Can you put in a rental order, recommend a gaffer and smooth things over with a cranky DP—simultaneously and with the grace and precision of a professionally trained dancer? Kerry Taylor can, and not just because she is in fact such a dancer. An independent video producer and founder of Carousel Productions, Taylor deploys a combination of networking skills, technical savvy and detail orientation to pull off productions ranging from music videos to commercials to narrative features and fashion shorts. She talked with us about how she got into video producing, what her day-to-day is like and what it takes to run the show.
What is your educational background and how did you get into producing?
I went to Mills College in Oakland, California, and dual-majored in psychology and studio art. I actually went to that college for modern dance. I’ve danced my whole life, since I was two. That’s what I did and was really good at, and I moved to New York to work with the Bill T. Jones Dance Company. I was trying to work toward an apprenticeship to teach, but it just wasn’t paying and I wanted to try something new.
My roommate at the time was a producer, and she gave me my first job as a photo assistant. I was psyched on it right away because it was a big, new, exciting world and there were walkie-talkies and all these celebrities. I wanted to learn more. I started working for a company that did both photo and video shoots. They had clients like Weight Watchers, Walmart, Target and Silk Soymilk. I watched producers and assisted them in the office. Of course, I started out getting coffees, but after a couple of years I was a freelance production manager and coordinator. It started to feel like I had a way of doing things that was slightly different. That’s when I started Carousel.
What do you do every day?
I handle everything, from maintaining the budget and crewing everyone up to working with the DP to make sure he has the equipment he needs. I’m basically taking the director and DP’s concept and making it come to life, bringing together all of the elements that allow them to manifest their idea. We’re involved weeks or even months ahead of time—years sometimes on films—and after the project wraps, we’re still working on actualizing the funds and making sure everything is returned properly and everyone is paid.
I have a network as a producer—people are constantly asking me if I have any recommendations for coordinators or PAs, or if I have any good non-union gaffers or have ever shot in a mansion. A lot of what video producers do when we’re not involved in one specific project is just being a network of crew and vendors and people and tips.
I am a hands-on producer. I think it’s important to see how everything is running and to be a voice for the crew, to be their mediator on set. The best video producers I’ve ever worked with were the most calm, collected people under extreme stress. I think the sign of a true producer is grace under fire. If the producer is stressed then the crew is stressed, because they’re thinking, “Am I going to get paid? If she’s stressed, then I should be too.”
How do you select projects?
A director will send me a script or a treatment. I’ll look at it and tell them how much money it’s going to cost, and they’ll say “no way” or “OK.” If they don’t have those funds, then I won’t take the project. I think that’s key to what I do—making sure going in that the shoot is actually possible with the amount of money they have.
How technically knowledgeable do you have to be?
The more you know the better producer you are. In the initial discussion with the DP, the first question is: “What kind of camera do you want to shoot this on?” You have to know the differences between the cameras that are out there and know what would achieve the best look for a particular project. The DP could say, “Could you get me an Easyrig with a couple Zeiss prime packages?” and a bad video producer wouldn’t know what he’s talking about. You have to know your gear. It’s like knowing the ingredients of your craft. That’s key.
Why did you stay in New York when you decided to be a producer?
There are only two real places to do my job. L.A. is more commercial and New York is more creative. I might move to L.A. and become bicoastal, but there’s a very different work environment there. I think New York is the best place to go if you want to start something on your own, because you have a huge network of people, and it’s all about who you know. You can maximize the network that New York is to make your own project grow, whereas in L.A. it’s more about steady jobs. Producers there aren’t freelancing as much as they’re working for one specific company. New York really nurtures entrepreneurs. There’s no limit to how much you can grow here.
Is there anything you learned as a dancer that informs what you do now?
As a dancer you learn discipline, and you have to be organized. There’s an attention to detail as well as a need for things to be perfect. My favorite ballet teachers were always the really mean ones, and I think that I get along with some of the tougher people in the industry just because they feel like good ballet teachers to me. I feel like I learn a lot from those people, because there’s no bullshit. The best ballet teachers are that way. They’ll slap you on the arm if you’re not holding it out right. If they don’t correct you, you don’t have potential. Working with a lot of older people in the industry when I freelance, they do see potential in me and they can be tough, and it helps me learn and grow.
What do you dislike about your day-to-day experience as a video producer?
You’re the person everyone complains to and contacts for information. You’re doing a hundred things at once, and your phone is ringing and texts are going “ding! ding!” There’s not a whole lot of quiet to it. It’s a very fast-paced lifestyle; you don’t have a lot of me time when you’re in a production. You’ll get phone calls at 1:00 a.m. from your PA at the truck lot saying they won’t take their truck and they’ve been working sixteen hours, and you have to wake up and deal with it. There’s no one else who’s going to do it for you.
What do you like most about your work?
I like bringing people together to make it. It’s like baking a cake, and you have to get all the right ingredients. I’ll hire specific people for a specific project, because they’ll add a unique element to it. I think that the beauty is seeing everyone meet for the first time. I know them, because I hired them, but seeing how they work together and collaborate is really beautiful to watch. Some people do butt heads, but when you get people who work very smoothly together, knowing that you put all those people together to make something is definitely fulfilling.
The “Breaking In” series asks successful young professionals in photo-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it’s like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life. You can find more “Breaking In” articles and a wealth of other resources for photography students, educators, and emerging pros at MAC-On-Campus.com.