A producer I had never worked with emailed me a few weeks ago to let me know how much she enjoyed our blog, especially the Art Buyer Insights Series. Being a producer, she found the interview we share about Dave Lewis especially interesting because she is …”always interested in learning what makes people in our field tick, how they work, what their philosophy is.”
In our email exchange, she asked me to consider her for an interview and I thought that was a great idea! I don’t often feature shoot producers but her request inspired me to start a series called Shoot Producer Insights. Mary Pratt of Mission Photo Production is not only the inspiration for the series, but the first one to be interviewed. Thank you Mary for the idea.
Being an on-set producer is such a unique position. You do not really learn about it in college and many tend to discover by means of another job. What was your path?
This is true, these skills are not taught in school! Advertising was always fascinating to me. As a teenager growing up in Switzerland, I contacted a billboard company and begged them to give me posters for certain campaigns. I had Hans Feurer’s gorgeous Kodak women on my wall (many years later, I had the pleasure of working with him on a fashion campaign).
I earned degrees in business and advertising and was hired as an account executive at Ogilvy in Zurich. I learned a lot and made friends for life, but when a photographer offered me a job as his studio manager, that felt like a great opportunity, since photography was something for which I had a huge passion.
I first visited New York in the early 90s and knew that this was where I belonged. So I quit my job and moved to the Big Apple. On the face of it, this might have seemed capricious – but I was tremendously energized by the city. Everything seemed possible, and nothing felt too daunting. New York pushed me to seek out opportunities.
I mailed my resumé to photographers that I found in sourcebooks (pre-internet research meant scouring Workbook, Select, and other publications), seeking a position as a studio manager. I wrote Irving Penn, and was invited for an interview (I didn’t get the job once they realized how young and relatively inexperienced I was).
Robert Whitman, who I’d also interviewed with, suggested that I apply with a production company he worked with frequently. They hired me at once, and I felt like the luckiest person on earth. Of course, I had a lot to learn – both about production and New York – but working in production felt like coming home, and was exciting to boot. |
Coming from Switzerland, I wasn’t aware this was a real job, as at that time, producers didn’t exist yet – photographers and their agents or studio managers just muddled their way through, along with the handful of art buyers in Zurich. A few months down the road, I partnered up with a former photographer, and together we founded a production company. In 2000, I struck out on my own, and established Mission Photo Production.
What was it like, venturing out on your own so soon after having moved to another country?
Looking back, I know it seems like a gutsy move. But America really is the land of opportunity, in the sense that everything is possible. And New York is a place that introduces you to your ambition. Had I stayed in Switzerland, I would never have started my own business. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to me, as entrepreneurship is something that isn’t encouraged there the way it is here.
How did you know you wanted to be a producer?
As I described above, my discovery of the role of a producer was really serendipitous. There was also a lot of luck involved, and kindness of people I met along the way. In retrospect, I know how helpful it was to have a background in advertising, as it gave me valuable insight into the process within the agency.
The realization that working as a producer really suits me was almost instantaneous, as it allows me to combine my innate attention to detail, creating structure and clarity. But being able to use this skill set within the sphere of photography, for which I’ve always been so passionate, makes it more meaningful and satisfying.
Growing up, what were your creative interests?
I’ve been interested in art for as long as I can remember. A curiosity for architecture, fashion and design came later. My education was not arts-oriented, but I learned a lot by going to museums frequently, and reading books. Living with architect roommates, I was introduced to their world. This broad knowledge comes in handy when it comes to interpreting a brief and exchanging ideas with photographers and art directors.
Did you ever consider becoming a photographer yourself?
I didn’t. While everyone is a photographer these days, for better or worse, being a professional photographer was never on my agenda. This doesn’t mean that I don’t love taking pictures! In my early days in New York, I created a guidebook to New York called NYC A-Z, and it contained my photography, along with little blurbs about my favorite places in New York, categorized by alphabetically sorted keywords. It was a really fun project, and a true labor of love. The book was available in museum stores and boutiques around the world.
How do you describe your job to your mother or someone else not in our industry?
I usually say that production basically stands for coordination and organization. I touch upon the key aspects such as locations, talent, crew, travel, catering, budget, etc. If people want to hear more, I share anecdotes from particularly memorable shoots.
What one thing has changed in the industry since you have started that you think makes for a better production experience?
Of course there have been a lot of changes since I started in this business – but the one big change that I think is on everyone’s mind right now is the merging of still and motion. I have experience with the intricacies of such scenarios. Clients have a huge need for content – whether it’s short industrial films, online video content or digital platforms – and it makes a lot of sense to have it all produced at the same time, with a unified look and feel. These are exciting challenges, and it’s important for producers to be cognizant of technological advances, so we can anticipate our clients’ shifting needs. If we prove that we are capable of doing so, we are rewarded with loyal and happy clients.
What do you love about your job?
I often liken production to a puzzle: initially, you have all these loose bits floating around. Gradually little groupings are formed, and before you know it, there’s a beautiful big picture. I find this very rewarding.
Another thing I love about production is that we are always meeting new people, and we work in pretty amazing locations! I’ve traveled extensively, and have worked in over 30 countries on six continents. Thanks to my job, I’ve been on the best rooftops, amazing spots in nature, and everywhere in between.
What is the most challenging?
Anticipating potential conflict and circumventing it can be challenging. But these situations can mostly be avoided with clear communication. That’s what I strive for, always.
What one thing would you want someone looking to become a producer to know about the skills needed to get the job done?
Flexibility isn’t a skill, and neither are curiosity, collaboration and a calm nature – but these are all central components. Focused organizational skills, attention to detail, an ability to prioritize round off the picture. And let’s not forget a warm smile!
Photographers tend to find a producer or team and use them consistently making it hard for a new producer to get noticed. Do you find that most of your clients are long term? And, if so, how do you handle new photographer requests?
I’m very fortunate to have a loyal client base – quite a few of them I’ve known for a decade or more. Just as with any relationship, new beginnings are exciting, and I like to learn everything about a client’s specific needs. That said, it takes time to establish a rapport, and intuit a photographer’s or director’s taste and preferences. By this I mean not just the obvious – locations, models, equipment, etc. I am also really interested in what kind of food they like; what’s important to them in terms of hotel amenities; the way they drink their coffee or tea; the music they listen to; and above all, what inspires and drives them.
More often than not, my introduction to a photographer is through a brief landing on my desk. By coming to a mutual understanding of the project, through the back-and-forth and simply listening, I tend to learn a lot about the photographer and his or her process. And of course, I carefully study their work and make an effort to find out what their likes and dislikes are. The more I know, the better a job I can do.
What would you want a photographer looking to partner with a new producer to know about you?
I have produced shoots large and small around the world, and this experience allows me to calmly manage challenging situations. I know how important it is to cultivate a positive environment on set, to support the creative process and bring out the best in everyone. Being a good producer is not just about putting together a budget and finding locations; it is about anticipating and being prepared for situations before they arise, and having that thing – whatever it may be – ready for the photographer, client or crew before they ask for it.
What are you known for in the production world?
My job is always shifting, never static – another thing about production that I love. I tend to immerse myself in the particularities. As an example, a few years ago, when it felt like every other shoot I produced involved aerial photography, I learned a great deal about helicopters, pilots and camera rigs.
I think I’m mostly known for producing car shoots, and an ease for working across the country and around the world on ad campaigns and lifestyle shoots. Having said that, of course I also enjoy working right here in my back yard known as New York City – the place I was so drawn to 20 years ago, and still am.
Favorite way to spend a Sunday?
I’m an early riser, and I love the tranquility of Sunday mornings. It’s great to start the day with a morning run. If I’m in the city, I like to spend time at the pottery studio, bike around or catch up on reading all the things I’ve not gotten around to during the week. In the country, there’s nothing more delicious than poking around in the garden and spending time with friends.
Drinking vinegar! I live near the wonderful Thai restaurant Pok Pok, where they make drinking vinegar in a number of flavors. I love them all, but my favorite is probably Tamarind. I find drinking vinegar really refreshing, and it’s delicious in cocktails, too.
If you would like to consider Mary for a project, please check out her website.