (required for the grant) but that information could be compiled “offline” and reported later.

    Same deal for the “marketing” CD. We did not know where those would be used – at home, in school, at meetings, etc. Making the presentation dependent on web access would be a problem. especially for the video component. And finally, the DVD was designed as a standalone piece to be used as part of an assembly program in elementary schools. It was supposed to excite and motivate the students, to make them think that the program was fun, not running drudgery

    Hence, our choice of media. This was the first important step in the process, because it would determine our production techniques for the interactive component. Both disks has to play on either Mac or Windows. Now, we were thinking about a pretty media heavy “handbook” CD, so we needed an authoring environment that could handle a lot of video and audio elements without choking. It also needed to be consistent and handle illustrated content while maintaining specific formatting.  HTML would have been a problem, especially with formatting and graphic. Again, pages would weigh in as heavyweights. For ease of porting the whole thing to the web, we thought about Flash, but, in’06, the self-contained Flash player was not robust enough to handle a lot of external media. We would have ended up with a less flexible environment and a huge file that wouldn’t play on a lot of the older computers that were likely to be in the schools.

    Even though it was not our first choice, we ended up authoring in Macromedia Director. With plug-ins, it provided robust handling of pdf files, external media files, graphics, and text. Formatting remained consistent across platforms. We could use a technique in which only a small “stub” projector was loaded into memory, calling up additional modules as needed. It was a sturdy and proven technology that would work across multiple operating systems. And finally, there was a technique for creating hybrid disks with Director that allowed us to use a single copy of the elements for both Mac and Windows executables.

    This is where knowing your audience is important. With that decided, we began to develop the content – no design, yet, just content and structure for the two discs. I wrote one of them and my partner at the design firm worked on copy for the other.  Once we were happy, we created a draft “script” and “project map” and submitted it to the client. Actually, we presented the scripts in person the first time to walk them through the way the papers were organized so that they would understand our technique and terms.

    Again, before design began, we went through multiple iterations of the “scripts.” In the process, the overall parameters of both projects began to change. This is where things get tricky.

    Our budgets and schedules were developed based on an overall concept that was presented in the proposal. We had made certain assumptions based on the information we got from our meetings with the Road Runners as well as existing training and marketing materials that we reviewed.

    This is one of the pitfalls and problems of “fixed-cost” bidding. You need to have some idea of what you’re going to do in order to develop a reasonable cost estimate. In many cases, that is relatively simple – you know ho many shoot days you will need for a scripted show because you have a script. You can make a guess about how many days you’ll need to shoot a documentary because you have researched the subject. Or you have some control over the content.

    However, some projects do have a tendency to evolve, or maybe mutate is a better word, as they go along. This was one of those projects. Why?

    1.    Client inexperience – they had never done anything like this and really weren’t sure what they needed or wanted.

    2.    Money. At first, the client wanted to add more and more to the project until we were way beyond the initial parameters. As projects evolve over time, it is common for some elements to disappear and be replaced by other content. In some cases, shifting budget allocations will cover those changes and keep the project within the initial budget. In other cases, there will be incremental costs. A procedure for notification and approval of incremental costs should be built into your agreement with the client. They must be informed about additional costs and given the opportunity to sign off on them --- or, in this case, back away.

    3.    Client education – as we proceeded, we made it clear to the Road Runners that what they really wanted to do was create a simpler, less comprehensive document. Including everything that they requested would have made it too complex to use. It wasn’t easy because the executive director had a stubborn streak and didn’t like to look like he was “backing down,” but eventually, the combination of reason and a vastly inflated estimate for doing the additional work did the trick.

    The first shoot days for the video elements were scheduled for June 13 and 15 in at schools in the Bronx and Manhattan in New York City. We needed to shoot program during the school day, before school, starting at around 6:00AM, as well as after school, beginning at about 4:00PM.  We planned to shoot at 2 to 3 locations per day, allowing for about 3 hours per location as well as travel time  between locations.

    Even though the video was going to be compressed for digital distribution, we elected to shoot with a Sony HVR-Z1U HDV camera at 1440 x 1080 resolution as a hedge for future use. We would downconvert the dailies and edit in SD, then compress the final completed programs for DVD, CD-ROM, and the web

    For reasons of budget and to be able to move quickly we shot with an extremely small crew: producer/director/interviewer/driver/grip (me), Director of Photography, soundman, production assistant, and also the principal from our partner agency as well as at least one person from NYRRF who already knew the schools and teachers. Additional NYRRF people were on location to help wrangle the kids, but it was mainly the teachers and coaches who handled that.

    Unless you have a big production and dedicated parking “guards,” dealing with vehicles in New York is a problem. We didn’t want to have someone dedicated to holding parking spaces, or being with the vehicles at all times, so we kept our “fleet” to an bare minimum. Everyone fit into two vehicles – the cameraman drove an SUV with some of the equipment. All the rest of the gear, the soundman, PA, and agency person fit into a second SUV with me driving. Very compact.

    At each location, we would shoot footage of the running activities, exercises, whatever routines they used, plus interviews with each of the coach/teachers and the principal if available. We shot many sequences two ways – one for effects using variable shutter speed to create blur and emphasize motion, and another straight.

    While obtaining a shooting permit in New York City does not cost anything, the permit I only really valid for shooting on public property. It also prvoides certain parking privileges for production vehicles. However, the permit does not cover private property, school property, or parks. And that is where we ran into some problems. We were ultimately able to work through them, but it emphasizes the importance of knowing exactly where you’re going to shoot, what you’re gong to be doing, and for how long.

    Now, usually, we get permission to shoot and make all arrangements during the location scout, or right afterward, as soon as the location has been chosen. Ideally, you want to have this locked down well before scheduling the shoot. The last thing you want to happen is to show up with a crew, equipment, and talent only to find out that the location is closed, unavailable, or that you have never been cleared to shoot. Well, we thought we had done that.

    The location was a public school in Chinatown. We had the permission of the school principal to shoot in the school and adjacent yard. We had a release from the teacher and all the students in the class. What we didn’t know, though, was that the “schoolyard” was not really school property, it was a New York City park. There was a small sign, but we missed during the scout, and nobody at the school thought it was of sufficient importance to mention.

    So, we show up at the school in the morning, as scheduled, meet the teacher, offload our gear, and walk to the back of the school. But, on that day, there are two workers from the Parks Department at the yard. They won’t let us bring in our cameras without a Parks permit, despite our New York City Mayor’s Film Office permit. It took about a half-hour to get everything sorted out as the crew hung around waiting, but I ended up speaking with the Assistant Commissioner of Parks on a cell phone, who gave us permission to shoot.

    The third shoot day for the project was in July. Initially, it was to get some interviews to fill holes in the story and add specific content that wasn’t available during the previous shoots but was necessary for the story. A medal ceremony sequence was staged with a real coach and a real team. We also had our second permit adventure at a park, but this time, it was Central Park. 

     Unlike the vest-pocket park that served as the school yard in Chinatown, Central Park is operated by a private organization, The Central Park Conservancy. Yes, that’s right; a private organization is in charge of Central Park! So, we need to get permission from them to shoot before we can obtain the necessary permit from the Mayor’s office.  It is a tedious process, which took about a week, requiring that we produce insurance forms, and agree to onerous restrictions that, if followed to the letter, would make it essentially impossible to shoot– no tripods, no vehicles, no heavy equipment, etc.

    Of course, these restrictions do not apply to large-scale feature film projects, only to small producers without the wherewithal to exert political clout at the highest levels. So what were we to do? I made the decision to go ahead and shoot as planned – with tripods, mics, reflectors, and everything else we needed. For that day, we planned to shoot several interviews in the morning, break for lunch, shoot a series of activities with a group of about 30 children who normally run in the park, and finally a series of exercise demonstrations. So we did. We had a small crew with ENG equipment; there are probably a hundred similar crews on the streets at any given moment.  I had a permit just in case someone came by, but we were passed by numerous Parks enforcement officers, park workers, and police. Nobody even looked twice.  If we hadn’t had a permit, I’m sure that we would all have been run out within a minute.

    Let’s turn to video post-production. We dealt with this project just as if it were a documentary. All interviews were transcribed and footage was logged prior to starting the edit. We were contracted to produce two complete videos, each with a different purpose. Both videos would also live on the NYRRF website. A 5-10 minute program for the “promotional” CD and a short “music video” about running to motivate elementary school kids were cut simultaneously by two different editors from the same footage base.

    Neither program was scripted, nor was professional voiceover used in either one. So, in a sense, they were classical documentaries, even though each one had a specific purpose and needed to convey particular bits of information.  Before starting the shoot, we knew what the “feel” and the basic content was going to be, but the precise story was grew organically out of the footage we shot. A few of the running sequences were staged specifically for the camera, although we usually were only asking the runners to repeat or slightly modify what they would be doing anyway. For example, for we used walkie-talkies in the park to cue the runners and the cameraman, although this was only for co-ordination.

    During post-production, once we had a rough cut with a storyline that made sense, we began a series of screenings with the client, who went through the video scene by scene. For the most part, the programs seemed to be on track, but, the executive director would occasionally have a strong objections to certain images we selected for reasons that I still don’t understand; totally subjective and totally irrational. Fortunately, he usually fixated on something that was unimportant to anyone else, and that did not impact the overall flow of the program. In those cases, making the change was easy, we simply took notes and did it. Unfortunately, there were other times when making the requested change would have required significant re-editing, or restructuring of the story because we didn’t have an alternative to communicate the same information. In those cases, we did not “follow orders.” That is when we had to “work it out.”

    But the videos were only a part, and not even the largest part, of the total project. The videos were elements – they would end up on one or more website. The running “music video” would be distributed as a standalone DVD for use at school assemblies; the longer video was to be the centerpiece of a CD-ROM which would be distributed at conventions, to principals, administrators, parents, and other potential adopters for the program.

    Post-production and development of the interactive elements took considerable time, especially since there was a continuing back-and-forth about the content and scope. We finally had an alpha version of the interactive components November 18. We began the project on May 10. The alpha version is not complete; all elements are in place but design is not necessarily complete and they may not demonstrate full functionality. The video elements have not been locked down in their final version. It was clear from this alpha version that the content that had been approved needed revision; the client undertook a review and provided detailed notes as well as edited content.

    A beta of the interactive components with substantial revisions to content was submitted for review on December 21. This version included final approved compressed versions of the videos, all client-supplied revised content, proofreader’s corrections, and full functionality. It was reviewed by the client over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday and they got back to us with further (minor) revisions at the end of the first week of January. A release candidate, which is a final version that may require minor debugging was submitted on January 25. It was accepted and sent out for duplication. The final accounting and invoice, including additional charges incurred due to agreed-upon changes, was submitted at the end of February.

    WEBSITE: In the end, the website concept underwent such major revisions that we had to submit a new, separate budget. Originally, we had proposed creating approximately 4 pages using content pulled from the “marketing” CD. Now, the client decided that our work would entail designing and building the front-end to a database-driven site where the coaches and administrators could enter statistics about the progress of their students. This required integration with a back-end database which was programmed by a separate developer. Such data collection was mandated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant; the original plan had been to continue to use the manual system that had been in place.

    However, the NYRRF was able to secure additional funding earlier than anticipated to develop a comprehensive database to track this information. Therefore, our role changed. Naturally, the client wanted a front-end that was graphically related to the other materials we had developed, but also included database entry and content management that would allow them to make changes and updates to the site themselves. And they wanted all of that functionality without significantly changing the original look.

    That turned out to be impossible. Design compromises had to be made in order to accommodate the limited visual presentation capabilities of the back-end database environment that was selected. A lot of time was spent in back and forth between our developers, who were creating stylesheets to drive the visuals, and the database programmers, who were building the forms and framework we had to work within.

    Additionally, the content management piece needed to be dynamic, which meant that it could accommodate elements of varying sizes, without changing the layout and design, altering page size, or impinging on the space needed for the database window. Again, since the content management piece was also driven by the same back-end, we had to work within the limitations of an environment that was designed to display large amounts of data with minimal formatting. The website was not completed until April of the following year, and was, naturally, estimated and invoiced separately.

    So, the total time spent on this project was about one year from proposal to final billing.

    What did I learn from this?

    I learned that:

    • you have to know what you want to say – your content.
    • who you want to say it to – your audience
    • what outcome you want - -you goal or call to action

    I learned that you need a well-defined, comprehensive process for dealing with changes, preferably detailed in the contract, BEFORE YOU START.

    I learned that you must carefully document every potential overage and get the client to sign off on them AS YOU PROCEED.

    And finally, I learned, yet again, that clients can have strange ideas – if you can’t win the argument, let it go. There is always another project.

  • Proposal

    Attached Files:
    Here is the proposal that I and my partners propared for NYRRF.
  • Budget Estimates

    Attached Files:
    This is the nitty-gritty. Review these. Note that there are revised versions of several of the estimates. After the break, we're going to go over the process by which budget estimates are developed. It is an art, yes, but there is also a science to it.
  • Scripts, Program Maps & Misc Documents

    Attached Files:
    Follow the development of the various components of this project here. See how the script/program maps evolve with client input, second guesses, re-thinking, etc.

  • Individual Projects: The Brief

    It is now time to choose which of your three ideas you will work on for the remainder of the semester. You may want to consider the feedback you got from your pitch. 


    Consider the twin dangers of "scale" (choosing something either too big or to small) and "viability" (referring to the real-world chances of getting your project made.)   

    Our goal is that the project you undertake will be fully planned and laid out by the end of this course and that you will be ready to pitch it or start production as of June 1, 2010.

    Weigh your decision carefully. Choose a project you are really interested in; you may want to build off something you have already done, or something you are currently involved with. It is probably not a good idea to choose a project that for which you have already developed a proposal or parts of the production plan; you should really start with a relatively clean slate to determine how the process we'll be using works for you. At the conclusion of the course, you may want to develop your own variations on the process, and that is best done if you have started anew.

    The assignment at hand, The Brief, is your first attempt to frame the overall project. We do not anticipate that you will be able to fill in all the sections fully. Drafting the brief is the step in the process dring which you will discover what you know and - more importantly -- what you don't know about your project.

    Please maintain the section titles (in italics) as you fill in the template. This will make it easier for your instructors and peer readers to follow it.  When you come to developing a funding proposal later in the semester, such categories can be disregarded.  The funding proposal will have additional topics and concerns to address.

    Please post your completed brief on the Project Briefs discussion forum. Once the briefs have been posted, students who have similar projects should form smaller groups who will work together, reviewing and commenting on each other's projects for the rest of the semester. We'll create a place for this in the "Groups" area -- so read the briefs and then let me know via email which one you would feel most comfortable with as well as a second choice. We'll try to organize this somewhat intelligently. Wherever you end up, please take this assignment seriously; your feedback to your classmates, and theirs to you, are valuable "reality checks" as you proceed with this project.

    Use this template for your brief. Please be sure to read the rest of the assignment for hints and tips on what is expected. Completed templates should be submitted by 16 February 2012.



    (This should be no longer than two pages)

    Title :

    Always give your piece a short, catchy title.  Naming is often a key element in selling the pitch.   

    Log Line :  (aka "Tag Line or "Blurb?)  


    Your name here.  

    Narrative Summary  

    A simple description of what the project is about. Place it into a category of media types and genres.  Eliminate all self-promoting adjectives. Just say what it is. Limit to 2 sentences, max.


    What is the goal that you are attempting to achieve? What is the take-away you hope your production will engender in those who see it.


    Identify as specifically as you can your primary audience. Don't say "general" audience, even if you are hoping that everyone in the world will want to watch it. Tell us the primary audience you are aiming for.


    Identify in very broad strokes the large parts of your project. If it is a narrative, describe the act structure or, at least, the opening, the story development and the ending.  If your project is documentary or discursive, describe the 4 to 6 major subjects or sections.


    Prove detail about any special treatment you foresee. For the visual realm, this might include sources of footage/materials, types of interaction, special effects, shooting techniques, significant art production and art direction. For the audio realm, you might want to comment on music, voice over or other elements.


    Please invent other categories to this brief, as you see fit. What distinguishes your concept from projects that might seem like it?  Consider…. key on-screen talent … source materials proved in other media forms… audience research… technological breakthroughs… etc.


    Project Brief Writing Tips:  

    1. In terms of written style, bulleted points or an outline work as well as (or better than) prose. This brief ought to be readable in 5 minutes or less.  Remember, you are providing just a snapshot of the overall project.

    2. Avoid using too many adjectives, especially ones that describe the quality or effect of the project you are pitching.

    3. Its often useful to highlight a key words or phrases.  This helps your reader skim through the treatment.  And such key phrases assist you in simplifying the movie into beats around which you can focus your creative work.

    4.  Leave lots of white space. You can reduce margins or you can use smaller type fonts if you need, but you should not go beyond the equivalent of two printed pages.

    We'd like each of you to comment on the single area of the project you feel represents the greatest challenge.

    Again, we do not expect you to be able complete all the categories in the assessment at this time. Think of what you turn in next class as the initial draft of a work-in-progress that you will be refining in weeks ahead.  

    Where you do not yet have information, make the best guess that you can. Over the course of the semester our curriculum is designed to methodically work through the information requested in all the categories probed here. Hence one useful goal in this assignment is for you to gauge which dimensions of the project are foggiest. Those are the ones that you must attack with special gusto.

    The first and biggest value of this assessment comes in helping you confirm that your choice of projects is a good one. Sit back and try to take measure of whether your project fits well with your time and energies in the 13 weeks ahead.

  • Dossiers: Defining Scope & Setting up Categories

    We are a bit behind my intended schedule for the dossiers, but not to worry.  This week, we will finalize the group assignments. Then, tthe groups should begin to determine how to define the scope of their research and refine their approach.  It is almost always necessary to delimit in some way the large swath of media industry each team has selected.

    Each group should finalize the scope of the project and complete the Domain Definition section of their wiki so that research can begin in earnest. You might also want to begin jotting down thoughts and ideas for some of the other categories, and begin to organize your wiki into separate pages to accommodate the material you will be gathering.