What We Do At CLAi: The San Francisco Video Production Company
A Few Selected Hats
CLAi and Chris Layhe - the two are interchangeable. Chris founded CLAi as the San Francisco video production company, and handles the day to day design and execution of every project that we take on. He is joined by his wife Stephanie - who plays a big part as a business manager and consultant, a general assistant, and a constantly changing team of like-minded and experienced film and video professionals.
So this little bit is really just about Chris, the roles he takes on with CLAi as a director, editor and film colorist, DP and cinematographer, and the evolution of CLAi… in the first person!
After many years at various UK universities studying architecture, film and photography, and 3D animation I was fortunate enough to get into the London BBC as a feature director and to be able to edit these mostly documentary pieces myself. I then moved on to the London advertising agency scene with Saatchi & Saatchi/HP-ICM to include commercials in my portfolio, and finally set up my own company to add feature narratives and higher end documentary and marketing corporate work. In the late 90’s I sold my UK company, and my Harley felt the call to come back to the States – so Stephanie and I packed our bags, put the cameras, the edit systems and the Harley into a container, and left Europe behind…
We’ve been based in Santa Cruz for the past 10 years or so now, and love it here – even the constant drives to San Francisco and San Jose! Of course, like everything in our industry, nothing stays the same for more than 20 minutes and so I’m always evolving what CLAi are able to do as a company and what I am able to do personally. This year I made another evolutionary step in changing the business to meet today’s client needs. Stephanie brought me the twin concepts of lean management and just in time staffing through her work as a Hospital Director – concepts which we studied, combined, simplified and then put in place to re-create CLAi as a rapidly scaleable organization.
We retained all of our killer physical assets, the six post-production suites, the 4k cameras, lighting, audio equipment and so on, and then reduced our full-time personnel to just myself and an assistant – so our daily overheads are now far lower than ever before. This allows me to shoot a simple interview or edit an Indie film at a super affordable rate, while still bringing all my experience and top of the line equipment to the project, or just as easily call on a hand-picked twenty person crew precisely as they are needed to handle every aspect of a major project – exactly the right people for the specific job, rather than full-time staff jack-of-all-trades and juniors. It translates into not having to worry too much about rates and time used – which is an inspirational perspective to come from!
I’ve been in the video and film business for several decades years now – about 35% of that work has been documentary based feature films and short or episodic pieces, 20% narrative pieces, and the other 45% split between corporate videos, non-profits and work for the arts. Every year is a fresh start, and every year that company percentage changes – as does my personal split between producing and directing, DP and cinematographer work, and editing and full post-production. Nine years ago I discovered colorist work, and film color grading has become as big a part of my project vocabulary as editing now… and as I seem to have a natural feel for it, color correction is an area which grows in importance each year for me (along with finished or online editing, audio finishing and mastering – all of which are part of our post-production finishing package). 2016 saw my election into the very select Colorist Society International for film and entertainment industry colorists – which is an amazing honor.
I produce almost all of the projects we create under the CLAi banner, putting together the right team and talent, managing the budget, handling our clients, and generally cracking the whip to keep everyone on time and on track… in this role you also have the heavy responsibility for seeing beyond the detail and keeping the big picture on track.
As a director I bring some 30 years of experience in the film, broadcast, advertising and corporate worlds to every project. In many cases I will write the script or the treatment for the script, come up with the design and styling, work with the client and producer on casting, direct crew and cast on location or in the studio during the shoot phase in collaboration with the DP and LD, and then often oversee the editing, sound design and color grading of the project to master.
Being a dedicated multi-tasker and detail freak I may also combine roles where this makes creative and financial sense I will, for example, both direct and act as cinematographer, and/or direct, edit and color correct – but this only works well in collaboration with a client/producer with a very focussed vision… someone who can step back from a project and see the big picture.
The DP, DoP or Director of Photography title is a constantly evolving one – and can be someone who is essentially a one man band videographer on a basic run’n’gun shoot to the commander of a crew of 30+ who may never touch a camera or light. I can work the position from either of these extremes, coming from the image/photography side of the discipline more than the lighting electrician side.
I work as a DP on both digital film and video projects, and views my role very much as the “protector” of the look and action, turning a shared vision with the director into reality on a media card – with the extended vision that comes from a deep understanding of the edit and the grade, and how the raw footage fits into the final image equation.
As one of the bold few who ventured away from 35mm film into digital cinema production back in the mid-2000s, I have owned and shot with UHD, 4k, 4.5k and 6k cameras for many years. While 1080P HD video is still the delivery format for most productions this techie knowledge is invaluable in getting the very most out of these new systems, and in understanding how the post-production process will affect the final image and ways it can be used.
The difference between a cinematographer, a DP and a videographer? To my mind it is about the way the control of the image role plays out – a DP is as responsible for the lighting and camera motion as he is for the camerawork. But often I like to work with a really good lighting director, or LD, who handles the lighting with the gaffer crew, and a good key grip and his crew who handle the camera motion, leaving me to concentrate on the camera and shot composition. I see the videographer role as much more akin to a camera operator, with no responsibility for directing action, making calls on detail or controlling takes… a task that often falls to a good DP or cinematographer when the director is working away from the talent.
Of course, like the DP role, this is something that I do in both the digital film and corporate project worlds and it is one that I particularly enjoy – as it often means getting back to the simple purity of “moving” still photography on small crew natural light projects, which is a beautiful thing!
I love editing any type of project, because this is where concept and reality come together with a little black magic to create something amazing. The editor is the one who gets to take all of the jigsaw pieces, throw them in the air and then tell the story, while creating the emotional highs and lows, the fast sections and the slower ones, and all of those little touches that make a piece memorable and create action. Editing is a big responsibility – one that becomes easier with loads of experience and a strong understanding of all of the parts of the production and post-production process, and the crucial ability to see the wood, the trees and the forest. I’d argue that the editor is also the one who gives a program or film much of it’s character.
I try to edit everything that comes through CLAi, and if I can’t do the day to day work I direct and shape the form of the piece. Of course, as a freelance specialist I try to take on a lot of edit projects, from films and documentaries all the way to corporate pieces. Naturally, I get the run of the CLAi facilities, and so I have five Mac Pro edit systems to play on, with every major editing software and grading software on board, as well as two sound editing systems… which makes working on multiple versions and attacking long renders no problem at all. This is key as editors rarely have as much time as they would like to play with ideas and cuts, and so speed, efficiency and accuracy are vital in working fast and keeping a project on time and budget.
With the right edit systems and software options you can be extremely flexible, and with the right experience you can make the cuts and see the story development in your mind before a key is even touched. As a musician and artist I’ve been creating stories in audio and images since I was 10 years old, and editing film and then video since I was 20 – which gives a few decades of experience to fall back on… perhaps one of the reasons why so many top film editors are 70 year old ladies!
Colorists are the forgotten children of the video and film industries. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the quality of advertising for cameras, which imply that with the latest and greatest chips and sensors every frame of every image shot by anyone will be perfect. Of course, only an idiot would believe that a camera computer can do that – or even that a “perfect” frame is what you want in the first place… most scenes you shoot want a look or styling at the end of the day, whether it is a beautiful golden hour landscape, a gritty street interview or a glossy fashion image – all far from a “perfect” frame.
Once this makes sense you have entered the world of the colorist, color correction and color grading. For us folk who turn a frame of data into a great image we look for frames that are flat and colorless with lots of data and latitude. The camera operator’s job is to provide the composition and this sort of exposure, and the colorist’s job is to turn this raw material into a completed film or video project, with the consistent look that the producer and director are looking for in each part of the story. So we smooth out the little differences within a visual sequence, remove any glitches, clean up shake and build appropriate looks for parts of the story to enhance the audience’s emotional reactions and understanding. And we provide the highest possible quality in picture and audio so it can be shown anywhere.
In doing so I normally go right back to the original camera footage, rebuild the project timeline, and then apply primary and secondary color grading to get the images just so – often going 10 to 15 secondary layers of correction deep to enhance particular aspects of a section. Much of this work is slow and tedious, with lots of rendering time, and I prefer to do this solo, then bring in the producer, director and DP for their opinions and notes on possible changes – a very different process to telecine film correction that needs all hands on deck all the time. This makes color grading a discipline that is perfect for remote working, where the production team get regular updates via the Internet to respond to, much like a dailies process.
If there is time on a project I like to both edit and grade a video or film, as the two are so closely linked, and that way I can put a rough grade on the footage as it is edited so the client sees everything more or less as it will be. With our powerful systems this is an easy step to take, and as we have been working on 4k, 6k and very soon 8k footage since RED’s first high resolution image (CLAi were one of the earliest adopters of the RED digital cinema system) we not only understand the challenges of large sensor work, but we usually work in 4k for every element of the entire project.
The way I handle the colorist role is to automatically include my time to do a great color grading job on every CLAi production. Then, much as I do with independent editing, I spend a lot of my days as an independent color correction specialist on both film and corporate video projects. I will often also handle the final audio mix to tie the sounds in with the visuals as tightly as possible, and then look after mastering into multiple formats for delivery at the studios here in Santa Cruz.