Studio Time: Cinema Verité
Posted Oct 6, 2004

Jenny Lehman isn't a big fan of flash, nor is she a flash in the pan. Twenty-one years after acquiring a business license to operate Jenny Lehman Film & Video out of her home near Washington, D.C., Lehman remains committed to the clean and simple shooting and editing style that has won her countless awards (including Washingtonian magazine accolades as the area's best videographer for five consecutive years) and induction into the Wedding & Event Videographers Association (WEVA) International Hall of Fame.

"I like clean, nicely paced shots," says EventDV's newest columnist. (Lehman's first LEHMAN'S TERMS appears simultaneously with this profile--see for all of Jenny's columns to date.) "I occasionally use dissolves and play with the shutter speed for some creative shots, but I'm not a flashy videographer. I don't do After Effects or fancy graphics. There are better people for that type of thing."

Instead, Lehman strives for an elegance that she believes distinguishes her from competitors. "Two things I've always tried to do are to be different and to stand out," she says. "I try to put a classier spin on my videos, to avoid things that might be cheesy or look like something Uncle Charlie did. My clients tend to be willing to pay more because they want a piece of art. And I want something I can be proud of."

To that end, Lehman won't interview guests or wedding participants or put baby pictures of the bride and groom in her videos. "Those are things I won't do and I'm willing to lose a job over it," she says.

Instead, she aims to document events in a cinematic way that viewers will remember. "Most people describe my work as very ‘film-like,' and they often say they feel they are watching a movie," Lehman explains. It stands to reason, she says, since she's "a huge fan" of independent foreign films. "I'm influenced by those sorts of films more than by Hollywood blockbusters. I enjoy their subtlety and their realism."

Among her favorite filmmakers: Italian director Federico Fellini, who earned multiple Academy Awards before his death in 1993. "I'm not sure my work emulates his, but I like him a lot," Lehman says. "He did beautiful work."

Be Still My Heart
Lehman's evolution as a videographer began with a passion for the visual arts. It was her fascination with the still image that led her to the Art Institute of Atlanta, from which she graduated first in her class with a degree in photography. In 1980, the National Geographic Society recruited her to serve as a photographic technician. It was there that her interest shifted to documentary video.

"I bought my first camera in 1983," she recalls. "I started out as a freelance wedding videographer, jumping in with both feet and teaching myself. There weren't a lot of people doing that type of work back then, so it was a period of trial and error."

Gradually, Lehman perfected her style and built a legacy that has served her well. "The one thing I always have stayed focused on is maintaining the very best reputation possible," she says. "All of my work is based on reputation and referrals. I don't do any advertising and I seldom show samples of my work to potential clients. But it's paid off. In 22 years, I have shot about 900 events. I once did 77 events in one year, but I have shot 30 to 45 per year for the last 10 years.

"I specialize in documenting special events, from weddings to galas," she continues. "My favorites are corporate parties because they tend to have strong themes and are visually exciting. I recently shot a party at the Democratic National Convention. It had an aquatic theme and was held at the New England Aquarium. I've also done Time Warner holiday parties and Cirque du Soleil's Dralion premiere party, which had incredibly vivid characters [working the crowd]." Events like that one, she says, give videographers more to work with visually and enable creativity that carefully orchestrated weddings often don't permit.  

The Difference is in the Details
Before committing to a project, Lehman goes to great lengths to ensure that clients "know exactly what I am doing and understand my policies," she says. "I start by asking lots of questions--about location, number of guests, other participating vendors, and competing events that need to be shot. I want to figure out just how many cameras, mics, and lights will be needed. Most clients want a finished, edited package, so I also have to predict how much editing will go into each production. I have a basic rate sheet that I use to make a proposal that covers their needs.

"My special events package includes at least two videographers and a standalone camera," she continues. "I charge $5,000 for the first five hours of coverage and $400 for each additional hour. The client receives three DVD-Rs with chapter stops. Movie film coverage, additional videographers, and highlight versions cost extra. Most of my events run about nine hours and cost $7,000 to $8,000. I've always been the most expensive videographer in the Washington area and I try to be a leader in getting more money" for the profession.

"Once I have a signed contract and deposit, I send the client a confirmation letter and add [the event] to my large yearly wall calendar, [which allows me to] see all of my bookings at a glance," she explains. "About 30 days before the event, I send the client a reminder letter and my planning guide. The letter reminds them to send me important information two weeks before the event. The checklist, which can be customized, includes their balance, invitation, schedule of events, and directions, and reminds them to alert important people [attending the event] that we'll need video access [to them]. We also require meals for each videographer if an event lasts longer than five hours. "The planning guide [asks clients for details] such as event locations and directions, starting and ending times, scheduled times for [different aspects] of the event, special requests, number of guests, names of family members and VIPs, and so on," she continues. "I ask for clients to return the guide two weeks before the event so I can review it with them a week beforehand. I also attend rehearsals or a walkthrough if needed."

On the big day, Lehman packs her own equipment and meets her assistants on site. "By this point, I have sent copies of the planning guide to each shooter," she says. "Everyone there has a specific job to do. The first thing we do is put on walkie-talkies so I don't have to yell directions. I point out camera and microphone locations and discuss any specific or special shots I want to get. My primary videographer always is in charge of setting up lights and mics. I shoot establishing shots and room details during set-up and am always in control of how the shoot goes. I tend to hire people who have [minimum] videography knowledge so I can train them my way.

"I also tend to overshoot," Lehman adds. "Typically, we'll have two to four cameras going, which means eight to 12 one-hour tapes. I try to swap out tapes whenever I have a chance--generally once I have about 45 minutes used so I won't run out of tape during an important moment. After editing, I store a master and all original [tapes] for one year and then usually discard them after that."

Lehman is firm about her process and the fate of footage she has accumulated. "If something inappropriate happens at the event, clients are welcome to call me with specific directions about editing. In no case, however, are they allowed to come here and preview the work in progress."

Highlight Reel
Given Lehman's unique market position, you'd think she'd have strong opinions about the evolution of the videography profession. And you'd be right. "I have had the same concern from day one, and that is that wedding videographers don't get the respect they deserve," she laments. "Other corporate video professionals look down on us as inferior and other event professionals see us as unprofessional. I think we are very talented and work very hard for the money we are paid, and most corporate videographers could never do what we do."

To a certain extent, "we are responsible for this poor image," she continues. "I often see wedding videographers cutting prices below costs, doing unethical things, not respecting rules in churches, not dressing in a professional manner, or selling themselves as better than what they can actually produce. I have had other videographers steal my work and show it as their own. All of this lowers our image and the respect we get from others."

Nonetheless, she says, "I love this business. I still get a high from clients telling me how much they treasure the work I do. I can't think of a better job."

Looking ahead, Lehman envisions more of the same--more or less. "I would like to do less of the physical work as time goes on," she says. "Years of abuse are showing in my poor aching back. But I always want to keep my business small so I can maintain total control and offer the very best quality possible."