TV & Me with Production Manager Sonia Caller

TV & Me with Production Manager Sonia Caller

This week, Production Manager, Sonia Caller, discusses the challenges of dealing with contributors and handling multi-million pound budgets.

You have done a lot of location shoots across the world – where has been your favourite place and what are the main factors and challenges that need to be considered when filming abroad?
Filming overseas has its own challenges. What is really essential is making sure the teams are well briefed and have everything they need and if possible to travel as lightly as possible. Working with teams in a different time zone generally means my end of day is their beginning of day and as my phone is rarely off I have found myself taking calls at all hours to smooth the way. My favourite place so far has been Barcelona, I had negotiated an exceptionally great rate at a 5 star hotel for the team and when I turned up at location I think they thought I was someone quite important and put me in the penthouse suite – if only I could travel like that all the time on location! I have travelled the world extensively for pleasure living in very basic conditions, so I appreciate that some destinations can be extremely tough on teams working in volatile locations or challenging because of the elements of the natural world so it’s important to ensure they have the best opportunity to rest and rejuvenate on the road from time to time if they are away for extended periods because days are long and hard going.

How do you have to adapt your management skills between working with large broadcasting companies and small independent production houses?
Essentially, it’s always about communication – the bigger the team is, the more important it is to keep the flow and ensure everyone is informed of changes as timely as possible. Working with small independent production companies generally means I may bring expertise in some areas they have not got – so it’s not unusual if I am asked to establish new foundations, introducing new ways of working in the future and establish new important contacts for the business going forward.

What kind of responsibilities and constraints are involved when managing budgets of up to £3 million?
My main priority is ensuring that I consult regularly with the editorial team and ensure that money is moved around as required to make the production the best it can be. I like budgets to be seen on the screen, so it’s important to highlight as early as possible where I anticipate additional monies may be needed to deliver what editorial wants and then suggest ways money in the budget can be moved around to make it possible. Sometimes I ask for compromise and have to ask for choices to be made for the overall benefit of production, however, I always try and look on it as a puzzle that will fit if you step back and look at the bigger picture. I am responsible for negotiating the best deals possible whilst maintaining long term on-going relationships with suppliers and freelancers.

What are the difficulties for project and line managers when working on live events?
It’s live so rehearsing is a god-send – planning and ensuring communication is essential. At the end of the day staying calm under pressure is what it’s all about and being quick to make decisions and have a clear view as to who is the best person to carry out a directive. Something will always happen at a live event that is unexpected but generally that moment becomes the best part of a production. I remember on the NTA’s one year, a celebrity was caught in the tunnel and couldn’t get to the 02, so I had a passenger bike on standby to high speed the guest who was due to present an award to the venue – luckily he got there in the nick-of-time and as requested, a G+T was waiting before he took to the stage. Live Events are huge but keeping an eye on the minute detail is essential to have everything ticking over beautifully – and it’s a great adrenalin rush…. even if the clear up sometimes has you there to the early hours of the next day! Oh and I always pack my sense of humour because it’s what I am going to need most.

Having worked on live events such as The NTA’s, Jon Snow’s Paralympic Show and Band Aid, how often are you required to use your own initiative and make fast decisions without any forward planning?
All the time, you have to be ready to respond to any eventuality. Asking the right questions to get to the bottom of the issue quickly to find an effective and quick solution. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of having a chat with a contributor to find out what they actually need to allay any concerns they have or being told I need to keep the entire crew on for an additional two hours as a high profile celeb is going to fly in at short notice and do a music set we have to film in an hour’s time. Essentially I believe you can make anything happen if you ask the right person in the right way to pull the white bunny out of the top hat graciously. Once I had to step into the OB Van and do the countdown to live transmission to Red Bee at C4 as the crew member was 20 seconds late returning from an emergency break…. now that was fun!

What has your favourite and proudest project to date been?
Every project has been great in some respect because as a freelancer I get to work with lots of creative people from project to project – I feel inspired by these opportunities to work with the best of the best. There have been some very special moments working on landmark events like Band Aid 20 and most recently making intimate films with Paralympians last summer. Most recently working with !Remark Media on a newly commissioned children’s series for CBBC ‘Magic Hands’ has been extremely monumental and exciting in my career – as it’s the first time the BBC have commissioned a children’s series for both deaf and hearing children. As an oral storyteller – It’s been a great pleasure to help bring incredible poetry to such young children for the first time.

Within your career, how important are effective communication skills?
Incredibly important! After all, we are in an industry that is all about communication of stories, it’s important that we not only listen, but we also hear what others are trying to relay – it is only after this that we are really able to respond.

I can imagine that you constantly need to ensure you have the same ideas as the Producer/Director. How important is it to have a close working relationship with the Producer/Director on your projects?
Actually it’s not important to always have the same ideas as my Producer/Director. What’s important is to be open to listening to everyone’s creative ideas and suggestions. I am usually asked to come up with solutions to problems facing the production sometimes that is financial but more often than not it’s another perspective and sometimes I see opportunities and possibilities others may overlook – having a close working relationship with my colleagues means that I can usually identify when the team need to let off some steam should things get particularly hectic. It is therefore important that I build good working relationships with my Producer and Director to ensure overall team harmony and well-being so production is getting the best out of everyone.

Did you find the progression from a production coordinator to production manager/line manager a natural process, or where you ever tempted to move into other areas of production?
It has been suggested a time or two that I put on a full time Producer hat – it hasn’t happened as yet but you never know what the future holds. The progression has been a natural one because I have been privileged enough to work with outstanding people who believe in mentoring those coming through over the years which I have benefited from. I equally believe it’s important to offer these opportunities to those coming through where I started. My first big break was as a runner on a short film, the Producer Lyn Turner at Four Corners Film Workshop, guided me and gave me opportunities to develop and nurture my talents in the industry and I have never forgotten this gift – she was a hard taskmaster with an incredible sense of humour and her delicate hand with filmmaking has always been a constant bright star steering me on my TV and Film journey.

What made you want to pursue a career in production management and line producing?
I was guided there by invisible hands. I started out running on short films, a cinematographer I worked with needed a PM for a short film they were making and asked me to come on board because they believed I had the skills to do it, after working on short films for a while I landed in the Outside Broadcast world for a number of years working on the technical side… but after a while I just had the itch that wouldn’t go away to move closer to the editorial process again and quit my job and decided to go freelance as a coordinator. My first gig was at Endemol who kept moving me onto OB Projects as I had such an inside track on budgeting and technical knowledge base. I went for an interview at Freeform soon after and about 5 minutes into the interview for a production coordinator, I told them I wouldn’t consider role, but if they wanted to offer me a PM role, I will accept and to my astonishment they did and the rest is history…

Since you first started your career, how do you think the industry has changed?
With the advent of the digital age there are more programmes than ever – perhaps too many and not always of the highest standards or integrity. It’s rarer today to come across a beautifully crafted documentary that grabs hold of you, doesn’t let go and challenges you as the viewer. My one wish is for the culture of apprenticeship to return – I think that it is important that those with years of experience share it with others, particularly in an industry which experiences huge technological strides every year. Companies should put mentorship front and centre of how they operate, passing their experience and knowledge forward in a supported culture before it is lost. If the intention is there, then people will make the time to share their invaluable experience – it really is a win-win situation for all and I have high hopes for the future TV and filmmakers coming through.

Sonia Caller is a freelance Production Manager and ProductionBase member.