Toronto-based line producer Susan McGrath talked to us about her work line producing for series television. For the last decade, she has produced, line produced, story produced and production managed series and documentaries airing on A&E, CBC, Court TV, CTV, Discovery, Global, HGTV, History, OMNI, Oxygen, SLICE, SunTV, TVO, Vision, and W.
“The last two series I’ve line produced have been wild and challenging in very different ways. The series I just finished (Never Ever Do This At Home) involved slowly destroying a house over 14 episodes. It involved pyro-technics, a first for me. We were dealing with a 150-year old house, very unpredictable.
“We first had to repair the house and make it look fantastic, so we had both design and construction teams work on the house, then a SFX team came onboard to help us slowly take the house apart. We had 30 shoot days to film the process; we had to take the house down and make it look exciting but not do it so quickly as we ran out of house before we finished the 14 episodes! I learned a lot about pyro, construction, asbestos, the best way to make an explosion look good on camera.
“We were shooting in the middle of nowhere, so we had to set up the production team in trailers and make sure we had everything we needed. I was on set every day, and each day involved new decisions regarding the best way to proceed. Very challenging!”
“Last year I worked on a series which involved a great deal of crew travel (Live Here, Buy This). It was a small crew, only five people (Director, Associate Producer, DOP, Soundman, and Host), on the road for months at a time. My tag line for the series was ‘26 episodes, 19 countries, 1 dog bite, 1 arrest and no fatalities’.”
McGrath says she did not travel with the crew because she needed to be at the office setting up for the next trip in the series. “It was a very tough shoot for the team as invariably there are what I would call the usual unexpected delays (late flights, locations which don’t work out, weather) to stickhandle/manage. Then there were the more exotic unexpected delays. A dog bit the director in Grenada. The associate producer was arrested in Thailand because not all municipal officials felt adequately ‘compensated’.
“This series was a crash course in international diplomacy and figuring out the local customs/laws in each country. There are some things which the consulate of each country will tell you and other rules which you have to figure out as you go. I quickly learned the importance of a good local fixer to make the crew’s day safer and easier. I now feel like I could write a book on which countries are friendliest and most efficient to shoot in (Costa Rica!) and which to avoid (Thailand and France). The director and associate producer are both fine.”
“The importance of both communication and pre-planning has been brought home to me, usually many times, on each production. You can’t plan for absolutely everything – at some point in the process, the gods will laugh at you and upend all your carefully thought out arrangements, but the more you prepare for every possible contingency, the better off you are.
“Part of good planning is good communication with everyone involved in the production. Make sure every member of the production team is informed as to the production game plan and their role in it. Make sure they feel free to discuss it with you. There are times when this inspires too many questions but often you glean info which will help you avoid production headaches.
“And when the inevitable happens, don’t panic, it doesn’t help. Take a breath, think it through, marshal your resources and get on with it.”
Every Day Is Different
“There is no typical day,” says McGrath. “Every production has different needs, different problems to solve.
“Some days I’m in the office processing invoices and updating the cost report – this may sound dull but you need to make sure what vendors charge is what was agreed upon and that you have enough cash flow to cover upcoming costs. And frankly I’ve never found money dull. If you know how to read the cost report, it tells a story of how the production is doing. For example, if you’re 50% through the production and you’ve spent 85% of the budget, then you know you’re in trouble.
“Other days I’m on set, discussing on-going changes to the production schedule with the team, negotiating changes in schedule with different crew members so that each production dept has enough time/resources to complete their work without overloading the schedule/finances. I’ve worked on crews with a team as small as four up to about 80 people. The more team members/ departments, the more dominos which need to move in unison to make sure the production happens. That requires a lot of communication, hard work, patience and a good sense of humour. Everyone always thinks the other kids have more toys than they do.”
Hiring a Line Producer
“Most people I know who’ve gotten into this business did so because they were interested in the creative side of the business. A lot of creatives either are not interested in the scheduling/ money side of things or it makes them nervous. Find someone who enjoys working with money and logistics. I’ve never worked on a show which had enough time, money, crew, gear, etc. so you need someone who enjoys planning and then problem-solving on the fly as things change.
“Someone who makes a plan and is then married to it, refuses to change it, will fast lose their mind in this job.
“Some don’t see this as a creative role but you definitely have to be a creative thinker and you have to understand the producer/director/broadcaster’s vision for the production and how to use the production resources achieve that. To do that you have to understand all the production elements, how much can a crew accomplish in a day, how much/what kind of gear is required, etc. You don’t need to be a DOP or an editor or a craft PA, but you have to understand what each of them does in order to figure out how much of their time/services you’ll need for the production.
“Find someone who understands/enjoys budgeting, has a good head for organization, good negotiating skills and a good sense of humor. You can learn the rest as you go.”
For a list of all Susan McGrath’s projects, go here.
BONUS INFORMATION – Producer Role Descriptions
For the young filmmaker, McGrath offers a primer on the roles of various producing jobs:
“The producer or executive producer is the person in charge of the entire production. They are the ultimate ‘buck stops with me’ person in terms of responsibility, credit and sometimes blame. They are the person who pitches the project to the broadcaster (perhaps it’s their idea or someone brought it to them) and on whose shoulders/reputation the production rests. The producer, along with the broadcaster, is the ultimate decision maker throughout the prep/production/post process. As one producer I know likes to say ‘it’s my house guaranteeing the line of credit’.”
“The line producer is the person in charge of creating the budget and the production schedule and monitoring the production to make sure it stays on track in terms of time and money. The line producer usually works with the producer to put the production team together and negotiate rates for crew, gear, locations. You are the point person for Insurance, Legal, Accounting, Banking, all the business relationships in the production cycle and making sure all those parties are kept up to date regarding production developments. If your banker, lawyer or insurance company is unhappy, then the production is in trouble. You need those people onside to get the production made, broadcast and paid for. Television production is a creative endeavour but it’s also a business creating a product for sale.”
“The production manager is the person more in charge of day to day running of production. The line producer creates the budget and the production schedule – the PM works with the coordinator and assistant director on the daily schedule (call sheet), the PM manages the day to day elements of the production. If a significant decision needs to be made, for example, deciding whether to lengthen the shoot day and putting a crew of 40 into overtime, the PM would call the line producer to discuss it. On some projects I’ve been both line producer and production manager, it varies depending on the size/complexity of the production.”
“The story producer is involved in the creative side of production, the story telling. If it’s a documentary, reality or lifestyle series, the story producer would be working on finding subjects and figuring out the best way to tell their stories over the course of the episode(s). Sometimes the story producer pre-interviews the subjects on the phone, other times they are on-set interviewing the subjects or in the edit suite working with the editor to define the storyline.”