Our latest series of viewpoints from members of the non-fiction and unscripted production community comes from Jim Casey, founder of Painless Productions. Look for more instalments of Jim’s “My Reality” column in the weeks ahead via Realscreen.com
I’ve been commuting from Hermosa Beach to my office in Santa Monica for 23 years. After more than 18,000 hours driven, 9,000 gallons of gas burned, 62,000 ounces of coffee guzzled, 500 muffins inhaled, half a dozen rear-endings sustained and countless birds flipped, few people can appreciate the pleasures of working from home better than I. But after all that time behind the wheel, I’ve also become pretty damn good at recognizing a dead end when I see one.
Like most of my fellow industry professionals, I’ve fully embraced working from home. I haven’t dressed this comfortably since before I learned to walk, I’ve grown a full beard (pictured) and I’m unduly proud of the fact that I haven’t worn shoes in months. Frequent Zooms with colleagues confirm that they, too, are taking style tips from The Dude. Yet, perhaps because the hours usually devoted to primping and commuting can now be focused on actual production, many of us are developing, selling and producing more content than ever before.
We’ve all worked awfully hard to make the best of this bad situation, and for that we should be immensely proud. But if we allow this to become our post-COVID “new normal,” I believe we’ll live to regret it.
I fully understand editors and writers who want to continue working in the solitude of their living rooms, far from the eye-rolling comments of producers. I empathize with showrunners and developers tired of commuting from Silver Lake to the West Side. And I especially commiserate with company owners hoping to cut overhead by reducing office space or eliminating travel to New York or Los Angeles for pitch meetings. But no video chat session can replace the energy of an impromptu, face-to-face, no-holds-barred brainstorming session in an edit bay. Brilliant ideas don’t adhere to our scheduled Zooms, they’re germinated over a spontaneous, spirited deliberation between writers and producers waiting their turn at the kitchen microwave. And I truly believe clients are more apt to turn over 10 million dollars for another crazy idea if they can look me in the eyes — my actual eyes — not a cluster of glowing pixels digitally arranged to simulate them.
I’m old enough to remember the 1970s advertising campaign: “Long Distance: It’s the next best thing to being there.” I feel the same about video conferencing — it’s clearly replaced the telephone as the next best thing, but it’s still a very distant second to being there.
Producers, production personnel and network execs are all creative collaborators and problem solvers who thrive in the presence of their own kind. Put two or more of us together, introduce a challenge and we’ll quickly find our rhythm of communication, learning each other’s tells, knowing when to interrupt and when to yield the floor. True collaboration is a delicate balance; collaboration among a newly-formed staff with five weeks to get 13 episodes prepped is a Cirque du Soleil act. Yet we repeatedly make it happen.
If we limit ourselves to video conferencing with its frequent freezes, audio delays and unpredictable computer microphones that inexplicably render all other participants mute, our free-flow of ideas is undeniably diminished.
I want to be perfectly clear here: I recognize video conferencing as the business and production miracle that it is. But Zoom is like a sex toy — it may be a very valuable tool, but if it becomes your permanent substitute for human contact, you’ve been doing it wrong.
Think I’m overreacting? Compare two interviews from Real Time with Bill Maher — one shot in the studio, the other shot in his home, Zooming with his guests. Love him or hate him, Maher’s one of the most quick-witted talents on TV, but watching an example of the latter, he just can’t seem to find his rhythm. And these are video chats between two people, not 12.
At first, the insidious Zoom effect may be imperceptible to most — the proverbial frog added to the pot of water before the flame is lit — but it’ll eventually become painfully obvious, especially to anyone responsible for creative content. By then, I fear workplaces will already be downsized, as will budgets, making it nearly impossible to reverse course. Those holding the purse strings either won’t notice the creative decline or won’t admit to seeing it.
In all honesty, I stopped shaving not because I enjoy perpetual itch or appearing 15 years older. I stopped because me with a beard is not normal, and I need to remind myself every morning when I look in the mirror: This is another “not normal” day.
I don’t know how long this will continue to last — hopefully not as long as it already has — but eventually, in some warped Groundhog Day mixed-metaphor, I will emerge from my hole and shave off this shadow. In case you no longer recognize me, I’ll be the guy standing at the microwave ready to brainstorm some new ideas. I hope to see you all there.
Founded by Jim Casey, Painless Productions, launched 25 years ago, has produced a long list of genre-busting and award winning series across a wide variety of genres including the long running franchise The Dead Files (Travel), My Crazy Ex (LMN) as well as spinoffs My Crazy Sex (LMN) and My Haunted House (LMN), Hot Properties: San Diego (HGTV), Out There with Jack Randall (NatGeo Wild, Disney+), Reasonable Doubt (ID), Evil Things (TLC) and Cat People (Animal Planet) among dozens more.