How we make the Restaurant Owners Uncorked videos

Here is is picture Luke Pearson of Lift Films just sent me. He’s working on our latest videos for our series about successful restaurant owners, and that’s Brandon Viebrock there on Luke’s screen. (Brandon co-owns three very popular restaurants in Charlotte.) When he sent it to me, I felt inspired to write a post about how we make these videos.

Having filmed ten owners over the last 18 months, we’ve gotten our process relatively fine-tuned. We produce three 1-2 minute videos about each owner, and we film them over a 2-3 day span.

We typically hop on a flight on a Tuesday morning and show up at the restaurant(s) that afternoon to scope things out. We look at the layout, the lighting, the flow of people, and then try to figure out where we might film the interview. If there is more than one location, we try to check each of them to determine where we can get the best shot for the interview.

We like filming shots with a good amount depth (distance from the person we are filming and the wall or background behind them), so we often film near the front of the restaurant. We also like to have really cool backgrounds, so we try to find a shot with not only good depth, but with something fun and unique and memorable behind the owner. Check our videos and you’ll get a good sense of what I mean – the background for Matt Frey’s interviews at Bub’s Burgers & Ice Cream is really cool.

Once we’ve determined where we’ll film the interview early the next morning, we spend the rest of the afternoon and evening getting “b-roll,” which is the background footage you see as the owner is talking. It’s a little tricky getting b-roll prior to the interview, because we try to match the b-roll with the content. If an owner is discussing his incredible staff, we want shots of smiling staff members on the screen at the same time. Nevertheless, we can pretty much assume we’ll need footage of customers smiling, staff members serving and bar tending and cooking, and the owner in action, so we get as much of that as we can on Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, we try to film as early as possible to make sure nobody is there but us and the owner when we do the interview. That typically means some pretty early mornings, because we need around an hour to set up (or, really, Luke needs an hour to set up while I head off to find us breakfast and coffee), and then we film for about 30-45 minutes. It’s really important to us to not have any background noise during the interview (no pots and pans rattling as they are being washed, no prep work, etc.) because the mikes are very sensitive and we want the audio of the interview to be very crisp and clean.

Given that we often start so early, the owner might still be a little tired (or hung over on occasion), and I sometimes have to get him warmed up a bit. Luke will fiddle with the lighting and I’ll just rap about anything with the owner to kinda get them going and let the caffeine from their coffee soak in. Once we think the person is ready, we turn on the camera.

Now, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes even the most out-going, free-spirited people tighten up a bit when a camera is on. It just happens. There’s no way to know who it will happen to, but you can tell in the first 10 seconds. If that’s the case, then I’ve learned I have to try to keep the interview low key at first, and attempt to be really casual. I’ll literally change my posture by maybe slouching a bit, or laying back in my chair, and just talk about random stuff – things we probably wouldn’t want to put into a video. Basically I do anything I can to help give the person time to loosen up and get over any stage fright they might be feeling.

Once that happens, we just talk about the restaurant business. I ask lots of open-ended questions about what it’s like to be a restaurant owner, what aspects of the business the owner loves, why her restaurants are special, what he thinks are keys to being successful, why she got into the restaurant business, and so on. I have a list of topics I want to cover, but I don’t always stick to it. I try to let the conversation go where it would go naturally, as if I were sitting with the owner and having a beer and just learning about him. I just think that’s much more interesting than forcing through a laundry list of questions, because normally the conversation leads to something I had not previously thought to ask about, and that’s often the best stuff.

Our goal is to capture sequences where the owner is in flow – instances where I’ve touched on a hot button or an important issue and the owner replies passionately and with conviction. That’s where they really come alive, and that’s what makes good video. In fact, it was those riffs that I kept hearing when interviewing people for our book that gave me the idea for the video series. (Unlike everybody else that reads the book, I read it while hearing the voices of each owner. I know when they got fired up and passionate, and nobody else who reads the book possibly could, which I think is unfortunate because it was those moments that captivated me the most during the interviews. We knew film could capture those moments, so we started this video series to do just that.)

After we’ve finished the interview, we spend the rest of the day – and I do mean the rest of the day, often from 9am to 10 or 11pm or so – filming b-roll, while also doing a lot of standing around and waiting for good lighting and good shots. We get as much film as we can because that’s our only chance to get it. In fact we get so much that we often get asked in a semi-joking way by a staff member whose seen us there all day if we are filming a short video or a movie. Ha!

By the end of the day we are typically pretty worn out, but it’s a good worn out because it means we’ve done what we came to do. We pack up the camera and tripod, and often find ourselves holding a glass of bourbon and enjoying a few minutes of time hanging out with the owner.

We fly out Thursday morning to head home and begin the production process. Luke uploads the entire video for me to review, and I look for what I believe are the best three 1-2 minute segments. This is hard for me because I think 95% of what most of these owners say is film-worthy. That’s why we made like 5 or 6 videos for each of the first two owners we filmed, and each video was 3-4 minutes long. Looking back, I now realize we used way to much content because I just sucked at editing it.

I’ve gotten to the point where I can identify the 5 or 6 segments I like best, then simply pair them up and force myself to decide. Basically, by setting limits for myself (no more than three videos, and no video can be longer than 2.5 minutes), I make the process easier. It’s still tough to make the choices, but it makes the final product better.

Once I’ve sent Luke the segments I want to use, he picks the b-roll and music and produces the video. And he’s absolutely brilliant at it. As I mentioned, we film hours and hours and hours of b-roll, and he has to comb through it and match it up to the interview content. But not only that, he has to find the best b-roll of hours of similar footage. For instance, we might have an hour of footage of staff, and we may use 30 seconds of it. He has to find that best 30 seconds. It’s painstaking.

Then he has to decide how much of the b-roll to show vs. how much of the owner talking, and piece it all together. And frankly there’s a lot more to it than that and I should probably have Luke write a guest post about it some day, but trust me that it’s hard, hard work, and he he is brilliant at it. (Luke is as talented, and professional and devoted to his craft as anybody we could ever hope to work with us on these projects. I mean I seriously don’t have words to express how thankful we are that he is our partner in this, because the videos we produce are absolutely phenomenal, and we could never produce something that good without him.)

Finally, as will happen here in the next few days, we’ll have three new videos. Luke will post them on our Vimeo page, and then we’ll post them here on our blog and on our ROUvids Twitter feed, and Restaurant Hospitality will run them on their web site (they like the vids a lot and run all of them, which we are stoked about). We’re also finishing up a new Restaurant Owners Uncorked web site, and all of the videos will be housed there (I’ll post about this site another time – still finishing up some details).

And then we plan for our next trip. In two weeks, Luke and I will be in Asbury Park, NJ, filming Marilyn Schlossbach at one of her restaurants, Langosta Lounge. Then to Chicago in August, L.A. in September, and hopefully Boston and San Diego to wrap up the year. As with every trip we make for this series, we can’t wait to get to N.J. and begin this process all over again!