On location with commercials producer Katherine Smithson
Katherine began her career answering phones for the Boys Own Picture Company more than 20 years ago. Taking advice from producer, she made a conscious decision to progress in the world of commercials on the spot since then she’s remained faithful to the very fickle business.
How did your career develop?
I got a call from a production company in Germany looking for a German-speaking British production person to join their team. I leapt at the chance to work with big names and allowed the ridiculously generous pay and perks package to soften the blow of exchanging Soho for Hamburg.
Within a year of moving to Germany I began freelancing as a production manager and was fortunate enough to be sent all over the world to shoot on some fantastic big-budget campaigns in the 1990s. In commercials you learn on the job and every job is different. It has been a privilege to have been able to learn so much from such talented and professional individuals all over the world. In turn I was able to bring that knowledge back to base and pass it on. I even developed the very first Excel-based dailies sheet in Germany in 1994.
Apart from producing commercials shooting overseas for German production companies you also service incoming foreign productions using Germany as a location – how does that work?
Service producing was the part of my career I fell into by accident. By virtue of being British and based in Germany I was in a natural position to be able to facilitate shoots for foreign (non-German) production companies wishing or needing to shoot in Germany. In the late 1990s it was mostly British or American directors shooting a commercial for a German brand for the German market so they needed to shoot locally.
By the early 2000s Berlin had become the place to shoot; hip, cool, edgy and in central Europe. I found myself service producing for directors that wanted to shoot in Germany, not because they had to. It is wonderful to welcome back a visiting production company. Shooting in Berlin is a unique experience and one that I am very proud to be part of.
By the early 2000s Berlin had become the place to shoot; hip, cool, edgy and in central Europe. I found myself service producing for directors that wanted to shoot in Germany, not because they had to.
As my work for the German market involves me being a ‘client’ for service production companies around the world, I know how important it is to be understood when the roles are reversed. Offering the highest possible production standards is not enough - you have to understand the pressure your clients are under, and to cope with the politics and unique dynamics at the core of the advertising industry.
Where have you filmed abroad or out-of-state in the past few years?
I cannot claim to have been all over the world yet. There are still a few places I would dearly love to shoot in. I missed the rush to South America as I opted for local projects while my children were still little. Fortunately my husband, an Agency Creative Director, would bring me back the call sheets from his shoots in Buenos Aries and Rio, so I got to experience what this area can offer from a different perspective.
Once I was prepared to return to overseas producing again, the trend was already moving back to South Africa and Los Angeles, and increasingly Eastern Europe for big studio builds. I got very close to shooting in Iceland twice and am hoping that I’ll be third-time lucky, but I think the most impressed I have been in the past few years is actually in Berlin. This city still does it for me every time and I am very proud of the Germany film industry.
For many years Germany was only known internationally as just the birthplace of ARRI with astounding camera engineering. Now I often find German production designers, DoPs and editors working abroad for foreign directors and production companies.
My only advice to first-timers is to take the time to get to know your local production partners and to build a working relationship with them based on trust and transparency.
What would you have liked to have known beforehand about filming in the locations you’ve visited?
Today it's very difficult not to be informed. A couple of hours on the internet will give you the lowdown on producing in pretty much every country. My only advice to first-timers is to take the time to get to know your local production partners and to build a working relationship with them based on trust and transparency.
Are there any particular production service companies or film-crew-friendly hotels you would like to give a special mention?
My personal title sequence for crew, suppliers and facilities deserving a special mention would take over an hour. However, if you are considering Berlin and don’t want to stay in a hotel, check out Berlin Style Apartments. They’re short-term rental apartments belonging to an Australian-German couple called Trudy Bittner-Rosser and her Production Designer husband Marco. The apartments are lovingly managed, perfectly equipped and a genuine home-away-from-home.
Where do you most like shooting and why?
I have only ever shot once in New Zealand’s South Island and this was long before Middle Earth was created there. Barbara Williams facilitated a seven-day helicopter shoot for us and I very nearly didn't return to Europe afterwards. New Zealand is a treasure chest of astounding locations and wonderful crews. If only it weren't so very far away.
Where in your international filming experience do you consider you got the best production values?
There can be no straight answer for this. Over the past 20 years the Deutsch mark has become the euro, international exchange rates have fluctuated hugely and professional service industries have sprung up in the middle of nowhere.
Each job is unique and choosing the right country for your creative needs and financial restrictions is a major decision. It could be love at first sight, or it could be a total disaster. The right place for yesterday's job is not automatically the one for tomorrow and sadly the producer is never the only one with a strong opinion!
To contact Katherine please click here.
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