Studio Time: Master and Commander
Posted Aug 5, 2005

Larry Leeds isn't like other professional videographers, and that's the point. Eighteen years of network television broadcasting experience throughout the metropolitan Washington, DC, area have made him an electronic news gathering (ENG) and electronic field production (EFP) specialist, and numerous awards honoring his TV broadcasting and commercial, industrial, and event video work have given him the credentials and credibility to play by his own rules.

In his 35-year career, Leeds has earned a Communicator Award for excellence in visual communications; multiple Videographer Awards for excellence in video production, special events video, and TV commercials, news, and programs; and two Telly Awards, which honor outstanding local, regional, and cable TV commercials and programs, as well as video and film productions. He also is a two-time Emmy Award-winning graphic designer and graphic artist, having been honored in 1978 for his work on Washington Odyssey, a WRC-TV/NBC Washington production featuring trips to "little-known, interesting locations" in and around DC, and, a few years later, for his contributions to WRC-TV's "NewsCenter 4" telecasts.

While with NBC, Leeds worked on a variety of local and network television programs in a variety of positions, including photographer, graphic artist, broadcast engineer, and supervisor of scenic art and design. "I also was a logistics person for transport and set-up of scenic elements for a variety of NBC productions at remote locations in the field," he says, "and I worked on programs ranging from NBC Nightly News to Meet the Press and It's Academic, plus innumerable magazine shows and specials."

All of these experiences—combined with the expertise of the staff and freelance camera operators, audio technicians, lighting personnel, directors, and producers he employs on a regular basis—help "differentiate us from our competitors," he says. "We truly have been there, done that."

NOTHING VENTURED, NOTHING GAINED

In 1988, Leeds left network television to pursue independent video production work. He quickly founded two Virginia-based companies for which he wears many hats—executive producer, director of photography, and chief videographer, among them. One outfit, 50 West Video Productions, was created to serve industrial clients, while the other, A Media Mayven, was designed to focus on special events. (Leeds chose to spell "Mayven" phonetically "as a pronunciation aid," he says, "and because it was easier to trademark.") Soon thereafter, he expanded his enterprise to include commercial work, forming Larry Leeds & Associates as the umbrella company under which 50 West and A Media Mayven now operate.

Leeds says all of his ventures are equipped to provide the full range of production services for both single-camera shoots and multicamera-switched shoots, including scripting, shooting, postproduction, and video acquisition for subsequent Web streaming. His crew also shoots corporate meetings and presentations, training exercises, and videoconferences, as well as news events (including video news releases), special events such as dance recitals and weddings, and even military funerals. (Leeds was one of hundreds of videographers on hand last fall for Martha Stewart's arrival at the federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. He was there on assignment for CNBC.)

Unlike some videographers who specialize in one particular region or one type of shoot, Leeds is open to a variety of projects. "We look at each project on a case-by-case basis without any hard and fast criteria for acceptance," he explains. "We work primarily in the metropolitan DC area, but our service area extends up the East Coast to Philadelphia, south to Richmond, Virginia, and even to West Virginia. We'll also partner with other studios on certain projects if necessary." Leeds' pricing model varies based on clients' requirements and budgets, but it generally runs from $1,500 to $15,000 per project. "Their involvement in the production process depends on their level of video experience," he says of his clients, "but most of them leave the shooting and editing to us."

To date, Leeds estimates his companies have completed "a few thousand" commercial, industrial, and special events projects for clients ranging from NASA Television and the National Education Association to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Inspector General's Office of the United States Postal Service. For the Census Bureau, for example, he shot footage of focus groups working on the redesign of Census forms; for NASA Television, he produced a "summer safety" video that earned him both a Videographer Award and a Telly Award.

When Leeds isn't shooting or editing footage, he's immersed in professional association activities: he's a member of WEVA International and the Washington, DC, chapter of the International Television Association, as well as president of the Professional Videographers' Association of Greater Washington, DC.

PROCESS NOTES

Leeds' professional evolution has taught him a few lessons over the years—chief among them, the importance of planning. "We have a concept and production meeting early on in the process to determine what the client's expectations are and to gauge whether they can be achieved within budget and time constraints and whether we have the capabilities to deliver on those expectations," he says. "We also clarify exactly what services we will supply and what we will deliver. We will use whatever delivery format the client requires," he adds, be it Betacam SP, DV, DVD, or S-VHS.

"Most important to our process are a site survey, a clear concept of the project and its purpose, and a script or rundown" of what will happen at the shoot, Leeds continues. "We usually obtain or prepare a floor plan, too, so we have a clear idea of camera, light, and microphone positions, as well as power availability at the site. We also prepare a written load list for every shoot."

Having worked on thousands of projects, Leeds readily acknowledges that "the ability to react quickly to changes during a shoot" can make or break its success. "The interesting thing about this business is that the ‘prime directive' changes continuously," he explains. "Even when you think you have covered [all your bases], something new always pops up."

As a result, Leeds says his crew will shoot "as much tape as we feel is necessary to tell the story. Tape is cheap," he reasons, "but dealing with superfluous footage is not, so we try not to overshoot. While more and more things can be fixed in postproduction, there still is no substitute for careful pre-planning and good video acquisition in the field."

Looking ahead, Leeds expects the various divisions of Larry Leeds & Associates to continue to move away from small event production in favor of larger events and industrial production projects. "I see things moving faster and faster, with a multitude of new gear coming to market every day," he explains. "Rapidly evolving technology, non-compatibility of formats, and the difficulty of amortizing gear before it is time to move on to the next generation of equipment are key challenges for all videographers. I thought things would be easier in the DV world, but there are just too many choices now."

No matter what happens to the videography profession as a whole, Leeds is certain that at least one market he serves will always be ready to do business: "Corporate clients still need skilled video production providers."