Celebrating Art Producers. This Time with Madeline Belliveau, of Swirl in San Francisco.

MadelineContributing Author:  Michelle Chant

So often people want to know the story behind the photographer or the creative on a project, but what about the art producer?  Art production is such an interesting job to say the least. The people I know in this position come from such rich and diverse backgrounds and rarely do they follow the same path to become one. Understanding this, I thought it would be fun to host a series of interviews with art producers that doesn’t just address how to get their attention, but instead celebrate the art producer for who they are, where they came from and what is important in their life.

Thank you Madeline Belliveau  for agreeing to be part of this series.  Madeline is Director of Art Production for Swirl in San Francisco. She is one of the rare photo producers that will actually take the time to call an agent and invite THEM to the agency for a portfolio show.  The first time we received a call from Madeline with an invitation, we were stunned.  That never happens and for that, and of course for Madeline, we are very grateful!

Here is what she had to say:

How have your life experiences influenced your job choice?
I traveled a lot as a child. My father was in medical book publishing; his clients were doctors all over the world so we would travel to South America, the Caribbean and to Europe frequently. I was exposed to many cultures and lots of diversity at an early age. That influenced what I’m doing now in that I love working with photographers and crews from all over the world. I love shooting on location and meeting all sorts of different, interesting people; bringing the whole production together.

Are you surprised where you ended up career-wise?
Yes and no. I knew that I would end up in a creative field. I loved art and photography as a child. From an early age, I would pour over the photography in Life magazine and Nation Geographic. I studied art history and fine art in college. I also lived in the South of France, in Avignon, my junior year abroad and studied art and architecture. I am an avid oil and watercolor painter, and I’ve always been interested in photography and graphic arts.

After graduating from college I worked as a design assistant for a medical book publisher in Boston, but I knew I wanted a career in commercial art. When I moved to San Francisco, I worked at Pixon as a Project Manager overseeing retouching and print production for ad agency clients. I wanted to be more involved in the art/photography side of things and was hired at Anderson & Lembke as a print production manager. From there I worked my way into art production at different agencies. I am passionate about working with photographers and creative teams, so I am not surprised that I ended up in this field.

Did you always love photography?
Yes. I have been passionate about photography from an early age. My parents gave me a Polaroid camera as a child and I loved photographing everything around me, especially landscapes.

How do you describe your job to your mother or someone not in our industry?
I usually tell people that I am like a TV producer but primarily for stills. The truth of the matter is that I actually am a video/content producer as well. I’m doing both stills and video production at this point in my career and really loving that. I also manage the post-production for all of my projects.

Wow, that’s a lot for one person, do you have a big department?
No, at this point it’s just me.

What one word describes your working style?
One word: Flexible. My top three words: flexible, nimble and collaborative. We really are collaborating as teams with our clients and our vendors. Our clients are weighing in much more frequently and earlier in the creative process. This helps to set proper expectations going into the projects, especially with limited budgets.

How do you not compromise creativity while finding a workable budget?
Budgets really haven’t gotten any larger but the deliverables have. I often look for up-and-coming shooters, and artists who are not yet repped. If appropriate, I also I also try to use real people talent so I can to keep numbers low in terms of talent fees. Almost all of my productions are in the Bay Area & LA. Recently, we had a really small budget for a huge shoot. We’re redesigning their website. It was so low that I asked some friends if we could use their house and back yard for the shoot. Using their house was a fraction of what a real location fee would be. I got some of my friends to be the real people talent. They didn’t have to do much – they were holding tongs, flipping burgers, etc. It was fun. You have to always be nimble in looking for efficiencies any way we can in things that really affect the big numbers like location and model fees.

It’s great to do that but a bit of a slippery slope – you don’t want clients to get too accustomed to the lower fees. You have to pick and choose when do actually pull in those favors.
You do have to pick and chose. Some budgets that I’ve been working with recently that are the lowest I’ve ever had in my career. I think a big part of that is client education; often this is the case at many agencies. The account teams just aren’t educated as to what goes into a production or what the industry rates are. They are hesitant to explain the production process and rates to Clients.

Everyone’s a photographer now. But not everyone is a Professional Photographer. On a job I produced recently, we discussed BTS and their solution was to just use their iphone to capture video.
It’s moving more and more in that direction for many campaigns. I recently filmed a piece of content for a client mostly using Go Pros.

Where do you look for inspiration?
One of the main ways that I stay current with photographers, videographers and directors is that I schedule a lot of meetings with reps and artists. I really like face-to-face time. For me, it’s the greatest way to stay current and get inspired.

Every 2 weeks on a Thursday at 4:00 I do a portfolio show or a screening and invite all of the art directors and producers to it. Everyone shows up. Creatives and producers know it’s on their calendars way in advance. The rep or director brings treats and I keep it to an hour. People can come and go, it’s like an open house. We have a large open space so people can see when it’s happening and can filter in and out.

We’re in a giant, cool space in the Presidio. We have huge tv screens and big tables to lay all of the portfolios out. It’s really more like a treat for the creatives, it’s something they look forward to instead of something they have to do. (I don’t do a sign-up sheet or anything.) A lot of them have learned a lot. They really find the portfolio reviews interesting and fun.

What a smart way to approach the showings! When I was at w+k, it was very hard to get creatives to commit to showings. Wish I had tried this tactic!

What other ways do you stay inspired?
I’m reviewing artists’ web sites a lot and I check out the email blasts that I receive. I also get a lot of mailers that I like to keep – I know its old school! I have a massive drawer of them that I go through every couple of months. I’m not someone who is constantly perusing Youtube, but I am checking out photographers on Instagram, etc.

You’re an agent’s dream!

If you could change one thing in the creative industry right now, what would that be?
I’d like to see young account people better educated in terms of shoot production: the industry rates and the schedule milestones that go into producing a shoot. I feel like there’s a gulf between perceived and actual photographer’s fees, usage fees and production expenses. I think account management needs to better educate their clients to these fees as well. In many ways, I have to act as a small production company inside Swirl sometimes. It’s becoming more and more common having to pull favors like I mentioned before. Using friends as models, asking people to bring their own wardrobes and props – all things that are commonly outsourced.

There are limitations to this style of production. There are certain projects that really require professional expertise: seasoned stylists, seasoned casting agents, professional models.  If you’re lucky in the end the work doesn’t suffer, but it can and does if the production is not done right.

I think digital productions have influenced this trend. People raised on digital are used to very small production budgets and I think this has driven the budgets down.

I am working with a lot of creatives with totally digital backgrounds; very few of them have print backgrounds.   Often there are not even print components to the media buys.   They don’t understand the dollars going into it to create something with more longevity.

It’s a little disheartening. Ideally you meet in the middle somewhere with your budgets.
There has to be some give and take. Recently I was given a very small budget and a very big ask.   In this situation, one of the things I’ve started implementing is figuring out three different ways that the job could be produced:

1 – Within budget, where many of the asks are not going to happen due to budget constraints.

2 – A second version where some of them are.

3 – A third, ideal version where everything is included.

For the first and second versions I’m doing a la carte options. If they want to add items back on such as a live video casting, professional models from Ford and Wilhelmina instead of Look, etc. you add ‘x ‘much more. This helps clients understand the incremental costs.

To avoid saying no you create options where there are none.
That’s right. I am all about creating options where there are none so that the hard facts can speak for themself. You never want to say no, but you have to also keep things realistic.

It’s a smart way of working; the downside is that it’s a lot more work for you.

It is a lot more work but I’m finding that it’s the new way of this job. And I’m fine with that; I do want to do things the right way. I take great pride in my work and I never want to over-promise and under-deliver.

I’m finding that I’m collaborating with creative teams early on and being really transparent about the production budget and bidding process. Historically I’ve never pulled a creatives into the bidding process before but I’m finding that letting the creatives know exactly how we’re bidding helps them to influence the shot list. Often the shot list is not created when we’re bidding so it’s this real chicken before the egg thing. Now we’re going in a parallel path together.

What do you love about your job?
I love collaborating with creative people and helping them realize their creative vision. Swirl is a great place to work; it really is an agency where talent intersects with nice. I feel very fortunate.

I also love working with so many fabulous photographers, producers, reps, and wonderful crews in the LA and Bay Area who really give it 110%. I feel a tight kin and partnership with these people. We’re working together to create a beautiful end product.

If you could give some advice to photographers, what would it be?
Don’t hire a producer that you, or anyone else on the production, haven’t worked with before. Make sure the producer is well vetted. I often like to recommend producers I’ve worked with and often they mesh well with the photographer. I’ve gotten burned a couple of times if I didn’t know the producer or anything about them. To photographers: make sure you and your producer are in synch with the vision of the project and that you understand the complexity of the ask.

Insist on getting properly briefed from the agency and having a creative call prior to submitting a treatment. Know the vernacular and language that the client is used to hearing in order to do a proper treatment. Understand the scope of the project and how it might tie in to a larger campaign. Often clients are looking for some strategy as well.   It doesn’t even have to be a complete “treatment” per se, which I’m sometimes pulling away from because it just takes too much of the photographer’s time. At least a carefully crafted and targeted PDF and some sort of one-page write up – less is more.

Favorite way to spend a Sunday?
I love to go on weekend hikes with my daughter and my husband in woods that surround our house in Marin. I’m also an avid cook and find that cooking is relaxing and meditative for me.

One thing people reading this would find surprising about you?
I took some time off in 2002 (after the .com crashed) and I backpacked throughout Southeast Asia and India for a year. I did multiple ten-day silent Buddhist meditation retreats in India and Thailand with one other friend. I visited “The Hugging Guru”, Amma’s ashram in South India for a short time. I traveled extensively through Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. I’d always been fascinated with that part of the world and it was truly life altering to spend long periods of time in each country. It was also a good time to be there, there were very few tourists. The bombing in Bali had just happened two weeks before we arrived so it not crowded. We were in South India when President Bush declared war on Iraq so that was an intense time to be in a very Muslim part of India.

What’s your latest discovery?
I recently discovered Shiva oil sticks for oil painting. They are almost like an oil pastel but they are actually oil paint in a stick. You can put them on a canvas and spread and blend the colors with a brush. They are very cool. I was inspired by an artist I saw in a gallery in Yountville who only paints with shiva oil sticks.

Contributing author, Michelle Chant is a long time art producer who is currently freelancing as a photo agent.  She occasionally conducts interviews for us and when she does we are very grateful!













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